This is What The Last Child Gets

This is What The Last Child Gets


Until a few days ago, I was convinced that Nate, our youngest of four children, got the short stick in life. Any time and money for extracurricular activities is earmarked for the big kids. Getting the two older kids to real music lessons means no baby music classes for two-a-half-year-old Nate. Studio gymnastics for the middle two means no  “tumblers” at the baby gym for Nate. Nate only wears hand-me-downs from his older brother and cousins. To call his crib used is a massive understatement. Barely hanging on is more like it. And his board books look equally chewed and dilapidated.

With three siblings ahead of him, it always seems like Nate is last on the list. Sure, for the first year his needs came first such as stopping everything so I could feed him or change a diaper. And it’s true that at two-and-a-half, Nate’s afternoon nap and early bed time still influences our family’s schedule. However, other than getting his basic sleep necessities protected, I was struggling to think of any benefits whatsoever to being the youngest child in our house.

Then something important occurred to me while I sat in the living room happily watching Nate push his Matchbox cars down a twisty plastic Fisher Price ramp. I’m enjoying Nate’s toddlerhood more than I did with the other kids. “Sit,” Nate had said to me a moment earlier, pointing to the couch. He wanted me to simply stay there while he played, and I obliged in a way I never did when the other kids were his age. I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t worry about what he would do once he got tired of the cars. I felt relaxed and amused by my son. One of the five of us is often his audience. It’s no wonder that the youngest in big families is stereotypically the life of the party and the big personality.

I also take pleasure in Nate’s toddlerhood because Nate will be the last toddler I raise. I savor his shenanigans and attributes in a way I didn’t with any of his siblings. I’m not anxious to potty train him, move him to a bed, or stop buying him footed pajamas. In hindsight, I hurried Sam, Rebecca, and Elissa through those stages because there was always another baby coming. When all three of them were Nate’s age, I was either at the end of a pregnancy or taking care of a newborn. The last months of my pregnancies were punctuated by back pain and heartburn that woke me all night long. The first months of newborn care were equal parts sweetness and exhaustion mixed with hormone-induced depression. Nate gets the benefit of having siblings without living through the upheaval of adding to our family.

Considering Nate’s life in relation to the stage of motherhood I’m in now, I think the advantages of being the youngest might outweigh the drawbacks. Yes, his books are a little munched on, but Nate has an experienced, confident mom. I know how to take care of my needs alongside my kids’ needs and my husband’s. I’m less likely to let others push me around, which means I stand up for what’s best for Nate, too. If we need to leave somewhere early because Nate is too tired to participate, I’m not sheepish and worried about offending family and friends the way I was when motherhood was new. Likewise, I don’t let Nate push me around either. He has the broadest palate in our household, for example, because he’s the only one I didn’t treat like a restaurant patron who could dictate his chosen meal. My life is not ruled by worries of Nate throwing a tantrum. After ten years in the game, I know it does not serve a child to have his mother cowering in fear of what he might do next. He will throw tantrums, and we’ll both survive.

More than anything, I let Nate’s toddler ways amuse me because I’m keenly aware how quickly this stage ends, how quickly all the stages end. As I sat watching Nate push his cars on the ramp, I considered how the bouncy seat and play mat used to sit in that very spot. Through the years, in other corners of the living room, we’ve had a baby swing in full use then the Exersaucer. For ten years, off and on, my husband and I have moved those infant items in and out until we eventually donated them to another family. Before long, the cars, trains, and Duplex Legos will go, too.

This is what the last child gets. He gets a mom who knows how quickly years pass, and a mom who is less desperate to check stages and ages off a list. He gets a mom who opens her eyes and lets him stay who he is in this slice of time because she knows that once these moments are gone, they’ll only be photographs, memories, and nostalgia. For now, at least, this is our life together, the six of us. I want to stay a part of it. Finally, I will not wish the time away.

The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

powerwalk3I’ve had episodes of exercise devotion over the years. In the early 90s I tackled Cindy Crawford videos, then Step Aerobics, roller blading, and the Buns of Steel series. Decades later, after my third baby, I got hooked on Pilates. And according to Google, the most popular post on my personal blog is about the year after baby number four when I became an accidental evangelist for Barre classes.

Despite how it sounds, I’m not an exercise fanatic. The effort I exert is average at best. What happens is that I get excited about the next new thing because I know it’s important to do some physical activity. Then eventually I lose motivation or get bored. There’s only one option left when the walls of the gym or the expense of yoga sculpt classes becomes too overwhelming: I walk.

Walking Alone

At the end of this spring I put my gym membership on hold and rediscovered the simplicity of a walk. Right away I remembered the walks I took in high school before I had my driver’s license or my parents’ permission to buy videos. In those days, I’d grab my Walkman and my latest mix tape, then randomly head in one direction or another. By today’s standards, it’s astonishing that nobody knew where I went. I couldn’t text to say whether I was on the Green Bay Trail heading towards Glencoe or heading to downtown Highland Park. I couldn’t tell my mom that instead of the trail I’d decided to meander south on Sheridan Road. Alone with my music and my dramatic teenage thoughts, I was an explorer. I was free.


Walking With Friends

Although I like walking alone, I’ve also scheduled many walking dates with friends this summer. I’m convinced that there’s no time with a friend as quality as the 45 minutes or so spent on a walk. The last point in my life when I consistently made time for such a luxury was during my freshmen year of college. In the mid-90s, when we still didn’t have cell phones that left the car, a walk with a friend was an uninterrupted, intensely focused experience. We’d fill the hour with details about our families and high school experiences, returning to the dorm strangers no more.

Leaving the gym for the summer has meant using a good portion of my exercise time connecting with old and new friends. I meet people for walks in the parking lot after a camp drop off where the crowd is different from the one I see during the school year. I’ve also become closer with women who live in my neighborhood as they’re the ones available for a spontaneous night walk after the kids are down.

The conversations I have with friends during these walks would never transpire over a meal. Perhaps the discussions are deeper because we’re trying to forget that we’re exercising. I also suspect that the lack of eye contact as we watch for approaching cars makes it easier to divulge what’s going on in our lives. Whatever the reason, I always feel significantly closer to someone at the end of a walk than I did at the beginning, and that includes my husband. A few times this summer we’ve taken a walk when we have a babysitter, which allows us to catch up in a way that bears no resemblance to the quick summaries exchanged during a hectic weeknight of dinner.


Walking With Kids

As a family we’re getting outside more, too. Two of our kids can ride a bike while the other two fit in the double stroller. Perhaps my favorite walk so far was the one I took with my oldest the other day. Sam rode his bike while I moved quickly to keep up without running. (I am not a runner.) Every so often he’d turn around in a nearby driveway until I was next to him. We’d talk for a few minutes, but then the impulse to ride fast would propel him again. In a few days Sam turns 10, yet it seems impossible that a decade has passed since he and I explored those streets as a twosome.


Walking For Sanity

During the summer Sam was born, I’d go days at a time without taking him anywhere. Overwhelmed with anxiety combined with a case of the baby blues, I found it easier to stay home so I could feed Sam and change him with as few tears as possible for either of us. “Put Sam in the stroller and go for a walk once a day,” a friend said. She encouraged me to get out for at least 20 minutes, promising that Sam and I would benefit from the sunlight, fresh air, and the change of scenery. My friend was absolutely right, but until this current gym-free summer, I’d forgotten how easily a walk quiets my mind.

My walks alone are less “free” now than they were when I was young with nothing but time to spare. And my walks with friends are sometimes interrupted by various adult responsibilities (and texts). Nevertheless, I still appreciate the way this summer of walking has reminded me of previous phases of my life. When the temperatures drop to typical Minnesota lows, I’ll likely rejoin the gym and enjoy the energy of my favorite teachers, but for now I’m relishing the summer days and nights still ahead of me and all the quality walking I have yet to do.


Illustration by Christine Juneau

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The Books of Summers Past

The Books of Summers Past

Bookstore kids2 thumbnailRecently I told my older two kids that I would take them to the bookstore to make their first few summer reading choices.

Rebecca, 7, asked if they’d get prizes.

“Yes,” I said. “If by prizes, you mean books.”

She shook her head. “But what if we finish a lot of books? What do we get?”

“You get many trips to the library!” Poor thing was hoping I’d say toy store.

Sam, 9, was also confused. “Is it a competition?” he asked. “Will we earn money or something?” He thought that idea was unfair because the Harry Potter books he’d planned to keep reading (he’s on the third one) are so much longer than whatever Rebecca would inevitably pick.

