Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

By Elizabeth Richardson Rau

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Melissa Askew

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First Leap To Learning How to Read

First Leap To Learning How to Read

By Emily Brisse

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

Unless you’re me.

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

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

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

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

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

It was memory.

But it was reading.

I was reading.

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

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

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

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

Illustration: gettyimages.com

The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

By Allison Slater Tate

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Room for Joy

Making Room for Joy

By Jennifer Berney

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

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

Take the following scene, for instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

By Cindy Reed

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Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

My seven-year-old bounces out of the bathroom, eager to show me her hair. She has declared today to be a natural hair day, a break between braidings.

“Look Mommy! I’m African!” she squeals. Her hair points in every direction, weaving in and out upon itself and springing up behind one ear. Mine, unwashed, hangs limp at my shoulders, gray encroaching on the commonplace brown.

She’s told me that she loves wearing her hair free like this, without braids or twists. There are no plastic bands tugging at her scalp, no sharp parts to attend to. Worn down, the tendrils are long enough to tickle her neck. This is the way nature intended it to grow out of her head. It’s perfect.

I slip on a glittery headband to keep it out of her eyes.

“I can’t wait to show my friends at school!” she says, hopping out of the minivan at the elementary school drop-off line.

My daughter’s hair is the color of the dark coffee I drank at the traditional ceremony held when her birthmother first entrusted her to me over seven years ago on a cloudy day in Hosanna, Ethiopia, when the sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to storm. In a brief meeting that crossed chasms of age and race and class, two translators helped me ask questions of this shy teenage mother, words handed off from English to Amharic to her tribal language like batons. To say things were lost in translation is an understatement, but the fierce hug she gave me left no room for misunderstanding. I would now be carrying her heart around with me. I promised that we would love her daughter always, would teach her of her birth family, would make her proud to be Ethiopian.

The bus ride back to Addis Ababa was somber. Our travel group of adoptive parents had witnessed families broken apart. Tucking our joy at being new parents into a side pocket of our hearts, we found room to pour in the oceans of tragedy and loss we’d just left behind.

My promises to my daughter’s birthmother come flooding back as I make my way to the school pick line, on this day when my daughter chose to showcase her natural hair. I am hoping to hear stories about how the other kids loved the style. But instead I retrieve from school a little girl transformed, her free, naturally-styled hair from that morning now stuffed unceremoniously into an unfamiliar scrunchie. Everything is tamped down, a far cry from the near-Afro she sported just hours ago. “Where’s your African hair?” I ask. She looks down. “I don’t want to wear it like that anymore.”

She is quiet on the drive home, refusing to answer my gentle questions about the day. Inside, I prepare myself for a first conversation about racism, about difference, about pride and standing strong.  

At bedtime, she relents. “A second grader grabbed my hand and pulled me around before school to show people my crazy hair. Kids laughed at it.” She gathers her pink blankie close, a first gift from her aunt that has rarely left her side since she arrived in America. She sucks on the corner. “I don’t like my African hair,” she says.

She begs me not to say anything to anyone at school, which is, of course, the first thing I want to do. But she has now been the subject of unwanted attention and the last thing she would want is a brighter spotlight to shine down on her differences. It’s hard to argue with her. Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

I smooth her hair back into a tight ballerina bun for bedtime, catching up the strays, rubbing almond oil into her scalp.

Our town is not diverse, but we take progressive stands on social issues. We provide a southern haven for an eclectic mix of the eccentric, the misfits, and the hippies, both neo- and original. Still, this is primarily a white town. Black and white neighborhoods stand largely side by side, the result of the south’s dark history of segregation.

We knew the charter school we chose was especially lily white, nestled up a mountain and away from downtown, offering no public transportation and no school lunch. The race-blind admissions process is governed by the unbending rules of the state lottery system, numbers on post-its standing in for children and futures. The result? My two adopted daughters can tick off on their hands all the students of color in the entire K-8 school, many, like them, the transracial adoptees of white parents.

But despite its lack of diversity, the school prides itself on inclusiveness and tolerance. The school, like the town, is a bastion of white liberalism, with all the good intentions and challenges of privilege such a world outlook raises.

Surely my daughter’s differences—her kinky hair, her chocolate skin, her African birth—would be embraced here, we had thought.

My heart aches. My mind rages. I struggle to formulate a response to the schoolyard taunts. I want to find those kids and—

And what? Scream at them? Punch them? Berate their parents?

Maybe I’m overreacting. I mean, kids point at people who look different. My own kids stare and ask uncomfortable questions: “Why is that lady fat?” or “What’s wrong with that boy’s legs?” Kids latch onto any difference and pull. Hard.

So I don’t write a ranting email and copy it up and down the chain of command. Instead, I start small, mentioning it to the classroom teacher. “Maybe just be on the lookout,” I ask.

Saturday is braiding day. My daughter tends to hold forth in the salon, a big personality with a flair for the dramatic. The ladies under the dryers laugh and coo at her sass and sunshine.

As she entertains, I make myself small in my chair, trying not to intrude in this sacred space of African-American women. I never mastered the art of styling black hair. No matter how many YouTube videos I watched or Carol’s Daughter products I bought, my twists uncoiled before I could snap a hair band on the bottom and my parts ended up hopelessly crooked. My failure feels like a breach of the promises I made to my daughter’s birthmother over coffee and tears all those years ago.

“Make styling a special time with your daughter,” an African-American friend urged. But hair time for my daughter and me continued to be the opposite of special.

So here we are, at the salon.

It’s embarrassing, this failure. Styling the hair of African-American girls is a point of cultural pride and black women have on occasion let me know when I have missed the mark. A woman once followed me into the grocery store bathroom, staring while I shepherded my daughters through the chaotic process of peeing, wiping, washing, drying, and otherwise not rolling on the floor.

“You’re not combing her hair, then?” the woman asked, running her fingers through my daughter’s tangles. I pressed the girls to dry their hands faster, but they were mesmerized by the automatic paper towel dispenser, waving their hands like maniacs and sending reams of brown recycled towels onto the soapy floor. I was unsure how to respond and so I didn’t. The woman pretended to wash her hands. “I’d do it for you, but I’m headed back to Atlanta,” she said, turning to leave. As if we were friends. As if next time she came to visit she’d have time to style my daughter’s hair. Maybe we’d sit together and I’d learn, watching her fingers fly through two-strand twists and expertly patterned cornrows. My face burned.

At the salon, I flip through old copies of Essence. My daughter sits on her booster in the big styling chair, insistent. “I want straight hair today,” she demands of her regular stylist, a big-hearted woman of unnatural patience. I am usually hesitant about the blowou—which tends to knot the instant we reach the car and collects our Saint Bernard’s shed hair like a lint brush. But on this day I have no energy left for a pep talk about embracing her curly locks. I concede.

As the flat iron crackles, my daughter’s African hair disappears in a haze of steam. She easily slides her fingers through what is typically a dense thicket, delighted at the finished product. It is long and sleek and smooth and looks just like her “ethnic” Barbie’s hair now, ready to brush or sweep back in a breezy ponytail.

Back at home, I hear the neighborhood girls gushing. “I love your hair like this!” and “You should wear your hair like this all the time!” My daughter, at last, feels included. As I watch from the porch, I brush aside a nagging thought that this inclusion comes at the expense of her true self—that she has been taken in and validated because her hair now conforms to their expectations.

But there will be time later for conversations about African pride and self-esteem. For the moment my daughter is laughing and happy, and my heart is full.

Cindy Reed is an award-winning freelance writer and speaker who teaches writing at cindyreed.me and blogs at www.reedsterspeaks.com. She lives with her family, created by international adoption, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Author Q & A: Joshua Gamson

We asked our Facebook fans to present questions we could ask Joshua Gamson, author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship. Here are his wonderful responses.

 

1. Since you write about your daughters have you decided at what age you will allow them to read your book?

We’ve talked about that some, since our older daughter (currently 10) wanted to read it right away. The content is adult enough that I think we’ll probably hold off until the kids are teenagers, and even then I suspect I’ll want to read it along with them, so we can discuss and answer any questions along that might come up along the way. That said, they know many of the basic facts of their own creation stories, and other details we will fill in for them in age-appropriate ways when they ask.

 

2. In Modern Families you describe different ways that families procreate (adoption, IVF, surrogacy, etc.). Do you find a lot of judgment in this world (for instance, between the groups or even domestic vs. international adoption)?

I have not observed a whole lot of judgment within the assisted reproduction scene. It sometimes takes a while for straight couples pursuing fertility assistance, and staff of fertility institutes and the like, to make sense of non-heterosexual people in their midst—the latter are confronting the logistical task of coordinating the various bodies but not the disappointment and sometimes even desperation that many straight people face when they are having trouble conceiving, and those are very different experiences. We’re all on the same roller coaster of trying to conceive a child, though, and that’s a big thing to have in common.

This is not to say that these alternative family-making worlds are devoid of judgments and social ranking. For instance, as I write about in the book, there’s a lot of class-inflected judgment of both egg donors and gestational surrogates by many agencies and also some intended parents: donors with higher education and certain physical characteristics more valued than others, and gestational surrogates stereotyped, as one fertility doctor put it to journalist Liza Mundy, as “not typical donor caliber as far as looks, physical features, or education.”

There’s another not uncommon tension within the adoption world, which I touch upon in another chapter, between people using or advocating open adoption (more common now in domestic adoption) of those using closed adoption (still common in international adoption); that can also involve judgment of others. Still, in the adoption world it appears much more common to find people supporting one another than criticizing each other’s family-making process. Most of the critical judgment, I think, comes from outside of these scenes rather than within them.

 

3. What do you see as the next frontier in reproductive technology?

The technological side isn’t really my field of expertise (though you can peruse research and news at places like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine), but it seems likely that the next big step is in uterus transplants. If this becomes technologically possible (the first live birth after uterus transplantation was in Sweden in 2014, and doctors are working on that in the U.S. now), that would mean that a woman without a functioning uterus might be able to carry and give birth to a baby. This also means that it is not entirely impossible to imagine that a male-bodied person could become pregnant—still very remote, and medically very complex and elaborate, involving pelvic reconstruction and the creation of a vagina, but at least imaginable. And for transgender women, born with male anatomy and seeking to change that to match their female gender identity, pregnancy would become at least theoretically possible. (Male pregnancy already sometimes happens, when transgender men become pregnant after transitioning to male from the female gender assigned to them at birth.) It sounds very sci-fi, but then so did “test tube babies,” gestational surrogacy, and embryo freezing when they first became technologically possible—and the same sorts of big ethical questions that emerged with each earlier advance in reproductive technology will have to be confronted with new ones.

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

By Jennifer Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

By Patrice Gopo

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On the two-hour drive to my sister’s house, I tell my older daughter about the time my grandmother slaughtered my pet chicken. My husband’s hands hold the steering wheel, and my toddler sleeps with her cheek pressed against her car seat. But my six-year-old focuses on the story about the woman we will soon see sitting on the couch in my sister’s home.

“A family friend gave your auntie and me a chicken,” I tell my daughter. I then explain how one day when my sister and I were away at school, my grandmother walked with her machete to the makeshift coop in our backyard. She grabbed the chicken and chopped off its head.

“Then Gong Gong cooked it for dinner,” my daughter adds using the same name my grandmother called her own grandmother long ago in rural Jamaica. My daughter has heard the story before, and she doesn’t flinch at the chicken’s beheading.

“Yes, Gong Gong made a curry out of it.” I chuckle at the thought of my grandmother’s no-nonsense behavior. Her life in rural Jamaica happened decades before I was born, far from the suburban American neighborhood where I grew up. I imagine she struggled to believe that a chicken was supposed to be a pet. I can also imagine that an activity like slaughtering a chicken must be similar to riding a bicycle. Even if decades have passed since one last killed an animal, a person can’t forget the way the hand holds the feathered body. Or the way the opposite hand grasps the smooth, wooden handle of the machete.

Except a person can forget, and I think my grandmother has forgotten.

*   *   *

When I was about eight and my grandmother a bit past 60, she called her daughter-in-law—my mother—and said she was going to retire and come help my parents care for my sister and me. She left New York City, her home since leaving Jamaica, and came to Anchorage, Alaska, the place my parents settled after my father’s time in the military. With two working parents in our home, my grandmother shouldered many duties, easing the strains of managing life. She walked my sister and me to the bus stop and was there when we came home in the afternoon. What I remember most, though, is the way her hands spent their days in a whirlwind of motion: holding the handle of a hot iron as she pressed my father’s work shirts, twirling a wooden spoon while she stirred substances in great cast iron pots, hovering over a vegetable garden plucking weeds. Even in rest, she sat with word search puzzles in her lap, a pencil in her hand, making quick circles around the found words.

The color of my grandmother’s hands is brown like mine but with a tint of sunlight. These days she sits with those golden hands folded in her lap, no longer twitching or looking for something to make the fingers move. Now she doesn’t long for pulling weeds in a garden. And if my daughter had a chicken, her Gong Gong wouldn’t remember the steps to transform the pet into a fragrant curry dinner.

Why does the brain do this? When the brain decides to forget, to carve out gaps in memory, why does it leave the hands idle?

Once upon a time my grandmother came to help my parents care for their children. Now the years have passed and the roles have changed. My grandmother lives with my sister who helps her get ready in the morning, reminds her to take her medicine, and offers her more water to drink. From time to time, my sister even wipes my grandmother’s tears away when she remembers how much she forgets.

My older daughter was in preschool when my grandmother came to live with my sister. In those early months my sister and I talked about the similarities in our caretaking roles. The overlap as we both cajoled others to eat or go bathe or both.

As time has passed, though, I have watched my daughter develop greater independence and shoulder her own responsibilities. And my sister has watched the eager help my grandmother’s hands once offered diminish. Instead my grandmother sinks into the couch while the sounds of old television shows fill the living room and transport her to the past.

*   *   *

At the end of our drive, my sister answers my daughters’ pounding fists, and my girls leap through the front door. A dance of hugs ensues, and my grandmother rises from her spot on the couch. Her smile is wide across her face, and I know my sister will tell me later that Grandma had a good day because we came to visit.

“TC,” my grandmother says, standing in front of me with her hands pressed against my shoulders. She stares at me, her eyes a soft sparkle. I smile at her use of my old nickname. She stares a moment longer before adding, “It’s been so long since I last saw you. So long.” Her hands drop from my shoulders, and her arms curl around my waist, bringing me into a hug.

“Yes, Grandma, it’s been so long,” I say to her just like I said last month.

In the kitchen, my oldest daughter says to her aunt, “Gong Gong asks the same questions again and again.” I hear silence and know my sister pauses, taking a moment to gather her words. I’m glad my family lives close enough that we can make this trip often. There is a sweet joy that comes when I watch my grandmother’s face brighten at the appearance of my daughters. Even more I think of the lessons of life, love, and family my daughters discover during these times.

“She asks the same thing over and over,” I hear my daughter say again.

“Yes,” my sister explains. “Gong Gong’s brain is sick. She has a hard time remembering things.”

My daughter accepts this answer. Later, when we all are leaving a museum and walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot, I hear my daughter call, “Wait, Mommy. Don’t forget Gong Gong.” I turn and see my grandmother lagging behind.

While there are no guarantees about what the mind will do in the future, today I don’t forget. I tell my daughter about my grandmother’s hands that were once in constant motion. I pour over my daughter stories my grandmother no longer remembers. Perhaps one day my grandchild will speak to her daughter the stories I no longer remember.

Now, though, I stare up the sidewalk at the generation ahead of me and the generation behind. “I’m coming, Gong Gong,” my daughter says. She runs back and slides her smooth fingers into her great-grandmother’s wrinkled hand. I watch them, linked together by laced palms, walking toward the rest of their family.

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

By Sara Ackerman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

By Lela Casey

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I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.

 

I was the kind of girl who could usually be found tucked away in a corner with a book, my long dark hair hanging over my face, an impenetrable wall of protection against the world.

Books weren’t entertainment for me. They were friends and lovers and mysterious rabbit holes. They were a way to escape the almost impossible task of socializing with my peers. They were a validation that being “weird” or “different” was OK, and perhaps even necessary to leading a novel-worthy life.

Literature was so entwined with my childhood that I often have trouble separating my own memories from the stories I read long into the night.

There were many characters that captured my heart. Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess, Prince Dolor from The Little Lame Prince, Sara Louise from Jacob Have I Loved, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and so many others.

And then, when I was ten years old I discovered Anne of Green Gables and nothing would ever be the same. Like me, Anne loved to read and had a magnificent imagination. But, Anne had something else. Something I thought I never would possess. FIRE!

She was strong and passionate and no one, not even the boy she was so obviously in love with, could diminish her flame.

I didn’t just love Anne Shirley, I wanted to BE Anne Shirley. After reading the entire series of books over a few weeks I convinced myself that I, too, could be brave. So, I mustered up all my courage to try using a bigger voice and standing up to the many bullies who ate shy bookish girls for breakfast.

But, my soft voice cracked and those bullies were relentless and finally I had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have that fire.

Where did it come from then? Was bravery inherited? Developed? Earned?

I thought about the people who I knew who were fiery….. both in literature and in real life. A pattern began to emerge. Pippie Longstocking, Annie, my cousin from Israel… Red heads, every one of them.

I resigned myself to the fact that, without that ginger gene, I was just going to have to accept a life of passivity.

The years went by. I did eventually grow my soft voice into, if not a fierce one, at least a confident one. I learned to stand up for myself. I developed passions. I stopped hiding behind books. I became a mother of a bright, enthusiastic little boy,

One day another mother at the park falsely accused my 3-year-old son of taking her daughter’s toy. She ripped the toy from his hand and yelled angrily. Without a moment’s hesitation, I marched up to her, looked her right in the eye and demanded that she back off.

The voice that came out of my mouth that day shocked me. Looking at my little boy’s scared face, realizing it was my job to protect him, allowed me to finally overcome my genetic deficiency and be brave without having red hair.

Around the time I started to feel this fieriness developing inside of me I became pregnant with my third child. I was already a mother of two little boys and I couldn’t even let myself dream that this (my final child) could be a girl.

Seeing my daughter may have been the most powerful moment of my life. Not only was she the most perfect, most beautiful, most girliest creature, but from the top of her head rose one glorious red curl.

My daughter is 6 years old now. Her long auburn hair hangs well below her waist. She is sweet and smart and fiery … oh lord is she fiery! Sometimes I look at her and wonder if she is the manifestation of all the passion of my recent years, or perhaps the product of a genetic shift that came from my reading Anne of Green Gables so frequently.

Whatever the cause of her spirited nature, it absolutely delights me. She has already won all the battles I was too afraid to fight, earned respect from all the bullies I was too timid to stand up to, and demanded all the rights I never would have dreamed of asking for.

She is my very own Anne Shirley.

Managing a 6-year-old’s long hair is not easy. Especially one who loves to roll in dry leaves, dance in mud puddles, and burrow head first into the sand. We have long emotional battles every time a hair washing is imminent. But, each time I mention so much as a little trim, she melts down into angry tears.

“You CAN’T cut it. My hair is wild like me, Mama. It matches my insides.”

 
Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at kveller.com. She has also written for themid.com, femininecollective,com, and jkidphilly.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

15 Reasons Moms Are Just a Half-Step Away From Insanity

15 Reasons Moms Are Just a Half-Step Away From Insanity

By Jackie Ashton

1. “Have you seen the butter?” heard three times a day per child, caregiver or other “human” who frequents your home. (On any given day, there are at least three sticks of butter in, of all places, the refrigerator.)

2. Just as you are walking out to take a much-deserved yoga class, your first in ages, the babysitter texts in a cancellation: she has been bitten by a spider.

3. “Mommy! Where! Is! My! Bobo!?” screeched at ear-piercing volume, 300 times per day per child. (Note: Bobo, the bright-blue elephant, is usually splayed out on the kitchen floor—right where he was left!—often within eyesight.)

4. Your 2-year-old daughter returns from preschool clutching a bag of clay and detailed homework instructions involving said clay. That’s weird, you think, I didn’t know preschools assigned homework. You cancel wine night with the girls and dutifully follow the instructions, cheerleading and coaching your toddler along with enthusiastic fist-pumps. The next day you help your daughter pack her clay creation ohsocarefully into her backpack. For weeks, you inquire about this important (and unannounced!) clay homework. You receive the same cheerful reply each time, “Oh, that! She never collected it!”

5. Subsequent calls to the now radio silent, spider-bitten babysitter are returned with a text that says “I’m. Just. 2. Emotional. 2 B UR babysitter. I quit. L8R!”

6. Lice.

7. You stop at the vet’s office to pick up special “Diarrhea No More” food for the geriatric family dog. You leave your 3-year old son and 4-year old daughter in the car for a blip of time that does not exceed one nanosecond. You return to find a pile of your son’s warm poop perched like a bow on the present you just bought for your nephew’s birthday.

8. In an attempt to be an involved mother, you volunteer to organize the kindergarten end of year party. You receive 47 emails to discuss and re-discuss, hash out and re-hash out, schedule and re-schedule the five tasks that need to take place to pull off a one hour party for five-year-olds.

9. You send your son to school wearing red pants and a black Spiderman T-shirt. He awaits you at pick up wearing shoes, a pull-up that does not belong to him and nothing else in 40-degree weather. No explanation for his strip tease is provided.

10. The mother-loving lice are back. Your children will now wear tea tree oil-dipped ski caps at all times. So. Help. You. God.

11. You are thrilled to receive a last-minute invite to see Phoenix, your favorite indie band. You call your top five babysitters; none are free. You try the B-list babysitters, eight of them: they’ve all been bitten by spiders. Your cousin calls to say that her next door neighbor’s nanny’s ex-husband’s parole officer has a new girlfriend who sort of likes kids and would you like her number?

12. You volunteer to drive some of the children in your daughter’s class to the zoo for a field trip. It’s unclear whether he suffers from the bubonic plague or swine flu, but one of the children assigned to your car is definitely dying.

13. You receive a 5-inch thick packet in the mail from the school your children have attended for three years. “New forms must be filled out by hand each calendar yearthanks in advance!” chirps the letter from the Director.

14. You pay a boatload of money to send your kids to the “Summer Fun Zone,” a June camp marketed as a week of fun-filled outdoor frolicking for your kids while you work. “How was camp?” you ask them on the ride home, hoping for festive tales of water-balloon-tossing and capture the flag. “Awesome!” your 4-year-old son replies, “We didn’t even have to hold hands crossing the street!”

15. It’s your 10th wedding anniversary. You’ve planned a much-anticipated night away with your husband. As you are applying mascara for the first (and quite possibly the last) time in 2015, the just-hired-quadruple-reference-checked babysitter calls (ah-ha! she does have vocal cords): “Jackie, hey, listen, I know this sounds super random and weird, but I think I’ve been bitten by a spi”CLICK.

Jackie Ashton is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon and Redbook, among other publications.

Photo: Getty Images

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

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The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

 

At two years old, when my younger son began putting words together, his first complete sentences were all variations on a theme.

“Watch this, Mommy!” he would shout over and over as he frog-hopped across the living room floor or threw a ball into a hoop. When the action was complete, he always asked, “See that?” his voice crackling with pride.

Once my son had these sentences, he used them hundreds of times every day, and I thought about what it meant that he wasn’t saying “feed me” or “hold me” or “keep me warm.” The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.

Now that he’s approaching three he finds more creative ways to remain in my line of vision. When I make dinner he often struts into the kitchen, demands to be held, and then physically turns my head so that I must look him in the eye.

Because of both his age and personality, my younger son refuses to be invisible. But my older son, who is seven, can sometimes fade into the shadows. He spends hours sitting alone in his room building Legos, or lying on his top bunk reading comic books. In our house, he’s often a friendly background presence rather than a force to be reckoned with. Because his little brother steals the show so often, I often worry that I sideline him, that I don’t actively see him the way he needs to be seen. It’s easy work to tell my older son I love him, to hold him tight when he’s near, but sometimes those words—I love you—feel inadequate and hollow. Sometimes I suspect that to convince him of my love, I must first convince him that I know him.

Two weeks ago, his first grade teacher gave me the opportunity to see him with new eyes. It was parent-teacher conference week, and on the day of our conference my son and I walked to school holding hands. It was a rare moment for us, one where he and I could be alone together, free from his brother’s toddler antics.

When we sat down with his teacher, she laid out a folder of his work and told me, “Your son pays close attention to detail.” This wasn’t a thing that I knew about him, but once she pointed it out, I could see it everywhere. As we leafed through the pages of his folder I noticed how tiny and careful his letters had become. I noticed the way that, in his self-portrait, the sky was not just a line of blue at the top of the page—it actually met the ground.

But there were other things worth noticing in my son’s self-portrait. He had drawn himself not as a giant smiling face but as a tiny shadowy figure at the bottom of the page. I remembered a video I had seen years ago that demonstrated how much children’s self- and family portraits revealed about the way they saw themselves in the world. If my son, when asked to draw himself, could only summon something tiny, then clearly he needed some building up.

That night as he soaked in the bathtub, I dug through his school folder to retrieve a hand-drawn book his teacher had returned at the conference. “Will you look at this with me?” I asked as I sat on the bathmat and showed him his own work. He straightened his back to look over my shoulder. I pointed to every detail I noticed—the fluttering fins on the goldfish that swam inside a fish bowl, the disco ball he’d drawn on the page with the dancing canary. My son nodded and giggled, impressed with his own sense of humor. He pointed out details I had missed.

Once both of my sons were in their pajamas I kissed them goodbye and left the house—it was my partner’s night to put them to sleep, my night to meet a friend for adult conversation.

When I returned that night the house was quiet, dark except for a fake candle—a battery-powered tea light that flickered on the coffee table next to a glass of water. I thought nothing of it until later when I settled on the couch to read and I noticed the water glass was full. Between the water glass and the tea light was a tiny illustration. It was a picture of my son and me standing together beside a candle, holding hands.

Some part of me was humbled by son’s deep generosity. I wasn’t sure that a parent-child relationship was supposed to be so reciprocal. I had given him ten minutes of my undivided attention and he had returned my investment immediately. He had thought about me and my after-hours quiet time, had pictured me on the couch with a book reaching for a glass of water. I had seen him, and in return he saw me too.

I looked closely at the picture and considered it. The paper itself was tiny, but in this illustration both my son and I took up the full width of the page. Were we big or were we small? I couldn’t tell. I only knew for sure that we were the same size as the candle that lit us. It strikes me now that he perfectly captured the magic that happens when we witness each other, when we take the time to look and narrate what we see: we stand in the glow of that other person’s view, and know not just that we are loved, but why we are loved, and how.

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

White Privilege in a Police Car

White Privilege in a Police Car

By DeeAnn Veeder

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I almost posted it. A photo. On Facebook. My son and his friend. Both 13-years-old.   

A policeman came to my door one Monday last November. We had just moved into town the week before, town being a village of 5000 people in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. The policeman was at my front door to introduce himself and the ‘Your Cop’ Village Police Program.  

My son was home on a half day and his friend was over. They were playing X-box in his room. Last spring my son got crazy excited when we saw the new village police car; it’s a Dodge Charger, black, all fitted up with stuff, lots of stuff, a boy’s first-car dream. So I asked the officer if the boys could meet him and see his car. “Sure,” he said.

“Hey guys!” I yelled up the stairs. “There’s a policeman here to meet you! He said you can see his car!”

They came trouncing down the stairs. (Now I know how to break up an X-box game.) “What?”  “Where?” “Here?”

The officer’s presence in the living room slowed them down a bit. But they pulled it together and walked calmly out to his squad car. The officer was kind, pedagogical even, and he showed us everything about the car and told us about his job.

They have a $600 annual allowance to fit themselves up with what they need. Before they can have a pepper spray, they are pepper sprayed at the Police Academy. They are tazed before they can have their own tazer.  He was earnest about knowing what he might do to a person by feeling it first. I asked if he was shot before he could carry his glock. There was an uncomfortable silence.

After our Your Cop showed us everything in the front seat, the boys asked if they could see the back seat. The officer opened the back doors. The back seat and floor were hard plastic and sectioned in half. One half had bars. Both halves could be washed out with a hose and drained.   

My son’s friend asked to be handcuffed, but the officer declined, telling him that it hurts. Then the boys asked if they could get in the back, and the officer said they could. They wanted me to take their picture so I took one with my cell phone.  

There they were. Two boys who, by their very skin color, were able to learn about a police car and sit in the back for fun, as a joke.  

I almost posted this photo on Facebook that Monday, because by my very skin color, I could do that, I could forget for a minute. On the very day many Americans, Black Americans and their allies, were waiting with desperately hopeful hearts, I almost forgot. I almost forgot the grief, this centuries old, wordless, gut-wrenching grief. On that night we learned it was all a sham, the Grand Jury charade in Ferguson, and that the whole systemic bullshit of this country was still strongly in tact. I almost forgot and posted a photo on Facebook of my white son and his white friend, posing happily in the back of a police car.

That is white privilege.

 
DeeAnn Veeder is an artist, writer, and mother of two living in the Hudson Valley.  

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

Why I Don’t Regret Taking All Those Baby Photos

By Christine Organ

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I have a list of parenting regrets about a mile long. Wasting money on an expensive rocking chair and signing my three-year-old up for soccer, for instance.

But one thing I don’t regret, however, is the excessive photo taking—and photo sharing—during my son’s first year.

Though I’m no shutterbug by any means, after my son was born, I took hundreds—if not thousands—of photos and then shared a culled set with family and close friends on a regular basis. I quickly filled memory cards, and given the frequency and quantity of photos shared, I have little doubt that when my family saw an email from me with the subject line “You’re invited to view my photos,” they rolled their eyes and groaned. They may have even deleted the email without ever opening it. One could hardly blame them. I was relentless.

I was also desperate.

After my son was born, like many parents, I stumbled into the trenches of new motherhood. I was consumed by loneliness, confusion, and exhaustion that bordered on delirium. But in addition to the typical first-time parent anxiety, an inconspicuous (and untreated) case of postpartum depression pushed me further into an unrecognizable void. At the time, I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know why I hated being a mother, why everything was so hard, why I couldn’t shake the baby blues. All I knew was that the old me had disappeared, my joie de vivre had vanished, and every day was an uphill battle as I tried to claw my way out of the deep ravine of shame and guilt.

The abyss of postpartum depression—not to mention the resulting shame and self-loathing that this illness brings with it—is a dark place whether a woman is diagnosed or not. Most days I felt as if the lights had gone out… on everything. Living in denial about what I was feeling and experiencing, I did the only thing I thought to do at the time: I took pictures. A lot of pictures.  

Back in 2006, during the pre-smartphone era, I relied on my trusty Canon digital point-and-shoot to photograph everything from first smiles and giggles to diaper blowouts and messy faces. I took photos of my son with our dogs dressed as Santa and his reindeer. I took photos of my son wearing new clothes, and then sent a few snapshots to the giver of the outfit. I took photos of him drooling and crawling and playing with Tupperware. I uploaded the photos to my computer, spent hours editing them, and inundated my family with album after album.

The photos weren’t my only distraction, however. Along with hundreds of digital files, my computer also housed a document that I refer to simply as “The Spreadsheet.” A complex color-coded chart, The Spreadsheet documented every minute of my son’s life—the time he spent sleeping, eating, or playing—in half-hour increments. Convinced that if I could only “crack the code,” mastering the art of baby-caring would be a whole lot easier and I, in turn, would be happier (or at least less miserable).

As if that weren’t enough, next to the computer that housed the photos and The Spreadsheet was a stack of books taller than my baby about everything from sleeping training theories to post-baby marriage tips. I highlighted, tabbed, and took notes. I was convinced that locked within the pages of these books was The Answer to all of my parenting woes.

By throwing myself into the photos (the taking, editing, and sharing), meticulously maintaining The Spreadsheet, and voraciously reading parenting books, I believed that I could somehow find a way out of the darkness. Or, at a minimum, distract myself enough to make the darkness less scary and all-consuming. Distraction, it seemed, was key.

These days, however, distraction is marked as the enemy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, seems to be the holy grail of parenting. Truth be told, I am a staunch proponent of mindfulness—or paying attention, as I like to think of it—not just with respect to parenting, but with all aspects of my life. And excessive photo taking—not to mention the quest for (and obsession with) the perfect photo—is just one more way that technology runs the risk of thwarting mindfulness. When we are behind the camera we are, in essence, focusing on how we can preserve a moment, instead of paying attention to the moment itself. And as a result, the excessive photo taking, documenting, and micromanaging has the potential of distracting us from the privilege we, as parents, have to simply bear witness to our children’s lives.

But sometimes—typically in those desperate, in-the-trenches times—we need distraction for precisely the same reason. We need distraction to keep us from falling further into the abyss. The distraction—whether it’s photo taking or baby-book reading or Facebook scrolling—gives us a way to pay attention without becoming overwhelmed, a way to take it all in without losing ourselves under the weight of it all. It is mindfulness with a buffer.

I’m not sure why I took so many photos. I’m sure boredom and loneliness played a role, but perhaps the root of it went deeper than that. Maybe I subconsciously hoped that each flash of the camera would shine a light into the dark pit in which I felt I was living. Maybe I hoped that each click of the camera, each activity recorded, each page tabbed would bring me one step closer to the light. Or maybe the milestone-preservation, information-gathering, and documentation were a manifestation of my need for control during a chaotic time.

Whatever the psychological reason, however, the taking and sharing of photos—along with the spreadsheets and documentation, the book-reading and the note-taking—became my lifeline, a tool to cope with, and then recover from, postpartum depression. Not only did they distract me from the darkness in my own mind, thereby saving me from falling further into that dark pit of despair, but they created the world in which I wanted to live.

And while they may have glossed over my reality, they also blurred the harsh and jagged edges enough so that I could zoom in, using a fisheye lens to focus on the beauty that was my son.

Christine Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life, which is a collection of stories about the paradoxes of parenting and the fullness of life. She writes at www.christineorgan.com, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

Intensive Care: The Nurse Who Saw Us Through the Night

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.