I assured Sam that I had no such reading challenge in mind.

“Read whatever you want,” I said. “Tell me all about it. Pick out another one.”

They appeared unimpressed with the simple plan albeit pleasantly surprised by the lack of structure and direction.

It’s important to me that my kids read, that they’re always in the middle of a book or starting a new one. But I want them to exert some independence in their choices. They can often decide what to read during the school year as well, but summer’s relaxed homework-free schedule lends itself more to discovering the various possibilities on the shelves.

I try to keep my own summer reading unstructured as well. Most of the year, I’m beholden (or I feel that I am) to my to-be-read lists—both the stack of books next to my bed and the digital lists that live in my Kindle and in my library queue. I feel pressure to stay faithful to those titles, especially if I’ve spent money, waited for my turn at the library, or promised a book review to an author or editor. In the summer months, however, I allow myself the freedom to pick books by gut feel, to meander through a bookstore, or immediately start reading the novel that a friend presses into my hand and insists I will love. My book club takes a break in the summers, too. It’s three months of anarchy as far as reading goes.

I can remember some of my choices from past summers, even novels I read two decades ago. Much like certain songs can bring back memories of an entire year, person, or a special time, a book title can unlock images for me of where I was when I read it and how I was feeling at the time.

After my junior year in high school, for example, I spent a summer in Cadiz, Spain, where I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. When I hear that title in any context now, I picture the apartment on Calle Ancha where I lived with a Spanish family for six weeks. Intertwined with Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is a memory of my host family’s matriarch, Connie, who made exotic meals like tuna on pizza and periodically handed me the letters that arrived from my boyfriend, Matt. Connie would watch me cry while I read each letter twice looking for any sign that he missed me. “I’m worried things won’t be the same when I get back,” I told her. Too young to stay in love from so far away, she said in a soothing voice even though those words were far from comforting. Connie’s prediction was absolutely correct, as was my concern. Matt broke up with me early in our senior year. And like Newland Archer, I spent most of that year pining for someone I couldn’t have.

The Flowers in the Attic series, which I’ve heard about often this year because of Lifetime’s movie remake, brings me instantly to the summer I was 14, when I took a trip to Toronto with my grandparents. I happened to be reading one of the books in the series in the same weekend when my grandmother, frustrated over something I’m sure had nothing to do with me, screamed at me to get my suitcase myself then threw a pencil at me from across the room. Grandma Susie’s outburst bore no resemblance whatsoever to the outrageously abusive grandmother in VC Andrew’s story, but I picture that pencil bouncing off the wall behind me whenever anybody mentions that book.

The novels I read in college while traveling through Chile made the strongest impression. I arrived for a semester abroad in Santiago in January, which is summer break in that part of the world. Classes at the university would not begin until March so a group of us made plans to head south. Instead of packing books in Spanish written by Chilean authors, which probably would have helped me immerse in the language and culture, I found books in a used English bookstore. In those months before my courses began, I read East of Eden, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Chosen, and The Fountainhead. I loved them all, especially East of Eden, which is essentially a scandalous family soap opera. In fact, I seem to remember those books and their characters more vividly than the port towns where I stopped along the way.

So, how will I decide what to read this summer?  I’ll begin with my to-be-read piles and lists, but like all summers I’ll allow for the possibility of chance and curiosity. I hope my kids will do the same this year and in the process treasure their extra time to read before the hectic pace of the school year begins again.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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On Wearing Makeup

On Wearing Makeup

Girls fighting w goodie bags w grayMy daughters—Rebecca, 7, and Elissa, 5—spent a good portion of a recent Sunday morning fighting about a pale pink Hello Kitty lip gloss. Neither could remember who had received the treasured prize in a goody bag last year. Eventually they brought the debate to me, which I entertained for a total of one minute before I came to my final decision: Nobody would be keeping the lip gloss.

“First of all,” I said, “I’m tired of you two arguing all the time.” Then I paused, put on what I considered my best this is an essential life lesson face and spoke softly so they’d have to lean in to catch every word. “And don’t forget,” I added, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.”

They seemed satisfied with those words and with my solution to save the lip gloss for when they are older, which any parent knows is code for, I threw it away. Still, I’m left wondering at what age they will be old enough for makeup. Ages 5 and 7 is an obvious “no” in my opinion, but I’m curious if I’ll know when it’s time to say yes.

It’s important to note that I’m not an anti-makeup person, which certainly influences my thoughts on the matter. I don’t think that eye shadow is the root of inequality nor that mascara causes promiscuity. To be perfectly honest, I love makeup. I probably love it a little too much. My gift to myself every year on my birthday is to walk into a department store, or even better, one of those smaller makeup-only stores that have cropped up everywhere over the past few years. I sit down in a chair by the counter and let a makeup artist have some fun with me. Usually I end up looking as if I’m staring in a Broadway show where people paying $100 for terrible seats would still be able to see my face from the back of the theater. But that doesn’t bother me. I simply put half the amount on when I’m applying the products at home, and it all works out as makeup should. That is to say, it improves my look a little, but doesn’t appear like a costume or a disguise.

None of this provides the answer to what my stance should be on my daughters’ desire to add a little of this and that to their faces. Somebody gave Rebecca a Barbie-themed makeup kit last year when she turned 6. “When can I use it?” she has asked every few weeks since that day. “Not for a very long time,” I always respond, no closer to a specific answer more than a year later.

I remember my mom’s simple advice on the subject when I was in fifth or sixth grade. “Once you start,” she warned, “there’s no going back.” She pointed out that when you’re used to seeing color on your face, you end up looking like a corpse when it’s bare. She was absolutely right, but she eventually succumbed to my begging. I don’t remember the exact details, but I know there was a Clinique counter involved and the words “a natural look” were tossed around just like they have been every time I’ve purchased makeup since (despite everyone knowing that “natural” is more successfully achieved with no makeup at all).

The first Clinique item I owned was the gateway drug of the beauty industry—a satiny lip gloss in a long, skinny silver tube that I carried around like it was made of gold. By the time of my Bat Mitzvah in 1989, I was already wearing eyeliner and the blush in the green Clinique case that came with a little applicator brush inside. Those three items—lip gloss, eyeliner, and blush—and of course a fourth thing in a tube to help cover the pimples, were the extent of my makeup kit until about my freshman year in high school when the brand MAC was all that anyone wanted to discuss. At that point I graduated to a cosmetic bag complete with special brushes for everything, including for eyeliner, and little pots of various shades of eye shadows. The only product my mom refused to buy me was foundation, which she swore would make any acne situation significantly worse. She was probably right about that, too.

A few years later when my friends and I were done with MAC, we moved up in the world to Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy, Nars, and other very fancy brands. (I admit, we lived in a fancy suburb.) I loved when my grandmother would take me through the beauty department at Neiman Marcus. When the saleswoman tried a new lipstick on me, Grandma Pauline would insist on buying two. “One for home and one for your purse,” she’d tell me.

I’d be happy for my girls to have a similar positive experience and feeling about makeup that I’ve enjoyed. Meaning, if they decide they’re into makeup, I want them to have fun with it, but not feel like they need it or as if they’re being bamboozled by the industry. At the same time, I don’t think they need to feel like less “serious women” for wanting to partake. It’s a tricky bit of self-esteem and self-control to achieve, but I think it can be done.

Truthfully the biggest challenge my girls will have in the makeup discussion will come from their old-fashioned dad, who doesn’t think we should let them even consider it until they’re 18, which is also when he thinks they’ll be old enough to get their ears pierced and to start dating. I can’t decide if life would be better or worse for our girls if we lived in a time where waiting that long for any of those milestones was remotely realistic.

What do you think?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Where I’m From

Where I’m From

where im fromI am from weeknight family dinners, napkin on the lap, elbows off the table, and asking permission to be excused. I am from Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream for dessert and Dad’s piano practice before primetime television when he, with the Chicago Tribune, and Mom, with her needlepoint, sat in the den together to watch a show, their hours together protected.

I am from the ranch house with the circle driveway by Ravinia Park that my grandparents built. I’m from the park’s summer music filling the Japanese garden in the backyard, Lake Michigan’s wind blowing the porch screens back and forth on stormy nights. I’m from my father’s and aunts’ childhood memories preceding mine and my sisters’ in every room.

I am from snowy walks to school, the smell of lilacs in the spring, and the mysterious ravines nearby where I played until my second round of poison oak. I am from the rumble of the Metra Train, from shaded walks on The Green Bay Trail leading to Glencoe or “uptown” Highland Park. I’m from knowing in my bones that The Lake is East and The City is South. I’m from the gorgeous drive up and down Sheridan Road, past Northwestern University and spilling into Lake Shore Drive.

I am from businesses like Grandpa Norman’s and my father’s fasteners, to Grandpa Chuck’s scrap metal, to Mom’s handwriting analysis and her store, Winnetka Stitchery. I’m from Grandma Susie’s and Grandma Pauline’s art, from their desire to express and create. I’m from world travelers, readers, theater goers, lovers of symphony, and rescuers of greyhounds.

I am from the tradition of summer camp, in my case eight years at Chippewa Ranch Camp for Girls in Eagle River, Wisconsin. I’m from color war (go tan!), loud songs after lunch, horseback riding, archery, sailing, water skiing, canoeing, and so many outdoor activities that neither my husband nor my kids could picture me doing now.

From “someone has to be the adult” and “Sackheims don’t quit.”

I am from a Judaism that was peripheral, but that ignited in me an almost inexplicable attachment and deep curiosity—what a rabbi and friend later called my pintele Yid, Yiddish for Jewish spark, a spark that is so alive for me now.

I am from the people of Highland Park and the places that haven’t changed. I’m from my parents’ closest friends, who are still like family, and from the kitchens and couches of all the Braeside Elementary School girls. I’m from the Edgewood Middle School girls who sometimes filled me with terror and other times awarded me a desperate dose of approval. I’m from the security and love of Jennifer, Dana, Lindsey, Emily, Taryn, Gwen, and Norah. I’m from cheese fries at Michael’s, Piero’s pizza, Carol’s Cookies, Once Upon a Bagel’s tuna salad, and Sunset Foods. I’m from the lost era of Gsell’s Pharmacy, Chestnut Court, Chandler’s, and The Style Shop.

From a name, Norman, my grandfather, who died in a plane crash before I was born.  From Saturday night sleepovers with Grandma Pauline, who never remarried. From my mother’s memories in Rochester, New York where we spent many winter vacations sitting at Grandma Susie’s beautiful table and hearing Grandma Chuck’s clarinet all hours of the day and night.

I am from drawers full of photographs that one day my sisters and I will have to organize on our own.

I am from the peace of mind that I’m building a world of memories for my kids. I’m from the assurance that despite all the moments of imperfection and times I could have done better, that they will look back with a clear sense of atmosphere, family, and mostly of love. That they, like me, will remember the gift of home.

Where are you from?

Author’s Note: I discovered the “Where I’m From” template from fellow This is Childhood writer Galit Breen, whose beautiful version was recently published. After reading Galit’s piece, my mind was filled with images of the people and places that made up my childhood in Highland Park, Illinois, where my parents still live in the same house where I was raised. I immediately wanted to complete the exercise myself, which I hope, like Galit’s, makes you think of your own family as well as the friends, places, foods, and passing moments that made up your earliest years.

The original template based on George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From” can be found here. 

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This is Three: Nina Badzin

This is Three: Nina Badzin

Kris Woll interviews Nina Badzin, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Headshot BadzinWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

When Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate put together the This is Childhood series and asked us to think about ages we’d like to represent, I quickly volunteered to cover age 3. I had not written much about that age before, but I felt I owed it something of a tribute since my oldest reaching the age of 3 was the first time I wasn’t terrified about doing everything wrong. My son and I could actually have conversations by then so that instead of worrying about what was wrong when he cried for seemingly no reason, I could simply ask him. Now he’s 9 and tells me often what’s on his mind, which doesn’t mean I always like what I hear.

What is it about age 3 you liked the most? The least?

I liked the new level of communication and ability. I disliked how long it took to do everything “by myself,” which has been the demand of every one of my children at that stage.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 3-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

My youngest child, Nate, is now two and a half so I’m back in that place where 3 is on the horizon. Nate’s in the stage where tantrums are a regular occurrence when he doesn’t get his way, which is often spurred by his inability to explain what he really wants. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to remember how much changes in the year between 3 and 4. I’ve heard many say they find 3 the hardest, most frustrating year. For me, that award has always gone to age 2 and I’m glad to be halfway through it at this point. I’m looking forward to seeing what a more talkative, patient (hopefully), and diaper-free Nate is like.

What other age/stage in this collection (which explores 1-10) is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing?  

I tend to write more about my older two kids (Sam, 9) and (Rebecca, 7). They’re so different from each other and from me. I love watching them become individuals with interests, skills, friendships, and even a spiritual life that’s all their own.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I think writing about my kids helps me enjoy motherhood in a different way. It’s made me reflective about how and why I do the things I do. The frustrating bits (and there are plenty) make for good writing fodder, which is hard to remember in the moment, but I tend to appreciate that fact later.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

The best change I’ve made is working on the essays with deadlines first thing in the morning before the kids are awake. Then, if I have good pockets of time later in the day, I consider it free time to start new work or dip into short stories that are sitting in a file. I also use the extra time, when I have it, to play with the social media piece, which is fun for me, but time consuming. The whole writing process has become less harried now that I’m scheduling time to get the important work done first.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

I hope the collection encourages parents to jot down notes about their own quickly growing and changing children so they can capture a kid’s essence while the memories are still fresh.

Read Nina’s “This is Three” essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

Finding Joy in Activities We Dislike

Finding Joy in Activities We Dislike

dandelions ThumbnailI’m constantly encouraging (okay, forcing) my kids to find ways to make a situation they dislike more enjoyable. I’m sure it’s extremely annoying and something they’ll spoof one day in a skit during my 60th birthday dinner, but I’m willing to take that risk.

“Yes, you have to sit out here for eighteen hours in the heat during your brother’s opening day of the soccer season. But think of all the dandelions you’ll collect!”

Let them mock me. Making the mundane tasks of life more amusing is perhaps one of the most underrated abilities I can help them develop. To clarify, I’m not talking about finding the upside of a serious problem or putting a spin on legitimate tragedies like fatal diseases and life-altering accidents. The power I hope to impart is the subtle change of perspective that can cure simple ailments like boredom, or even constant annoyances like having to spend so much time in the car. (More on that particular example later.)

As far as passing on skills to my kids goes, my attempt at training them to bend their mindset this way is probably the best I can do. I’m not the one who teaches them how to play a team sport or individual sports like skating and skiing. I’m not the one who takes them camping, boating, or hiking. I don’t garden and my swimming skills are less than mediocre. I’m an indoor bird, but I’m terrible at anything craft related. My best skills are writing, reading, and cooking. However, I am also good at taking it upon myself, rather than others, to improve an otherwise bothersome situation. It’s a happiness tool far more useful over the long run than say, how to execute the perfect tennis serve.

A quick example: My son, 9, used to complain about how “unfair” it was that he had to sit through his sisters’ gymnastics class every Monday after school. After I pointed out how many of his summer soccer and baseball games the girls attend every year, I said it was his responsibility to either think of a way to make the hour fun, or to at least use the time to his advantage.

He asked me if I would let him use the iTouch if he completed all of his homework and then some. I said yes, which challenged him to get his assignments completed with a focus and determination that he does not demonstrate any other hour of the week. He turned the hour limit into a challenge to himself to get in as much (normally very restricted) iTouch time as possible. To that end, he sits down immediately and starts his homework before his sisters have even changed into their leotards. Even better, he stopped whining about being there, an improvement to my hour in the gymnastics waiting area as well.

Aside from directly coaching a kid through this powerful mind change, the best method is to lead the way. The latest example I’ve shared with the kids is how my newfound discovery of audiobooks (decades after everyone else) has cured my daily driving woes. I stumbled on this grand solution when at my neighborhood book club meeting in March, one of the women mentioned that she’d enjoyed listening to our April selection, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. I’d never heard an audio version of a book before because it always felt like cheating.

“Does that count as reading?” I asked. The women in the room—serious readers, all of them—nodded. The next morning, one of my neighbors dropped off the CDs at my doorstep and forever changed my attitude about driving. I’ve long grown out of music as an aid to pass the (seemingly endless) time when I’m alone in my car. And after years of listening to radio talk shows, I’ve become tired of those voices filling the air, too. At last, like a hero riding into town on a white horse, the glorious world of audiobooks has swept me off my feet and brought joy to an unavoidable, daily task in my life. If I can’t get out of driving (I can’t), I know it’s up to me to make that time pleasant.

I now find myself getting in my kids’ school pick up line earlier than necessary so I can hear more of the story. I even signed up for an account so I can listen to books on my phone during other activities I dread like lifting weights at the gym or even putting away laundry. In less than a month I’ve heard all of The Kitchen House, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and an entire David Sedaris show. It’s been incredibly gratifying.