 

Machines and monitors whir in the dark, chilly room. It is like stepping into a vacuum. There he is, so small on the hospital bed. Unconscious or simply asleep, I don’t know. A white bandage covers the right side of his head over his ear, where surgeons operated on the fractured skull, the nicked artery that resulted when he fell down the basement stairs at a friend’s house, landing heavily on the concrete floor below.

Brennan’s eyes flicker open; enormous brown eyes in a pale, pale face.

“Brennan. Hey, Brennan,” my husband, John, and I whisper at his side. He turns to look at us. I want to pull him into my arms. I touch his hand. “Hey guy.” His eyes close again.

“He’s still coming out of the anesthesia,” the nurse says. “It will be awhile. He was out a long time.” Then: “Climb right up there, mom.” I stare at her. Tammy, her name tag says. She nods. “Go ahead.” And already I am flooded with gratitude toward her.

I begin pulling off my boots—the stupid red boots I bought a few days ago, a lifetime ago, when I was a person who could have cared about boots. Tammy hands me a set of scrubs to pull on instead of my skirt and sweater. “These will be more comfortable,” she says.

I will realize, eventually, that six-year-old Brennan is her only patient. She is here just for him. And for us.

With John’s help I climb into the bed and lie on my side facing Brennan. The sharp smell of antiseptic masks his familiar, salty, little-boy smell. My tears are still coming; for hours they’ve streamed down my face uninterrupted, but now I try to wipe them away before they seep into the sheets. Breathe, I think. Breathe.

There are conversations. He did well, they stopped the bleeding, cauterized the artery, evacuated the blood pooling in his skull. The CT scan looked good. He’s not out of the woods yet, the surgeon says. Brennan’s brain might swell from the trauma, or not. All we can do is wait. There are phone calls to make. My mother crying. A message left on my sister’s voicemail: Call mom.

My anxiety pulses along with the thrum and beeping of the monitors. The dark has receded. I can breathe. I am still riding this wave of fear, but I do not feel alone.

When you have a newborn, you are at first overwhelmed, and then, suddenly, you know more about him than anyone. The dozens of motions required to care for him become automatic, almost involuntary, like your beating heart and breathing lungs.

This is the way Tammy cares for Brennan. Checking his vital signs, repositioning him on the bed, administering different medications through the IV. A constant quiet vigilance and countless acts of caretaking that are almost invisible because she performs them unselfconsciously. She is young, maybe not even thirty. I don’t know if she has a family, children; she doesn’t talk about herself.

I don’t think I will fall asleep, but I do, at some point late into the night. Then I jerk awake, gasping. “It’s just me,” Tammy’s voice whispers from nearby, “Sorry.”

And later, another sound. Brennan coughing vomit onto the white hospital blanket. I sit up and hold him and Tammy is at his already at his side, supporting him. He does not fully wake up. She mops his face and lays him back down. She tells me to grab the corners of the pad beneath him and together we slide him to one side (“Ready? Lift.”) She effortlessly strips the blankets from around him and remakes the bed, swift and quiet, not even waking John, who is sleeping on a built-in cot behind the hospital bed and monitors. I can’t see him but I know he’s there.

She brings me a clean set of scrubs and I climb back in the bed.

“Is the vomiting from the anesthesia?” I ask.

“The injury,” Tammy says softly, and I close my eyes again.

She pulls a blanket over me. “I’ll be right here.”

Deep into the night there is some activity and conversation outside our room, after which one of the neurosurgical Fellows comes in—the young one, kind, who had stood beside me in the ER handing me tissues. He tells me we’re being moved. The beds are full and there is another patient coming in. He tries to frame this as good news: Brennan is in better shape than anyone on the floor.

Heart pounding, I am on my feet asking questions. Where will they take us? How often will they check on him? There is no step down unit, so Brennan will now be a regular patient. Instead of a nurse assigned to him—instead of Tammy—he will share a nurse who will check his vital signs every four hours. No, I think. No.

Not out of the woods yet. Those were the neurosurgeon’s words and I repeat them back to the Fellow several times. I say I want to hear from the neurosurgeon himself.

He steps out of the room for a minute and, in that moment, Tammy moves beside me, leaning down as she folds something and sets it on a chair.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she says quietly, never looking up. Her voice is a low hum, reaching out to me.  “You need to advocate for him.”

We manage to put the move off, a least for now.

When, hours later, they wake me again to move us to the surgical floor, the young neurosurgeon sits and explains all the reasons they believe Brennan is progressing well. He promises to check on Brennan himself, and says he will camp out in the room across from us for the night, if we need anything.

I don’t want to leave. But as we guide Brennan’s bed carefully through the halls to the surgical floor, Tammy tells me she is taking us to a room directly across from the nurses’ station. “Page them any time you need them,” she says. “For anything at all.”

As a team of people sets Brennan up in our new room I see Tammy speaking intently to the nurses; one meets my eyes and comes toward me to talk.

I look toward Tammy, wanting to say something more than thank you. But she is already moving away, on toward her next patient.

I move close to Brennan, not even considering sleep. I stare at him and listen to his breath sounds. I take in the long eyelashes someone commented on in the ER, the freckles standing out against his pallor. I look out the window of this new room, where it is still dark outside, not quite morning. The sun has not yet come up, but it will.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images

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

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

By Alison Seevak

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I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog?

 

Just before I turned 35, I made an appointment to meet a pregnant golden retriever named Angel. Everyone I knew was having babies and I was plain miserable. I wanted a family of my own, but had yet to find lasting love. I didn’t think I could handle a baby by myself. However, I did think I might be able to handle a dog. It would take my mind off of things.

Angel’s owner, a woman named Rosalie, told me over the phone that she would need to size me up in person before she’d let me take one of her puppies. So I drove down from Berkeley to Mountain View and spent a few hours drinking iced tea with Rosalie, a large 50ish woman with cat eye glasses, while she questioned me about my work schedule and whether or not I had a fenced in backyard. I tossed a green tennis ball to Angel, who had plenty of energy, even though she was about to whelp eight puppies. I told Rosalie about the park in back of my house and feigned interest when she told me that a former San Francisco 49er, Joe Montana lived down the street. I knew nothing about football, but when Angel lay down and panted by my feet, I knew I wanted one of her puppies.

At my birthday party that year, two of my exceptionally pregnant friends lowered themselves onto my sofa with slight groans. Their attentive husbands hovered nearby, ready to hand them slices of birthday cake. One still had enough of a sense of humor to note “Alison, it’s like you are trapped in a Wendy Wasserstein play.”

But by now I had Sophie, one of Angel’s puppies, and she had become my grand distraction. We took long walks in the hills at dusk, looking for owls. She ran ahead of me, a flash of gold fur in tall grass, chasing after things I couldn’t see. Every morning, I took her to the park with a bunch of neighborhood dog owners, people I’d only said a passing hello to before. Now we stood around drinking coffee and gossiping while the dogs ran. I brought Sophie to the afterschool program where I taught. My students wrote her letters or drew pictures of her wearing wings and a crown. Sophie brought me onto the sidewalks, into the hills, into the world.

She was the constant while I dated in those nerve wracking years leading up to my 40th birthday. One of my dog training bibles at the time, a book written by a group of monks who raised German Shepherds, recommended that dogs sleep in their owner’s rooms. It was the one recommendation I actually followed. So, the first time I brought one boyfriend home, I had to explain the enormous crate containing the excited puppy in my bedroom. Together, we carried the crate into the kitchen. I tried hard to ignore Sophie’s howling that night.

Another boyfriend insisted that I board Sophie when I came to visit him, two hours away, in Santa Cruz. He lived with a skinny 18-year-old cat named Sallie.

“Sophie has too much energy,” he said, explaining why I couldn’t bring her with me. Not too long after that, I had a session with a pet psychic who told me that Sophie felt Howard could not open his heart to me.

“She’s right,” he said when confronted. We broke up shortly after that.

In between teaching and unsuccessful dating, my life was a series of long dog walks. Sophie’s leash tethered me to her, but it also tethered me to something solid, to the here and now. When I was with her, I had some respite from the “what if” and “what if not” that threatened to carry me away, as if I were a balloon from a child’s birthday party that escaped and floated high into the blue sky.

And then one night I dreamt that Sophie turned into a tall languorous teen aged girl in a red baseball cap who drove away from me in a convertible. I couldn’t wait any longer. I realized that if I was going to have a child, I’d have to do it by myself. By now, I was 41. I decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

While I did piles of paperwork and waited to fly to China to meet my daughter, I worried. I worried about attachment disorder, sleep deprivation, being a white woman raising an Asian child. I worried about getting time alone in the bathroom. But mostly, I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog? What if Sophie’s barking woke the baby up from her nap? What if they hated each other? I had never followed the monks’ advice too closely. I’d spent years letting Sophie do all the wrong things — sleep on my bed, pull on the leash, run in the opposite direction when I called her name. In a fit of desperation, I sent Sophie off to doggie boot camp. But after a week, the trainer called me and said I should just come get her. It was too late.

A few months later, I stood in a gray civil affairs office in Wuhan, China and was handed the most beautiful, angry one-year-old I had ever met. Red-faced and screaming, she arched away from me the first time I held her. I had prepared a list of questions for Mr Cheng, the orphanage director. I knew she had lived with a foster family in the countryside. Right after a question about favorite foods I asked, “Did her foster family have a dog?”

Mr Cheng shook his head no while the translator explained. “They only had chickens.”

After that auspicious meeting, we both came down with something. I lay feverish and nauseous in a fancy hotel room with a limp, grieving Anna plastered to my chest. My friend, Grace who had come along with me to help, looked at the two of us on the bed. “Maybe you’re going to have to find another home for Sophie. I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” she said.

But we both got better. By the time we’d arrived back in California and Sophie came home from where she’d boarded, things looked brighter. When Sophie walked into the house for the first time, she bounded right over to Anna, who grabbed her fur and pulled herself up. At night, when I walked the rooms of my house with a jet-lagged baby, the only thing that consoled her was when I let her rest on Sophie’s back. Sophie sat under Anna’s high chair waiting for bits of food. Anna’s first word in English was “sit.”

Sophie and I both finally grew up. My dog became less of a child, more of a collaborator. She was actually like a concerned canine aunt. When two-year-old Anna threw bedtime tantrums in her room, screaming “I don’t want to sleep in this crib! I want a book! I don’t want to wear these pajamas!” I’d watch the clock thinking if this goes on for ten more minutes, I’ll go in. But Sophie looked at me with serious brown eyes. Aren’t you going to do anything, it seemed like she was saying. Are you going to just let that kid scream?

Every night after dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, Anna in her stroller and Sophie trotting obediently alongside us. Once Anna got old enough, she’d walk too, my hand in one of hers, and Sophie’s leash gripped tightly in the other.

In preschool, when other kids pasted pictures of mothers, fathers and siblings onto posterboard for show and tell, Anna glued on photos of Sophie and me. When she was about to turn six, she described the birthday cake she wanted for her planetarium themed party. Anna, Sophie and I, wearing astronaut suits would float in a dark sky of chocolate frosting. There’d be a big vanilla moon and in the distance, a green and blue frosted earth. We’d be adrift in space, but love and our linked hands (and paws) would hold us together.

I knew I could not attempt this cake myself. I found a neighborhood mom with a baking business. “I have curly brown hair and glasses, my daughter is Chinese and we want the golden retriever’s fluffy tail sticking out of the astronaut suit,” I explained over the phone.

“No problem,” she said, calmly as if this request was an everyday kind of event. And in our world, of course, it was.

Alison Seevak‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Literary Mama and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Northern California with her twelve-year-old daughter and their new dog, Buddy.

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney

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This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases.

 

My son was four years old when he first expressed embarrassment about the way he talked. It happened one morning, as he played blocks on the floor with a friend and I sat in the background, reading. My son was narrating as he played, telling her that this giant tower was just part of what would become a “really cool world.” It was clear to me exactly what he was saying, but his friend just kept asking “What?” over and over, because all she could hear was “weally cool wowld.”

“I can’t understand you!” she said, giggling.

My son got up and sat next to me. He leaned in. I translated. “He’s making a really cool world,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

“Are you okay?” I whispered my son who was now resting his head in my lap.  

“I think—” he said, “I think it’s just that my voice is a little funny.”

This wasn’t the first time that someone had trouble understanding my son. Other grown-ups, charmed by his pronunciation, often chuckled and mimicked key phrases. My son might explain to an adult friend that he had dreamed about a red-eyed creature who chased him through the forest. “Is that right?” the friend might respond. “A wed-eyed kweecha, huh?” My son would look confused for a moment and then resume his monologue.  

“Oh honey,” I said now, drawing him as near as I could. “Your voice isn’t funny. You just have a hard time with the letter R. Lots of kids do.”

Some minutes later, he returned to his blocks. He built now in silence, no longer speaking of his really cool world.

Over a year later, our family doctor asked if we’d consider bringing him to a speech therapist. She acknowledged what I already knew: that most kids with a delayed R acquire it naturally before the age of seven. “But,” she went on, “you might consider whether it would help his confidence to address it before he starts kindergarten.”

I thought about how lately any time someone asked his name he would lean into me and whisper, “You say it.” At first I assumed he was simply being shy. “You can tell them!” I’d say. “Hah-lan,” he’d tell them, and inevitably the person would give him a puzzled look. “Hollin?” they’d say, looking to me for guidance. “Harlan,” I’d correct.

We met with the speech therapist the following week. She was a gentle woman, gangly and tall with long hair, who played card games with my son and sent him away with stickers. Under her guidance, he became an expert at distinguishing Rs from Ws. He could hear the difference between weed and reed, between walk and rock, no problem. But this didn’t mean that he could pronounce his Rs. Instead he paused at R words; he gave them his full attention and came out with a sound that wasn’t quite W, but was still quite far from a recognizable R.

After six months of speech therapy, his therapist wanted to talk to me about his progress. She had recently tried recording my son so that he could hear his pronunciation. He’d been enthusiastic initially, but when he heard his recorded voice, his face grew red and his eyes welled up. He insisted that the recording machine was broken, that it made him sound weird. “Wee-ahd.”

“We can keep trying,” she offered, “But he might just need a break.” As we left her office that day, I felt relief at letting go of this one thing—a small thing really, a single letter of the alphabet. I was hopeful that after a few months my son might find R on his own.

He didn’t. He started kindergarten and made new friends, and built elaborate structures out of Legos, and learned to read, and basically did all of the things that you would want a happy, healthy kindergartener to do, only he still didn’t like to say his own name, and if you asked him who his teacher was, he didn’t want to say “Mrs. Brown.”

At the end of the school year, my son’s class put on a recital and in the days leading up to the event, my son confided that he was nervous. “What are you nervous about?” I asked him. “What are you going to do?”

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

When the evening of the recital arrived, the gym was packed with at least sixty parents and siblings and neighbors and relatives. At the last moment, I remembered to stuff my pocket with tissues. My son stood on the front riser, dressed in his brand-new Minion t-shirt and freshly laundered shorts, his version of a fancy outfit. The whole class sang The More We Get Together, and then Mrs. Brown handed the microphone to the girl sitting at the edge of the front row. She spoke with absolute confidence: “My name is Hailey and my favorite thing about kindergarten is reading corner.” She handed the mic to the boy on her left. It wasn’t until he began to speak, that it hit me: my son was next in line. In just moments, he would take the mic and have to introduce himself to a crowd of near-strangers. My heart sped. My face flushed. My son took the mic, looked out at the crowd, and gathered his breath. I swear, he took forever to speak, but once he started he didn’t pause. “My name is Hah-lan,” he said. “And my favowite thing about kindahgahten is computahs.”

The audience clapped politely just as they had for the two proceeding children. No one else knew that my son was likely terrified, that they had just witnessed an act of significant courage. But I knew. I sat there with my tissues, snotty and teary and beaming, grateful in a strange way for that impossible letter R for teaching my son that it’s okay to say your own name, to claim what you love even if you can’t say the words perfectly.

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

What The Water Gave Me

What The Water Gave Me

By Michelle Jacobs

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This boy who was saved, spared, blissfully alive and crying and kicking swimming, all movement in his father’s grasp, all slimy fish and gills breathing somehow underwater.

 

The fish pond is the center of my parents’ backyard, a natural refuge, an Eden-like garden delight and a playground for my two-year-old son, a wild boy running free.

Circling the pond is a Buddha statue, a carved pelican and my grandmother’s garden girl sculpture which all seem now to be guardians of the pond.

The Koi fish swim deep, unseen mostly, but I saw them in a quiet moment of unspeakable gratitude. After the sparing, after the shadow passed, the reaper walked on and breathed on us all as he passed. After it all, I stood staring at the pond, at my son’s would be grave, at the murky, quiet undisturbed depths, a sheen glowed green and brown. The tangled net that held him lay ripped and snagged, torn apart by his father, to free and to save this miracle boy, this little fish, this wild Huckleberry boy of rivers, oceans, pools and ponds. This boy who was saved, spared, blissfully alive and crying and kicking swimming, all movement in his father’s grasp, all slimy fish and gills breathing somehow underwater.

I started to walk away from the pond, from the stillness after the chaos and the afterglow of evening dying and in the quiet, a splash erupted as insistent as a voice, a call. I turned to look at the pond and the fish were at the surface slapping their fin bodies and moving their mouths for food, of course, but in my myth they spoke of what they saw, bearing witness under the water.

For they must have seen the will my boy had to live, the grasping hands seeking air and sky and other arms to hold him. The fish must have seen his strong legs and body twisting, fighting the weight of water, sinking depths. They must have seen the shadow of his cousin running, leaping, reaching, clinging and struggling to save my boy, my boy, my boy. They must have felt her fall in with all her effort and love holding him, lifting him, trying to untangle him. Until his father overtook them all scattering the fish, the lily pads, the algae and the slime, a force moving the pond, moving time, hands reaching and reaching, feeling the slippery boyfish caught, stuck in the netting that kept the birds out. They must have seen him slipping, slipping, slipping away while the seconds, minutes, hours ticked and ticked and ticked until his father ripped the netting and lifted the boy from the depths of the earth holding tight to life.

The fish swim on. The stone and wood statues are quiet, mute with explanation. I walk away from the now tranquil scene, from the wise and knowing trees silent with reasons to tell me why we were spared. No one can tell how much time really passed, how long he was under water, why the splash made his cousin alert and wondering, looking once and looking again from the hammock hearing a splash but seeing nothing, laughing in the hammock, sorrow hovering so close to happiness. Only the trees towering above it all, filtering the wind, sheltering the birds, watching the humans, the mistakes, the triumphs, pure chance, pure action.

I don’t know what my two-year-old saw in the depths, but I know he felt his father’s hands sure and solid, of this world, holding him and lifting him out of the dark, out of the water.
Michelle Jacobs lives in Virginia Beach, VA with her husband and three kids. She can be reached at mabjacobs@gmail.com

To The Disapproving Man Watching Me Breastfeed in a Restaurant

To The Disapproving Man Watching Me Breastfeed in a Restaurant

By Allison Martin

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To the disapproving gentleman at the corner table,

I’ve been lumbered with ample bosom since my mid-teens and it has been a source of embarrassment, not pride. I’ve covered up in baggy tees and long-envied more athletically built ladies, their ability to wear tank tops or halter necks without unsightly straps spoiling their sartorial elegance.

So, believe me when I say that sitting here, in this restaurant with my breast on show, I’m as, if not more, embarrassed than you could ever be.

I say on show but there’s less flesh flaunted here than you’d see on MTV, in the movies, on the covers of dozens of newspapers and magazines or on any beach across the world on a hot, summer’s day.

My baby son’s head and body cover much of my milk-filled mammary as he, oblivious to your distaste, enjoys his own lunch while you attempt to choke down your steak in the face of such horror.

I could cover the little guy with a scarf to spare us both any blushing, but I suspect if the waitress asked either of us to eat with a tablecloth over our heads we would be aghast, an unpleasant, hot and bothersome way to take a meal. I’m sure you’d agree.

I could remove myself to avoid your embarrassment, feed my hungry child in the bathroom but then, the idea seems somewhat ridiculous and, not just a little, unsanitary.

If the manager suggested you or I munch our margarita pizzas to the backtrack of hand dryers and toilets flushing we would, I suspect, protest.

I understand that the sight of me feeding my child is a painful experience. Getting to the point of being able to feed him was something of a painful experience for me. I knew I wanted to breastfeed but boy was I surprised when it didn’t come naturally. Initially it was agonizing, so much so I almost threw in the towel, then an infection meant I was unable to feed him for two weeks. I can’t tell you how heart-breaking this was, expressing milk only to pour it down the drain in the vain hope my little man wouldn’t reject my boob having developed a taste for the bottled stuff. Again, with much support and encouragement from friends, family and an incredibly patient partner, we persisted.

I know you’re embarrassed to be eating your green beans just yards away from such exposure, I can see it in your eyes. I had that same look as my boobs were manhandled by a wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who came to my home and worked with myself and my son as we tried to get it together as a feeding team. I’m not ashamed to say there were lots of tears, a good dollop of anger and the occasional expletive along the way. But I’m guessing you’ll understand that level of frustration, you look pretty frustrated right now as you mutter to your friends and throw disapproving looks in my direction.

I could, I suppose, pretend I haven’t noticed your annoyance or ignore your feelings but, then, I was raised to respect the feelings of others and I intend to raise my own son that same way. I’m sure you’d agree that compassion is a much-underrated quality and, God knows, society could do with more of it.

I am, I like to think, a caring human being and, as such, I’m sorry that you’re unhappy. I know you came here hoping to enjoy a delicious meal, good company and maybe a beer or glass of Chardonnay. I know this because it’s why I’m here too. I don’t get out that much so I aim to enjoy myself on the rare occasion I do. I can only apologize that the sight of something so offensive, so freakish as a mother mammal feeding her cub is putting you off your potato dauphinoise and putting a real chink in your dining experience.

I wish I was able to oblige you but, unfortunately, my priorities must be with the hungry 12-week-old and, unlike you or I who may complain to the maître-d if the service was tardy, my little boy has neither the communication skills nor patience, he will, if denied, just howl the place down. Perhaps that would be preferable, less intrusive to your lunch than the vista of the top third of breast you’re currently being confronted with?

Maybe if we both focused on our own meals, our own friends and their lively conversation it would make life easier. In short sir, if the amount of bosom on show, which would frankly fail to raise eyebrows in a Jane Austen novel, troubles you so deeply, might I suggest, to avoid yours and my own discomfort, you simply STOP LOOKING, and let me feed my baby.

Yours sincerely,

A breastfeeding mum

Allison Martin is a freelance writer and mum-of-one. She used to be a news reporter for The Daily Mirror and now writes features and blogs for The Guardian, Reader’s Digest, Mother & Baby and the Huffington Post amongst others. She lives in London with her partner, three-year-old son and a goldfish called Bookworm. You can follow Allison on Twitter @AlliMartin

The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Happy Kid Handbook coverAbout a decade before I became a mom I interviewed parents of young children as part of a large research project. We would talk for over an hour, sometimes two, and toward the end of our conversation I always asked, “What are your long-term expectations for your child?” The vast majority of the time most parents gave the same answer—one that I came to dismiss as “pat,” but now that I am a mother I appreciate much more. The answer? “I just want my children to be happy…”

If anyone understands this nearly universal parental instinct it is Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of the just released The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. Hurley acknowledges parenting experts are sometimes part of the cause of our stressful world, a group of course to which she belongs, but her goal is to offer as much practical advice as possible.

Hurley draws on her own experience doing play therapy with a variety of children in California; she presents very little other research in the just-under 300 page publication. But her direct tone will appeal to those who like to read a book that sounds like a conversation with a friend. Most of all, her very do-able practical tips will provide parents a wealth of choices for picking the right activities or exercises for kids and families.

The Happy Kid Handbook is divided into two parts; Part I, “Raising Happy,” focuses on building seven specific pro-social skills and Part II, “Lessons in Coping,” looks at how to equip children to deal with the ups and downs of life. The seven skills emphasized in Part I include powerful play, understanding emptions, learning to forgive, building empathy, developing assertiveness, embracing differences, and cultivating passion. The first chapter in this section focuses on introversion/extroversion and I felt a bit concerned that this was the main focus of the book, since so many hone in on this distinction/continuum these days, but that is just a small component of The Happy Kid Handbook (Though it did yield a good quote that I have already been reminding myself of during the busy fall transition time, “Fair isn’t about everyone having exactly the same thing. Fair is about everyone having their needs met… Fair, as it turns out, is increasing your child’s happiness by figuring out who your child really is.”).

In all parts of the book Hurley is pragmatic, offering incremental tips, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, and concrete activity suggestions. For example, at the end of Chapter 1 she reminds us, “While the ultimate goal tends to be to raise independent, HAPPY kids, this is a goal best accomplished in stages.” In Chapter 7 I loved the apple picking exercise, to help children see and appreciate differences. I also loved Hurley’s suggested exercise in Chapter 10 about anxious kids and her straightforward explanation as to why a worry box works, “Kids love concrete strategies. When they can see it, feel it, and keep it nearby, it gives them a sense of control over the situation. A worry box is a great way to help kids put their worries away for the night.” Her practical attitude is reinforced in the suggestion to play lots of Chutes and Ladders as that will help kids build frustration tolerance—and this non-crafty mom was relieved that not every suggestion involves creating something physical from scratch.

The other major strength of The Happy Kid Handbook is in the way it frames stress. Hurley explains, “Many kids get to high school before they even understand the meaning of stress. They might experience it along the way, but because it isn’t talked about frequently in elementary and middle school, they don’t make the connections between what they’re feeling and what’s actually happening in their lives.” She urges parents to talk about all emotions, including stress, and to model self-care for children as a strategy for mitigating our stressful world.

Usually with parenting books like this, where the author is a practitioner-turned-expert with a particular point of view, the audience who reads it is often a receptive one. In other words, parents who might benefit from the advice or tips in a book are the least likely to pick it up and those who read it are already sympathetic to its message. In this case though I think The Happy Kid Handbook might reach those anxious parents and not just preach to the choir both because of the title, the cover art, and the overall tone. Because, after all, we all just want our kids to be happy, right?

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World

Awake 

Awake 

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Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

 

When you stop sleeping, really stop sleeping except for forty-five minutes or an hour at a time, your eyes have to work harder to focus. Your muscles feel like gelatin. Your hands shake. And when you haven’t slept, and the small vulnerable thing that is your few-weeks-old child settles on your chest, radiating warmth into your sore muscles, whispering tiny warm breaths onto your tired skin, it is really, really hard to stay awake.

Night after night, for Liddy’s first months, my husband and I took shifts holding her up straight and still, to minimize her reflux and let her digest the calories she so desperately needed. When my turn came, I would sit on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and cradle her there against me, keeping her body, and mine, upright, trying to stay awake, praying she wouldn’t slide off onto the floor or press her tiny nose and mouth into me and stop breathing.

My sister Megan had diagnosed Liddy’s reflux before the doctors, hearing her pained gulps and grunts through the phone. Megan’s own daughter, Corinne, was born just ten weeks before Liddy; Corinne’s reflux was confirmed when she stopped breathing in her car seat and went to the hospital in an ambulance. So the girls shared the same illness, the same long nights. And Megan and I were on similar schedules, up every hour or two to feed, hold, and soothe. We held them for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes, for the rest of the night.

This was in the time before texting and smartphones, so first Megan and I tried keeping each other company through email. But it was difficult to keep Liddy upright and still while I typed, and the keyboard’s clicking and the blue glow of the screen made her restless. The murmurs of my voice relaxed her, though, so Megan and I developed a system. We set our cell phones to vibrate and kept them beside us through the night. We could call each other without the risk of disrupting our rare opportunities for sleep.

Our late-night phone calls came to resemble our childhood sharing a bedroom, whispering to pass the time when we should have been asleep. Even after our older siblings moved out, leaving us with our own bedrooms, Megan continued to stay in my room at night. Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

When Liddy did sleep, I’d sometimes wake to a missed call message, then check my email to find a hastily written message right in the subject line: “HELP. Up all night no sleep.” Or, “To Liddy from Corinne. You up?” OR, “WAIT WAIT do not call. Cannot find cell phone and ringer is on.”

“Daylight savings time is going to screw us,” Megan said once. “We’re not frigging farmers.”

I burst out laughing.

“Stop!” she said. “You are going to shake her.”

We talked about the girls’ health, about our toddler boys’ antics, but mostly we spoke about mundane, silly things. But often, we just relaxed into silence punctuated by the girls’ shallow breathing as they relaxed into sleep.

“Is she asleep?” One of us would say, eventually.

“Yeah. I think I’ll try to lay her down.”

“Bye,” we’d whisper, and hang up. We’d release our finally-settled babies from our tired arms, and fall into our own brief sleep before it was time to start again.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Janus Face of Parenthood

The Janus Face of Parenthood

By Vincent O’Keefe

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A parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose.

 

Face it, parents: You’re two-faced. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since parenthood naturally has a Janus face. Janus was the Roman god of transitions who had two faces—one looking toward the future and one toward the past.

My most memorable Janus-faced moments seem to occur while I’m driving. For example, recently I sat at a red light with my oldest daughter, Lauren, who was fourteen at the time. The license plate on the car in front of us read “LIL LAUR.” I smiled to myself and assumed the car’s driver was a parent who probably reveled in the joy of having a baby daughter named Lauren. Memories of my own baby Lauren’s voluminous curls and ocean-blue eyes danced through my mind.

When I told fourteen-year-old Lauren my warm theory about the license plate, however, she replied coldly from the passenger seat: “No Dad. I think the person driving nicknamed the car ‘Lil Laur’ because she loves it so much. I wish I had a car too.” While I faced the past, she faced the future.

It was a moment fit for one of those “Janus words,” or contranyms, that convey contradictory meanings depending on their context—e.g. to weather can mean endure or erode, to sanction can mean endorse or penalize, or to dust can mean apply or remove (dust). My favorite Janus word in relation to parenting has always been “to cleave,” which can mean to cling to or separate from something (or someone). The parent-child relationship often features one person clinging to the other and one person trying to separate from the other, though each person’s role changes according to context. At that red light, I was cleaving to family while she was cleaving from family.

The moment reminded me of a bookend from thirteen years ago that also occurred in a car. When Lauren was just seven months old, my wife and I moved to an Orlando, Florida hotel for two months while my wife completed a medical rotation at a cancer hospital. Yes, that’s correct: I was a stay-in-hotel-room father to an infant for two full months. Let’s just say the Comfort Inn became a misnomer in a hurry. In addition, Lauren had just started sleeping through the night, but that ended in the hotel’s rickety crib. The result? Sheer exhaustion.

The point-of-two-faces happened one afternoon when baby Lauren and I were speeding around town in our tiny rental car. After she fell asleep in her car seat behind me, I parked and tried to work on a book review in the front seat. I had not yet accepted that my becoming an at-home parent with a wife who worked long hours would seriously curtail my production as a writer, at least for a few years.

Shortly into my writing session, Lauren started crying. It was incredibly frustrating, but I knew I had reached a limit. Tired beyond words, I looked back at my crying baby in her car seat, and it seemed fitting that she was facing backwards and I was facing forwards. Together we made a Janus face, though one that demanded adjustment. Obviously, I needed to be more in sync with her needs, to welcome her inevitable clinging and cease trying to separate from it. So I stopped writing for a time, and in the process became a better father.

Ironically, I started appreciating those moments with my child that become the cherished memories a parent clings to at red lights when his child is a teenager longing to drive away into the sunset. I realized a parent’s face is a constant mix of past and future, which leads to the tendency to forget the present moment right before one’s nose. In other words, parents are tweens too.

Thanks to these bookends, I can imagine the not-so-distant future when Lauren will have migrated from the car seat to the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. Little did I know, however, that as we switch places, we also switch faces. Talk about a Father-Daughter Dance.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a memoir on gender and parenting. His writing has appeared at The New York Times “Motherlode” and The Washington Post “On Parenting” (among other venues), and he has been featured at CNN Parents. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com or on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe or Facebook at Vincent O’Keefe.

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

By Jennifer Berney

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This time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore?

 

My son, who is two-and-a-half, has perfected the art of resistance. When I go to change his morning diaper, he snakes behind the sofa cushions and lies there, still and silent. When I give up on waiting for his cooperation, when I remove the cushions and attempt to lift his body, he transforms into a whirlwind of force and motion, every limb wild with fury, kicking and punching at my face. “No change me!” he cries as I carry him to the bathroom. “No change me!”

I can try to imagine why he resists with such force. The morning diaper, I’m sure, is warm and molded to his body. Perhaps he dreads the sudden air on his bottom, followed by the crisp new elastic on the tender flesh of his thigh. But my empathy for my son’s position doesn’t do either of us much good. That diaper still needs to come off.

Yesterday, as I ripped the first adhesive strip from the diaper he shouted to our dog “Save me Wally! Eat Mommy!”

I paused. “Do you really want Wally to eat me?”

A gleam passed through his eyes. “Yeah,” he answered, smiling now. Apparently the thought gave him comfort. When my job was complete, I lifted him from the changing pad, and he leaned into me and held my face. “You my best friend,” he whispered.

This is what two-and-a-half has meant for my son and me. Over the course of five minutes we both may find ourselves embroiled in a physical struggle, then laughing, then holding each other close. We have become, I think, a textbook example of a concept from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: disequilibrium.

Disequilibrium occurs during a time of rapid development, when the brain is acquiring new skills faster than it can assimilate them. This explains, for instance, why a child might act ornery and sleep terribly in the weeks before she learns to walk. I’m not sure exactly what skills my son is processing at the age of two-and-a-half, but I know that the specialists predict—accurately—that he will test me at every turn. “Two years old is a lovely age,” a parenting coach once told me. “Two-and-a-half is the age that’s terrible.”