“We get the point, Mom,” I can imagine my kids saying soon. “You can stop talking about audiobooks now.” And I will smile with self-satisfaction knowing that a bit more of their training is complete.

Have you found ways to make otherwise dreaded activities more enjoyable?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Read Nina’s “This is Three” essay in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

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Lessons From New Friends

Lessons From New Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Journal of One’s Own

A Journal of One’s Own

NINAThere are acts of independence many kids demonstrate in the earliest years of elementary school: they learn to tie their shoes; they make suggestions (and demands) about the food in their lunch boxes; and they have strong opinions about the clothes they like. The most pleasant surprise of having school-age children, however, has been my older two kids’ requests for a notebook they could keep in their bedrooms. They each wanted a journal, they said, or perhaps they said “diary.” Either way, the mother and the writer in me rejoiced.

Sam, 8 at the time, came up with the idea. During that patch of second grade, his best friend was getting chummier with a different boy in class, someone with whom Sam didn’t particularly click at the time. The friend in the middle didn’t know how to bring Sam and the other kid together. Instead, he took turns playing with Sam and “Sam’s rival” at recess and lunch. When it was Sam’s turn, Sam was thrilled. On the off days, Sam was distraught.

“So can I have a notebook?” he asked me.

Of course I said yes, but I was curious what made him think that a journal would help. Immediately I pictured the hidden box of my journals that chronicled my life from the age of 13 to 25. In those pages I kept a diligent record of every frustration with my family and friends, every moment of unrequited and requited love, and an infinitely less illuminating record of what I weighed along the way. I operated with much less confidence in those days, and I found the notebooks a source of escape and comfort. I never went on a trip without a journal, and I habitually read old ones when I wanted a reminder of how infrequently my past worries came to fruition. Despite the benefits I knew so well of having a private notebook, it never would have occurred to me to offer the same tactic to my 8-year-old son.

Sam said he got the idea from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. Now I had two reasons to feel a debt of gratitude towards those books: they got Sam to read, and now they’d planted the seed of keeping a journal.

When I brought home a red notebook for Sam, he got to work drawing pictures and writing a sentence or two about his best friend and the other kid. I know this because he insisted on showing me the pages. He kept the journal in his nightstand and made a big announcement to his sisters and baby brother that they were forbidden to glance in its direction. Still, he wanted to share his progress with me every day.

I explained to Sam and to Rebecca, 6, who was also in the room, that a journal was for their private thoughts, including complaints they had about their parents and even each other. When Rebecca asked if she could have one too, but not a plain one, I brought her to the store where she selected a multicolored cover complete with a silver sequin ‘R’ in the center. Last year, in kindergarten, she drew pictures in the pages, but this year, having made a leap in her ability to write, she’s been writing poems, songs, and a litany of complaints about Sam and Elissa. (In her eyes, her youngest sibling, Nate, can do no wrong). Again, I know these details because she also occasionally shows me what she wrote.

The only other opinion, other than the privacy issue, I’ve shared with Sam and Rebecca about how to keep their journals is to suggest that they don’t tear out sections when they’ve changed their minds about an issue. I hope they’ll just take my word for it since they’re too young to understand that the power of keeping a journal goes beyond the actual moment of jotting down frustrations and joys. It’s the record of those collected experiences that can prove the most therapeutic. I wrote in my journal whenever I thought I was going to die of embarrassment or when I was down or ashamed about anything. Then, when I had those feelings again, I could go back and read about how things eventually got better, which helped me remember that my current problem would likely go away, too. I only wish I’d never stopped keeping those notes when I was 25 as I could still use reminders like that nowadays.

When I started my blog in 2010 (I was 33), I thought of that forum as a different but equally valuable kind of record keeping. Seeing my kids turn to their notebooks, however, reminded me of the special nature of private notes not intended for anyone else to read. It reminded me of the enormous difference between writing and publishing.

Soon after buying Rebecca’s diary, I went to the store and picked out my own new notebook, a spiral-bound, practical one, which I knew from over a decade of experience made it easier to use the backs of pages. I only write in there once a week, and usually it’s about essay and short story ideas more than anything else now that the angst of my teen years and 20s is long gone. I’m there on the page though, just me and my awful, but familiar handwriting and occasional hand wringing. It feels good to be back.

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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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The Lost Love Language of the Mixtape

The Lost Love Language of the Mixtape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Double Stroller and Gaining Perspective

The Perfect Double Stroller and Gaining Perspective

Double Stroller A w grayOne of the lowest points in my ability to keep a healthy perspective about parenting (and life) occurred in 2006 when I was pregnant with my second child. Instead of harnessing some wisdom about a child’s true needs that I ought to have gleaned from my first two years as a mom, I became shamefully obsessed with finding the perfect double stroller.

“Perfect” had a precise definition. I wanted a stroller that was smooth and sturdy for long walks, but light enough to carry in and out of the car without Herculean efforts. Ideally it would have a good cup holder, adjustable handles, an easy-to-use basket, quality wheels, and cost less than a week’s vacation in Fiji. I had not succumbed to the pricey Bugaboo with my first child, and I would not fall prey to “needing” the Mercedes of strollers as a second-time mom either. That much perspective I was able to maintain. At least.

The perfect double stroller didn’t exist, of course. I knew that to be true about single strollers, but chose to forget it. Most of my friends (and the people who write on online message boards) had regrets about the brands and models they owned. The basket was too flimsy. The wheels were good for walks, but too big to fit anything else in the trunk. The system for opening and collapsing the thing took a PhD in Engineering. Nevertheless, most people made do with their choices and moved on with their lives.

Despite that bit of logic and knowledge, I spent ungodly amounts of time reading online reviews of double strollers. It was a time-consuming, silly “hobby.” We ended up with two doubles anyway: a heavy, clunky one for walks, which we bought used from friends; and a light, cheap one to keep in the car. Both are fine and far from perfect just like the two single strollers we own for the same variety of purposes. Yes, that means we have four strollers, which would shame me except that we had two more kids after that, and they sufficiently wore out all four models.

Don’t worry. I have nothing left to say about strollers. I’ve long since deduced that this entire period of my life had nothing to do with strollers anyway.

As time passed, I saw that my hyper-focus on finding the right match was really about my desire to control the imminent change in our lives. We were going from one child to two, which was making me anxious.

But if I’m being absolutely honest, there was even more going on than that. I think I allowed myself to lose perspective because I was lonely and bored. I’d stopped teaching when my oldest was born, and I wasn’t writing yet. I didn’t have the full social and spiritual life that I have now, nor the confidence to know that my kids simply needed a good mom engaged in their lives and her own life. They didn’t need a seemingly flawless mom who was wrapped up in finding an equally flawless stroller, winter jacket, pair of rain boots, nursery paint color, big kid duvet cover, and more. I was worrying about all the wrong things as if finding the right stroller or the perfect anything else would affect our lives in a way that truly mattered. I had lost my mind over nonsense and never wanted to be that way again.

I have less of what I call “stroller moments” now, the shorthand my husband and I use for when I’ve crossed the line from reasonable decision-making, planning, and thinking to needless obsessing. (We have a few different code words for when he needs a dose of perspective.) I recommend the code word concept for forced, on the spot self-awareness. It’s a tool that gives me a path for escaping any new pit where my mind has fallen.

These days my stroller moments are more often about friendship and family issues, but the underlying problem is still a false sense of control. Why is so and so mad at me? Do I make more effort in our friendship than person X, Y, Z?

“Is this the double stroller all over again?” I might say to my husband. From the expression on his face I can always see that it is before I’ve even finished asking the question.

One day I’ll probably help my kids find their own code words. However, with their youth, and thank God, their health, they’ve earned their lack of perspective. I’m going to let them enjoy that innocence for now.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Read Nina Badzin’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.


In Praise of the Timer

In Praise of the Timer

Timer F 2 w grayToday I’m revealing the parenting and organizational tool that helps my family function. Although Bryan and I rely on consequences, firm boundaries, and plain old love and humor to keep life with four young kids smooth and manageable, the most tangible weapon in our arsenal is time. I’m referring to both the abstract idea of time and the specific use of a timer.

Time is practically a third parent in our household. It’s a ruler whose authority nobody questions. When the timer goes off, time is up. Not because I said so or Daddy said so, but because the timer said so. Yes, Bryan and I set the timer. But for our kids, the timer and the magical measure it represents seems to exist above and beyond the person punching in the numbers. The kids accept that we, their parents, did not choose how many minutes constitute an hour nor how many hours add up to a day.

The kids also understand that there are two types of time: the one that moves too quickly (iPad time) and the kind that never ends (waiting for a play date to arrive for time outs to end). In both cases, there’s no point complaining to Mom and Dad. The timer is in charge.

Though the potential stress of time ticking away would not work for every type of child nor for every age, we have successfully employed it so far with three out of our four kids without any problems beyond the expected moans and groans of, as I mentioned, having too much time to wait or not enough time to use depending on the situation. Our fourth is too young to comprehend all of this, but he sure gets excited when the timer beeps and the action begins.


Our older two kids (nine and seven) must get in the car at 7:45 a.m. on weekdays. Last year the mornings were hurried and unpleasant as Bryan and I spent the forty minutes the kids were awake badgering them to move along. This year, Bryan, who does the elementary school drive (I do the preschool routine an hour later), punches ten minutes into the oven timer at 7:30 then disappears to the bedroom to get himself dressed. When the timer goes off at 7:40, the kids know they have five minutes to quickly finish eating, brush their hair and teeth, and get their coats on and shoes tied. The timer also gives me the same warning that I only have five more minutes to finish packing their lunches.

Before the timer goes off, we’re moving slowly, chatting, and not frantically worrying about the tasks left to complete like we did last year. After the timer goes off, we’re all business. It’s do what you have to do to get out the door, come get your hugs and kisses, then say goodbye.


The other area of our lives improved by the timer is the kids’ screen time. They each get thirty minutes once their chores and homework are completed, but everyone begins at different times. Also, there are plenty of incidents when one of the kids has earned extra screen time for one reason or another. I rely on the timers on the microwave and oven to keep track of where we are in each person’s thirty minutes. When the timer goes off, I usually hear a shocked, “What?” from the living room or den, but other than me calling out the name of the child whose time is up, I don’t have to argue about what happens next. We agreed on thirty minutes. Thirty minutes have passed. Better find something else to do. Period.


A timer controls my screen time as well. Our WiFi plugs into an outlet timer instead of directly into the wall. The timer turns off our home’s wireless connection at midnight and keeps it off until 7:00 a.m. I do this to force myself into bed at a reasonable time and to make sure that my almost two hours of work every morning consists of writing, not clicking around the internet. I’m not exaggerating when I say that reorganizing my time this way has changed my entire life for the better.

Do other parents use timers? In what areas other than mornings and managing screen time have you found them useful? 


Illustration by Christine Juneau

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.

How to Ruin a Hobby

How to Ruin a Hobby

Scrapbooking w grayI have a theory about how to ruin a hobby based on my experiences and from what I’ve seen with my kids. Let me be clear: I don’t want to ruin my hobbies or anyone else’s. I think hobbies are an important aspect of life. They’re the lost art that creates well-rounded people with describable interests beyond vocation, educational background, and family title (Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and so on).

There are different types of hobbies, but collecting is often the first we see in children. When I was a kid, I collected ceramic, wood, and glass turtles. I knew nothing about turtles and had no interest in them whatsoever, but my older sisters had shelves in their rooms dedicated to their collections of spoons and miniature glass dolls, I wanted in. I wanted stuff. It’s still a mystery why I landed on turtles. All I know is that I had an area of my childhood bedroom dedicated to them, then one day I packed up the collection and gave it all away. The turtles were dead to me, and an unfortunate pattern was born. I became anti-stuff, which wasn’t a good match for hobbies requiring a certain threshold for clutter.

My dad thought I might enjoy collecting stamps like he had loved as a kid. I was into the idea for long enough to get excited about the stamp collector’s binders, cover sheets, and packets of stamps, but when the binders filled the one storage drawer in my bedroom, my passion for stamps vanished. The same thing happened with the Archie comics I collected after that.

Next came a combination of collecting and doing. The example I remember most vividly is the evolutionary precursor to the Rainbow Loom: the friendship bracelet. At some point, I owned so many bundles of yarn, that I needed a way to keep them all organized. You can guess what happened next. I gave it all away.

You would think I would have learned my lesson, but I briefly become a scrapbook fanatic in my late 20s when I stayed home full time with my first child. After needing space for my supplies, I filled the empty room that would later be our second child’s bedroom with a large table where I could do my projects. I remember setting up the special paper-organizing trays against the wall and thinking, “I’m over scrapbooking.” I sold the barely-used table for less than half its value six months later, and my husband reminds me of the scrapbook-room-that-wasn’t whenever it works in his favor, such as when I want to waste that kind of money again.

My theory is that once a certain kind of a person dedicates the time, money, and space to a hobby, the passion for that hobby disappears. I’m not proud to be that kind of person. And what’s worse, my older two kids are just like me.

When my son’s collection of trains, tracks, street signs, and bridges started taking over the living room, we bought a special table and put all the train supplies in the two big drawers underneath. He rarely played with them again. The same thing happened with his Legos years later. My husband and I took him to a hobby store where he picked out a small set of marble mazes, but quickly grew tired of that activity as well.

Similarly, my daughter played with her Rainbow Loom all the time when we kept the loom and her starter set of bands in one plastic bag. As soon as she graduated to the carrying case that keeps the many colors separated, she’s been less excited about making bracelets. Thankfully she and her younger sister still enjoy beading even though the whining that ensues when it’s time to clean up makes me question the staying power of that pastime, too.

Over winter break my mom taught my older daughter how to needlepoint, and I’m going to stay as far away from that situation as possible lest I ruin it for her somehow. My mom has been needlepointing for exactly 52 years. At least someone in the family can enjoy a hobby for life and serve as a good role model. My favorite leisure activity is reading, and I read a book a week. But true to form, I don’t like books spilling out of every crevice of the house and make a point to give them away often. I do marvel at my mom’s ability to keep her hands busy. Mine are too often hovering over my smartphone.

Why do I care whether a hobby remains for the long term or not? Like I said, I believe that hobbies create engaging, nuanced, and well-rounded individuals. But how are we supposed to give a child, or an adult for that matter, the opportunity to explore a new activity without making an investment in time, energy, and often times stuff? It’s the Catch-22 of hobbies for me and apparently for my kids: Love it, own it, then forget it.

I would like to hear from people with hobbies. Why do you think your hobby remained a part of your life? I’d also like to hear from parents who have successfully nurtured hobbies in their children. How did you not ruin the experience for your kids?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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.

Reflect, Resolve, Then Keep It Small

Reflect, Resolve, Then Keep It Small

NinaBadzinThe process of making New Year’s resolutions speaks to me. I like the excuse to reflect on the time that’s passed and to think about the year ahead. It helps that my birthday falls at the end of December, giving each January an extra layer of potential above and beyond the new number on the calendar.

As a self-diagnosed resolution junkie, I’ve learned that the best ones are both small and measurable. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to choose lofty goals that sound like positive changes. Take the ubiquitous word “mindful,” for example. People everywhere are promising to eat mindfully, shop mindfully, parent mindfully and more. A term like “mindful” quickly becomes a feel-good buzzword to the point of meaninglessness when the promises attached to it lack any discernible milestones.

Similarly, so many of us make the same resolutions year after year. We will eat better, work out more, keep the house organized, force the kids to follow through with their chores, stop buying clothes we don’t need, volunteer more (or less in some cases), and be better spouses and friends. To name a few.

Those resolutions fail because they’re too big and too nebulous to succeed. What does it take to become a better friend? It could entail, for example, picking up the phone instead of only relying on texts. Another positive step is making sure to initiate plans instead of always waiting for friends to ask. Both ideas are specific and therefore doable improvements. However, I still argue that guaranteed success in this case would likely require even more clear-cut habit changes. How about resolving to call a different friend each week instead of texting and emailing? Or every other week? Even a phone conversation with someone different once a month would strengthen a friendship if it’s one more call than zero. “Small and specific,” that’s my motto.

What’s more hopeless about some resolutions is that they do not always represent what would add happiness, purpose, or meaning to our lives. This is where taking the time to reflect before making a resolution could turn the rote act of New Year’s goal setting into a life-changing exercise, or at least a year-changing one.

Maybe we’re already eating as “mindfully” as we can realistically maintain. Maybe the house is organized enough. Maybe the kids help as much as they can between their activities and homework. Instead of making big promises to myself like I used to in the past (I’ve spent half of my life promising and failing to completely cut out sugar), I now ask myself what small change could improve the year ahead.