I imagine that for my son disequilibrium feels a bit like waking up on a winter morning, snug and warm beneath the blankets, only to have someone suddenly yank those blankets away; it’s a feeling of being moved abruptly from a state of comfort to a state of unease. No wonder my son doesn’t want me to take off his warm diaper. He’s already feeling exposed.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine how disequilibrium feels to my son, because, as his parent during this stage, I feel the same way: shocked into a new reality where I feel constantly at my own edge. I move through my day bracing myself for conflict. My problem isn’t that my son is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day.  

Last week I found myself crying in the car after a particularly hard morning. I had struggled to get my older son to school on time and once I had dropped him off, my two-and-a-half-year-old refused to get in the car. It was nine-thirty already and I needed to get to work. He reached for the doorframe and hung on with his gorilla grip. “Please don’t do this,” I pleaded as I attempted to pry him off. Once I had buckled him in and settled in my own seat, I passed him a cracker, hoping to distract him from his temper. He accepted it, and then threw it. The cracker glanced off my shoulder and landed on the seat beside me. I buried my head in my hands. “Mommy?” my son inquired. “Mommy, I sorry.”

“Mommy’s okay,” I told him, but I spent the ensuing drive to work wondering if my tears would stop or if I would need to call in sick and spend the rest of the morning hiding in my bed. Upon arriving, I was relieved to find that the motion of walking to my office, the sunlight in the trees calmed me.

I’ve been a parent for seven years, and I’ve had my ups-and-downs, but this time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore? Addiction and mental illness run deep through my family’s genetic history, and I’ve spent my life wondering if the wrong circumstance might trigger a change in my brain’s chemistry and send me headlong into depression.

In brighter moments I remind myself that there is a better case scenario, that my son and I will make it to the other side of this together, both of us more even, unflappable, upright. Because if disequilibrium is a stage in my child’s growth, it might simply be a catalyst for my own as well, a state that stretches my patience until I become more elastic, more capable of steering towards balance.

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

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

A Day in the Life of a Mother of Teenagers

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer of Independence

Summer of Independence

By Zsofia McMullin

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It’s still weird, the silence in the house. I wander around the living room, puttering, putting away toys and books and crayons. I make tea and sit by the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil. I suppress the urge to peek out the front door, walk down our driveway and look across the parking lot to the grassy area where Sam is playing with the neighborhood kids.

It’s a recent development, this sudden burst of independence—last year, at four-and-a-half, he was too young to wander far from our front porch. But this year, it’s a regular occurrence. A couple of kids knock on our door and Sam swooshes past me to put on his sandals, standing still just long enough for me to smear some sunscreen on his neck and face.

He usually returns sweaty and muddy, with the names of new friends and tales of new adventures spilling from his lips, as he chugs ice-cold water and kicks off shoes.

We have our rules: You don’t go into other people’s homes. If you see a gun or anyone playing with a gun, you run home like a motherfucker (we don’t use that word, of course, but in my mind that’s how it goes.) You don’t get into anyone’s car. You don’t accept candy or food or drink without asking me first. You don’t help a stranger look for a puppy or a bike. You don’t go out onto the street.

*   *   *

I always believed that something magical would happen to me during the summer. It was during the summer that I read my first novel cover to cover on a balcony overlooking Lake Balaton in Hungary where we vacationed. It was during summer months that I learned to swim, ride a bike, walked to the grocery store by myself, went to my first rock concert. First time at a bar, first crush, first time holding a boy’s hand, first kiss—all happened during warm, perfumed summer evenings.

I always felt more grown-up once summer came to an end, as if all of my maturing and growing was limited to those few warm months. Once school started and my freedom was taken over by schedules and after-school lessons and homework, it was harder to feel that forward movement, that sense I was really changing.

I see that in Sam, too. We are not even halfway through summer and he’s gotten taller and stronger just over the past few weeks. His skin is darkened from the sun, his knees are scraped and skinned, and his body is filling out with muscles. In May he was a baby. In July he is on his way to being a kindergartener.

I watch him run off with his friends and wonder what kind of magic will happen to him this summer, the next, the one after that, and after that…

*   *   *

“You should take a bath by yourself. You are a big boy now,” my husband tells Sam and instructs him on how to wet washcloth, lather soap, scrub toes and ears. “But I want Mama to give me a bath!” Sam protests and I am right there with him. “What is this hurry with independence?” I ask, only half-joking.

Of course, he has to learn to bathe himself. But not yet. Please not yet. He still has baby thighs and soft skin. I can still kneel next to the tub and let the warm water from the washcloth trickle down his neck, chest, and belly. He still lets me wash his hair, the soft slope of his shoulders, his twig-like arms. He has tiny toes that look like shrimp and when I look at his knees it’s hard to tell what is a bruise and what is dirt.

I am already letting go of so much that it seems impossible to let go of more right now. Especially because he gives this time, this moment of closeness so freely, willingly, giggling as I tickle under his arms and at the bottom of his foot. I towel him off and put lotion on his sun-kissed skin, dress him in soft PJs.

Is there a simpler pleasure than a freshly-bathed, sleepy child?

*   *   *

The day camp where I drop Sam off is new to both of us. It came highly recommended, but I don’t know any of the camp-counselors or the other kids or parents. We get there early and the kids are already gathering on a large, open field.

Sam doesn’t hide behind my back as I talk to the camp counselor—what is she? Nineteen, maybe?—and I can tell that Sam likes her long, dark hair and friendly smile. I stand around for a bit, but Sam is already chatting with another little boy. “So, are you ready for me to go,” I ask after a few minutes. “Yes, go!” he says without even turning around.

I walk back across the field to my car and sit there for a moment, watching as Sam and the other boy chase each other with their bug spray bottles. I want to run back and say, “Be careful! Don’t get that in each other’s eye!” But I stop myself.

I drive off wondering if maybe I have done something right with this parenting thing, after all. Isn’t it a good sign when your child separates from you easily? Doesn’t that mean that he is attached to me, that he feels safe and confident? I think I read that somewhere.

I pull over and inhale my ice coffee to stop myself from breaking out in loud sobs.

*   *   *

During the summer I paint my toes rainbow colors, drink beer on the back porch, eat ice cream every night. I wear pants with elastic waists and slip into comfy flip-flops. I pick up Sam early from daycare so that we can hang by the pool or eat snacks and watch TV on the couch together. I make him lemonade with sun-shaped ice cubes. We stay up late, play with the water hose, plant flowers, eat tomatoes off the vine, roll down the car windows.

*   *   *

From time to time, Sam gets scared of his own independence. He hates the conflict of wanting to do things on his own—tie his shoes, ride his bike—and his inability—as of yet—to do so. “I can’t do anything! I am stupid!” he yells as he tries over and over again. He wants to roam farther afield—walk to Taekwondo class from my car parked a few doors down, ride the tilt-a-whirl alone. But some of these are just too scary, so he returns to my arms sad and disappointed.

That’s when I remind him of all the things he can do by himself, that he couldn’t do before: sit up, walk, talk, chew solid food, pee in the toilet, put on his clothes, make his bed, build with Legos, operate the remote control, play soccer with his buddies.

“It will come,” I tell him. And I want it all to come for him quickly. But I am also secretly thankful every time I have to zip his jacket, because when I bend down to do so he is just at the right height to bury his nose in my hair and whisper: “Mama, you smell so good.”

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

Photo: gettyimages

Re: A Millennial Love Story

Re: A Millennial Love Story

By Donna DeForbes

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Hey Mom, New job’s going well and… wait for it…. I’m engaged!!! His name is Kale. Pic attached.

 

Dear Isabelle,

Your father and I are, of course, happy for you but admit to some surprise at your hastiness. You’ve only known this man a few months. Does he work at the agency with you? Where are his parents from?

For a Communications major, I’m surprised at your typo — certainly you meant Hale and not the leafy green? Regardless, I’m thrilled to be finally planning your wedding!

P.S. There must have been an error when I downloaded the photo; I don’t see a diamond on your ring??

 

#EthicalMetal, Mom — look it up. No big wedding. Going green. Simple beach ceremony?

 

Dear Isabelle,

Is green the color scheme you’ve chosen? I’ve retrieved Nana’s wedding dress from storage, but I’m not sure it will work for a spring theme. When will you be home for a fitting? Be sure to bring Kale. We’re having the Great Room redone so we can meet him properly.

P.S. What happened to using complete sentences? Are you being charged by the word?

 

LOL, Mom. Check this sick video of Kale’s proposal to me — it’s gone viral!

 

Dear Isabelle,

I do hope you’re taking those vitamin supplements I sent. More importantly, why am I the 1,732,455th person to see a video of my daughter’s marriage proposal? I haven’t even put the engagement announcement in the paper yet. You are my only daughter, and I have rights as the mother of the bride!

P.S. Your father wants to know if Kale being a vegetarian means he won’t eat my famous escargots à la Bourguignonne.

 

Not veggie but #vegan and #glutenfree. Follow me @Izzie85 for recipe ideas.

 

Darling,

I’m catching up to you on the social media now! Aunt Bea got me set up on “Pinterest” so I could create a “board” of fabulous wedding ideas. I’ve printed out color copies of all my “pins” and am mailing them to you. Tell me which ideas you like.

 

Mom, Great Hangout chat last night. Kale thought Daddy was hilarious! Small change re: the invitations — I’m keeping my name. TTYL

 

Dear Isabelle,

I never thought I would meet my future son-in-law through a box on the computer screen. Nana is surely rolling over in her grave! Kale had less hair than I expected. Was that a temporary tattoo?

Please come home for Thanksgiving. We need to meet with wedding coordinators and talk cakes. I’ve put the invitations on hold until you change your mind; surely, you’ll want to make it easy on the children.

P.S. Your father has never been hilarious.

 

Kale’s away for Thxgiving doing volunteer work in Mexico City. Catch you at Xmas?

 

Dear Isabelle,

I am putting my proverbial foot down (which is now ensconced in those gold Manolos I told you about — a golf guilt gift from your father). But seriously, we must see you at Thanksgiving to discuss this wedding in person. I don’t understand your request to keep it “small” and “green” — a woman only gets married once, you know!

Unless you’re not sure about Kale? In which case, I’ve heard that Dr. James Harrington from the club was recently jilted at the altar…

 

Dear Isabelle,

Since I have not heard back from you, Daddy and I booked a flight to come out there for Thanksgiving. We’ll stay with some friends who own a winery not too far from you. I’m bringing fabric swatches and menu samples.

 

OMG, Mom! Cancel the flight!! I won’t be here – going to Mexico City with Kale. James Harrington – r u kidding me?

 

Dear Isabelle,

Please do not take the Lord’s name in vain, even in acronyms. You never know when you’ll need a favor.

What will you do in Mexico City? Isn’t it enough that you volunteer at that homeless shelter? I’m forever worrying about your safety… and how would it look if you died before the wedding?

 

Love you too, Mom. See u at Xmas. And tell Aunt Bea I appreciate her suggestions on wedding favors, but we’d rather plant trees in honor of our guests.

 

Dear Isabelle,

How can people take home a tree? Will they be engraved?

Your father and I want to show our support for your “eco-friendly” lifestyle, so we’ve bought you and Kale a honeymoon trip to Costa Rica. It comes with a private jet, a personal tour guide and a stay at this five-star resort recently built on what used to be a wildlife refuge.

I’m booking a mother-daughter spa day for your return. All this wedding work is stressing my skin. Travel safe, darling.

 

Mom, No more planning worries — Kale and I got hitched in Mexico City! Crazy, right? Pix on Instagram.  <3

#spontaneouswedding  #KaleandIzzie  #YOLO

 

Donna DeForbes is a graphic designer, writer and the founder of Eco-Mothering, a blog that makes “going green” fun and easy for the whole family. Donna lives by the Bay in Rhode Island where she enjoys hiking, reading, zumba, wine and long walks with her husband and daughter on a pollution-free beach.

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

By Lela Casey

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I will do everything I can to keep my daughter from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

 

I was raised to believe that sex was a juicy cherry that girls carried around to entice boys. They could look, drool even, but never touch.

My mom led by example. Her plunging necklines reached almost all the way down to her knee-high boots. She had a steady stream of admirers, young men, old men, even a few women. (At almost 70 years old, she still does).

Men buzzed around her, hoping to earn one of her big booming laughs or electric smiles. Her purring foreign accent only added to her allure.

Her sexuality embarrassed me as a teenager. It was too garish, too intense. I was sure that she was having affairs, probably more than one. I’d hover nearby every time she was talking to a man, trying to catch little snippets of the conversation.

The thing is, at the same time that she was dressing seductively and being flirtatious (and encouraging me to do the same), she was constantly, CONSTANTLY warning me about boys. Boys might look nice and say interesting things, she’d say, but when it came right down to it, they were the enemy and sexuality was a woman’s only weapon against them.

“Guys are only after one thing,” she’d also say. “Don’t be the girl they experiment on.” “Let them look, but NEVER touch,” she’d repeat over and over until it became something of a mantra.

I didn’t let them touch. In fact, I didn’t give them much to look at either. I dressed conservatively and spent most of my adolescence with my nose in a book.

Looking back, I suppose it was a rebellion of sorts. If my mom was attractive, if she wanted me to be attractive, well then, dammit I wouldn’t be.

Until I moved to college and away from her (very voluptuous) shadow. I started small at first. A little lipstick, a tiny bit of cleavage. It wasn’t long before I began to understand what my mom had been talking about. Sexuality was power and I was drunk with it.

I started going out to dance clubs dressed in tiny shirts and tight skirts. I grew out my bangs and wore my waist length hair loose around my shoulders. Boys who’d walked right passed me for years were stopping and staring with open mouths and eager eyes. And I’d let them look. In fact, I’d bask in their looks.

But, I wouldn’t let them touch. Because, no matter how sweet they talked and how nice they smiled, I knew that they were only after one thing… and once I gave it to them, I’d be just another conquest.

The attention was the important part—the hungry glances, the dedicated suitors. Sex, I thought, was nothing more than the carousel ring that I held just out of reach, the sparkly prize that kept them spinning around and around me with eager smiles and straining hands.

I can’t say that I was never curious about sex. Certainly there were boys that lit my insides on fire. But, there would always come a point where I knew that if I let him kiss me one more time or take off one more layer of clothes, I’d lose control and become one of “those” girls that my mother warned me about.

I made it all the way to the ripe old age of 22 as a virgin. The first time I had sex (with the guy I would eventually marry) I sobbed myself to sleep.

I’d given up my cherry, succumbed to the enemy, let him touch… Oh did I let him touch!

My mother was (is) a brilliant woman. Raising us in an area that was fraught with teenage pregnancies and high school dropouts wasn’t easy. Despite our surroundings, she was able to raise my sister and me to be responsible women with high self-esteem and promising futures. We both graduated with honors from prestigious universities, found satisfying careers, and married smart, kind men.

For years I was positive that I wanted to raise my daughter like she raised us.

But now I’m not so sure.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that, while I avoided a lot of trouble, I also missed out on a great deal of experiences. It took me years to discover that sex isn’t a gift I give to my husband, but something that I enjoy… that I crave.

I want my daughter to respect her body and herself. I want her to make careful, thoughtful choices about sex. But, I don’t want her to grow up thinking she needs to hold men captive with her sexuality.

Because, even though my mom’s warnings kept me away from promiscuity, her emphasis on sexuality gave me the impression that my appearance was the most essential part of me. Despite feeling that I was in charge, I was STILL giving the power to men, still allowing their opinion of my looks to control my world. And, perhaps even worse, I was missing out on all the joys that come with exploring my own sexuality.

I am almost 40 now and I still dress sexy to get male attention, I still post a ridiculous amount of selfies, I still think about plastic surgery to put things back in order. I still worry that I carry all of my magic in my slender figure and long dark hair.

I am fortunate to have married a wonderful man. He, like me, is adventurous, free-spirited, and open-minded. Still, I wonder about the relationships I have missed out on. Not only about the sexual experiences, but the deep intimacy that comes with being close to someone, an emotional connection I’m not sure comes without sex. I wonder how having multiple relationships might have changed me, made me stronger, exposed me to different perspectives.

My daughter is six now. She is smart and funny and big hearted. And, yes, she is beautiful. So beautiful that people often stop us when we’re out to compliment her waist-length auburn hair or her big brown eyes.

She smiles and thanks them, and then quickly goes back to chasing after her brothers or making elaborate mud pies.

While most of the girls in her class are captivated by princesses and dress-up, beauty seems to hold little meaning for her now. Her brother’s cast-off T-shirts suit her just as well as the flowery dress from her Grandma.

How much of that is innate and how much is due to my constant emphasis on her internal strength vs. her appearance, I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is that I will do everything I can to keep her from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at kveller.com. She has also written for themid.com, femininecollective,com, and jkidphilly.com.

Photo: Leigh Kendell

All In: A Book Review

All In: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

All In Cover ArtBy now you’ve almost certainly heard of Lean In. Josh Levs is hoping you will see similarities between his recently released All In and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller.

The similarities go beyond the titles. Both books deal with changing the challenging culture for working parents. While All In and Lean In emphasize that work/family balance is an issue for both sexes, the former concentrates on men and the latter on women.

Levs writes from experience as a devoted father of three who also covers family and fatherhood for CNN. In 2013, around the birth of his third child, he asked CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, about his benefits. Specifically Levs wanted to take the ten paid weeks new parents have as an option. But he discovered that those ten weeks apply to biological mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptive fathers—but apparently not to biological fathers. After speaking with Human Resources, and even the CEO, Benefits ultimately denied his appeal of this policy. Levs consulted lawyers and took his fight public, using his own personal media bully pulpit to get the word out. While in the end he went back to work without the ten paid weeks, Levs came to be seen, and see himself, as a leader in the active fathers’ movement of the 21st century.

All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together is the culmination of his research, reporting, and ruminations on this issue. Levs brings together and discusses the most up-to-date research on fatherhood while also proposing practical and policy solutions. In the Introduction he makes it clear that this isn’t “just” a problem for fathers or mothers: “Overall parents in the United States are working hard and doing their best. It’s the era of all-in parenting. And, by and large, neither gender is letting the other down.” Levs believes that poor family leave policies discriminate against both men and women by taking choices away.

All In isn’t only about paid family leave, but it is a big part of the book, and its strongest. In Part I he discusses the legal components of the Family and Medical Leave Act, business implications, and tax policy. For instance, from this I learned that many employers use disability insurance to pay birth moms. While Levs started this project seeking support for paternity leave he didn’t have strong feelings about paid family leave, but after everything he has learned he now believes that paid family-leave law would make a significant difference.

Another strength of All In is its focus on popular culture. Unlike others who write on this issue Levs devotes a whole section of his book to “Fixing Pop Culture,” explaining, “Any time I’ve interviewed fathers over the years, frustration about portrayals of dads in pop culture has gotten them fired up above all else.” The discussion here focuses on advertising snafus by companies like Huggies, the TV show Friday Night Lights, and mom’s-only groups.

Levs also tries to move beyond the upper-middle and middle class parenting experience (incidentally one of the criticisms of Sandberg’s Lean In is the focus on affluent families) to include a variety of families and family structures. He writes about fathers in prison, military dads, widowers, and he strives to include stories of poor fathers and black fathers as well. While his aim is admirable, at times these sections of the book strike a false note, especially in contrast to other portions where Levs is writing more from personal experience so his voice is stronger and more authoritative.

All In is definitely a book with a specific message and every page is meant to remind us of that message—that millions of (working) dads want to spend more time with their kids but in some way society is boxing them in. Levs sometimes present alternative viewpoints or explanations but it’s clear by the length of those sections that they are not the main focus. All In will most definitely appeal to those sympathetic to its argument, but I’m unfortunately not convinced it will change others’ minds (and I say unfortunately because my own husband is an involved father and I know how much that means to our household).

Levs’ goal is to start a movement much like Sheryl Sandberg. While the impact of All In may not be as deep, the book will give you something to think about and some facts to share with others whether you are all in or just leaning in to working parenthood.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses–And How We Can Fix It Together

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike.

 

The last weekend of every May, I stock up on tickets and Exederin and brace myself for the two-day storm of overlapping dance recitals. We bounce between auditoriums in different cities to see shows that are worlds apart. From the beautiful world of Russian ballet, with numbers called Waltz of the Hours and music by Tchaikovsky to the underworld of hip hop, a dark and dirty counter-culture where they do dances called Haters to music by Wiz Khalifa.

“You can’t call this dancing,” says my father, my 84-year-old tap-dancing, Vaudeville performing, Gershwin loving father. He convulses in his seat as my daughter convulses on stage.

But dancing it is. I am used to it by now, not just the gyrations but the dancing between extremes, the whiplash of raising twin girls, the parenting of equals who occupy separate spaces. It’s not what I expected but after 13 years I have my dance down as much as they have theirs’. My father, not so much.

“Can’t you get her to go to dance class with her sister?” my father hollers as Lady Gaga belts out Born this Way—a concept he obviously doesn’t buy.

Like I do every year, I shake my head. “No.”

They started out going together, my daughters did. Back when they were both dancing in my belly while I was consuming sausages and books with deceptive titles, titles akin to the numbers in the ballet recital, like The Joy of Twins. I can tell you now that any book on raising twins worth its baby weight in gold would have been called something more hip-hop, like Load Up on Your Lorazapam, Ladies, and Hunker Down for the Ride. Because there is no ballet in raising twins. It’s an art that’s imprecise and anything but pretty.

According to the books, I was to make a concerted effort to help my twins develop their own identities. At the time, this made sense. Who wouldn’t want her own identity? So, instead of buying two stuffed bunnies, I bought one stuffed bunny and one stuffed pig. One pink onsie, another purple—coordinated combinations, similar enough to mark them as a duo, but distinct enough to allow people tell them apart.

Then they were born. One with blond hair and blue eyes. The other with brown hair and brown eyes. Different enough in appearance to suspect confusion in the fertility lab. Different enough in being to suspect that different colored onsies wouldn’t be needed to establish my daughters’ separate identities.

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike. As infants, twins meant one baby with colic, another with a constant smile. One who loved the stuffed pig, the other who wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals at all. In preschool, twins meant one who jumped out of the car without looking back, the other who had to be pried out of her seat in hysterics. In grade school it meant one who loved to read, another who wouldn’t. And now, twins means one who headsprings in high tops, the other who echappe’s in this white long gown, the kind of costume, my father told me during the ballet portion on the day, both of his granddaughters should be wearing.

“Not according to the books,” I might have told him but again, I didn’t need to go by the book because the hip-hop daughter did it herself. “Not on your life,” she told my father. “I’d never wear that. It’s not me.”

The question I would have liked to have asked her but didn’t because I’m sure no one—neither my daughter nor the books—has the answer is: why not? Is the dress not her because it’s just not her or is the dress not her because it is her sister? To the extent that Twin A is influenced by Twin B (and vice versa), how far will my girls go to seek out their own identities? And why did the books instruct me to go out of my way to make sure it happens when, at least in my house, it seemed to happen on its own? I never organized separate playdates or outings with grandparents like I was instructed to do. I was too busy running in opposite directions, first at the park and now to the recitals, to organize anything. For my sanity, I had to ditch the script and move to the beat of my children’s respective and very different drums.

My father would benefit from doing the same. “You can’t compare what the two of them are doing,” he continues to grumble.

“No, you can’t,” I tell him. And, according to conventional wisdom—which went out the window at my daughters’ one-week weigh-ins—you shouldn’t. Comparing twins is a Cardinal sin. But c’mon, who among us mothers of multiples has not, at the annual doctors visit, analyzed (at least to ourselves) one child’s height against the other’s? Certain traits are begging for it. The oldest. The tallest. The bigger foot. The thicker hair. Or, dare I admit, the better grades. That’s called keepin’ it real, the book might say if it was written by Wiz Khalifa, with the added footnote to compare and contrast all you want, mamas, but know it won’t mean anything because, from the physical to the personal, traits of twins, especially teen-aged ones, are constantly in motion.

For a time, the ballet dancer loved to talk, the hip hopper was quiet. Now, it’s the other way around. Just as I was ready to award the neatest room prize to the hip hopper, I found a rotten pizza beneath her nightstand. They are, like all people, too fluid to peg down. In fact, the only constant I’ve observed (one which the books should have mentioned because it is a bright spot in an otherwise muddled world) is that my kids rarely occupy the same space in emotion or opinion, at the same time. We have few five alarm fires because they figured out long ago, maybe even in utero, that when one is in the dog house, it’s the other’s time to shine.

The book of all books, the Oxford English Dictionary, assigns several definitions to the word twin. The first definition reads: One of two children or animals born at the same birth. The second definition is: A person or a thing exactly like another. In many ways, it seems my girls fall under the first definition—children who simply share a birth date. Yet, they also share recital dates. And clothes, friends, teachers, and the grandfather from whom they got their dancing genes. So maybe my twins sit somewhere in the middle on the twinness scale. A scale which slides from day to day. Up and down, back and forth, and I move too, as they do.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Summers Up To Nature

Summers Up To Nature

By Melanie Rock

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What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread.

 

“You’ll love sleep-away camp. I promise,” my mother said. “There’s not enough to do around here once school’s over. I’ll be teaching the first month of summer session. You’ll have a much better time in the country. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

I don’t recall the anxiety I must have had, knowing I would be separated from my mother for four weeks. I don’t remember feeling unloved or rejected. But at five years old, I’m sure I had some serious reservations about going to sleep-away camp.

My mother grew up in the country, on an anarchist commune outside of Peekskill, New York. Raised among radical intellectuals, artists, and activists in a rustic atmosphere, the natural world was the backdrop of her rich childhood memories. It was important to her that she get her urban child “up to nature” whenever possible. So it was decided: the summer I was to turn six, I would be spared a month of babysitter days stuck in our Bronx apartment.

My mother chose a Jewish Y camp in the Adirondaks for my first sleep-away adventure, which didn’t strike me as strange, because I knew that we were technically Jewish. My mother was brought up by a Jewish family, after her own Jewish mother died very young. According to Jewish law, the maternal bloodline makes us Jewish. But I didn’t think of us as really Jewish. We were atheists. At home and at school, I was taught to respect all religious traditions with equal weight, without subscribing to any one in particular. It didn’t occur to me that camp would be any different. I trusted my mother’s plan. But she had read the brochure. The one that described the weekly Shabbat services.

As instructed, we packed “four nice white shirts” along with the shorts, halter tops, bathing suits and towels, underpants, and ankle socks with my name tags sewn in, and shipped them ahead in an old trunk. At camp, everything got shoved into cubbies except the white shirts, which were hung on hangers in the bunk closet. And everyone noticed that my shirts were too fancy. My mother and I had failed to grasp the conservative formality of “nice white shirts.” Unlike the plain shirts the other girls brought, mine had lace bits and pearly buttons, which stood out along with the rest of me.

I was one of the youngest kids at camp. And one of the very few black ones. A couple of dark-skinned girls stayed in much older bunks, way out of my reach. Surrounded by friends their own age, they seemed unaffected by the fact that their beaded braids and dark complexions made them different. On that first Friday night, those older black girls knew what to do for Shabbat. They seemed right at home. I watched and wondered, while I fumbled through the pre-dinner service in my nice white shirt. Four weeks of Fridays, with the unfamiliar rituals of challah bread and candles, and prayers to God in a foreign tongue. I mumbled along, hoping no one would single me out to light the candles or break the bread. I was sure they all noticed: I was that new little black girl who obviously isn’t Jewish.

I don’t recall any specific unkindness or mistreatment. And I don’t remember having made any friends there, either. What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts, in the soft glow of candlelight, praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread. And that lonely feeling of wanting to fit in and not knowing how to shed the Outsider skin.

I was afraid to tell my mother. She had her own outsider stories. I was haunted by the thought of her growing up without her mother. And the hardships of her Depression-era childhood, living with a foster family while her father labored in the city. She was ostracized in high school, labeled “dirty Jew” and “Communist”—names that meant she didn’t belong. She got teary when she shared those memories with me. So I pretended the Shabbat services at camp were no big deal.

But she must have recognized my ambivalence about the place. She readily accepted my suggestion that we try something different the following year, and we rented a bungalow in the Catskills and spent our days together. The next summer, we discovered (and I went to) Blueberry Cove Camp, a small, artsy, back-to-nature summer camp in Maine. It was the ideal respite from the noise of the city and the structured school year. Blueberry Cove became my summertime home away from home, filled with friends from all over, who came back year after year, like I did. We ran around barefoot, embraced our mandatory farm chores, and swam in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. We connected with the earth, and the animals, and developed a common empathy for the natural world and each other. Our differences didn’t matter there.

My mother, confident that I was happy and secure, was able to spend her summers traveling, or teaching part-time if she so chose. Summertime offered her a break from the stress of single-parenthood.

And I got Maine. Shoeless, godless, and free.

As the biracial mother of two brown girls, Melanie Rock writes about identity, race, and multiculturalism from a parenting perspective as well as her own childhood memories. Raised in New York City, she now lives and works in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Teaching My Daughter About Consent

Teaching My Daughter About Consent

By Steph Auteri

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The first time I had sex, I didn’t say “no.” I didn’t say “stop.” But I didn’t say “yes” either, and the silence pressed down on my chest, leaving me terrified as I lay there in the dark, my then-boyfriend tugging down my shorts, his boxers whispering down his legs. He straddled me. I held my breath, squeezing my thighs together. He pushed his way inside me anyway.

I cried when it was over. And for years afterward, the effects of our protracted sexual relationship were like aftershocks in my psyche, leaving me afraid of sex, even with those I trusted.

Still, I never thought to call it “rape.” I never thought to call it “sexual assault.” I just classified it as a terrible experience, and left it at that.

But as I look at my 8-month-old now, scared of all the ways she might possibly grow up to be hurt, scared of all the ways I can’t protect her, I wonder how I will teach her about consent. Or even what I will teach her about it.

Cases of sexual assault and issues of consent have been especially visible as of late. The University of Virginia was thrust into the spotlight when Rolling Stone ran an article about an alleged gang rape on campus that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite. The victim subsequently found herself in the hot seat when details of the story were later called into question, and thus began a public brouhaha over the perceived proliferation of false rape accusations—not to mention the definition of rape—giving us all a vivid picture of why victims of sexual assault are often hesitant to come forward.

Since then, California State University in Los Angeles has publicized its attempts to educate students about consent, and bills have been passed that redefine both what consent is and how sexual assault cases should be approached. Still, things remain confusing for everyone involved.

For one thing, the definition of sexual assault still differs from state to state and, in some cases, is used interchangeably with that of rape. So it’s no wonder there are so many of us out there who don’t know how to define our own experiences.

Not only that but, in cases where women don’t explicitly say no to the person initiating sex, their bodies may still lead the initiator to think the woman “wants it.” Research on genital nonconcordance has been available for years now, showing that physical signs of arousal do not necessarily equal desire. But the culture at large has, for the most part, ignored this so that even the victims of sexual assault feel guilt and confusion because of the ways in which their bodies reacted.

But what really terrifies me is the knowledge—come by firsthand—that not everyone who doesn’t want sex says so out loud. In Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.’s forthcoming Come As You Are, the author writes about the fight or flight response, explaining that it’s more like fight, flight, or freeze. “Sexual violence often doesn’t look like what we think of as ‘violence,'” she writes. “There is coercion and the removal of the targeted person’s choice about what will happen next. Survivors don’t ‘fight’ because the threat is too immediate and inescapable; their bodies choose ‘freeze’ because it’s the stress response that maximizes the chances of staying alive… or of dying without pain.”

Reading these words, I’m brought back to that dark basement. The whisper of his shorts sliding down his legs. The way I squeezed my thighs together, even while remaining silent.

How can I teach my daughter about consent when I myself was afraid to overtly withhold it? Andrea Bonier, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today of teaching your children to ask permission for hugs and kisses. Teaching them that words like “no” and “stop” are “important words to be honored.” But will this be enough? Will modeling consent in other areas of her life—the clothing she chooses, the snuggles she accepts—be enough? Will teaching her that only she owns her body do the trick? Will using the appropriate terminology for various body parts make a darn bit of difference?

Or can I only hope that, someday, our culture won’t see it as the woman’s sole responsibility to say “no”? That those initiating sex know to wait for more than just the absence of a “no”?

I would like to be able to trust that those she allows into her orbit will wait for her to shout her “yes” out loud, with her voice, with her body, with her whole heart.

But I’m scared. I’m scared because I know that no matter what I teach her, there will be those who may see fit to take her choice away from her.

Steph Auteri’s work has appeared in Playgirl, Time Out New York, New York Press, Mamalode, and other publications. These days, she spends most of her time collaborating with sexuality professionals, blogging about motherhood for mom.me, and teaching yoga. You can learn more at stephauteri.com, read her sporadic personal posts at Mamaste, or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Nicole Mason

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

By Jennifer Berney

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My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household.

 

When acquaintances are feeling bold, they sometimes ask about the father of my sons. “Do they have the same father?” they might ask in a whisper, or, “Is the father someone you know?”

My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household. There is no father living out of state, or just out of sight, no one whom they will one day call “Dad.” Instead, they have a donor, which is a different thing entirely.

Fathers, as we all know, take countless forms. Your father might be the person who bore witness on the day you were born. He might have stayed through a long hard labor with one hand on your mother. He might have cut the cord when you came out. Or perhaps your father was banished to the waiting room, where he tapped his foot and checked his watch. Or he might not have been there at all. He might have been overseas waiting for a letter, a phone call, an email. He might have been off at the bar or away on business.

If it matters where he was, whether he was there or he wasn’t, whether he was hopeful or anxious or indifferent, he’s a father.

Your father might be the person who taught you how to ride a bike, who trailed behind you steadying the seat, who let go without saying a word and let you glide down a gentle slope. He might be the one who wiped the gravel from your skinned knee and spread a layer of bacitracin over the wound. Or he might have been the one who yelled out in annoyance every time you fell and cried. “Toughen up,” he might have said. “It’s easy.”

Maybe your father was the one who came home from the store with a box of cookies and didn’t care if they disappeared before he ate one. Or maybe he was the one who had a stash of licorice that no one was allowed to touch.

Maybe your father was a greeting card father, a #1 Dad who liked fishing and golf, who’d happily unwrap a box of cigars or a tie every year on his birthday. Or maybe your father hated sports and was hard to shop for because he only liked the things he liked, and these were not the things you gave him.

Maybe your father took over when your mother needed a break, or when she left. Maybe he was up to the task of making breakfast, wrapping presents, walking you to the park in a wagon, or maybe you just carried on as if you were alone.

Maybe your father was the only one you had. Maybe you had two. Maybe you’ve got gay dads, or step-dads or granddads who took over the role.

Our fathers leave us with internal landscapes. Even the best fathers may leave us with little ruts and gullies that mark the places we’ve been hurt. A father who leaves and never returns or a tyrannical father might leave a chasm. And then there are smooth swimmable lakes created by consistent paternal love.

We measure our fathers by how often they show up, and what they offer when they do. But an absent father and a sperm donor have little in common. We measure a donor mostly by what he offers before a child is conceived. Do the sperm swim towards the egg? Do they reach it?

And in the aftermath of conception, once a baby is born, we measure a donor by how well he honors his agreement. Perhaps he is nameless and will always be so, or perhaps he agrees to release his name and number once the child turns eighteen.  Or perhaps he participates from a meaningful distance in the role of family friend or uncle. In a donor’s case this distance, this absence, is love.

If you ask my older son about his father, he will quickly correct you. “I have two moms,” he clarifies, and I note that so far he frames his family in positives; he accounts for what he has not what he’s missing.

And so I worry that it’s confusing to him when people ask me about his donor, but use the word father instead. I know what they mean of course, but if I answer without correcting them what will my son think? That he has a father after all—a potential parent who has left him? That is not the case, I want to whisper in his ear; no one has abandoned you. You have one mother who bore you, and another who welcomed you, and a donor who was generous enough to help bring you into the world, and who honored our agreement that he would be a friend and not a father.

This is why when people ask in hushed tones about my children’s father, I try to be consistent. “Oh, you mean his donor?” I answer brightly, trying to chase the shadows into light.

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

The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

The Opposite of Spoiled: A Q & A With Ron Lieber

By Amanda Rose Adams

OppositeSpoiled hc cRon Lieber, personal finance columnist for The New York Times and father has written a bestselling book that tackles the difficult issue of how to teach the values and meaning of money to our children with insight, kindness, and humor. Below, Mr. Lieber answers questions about his book, The Opposite of Spoiled, and the values we teach our kids about money.

Q: You were inspired by real-life parents and tested many of the concepts in your book while writing it, but were you already committed to any of these practices before you decided to write about them, and if so which ones did you bring to the table with your own family?

Lieber:  The idea for this book arrived not long after I became a parent for the first time, so I didn’t have much in the way of philosophy underlying any of my writing on parenting at that point. But there were a few things that became a part of this project almost instinctually. 

One was honesty with kids about money. Not full disclosure, but a no-lying rule, especially for children who are 8 years old or so and up. While there may be some circumstances where delaying the truth or avoiding it may be best for some children, most of us will be lucky enough that we won’t find ourselves in them most of the time. Plus, they can tell when we lie, or they find out later. And if it becomes clear that we’re not good sources for accurate information about important things, like money and sex and drugs, they’ll turn to others (or the internet) for advice and counsel. That’s not something we want. 

When I was in high school, my mother was pretty blunt with me about the reality of our financial situation. While that wasn’t always fun, in retrospect, I’m glad I knew exactly what kind of odds we faced for getting me into and through college without racking up too much debt. She also took me along for a meeting with a financial aid counselor when I was in high school, which had a lasting impact

Money is a source of power, but it’s also mysterious. So of course our children are going to have lots of questions about it. We should be as honest as we can, even if it means promising the truth (say, about our salaries) on some later day years in the future when they’re more ready for it.

Q: What I came away with after reading your book is that money is a powerful tool to express who we are. Were you as open with your daughter about money before you started writing the book as you are now?

 Lieber: Thanks for saying “a” powerful tool and not “the most powerful tool” or the “best” or “only” tool. It’s none of those last three things, though it might be the most underrated and least used or understood parenting tool to imprint good values on our children. We should talk about money more often, but not all the time. Make it a focus, not a fetish.

Think about it this way: What we spend and where says a lot about what we care about and ultimately what we stand for. If looking at the credit or debit card statement each month is unpleasant, then we’re probably spending on the wrong things or in the wrong quantities. This is not a hidden argument for more thrift by the way; sometimes spending more on the things that matter most is the surest route to happiness, as long as we can do it without going into debt. The money we give away, by the way, says a lot too. When we told our daughter how we divided our charitable budget, the conversation was revelatory for all of us. We do it every year now. 

Q: Do you have any advice for where to start, and if families are late to start the discussion about money and finances how they can catch up?

Lieber: First, before you start talking, consider your own shame, in all the forms in which it may manifest itself. Some people have shame about what they do have, especially if they inherited it. They’re ashamed of not having to work, and they feel idle and unaccomplished. Others are ashamed of how they’ve made their money. Still more feel shame about having more than anyone else and don’t want anyone to know. 

Then there is shame in having less, perhaps because of a job loss. Or there is shame in a path not taken, a career that feels like a dead end or is not glamorous. There may be shame in having been tricked or swindled in a way that is costly or shame in big mistakes that have led to the need for a move to a smaller residence or some other large disruption. 

Talking about these feelings is as good of a way as any to start the conversation with a spouse about how to start a conversation with a child or children. Spouses who grew up in different social classes may well have very different ideas about how to approach the topic. If you don’t have a spouse, try confiding in a sibling or close friend. Ask other parents what their kids ask and how they answer. 

Many parents also feel shame in not knowing enough about money to teach their kids or talk to them about it, or they’re ashamed of their own habits around money. But teaching and talking out loud with children, especially older ones, is as good of a way to shape yourself up and get over it as any. You’re a role model, they’re watching your every move now anyway, and they probably have taken in way more than you think about how you spend and what that says. Might as well talk about it.

Q: When researching for your book, what did you notice about parental partnerships and different approaches to money, and how that influences the kids? How involved is your wife in the money messages that you bring to parenting your child?

Lieber: The most important thing here is not to fight about money with your spouse (or ex-spouse) in front of your kids. When I talk to adults about the topic, so many of them have intense memories of loud fights over money when they were growing up and having been led to believe that money is a source of stress and strain first and foremost. It’s those recollections that often lead those grownups to not talk about money at all, for fear of repeating the same patterns with their own spouse. 

Q: A lot of parents are co-parenting with a former partner, how do you think separate households can collaborate to give kids a consistent message? This wasn’t a focus of the book, but when a child could have as many as four parents and twice as many grandparents through remarriage, how can they all begin to balance those influences, which is probably trickier than the influence of the media?

Lieber: The fact is, many times they cannot give kids a consistent message. Ex-spouses are sometimes not on speaking terms, and even if they are, they don’t agree about money and 1,000 other things. One spouse may have more money than another or is willing to spend more (or go into debt) to show the kids a good time or lavish them with toys or experiences to make up for whatever pain and distance exists in the family relationships. 

This is a hard thing for the parent with less (or who chooses to buy or do less) to explain. Kids will demand an explanation, and I do believe they are entitled to one. This is confusing, after all, and it’s their job to figure out how the world (and their world) works. But it can be extremely difficult to explain your choices without disparaging your former spouse. Try to avoid doing that anyway if you possibly can. Explain that you’ve simply chosen to make different choices. Lay out your budget. If you’re choosing not to spend more, even if you could afford to, remind your children that it is your job to set limits so that the kids will know how to do the same thing for themselves when they get older. Give them some power or control over whatever budget you do have if you can, and let them make some choices for themselves about tradeoffs. 

Q: What kinds of financial details do you think are appropriate to withhold from kids of particular ages, and when do you think those details should be shared, if ever?

Lieber: I don’t think we should tell kids how much money we make until they are ready. Most aren’t ready (having practiced with money themselves for a decade, having learned about all of the household bills, having proven they are discrete) until they are at least 16 or so. 

To me it makes sense not to voluntarily offer up information to children that we think will cause them anxiety. But I also believe in the no-lying rule. 

Q: Your entire book spoke to me about family trust. Parents who trust their children to treat private information with respect, and children who trust their parents because they know that nothing is off-limits when it comes to conversation and learning. Would you agree that the unspoiled child is one who is given the gifts of trust and respect, and if so, how can parents continue to build these attributes?

Lieber: Agreed. Most younger kids are not ready to keep private information private and we shouldn’t test them unless we don’t mind certain things getting out. When kids ask for it, remind them that childhood (and their teenager years especially) are partly a years-long discretion test that parents are conducting. Are they keeping their friends’ information to themselves, or getting in trouble for spreading gossip? Are they reading their siblings’ journals or tattling on them inappropriately? Is other family information leaking out somehow? If so, let them know that they have flunked this part of the test. Until they can pass, they don’t get to discuss the household income or net worth, which is private information.

One other useful tactic to try with teens as they approach readiness, especially those from families who have more money than average: Remind them that the information really doesn’t have much use outside of their house. Their friends probably aren’t going to ask about your family’s income, and if your kids share the information anyway, they’ll sound like braggarts and jerks. No kid wants to flunk their parents’ discretion tests but they definitely don’t want to flunk their friends’ jerk tests. 

 

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

New Day, Neurosis

New Day, Neurosis

By Amie Klempnauer Miller

200352457-001I am obsessed with excrement. I call the nurse, even though it is Sunday, to ask how concerned I should be if we have not had a soiled diaper in thirty-six hours. Wets, yes. Stools, no. Our daughter, Hannah, now just two-and-a-half weeks old, has been a slow starter in this arena. The nurse is reassuring, suggesting that Hannah might just be a “reluctant pooper.” She advises me to give the baby a sitz bath, to kind of warm things up down there. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a little anal sphincter stimulation with a rectal thermometer. If that doesn’t work, try half of a glycerin suppository. If that doesn’t work, good Lord.

And so we begin. Jane, my partner and Hannah’s birth mom, pours a bowl of warm water and we dip our baby’s little bottom in it. She screeches and urinates. Nothing else.

We put a little KY jelly on the rectal thermometer and give the anal stimulation a go. I cannot believe we are doing this. We are lesbians, for god’s sake. The only lesbians I have ever known who thought about anal stimulation were the women who always scared me when we lived in New York.

Still no stool, so we decide to give up for a while. Jane carries Hannah into the living room where she slumps down into the oversized blue armchair, the baby lying in her arms. Hannah is feeling mellow, now that we are not dipping her in bowls of water and coming at her with gooey probes. She begins to root around Jane’s chest where she knows hidden food awaits. Her mouth hangs open, like a baby robin groping for a worm. Jane pulls her shirt up with a look of resignation. The fatigue of new parenthood is setting in like a slow, looming storm front. The adrenaline of the first two weeks has dripped away. Hannah sucks for ten minutes or so and then falls blissfully into sleep.

Jane sets Hannah—gently, gently—into her carrier and tucks a pink-checked flannel blanket around her legs. We go into the kitchen to make lunch.

“Why did we do this?” Jane asks. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I mutter. It’s surprising how quickly you wear down. Some things are not as bad as I expected: We get more sleep than many people, since our baby sleeps for one four-hour stretch each night. Before Hannah was born, I stocked the freezer with lasagna and soup and meatballs, so our diets haven’t been limited to take-out and toast. But the worry of new parenthood is far worse than I anticipated. The anxiety is intense. Hannah rasps and gurgles in the night and I leap out of bed to make sure she is still breathing. Her umbilical cord is seeping a little: Does that mean something is wrong? She spits up and I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is too much. If she soaks half of her bib, is that too much? Are three spit-ups okay, but six too many? Is this gastroesophageal reflux? Or is it just infancy?

I dread the evening because I know that the anxiety always gets worse after dark. With dusk comes fear. I tell myself that I needn’t be so worried. We have a support network, Hannah has checked out well at all of her doctor’s visits, and we have access to a twenty-four-hour nurse line. But at night, worries become obsessions and remote possibilities become impending certainties. I wait each night for the dawn.

Jane and I feast on each other’s anxieties. One of us worries about something, anything, reasonable or not (but best if it contains a kernel of possibility, a morsel of fact), and plants the seed in the other’s head. It takes root. It grows. We offer half-hearted reassurances: “I was just reading about encopresis, which is really terrible, but it usually doesn’t occur until later. She probably won’t develop it.” Meanwhile, each of us knows that the fear is growing, that the assurances are not heartfelt. And just as we know this, we know that we are feeding our own neuroses. And just as we know that, we become less and less able to do anything about it. We each withdraw, pulling back behind our own veil of worry.

“I think she’s fine,” I say. “But of course, we can call the doctor. Do you want to?” (You’re It.)

“No. I don’t think we need to call. What’s she doing? Is she all right?” (Now you.)

“She’s okay. I just wish she would have a stool. I can’t believe it’s been thirty-six hours.” (Your turn.)

“Why’s she crying again? Should we call the doctor?” (Back to you.)

“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”

And on it goes.

My cousin, mother of two miraculously grown children, calls to check in. I tell her the Saga of the Stool. Stephanie suggests that we bicycle Hannah’s legs (already doing that), hold her vertically (gravity), and try not to worry (hopeless). As we are talking, Hannah begins to screech. Jane waves at me and says that she thinks it’s time for the suppository. I get off the phone. Jane carries Hannah into the nursery and puts her on the changing table. The glycerin suppositories, made for children, look impossibly enormous. I take one from the bottle and cut it down by two-thirds. We are ready.

Jane removes the diaper and almost whoops. There is a poo. Not a huge one, but not a smudge. We are thrilled. I put the suppository back into the bottle, we clean Hannah up, and we go back into the living room, grinning giddily. I am so pleased that I call Stephanie to report.

“The eagle has landed,” I say.

She’s as excited as I am. This must be the bond that holds parents together: shared excitement over basic bodily functions that are otherwise not discussed in polite company.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, and I know she means it. “Things are moving.”

We sink into the sofa, Jane cradling Hannah. I am exhausted. I feel like I’m in boot camp, but at least we have had a victory. We have made it another day.

A week later, we are convinced that Hannah has cystic fibrosis. The beauty of this anxiety is that it has some degree of rational basis. After Jane became pregnant, we learned that she carries the most common genetic mutation that causes the disease. We immediately confirmed that our sperm bank screens all of its donors for the thirty most common mutations and does not accept anyone who tests positive. But still, we worry.

I scrutinize the entry on cystic fibrosis in the Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development—which we own—and learn that symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and digestive problems. Every time Hannah wheezes, snorts, grunts, gasps, or spits up, all of which she does with regularity, I am convinced that it is confirmation of chronic illness.

We learn that the initial test for cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. The doctor collects a little sweat from the child and measures the saline content. An elevated salt level can signal a positive result. I stay up at night and feel my heart clench when Hannah snorts. Jane admits that she has secretly been licking the back of Hannah’s neck to taste for salt.

By the time Hannah is ten weeks old, we’ve let go of our cystic fibrosis worries. Now we think she might be deaf. She doesn’t turn her head at our voices and she doesn’t startle at loud sounds. I try to test her hearing by ringing the doorbell. No response. I snap my fingers. No response. Jane and I begin sneaking up on the poor child and clapping behind her head. No response. We remind each other that she does seem to listen to music and calm down when the bathroom fan is running. But these could be anomalies. Clap. Nothing. I begin searching the Internet for resources on hearing impairments. I should know better by now. I quickly find the suggestion that parents try to test their child’s hearing by clapping behind the baby’s head.

We remind ourselves that she had a hearing test in the hospital and passed it just fine. But the tech was busy that day, I think. What if they just did a social promotion? Jane calls the pediatric clinic. A doctor calls back and says that the hospital test is ninety-nine percent accurate, but there is some concern that she isn’t startling.

I scurry back onto the Internet. Jane and I make a pact to stop trying to startle Hannah, at least until after her next doctor’s appointment, which is in a week. I think about doing it anyway when Jane goes to the grocery store, but I resist.

At eleven weeks, Jane takes Hannah to the doctor for a check-up. Everything looks good. The doctor isn’t concerned about her hearing or the startling lack of startling. She reassures Jane. Hannah gets weighed and measured, her growth noted and compared to other babies her age. At two weeks, she was below the fiftieth percentile in overall weight and now, at eleven pounds, three ounces, she is in the seventy-fifth percentile. Excellent. Her torso is exceedingly long; she has grown to twenty-four inches in total body length, putting her in the ninety-fifth percentile. But her head, which was in the ninetieth percentile for circumference, is now in the fiftieth percentile. It grew, but at a slower pace than the rest of her body.

“Do you think her head isn’t growing fast enough?” Jane asks me that evening. She knows better than this. She understands statistics and the fallacy of percentiles, especially when it comes to diagnosing normality. “Do we have a pinhead baby?”

I imagine Hannah all grown up: a giant torso with a head the size of a Vidalia onion. Our little Onion Head.

“I think,” Jane says one day when the baby is peacefully asleep in her bouncy seat, “that I have been assuming that something is wrong with Hannah rather than expecting her to be all right.” I have also been constantly worried that there is something grave, something dreadful that has eluded the doctors, that is lurking behind the diaper pail, hiding under the crib, waiting to snatch our baby away. Some of this is a product of reading too many articles and watching too much television. We have heard the stories about sudden deaths, freak viruses, and bizarre conditions that go undetected. It feels threatening to trust her to be healthy, as though we might be blindsided if we do not remain diligently on guard.

I suppose our neurosis is normal, although I sometimes wonder if it would help to have a husband in the house who would say, “Oh, she’s fine” and turn on the Packers game. I have made a lifelong art of worrying and I’m not about to stop now. Still, I do realize that I need to let go of at least a little of it before our pediatrician refuses to see us anymore.

It’s a thin line between fear and love, a line that has become perforated since Hannah’s birth. The two passions intermingle, and anxiety courses through my heart. Is it possible to love a child wholeheartedly but without fear? Or does the magnitude of our vulnerability as parents demand that we stand on guard against all dangers, real and imagined?

I lie in bed at night and watch the clock, counting the hours until dawn.

Author’s Note: Jane and I are still worriers, but our fears lessened somewhat after Hannah really did get sick with a couple of nasty viruses, one of which landed her in the hospital. While we were there, one of the nurses noticed how willful Hannah is, even when hooked up to an I.V. “You’re strong,” she said several times to Hannah. “That’s going to serve you well.” Hannah is strong, as it turns out, and Jane and I are beginning to let ourselves trust her to recover when she gets sick and trust ourselves to give her what she needs to grow and thrive. And, we’re happy to report, her head is a perfectly normal size.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You (a Memoir of Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood (Beacon Press, 2010). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her wife Jane and daughter Hannah.

Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep deprivation is hard for all parents. But not everybody takes the same approach to a baby, even an older baby, who wakes up during the night. For Wendy Wisner, crying-it-out was not an option: she co-slept with her children and “waited it out” for the years it took them to sleep through on their own. Jessica Smock, on the other hand, believes babies should be actively encouraged to develop good sleep habits, and that sleep training, though difficult, can be best for the entire family. 

 

Why I Don’t Sleep-Train My Kids

By Wendy Wisner

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.15.21 PMWhen it comes to children’s sleep, I think the choices parents make are influenced—at least in part—by their own childhood associations.

When I was a child, we had a family bed: sleep was a shared experience, replete with elbow bumping, shuffling, sleep sighs, and minor snoring. I remember falling asleep next to my mom, sometimes next to my sister. Eventually, I asked for my own bed, but I always knew I could rejoin the family bed whenever I needed to. I never had a stuffed animal or security blanket. My parents were that for me.

As luck would have it, I married a man whose family also espoused a communal bed. So when our first son was born, he naturally joined us in ours. It made nursing a million times easier, and keeping him close minimized sleep disruptions. I was able to latch him on, and go right back to sleep. I’m sure the fact that I spent my childhood settling in and out of sleep with others nearby helped me feel comfortable with this arrangement.

Sleeping with my son wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of wake-ups, and even though I didn’t have to leave my bed to tend to him, my sleep was still fragmented, and I would wake up exhausted and depleted. At the four-month mark, I reached a breaking point. My son was waking hourly, all night long, and kicking me in the head. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I said to my husband, “I can’t live my life this way. I just can’t do it.”

I scoured the Internet looking for solutions. Most of the advice I found was something along the lines of, “Put your baby down, drowsy but awake, and then leave the room.” I hadn’t heard of sleep training or cry-it-out at that point—at least not explicitly—but I knew that if I took that advice, it would result in more crying than I was comfortable with. My son had already revealed his intense personality. When I did leave him alone in the room at naptime, he didn’t just fuss a little until I came to get him: he cried his head off. I wasn’t going to subject him to more than a few minutes of that.

So I waited it out. As an at-home parent, I was able to nap with my baby, cancel plans when necessary, and take my sleepy days slowly. I know mothers working outside the home don’t have this luxury, but I managed to slog through. Sleep got a little better, then a little worse, then a little better again, and I made it through the first six months. At that point, things became more bearable. I didn’t do anything differently; my son’s sleep patterns just changed, with stretches of uninterrupted sleep happening more often.

I soon began to take the baby out, and have my first conversations with other mothers, many of which cycled back to the topic of sleep. As a new, idealistic parent, I was appalled by the other moms’ tales of sleep training. A mom at the playground told me they were still crying-it-out after a month because it wasn’t working yet, and she wondered if the neighbors in her apartment complex heard the screaming. There was the mom at a birthday party who told me that her son had just recently started waking up again after he’d been trained a few months ago, and that they had recently survived a night of four hours of crying.

In that first year of motherhood, I became the classic, righteous attachment parent when it came to sleep training. I’d hold my pure, innocent baby close, and feel sick at the thought of leaving him in a dark room to cry for hours at a time. A baby cannot talk: when he cried, he was asking for my presence. In these early years, I was teaching him about communication and kindness; it seemed inhumane not to respond when he cried. I found articles like this, which demonstrated that excessive crying increased the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in babies’ brains, and this, which showed that sleep training could cause attachment issues.

That was eight years ago. I have two children now. My older son has slept blissfully through the night since he was just under three years old. My second son has recently started sleeping through at around the same age, though he still wakes in the early morning and needs to be soothed back to sleep. Having “waited it out” twice, I will say that it isn’t always rainbows. I have felt sick from exhaustion. Extreme sleep deprivation increases my anxiety and exacerbates my migraines. But most nights my children’s wake-ups were manageable, and I felt as well-rested as most parents of young children feel.

I haven’t changed the way I handle sleep with my own children, but the way I perceive other parents’ choices has changed. I have made friends with many loving parents with awesome kids who have done some sort of sleep training. I understand that not all parents want to attend to their kids in the middle of the night, and that having your child in your bed or in close proximity (which is the best way I know how to deal with sleep disruptions) is just not within everyone’s comfort zone. I also understand that not everyone has the right support or lifestyle to get through months of sleep deprivation.

I am also aware that there are different kinds of sleep training, and different kinds of sleepers. I still have a big problem with letting a baby cry for hours at a time (really, any more than a few minutes is hard for me to fathom). Even Ferber, the father of sleep training, never advocated for hours of crying at time. I think that most parents take a kinder, more measured approach to it, checking on their babies frequently, offering assurance along the way—at least I hope so.

Even so, it still breaks my heart a little (OK, a lot) when I hear about a baby who is sleep trained, especially when controlled crying is involved. I just want to rush to the baby, and place him back in his parents’ arms. I want to tell his parents to wait just a little bit longer, because it gets better on its own. It really does. And someday you might even miss those midnight snuggles.

Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems and her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Why I Sleep-Train My Kids

By Jessica Smock

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.13.09 PMSleep training my son was hard. But not that hard.

By the time he was four months old, his sleeping habits were becoming more challenging for all of us. He was waking up more times during the night, becoming more difficult to soothe back to sleep, and napping less and less. My husband and I were exhausted. We fought constantly, and our son was cranky and overtired too.

When I mentioned our sleep issues to a few friends, I was given one name from each of them: Weissbluth. Like thousands of parents before me, I devoured Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. From Weissbluth, I learned about sleep associations, infant sleep cycles, wake times, nap schedules, patterns of sleep organization for newborns and older babies, and graduated extinction (“crying-it-out”). From there, I moved on to books by other experts in the field of baby sleep: Ferber and Jodi Mindell.

At that point, I had just finished the coursework for my doctoral degree in education and development. Immersed in the world of academia, it had made sense to me that because I was struggling with an issue I knew nothing about—solving and preventing baby sleep problems— I should turn to research from the experts: people who had devoted their lives to helping parents with this exact problem. Left to our own devices, what my husband and I were doing wasn’t working, that much was certain. We were all miserable. Consulting these books suddenly made me feel less alone. I now had hope.

Online I read some of the criticisms of sleep training—that it could cause long-lasting psychological harm, that it can impact the attachment bond between parent and child. But then I reassessed the sleep training research for myself. It was obvious to me that these critics were grossly overstating and misconstruing the research on infant stress responses. If you look closely at the studies many critics cite, you will see that they are specifically about the effects of chronic, severe neglect and abuse on the infant brain, not about the effects of a temporary stressor, like sleep training, in the life of a baby in an otherwise happy, loving home.

And a secure attachment bond develops over the course of months and years of sensitive and responsive interaction between parent and child. Attachment researchers state that a few nights of sleep training (and even periodic “retraining”) resulting in better sleep for everyone will do nothing to harm that bond. In fact, it’s quite possible that it may improve the bond once the parent and child are no longer suffering the effects of sleep deprivation.

So we did it. We let our son cry it out, using gradually increasing “check-ins” and then no checks at all. He cried for almost an hour the first night. Then less and less over the next few nights. In less than a week, he no longer needed to be rocked or fed to sleep and didn’t cry at all when placed in his crib awake at bedtime. From our video monitor, we witnessed how he learned to self-soothe: he discovered that he liked sucking on his fingers and sleeping on his stomach. Best of all, he now only got up once during the night to eat—rather than four, five, or six times—and woke up happy and babbling, not screaming, crying, and rubbing his eyes.

Three years later my daughter was born. Unlike my son, who was bottlefed from the age of six weeks due to severe milk protein allergies and who never liked co-sleeping, my daughter is breastfed. Up until she was more than four months old, I shared a bed with her, purely out of desperation. The only way that she would sleep more than an hour at a time was nestled in the crook of my arm, inches away from the breast. All the things I swore I would never do with her—bedsharing, breastfeeding all night on demand past the age of three or four months, rocking to sleep, holding her in my arms for naps—I have done. And still do on occasion.

At four months old we decided to sleep-train her as well. While this taught her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, she continues to wake up inexplicably and inconsistently, screaming again for the breast or for my arms. We let her cry during the night, sometimes, for almost an hour. For two or three nights, she’ll wake up once for a quick feeding, but the next night, she’ll wake up four or five times and refuse to go back to sleep. Naptime is also a struggle.

Despite my daughter’s more challenging sleep habits, I still feel confident in our choice to sleep train her. Before sleep training, she and I rarely slept for more than one or two consecutive hours, and I found it impossible to sleep well in the same bed with a baby who demanded nearly continuous breastfeeding through the night. I was so tired that I was afraid to drive and had no patience for my four year old. Now she stays in her crib all night, and she falls asleep at bedtime without much fuss. My husband and I get at least a couple hours of time together in the evenings before she might wake up.

If my son was the hare of sleep training, my daughter is a tortoise. But that’s okay. Because helping our children to be good sleepers is just like any other skill that we teach our children. Some of our kids are fast learners, some are not. The goals of sleep training are not the same for every kid or family, and neither is the process. There is no one sleep training method that will work for all babies.

So we won’t give up. Sleep is too important. We’ll keep adjusting our expectations and methods as she grows, develops, and matures and is capable of more and more independence. We’ll continue to support her and love her, even if it that means leaving her alone to struggle a bit, every day and every night.

Jessica Smock is a former educator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy last spring. At her blog School of Smock she writes about parenting and education and was the editor of the recent anthology, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her husband, son and daughter. 

Suspended in Social Mobility

Suspended in Social Mobility

By Amanda Rose Adams

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For the past seven years, my kids have attended our neighborhood elementary school. The school was recently classified as a Title One institution. According to the US Department of Education, “Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school.”

For many years well over 50% of our school’s students have been eligible for free or reduced lunch, but my children are not part of that 50%+ percent. At our elementary school, we’ve been the minority of families who are decidedly and comfortably middle class.

My daughter only has nine more school days before she leaves our Title One school to join her brother in middle school next fall. Our middle school has the lowest percentage of at-risk need funding of any school in our district, less than 2%. We are going from a school where most of the school directory addresses are in one of the biggest trailer parks in our state to a school where we’ve seen kids picked up in Lamborghinis and limousines.

According to the principal at the middle school, close to one hundred percent of the students have smart phones. I can assure you it’s not fully one hundred percent because my son does not have a cell phone of any sort, smart or not. We simply cannot afford to arm a sixth grader with a telephone for his convenience or ours. Once again we are in the minority, still middle class but closer to the margins than many families at this school.

My husband and I look back over our children’s tenure at the lower income school with mixed feelings. We are glad we didn’t try to “choice” out of our neighborhood school because we wanted our kids to understand that not everyone has the same advantages and possessions. We’re glad that they had so many English-learning classmates. We are glad that we had the school’s social worker translate birthday party invitations to be inclusive. Diversity is one of the values the school celebrates.

We did “choice” our son out of the middle school he would have been bussed to because we wanted him to have a chance to make new friends. He was never athletic enough to blend in with his peers in elementary school and a new crowd seemed the right choice for him. Where we live if a family wants to opt out of their default school, they must submit a request in writing by the January before the next school year begins, and even then a change of school is not guaranteed. The middle school he’s at now was actually third on our list of three alternatives. We knew little about it before he was assigned, but it’s the one the school district chose for us.

In elementary school, our kids were getting easy As for years. They’ve been coasting, which we learned this year when our sixth grade son was buried in homework and struggled to legitimately earn solid Bs. We’ve not only seen him work harder, we’ve seen his writing and math skills improve dramatically. At his old school we never pushed him to join the gifted and talented program because we knew he wouldn’t push himself. In this new school, whether it’s his age, his teachers, or his peers, he’s found his drive.

We expect our daughter to really take off in middle school and are hoping to see her communication skills blossom like her brother’s have. We are so happy with the academic rigor middle school that we wonder if we did wrongly by our kids by not trying to “choice” them into a more challenging school sooner.

For the past several years we were stubbornly loyal to our neighborhood elementary school, volunteering regularly and donating supplies and hosting classroom parties. We didn’t want to be those people who thought their kids were too good to go to school with the poor kids. This was especially important to me because I actually lived in a trailer park from kindergarten until sixth grade. My siblings and I were the kids who got free and reduced lunch. My family ate government cheese and drank canned pineapple juice from the USDA Commodities program. It seemed like a betrayal of my family of origin and an enormous hypocrisy of self to segregate my own children from other kids just because the other kids lacked money. What I didn’t understand until later is how hard the teachers have to work to make up for other gaps that many kids without money also possess, like never attending preschool or not having books at home and often not having a parent at home.

By doing right by our neighbors and our values, I do sometimes wonder if we did right by kids? Our son seems to be catching up quickly, and I expect no different from our daughter. If we created a gap by indulging our values of equality and fairness ahead of our value of education, it is our responsibility and our great privilege to close it with the myriad of resources at our disposal. One of those privileges is sending our kids to a middle school that challenges them. It’s now up to our kids to reach their full potential and for us to support that. I wonder about our choices, but I don’t regret them. In raising children, I would far rather error on the side of compassion over competition because that’s the lesson I most want them to take into the future.

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

 

Photo: gettyimages

Faking Bravery

Faking Bravery

By Kristin Shaw

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Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large.

 

My mother made parenting look easy.

I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were shooed out the front door in the morning in the summer and expected back at dinnertime. My bike was my trusty steed, and my sister and I met our friends down the street for Barbie play time and races around the block. I didn’t have a cell phone, pager, or any other kind of GPS tracking device, and I don’t remember my mother ever worrying about it.

That is a testament to how well she managed her own anxiety; the anxiety I didn’t know existed until I was well into adulthood and learned that she had been actively managing hers with medication and exercise for several years already.

“Mom, how did you deal with not being able to reach us during the day?”

“I knew where you were.”

“How did you learn to let us go and be independent?” I asked her. I am the mother of a five-year-old little boy, and I get panicky leaving him at another family’s house for a playdate for a few hours. I have had to adjust, as I went back to work and traveling when he was three months old, but it was never easy for me.

I had to, she said. You had to learn how to grow up.

“I guess so. But didn’t you worry?”

I held my breath until you came home, she said, not entirely kidding.

Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large. I, too, fight the demons of anxiety, the pilot light ignited when I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my son.

When he was born in the fall of 2009, it was smack in the middle of the outbreak of swine flu. My doctor told me to keep him out of the public and away from germs for a few months, and I did exactly that. I checked his breathing constantly. As he grew and I corralled my postpartum anxiety into something more diluted but still potent, I had to learn how to let him fall and learn on his own without my constant intervention.

My friend Cheryl is a family counselor in Texas, and she sees parental anxiety often. She is my anxiety sensei.

“Vigilance is inherent when becoming a parent,” she told me. “We develop keener vision, hearing, and reflexes, which enable us to better protect our tiny new ones. This level of vigilance can become too intense, crossing the line into anxiety. For those of us with a little extra imagination, the fears can take on a big screen-vivid quality which distracts us from the present moment.”

My “extra imagination” is certainly vivid. In The Lego Movie, which I have now seen dozens of times, the “Master Builders” see a 3D model of the object they are building on a virtual blueprint in their heads. When I see my son carrying a stick, I see that kind of 3D model, but my model ends not with a fully-built spaceship, but a vision of my son with a stick through his eye. My brain has turned into a set of Instagram filters all called various versions of “DANGER.”