My most recent experience with a small habit altering my life more than a big, nebulous intention began during the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah) in the fall of 2012. (Yes, this resolution junkie gets two opportunities in a year to implement new behaviors.) That year I had vowed to stop using my cell phone on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday.

“I’m being mindful about how much time I’m using my iPhone” was a nice thing to say, but by January 2013, I had made little progress. Twenty-four hours without my phone was more than I was ready to do. Furthermore, what I truly needed was a way to spend less time on my phone every day instead of focusing all of my efforts on one long stretch.

To fix that problem, I identified the two places where forbidding any family cell phone use would vastly improve our lives: the bedrooms and any table where a meal was involved.

These two seemingly minor changes fundamentally altered my year. Charging my phone in the kitchen instead of the bedroom eliminated any late night and early morning texting, emailing, and glancing at Facebook. I’ve read more at night, talked to my husband more, and found myself dressed faster in the morning. And without my phone on the table during meals, I’ve felt like a less distracted wife, mom, and friend. I’ve certainly felt less rude.

My 2014 resolutions are not terribly exciting, which is why I know they’ll work. Because I want more time to write, I’ve resolved to add one more early morning writing session to my schedule. Because I want to continue feeling less attached to my phone and more focused on the people I care about, I’ve resolved to maintain the phone-free boundaries from this year. And because I know that overly-ambitious resolutions generally fail, I’m finally done making grandiose promises to cut out sugar. Nobody likes a liar anyway.

My older two kids (nine and seven) said at Rosh Hashanah that they would work on getting along. I suspect that their promises haven’t worked so far because I forced that goal on them rather than encouraging them to think about their own hopes for the year. They also never identified small ways they could work harder to avoid fighting. I tried not to make the same mistake for this second chance to get it right. I admit that I forced them to recommit to their promise to get along. (Maybe I’ll add less helicoptering to next year’s list for myself.) But together we came up with a few concrete ideas of how each one could be kinder to the other, and therefore fight less. We’ll see how it goes!

What small change are you making this year? Have your kids come up with resolutions too?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

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.

Discovering the Day-Cation

Discovering the Day-Cation

our family vacation, circa 1978

    Family vacation, circa 1978

The rooms of my childhood home are filled with souvenirs of my parents’ travels around the world. Masks, plates, sculptures, and paintings from exotic locales hang on the walls and sit on every available surface. In one of the bathrooms my parents featured photographs of the polar bear migration they went all the way to Churchill, Manitoba to observe. And next to the front door sits a six-foot tall wooden giraffe that arrived months after their first trip to Africa. My parents’ house was a colorful place to live.

Most of the trips they took on their own as well as our family vacations meant getting up early and exploring the slice of Earth where they’d landed. I didn’t mind missing some of the harder-to-reach locations like their dolphin-watching trip near the Bermuda Triangle, because I always imagined that I’d go on those types of adventures with my husband one day. I assumed that I’d fill my own home with the colorful and the exotic, that my inevitable wanderlust would take the two of us and our children (when feasible) around the globe.

Enter Reality

When Bryan and I got married, we had neither the money nor the time to travel before our wedding. We’d only dated for a year before we got engaged and were married less than a year later when I was 23. Cancun was our first destination simply because we wanted to go somewhere warm that wasn’t too far away.

We had not even started unpacking when I found the hotel’s concierge and signed us up for a day trip to Chichen Itza, a site I’d already toured with my parents. As we ate dinner, I felt anxious knowing that we’d have to leave the resort’s grounds by six o’clock the next morning, but vacations meant doing and seeing. I didn’t possess an overwhelming sense of adventure, but I didn’t know another way.

“What will we do for breakfast?” Bryan asked before we went to bed. I described, without enthusiasm, the breakfast boxes that my sisters and I had eaten half-asleep as we waited in the darkness for vans headed to Masada, Stonehenge, and elsewhere. I then sighed audibly as I called the front desk to arrange the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call.

“Do you not want to go?” Bryan asked.

I shrugged. “I’ve been there. But you should see it.”

He stared at me. “I was going for you. I don’t care if we stay at the hotel the whole time.”

I considered the possibility of a vacation with no early rising, no falling asleep on buses, no tours, no museums, no animal sanctuaries, and no ruins. “But what would we do?” I asked.

“Sit by the pool. Read. Drink piña coladas.”

“That’s it? Every day?” My hopeful smile mirrored Bryan’s. I’d found my pool-sitting, book-reading, piña colada-drinking, non-museum-visiting, non-obscure-gallery-searching soulmate. It was a defining moment in our young marriage as we stumbled on  a brand of vacation compatibility so different from the one I’d imagined. Yes, we had come all that way to do absolutely nothing, and it sounded perfect.

During those early years, we found other vacation activities we liked. We planned the occasional fall weekend away to look at the changing leaves, or to see friends in cities where we could also catch a show, shop, and eat well. I will always appreciate what my parents taught me about art and culture, but I’ve walked through enough museums with them to last me the rest of my life. That Bryan is content spending part of the day in a new city finding the perfect donut makes him the travel companion of my dreams.

Discovering the “Day-cation”

Thirteen years and four kids later, Bryan and I are even less motivated to plan adventurous trips. We find that leaving our kids for longer than a few days is logistically and financially prohibitive. And taking them with us anywhere other than Chicago to see my parents or the occasional family trip with his parents and siblings is not in our skill set.

It was out of desperation to recapture our early do-nothing getaways that Bryan and I discovered the power of the day-cation. Once we realized we could get a dose of relaxing time right here in Minnesota, we made some easy-to-execute plans. We have spent the day in the charming town of Stillwater along the St. Croix river, a mere forty-five minutes from our house. Another time we “traveled” to the cute main street in Excelsior along Lake Minnetonka—only fifteen minutes away, but a destination we rarely make time to visit. We’ve also taken day trips simply to look at the leaves along the way. One time we spent the day at a spa ten minutes from home.

We’ve distilled a vacation down to its essential parts: time to relax, reconnect, and take a break from our everyday routines. The “where” has become inconsequential.

Another benefit of lowering our vacation standards to the day-cation is that when we actually do have the chance to leave for a few nights, we feel like we’ve entered another universe. We’re headed to New York City soon to celebrate our anniversary, a trip that will last exactly sixty hours door to door. It may not be two weeks in Tanzania, but at this point in my life, it feels like a fascinating, luxurious jaunt. At the very least, it will feel like more than enough time to remember that home is the destination I love more than any other place in the world even if I need a day away now and then to refresh my patience and my perspective.

In Search of a Non-Exaggerated Compliment

In Search of a Non-Exaggerated Compliment

0-17I don’t know how to give an authentic, understated compliment anymore. Nor can I graciously receive a compliment since what I hear from others is often exaggerated as well.

I find myself saying “really? either aloud or in my head when I hear proclamations of my amazing lemon chicken, my hilarious essay, or my gorgeous children. (Okay, that last one I’ll accept as truth.)

My problem isn’t a crisis of confidence. I think I’m an above average cook and a good writer (though not a particularly comedic one). I’m also happy to hear niceties about simple “accomplishments” like my ability to have chosen a pretty necklace. I’ll even gladly take a compliment about situations for which I deserve no credit whatsoever such as the subtlety of my highlights. (All I did was sit in a chair for two hours while reading three magazines with Kate Middleton on the cover.) But every adulation feels questionable when accompanied by the equivalent of a standing ovation.

I want to graciously give, accept, and even believe compliments, but our hyperbolic language has rendered the entire industry of verbal admiration meaningless. In fact, I see and hear adjectives used so far past their definitions that the excess can have the effect of making me think the exact opposite of what the speaker or writer likely intended. This happens often in status updates and tweets where bloggers recommend each other’s posts. When I see “stunning,” “breathtaking,” or “extraordinary,” I can’t help but raise an eyebrow in doubt. I’m more likely to click on a link with a toned-down description like “thought provoking,” “solid read,” or “well said.” This culture of exaggeration has made me a cynic. I’ve become suspicious of words.

This lack of reverence for the definition of words extends so thoroughly to the rules of punctation that using one exclamation mark to say you’re looking forward to seeing someone makes it seem as though you’re not very excited at all. Where once upon a time three exclamation points might have seemed juvenile, they’re now practically standard. Likewise, two or three question marks means you’re genuinely curious about the matter at hand. One can seem formal or convey that you’re bored at the prospect of receiving an answer.

The giving of over-the-top compliments is related to the extreme deflecting of them, too. A former friend of mine, when we were teenagers, used to say, “I’m so disgusting,” in response to anything positive about her looks. (She was objectively very pretty. “Very” a true qualifier in this case.)