One of my best friends has a son who is a week older than mine; we met when our boys were six months old. Her son is more adventurous than my son is, and he often chafes at the boundaries that have been set to keep him safe. He wants to scale, jump, and do things his mother might not be ready for him to do, and she has had to learn to let go of some of her own anxiety. It’s one of the things that has bonded us as friends; “I understand your crazy,” we tell each other, and we laugh.

While I work hard to bite back the words “Be careful!” to allow and encourage my son to stretch his boundaries, she has learned to let go. She told me that by holding him back and trying to keep him from doing things she perceived as too risky, they were both miserable. So she gave him more freedom and it’s harder, for her, but it’s easier in some ways, too, because he is proving he is capable.

“Dealing with your anxiety as early as possible can help you be a calmer, more focused parent,” Cheryl says as she coaches me to take a deep breath and loosen the reins. “Kids rely heavily on us to help them decipher what in the world is safe or dangerous. The goal is to be a concerned, safety-conscious person, while reminding yourself that no matter what happens, you are strong and resourceful. Your kids will see this, and have a better shot at a confident journey through life.”

Maybe being aware of anxiety and doing my best to manage it is a big step forward. Being cognizant of hovering tendencies and actively giving my son more opportunities to stretch within reasonable boundaries helps keep me on track. I WANT to give him as much free rein as makes sense. But it is extremely difficult for me as a mother with anxiety tendencies. It feels like trying to hold back a hurricane inside my head; I want to circle and hold him close to me and instead, I push the storm back down, deep inside, and put a smile on my face.

“Go ahead, honey. You can do it,” I say, while inside I am thinking, “Please don’t die.”

At this point, the challenge is not overcoming my anxiety completely, because that would require a brain transplant. It’s the not letting my son see my anxiety that I work so hard to conceal. He already has his own measures of anxiety, and whether I passed them to him through the umbilical cord or via his observations of what life looks like from my perspective, I feel guilty enough. All I can do is to fake as much bravery as I can.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year for 2014 and 2015, and has been featured at several national sites, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

Photo: Breno Machado

15 Kinds of Kisses for My 5-Year-Old

15 Kinds of Kisses for My 5-Year-Old

By Estelle Erasmus

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When she’s sick and I gently kiss her feverish brow, hoping to heal her with a spoonful of a mother’s love—the best medicine.

 

Kissing is a universal way to demonstrate love. I like to smother my daughter with affection, and studies support that doing this can help ease her stress and anxiety and help her to become a resilient adult.

Here are the kinds of kisses we share.

1) Angel kisses: Where I lightly kiss her right next to her eyes, on either side. I usually kiss her this way when waking her up in the morning.

2) Blowing kisses: When I drive away from her school, as I watch her adjust her backpack and join up with her friends, I kiss my hand and then blow her bittersweet kisses from my window, which she catches in her hand and blows back to me.

3) Boo-Boo Kiss: A therapeutic kiss guaranteed to make a boo-boo feel better, if not go away entirely.

4) Butterfly kisses: Sprinkled on her cheeks, eyes and lashes like morning dew meeting an upturned flower.

5) Careful kisses: When she is engrossed in a coloring project or LEGO building but I want her to know I’m by her side, I kiss her arm or shoulder or top of her head.

6) Cheek kisses: When she leaves to go to school, I give her a peck on the cheek. In many cultures, it’s a common way of saying hello or goodbye.

7) Devouring kisses: I am often reminded that time is fleeting and that my cherished little girl may soon be unimpressed or unmoved by my physical expressions of love. So I kiss her as if I were inhaling her—her youth, her innocence, her energy.

8) Eskimo kisses: Sometimes right before she drifts off to sleep, we’ll rub our noses together back and forth and she’ll say the nonsensical words “Muga Muga” and expect me to say them back (I always do).

9) Hair kisses: Usually after she’s washed her hair, I smother her with kisses on her clean, strawberry or citrus-scented tresses.

10) Hand kisses: Each morning, we start our day by holding hands as we walk to the car. Right before she buckles herself into her car seat, I kiss her on the palm or back of her hand, as an affectionate benediction. It delights me that she’s recently started returning the favor.

11) Noisy kisses: When my mouth makes a popping sound on her bellybutton, which sends her into paroxysms of helpless laughter at the antics of her silly mother.

12) Rocking kisses: When she is feeling bad, mad, or sad I often can make the clouds drift away by rocking her in my arms. While doing this, I hum a little tune (ah, ah baby, ah ah my lady), while at the same time I press my lips on the top of her head in a never ending kiss, without breaking contact. It never fails to make her feel better.

13) Soft kisses: When she’s sick and I gently kiss her feverish brow, hoping to heal her with a spoonful of a mother’s love—the best medicine.

14) Tearful kisses: Sometimes, I look at her and become painfully aware of how very precious she is to me. Despite my best efforts, I feel my breath catch in my throat and as my eyes fill with tears I kiss her on the cheek or head.

15) Tickle kisses (not to be confused with noisy kisses): When I tickle her on her neck or under her arms and she can’t stop laughing, while I plant myriad kisses on her face.

Estelle Erasmus has been published in numerous publications including Marie Claire, The Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. She blogs at Musings on Motherhood & Midlife and tweets at @EstelleSErasmus.

 

The Physics of Parenthood

The Physics of Parenthood

By Chrissy Boylan

Quantum Theory2

Anyone need a hulking pile of gently-used parenting books? Perhaps you’d like to stack them one on top of another to make a conversation-starting side table. Or use the pages within as eco-friendly kindling at your next backyard bonfire. Hell, you can even hollow them out to use as decoys for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy we both know you own. I don’t care. All I know is that I won’t be needing them any longer.

That’s right. After years of buying books to feed my parenting addiction, I have seen the errors of my way. I have concluded that parenting is not the linear, academic science to be studied and mastered the way parenting ‘experts’ would have us believe. Parenting is too full of inherent contradictions (“How to Discipline Your Child Without Using the Word “No!”); conflicting opinions (“Experts Advise Always/Never Allowing Kids to Play Unattended Outside); and variable factors (“What to do When Your Child Hates People”).

As a result, parenting books are no different from hotel swimming pools: to be used at your own risk with no lifeguard on duty.

Neither are children, the subject of parenting books, reliable test subjects on which to derive empirical insights. If I’ve learned anything during my tenure as a parent, it’s that children are as difficult to predict and manipulate as subatomic particles. Their behavior defies logic and is best described as random.

Therefore, in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of the task in front of me—successfully helping my children cross the chasm between childhood and adulthood with my sanity at least partially intact—I have decided to toss out my parenting books and trust in quantum physics instead.

Yes, quantum physics.

Think about it—quantum physics exists solely to document the ways in which the immutable laws of our universe don’t hold true when applied to our smallest counterparts. Physicists have staked entire careers trying to prove the ways in which the behavior of smaller beings (i.e., subatomic particles and children) run wholly counter to what we know and expect from larger beings (i.e., things of discrete mass and fellow grown-ups).

If this isn’t the best metaphor for parenting since herding cats, then call me a quark and spin me around and round in a particle accelerator! And so, I am cutting the cord between me and the divisive parenting books swallowing up my psyche. I am taking a quantum leap—ha, ha—and living by the following three parenting principles:

1. It’s All Theoretical.

Quantum physics has been around for over a hundred years and yet no one, not Einstein, Planck or Bohr, has been able to prove a damn thing. Even their experiments are theoretical. So what makes me think that parenting ‘experts’ know what they’re talking about? Will eating peanuts while pregnant prevent or produce peanut allergies? Which dynamic is more important to a child’s future: nature or nurture? Why is Caillou bald? No one knows, least of all me.

2. Children’s Behavior is Totally Random.

Since my children refuse to adhere to the physical laws of our universe, I am ready to admit that any prior success I’ve had with specific parenting strategies was purely incidental. Remember that one time my child ate a green vegetable and I bragged about it on Facebook? I was so proud of myself for following the advice of experts, who advise serving eschewed vegetables more times than seemingly worthwhile. And voilà, one night when Mercury was in retrograde, my child ate a green vegetable! Yet. Seeing as how I have not yet been able to recreate this small miracle ever again, I can only now conclude it was a random occurrence, and therefore a statistical outlier.

3. I Am Both a “Good’ Parent and ‘Bad’ Parent All at the Same Time.

According to Erwin Schrödinger, and his poor cat stuck in a box, no one, including me, will be able to predict whether my children will turn out better or worse for having had me as a parent until it’s too late. They have as much chance of becoming better people from my labors as they do turning against me and all I stand for. Either way, I won’t know until they are adults themselves. Even then, the philosophical argument will remain—to what degree are my children a reflection of my parenting and not of their own choices, unique genetic material and the society in which they live?

In the end, my track record with the latest and greatest parenting craze is like my track record with any and every diet I’ve ever tried. The advertised results are not typical and definitely vary. This isn’t to say I won’t still skim the latest research, blanch at people’s brags on Facebook, and adapt my parenting approaches as my children age and grow. I will. But I won’t look for the one ‘right’ way to parent my children. I’ll be too busy having a quantum physics-fueled existential crisis along the way.

Chrissy Boylan is a writer and parent in the Washington DC area whose work has appeared in several publications including Brain, Child, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. You can find more of her work at www.chrissyboylan.com.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

By Vivian Maguire

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo: dreamstime.com

Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

By Rebecca Luber Sullivan

Glitter and Glue Paperback coverAn Amazon search for humor parenting books relies on the shock factor; drinking during playdates and calling whiny toddlers a-holes and letting children watch TV all day while drinking Mountain Dew out of a sippy cup. These books are a departure from the parenting books on the other extreme that put pressure on mothers to breastfeed exclusively, sleep train with military precision, and only feed kids wild raised salmon, organic berries, and quinoa. There’s something in between those extremes, which is what Kelly Corrigan recalls in her funny, yet realistic, memoir Glitter and Glue.

There are mothering memoirs and there are memoirs about mothers. The mothers I tend to read about are dramatic, glamorous, neglectful and manic: mothers of authors Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, Wendy Lawless in Chanel Bonfire and Diana Welch and Liz Welch in The Kids Are All Right. But Kelly Corrigan’s mom, Mary Corrigan, is as steady as can be, a middle class, devout Catholic, strict and serious mother. Practical, predictable and judgmental and sometimes cold, Mary Corrigan as a mom is the opposite of Greenie, Kelly’s fun loving dad, who she adoringly wrote about in her first memoir, The Middle Place. She looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done.”

“Glitter” and “Glue” refers to Mary’s description of parenthood in the Corrigan household. She was the glue and Greenie was the glitter. Even now, in the most progressive parenting dynamics, Mom is typically the one enforcing bedtime, while Dad is the fun one, wrestling and riling up the kids when they should be calmed down. (It’s maddening!) Dads can be more fun, but moms get things done. Most Moms will be able to relate.

After college in the early 90s, Kelly decided there was no way she was going to “be just another apple rotting at the base of my mother’s tree,” or the glue, and decided to leave her entry level job to travel to Australia. Plans for glittery adventure and working abroad don’t turn out like Kelly envisions, and she ends up taking a job as a live-in nanny to care for the young children of John Tanner, a recent widower. John Tanner does his best, but the kids need their mom, or a mom-like figure.

Through his grief for his wife who died from cancer months before, John Tanner tries to hold it together for Milly (who is wary of Kelly) and little Martin (who laps up affection from Kelly). Kelly realizes what these children need is the steadiness of a mother to cook meals, check homework, and drive them to school and her twentysomething self conjures up memories of her mother to help her get the Tanner family back on track as best as she can. Kelly realizes, through caring for the family, how much her mother taught her and how she needs her mother.

Turns out that every family needs some glue, even though that glue can be so judgmental that she grouses about non-serious churchgoers who just want to see who is at Mass or only show up at Easter and Christmas to show off their outfits. Mary Corrigan’s grumpy diligence as the glue of the family and no-frills attitude, often foiled by Kelly’s desire to be a fun loving young woman, are part of what makes the book as witty as it is heartfelt.

The humor in Glitter and Glue comes not just from experiences, but Corrigan’s telling of them. When Kelly decides to start feeding the Tanner family homecooked meals, she buys ground chuck on sale at the grocery store, remembering: Once or twice a month after a sale, she’d pull a block of anemic brown turds from the freezer, slap it against the Formica to break the patties apart and voila- dinner for five!

Throughout her time with the Tanner family, Kelly reflects on her relationship with her mother. When Kelly wonders who will tell Milly about her period, Kelly remembers Mary giving her the talk and asking if Kelly had any questions. I had noticed something in the Reilly master bathroom the last time I babysat… “What’s a douche?” “Oh, Kelly!” She shrieked like I’d put a centipede on her leg. “That is dis-GUS-ting!” “It is? Even Summer’s Eve?” Mary goes on to describe a douche and then exclaims, “And to think Susan Reilly is a Catholic!”

Glitter and Glue reflects on motherhood and being mothered through the eyes of a woman in her 20s, who thinks she knows everything, but realizes how much her mother really knew all along. Someday our kids will realize this, too… Hopefully all the glue and glitter will look back with humor and love together someday.

Rebecca Luber Sullivan is the mom of a middle school girl and 2 boys (elementary school and preschool-aged). She handles PR for companies in the advertising industry, and would love to do more creative writing instead of writing press releases. www.twitter.com/@rebeccasullivan

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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A warning to new expatriate parents: You will forever remain slightly confused. This became perfectly clear to me at a PTA meeting in Djibouti a few years ago. It wasn’t actually the PTA. But there were parents and there were teachers and they were associating. I conformed the meeting to my own cultural bias and called it the PTA.

French parents arrived ten minutes late. It took me four years of meetings to realize this and I was proud to be among the ten-minute-late-crowd. This was the last decision of the evening I made instinctively and accurately.

The room filled with French parents. Tight, pink, and short seemed to be the fashion in menswear that season. Mostly soldiers, the men were strong and stocky with quiet laughs, scant facial hair, and open stares at each other’s wives. The women were beautiful, appreciated the stares, and had come prepared for them. Cleavage-revealing tank tops, chunky jewelry, and white capris wedged up to, well, there. Tanned and toned arms, legs, and shoulders displayed tattoos of fire-breathing dragons, butterflies, flowers, and psychedelic patterns on both mommies and daddies.

Of course, I’m generalizing. There were also average looking women and men who weren’t admiring other’s wives. But this meeting was one of those expatriate moments in which I am one hundred percent aware of not belonging. My arm hair seems to vibrate with not-belongingness and I feel like my posture screams only American in the room! And so these are the moments in which I am hyper alert to who has more beautiful hair, looks sexier in jeans, exudes more confidence, is cheek-kissed by more people, and clearly has a more natural and classy eternal sense of style. In other words, this is when I, the expatriate mother, succumb to jealousy and judgment.

These other moms are expatriates too, the French ones. But they are expats in their own former kingdom. Djibouti used to be a French colony. The school is French. The language is French. The items on school supply lists are French. I think of Djiboutian women, French women, and myself as in three concentric circles. The inner circle is for those who truly belong. They are second or third generation expatriates or they are local, entirely Djiboutian. The second circle belongs to the rest of the French who come for two or three year stints. The third circle is for outside outsiders, like me. We are so far out from center that we can barely see it. We are sometimes the only one of our passport color in the vicinity. We come from Nigeria, Madagascar, Germany, the United States, Korea…

Cigarette smoke wafted into the room. I sat alone, choosing a seat which gave me a clear view of the presenter so I could watch his lips and improve my chances of understanding. The meeting started fifteen minutes later, now almost half an hour late. A man with a microphone read in a monotone voice word for word from a slide show presentation. We were there to elect the board of directors from among the parents of the elementary school and high school.

A disruption came from the back of the room as many of the Djiboutian parents arrived en masse. They chattered and greeted one another with kisses on the cheeks, re-draped loose scarves, and filled the room with perfume while the speaker droned on, introducing the candidates.

All of the French candidates were present, seated in the front and stood, silently, when their names were called. A few of the Djiboutian candidates were present, standing in the back of the room. When their names were called, they cut off their side conversations and shouted their credentials.

“I was Vice President last year at Dolto (the elementary school) and will be the best candidate this year for Kessel (the high school).”

“I used to work for the Minister of sports.”

“I have five children and am already a grandfather.”

“I used to be a national school inspector.”

I knew none of the French candidates and most of the Djiboutian ones. I was an outsider, the sole American at that particular meeting. I didn’t understand the selection process and didn’t understand the choices before me. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t know what choice to make because I didn’t understand the French educational system. I didn’t know the implications or the goals or the methods or the values. I didn’t know what to expect and I expect that I never (fully) will.

But I love my kids and want the best for them so I have continued attending these meetings over the years. They have become slightly less confusing, I know a few more people, and the number of other Americans has drastically increased. I’m still in that outer circle but I don’t mind anymore. I’ve stopped caring about beautiful hair, sexy jeans, ogling of wives, or the number of cheek kisses. I’ve made friends in all three circles now, after eleven years. Djiboutian women and French women and other expatriates from around the world. I might not fully belong in any of the groups but I can move almost seamlessly between them and I’m content. Mostly.

Now if only I could get a handle on what makes a ‘cool’ school snack at a French school or understand what happens during field trips and parent-teacher conferences…

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

Mothering in the Rain

Mothering in the Rain

motheringinrain

I hear thunder, I hear thunder.

Hark don’t you? Hark don’t you? 

Pitter, patter raindrops,

Pitter, patter raindrops,

I’m wet through; so are you. 

This is a nursery rhyme my children know by heart, many British children do, because the pitter patter of raindrops is the soundtrack to so much of their lives. Faces pressed against streaky windows, waterproof hoods pulled tightly over heads, most days my kids leave the house and are touched instantly by some form of moisture. Whether it is a misting that hangs in the air like gossamer or a sideways pelting that stings on impact, onwards they go, always in search of the next dry port of call.

We live in Scotland, where there is measurable rainfall for up to 250 days of the year (in certain parts) and where the seasons bleed into each other with a relatively moderate spread in temperature between them. I have a coffee mug that captures the phenomenon perfectly. It has a series of four pictures on it and, in each one, a bulldog is holding an umbrella against the rain, which continues to spit down irrespective of the season. The only thing that changes is the accoutrement: a scarf in winter, sunglasses in summer, leaves swirling aloft in autumn.

Brits talk about the weather incessantly, which is ironic considering it is so bad, but also telling of how deeply it infiltrates our psyches. There are few psyches as delicate as a new mother’s and, though I am somebody who never complained about it before, the climate here took on a whole new meaning to me when I had my babies.

My second son arrived in late November and for weeks upon weeks we holed ourselves up inside, a scenario I imagine is par for the course with many winter births. But Glasgow winters are particularly bleak. Not only do they fail to produce any fluffy, idyllic-looking snow by way of compensation for the cold but, because of the city’s latitude, the days are shockingly short. The skies begin to darken at around 3:30 p.m. and stay dark until well after eight the next morning. It is a long period to be without natural light and it feels longer still with a colicky baby in arms, a baby who seems already at an obvious disadvantage for developing proper Circadian rhythms.

When I had my twins, who were born in early March, being stuck in the house wasn’t an option. I had no recourse to soothing two squalling newborns other than walking them together. Out we went every single day—whatever the weather, whatever the quality of light—making figure eights around the slick streets of our neighborhood. The babies were protected from the elements, of course, their stroller sheathed in the rain cover that is an essential accessory for every British parent. But because I couldn’t push the double pram and manage an umbrella at the same time, I myself was not. I got wet, a lot.

I was also miserable a lot. Waking in the morning, especially after a broken night, to another day of varying shades of grey was dispiriting to say the least. I am not alone in this kind of seasonal reaction to new motherhood. A Finnish study found that women appeared to be at higher risk for mild postpartum depression in the winter months, and at lower risk in the spring, and that “women were more depressed during periods of limited sunlight.” So too if you are already suffering from PPD or baby blues, the experience might be exacerbated by the sense of isolation that can ensue from shorter, colder, darker days.

As the kids get older, however, entertaining them in spite of the weather becomes easier. We make accommodations. Britain is chocked full of inside playgrounds and sheltered toddler groups, “bounce and rhymes” at the local library and cafes replete with boxes of toys. Indoor soccer pitches and sports facilities are available year-round: we even turfed our own backyard to transform it into a viable play space, as opposed to the sodden patch of muddy grass it used to be. Swimming is always an indoor activity. My children have not actually been swimming in the open air here, that’s something reserved for exotic locations at least a plane ride away.

As a result, summer in Glasgow is markedly different from the magical time it was for me as a kid growing up in New York. My children will have very few sun-kissed memories of lying poolside swaddled in baking-hot towels, of the sweet smell of sweat mixed with barbecue. On the rare occasions it does show its golden face, the sun is a nuisance to them anyway. It’s too hot, it’s too bright. And they have come to appreciate being spared the chafing of stiff new summer sandals and the stickiness of repeated applications of sunscreen.

Once, when my oldest son was fed up with the chronically wet state of the cuffs of his trousers, he asked me quite seriously: why do we live here? It’s a fair question. As much as we love Scotland, we didn’t choose it for the weather, and I do wonder if my kids will leave this country of storm clouds and whipping winds as soon as they are able. Until that happens, though, we will keep putting on our wellie boots and waterproofs and braving the rain. Because when life pours, what better thing is there to do than jump in its puddles?

Dad is More Fun

Dad is More Fun

By Rachel Pieh Jones

dad is more fun

I get it. I’m not that fun. Though part of me wants to be jealous of my husband’s carefree, fun-loving, able to play like a toddler even though he is thirty-nine, attitude.

 

“Dad is more fun.”

“Mom takes cares of us.”

These are direct quotes from my kids at lunch one day. And there it was, clear as the zit on a teenager’s forehead. Dad is awesome. Mom is boring. I know that isn’t what the kids said but that is absolutely what I heard. And this conversation around the lunch table wasn’t the first time these types of things slipped out of the mouths of my three kids and sliced through my self-perception. And my ego.

Of course, Dad thought this was fantastic and laughed so hard he sprayed iced tea across the table, which the kids thought was oh-so-hilarious. This time I managed to refrain from asking that he wipe it up. Didn’t want to appear too boring or unable to join the fun.

But as the family continued laughing and snorting, the iced tea splatters stayed right where they were on the table. They slowly turned into sticky puddles that would be harder to scrub off later than if someone had simply swiped a napkin over them now. While laughing, fine, but also while the liquid was still liquidy. But later? Ants would pile into the puddle and get stuck, I might have to scrape at stubborn patches with my fingernail. So, yeah, maybe Dad is more fun. But at least the family doesn’t live in sticky-iced-tea-ant-pile-goopiness. Who would be laughing then, huh?

I didn’t say this out loud. I don’t think I need to explain why not. And anyway the answer to that question is: my family would still be laughing. That’s what we do and more often than not, I join in.

Instead, I tried to think of a time I had been really fun. We had a dance party the other day, a Wii dance party. We played Settlers of Catan every Wednesday night. About a week ago I made that one joke about that one kid who had eaten that thing. Everyone laughed. Okay, they laughed at me for getting the story all tangled up in the retelling of it but still, I made ’em laugh.

Fine. I get it. I’m not that fun. Though part of me wants to be jealous of my husband’s carefree, fun-loving, able to play like a toddler even though he is thirty-nine, attitude, I don’t really want to be jealous of it. I want to enjoy it. I love it. It is a huge part of why I fell in love with him in the first place and why I keep falling in love with him year after year.

I once sat with my Somali landlady outside our shared duplex and watched my husband play on the slackline with our kids and with her grandchildren.

“You have four kids,” she said and pointed at my husband.

“That’s why I married him,” I said.

I think I totally lucked out in having such a fun husband and that my kids totally lucked out in having such a fun dad.

One study found that playful people are more innovative, another found playful people did better academically, another found playful people either experienced less stress or handled stress better, and yet another found that playful people were more attractive to the opposite gender.

In comparison to my husband, I’m not very playful. But I’m learning to appreciate his play and to make space for it in our family and in my attitude, especially as our kids get older. The sound of teenagers laughing at something I said (it has been known to happen on occasion) or Nerf gun battles and roars of laughter during wrestling matches and mud-ball soccer games with dad is pure gold. I’m learning to laugh at myself and to not care about the iced tea on the table. I’m even learning to let go of my schedule and routine and shoot off a Nerf dart or two of my own.

Dad might always be more fun while mom takes care of the family but the least this mom can do is take care that the fun times roll on and on and on.

 

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

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

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A friend of mine once observed that I was “deeply monogamous” by nature. She said it one day while I was talking about my dogs. It was odd, I remarked, that even though my partner and I had adopted two dogs in the years we’d been together, and even though I fed and cared for both, I only thought of one of them as mine.

“That’s because you are deeply monogamous.” She said it offhandedly, as if it were something she’d always known, and it struck me that she was right.

At the time, I very badly wanted to have a child, and her comment haunted me as I planned my future family. If I was monogamous by nature, prone to focusing my affections on one object at a time, then perhaps it would be a mistake to have more than one. If I had two children, would I see them the same way I saw my dogs? Would I feed them both and clothe them both, but allow only one to sit close to my heart?

When my first son was born, several friends warned me that a single child would not quell my biological urge, that I would crave baby after baby the same way I craved chocolate after dinner. But this did not turn out to be true. As Harlan grew older, I sometimes felt a twinge of nostalgia for his newborn smell, his wispy hair, but for the most part I felt capable of moving on. My body had filled its quota. I could have stopped. But I didn’t.

Though my own biology didn’t pull at me, something else did: I wanted Harlan to have a sibling. The tug of this was gentle. It was a voice that I put off for years, but it was insistent. You have big expectations, it whispered. It might be better to spread them out between two children. The voice urged me to consider my own siblings—two sisters and two brothers—and the way they helped me understand my place in the world. I didn’t want to deny my son that sense of self-knowledge and belonging.

And so we conceived our second son. As he grew inside me, his brother spoke to him through the wall of my belly with ardent devotion. But the moment he arrived, I felt instantly torn. Harlan, who was now four, still hadn’t learned to sleep through the night on his own. Every night he’d wake and call for me, but I couldn’t come to him. I had to stay in my own bed to hold and nurse the baby. My partner replaced me.

In the daylight hours, Harlan would ask things of me, like to sit at the table and draw with him or help him make a puzzle. I couldn’t do these things because I was holding the baby, or nursing the baby, or changing the baby’s diaper. It was disheartening: Harlan had finally reached the age where he was an engaged conversationalist, a steady companion. These were the things that I had looked forward to, but I could no longer fully enjoy them.

At the time, I reassured myself that this era was temporary, that this is simply what it meant to have a newborn. But now, two years later, this reality persists. I cannot, for instance, play Candyland with Harlan while his brother Andy is home, because within minutes he will disrupt our figures and toss the cards across the room. If given the chance, Andy would tear the board along the seam with his brute strength.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others. These days when I put on a favorite album, my two sons dance across the living room, shaking their booties and kicking the air, and I laugh from a bright place that would have been unfamiliar to me in the years before I was a parent.

Every morning, Andy stands outside Harlan’s door and fiddles with the knob, crying “Bro-Bro? Bro-Bro?” until I carry him back to the kitchen. When Harlan finally wakes and emerges bleary-eyed from his room, Andy coos his name and leans in for a hug.  Sometimes I stand from a distance and admire their devotion. Other times I get down on my knees to join the embrace.

Even when things are hard—when Andy dismantles Harlan’s Lego rocket ship by chucking it across the room, and when Harlan slaps him in retaliation, I feel grateful for conflict as a teacher. “I hate your attitude!” Harlan shouts at his oblivious little monster of a brother, and I laugh at these hot moments, where both children must come to terms with the fact that the world won’t always bend to them. This is a lesson I want them to learn.

Every day I remind myself that this is the life I’ve chosen, a life of two children, both of them rowdy and loving. It’s a life that, quite frankly, my introverted, monogamous self was not designed for. But though it is an awkward fit, it is indeed my life. These are indeed my boys. Several times a week they prove it by attacking me on the couch and making farting noises against my bare belly, the same belly that now jiggles and sags from having carried them. My boys giggle wildly at their antics and my body.

It’s too much—all of it: the kisses and the screams, the dancing and the fights, the sleepless nights and the cuddles in the morning. It’s a life that stretches me beyond what I ever would have imagined. These boys have twisted me into a woman I barely recognize: a woman who’s aged visibly over the last three years but willing (mostly) to let go of her vanity; a woman who can be stern and loving in alternate breaths; a woman who finds the frayed end of her patience daily and either fails or succeeds at remaining calm.

The life I didn’t choose would have been rewarding, I think. It would have been restful, and sensible. But richness and growth, spontaneity and joy, those come at a price too.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.

Somewhere Between A Wish And A Truth: Two Generations of Siblings

Somewhere Between A Wish And A Truth: Two Generations of Siblings

By Carinn Jade

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It was something about becoming parents that rendered our shared childhood irrelevant.

 

My brother slides his infant daughter into her high chair at Thanksgiving dinner. She picks up her plastic spoon and flings it across the table whereby it hits her brother in the head.

“Ow!” he yells and begins to cry. “She hurt me!”

“She didn’t mean it,” my brother explains. “She’s your sister, she loves you very much.”

Hearing those words from brother’s mouth amidst the tension that hangs between us triggers something so deep that I lose my breath.

“That’s right,” I whisper at the dinner table, my gaze moving from my nephew and niece to my own son and daughter, all four born in as many years.

With my eyes I want to warn them, but I don’t know how. I don’t know when it went from us playing school, and sharing late night mac and cheese, and visiting one another’s colleges to the awkward tension between us now. Was it choosing godparents for our children? Was it trying to plan our parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary? Was it everything in between?

Growing up, my brother and I were so close I barely knew where he began and I ended. We cared for one another, made each other laugh, drove each other crazy. There were periods of time when we drifted apart before we came back together, but I don’t remember the distance and resentment the way it exists today.

For most of our lives we drove in our own lanes. I was the teacher, the writer, the future lawyer. He was the investigator, the scientist, the future computer genius. I was the one who dated, while he waited for “the one.” My brother sought answers; I dwelled in the questions. Since we were opposites in almost every way, there was no competition. On our worst days, we did our own thing side-by-side. On our best days we supported and complemented each other perfectly. The yin to my yang.

My brother and I were born twenty-three months apart, exactly the age difference between my own son and daughter. I watch my children play and fight, scream and hug, shifting from one to the next and back again without any transition. My husband, unfamiliar with this dynamic, looks at me and wonders aloud, “is this normal?” and I’m so choked up I can only nod my head yes. This is exactly how it used to be. Until it was no longer.

It was something about becoming parents that rendered our shared childhood irrelevant. My brother and I live across the street from one another in a city of millions, and our children go to the same school. Yet those hours we’d spent reminiscing about how we grew up were now replaced by bickering over the way we’d raise our own. You let them eat that? You let them watch this? The way we used to rib each other, as siblings do, suddenly felt like daggers to the heart when they involved our progeny. Everything became a competition and we judged each other harshly.

I fear I will spend the rest of my life watching my son and daughter interact, waiting for the rift that will send them in a new direction, one where the sibling bond is stretched so thin it no longer filters anything. I had two children close together so I could replicate what my brother and I had. How could I have known that having them would change us?

At five and three-years-old, we haven’t yet touched on the inevitable sibling rough patches that will sprout up. Right now they share a room, they love doing everything together and neither one remembers a day that the other didn’t exist. There is no hint of the playdates where one will be ousted or the secrets they will share with friends the other doesn’t know. How long will this cohesion last? A few years? A decade? As a mother and a sister, that’s not good enough. I want them to be close forever. Because I believe we can be close forever, despite where we are today.

When I hear my brother say to his son, “that’s your sister, she loves you. She will always love you, no matter what,” I wonder if it’s a wish for his own children or whether he knows it’s true.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, writer and non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and blogs at WelcomeToTheMotherhood.com.

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I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

There is no ideal way to space children. But a family dynamic can be dependent on how many years there are between siblings. Julie Bristol has three children, two of whom are ten years apart.  Debra Liese has three children, two of whom are less than a year apart. Their parenting experiences have been very different as a result.

 

I Have Children Ten Years Apart

By Julie Bristol

juliebristolExactly ten years, two months, two weeks and eleven minutes after my firstborn entered the world, my middle child assumed her perch on the family tree. My older girl was quietly enchanted with this new addition to our family. When I first placed her new sibling in her arms she beamed with pride, holding her gently and gazing endlessly at her tiny form. The first days were blissful as my older girl became a sister but, at two weeks old, the baby found her voice and began screaming. For hours. Every. Single. Day.

In trying to soothe my infant, suddenly my ten-year-old no longer had my full attention. And, as I was not willing to inflict a wailing baby on others, we could no longer go to many of the places that my older child loved to frequent, hushed places like Barnes & Noble with its world of exciting books, plush chairs and hot chocolate. One day I found her sobbing in the living room. She turned to me and asked desperately, “Mom, how can you stand this?” “The baby is sensitive,” I replied. “No! She’s just a brat!” It was clear my older daughter was beginning to resent the tiny usurper.

Yet as the baby grew, in between the screaming fits, she was bright and full of joy. My older girl could not help but to engage with her. And as a toddler, when she started to explore more of the world around her, her big sister sought out toys for her, tickled her tummy and toes, brushed her dark hair and raised smiles with tender kisses on her cheeks. Each week, when we took my older child to the stables where she worked and rode horses, the little one would tramp around after her in her ladybird wellies, listening intently as her sister told her about each horse, and explained what she was doing as she cleaned stalls.

It was heart-warming to see them play together—my oldest would run around on all fours, pretending to be a horse, with her younger sister perched precariously on her back, amidst gales of laughter. There were times when my older daughter grew tired of her younger sister’s attention, but the big age gap meant that the usual kind of squabbling and fighting simply did not occur. When she was unhappy with me, the little one would run to her sister—her ally. And whenever I spied them snuggled up together on the sofa, the oldest reading to the younger, I felt my heart become a universe of joy.

One of the loveliest things about having a large age gap was that all of the firsts remained firsts. I was truly amazed at each milestone with each child. I was able to fully indulge, unabashedly, each of my babies. What happiness for my older child to also witness those events, to delight in her sister’s progress; to be as much a part of helping teach her about the world as I. Being an older sister by so many years also helped my firstborn gain confidence, for she was so revered by her younger sister that she could not help but to feel important and valued.

With that decade between my children, I never had to leave my baby crying because my toddler needed me. I did not have to contend with breastfeeding an infant while negotiating a two- or three-year-old—with two children in diapers, two children potty-training, two children to settle into bedtime routines, two car seats, two sets of toys, two little ones sick, the terrible twos alongside the taxing threes. If I needed to have a quick shower during one of baby’s rare, quiet moments, her sister would watch over her. No concerns for me about a toddler trying to feed the infant buttons, or coins, or dirt from the plant pot, or poking her in the eye because she did not like her in a moment.

The relationship between my girls was, and is, incredibly special—the older to the younger part sister, part friend, part mother-figure, paragon of virtue. As adults, they are firm friends sharing a mutual, deep respect and affection for one another, the childhood hurts and resentments tucked away in a place of acceptance, and very much forgiven.

There is a gap of ten years between my first and second children, six-and-a-half between my second and third and, thus, a whopping sixteen-and-a-half years between my first and last children. Despite this, all three girls are very close. And having such large gaps allowed me to learn and grow as a mother at more leisure than those who have children close together. Some of the success within familial relationships is due to personalities, but having time and space were magic ingredients in our family. I would choose the same again.

Julie-Marie Bristol is a writer, mother of three, and is also a stained-glass and mosaic artist.

 

I Have Children One Year Apart

By Debra Liese

linked armsMy sister and I are not twins, but growing up, we were incessantly asked if we were. When we said no—though sometimes we also said yes, because what could be funnier than pretending you share more genetic material than you actually do—they’d say, with some incredulity, “but you may as well be!”

So you’re Irish twins, our inquisitors would exclaim, undaunted in their zeal for classification. Half Irish herself, my mother never warmed to the term. There was good reason for her aversion. Though the modern vernacular appears to refer benignly to children born in the same calendar year, the term originated in the 1800s as a derogatory slur directed at a surging influx of poor Irish Catholic immigrants. The invective was nasty in multiple ways; close-aged siblings were implied to be the result of scant birth control, education, and restraint.

My sister and I, at thirteen months apart, were technically not Irish twins. But, with an age difference of just under twelve months, my own children are.

These days, parenting op-ed pages are bursting with debates about the “best” possible age spacing, as if full control over the precise moment of conception is a luxury everyone enjoys. A two-year gap often gets the best showing, purportedly for striking a responsible balance between close-in-age cohesiveness and care-taking ease. In an era fanatical about planning, Irish twins are often assumed to be the result of impulsiveness or miscalculation, though children are born close together for all kinds of reasons, some of which are quite intentional. Rising maternal ages often compel women who want more than one child to hurry up and produce a second. For parents who plan to cut back on work during their children’s earliest years, but can’t afford to do so indefinitely, closely spaced births can help them to make the most of that time.

It didn’t take long for me to gather in those chaotic early days that my happily growing family inspired a kind of slack-jawed amazement or concern, the abject expressions of which I met with every time we’d set foot in public, which to be fair, was not often for at least a year. The writing was on the wall before my third pregnancy even ended. As if returning from maternity leave already pregnant was not laughable enough, when I attended my four-year-old’s school picnic with her baby brother balanced—gracefully, I thought—on my pregnant stomach, two other mothers walked past me murmuring, “That poor woman.” It was, I admit, a little disconcerting.

Not long after that picnic, my youngest daughter was born. A tough, sweet girl who seemed to intuit the need for cooperation, she was great at upending preconceptions about the difficulty of three children, and close-in age-siblings alike. She was, quite simply, a joy—which isn’t to say those years weren’t powered by a lucky brew of sleep deprivation and adrenaline.

No matter how you cut it, having two children within the same calendar year is no slight commitment. If mine were a result of an optimistic read of my own energy levels, they were also the result of my own childhood. I had every reason to be optimistic: My sister and I shared a closeness that was built as much on syncronicity of life-stage as it was emotional resonance. I have no memory of a childhood before she arrived, and life without her remains unimaginable. But others’ concerns regarding my own children’s spacing persisted well until we were out of the woods of joint infancy, when once again, strangers crowed “what a lovely family!” instead of gasping “how do you cope?”

The projected anxiety is an interesting mirror of our increasing tendency to view parenthood as an enterprise that should be less primordial and more a carefully orchestrated dance of timing around any number of factors, personal and professional. Space siblings too much, and you’re dragging a bored twelve-year-old to the playground. Space them too close, and you’re risking premature labor, robbing your children of the ability to revel in separate infancies, and forcing them to share everything.

Now preschoolers, my younger two simply look like boy-girl twins, an illusion that puts many questions to rest. And for certain practical purposes, they are twins. There were, inevitably, two in diapers, two in strollers, two, in a twist of ridiculousness, eligible to start kindergarten in the same year. Asking educators for advice on this particular issue, I’m more often than not met with baffled silence. It’s not, apparently, a scenario occurring with enough frequency to have inspired any policy at all.

And yet, a year of their own, both in school and other arenas, is something I’ve come to see they each need. The trickiness of raising Irish twins lies not in the many ways they are like twins, but in the ways that they aren’t. To the untrained eye, they are identical developmentally, their strawberry blonde heads bouncing along at the same level, their car seats traded for boosters simultaneously, even their meltdowns rising in twin volcanic peaks at the witching hour. The persisting fascination with all things matched makes the world eager to swoop them up in twin mystique, muse about shared languages and shoe sizes. And yet, they are in subtly different places on the continuum of childhood. Their growth is staggered when it comes to many milestones that are important to them: learning to read, riding a bike, saying a brave goodbye at the school door.

My twins-who-aren’t-twins no longer evoke concern for their mother’s imminent survival. They are newly capable of wonders like walking in a straight line at school pickups, and riding contentedly in a grocery cart. They attend (adorably) a mixed-age preschool, take care of each other when they cry on the playground, and fight over who gets to sit on my lap at breakfast, usually coming to a truce, teetering on their half to spear strawberries from a shared dish. Close and independent, the same but different, they will grow up answering a question I know by heart. Are you twins? Sometimes they answer yes and sometimes they answer no, but I don’t need to ask why. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Debra Liese works in scholarly publishing and lives in a country town with her husband and three children.

Through the Lens of Boyhood

Through the Lens of Boyhood

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Within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of…

 

When my firstborn was an infant and the days opened like huge blank canvasses, pristine, challenging and monotonous, I sometimes shared advice I knew would become more difficult to deliver far enough in the future to be unfathomable. My infant son’s hands and arms danced in midair, like some exotic meditative exercise and I knew about every bit of saliva that dribbled from his mouth. Not only was independence unfathomable, I couldn’t really envision his ability to roll over or crawl, climb stairs or toddle. “Don’t drink and drive,” I’d tell him. Rather than respond, the unblinking baby boy stared at me. “Use condoms,” I’d counsel, “regardless of whether anyone asks you to do so.” He wriggled in my arms. “No means no,” I’d declare. “These are things you need to understand.”

If I glimpse a photograph of that wee babe, he seems simultaneously completely familiar and almost a stranger. So is the mother who held that tiny boy. Time is strange that way.

My third son is twelve now. His voice has lowered but not yet dropped. He’s moody (actually he’s always been moody; he’s moodier). On the brink of adolescence, I feel his attentions shift, and so I love when we connect and shrug it off when he’s grumpy and try extra hard to blend into the background when he and his pals get silly together so that I can drink in their exuberant, giddy energies. Last night, snuggled under a blanket, we watched Boyhood together. He reserved the right to leave and watch something that interested him more (The Walking Dead). And then, he got sucked right in. We both did.

Beyond the simple but mesmerizing idea that time passes, the film illustrates how our stories happen not just because of time’s march or personality’s existence; so much of who we become occurs in response to what happens to and around us. This family, through the frame of Mason’s boyhood unfolding, faces all sorts of bumps and disappointments and growth, and little bits of joy. We see that love is and isn’t enough and certainly falls short. We see that however much we love our children, to raise them isn’t easy and can be burdensome. We see these things, perhaps, because anyone who has been inside a family appreciates their truths.

For many of us, parenting feels active, a verb, if not a life choice. It consumes us. We harbor a hope that if we do things correctly—best diapers or food, careful words, the key classes and just enough benign neglect—we can ace parenthood and ensure our children’s happiness and success. That’s a myth, of course.

Regardless of circumstance, whether we’re too young or too old or too much in need of an education or a steadier source of income, life happens to us while we’re parents. We lose parents or our relationships fall apart. We fall in love again and even if the new loves work for us, the same may not be as true for our children. A job takes too much effort and we can’t focus upon our kids or we don’t have a job that’s absorbing and we focus too much upon our kids. Insert your story here.

We can do many things, but control our lives isn’t one of them. The thing Boyhood illustrates as much as anything else is that within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of—and so we can continue beyond the years of boyhood or girlhood or intensive parenthood—to search out what and who to love, and how to love. That’s what I couldn’t have begun to envision when I kissed the smoothest cheeks I’d ever put my lips to: the sincere sweetness of goodhearted failure. Even though we’re much more worn, every single one of us, rather than feel sad to know this, I’m grateful. If it’s possible, I feel more tenderly toward my children, my spouse and myself now than I did back then.

 

Photo: Indiewire.com

Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned

Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned

By Asha Jameson

It’s been eight thousand, three hundred, and ninety-five days since my last confession. I have judged my neighbor. Really, I judged moms and dads on how they parent before being in their shoes. And I want to apologize.

I’m so sorry I passed judgment on you, (now my fellow) parents. Before I had a child, I had no idea. I had no idea what you were going through, existing with a new human being in your lives. I had no idea what it meant to be responsible for a tiny living thing. I had no idea that having a baby could throw your expectations 180 degrees from where you thought they’d be.

Hypothetically, I knew life was tough and at times, chaotic. But, what I didn’t understand is that you were spending every minute, every moment, making sure he was ok. I didn’t ‘get’ that you were learning a new human being, and were completely absorbed in understanding him and responding to his needs promptly and effectively. I had no idea how hard it was to simply get through the day! Even as a woman with siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews, I judged you based on my own assumptions about what parenting is, and what kind of parent I knew I would be.

What kind of parent was that, you ask? Well, I didn’t really know. But, for example, I just knew things like… “I would never be one of those parents who had a kid with crusty stuff all over its face.” How hard could it be to keep your baby clean? My kid was always going to be clean and utterly adorable.

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What a load of horse#$%*. Anyone who has attempted to clean pureed carrots out of an active and squirming 9-month-old’s nose when they are rushing to get out of the house to make it to work knows that sometimes, frankly, it just isn’t going to happen. So, again, to all the parents of crusty kids…I’m sorry.

I also knew “I would never be one of those parents who sat in the back seat of the car with the baby while the other parent drove.” No way. That baby was coming along with us. We’re the parents and we sit in front.

Oh really? Well, after a couple car trips filled with blood-curdling screams and the honest belief that she could possibly be dying back there, I changed my mind real quick. So, I apologize for not realizing that when you have a brand new baby, this is not a choice you make—to cater needlessly to your baby and choose them over your spouse. This was not a choice, it was just reality. I get it now. I’m sorry.

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Finally, I was absolutely sure “I would never be one of those mothers who happily left their kid behind and headed back into the workplace with vigor.” Being a mother was going to be the end-all, be-all. And work, though necessary to pay the bills, would pale in comparison to being the loving, impeccable mother I knew I would be.

It took me a long time to realize how grateful I was to go back to work. How the car ride by myself in the morning grounded me. How the solo decision about where to have lunch excited me. How I could finally relax because someone else was in charge of making sure she was ok. And, I’m a better mother because of it.

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So, I apologize. I’m sorry I judged the parents who have walked before me. I will take any penance you want to give me, except for listening to ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ fifty times.

 

Asha Jameson is an attorney who lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and 9-month-old baby girl, Clover. She writes about balancing work and family life for the blog, www.hearsayandhappiness.com, under the pseudonym “Hope.”

Elementary School Love Notes

Elementary School Love Notes

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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A mother poses the question: how should elementary kids respond to love notes?

 

In second grade a boy gave my daughter an iridescent plastic orange ring. In the last three weeks of third grade she scored three loves notes from boys and a gift of a plastic egg with two rare marbles inside. This year, fourth grade, she has already received multiple love notes including ones surreptitiously passed in the middle of class and one accompanied by the longest loom band necklace she has ever seen.

She gleefully jumps into the car for the drive home and says, “You won’t believe what happened to me today,” and then dissolves into giggles and hands me the notes or shows me the gifts.

The notes are written in French, in the over-sized scrawl of third or fourth grade boys. They say things like:

Je t’aime. I love you.

Tu est jolie. You are pretty.

Je suis le garcon avec les lunettes rouges. I am the boy with the red glasses.

Je suis amoreux de toi. I am in love with you.

Apparently French really is the language of love, as a friend on Twitter reminded me.

The notes have instructions for where to meet during recess and pencil-sketched drawings of stick figure boys wearing red glasses or of lopsided hearts.

“Oh la la,” I say. “What do you think about these letters?”

Lucy laughs. “I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t love the boys, I don’t even know them. But I like the marbles.” She said she was ‘totally keeping the loom band necklace.’

How exactly should an elementary school kid handle receiving these kinds of love notes?

Lucy says there are two options.

  1. You say: “Oh, thank you,” in a dull voice that drops in pitch at the end. You walk away.
  2. You say: “Oh, thanks,” in a sing-song voice while swaying and shifting your weight from one foot to the other. You don’t walk away.

She performs the walk away option, which is what I want her to do for quite a few more years.

According to her older sister, now fourteen, there is a third option for how to deal with love notes from boys in elementary school.

  1. You rip them up and scatter the pieces on the ground, maybe stomp on the scraps and laugh.

This would be the more heartless option but it also sends a clear message to other would-be authors of love notes and is how she handled it when, in elementary school, an especially persistent boy peppered her with love notes.

Lucy’s brother, also fourteen, says he has no fourth option to offer as advice. He never got a love letter, never sent a love letter, and plans to keep it that way indefinitely. No time for girls, good riddance.

And I’m stuck. What do I encourage Lucy to do? Should she return the gifts? Accept them? Stomp on the letters? Ignore the boys? Our family doesn’t go for early relationships, even of the elementary school I-ignore-you-because-I-like-you variety.

The boys aren’t harassing her, she isn’t bothered by the attention. She ignores them, mostly too concentrated on winning a rare marble or running as fast as she can while paying touche-touche (tag). If a boy thinks she is pretty or smart or athletic or funny or kind or creative and wants to draw her a picture of himself with a heart over his head, she’ll take it and keep right on running or shooting her marble.

In the end, I say more power to her. I tell her: Say thank you for the compliment but there is no reciprocal obligation. Press on with doing what you love and with being who you are. No matter what the world says, no matter if boys write you love notes or don’t write you love notes, mom is here. There is a heart sketched in the sky over my head and I’m here, loving you.

This image of mom with an imaginary heart over her head might be like the worst thing ever for my older kids, but for a fourth-grader? Knowing that she is loved by mom is even better than a loom necklace a yard long. Knowing mom loves her above every other fourth grader is even better than a fancy French love note. I’d like to keep it that way for years to come. So Lucy, here’s the most important love note of all your elementary school years:

Lucy,

I am the American mom with the curly blond hair. Meet me at the yellow pole after school for your ride home. Je t’aime forever and no matter what,

Maman

 

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

I Love You the Same. But Different.

I Love You the Same. But Different.

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one. But I was still surprised when that sentence came out through my fingers.

In particular, I’ve noticed singular aspects of my love for my son. I don’t understand why specifically, but have some theories.

Theory #1: Gender

He’s a boy. Sometimes I just stop there and think, woah dude, that’s a boy. He stuns me and confuses me and intrigues me. Though I am married to one, birthed one, and have lived around many for my entire life, males remain an enigma. I enjoy watching a sports event or two and am decent with a ball, I can even catch a Frisbee behind my back or between my legs. But I have no soccer team to which I am devoted and my favorite sports games to watch are the ones my children are playing in.

There are other things I don’t understand about the men in my life. The inability to find something when it is sitting on the countertop directly in front of them. The need to tackle people, throw things, or generally jump around the house in order to fall asleep at night. The stink and the aversion to removing the stink whether through showering or deodorizing. The way men make friends, maintain friendships, and communicate with those friends.

I suspect this general confusion about the other gender adds a factor of mystery to my love for him. I’m intrigued by this world of men that as a mother I’m both pulled into and kept out of. I’m drawn in, want to understand, to discover if this mystery of my delightful son is solvable even while I know that there is nothing to solve, just a bundle of energy to love.

Theory #2: The Unexpected

Often the things my son loves to do are things I never would have considered. When he was little we played dinosaur and everyone had to lumber around the room like a Diplodocus or a Tyrannosaurus Rex and he could tell if our movements weren’t accurate or wholehearted. On hikes, I walk and enjoy the scenery. He engages the scenery, scrambles up trees and boulders. Or he hunts frogs, which he then cooks on top of knife blades over open campfires and offers to me, still warm on the knife blade, to eat.

I suspect his ability to come up with surprising, resourceful, and creative activities adds a factor of fascination to my love for him. He brings unique experiences and ways of seeing the world into my vicinity and I have the privilege of expanding myself as we interact.

Theory #3: Physicality

Both my husband and my son are physical people. They are wrestlers, affectionate, and playful. I used to be able to catch my son, beat him in a race at the playground, pin him to the floor, dunk him under water, and generally crush him when it came time to roughhouse. I can’t do that anymore. This past summer, my dad offered my son one dollar to dunk me in the lake (I was trying to keep my hair dry). He took the challenge and swarmed like an octopus on steroids. I held my ground for a few minutes but soon enough, he had me under and proudly collected his dollar.

He can also be tender and gentle at times but the force of his growing power stuns me. I no longer walk through airports lugging all of our carry-ons, he does that willingly and capably. He even retrieves roller bags from their overhead compartments. He heaves stones out of my path. I love his strength.

I suspect his physical strength adds a factor of awe to my love for him.

If I thought more about it, I could come up with more theories. I also know I could come up with categories in which my love for each of my daughters is singular. They are all mysteries to me, strange and beautiful people who came out of my body. Came out of my body but are now infinitely individual, yet related somehow. I have empathy for all of them when I see my weaknesses reflected but I also have awe for all of them, when I see them overcome those weaknesses in fascinating ways I might not ever have thought of. They aren’t me, they aren’t even, ultimately, a reflection of me. They are fully themselves and I love them all the same. But different.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Thirteen Years – An Adoptive Mother and Her Baby Son

Thirteen Years – An Adoptive Mother and Her Baby Son

By Colleen Wells

Back to School-4th grade

As a baby you are found abandoned in a crowded marketplace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

You in a picture at about age two. Soulful, sad eyes, distended belly, shaved head to keep off the lice. Every time I look at it I feel my heart squeeze.

At two and a half you’re home, see snow for the first time, and shovel handfuls of it into your mouth until your new Dad stops you.

You pick up the language quickly, but still use your native Amharic for certain words like “Shente bet” meaning “toilet.” In a busy restaurant, you run between the tables yelling, “I gotta go shente. Shent! Shint!” while clutching yourself. It sounds like something else.

9/11 happens and you understand more than we’d like. You refer to military men as “army pants.” At a steakhouse you see a table of men in army fatigues and ask them if they’re going to get the bad guys. Later you whisper to your older brother, “Army pants can’t die.”

At three you are so happy to see your grandpa, that you grab him in the balls. Big laughs all around.

At four we are driving down highway 37 jamming to the Beastie Boys so hard I worry what passersby think.

Around six or seven you start winning character awards at your elementary school. My favorite is the “patience” award.

When you’re eight you get a piece of a geode embedded in a growth plate in your hand. It requires full anesthesia to dig it out. I know it’s a small procedure, but find myself pacing in the waiting area, having to go outside to breathe in the air and bargain with God. When you wake up I stare into the pools of your eyes as if it’s the first time. On the way home you want to stop at school to show the kids the shrapnel from your hand.

At ten you’re no longer the scrawniest one on the soccer team, but I still scream from the sidelines when an opponent gets too rough with you, especially if I’ve had too much caffeine.

By twelve you’ve discovered a passion for fishing. You’ve had hooks cut out of your finger and ear to prove it.

We tell you we’re bringing an eight-year-old sister into the fold. You’re naturally jealous, asking, “Are we really getting that Crapper?”

At thirteen we’re driving with the windows down, wind in our hair, listening to Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen so loud the car is vibrating.

At fourteen you can read my face as well as you could when you were five. Only you don’t ask if I’m sad or scared. You just ask me what’s wrong. And I tell you.

You argue with your sister all the time, but you’d take a bullet for her.

Now that you are fifteen, you’re itching to take driver’s ed. You’re off with your buddies, all of the time, but you still curl up on the edge of your parents’ bed.

Colleen Wells writes from Bloomington, Indiana, where she lives with her husband and three children, three dogs, and three cats. Her favorite number is 333. Colleen’s first book, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery is forthcoming from Wordpool Press. You can read more about her work at www.ColleenWells.com or www.dinnerwithdoppelgangers.com.

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The House a Dream Built

The House a Dream Built

By Kirsten Piccini

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What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?

 

I could picture the house in my head—the white siding, black shutters and the red door I’d finally talked my husband into. I’d mentally positioned furniture and held my own internal debates about a shower door versus a curtain. For months it had taken up precious space in my thoughts, replacing the constant thrum of failure that pulsed just beneath the surface of my skin.

It was a fertile dream, this house, unlike so many others, one that was poised to come true.

So as I sat on the unmade bed, wrapping the crisp edge of the sheet around my finger only to unwrap it and then repeat the process, I felt the dream drifting away, fading like an old photo.

“Honey?” I said to my husband who was just coming out of sleep and regarding my tick with concern.

The night before at a Super Bowl party the hosts had procured entertainment for the women in the form of a tarot card reader who straightened the multi colored scarf on her head, shuffled her cards and read into the subtle clues I had worked hard not to give her.

“I see you spending a great deal of money very soon.”

I pictured four spacious bedrooms, the sunken living room and the stone we’d settled on for the façade and fireplace. The frame had been erected for a few weeks now and we had pictures on our camera capturing the big wooden skeleton rising out of the dirt and earth, ascending from a barren nothingness.

I mentioned the colonial and our recent down payments.

“But you’ll be moving things.” She interjected as her ringed fingers tapped the cards.

I kept my eyes down and listened to her honeyed voice drop, “The best way to explain it is to say, if you thought a cupboard would go on one wall,” she pointed out things in our imaginary kitchen, “you’ll find yourself putting it over here instead.”

I nodded, letting the words and metaphor sink in.

My hasty goodbye was born of a visceral fear she could hear my heart beating in my chest. Her words rang in my ears and nagged at me beyond the party, well into the night when we bedded down in a hotel room close by and even as I attempted sleep. I woke tangled, sweat-soaked and resolute.

“I’ve been thinking…” I whispered to my husband who was regarding me with a mix of confusion and fear.

Maybe that’s why he reached for me, perhaps he sensed something in my voice that I was too afraid to express or he simply wanted to comfort me, but I flinched involuntarily, backing away from his hand. I did not need soothing or sex, did not want either one and I know, now, that he didn’t either.

Sex had become a chore, an elaborate production that produced nothing.

Even here in the anonymity of a foreign bedroom, without the pressure of an ovulation calendar hanging over us I couldn’t recall a time when our intimate life had been satisfying; instead it was scheduled and predictable in the worst possible way. Our kisses had begun to taste of iron and desperation.

He pushed himself up on an elbow and waited. I thought about moving cupboards. Bile rose in my throat as I pushed the words out, “I think we should ask the builders to return our down payment. There’s still time to break the contract isn’t there?”

He nodded, resigned to simply listening.

My heart clenched when I pictured the back bedroom, the one I’d mentally painted the color of a spring meadow and dubbed “the playroom.” But the space was empty. The only echoes I could hear on those polished hardwood floors were our solitary footsteps. What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?

“I want to do In-Vitro.” I said, with as much courage and hope I could muster.

In-Vitro Fertilization would be expensive, from a financial and emotional standpoint and we both knew it. There would be no money back guarantee if it didn’t work. But I wanted to try it; I needed to know, once and for all, if there were still reasons to dream.

He sighed.

Maybe that’s what surrender sounds like, or perhaps it’s really the vociferous noise of determination. As I watched his own part of our dream gasp a last shuttering breath, I heard, behind it, the smallest click—like an egg opening or a window cracking.

We walked out of the hotel hand-in-hand and slowly began to tear down one dream and sketch another with shaking hands, in pencil, with an eraser ever at the ready.

Three months later, on the night before Mother’s Day, my husband slid a thin needle into the fleshy part of my stomach. Medication rushed my system, the sting in my side matching the one at the corners of my eyes, on its journey to my ovaries.

Five months later, two small ovals appeared on a black, grainy screen, their small shapes morphing, twisting, and growing from a barren nothingness. Their small hearts flashing like beacons.

We hardly knew what it meant then, but yes, oh yes, our dream had found purchase. We had built something of our own.

Kirsten is a wife after decades of dating, a mom after years of infertility and a writer after filling a lifetime of notebooks. She writes about love, life, and mothering her 6-year-old twins conceived after infertility on her blog The Kir Corner and weaves romantic stories on her fiction blog: Kirsten A Piccini. Find her on Facebook or on twitter @KirstenPiccini

Things We Cannot Know

Things We Cannot Know

By Vikki Reich

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When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

 

One Sunday night, I was reading in bed when my daughter skipped into the room and asked to cuddle. I put my book aside, scooted down to lie on my back, stretched out my arm and waited for her to curl into my side and put her head on my shoulder as she usually did. But she didn’t move and I turned my head to see her lying on her side facing me with her hands together and tucked under her cheek, “I want to see your pretty face,” she said, and I laughed and I turned to face her.

We stared at each other and said nothing, one of those rare moments of reverence when you take the time to really see another person. I noticed the way the light hit her dark brown hair and gave it highlights that looked like fine copper threads, the smoothness of her olive skin so different than my own, her brown eyes that seem so much warmer than my pale blue ones, and her full lips just like mine.

“Now, I’m going to tell you everything I did this weekend,” she said and began to give me the rundown, the details of which are lost to me. Then, she inched just a tiny bit closer and said, “So we can never know our donor, Mama?”

She’d spent part of the day with our friends’ daughters, who have known donors, so I knew immediately why she was thinking about this. There was no way to soften the edges of my answer so I spoke after only a beat, “No, baby. We can’t.”

She looked back at me with those dark eyes, “Well that’s a little bit sad.”

I knew I had a choice in that moment. I could ask about the sadness and try to untangle it or I could sit with the truth of her statement and, in the end, I chose simplicity.

“Yes. It is.”

But that truth is not hers alone.

When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

When I watch my son draw with his left hand, I wonder if the donor liked to draw too and if his hand smudged the paper just like my son’s.

When I brush my daughter’s thick hair or run my hand through my son’s, I think (and often say), “You’re so lucky you got the donor’s hair,” because it’s so clearly nothing like mine. And then I wonder what he looked like, wishing we had a picture so that I could marvel at the unexpected ways our genes combined to make these beautiful children.

But these are things we cannot know.

And then she asked another question, “Why did you pick an unknown donor?”

I wanted to say that it was complicated which is my response when I think something is too complex for the kids to understand or, less nobly, when I don’t want to take the time to explain it. But I resisted because the truth isn’t very complex at all.

We chose an unknown donor from a sperm bank in Minnesota because there were laws in place to assure that the donor could not have any contact with our children, even after they were adults. We chose the most restrictive type of donor arrangement possible and we had our reasons.

I explained that we made the decision when gay people didn’t have any protections under the law, when children could be taken away from someone simply because he or she was gay, when we weren’t sure that both of us would be legally recognized as their parents.

We did it to protect ourselves.

We made that decision 14 years ago during a very uncertain time. We didn’t know then that judges would change and second-parent adoptions would become easier. We didn’t know that we would someday be able to legally marry.

And because there were things we could not have known then, there are these things we cannot know now. We will never know more about the donor than what is contained in the few pages of that profile we received all those years ago.

I reached out and took her hand in mine and told her that I could show her what we did know about him and she said, “Okay. I don’t really need to see it. Not now.”

I have no doubt that she will someday have more questions and we will tell her everything we know but that information is finite and there will always be questions we can’t answer.

Before I got pregnant, my mother asked, “What will you tell your child about the father?” She meant to unnerve me, to put me on the defensive. But our decision to have children using an unknown donor is not something I will ever feel the need to defend. We made a choice and I have no regrets though I do have this feeling that I can’t explain—not quite sadness but more complex than curiosity. I would love to meet the donor, to watch him in the world knowing that he is partly responsible for these children that have brought such beauty and chaos into our lives.

But he is only a myth, a story we create. He is the person about whom my partner and I both say when watching our children with amusement, “He must have been a piece of work.” And yet, we will never know for sure.

Vikki Reich writes about the intersection of contemporary lesbian life and parenthood at her personal blog Up Popped A Fox and publishes VillageQ, a site that gives voice to the experience of LGBTQ parents. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and two kids who provide the soundtrack of her life, which involves more beatboxing and improvised pop songs than she ever could have imagined.

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Understanding Our Kids’ Goofy Picture Face Phenomenon

Understanding Our Kids’ Goofy Picture Face Phenomenon

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“Hey you, there! Smile for your daddy!” You surprise your daughter with a camera pointed at her and, quicker than light and thought, a purity of joy erupts across her face and click—got it, happiness, digitized. How do they do that? I like to believe that it’s bigger than classical conditioning, stimulus and response, a camera equals time for a big fake smile. No. The little ones. I imagine them having a direct pipeline to unblemished joy, immediate access to the original thrill of Being, so when they see a camera, the veneer of their surface concerns immediately give way to a religious-like sense of aesthetic pleasure in the fact of just being little beings. Like tiny Zen Masters, they seem to gasp “AH!” and then chuckle wise and true. Here we are again. Little kids are the best subjects of pictures. Still happy about their relatively new status of being subjects at all, they revel in being photographed. They smile like ecstatic sunrises.

But then they turn 10 and who knows what the hell happens? Of course the age may differ for your kids (or it may never happen to your kids), but both my kids turned 10 and somehow lost their ability to summon instant access to a delighted face in the presence of a camera. Is 10 the year when self-consciousness reaches such a magnificent pitch that its hands wrap around their necks and choke them half to death the moment a camera flashes? Their tongues fly out, their eyes cross, and they even make goofy noises to underscore that this is a game they are no longer willing to play. Or is it a fall from grace? Do they perhaps themselves sense that their unencumbered path to unadulterated, spontaneous joy has, for reasons unknown, become blocked so that they, bewildered, make distorted and goofy faces to compensate for this loss?

Or are they maybe just trying to drive me insane? Smile, dammit! This picture is for your Nana!

Does their reasoning capacity, at age 10, reach a level of sophistication that realizes the flawed nature of our culture’s emphasis on physical appearance so, in a defiant effort to subvert this emphasis, they suddenly go all punk rock and ram their fingers up their noses? On another cultural note, there’s a traditional Native American aversion to being photographed due to the belief that their reproduction (either in a mirror or a photograph) produces a loss of soul. The soul is actually stolen by the image. Are the kids’ distorted and contorted faces maybe ways of shunning the activity of photography itself as a means to protect and cultivate their spiritual lives?

Then again, funny faces are just, you know, funny.

I remember being 10 and the precaution to look both ways before I crossed the street took on heightened importance. In fact, I began to look both ways twice! Anyway, what I’m driving at here is the possibility that the child’s grotesque face in the presence of the camera might in some way signify his or her more fully developed relationship to the fact that they will one day perish. This knowledge is certainly worthy of a really gross and twisted face.

Finally, maybe the goofy picture face phenomenon represents the child’s first real steps toward the direction of escaping who they are on the way to becoming who they’ll be. Until now, they have been satisfied with the roles of being our enthusiastic babies, hungry for our love, eager for our approval, and ready to smile every time we chime SMILE! But when middle school looms and they begin to sense that impossible place between childhood and adulthood, who can blame them for shunning the camera, closing their eyes, snarling, and sticking out their tongues? To thwart our desires by refusing to make the camera faces we crave and filling our scrapbooks with monsters and punk rockers is the way a self undoes itself on the path toward sketching the outlines of their own worldly countenance.

And to that I say cheese.

Bonus Baby

Bonus Baby

By Elizabeth Roca

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 4.37.48 PMLast night I did what I ordinarily do around eleven o’clock. I shut down my laptop computer and put it away, then closed the book I was reading and set it on the lamp stand next to the sofa. I brought my water glass and my wine glass into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. While my husband went outside to smoke his last cigarette for the evening, I climbed the stairs and readied myself for bed.

I donned my pajamas and crawled in next to my nineteen-month-old daughter, Camille. She was sleeping beautifully, pajamaed bottom in the air and bobbed sand-colored hair spilling over the sheet. Normally when I get into bed she just rolls against me and sighs, but tonight my movements disturbed her. She stirred, thrashed, then moaned and held up both hands, her eyes shut. “Up high! Up high!” she cried. It is the phrase she uses when she can’t reach an object or when she wants to place something beyond her older siblings’ grasp. She is growing so quickly. I used to think she was dreaming when, in infancy, she stayed latched onto my breast throughout the evening, eyes closed, throat pulsing in rhythm with her fluttering tongue. But this was the first time I had heard the proof: her own words, outlining an image in her brain I could not see.