I love your haircut.

I’m so disgusting.

That dress looks great on you.

I’m so disgusting.

It got to the point where flattering her in any way became an uncomfortable endeavor. Nevertheless, I sometimes hear myself engage in this hyperbolic deflection, too.

This brisket is incredible.

I used too much salt.

Your essay was fascinating.

I thought it was too long.

Yet in my defense, even in my former friend’s defense, it is hard to take a compliment to heart. Was the meal I cooked good? Sure. Was it incredible? The best brisket ever? Life-changing? Unbelievable? Please.

However worrisome I find exorbitant compliments between adults, the problem is worse when it comes to the way we speak to kids. Each turn our children take at bat need not conclude in “great hit” or even “good try.” Sometimes my son stands at the plate and focuses on the people in the stands instead of on the ball. In those cases, it wasn’t a good try at all and saying so doesn’t help his game. If I tell my kids that every line across the page is “exquisite” or “amazing” how long until they learn to roll their eyes upon hearing that particular word from my mouth or anyone’s?

Incredible, gorgeous, stunning, breathtaking, amazing, exquisite, unbelievable!!!

Who’s buying this stuff? I know I’m not, yet I’m still using these words more than I should. I need to remember the satisfaction I feel on the rare occasion of a tempered compliment. When an editor accepts an essay or a short story it is never with dozens of exclamation points, smiling emoticons, or disproportionate adjectives. I’m content to hear, “This was good” or “We’d like to publish your story.” Those simple, authentic, hard-earned sentences mean so much more than ten versions of “I loved this!!!”

The only solution I’ve identified is to get more descriptive. I could say, “I like that picture because you used a lot of color” instead of “gorgeous.” Rather than yelling “great hit” for a mediocre turn at bat how about saying, “have fun,” “you can do it,” or “try your best” right before? And perhaps not every proverbial moment at the plate needs to come with all this commentary one way or another. Sometimes it’s enough to smile and keep both the adulation and the criticism to ourselves.

Brain, Child readers, do you find it difficult to give an authentic compliment or to receive one? Any other ideas to stop this cycle of exaggeration?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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 Costumes of My Adult Life

The Costumes of My Adult Life

0-33While shopping for the kids’ Halloween costumes this year, I thought about the costumes of my adult life and how there’s often a negative feel to this idea of adults trying on different “costumes.”

And yes, during this time of year it’s especially hard to think of the words adult and costume without getting an image of the overly-sexualized Halloween ensembles for grownups (mostly women) that have become a profitable part of the holiday’s industry. What also comes to mind are the conventions where adults dress up as their favorite characters from video games and movies. I’m not discussing either of those types of getups right now. I’m referring more to the various roles, hobbies, and even slight changes in my persona that I’ve tried over the years.

I also want to clarify that I’m not referring to a “disguise.” A disguise hides an identity. A mask, too, implies phoniness. In the various roles and personas I’m remembering, I feel that I have always been myself even if in some cases I’m reaching to be better and do better. Costumes, even aspirational ones, are not necessarily a false path to reaching a new goal or milestone.

In my days as an English teacher during my mid-20s, for example, I wore pencil skirts, blouses, and heels. Some of my colleagues in the English department wore jeans, but I wanted to appear serious and confident despite worrying that I was only one page ahead of the students most of the time. For my first year as a licensed teacher, I was assigned to seventh and eighth grade classes in the morning and ninth grade classes in the afternoon. Every day I needed three sets of lesson plans and I had to arrive at two buildings on time (the first one at 7AM). Most of the time I felt like a disorganized, underprepared disaster. But in my teacher getup, I made it through the year at least looking professional. I did a decent job and earned a position teaching full time at the high school for the next year. I still never wore jeans.

I only taught for three years before I had a baby and took on the role of stay-at-home mom. I won’t go into all the clichés of mom clothes, but I can say that the pencil skirts were no longer part of my wardrobe. When I decided to start writing after having my second child, I didn’t need a “costume change” per se, but I did want the accessories that went along with my new self-appointed and experimental hobby. A laptop, a new notebook, and a few special pens helped me ease into the writer persona long before I would publicly call myself a writer and even consider writing a realistic career path. I had to convince myself first.

Once I was writing often enough to get articles published, I did develop a certain mode of dress for the days I’d be writing in coffee shops. My writing uniform now includes scarves, sweaters, and a vest no matter the time of year because the air conditioning is as miserable in the summer as the cold air from the door is in the winter. Some accessories and outfits help us ease into a new role while others develop out of practicality. When I’m dressed to write and my laptop is charged with my notebook beside me, I know it’s time to fill up that blank screen. The outfit reminds me what I’m there to do.

I also have my religious outfits, which require a different length of skirt and sleeve depending on the synagogue I’m attending. Then there are my exercise ensembles. About a year and a half ago, I really got into exercise for the first time in my life. I remember acknowledging at one point during that particular transition that I was finally putting the yoga in my long-loved yoga pants.

This “trying on” of roles is more than all right. In fact, I think it’s good, and I’m not sure why so many of us find ourselves initially suspicious of others who dive into a new role, hobby, persona or whatever we want to call these moments of change. We mock the friend who gets so into meditation that after a month she’s converting a corner of her house into a quiet, scared space and signing up for a retreat in Santa Fe. Who does she think she is, we ask ourselves.

But why are we uncomfortable with others’ attempts to change and even resentful, yet so hopeful for friends’ and family members’ support when we want to try something new? Perhaps we see others’ attempts to take on a new persona as too contrived. Yet I’d like to argue that we can’t know what we like and what will enrich our lives until we give a new activity, job, or relationship a real shot. And sometimes a real shot requires a full costume change to convince our minds that we’re ready to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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 Interview: Nina Badzin

Writer Interview: Nina Badzin

Headshot Badzin

First, tell us a little about your family.

I’ve been married to Bryan for close to thirteen years. I was only 23 when we got married, which is hard to believe. We’ve grown together year by year, and we’re blessed to have four kids ages nine, almost seven, four, and almost two.

Tell us a little about what you’ve written for Brain, Child / Brain, Mother.

The articles I’ve written so far for Brain, Mother tend to focus on how I grapple with doing what I think is best in the long run for my family versus doing what is easy in the short run. Most recently I wrote about how I get frustrated when my kids act helpless when it comes to chores and even minor responsibilities like taking the ice packs out of their lunch boxes, yet I’m always doing things for them because I don’t have the patience to wait.

When do you write, and where?

My favorite writing spots are the coffee shops near my kids’ elementary school and preschool. When I need to get serious, I go to a newer French-inspired bakery called Rustica. They don’t have outlets so I can’t afford to waste time on social media there. I can only write at home after midnight, which I try to do only a few times a month so that I’m not a zombie the next day. Those late nights are my best writing sessions. It’s quiet, stolen time.

How does parenting impact your work/writing?

When I started writing six years ago, I had two kids. I only wrote fiction back then and swore that I would never start a blog. When I started my blog three years ago, I said that I would never write about the kids. Never say never.

Where do you get your inspiration? 

I’m always jotting down ideas for essays from all aspects of my life, but some of my favorite topics originate with Bryan. He often reads parenting books and articles then offers some kind of proclamation about a new idea we need to try. My first article for Brain, Mother, “The Case Against Party Favors,” came from one of Bryan’s “proclamations.”

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I just finished Naked by David Sedaris. I don’t know how it’s possible that I missed that one as I’ve read everything else he’s written. I’m about to start Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because everyone I know is talking about this book. I’m not above reading books simply because of the buzz. I have Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation of Everything ready to go next.

Which blogs/sites do you frequent for good writing? 

I have around fifty blogs that I enjoy in my blog reader, but some of my favorites are by Allison Slater Tate, Rebecca Schorr, Judy Clement Wall, Lindsey Mead, Stephanie Sprenger, and Jessica Smock.

What is your favorite Brain, Child blog post, essay, story, or feature?  

I really enjoy the debate sections in the print magazine. In the most recent issue, Randi Olin and Evadne Macedo discussed whether or not kids should use electronics. Those are the kinds of topics I tend to debate with myself. I read everything on the blog, and I find that Lauren Apfel’s and Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser‘s work especially resonates with me. Maybe it’s because all three of us are moms of four. It’s a special club.

Any advice to other parent-writers out there? 

Every time I tell myself that I’ll get to work when I have enough time to write a whole essay, I end up deeply regretting that decision. There is never a good time. I write paragraph by paragraph. I have never written an entire essay in one sitting.

Nina Badzin is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. You can read more of her work here and at  Connect with her on Facebook ( and Twitter (

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The Making of a Broadway Fanatic

The Making of a Broadway Fanatic

0-5I grew up in a musical family. And by “musical” I don’t mean that any of us in the Sackheim household was blessed with the gift of song. I, for example, took piano lessons for eight years, but never progressed beyond a fourth-grade level. Likewise, I remember sitting through my sisters’ choir concerts when, to tell you the truth, I don’t think of my sisters as people who can sing. I cannot sing either. Nor can our parents. My husband, who has an excellent voice, dramatically winces when he hears our rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Yet for all we Sackheims lacked in the ability to produce music, we more than made up for in our desire to consume it. We were (and still are) musical fanatics—Broadway musical fanatics to be exact. Many of my happiest childhood memories feature excursions to see Broadway shows.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my family had access to excellent productions in the city. And since my mom’s family lived in Rochester, New York, my parents often attached two days in New York City on to our annual grandparent visit. Sometimes we saw three shows in one trip. I was spoiled one could argue. But not spoiled rotten. Because rotten is so negative, and those shows were good times. Those shows were joy.

The Broadway experience in our family was also educational. My parents made us read about the musicals weeks before a show and listen to the music since it’s hard to truly capture the nuances of what’s happening when you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time live.

We learned about plot, character, and sometimes even history and faith. Before seeing Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (with Donny Osmond!) we reread the chapters in Genesis concerning Jacob and his sons and Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. We learned about the French revolution for Les Miserables and about Vietnam before seeing Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. The list goes on and on. (Lucky girl, like I said.)

When I was fourteen, my mom forced me to read The Secret Garden before she would take me to see the Tony-nominated version (with Mandy Patinkin!) in New York. I grumbled about having to put down whichever VC Andrews novel I’d been devouring at the time. “Classics are boring,” I insisted. As it happens, The Secret Garden became one of my favorite books, and I still listen to that 1991 musical version now.

I didn’t waste any time passing my Broadway love onto a new generation. My kids might bear the surname Badzin, but I’ve made sure they approach Broadway shows like a Sackheim.

We started with Annie, a gateway musical. I focused on the little girl, the loyal dog, the iconic red dress, and the upbeat “sun will come out tomorrow” message. They absolutely loved it.

Next I tried The Sound of Music. They quickly memorized the words to “My Favorite Things,” or as they still call the song, “Raindrops on Roses.” The Nazi plot points proved harder to simplify for young kids. And I can’t remember how I explained the stalker issues in The Phantom of the Opera, nor can I imagine what possessed me to introduce that particular show to three kids ages six and under. (I started this Broadway indoctrination long before we had four children.)

Nowadays the kids tell me when they’ve had enough of one show and want to hear something new. I try to be careful with the order so that I’m not exposing them to flashy numbers before they’ve had a chance to appreciate the older soundtracks. I made a mistake playing Wicked for them before we’d tried Fiddler on the Roof. Suffering discrimination for being green my kids could imagine. But for being Jewish? Bless my proud and naive, Jewish kids’ hearts, they found that particular plot point unrealistic.

We started The Secret Garden last month. I held my breath as they listened to the first act. The won’t like it, I thought. The show starts in India then quickly moves to England. The music, like the story, is dark. The characters cry often; ghosts (who actually sing in the show) appear as part of Uncle Archibald’s imagination and sometimes in flashbacks, which is hard to describe to kids listening in the car on the way to school. That became a lesson for them, too.

I’m happy to report that the kids loved The Secret Garden, but now we’re back to Wicked on car rides because Bryan and I are taking our oldest three to see it in Minneapolis this week. Sam and Rebecca, now nine and almost seven, saw Joseph and The Lion King downtown with my in-laws (for which I’m very grateful), but I’ve never had the chance to take them to a live performance myself. It’s quite an investment to bring a whole family to a Broadway production, which certainly gives me a new appreciation for the way my parents included my sisters and me in their love of theater.

Something I hope my parents appreciate is the one unexpected return on their investment: Their grandchildren not only know every word of these shows, but their grandchildren can also sing those words in pleasant voices and on tune. It’s the happy ending of this Broadway fanatic’s dreams.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Read more of Nina’s work in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 



I Enable My Kids’ Helplessness

I Enable My Kids’ Helplessness

0-1Sometimes when I’m feeling exceptionally crabby at the same moment when my husband is feeling exceptionally kind, he takes over the bedtime routine for all four kids. He does the teeth, books, the artful thwarting of all the stalling tactics, and then leaves them in a good position for me to pop from room to room giving hugs and kisses. Those are peaceful, efficient nights.

The other night while I had one of those unexpected thirty to forty minutes to myself, I sat in the living room with a book, curious and jealous at the way our kids were helping Bryan with some general nighttime necessities. Rebecca, six, dragged a hamper full of clothes all the way to the laundry room. Next, four-year-old Elissa darted by me in search of the brush that was missing from their bathroom. Sam, nine, showed up last simply to say that I could give him his hug and kiss right there in the living room because he knew I was tired.

This resourcefulness and thoughtfulness does not happen so seamlessly on my watch. Around me, the kids act as if they can do nothing on their own.

While trying to figure out how long this helplessness has been an accepted (by me) fact of life in our house, I remembered an uncomfortable meeting we had with the school psychologist before Sam had even started kindergarten. As part of the admissions process for our parochial elementary school, I was asked to complete a form about Sam’s interests and abilities. The statements on the form were basic. For example, “My child puts on his shoes without help.” Parents had to answer: “never,” “almost never,” “sometimes,” “almost always,” or “always.”

I took the statements to mean “Does your child put on his shoes,” not “Can he?” With that interpretation of “does he” in mind, I answered the statements honestly, which meant in most cases I circled “almost never” to examples such as: picks out clothes, puts on clothes without help, brushes teeth, wipes himself, and so on.

Sure, Sam possessed the ability to do all of those activities and many more on the list, but during the morning routine (okay, and the night one) I often let my impatience reign. I had a three-year-old and a newborn as well.  The operation of getting out the door simply moved faster—that is to say, it moved at all—when I put on Sam’s clothes, shoes, brushed his teeth, and did everything else for him.

I listened carefully as the school psychologist assured me and Bryan that there were no right or wrong answers. She did, however, want to discuss the discrepancy between the results of the aforementioned questionnaire and her observations of Sam during the two group sessions of the admissions process. We had a well-adjusted, capable boy on our hands. So why, at home, were we treating him like he barely had a pulse? Bryan pointed to me, which was fair. Even back then, Bryan’s expectations of our kids were significantly higher than mine.

I explained to the psychologist how I’d answered the questions as “does he” not “can he.” She had figured that out on her own from watching Sam in action, but she still thought it was worth mentioning that I could be and should be giving Sam more responsibilities. He could, at the very least, clean up his toys “almost always” instead of “sometimes.”

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only demonstrated moderate improvement since that meeting four years ago. Too often, instead of waiting for the kids to empty their backpacks and put icepacks from their lunch bags back in the freezer, I quickly do it myself. In fact, I quickly do too many things myself. I take their tossed shoes and line them up in a way that won’t cause somebody to trip. I’m always picking up and straightening their play areas instead of demanding that they do a better job when they clean up their messes. I spread the cream cheese, pour the milk, refill the water, and grab extra napkins. In truth, I almost never sit down when we eat.

When Sam returned home from one week (his first) at overnight camp this summer, he told me he wanted to pour his own ketchup. Of course, I told him in a tone that suggested I had been thinking the same thing. I was a bit horrified, however, that it had never occurred to me before that he could and should pour his own ketchup by now. I imagined that school psychologist shaking her head at my shockingly low learning curve. When would I get a clue?

I often say to the kids, “I’m not your personal servant.” Aren’t I though? Do I not constantly trail behind them hanging up coats, turning off the lamp above the piano, and clearing stray noodles and other forgotten items from the table? I know some of what I’m describing is normal, parental love and care. And I know some of the issue relates to my low level of patience. When Bryan puts the kids to bed, he has no problem declaring, for example, that Elissa will not get her bedtime book from him until she painstakingly cleans up the Polly Pockets she’s left in every crevice of the playroom. In my desire to move on with the night, I tell her she can do it in the morning. In most instances, I end up “quickly doing it myself” before she even has the chance.

Where is the line between taking care of my kids and creating this learned helplessness in them? And why is it that despite knowing I’m the problem am I so unable to get out of the way of the solution?

Maybe I ought to give that school psychologist another call and request a private session. Unless you have some good advice?