She’s easy, this little girl, my third and last baby: a tiny, verbally precocious, sharp-witted mama’s girl. She has been a joy to me every day of her life. I am a joy to her, too; I know this as I have known few things. She tromps along behind me all day long, hollering, “Mam-my! Mam-my!” in her surprisingly deep voice. “Lap,” she says, reaching up, and when ensconced on my thighs, yanks my shirt and demands, “This!” I bare my breast and she laughs and latches on, falling back into the crook of my elbow. After a short time she grows sleepy and meditative, playing with a lock of my hair. While she nurses I read or play with my older children or talk on the phone. I kiss the silky, smelly sole of her bare foot and she grins around my nipple and raises the other foot to be kissed, too. Holding her in my arms, making her happy, is often the happiest part of my day.

Her brother and sister, twins, are thick in the drama of being three years old. They compete for my attention much of the time, hanging onto me and demanding treats, shoving each other, snatching toys, pulling hair, whining until I want to scream—and sometimes do. Often Camille moves beyond it all, serenely bedding down a doll in a wooden cradle or swiping ineffectively at a miniature football with a plastic golf club. For minutes at a time, in the throes of grappling with her siblings, I nearly forget Camille. I glance up and feel surprised to see her there, small and solemn under her straight bangs. She sees me looking and gives a goofy grin, all half-grown baby teeth and adult-looking undereye bags. Adoration coupled with sadness flares in me, and I think, It is the strangest thing: she was not meant to exist.

I’m not ignorant, at least not in matters of conception. I know how babies are made. But this one caught me by surprise. I went to my ob/gyn’s office for my yearly checkup and told her something strange was going on with my period. I’d gotten it as usual on my twins’ first birthday. The next month had brought cramps and a single morning of spotting. I might have wondered about that longer if it hadn’t occurred on Christmas Eve, while my attention was caught up in our family celebration. The following month had come and gone without any blood at all. I’d been wondering, I told my doctor, if my body were undergoing some kind of post-breastfeeding hormone fluctuations.

The doctor snickered. A few minutes later, with one hand inside me and the other pressed flat against my stomach, she said, “I think you’re pregnant, and I think you’re twelve weeks pregnant.”

A few minutes after that she performed an impromptu sonogram and confirmed her diagnosis: sometime in early September, probably, I would give birth to my third baby and thereby become the mother of three children under the age of two.

I liked this doctor. When I laughed, she laughed with me.

*   *   *

My husband and I had been told that we were unlikely to have babies on our own, and after eighteen months of the agony that is de rigueur for infertile couples, we had conceived our twins through in vitro fertilization. When you are used to injections, artificial hormones, and egg retrievals, unassisted conception seems nothing short of miraculous. This pregnancy, therefore, was a gift and a blessing. It was also a surprise, and this was the aspect of it that was hard to reconcile. When a gift and blessing arrives unexpectedly, unasked for, in the midst of your busy life, you must decide what your reaction will be: acceptance or rejection.

My husband had also laughed in disbelief and pleasure when I returned home from the doctor’s office and shoved the sonogram photos into his hand, unable to think of words to accompany their blurry but irrefutable images. I was thrilled, grateful, fierce in the expectation that someone might try to tell me that this pregnancy was not a good idea. By any practical measurement it was not. My husband and I had too little money, too small a house, even too small a car to keep three children. Worse, my first pregnancy had been disastrous, a mess of preterm labor that kept me on bedrest for four months, the majority of that time in the hospital. Soon after my second pregnancy was diagnosed I returned to the hospital’s antenatal unit to show off my twins and announced to the nurses that I was expecting another baby. The nurses, who had struggled with me to keep the number of my preterm contractions down to six an hour, looked at me with naked horror.

I was afraid, too. As the second pregnancy went predictably downhill, as I went into preterm labor and was put on bedrest again, as my husband and I struggled to keep our household together and I cried daily because I was no longer able to care for my darling twins, I clung to that initial happiness. By day I lay and catalogued my burden of worries. I was afraid of how adding another baby to the family would affect my older children, who still needed me so much. I was afraid of how it would affect my relationship with my husband, with whom I already spent little time alone. I was afraid of being dragged down, again and so soon, into the walking coma that is the first year after an infant’s birth, when you are so tired you cannot remember the newspaper’s headlines five minutes after reading them.

Most of all I was afraid of losing the pregnancy. This baby, whom I had not expected to have, had become vital to me. Where once I had thought I would be lucky to have one baby, I had come to feel I needed a third. As I lay in bed I felt the fetus’s hiccups, ran my hands over my smooth, stretched abdomen, and dreamed greedily of this new child’s unknown face.

In my ninth month I was allowed off bedrest and my husband went back to work. My energy, unleashed, was considerable. I bought newborn-sized diapers and washcloths and bibs. I dug out infant clothes in blue, pink, and yellow and prevailed upon my mother to bleach a bagful of tiny, stained undershirts. My mother babysat Lily and Jonah so that my husband and I could go out to dinner, and we sat in an Indonesian restaurant and ate soup so spicy it made our eyes water. While we ate we talked, for the first time, about names for this baby.

I went into labor one night while sitting on the living room couch playing solitaire on my laptop. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, all danger of prematurity past. The occasion was undramatic: my usual contractions intensified, then intensified some more, and then it was time to go to the hospital. Camille was born an hour and a half later, soon after my obstetrician arrived in the delivery room. I pushed half a dozen times and she was out. Boom, a thunderclap. A snap of the fingers. A magician’s veil waved and she appeared, our little daughter.

*   *   *

From the night of her birth she surprised me. Once settled in the postpartum recovery room I tried to place her in her plastic bassinette so I could lie down in my own bed. She fussed. At first I thought she might need feeding or changing, but after some experimentation I found that she cried if I put her down, ceased if I held her close. Her preference matched mine, and I slept with her at my side, my arm looped around her to prevent her from falling off the bed.

Camille’s demand that I hold her was a new experience for me. My twins had been preemies who needed breathing assistance; the neonatologists had shown them briefly to me and my husband, then whisked them off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I had not been able to hold Lily until she was twenty-four-hours old, and Jonah until he was two days old. Even then I had been allowed half an hour to cuddle my blanket-wrapped infants, then made to put them back into their isolettes; they were too weak to complain. The weeks they spent in the NICU were a constant struggle between my instinct, which wanted to scoop up the babies and run, and my intellect, which knew I could not. Lame after my long bedrest, I limped back and forth between the two isolettes, my hands clenched behind my back, my heart pierced by my powerlessness.

Even as Camille slipped out of me my obstetrician was chanting, “Give her to Mom, give her to Mom; she didn’t get to do this with her last babies.” Camille was laid naked on my chest. The nurse leaned over her and rubbed her with a clean towel, and my husband bent over us on the other side, staring into her small, swollen face. Besides the obstetrician we were the only people in the room. A second nurse who had assisted at the birth had vanished immediately after its finish. The stillness was different from the roil of the two neonatology teams, armed with shiny, life-saving equipment, that had filled the operating theatre where I’d given birth the first time. It felt plain, and unglamorous, and ordinary. A gift and a blessing.

When Camille was one day old we brought her home; it was the first time in their twenty-one months I had been apart from them overnight. They cried at the giant frog balloons their father had bought for them, which they kept trying to pull down to the ground, not understanding what made them leap into the air again. Camille cried once, a thin, scratchy newborn’s wail, and Lily burst into tears yet again.

My emotions surfaced as easily. My husband returned to work when Camille was five days old, and I cried when he left the house, cried at the Barney theme song when it came on television, and cried when Jonah smacked Camille in the forehead with his plastic sippy cup, impatient at my slowness to pour him more milk as I fumbled to help her latch on to my breast. I was suffused by a panic I had not felt since Lily and Jonah’s infancy. It was the certainty that the children would come to harm while under my care, through my lack of attention or competence. I had visions of them being hit by a car, slipping through my fingers on the jungle gym, drowning in the bathtub. Having another baby suddenly felt like an act of arrogance. Surely someone should have tested me beforehand for my suitability; surely I would have been found wanting.

Later that morning I managed to put Lily and Jonah down for a nap while Camille slept. I ate lunch and showered, finishing in time to lift Camille from the bassinette as she woke. It was late August and the bedroom was so hot I could feel sweat droplets forming on my freshly washed skin. Camille wore nothing but a diaper, and I didn’t bother to put on my shirt before feeding her. She nursed briefly and fell asleep again. I held her to my shoulder and stroked her red, wrinkled, velvety back. Her small body made a point of heat against my bare skin. Once more I cried and cried, my sobs the only noise in the calm house. These were tears of joy and gratitude. For a few moments life was quiet enough that I could feel the absolute privilege of holding a human being whose body had so recently arrived from my body. I knew this was the last time this particular miracle would happen for me.

*   *   *

As weeks passed Camille became a cheerful, easygoing baby. All she asked was that I never put her down. I rose in the mornings and strapped the front carrier over my pajamas, holding her as I buttered Lily and Jonah’s toast, changed their diapers, and chased them down to put on their shoes. On errands she rode in the carrier while I used my hands to rein in the twins and gather groceries. She hung off me, a living, breathing accessory, and underneath my more immediate concerns (snacks, parking lot safety, the location of my wallet), I hoped she was amused by her siblings, soothed by my body’s warmth, and not destined for a life of emotional penury because my mind was so often everywhere but on her. But distracted as I was as I grabbed at boxes of tissues or crackers, I bowed my head often to brush my lips against her soft, prickly hair.

Camille gave my mind a rest. She was jolly and adaptable, asking for nothing more than what I knew how to give: my arms, my breasts, my steady though abstracted attention. “Mommy’s baby monkey,” I called her as I carried her everywhere. She clung to me, gazing around with an expression of amused concentration. Even after she learned to walk she stayed near me, clutching a bit of my jeans leg. If she cried, I only had to pick her up to quiet her. At her most tired, sick, or desperate, she wanted no more than my breast in her mouth. Her siblings were in a stage of toddlerhood that rendered them simultaneously active and stubborn, and often I felt I was barely treading water in keeping them safe. With Camille I was tracing familiar territory. I could look at her and think, I’m a good mother. I pretended that she was never going to not be a baby, and that I was never going to find myself bewildered by her toddler moods and ambitions. I was deceiving myself, and the deception was comforting.

*   *   *

My illusions lasted until last month. We—my husband, the children, and I—were outside doing yard work. After a while my husband went into the house. At the same time the children asked to play in his SUV, which was parked at the curb behind my minivan. This was a popular entertainment: pretending to drive Daddy’s car.

I opened the two doors next to the curb. Jonah climbed in behind the wheel and Lily clambered into the back seat. Camille leaned in behind Lily, and I assumed she would climb up also. I bent to gather the various toys and sippy cups that had been scattered over the lawn.

Suddenly my husband called, “Camille is going into the street!” He had come onto the front stoop and was looking beyond me to the narrow gap between our cars.

I turned. Camille had slipped behind me and headed into that gap, running toward the open street. I heard a car approaching from behind my husband’s SUV. I could tell without looking that the car was driven by someone who did not live on our street. Our neighbors drive slowly, on the lookout for the many small children who live in the vicinity. People who use the street as a cut-through drive much faster. This car’s motor was roaring.

I leaped forward, uselessly. Then I screamed, “No! No!” The scream rose from my chest and exited my body in a howl.

Camille turned and ran back to the curb. I will never be sure if she was responding to my scream or if she had heard and understood the roar of the approaching vehicle. At the same moment the car—it was a red minivan, similar to mine—hurtled by. Its window was open and I saw the driver, a middle-aged man, glance over. He was wearing sunglasses that made him look expressionless. He seemed not to have heard my scream, and he had not seen Camille. If she had taken another running step forward, his van would have hit her.

All evening I felt near tears. My husband was upset with me; he felt I hadn’t been watching Camille closely enough, and he was right. But I was unnerved not just by Camille’s near miss, but by the realization that I had thought I was watching her. I was so complacent about her attachment to me that I had assumed she would stay by my side even if I turned away.

I understood, finally, that Camille had run into the street for a reason. The week before, the children had played in my husband’s car, and I had carried her into the street, opened the passenger door, and placed her next to Jonah in the driver’s seat. So Camille had been trying to reach what she must have believed was her assigned spot. Her actions made sense, but I hadn’t foreseen them, and because of that she could have been killed. My delight in her calm nature, and the ease of caring for one baby after having cared for two, had caused me to relax dangerously. My arrogance, I finally saw, had not been in giving birth to her. It had been in assuming that I would always know her mind and heart.

*   *   *

The next break was more subtle. It happened one morning after breakfast, not long after Camille had run into the road. I headed upstairs to shower, leaving the children watching Dragon Tales on television. As I applied shampoo to my wet hair I heard Camille crying and Lily’s raised voice. But Lily was not yelling, and Camille’s crying was mild, so I kept scrubbing my head and hoping she would stop. She did stop; apparently the dispute had been settled. I moved briskly, but I made sure I was dry and dressed before I walked downstairs, because I knew that I would not be allowed back upstairs again. Requests from all three children would begin: Mommy read this book, Mommy get me juice, Mommy I need the potty, Mommy Mommy Mommy.

Camille nursed for a long time and I cuddled her, feeling myself relax as our physical bond worked its magic. But I was struck by the realization that for once I had not stopped what I was doing to run to her aid. As much as I needed to claim more time for myself, doing so felt strange. I had known that Camille would someday relinquish me; I had not expected to relinquish her.

*   *   *

This is the truth: during those months after Lily and Jonah turned one, when my period became so erratic, I suspected I might be pregnant. I didn’t breathe a word, not even to my husband—especially not to my husband, because we had never had luck when it came to reproduction, and I couldn’t believe we might have it now. But I hoped. And when my hope came true and through our hard work she arrived, I was as happy as I have ever been. I was so happy that for months I forgot that nothing lasts. Circumstances change.

For now I still have a bit of her baby self. Her mouth on my breast. Her need to press shyly against me when strangers address her. Her grave little voice saying, “Mommy do it me” when she wants me to tie her shoelaces or retrieve her doll from the floor. Although in years to come she will still need me for many things—laundry and lunches and car rides and games of crazy eights, homework advice and support against disappointment and betrayal—never again will our relationship seem so simple. Never again will it be so physical. I will celebrate her achievements, as I have celebrated the gains she already has made. I will also mourn the passing of her babyhood, which is the passing of a specific, precious time in my life: a time when the touch of my flesh cured all ills.

Author’s Note: Most of my essays are attempts to capture periods in my children’s lives before they fade in my memory. Sometimes I feel so mired in daily life it’s hard to record what’s going on, much less shape it into an essay. My thanks to Kate Haas, whose interest in this subject kept me returning to this piece until I had whittled it down to size.

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

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Nutshell logoIt’s been nearly five years since Brain, Child published The Myth of the Forever Family but I regularly receive email from readers who are struggling with their children and are wondering what to do.

Because of this, I thought I’d go back to the topic of post-adoption support in the hopes that it would help both those families who are currently parenting as well as hopeful adoptive parents—those still considering whether or not to add to their families via adoption—create adoption plans that would promote success for their children and their families.

To that end, I enlisted the help of Paula Andree, LISW-S, a therapist here in Central Ohio who has been working with children and families for more than two decades. In her private practice, Andree works exclusively with adoptive families around issues of attachment and trauma. She is also mom to three children who came to her family via adoption.

Andree says in order to be successful, potential adoptive families need to understand how damaging early abuse and neglect are to children in order to create more realistic expectations.

“Children who come out of these experiences can be profoundly affected in ways that are complicated and long lasting,” she says. “Parents often are not prepared for this and become overwhelmed and frustrated.”

Paula points to the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a child neuropsychiatrist and founder of The Child Trauma Academy in Houston. Dr. Perry’s research shows that children who have been emotionally neglected do not have the neural capacity to overcome early deprivation and trauma without specialized support. Abuse and neglect can cause actual brain damage; therefore to expect children from deprived environments to function in the same way that typical children do is unrealistic.

“The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions,” writes Perry in the report “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood.” “Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding the child’s behaviors. When these children hoard food, for example, it should not be viewed as “stealing” but as a common and predictable result of being food deprived during early childhood. A punitive approach to this problem (and many others) will not help the child mature. Indeed, punishment may actually increase the child’s sense of insecurity, distress and need to hoard food.”

Traumatized children may also struggle educationally. Many of them have learning disorders or anxiety that negatively impacts their ability to learn. Parents who dream of attending their child’s high school graduations or have high hopes to witness their advancement in a professional career may need to adjust their expectations to be more realistic.

“I’ve worked with families who diligently put money into their child’s college fund, but over time realize that the real need is to access services so their child can live and function semi independently as an adult,” says Andree. “That’s a very difficult shift to make.”

Andree points out that adjusting goals doesn’t mean lowering expectations as much as changing them.

“Then this carries over to how the whole family identifies themselves and how that changes over time,” she says, adding that when she’s working to help a child heal she’s also helping parents learn to see growth in smaller steps and triumphs.

The Coalition of Adoptive Families, a support group in Central Ohio, also hopes to make a difference by educating and supporting families. Deborah Gnann, one of the co-founders of the group, feels that parents need to connect to each other and to adult adoptees, whose experiences are an invaluable source of information. COAF meets monthly, hosting a speaker each session and then leaving room for discussion. Their goals for the future include a directory of support services vetted and screened by families who have actually used the services as well as opportunities for parents to connect individually. Gnann understands the value of online community but feels parents who can talk to each other face-to-face can be better served, particularly since it allows them to uncover local resources.

For families and potential families who aren’t sure where to start creating their own adoption support resources, I offer the following list as a starting point:

1. The placing agency: Those who are thinking of adopting should choose an agency with post-placement needs in mind. A bulletin board or Skype sessions aren’t enough for families who may need a real life connection and support. What does your agency offer for families in your area? Can they help you connect with adoption-competent professionals? If you’ve already adopted and your agency does not offer much in the way of help, contact other agencies that have done placements in your county or state. Many of them are willing to help families who have not used their services or can at least give them information.

2. Your nearest children’s hospital: Many children’s hospitals have international adoption clinics and are well aware of the specific needs of children coming from other countries. If they don’t, they may still have clinics and services that address the needs of children who are struggling with behavioral issues. Talk to the intake coordinator and find out what’s available for you. (Note: Parents who have children who are struggling need to get good at coordinating care. Create a dedicated notebook to keep track of whom you talked to and when since getting services is usually a complicated process.)

3. Your state or county Department of Children & Family Services office. Start with the Child Welfare and Information Gateway. There is a lot of good general information and links to your own state’s resources. Here in Ohio we have the Post-Adoption Special Services Subsidy (PASSS) program, which is administered through the county offices. Andree, who accepts these funds when working with families, explains, “PASSS will cover the cost of services that are not covered by Medicaid, insurance or other adoption subsidies. It will cover the cost of respite services and when residential treatment is needed, PASSS can be used to cover that expense. Each adopted child is eligible for $10,000 per fiscal year, $15,000 in special circumstances. It really is a program that goes a long way in maintaining permanence for children.” Not every state has a program as all encompassing as PASSS but it’s worth exploring.

4. If the services aren’t there, connect with other adoptive parents. Ask the agencies, ask the children’s hospital, connect with foster-to-adopt support services and see if you can do what Gnann and her friends have done and create your own group.

5. Further, as Gnann points out, adult adoptees who have been through the struggle can also be a tremendous untapped resource. If your community has programs for adult foster youth, see if you can reach out to find mentors for yourself and your children. Programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters may also be able to connect your child to an adult who has had their own traumatic beginnings and thrived in spite of them. For a child—and a family—who is feeling scared or hopeless, connecting with a role model can be a game changer.

For those of you who have lived or are living the struggle, what have you found to be most helpful?

 

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

The Trouble With Naming You

The Trouble With Naming You

By Greg Schreur

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 4.55.03 PMSome of the names we’re thinking of giving you, we know right now, are all wrong. Take, for instance, the name Brian, which happens to be the name of the man your mother was originally engaged to until he gave her a black eye. There is no way you could be named Brian, even if it was, as Brian claimed, a terrible accident. Or Thomas, the name of your paternal grandfather, who is the reason your father will have to bite his lip when he helps you struggle through your math homework or watches you flinch away from ground balls while you play second base. Or for that matter, even Rob, a classmate of your father’s in sixth grade who will forever be remembered for eating his own earwax.

These are only some of the names that must be discarded for reasons of negative association. Creepy neighbors and obnoxious co-workers must also be eliminated, along with names like Benedict and Osama. Other names may not suit your surname because the resultant alliteration or rhyming would make you sound like a character in a children’s book, or the combination of the names would create an unfortunate homonym (Mike Rotch is not the sort of thing we want on people’s minds when talking to you). Still other names may seem promising, but even your mother’s father, who is a wonderful man and an ideal person to be the namesake of, would never consent to your being named Marinus.

Indeed, we find it easier to brainstorm a list of names not to give you. We diffuse the tension by suggesting names like Roscoe, Hyman, Dooley, or Yakov. Yet after all these rejects, there are a plethora of candidates that are not readily dismissed. When one of us suggests, say, Paul, we’re both silent for some time as we go through the battery of tests: It is biblical without being sanctimonious; neither of us ever had nor knows anyone with a pet named Paul; in fact the only Paul either of us knows is a man from your father’s office who is a decent person with whom your father has little enough contact to keep it from being awkward. So we repeat the name, using different tones for calling you in for dinner, congratulating you for some random accomplishment, scolding your disobedience, or screaming at you to get out of the way of an oncoming car in a hypothetical future that is itself pregnant with expectancy and nauseating pressures.

With some names we can’t foresee the troubles. But we can imagine. Perhaps your name will be given to another child who grows up to be a mass-murdering cannibal, or your name will be given to a Category 5 hurricane that wipes out an entire city, and although you have never knowingly eaten human flesh or breached any levees, people will metaphorically associate you—your neediness, your intrusiveness—with these things.

Perhaps unseen linguistic forces will cause your name to become a pejorative. At one point, for example, Dick must have been a harmless and honorable name, but then, well, you know, it became something else, and when kids at school start calling you Dick, of course you’ll be smart enough to know that they aren’t calling your name, nor do they think you are actually a penis, so you’ll decide it must be an expression of their feelings about you, and your self-esteem understandably will suffer. You’ll be too embarrassed to go to someone like a teacher. Besides, what would you say, they’re calling me Dick? It’s your name, they would reply, and you would be left alone to make sense of humankind’s depravity, well before you are ready.

Instead of seeking adult help, when a group of boys—one of them perhaps named Peter, another one maybe Rod—when they offer a sense of belonging, you’ll go along. You won’t ask why when they offer you something to smoke. You’ll just smoke. You won’t like it, but you will like being with people who understand you, so you’ll keep smoking until you do like it. This could lead anywhere, but let’s just say that it leads to something more, like partying instead of studying and hiding a bottle of cheap vodka in your bedroom and avoiding your parents when they ask where you’ve been and then a first fateful dabbling with marijuana in the back of Peter’s van.

We aren’t going to name you Dick. We’re just making a point here.

The safe route would be to give you a very common name so there will be several of you in the same class. You will likely be of marginal popularity, both statistically speaking and what with having such a regular name. Of course someone with your name will be the guy whose name all the girls write on their notebooks, but this will only remind you of your own anonymity and cause you to lose touch with reality as you try to live vicariously through him.

Then one of those girls, whom you’ve certainly fantasized about, will call you by your name but will mistakenly use the last name of a guy who’s a total nerd, and you’ll harbor such resentment against her that you will be unable to establish a healthy relationship with a woman until you are well into your thirties, but by then your body is sagging and you’re measuring your life out in coffee spoons like J. Alfred Prufrock (himself nominally challenged). On the positive side, because you will never be with a woman, you will never have to go through the agony of naming your own child, but when the time comes that you’re sitting alone watching Jeopardy while your neighbor is outside playing catch with his son, this does not offer much consolation.

The obvious alternative is to give you a wildly original or unique name or at least a new take on a familiar name, something like Joscua. At first it will be novelty. People will comment favorably about its uniqueness, and this will become a part of your personality. You will be your own man and forge your own way in the world. You will not care what others think. But then you will grow tired of people asking how to spell your name. You might even become resentful of us and stop coming home for Thanksgiving.

We will certainly call, pleading you to see us, even if not for the holidays, but the independence we instilled in you when we named you now comes back to haunt us when you slam the phone down and stop answering. Several Thanksgivings pass, and while we are devastated, you live a successful and carefree life, marry a beautiful woman, and have a son of your own; such interdependence, however, chafes your individualist nature so you remain aloof in your other pursuits, one of which includes your secretary, who falls in love with you, or at least the idea of you, until she is downsized in a round of layoffs and is forgotten. That will not be your concern; there will be other secretaries. Meanwhile, something must be happening back at home with your wife and child, who are themselves learning how to live without you. You won’t think about this until you hear Harry Chapin singing “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Of course you think it’s Cat Stevens, but that’s not the only thing you’re wrong about: No matter how strongly you believe you can undo the sins of the past, you’re no different than the man in the song, and like him your son is too far gone by the time you start reaching out to him. You die alone with scar tissue in the places where your connections to both the past and the future once were.

We will also be careful not to name you Butch or Biff, names that would be difficult to live up to, but your father will try convincing your mother to name you after some sports figure. She will resist but eventually compromise, and in the end you become a Junior. This will make your father proud in a way that surprises him, although he tells people at the hospital that he wants you to be your own man—although seeing his name many years later on report cards filled with mostly Bs and Cs and on the back of a clean sports uniform hunched over on the bench causes him to feel slightly nuanced pangs of disappointment. After one game where you do play much of the fourth quarter, you run up to him excitedly. Although he smiles weakly, he is not looking at you, and no matter how much you strain you cannot meet his eyes.

A few days later you go into your room and find your father sitting on the edge of your bed, slouching so that his head almost rests in his lap. He leaves without saying anything, and although neither of you grasps the symbolism of the moment, you are so disturbed that for the next few nights you sleep on the floor until it becomes too uncomfortable, and sometime in the middle of the fourth night you crawl back under the covers where you warm quickly and fall asleep. Before next season you announce at supper that you’re not trying out for the team, at which your father merely grunts with a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Oh, we struggle mightily with this responsibility. It leads to disagreements, even arguments. Paralyzed by the opacity of uncertainty, we put you out of our minds or distract ourselves from the obligation of naming you by focusing on the mundane details of your imminent arrival. That is, until someone asks us about your name and we smile coyly, hoping to evade the question; later, however, we resolutely bring out the baby name books, but the names will not have changed and the uncertainty will remain. You are born, and still we have not decided. We refer to you simply as “He” or “Baby” or “Boy.” As a result you are never baptized, never enrolled in school, never called on the phone or sent any mail. You are devoid of identity, like an undiscovered atomic element. Those who are even vaguely aware of your existence speak of you as the son of your father or in a similarly indirect manner. We will try to protect you from a world that chews up and spits out people without a name for themselves. We pad your existence with toys and treats and encourage you to stay with us where we can lovingly and guiltily provide, and you never seem to grow up. In fact you seem to get smaller each year while these things increase, filling up every part of the house, until one day you disappear altogether, never to be found, even by yourself.

I’m not making any predictions here. Despite our fixation, your name will not determine the course of your existence. After all, a rose by any other name is still a rose. Neither fate nor the Divine has conspired against you or your name in deciding your fate; you will have some control over the person you will become with whatever name you are given.

I guess I’m not saying anything except this: Despite all our efforts and good intentions in assigning you a name, this obligation is fraught with so much inherent danger and affected by so many factors outside our influence that you really cannot blame us for anything but the one thing we ultimately did have control over, which was the decision to bring you into a broken world full of overbearing fathers and abusive ex-boyfriends and earwax eaters, traitors and terrorists, name callers and potheads, serial killers and love-struck, downsized secretaries, all of whom, including your parents, are just trying to make sense of their own names.

Author’s Note: This essay came from my growing realization that it’s the bane of every thoughtful parent to worry that you’re warping your children by foisting your own personal quirks onto them. For the record, my wife had no abusive boyfriends, and it was my grandpa who was named Marinus, a wonderful man with an unfortunate name. Also for the record: I’m married to a Kristen, and my three children—Annie, Jack, and Charlie—all are appropriately named. I think.

Greg Schreur writes and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writing has appeared in Eclectica, Cantaraville, and Rock & Sling, in addition to educational journals.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

The Family I Thought We Would Be

The Family I Thought We Would Be

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Figuring out the expectations and realities of merging two families.

 

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

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

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

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

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

But love! Oh, love!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgetting the Class Snack

Forgetting the Class Snack

By Jennifer Schaller

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Finding a sense of self-compassion when forgetting the class snack.

 

I was reading over final papers from my semester of teaching and busy all day with conferences for my English classes; meanwhile, at my daughter’s Kindergarten class, fourteen children sat nervously waiting, bellies grumbling, as they stared daggers at my daughter, while chanting “We want Cheez-its! We want Cheez-its!” Eh, maybe it didn’t happen quite like that.

Regardless, each month at my daughter’s school, in alphabetical order, parents are required to bring a snack, and I am usually ready days in advance. Sometimes I add a cute and Pinterest-y flourish—name tags for each kid, or on St. Patrick’s Day, each carrot cupcake had green clovers I cut out and attached to toothpicks. It wasn’t the healthiest snack, but at least there were carrots and raisins in the mix.

Then one time I forgot.

I hadn’t checked my phone messages all morning, and in the afternoon, I had plenty: two from my daughter’s teacher and three from my husband who was confused—Jennifer always remembers snack, right? Upon reading the texts, I felt a familiar burning sensation run up my body—call it shame, humiliation, sadness. I’m pretty sure forgetting snack shouldn’t bring up a laundry list of self-defeating malevolence.

When I was a teenager, my mom forgot a lot, mostly me, a few times after school, and at least once, when I was a toddler, she forgot me, restrained in my car seat while she locked her keys in a running car to fetch something inside our house. I had nightmares for years afterward that I was in the backseat of a car rolling erratically downhill with no one at the wheel. For this reason, I vowed to never forget anything as a parent.

Then one time I forgot.

Who cares, right? Every parent forgets some things. But I care, mostly about my reaction—that burning sensation of shame. It worries me that I would feel like such a failure over something so minor. Sometimes I wish I had a doppelganger, a woman plump around her middle, soft in her thirties, who tries her best; she would be me but outside of me, there to let me feel for myself what I don’t feel: compassion. I would say out loud to her the things I think to myself, “How could you forget? How could you disappoint your daughter?” As my insults spiraled through the air, I’d hear my harsh tone. I’d understand why I need to quiet those voices.

I’m not completely sure of the difference between self-pity and self-sympathy. It’s a hard line to envision drawing for myself. I was always taught to suck things up: pity and pouting would get me nowhere. So I suck up the various blows life deals me, and that philosophy has certainly served me well, with a few exceptions, like when I forgot snack.

It’s sad that I could give more sympathy to doppelganger me than real me, the me who behaves more like a human than a super-mother. Real me doesn’t get my sympathy. I would like to feel for her, even though it feels false and strange. I’ll try it:

Oh that Jennifer, she forgot her daughter’s snack. It’s understandable. Her semester does end in two weeks. One could see how she might forget. She’ll try harder next time. She will say everyone makes mistakes, even Mommy. She’ll realize the burning shame she feels is not something she wants to pass down. In place of sucking it up, she’ll keep striving for self-compassion, or self-sympathy, or even just the opposite of self-loathing.

 

Jennifer Schaller is a teacher who lives in Albuquerque with her husband and two children.  She usually has a pile of papers to grade and a small child’s nose to wipe, but every so often she ekes out time for writing, some of which has appeared in Brain, Child, Georgetown Review, Sonora Review, and This American Life.  

Photo: foodnetwork.com

You’re Having a Baby

You’re Having a Baby

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What words of congratulations would you offer to friends soon having a baby?

 

My friends Wes and Harmoni will soon have a baby girl—no; Harmoni will have the baby; Wes will look like a cat in a bathtub—and I want to tell them things. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be horrible. I’m supposed to write beautiful things about the greatness and funny things about the horror, but none of it’s true because the whole thing, like everything, is a mess. Someone shot a white-winged Pegasus and it’s bleeding tropical punch. Like that.

This morning I read a little essay by Shunryu Suzuki about the way the white cloud is independent, though it nonetheless depends on the blue sky. I hope this makes Wes and Harmoni feel like they maybe understand something in the uncertain mist of a confused confusion, because exactly. Enjoy your baby.

I remember holding my daughter Lola in the hospital and retching like I was choking on a hairball. This is not a beautiful image. But what I know today is that the boundary of the self with whom I had always identified was cracking—I was hacking apart—and sort of, well, vomiting or spilling out to encompass Lola within the boundaries of that identification. I was now her. She was me. The experience of having a baby is akin to what mystics attempt to articulate as Ultimate Reality. I attempted to express this Reality with a metaphor about vomiting on the baby. I warned you. It’s messy.

There will come a day when you, exhausted, think “All I do is take care of this baby.” And there will come a day when you, elated, think “All I do is take care of this baby.” However, both these thoughts arise in relation to your small self. In both cases, forget your former self, hack up your hairball, and get the baby some juice. Just, with your whole heart, get the juice. No matter what you want or how you feel, the baby wants juice, like mountains and rivers, without end.

Once, my son Jaydn took off running like a mad laughing fool toward the street. Exploding into a sprint, I exploded as well into an atom bomb of math. If Jaydn is running X, I am running Y, and that car is moving at Z MPH, will the world end? Yes! The world’s about to end. I snagged him by the collar, the car honked, he wailed, and I screamed from some original place in the deep pit of my stomach where anger and joy are not yet sussed out into differentiated forms of screaming. Do you understand? I was saving myself. Clouds are clouds and skies are skies. Everything depends.

This, among other things, will probably happen. Wilco’s On and On and On will play in the background, down low, as your baby naps and you breathe without a sound. When you peek in the crib to check on her, something in the air and the music will collide—gasp, and your baby will appear, appear, appear—someone—against the profound background of possibly nothing; erupting, emerging in your eyes as irrefutable proof that this world is, yes, definitely something but—more than that—it means something too. This is significant. My god, you will think, silently. My god, my god, my god. Just this, with not a single word to say.

In addition to inducing speechless insights into the suchness of the world, the baby will also, at many turns, thwart your expectations. Vomit on your shirt. Cry all night. Freak out in restaurants. Essentially, the baby will intuitively detect what you want and act in direct opposition to all your desires. This is the baby’s way of completing you, making you whole, yinning your yang. Here is where I quote Carl Jung. “To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” So, yeah, when your baby contradicts, opposes, and spoils all your plans, she is actually channeling the forces of God, calling you beyond yourself, revealing to you the beauty that inheres in the deflation of ego and self-forgetting. It’s only a shirt.

Your baby will be a many faceted jewel that absorbs and reflects every form and color in this whole zany world. Cradled by the world, she supports the world. Everything that ever happened, and everything that will, conspire to be expressed in the simple magic of her appearance. Announced, a song, all of it, a wee baby girl. Congratulations.

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Open and Closed

Open and Closed

 A selected essay from our new Fall Issue

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 6.37.34 PMBy Catherine Newman

The kids have come into my bed, warm and fragrant from sleep, and we’re lingering under the covers, even though it’s a school morning. Early pink sunlight filters through the tiny octagonal window and sets our blue walls aglow. “I love our house,” I sigh, and Birdy, 11, sighs from somewhere near my armpit, says, “Me too. So much.” Ben, 14, is quiet—maybe he’s asleep again. “I love our doorknobs,” I say.

I can see three of them from here, and no two are the same: one is beautiful old cut glass, one is a dinged-up bronze, and the other looks the newest—a kind of fake vintage porcelain set into a brass plate. All of them predate us, like a knobby collage of other people’s taste.

It’s an old cape house—not ancient, but our bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, and there are traces of the decades of previous inhabitants: artifacts of disparate periods and styles that nobody has bothered, or wanted, to smooth over with coherence. The floors are all wood but appear to have been installed in different rooms during different decades, the maple boards here laid down this way even though the scuffed oak ones there are laid the other. There are newish cabinets in the kitchen, but nobody’s done anything about the closets, of which there are three in the entire house, only one with a door, barely as deep as your arm. And then there are the doors themselves: most are thickly painted, with chips revealing colors as layered as a Gobstopper, but the doors to the kids’ tiny rooms are the newest, barely finished pine and so deeply luminous that someone must have thought they were too beautiful to mar with knobs, which they don’t have.

“Ugh. I hate our doorknobs.” Ben is awake after all! Awake and filled with contempt! Who knew? “I think that might be the first time in your entire life that I’ve ever heard you use the word hate,” I say, and Birdy laughs. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she says. Ben is, typically, as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful, “Oh, okay, you go ahead then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, with the barest whiff of tentativeness, “She is.”

“Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

“You hate the doorknobs,” I say now, because I know about active listening, and Ben says again, “Ugh.” And then, “I hate the way they don’t match. I wish they were all, I don’t know, brushed nickel or something.” This is a kid who watches HGTV whenever there’s cable, who droolingly studies the New York Times Great Homes and Destinations slideshows online and reads the IKEA catalogue cover to cover like it’s a book about a hero’s journey through Swedish light fixtures to a better life. He is moved to exclamatory passion by such modernities as black flooring and vast white sectional sofas and open-concept steel staircases. I have suspected our scrappy Bohemian lifestyle and raggedy Salvation Army aesthetic of grating on him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I bristle. I think: Brat. I say: “That’s a couple hundred dollars I don’t really want to spend on doorknobs. But you should feel free. Honestly, be my guest. You’ve got some money saved up. I’ll drive you to Home Depot.”

“No, no,” he says, mild again, and cowed. “It’s stupid, I know. It doesn’t matter.” At which point I flush with shame. Because doorknobs don’t matter, not really—but this lovely boy, trying to flex the new muscle of his differentness from us? That matters.

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality. You merrily indulge their clomping around in their rain boots for sunny months on end; you chuckle over their sudden quirky interest in Care Bears or jazz or chai. And you look to the future, imagining that you will be called upon to support your children’s differentiation in ways that are delightful or noble or both: “I’m gay!” they will say, and you will rush to the streets in your PFLAG t-shirt, plaster your car with “I gaily support my gay children” stickers. “I’m a vegetarian!” they will say, and you will stir-fry tofu happily, blanket it with nutritional yeast; you will adore the Buddhist boyfriend, you will donate to their bluegrass band’s Kickstarter, and you will be pat-yourself-on-the-back perfect with the banjo-playing bacon-eschewing gay lotus-scented lifestyle your child has chosen.

Only that’s not what it’s like, because those things are only samenesses masquerading?as difference. It’s the actual differences, however tediously minute, that are truly challenging. What’s hard about a child’s differentiation is—Aha moment!—that it’s different from you.

And what Ben wants to be is rich. He wants to live a white-and-black-and-silver life, climate-controlled and, ideally, featured in various aspirational publications. He is the proud owner of four shares of Jet Blue stock, which he researched extensively before purchase. He prefers hotels to camping; he’d rather eat out than suffer another of my famous bean feasts; he likes nice ties, and ties one on at the slightest provocation. He wants a pool-side robot butler from Hammacher Schlemmer, despite our sore lacking of a pool or robot funds. In short, we have birthed Alex P. Keaton.

Do we press into him, like a kind of socialist steam iron, an understanding that profit tends to be carried to the wealthy on the backs of the working poor? Yes. Yes we do. And Ben wants to donate vast chunks of his future wealth to various worthy causes, writing enormous checks, à la Bill Gates, from the acre of mahogany desk on his own private island. Also, he has promised to take us on a private cruise of the Caribbean, an idea I confess to finding not unappealing, even if my Lily Pullitzer cover-up will have been salvaged from the Goodwill.

Meanwhile, this kid just hates the doorknobs. Or— lightbulb!—wants one of his own? “Do you want a knob on your bedroom door?” I ask now. “It’s honestly never occurred to me.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” he says. “I’m kind of sick of not being able to close my door all the way.” Our teenager. Have you ever heard of privacy? you are wondering. I know. Man, we are the lamest.

After school, we troll the aisles of Home Depot, and Ben carefully deliberates before picking out a brushed nickel doorknob—one that locks, even. “Is that really okay?” he asks (like Oliver from Oliver) and leans against me happily as I pay. I am thinking of long-ago fireworks—a film clip that plays in slow-mo of the children turning, terrified, and running into my open arms, tumbling, laughing, against me, and then running off again. A door is closing. It’s a metaphor and, also, it’s just the door—closing and opening, as doors do.

Author’s Note: Luckily, if Ben ends up seeing this piece, he’ll just skim it for the details about other people’s nice homes, and he won’t even realize it’s about him.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Bedsharer’s Lament

Bedsharer’s Lament

By Olivia Campbell

sleeping_baby

If only you’d given birth to the kind of babies you can lay down anywhere after they fall asleep, and they stay asleep.

 

With a finally passed-out 17-month-old on your shoulder, you have to slither into bed as gingerly as you can: waddling on your knees like a penguin to the middle of your mattress, turning around and then laying back as slowly as possible—utilizing all the core muscles you have left after having two kids (sit-ups being absent in your recent memory) while sliding him carefully down your arm and onto his pillow—if you’re lucky, your arm won’t get stuck underneath him. Your precious 23-pound wrecking ball has already slept soundly on your shoulder while you peed and brushed your teeth with one hand, so you are feeling pretty confident about tonight’s sleep potential.

About 20 minutes after you both get all settled in (you know, long enough for you to be lulled into a false sense of sleep-security), it happens. At first it’s only rolling and writhing. You hope he will calm back down because it is dark and you are both under the covers. Exhausted after a day at the office and then chasing two wild boys around while your husband works late, you only have the energy left to offer a banal butt pat, served alongside a robotic “shhhhhh.”

He’s wiggling faster now, tossing and flailing as if his limbs are willing him to wake. He groggily requests “meh” as he pokes a finger into your chest. You quickly oblige, hoping the soothing act of nursing and resulting full belly of milk with lure him back to sleep, as it has so many night before. No such luck. First he turns so his feet are underneath him, then straightens his legs and sticks his butt high into the air. Next, he side-steps closer to you and slides both legs up along your top arm, until finally his straight, stiff body is planking across you at an angle: feet on your shoulder, mouth on your boob, nursing away.

After feasting on both sides twice, he sits up and alertly assesses his surroundings. Your greatest fear is realized. He was only taking a late-evening nap. Hey Ma-ma, 11:30 p.m. is playtime, get with the program! Don’t let him shake your stoicism; just pretend you’re asleep. That will work, right? Undeterred, he pokes a determined pointer finger deep down into your pillow a few inches in front of your nose and slides it slowly along the pillowcase toward you. His aim is to gauge the openness of your eyes, but he misses and stabs you in the cheek.

Realizing that “Da-da’s” absence significantly increases his play area, he begins rolling up and down your husband’s pillows giggling fiendishly, as if he’s on a lush grass-covered hill deep in the throes of springtime. Next comes flash dancing—quick bursts of running in place that crescendo in purposeful falling and artificially loud laughter. Then BLAMO! Out of nowhere, a sharp kick from a 5½-inch foot scrapes mini-razor toenails across your cheekbone. It retracts back quickly and then lands a heel squarely on your nose. It’s going to be a long night.

If only you’d given birth to those babies you can lay down anywhere after they fall asleep and they stay asleep (you know, the kind all your friends seem to have?). It was with your first son that you discovered the ultimate frustration of spending an hour dutifully walking your baby to sleep in a zombie-like stupor, only to have him wake up the minute you peel him away from your body and begin the slow decent toward his crib. You accepted that slithering into bed with a baby on your shoulder was your only chance for sleep.

Because of the severity of the potential danger that has been indelibly—if undeservedly—linked to bedsharing, some find it difficult to even admit. And those that do admit to it don’t dare confess to it being less-than-ideal at times, for fear of adding to its negative image. Most nights, it does feel like the best choice of all child-sleep-situation options available to you, but—like most aspects of parenting—it can be awesome at times and unbearable at others. It’s not all snuggles and Mr. Sandman.

You too are guilty of perpetuating this lie; your smug boasting to coworkers now hangs stale in the back of your mind, mocking you: “Bedsharing is so great! You know, we just love it! It’s the only way I get any sleep with a nursing baby.” You don’t remember sounding that nasal or superior. You felt so confident and convincing, proudly declaring your rebellious sleep situation. Now that you think about it, they clearly saw straight through you. C’mon, they see the dark circles under your eyes and hear the yawning.

“We couldn’t even have our son in the same room with us at night!” a friend admitted. “I was so not prepared for the amount of noise babies make—the grunting and snoring—I would never get any sleep if he was in our room, let alone our bed.”

“You co-sleep too?” your boss confessed with excited relief. “The twins sleep with us in our king-size bed because the one just loves to nurse. He uses me like a pacifier.” She waited many years to finally have children. She wants them close to her. Since she works full time, nights are the longest stretch of time they have to be together, but she doesn’t often admit to bedsharing. She definitely hasn’t told her pediatrician. You haven’t either, you know. If we can’t even broach the subject with friends, family or healthcare professionals without worrying we will be seen as someone who knowingly puts their child in danger, how can we have any hope of an open discussion of guidelines for safe practices and suggestions for making it more mutually enjoyable?

“They are getting so big now,” she continued. “I feel like it’s time to kick them out because they are taking up so much room, but I don’t know where to put them since they are used to sleeping with people.”

Yes, once you start sharing a bed with an infant (or two) you eventually end up feigning sleep while dodging kicks to the face from a 2 ½ -foot-tall bully; shouting “GO TO SLEEP!” as hope for the solace of slumber anytime in the near future slips further from your grasp. Recognizing the seriousness of your tone, your son collapses and curls into a ball next to you like a shamed puppy. Slowly, the nighttime ninja begins slinking down toward the foot of the bed on his stomach, disappearing under the comforter. Off the bed to freedom. Once he touches the floor it will be over. He will be running around the living room until 2 a.m. flipping the light switches on and off. You scoop him up and firmly lay him down next to you, forcefully inserting the comforter under his armpit. He senses you mean business and is momentarily peaceful. Eventually, the squirming begins again.

You remind yourself that not every night is like this; that you can only truly appreciate the thrill of your baby’s soft late-night cuddles and smiling early-morning awakenings after experiencing the agony of an errant flailing arm shocking you awake at 3 a.m. by backhanding your eye so hard you see only brilliant white. Like his brother before him, he too will soon have a bed of his own. You will once again revel in the decadence that is whole nights of deliciously uninterrupted sleep … unless you decide to have that third kid, anyway.

Olivia Campbell is a writer, dancer and mom of two feisty boys whose articles on parenting, health, natural living and dance have appeared in The Daily Beast, Mothering Magazine and The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly.

Photo: salon.com

Doctors’ Rounds

Doctors’ Rounds

By Anna Blackmon Moore

StethoscopeAbout five months after giving birth to my son Ian, I noticed muscle pain in the front of my pelvis—tight discs of soreness just above my thighs and just below my hipbones that I could not stretch out or massage away. If I sat for long periods, the pain intensified, and I was sitting a lot, nursing Ian and then letting him nap in my lap. I watched him loosen his lips from my nipple and drift into sleep, or drift into sleep with his mouth wide open and his lips still latched, or sigh into my skin and grow still. Rather than put him down for naps in his crib, I stretched more often and started jogging again, assuming the activity would loosen my joints and strengthen my muscles.

A few weeks later, after a short, easy run through the park, Ian and I had a typical Nurse-n-Nap. He suckled for forty-five minutes and fell asleep for an hour. When he woke up, I kissed his hands until he laughed, scooped him against my side, and rose from the recliner. My hip flexors burned. I could barely straighten. Playing with Ian on the living room rug became impossible—no more Roll the Shaky Ball or Let’s Stand Up.

I went to my doctor, a GP in her fifties. She often wore flowered skirts that resembled vintage aprons; I always pictured her in a kitchen doing domestic, motherly things. During my pregnancy, when she’d treated me several times for hemorrhoids, I asked if she had children. “Oh, yes,” she said, pulling off a Latex glove and stepping away from the exam table where I lay on my side. “Two teenagers. It’s sort of tough right now.”

When I described the pain in my hips, she suggested physical therapy.

“You don’t want to take an X-ray?” I asked.

“The usual protocol is physical therapy first, then an X-ray if it doesn’t help. And until we figure out what’s wrong…”—she pulled a pad of referral slips from the pocket of her white coat—”I’d definitely stop exercising.”

“But I barely go two miles. And I love jogging.” So do my flabby thighs. So does my depression, which I additionally placate with Prozac.

“Jogging is probably making things worse.” She filled out a referral slip. “Stop for now. Go to physical therapy, see what they say.”

The physical therapist thought it might be tendonitis.

“How would I get that?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Hip flexors are kind of a weird place for it. Any injuries, any accidents?”

“No.” I was in my underwear, lying face up on the treatment table, my legs and torso covered by a paper sheet.

“Are you still nursing?”

“Yeah.” By then, Ian was about seven months old, eating spinach and beans and squealing for yogurt, but he still nursed. Between the writing classes I taught during the week and throughout the day on weekends, Ian and I Nurse-n-Napped once in the morning and once in the afternoon. When he twitched or cried out in his sleep, I touched his head so he knew I was there.

“Nursing can have all kinds of effects on the body,” she said. “It might get better when you stop.”

I stared into the ceiling. My hips were throbbing. “God knows when that will be.”

She laughed and started circling the ultrasound probe over the sore spots in my hips. I asked if she had children.

“A boy and a girl,” she said. “Nine and twelve.”

She clicked off the console and massaged anti-inflammatory ointment into my hips with her thumbs.

I returned three times a week for ultrasound, massage, and ice packs. I started doing the exercises she recommended. The pain worsened. On my sixth visit, she was on vacation, so I saw one of her colleagues.

“I don’t think it’s tendonitis,” the colleague said. I was on my stomach, knees bent, soles of my feet to the ceiling. She told me to raise my right knee off the table.

“Ow!”

“That bad, huh?” She wore hiking boots and said she had an eight-year-old daughter. “Raise the other knee.”

I blew out a breath, tried to relax. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re really weak, that’s for sure.”

I explained this new diagnosis to my therapist.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” She sat in her cushioned armchair, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. I sat across from her. “You’ve exercised all your life.”

I pushed a throw pillow further down my back. Her couch was aggravating a new pain, deep in my tailbone. Sitting made it ache. Walking helped, but if I went more than half a mile my hips tightened to a burn. “I have an appointment with the acupuncturist tomorrow.”

She thought it might be bursitis. Throughout my pregnancy, the acupuncturist had treated me for hemorrhoids, anxiety, and the cavernous pressure of my son’s butt tucked beneath my right breast like an upside-down bowl. Sometimes I cupped my hand over his cheeks and patted them. Other times I pushed down on them to try and pop a few of my ribs.

“Between your bones and your tendons…”—she held up her hand as if holding a sandwich—”you have sacs of fluid called bursae. They can get inflamed. They can really hurt.”

I nodded.

“Have you had any accidents or injuries?” she asked.

“No.”

“Still nursing?”

I nodded.

“That might explain it,” she said. “Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body.”

“Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body,” my dermatologist told me the next day.

I had made an appointment to treat the dandruff that had started to shower my shirts. He was examining my scalp through a lighted magnifying glass the size of an eye. He had a slim moustache and slicked black hair, a father of five. He’d told me once that he loved having kids. I wondered if his wife did. I wondered which functions she had lost with five pregnancies, five cycles of nursing.

He rubbed a patch above my temple with his index finger. “This is seborrheic dermatitis. You know how infants get cradle cap?”

“Yes.” When Ian was only a few weeks old, I had scraped scales from his scalp while he stared blankly toward his rubber duck.

“Same thing,” he said. “It could be hormonal. Pregnancy and nursing can really change the skin.”

“All the energy in your body is going to feeding your child.” I was back at the acupuncturist’s, lying face up on the massage table with my pants off and a heat lamp warming my feet.

“Other areas of your body are lacking. They aren’t getting as much energy, as much blood, as they normally would.”

I stared at a sparkly, New Age mobile.

“You’re working too, aren’t you?” she asked. She was fifty but looked thirty—tall and strong. She swam a mile three times a week and had no children.

“I teach every day this semester.”

She tapped a needle into my right hip and rotated it until I winced. “You’re putting a lot of demands on your body,” she said.

After a few weeks of acupuncture and no exercise, the hip pain improved. I could walk up to a mile. The tailbone pain, however—a ball of it right on my coccyx—was at times excruciating, and my scalp continued to shed. The shampoo the dermatologist prescribed was $106, and insurance wouldn’t cover the cost. Rather than buy it, I was rubbing vitamin E oil into my scalp three times a week and scraping off the scales with dull nail scissors.

“Your body might never be the same,” said my psychiatrist, during a check-in appointment for a Prozac refill. She, too, was a mother. Her daughter was sixteen. They had just taken a vacation together, hiking and camping in the mountains. “It’s something you have to accept and work with.”

I started putting Ian in his crib for naps, which left him wailing and sobbing before he fell asleep to the music of his mobile. I sobbed, too, for a while—I missed his flesh, his thin, wheaten hair, the curve of his nostrils, the length of his blinks when he woke. But I persisted.

The tailbone pain did not subside, and the pain in my hips kept me from sleeping through the night.

“I would see a chiropractor,” said the acupuncturist. I was on my belly with my underwear hiked up so she could stick needles into the crown of my butt.

“But the problem isn’t in my back.”

“They’ve helped me a lot in the past.” She dimmed the lights and turned on the music—ocean sounds with a harp. “That’s what I would do. Get a ton of acupuncture and see a chiropractor.”

The chiropractor asked how much Ian weighed.

“Twenty pounds,” I said. She pulled on each of my feet to stretch my hips and then walked around the table to my head. Her hands smelled like soap. “He’s about nine months.”

“It can take up to two years before the stress on your skeletal frame gets better,” she said. “First you have him stretching out your ligaments”—she cupped her hands around her belly—”putting stress on your spine, and then you’re picking him up all the time.”

She clipped my X-rays onto the viewbox. I was crooked. My right hip was higher than my left, and my coccyx was curved slightly to the right like a shortened tail. I looked like I hadn’t quite evolved.

“It’s actually not that bad,” she said, standing next to the image. “There’s no sign of arthritis at all.”

“Thank God,” I said. I’d been having visions of incapacitation.

“But your spine is out of alignment, so your hips are out of whack. You need adjustments.”

I lay on my back. She twisted my hips to the left, crossed my arms over my chest, and leaned onto me.

“Take a deep breath.”

She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again. I had been grading papers all day, sitting on my ass. My tailbone was a rock.

“You win the Tight Award,” she said, standing. Her children were grown; her daughter shared her practice.

“I sit a lot,” I said. “But I’ve always been active. I don’t understand why my body is such a mess.”

“It’s not uncommon,” said the psychiatrist. “Women recover at different rates.”

“Nursing releases hormones,” said the dermatologist. “It puts a lot of stress on the body. It can have all kinds of effects on the skin.”

“When I was getting trained,” said the acupuncturist, “my teacher had a baby. After the birth, she stopped working. Her mother moved in and did everything. It was completely understood that her only job was to nurse her baby. That was it. But in this culture, we can’t do that.”

“It will get better,” said the chiropractor. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I promise. Be patient.”

“Have you considered waiting before you have another child?” asked the psychiatrist.

“I’m thirty-six,” I said. “I don’t want to change diapers and breastfeed when I’m forty.”

“You could still wait,” said the therapist. “You have a depressive condition. It can make everything harder.”

“Ian needs a buddy,” I said. “An ally.”

“You still have some time,” said the chiropractor.

“But I want to get it over with.”

“I don’t blame you,” said the acupuncturist.

“How’s the physical therapy going?” asked the doctor.

“We can do whatever you want,” said the husband. He was lying on his back, lifting our son into the air. They were both laughing, balloons full of joy. Chris put Ian down on the living room rug and tossed his blocks into the playpen, high up into the air, one at a time. Ian watched the blocks spin and laughed again—loud roils of delight that made his belly shake while he heaved for air.

When Ian laughs, strangers laugh back. Despair retreats.

“Let’s get it over with,” I said. I was sitting on the sofa watching them, tightening and releasing my buttocks. Trying to straighten my tail.

“Having another kid is worth wrecking your body?” Chris watched as Ian reached for his tambourine, wrapped his fingers around the frame, and put a jingle to his mouth.

“Yes.”

Chris looked at me, his hand resting on Ian’s foot. “Are you serious?”

I held out my left hand, let it droop, and shook it out. Holding Ian against my side all the time had caused some swelling; my wrist and thumb were growing rigid. I curled and straightened my fingers, tightened and released my ass, rubbed my right hip, scratched my head. Ian shook the tambourine and made a new sound.

“Yes,” I said. “Definitely.”

Author’s Note: While I have gotten treatment and relief from the tailbone problem, my hips are about the same, and Ian has been weaned for more than four months. A friend recently decided that I have Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which usually affects people in the knees. I have started lifting weights to strengthen my quads, which might help, at least until I become pregnant again.  

Anna B. Moore has essays and fiction in The American Scholar, Shenandoah, Native Peoples Magazine, and many other journals.  She lives in Northern California and is currently working on a novel.

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

By Laura Brodie

Girl writingMy ten-year-old daughter, Julia, was never a good fit in the public schools. Her teachers described Julia as a “very creative child,” with strong emotions, obsessive interests, and little patience for group activities and social norms. In the classroom, she sat with a book perched on her knees, sneaking dragon stories under her desk and missing the teacher’s instructions. On the playground, she avoided the girls’ cliques and boys’ noisy games, and sat alone in the shade digging for fossils. Every day she came home with another large rock.

By third grade, Julia was complaining of being burned out on her elementary school routine. The mixture of boredom and anxiety, weekly tests, increasing homework, rote memorization for standardized exams—all had left her knee-deep in a puddle of misery, and I, as a parent, shared in that swamp. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to tough it out. Most children had their own classroom complaints, and our elementary school, with its small-town community, seventeen-to-one student-teacher ratio, acres of green fields, and generally caring and intelligent teachers, was, by national standards, idyllic.

But as the year went by and the complaints increased, I sympathized more and more with Julia’s plight, partly because of my own memories of public school drudgery, and partly because, as a professor of English, I understand the need for sabbaticals. If adults benefit from intellectual rejuvenation, then why not children? Why shouldn’t a child have time off to pursue her own research and writing?

The breaking point came during Julia’s fourth grade year, when I lost her for an hour. She had been sitting at home on our living room carpet, pressing tiny Legos into colorful dragon bodies, and so I was surprised to get no reply when I called her name from the kitchen. For the next half hour I searched the house, the yard, the shaded recesses of our backyard creek. I scanned the surrounding pastures for the silhouette of a wandering child, then telephoned our neighbors. They had not seen Julia. They would call if she dropped by.

Assuring myself that a fourth-grader was old enough to wander alone, I stretched out on my bed and tried to concentrate on a novel. After twenty minutes I heard a rustling noise in my closet, and I opened the shuttered doors to find my sheepish daughter, crouched on a pile of old shoeboxes.

“Didn’t you hear me calling?”

Yes, she nodded.

“Why have you been hiding there?”

“I heard you say that it was time for me to do my homework.”

Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness. Some children are born miserable, their glass always half empty; others are made miserable by the adult world. And when it comes to squashing a child’s joy, there’s nothing like homework. In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day—the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.

I sympathized with her aversion. Today’s public schools seem to have responded to the endless cry for achievement! by adding more worksheets to the homework pile. Math worksheets, grammar worksheets, bland spelling exercises. I wouldn’t mind so much if the work seemed more valuable—if Julia was asked to perform a fun science experiment, or to walk outside and compose a poem about the sounds in her yard. What rankles is the monotony of colorless paper, the columns of equations and fill-in-the-blank history.

As it turned out, Julia’s homework was minimal that afternoon. Once she climbed out of the closet and sat down in front of her books, the whole ordeal took barely ten minutes. She had spent an hour hiding to avoid ten minutes of schoolwork, and the thought of that warped equation broke my heart. It confirmed what I had been thinking for the past year—that my daughter needed a break, an escape, some air. Julia needed something to quell her growing misery.

My mind did not turn naturally toward homeschooling. I had always thought of it as a drastic measure. Homeschooling was for Mormons, for Bible-thumping Baptists, for children with disabilities, mental or physical, and for families who lived off the grid with solar heat and composting toilets. Homeschooling was a little bit weird.

But in the chameleonic world of modern parenthood, we mothers must constantly change colors to meet our children’s needs. We become accomplished fundraisers when our preschools need a fruit sale chair. We take up the violin when the Suzuki method calls for parent-child lessons. And when my daughter decided that she would rather hide in a closet for an hour than complete ten minutes of homework, I knew that it was time for me to become a schoolteacher, if only for a little while.

I told Julia that for one year we could try something different. Starting next September we could stay at home and follow a curriculum that combined her unique interests with the public schools’ idea of fifth grade essentials. She could study dinosaurs and dragons, as well as American history. She could learn some conversational French with her fluent father (on the afternoons when I taught part-time), and her daily violin practice could take place during school hours, rather than cramming it into her after-school schedule. Above all, we could plan field trips to Washington, Williamsburg and Jamestown, to art museums and science fairs and bookstores and concerts. I had only one caveat, stemming from my years of teaching freshman composition. Whatever Julia studied, I wanted her to write about it.

Of the three traditional “R”s in elementary education, writing is the component most often neglected. It’s a time-consuming enterprise, overlooked by many teachers who feel burdened with the exigencies of test preparation. Having no such burdens myself, I knew that if I was going to homeschool my daughter, I wanted her to compose essays and short stories and science reports, to write drafts and polish revisions, and keep the best of it in a portfolio.

Julia seemed willing enough when I described my plan. Lured by the promise that her only daily homework would be to write a page in a journal and read for an hour—something she did habitually—she agreed to my terms. And so from April to August of 2005 I gave myself a crash course in homeschooling.

It turns out that homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing trends in American education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U. S. Department of Education), in 2003, 1.1 million children were being homeschooled in the United States–about 2.2 percent of America’s school-age population. Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, places the total higher—somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million. Most experts agree that the number of homeschoolers seems to be expanding at a rate of about 7 to 10 percent per year.

It’s impossible to describe a “typical” homeschooled student in America, though the 2003 government study provides a rough profile. Overall, white children in America appear about twice as likely to be home taught as their black peers, and four times more likely than Hispanic children. Most homeschoolers come from two-parent families where only one parent works full-time. Households with one or two children seem equally drawn to homeschooling, but in families with three or more kids the odds of full-time home education double. Families with an annual income of more than $75,000 are less likely to homeschool, and rural homeschoolers outnumber their urban counterparts (“urban” being defined as 50,000 people or more). Finally, the South is the U. S. region with the most homeschoolers–the Northeast has the fewest. (Northeastern states also tend to have the most strict home education requirements, with more detailed specifications for curriculum and testing.)

These statistics, however, are sketchy at best. According to Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who specializes in school choice, “You can’t get systematic data on homeschooling because most homeschoolers want to be left alone.” In other words, parents who shun government education also tend to avoid government tracking. The one thing McCluskey asserts with confidence is that homeschooling is “definitely expanding,” and this expansion has taken it well beyond its traditional base.

When homeschooling first emerged as a populist movement in the 1970s, it was spearheaded by two groups: Christian conservatives who favored Bible-based teaching and who deplored what they saw as a lack of moral values in America’s secular schools; and a more free-form crowd, alternately called ” liberal” or “libertarian,” who chafed against the constraints of institutionalized education and sought more “organic,” child-based forms of education. New York University professor Mitchell Stevens, in his book Kingdom of Children, explains how the Christians, with their tight social networks and strong organizational skills, surpassed the loosely based libertarians to become the predominant strain in American homeschooling. That’s why today, when the word “homeschooling” comes up in conversation, many Americans envision a fundamentalist Christian mom sitting at her kitchen table teaching creationism alongside algebra.

But over the past decade that stereotype has been fading. In the Department of Education’s 2003 study, less than half of the respondents cited religious motivations as their chief reason for homeschooling. (It might be one reason, but not the primary focus.) Instead, concerns over safety, drugs, and peer pressure topped the list. In addition, the study found more parents turning to homeschooling for purely academic reasons. As Neal McCluskey explains, “There’s a rise in people who want their children to learn more, faster and better.”

This expansion of home education doesn’t mean that Christian conservatives are taking a back seat. They remain the most solid, well-organized block in the homeschool world, and the new faces in the crowd—me included—who have turned to home education without any religious or philosophical compulsion, owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers who suffered jail time and substantial fines to blaze the homeschooling trail. Because of those groundbreaking efforts, home education is now legal nationwide, with fifteen states funding and supporting cyberschools, where homeschooled children can take courses with online instructors. California has even opened brick-and-mortar charter schools specifically designed to support homeschooling families, with teachers who provide enrichment classes, textbooks and videos, counseling and administrative aids.

Many homeschool traditionalists deplore these new developments as the U. S. government’s backdoor method of getting its bureaucratic tentacles back into their homes. For them, real homeschooling means that the parent is the teacher, not some intangible cyberinstructor with fifty students on her roster. Nevertheless, these new public initiatives show the legitimacy that home education has gained across America, and with this growing legitimacy comes an increased confidence and curiosity among so-called “mainstream” parents who are seeking educational options for their children.

That’s where short-term homeschooling comes in. The expansion of home education among America’s mainstream has made it a viable alternative for parents who are dealing with short-term problems. These problems might range from a bad principal to a persistent bully to a homework-phobic child hiding in a closet. Whatever the motivation, more and more parents are deciding that, when faced with problems at school, they don’t have to stick it out, or pay a fortune for a private academy. Instead, they can take a “do it yourself” approach to their children’s educations, teaching their kids at home for a limited time, with the intent of returning to the public (or private) schools at a not-so-distant date.

There are no statistics on how many parents have tried short-term homeschooling. The Department of Education does recognize “part-time homeschoolers”—students who spend less than twenty-five hours per week in school, and devote the rest of the day to learning at home. In 2003, eighteen percent of all homeschoolers fit the part-time mold. (Although guidelines vary across school districts, homeschoolers have the legal right to insist on access to some public classes. Even as I write this, a local friend has just embarked upon part-time home education. Her eighth grade son takes band, geography and algebra in the public system, while she teaches—or arranges for private tutors—in English, science and music.)

Short-term homeschoolers, however, remain well beneath the radars of both the U. S. government and most homeschooling organizations. The National Home Education Research Institute (one of the biggest clearinghouses for homeschooling data), draws a blank when it comes to data on short-termers, as do the folks at the Home Education Association of Virginia. “Sorry, that’s not part of our mission,” the receptionist said when I called their offices for information. Nevertheless, if you ask homeschooling advocates, authors and parents if they know of short term-homeschoolers nationwide, the anecdotes come pouring out.

Isabel Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, has met with several short-term home educators. “I’ve talked with parents whose child had a personality conflict with a particular teacher, or who had to face bullies, as reasons for short-term homeschooling,” she explained to me in a recent online interview. “Also medical issues or an accident or a school violence incident can drive families to this choice for a brief time. Colorado homeschool advocates reported receiving a gazillion phone calls after Columbine from parents who wanted information about homeschooling. No doubt some switched over but then switched back after the shock wore off.”

In her book, published in 2000, Lyman writes about a Massachusetts widow with a home business who removed her youngest son from elementary school for a couple of years when she became turned off by the school administration’s politically correct style. The boy apparently thrived, but he returned to the conventional system once middle school began, when a new cast of administrators was in his life.

Other parents see the perils of middle school as a driving impetus for home education, especially for young girls facing the sort of nasty peer pressures documented in books such as Queen Bees and Wannabees and Odd Girl Out. Sarah, a mother in my own corner of southwest Virginia, removed her daughter mid-year from the seventh grade when the viciousness of her child’s pre-teen peers began to wear visibly on the girl’s psyche. “She was awake at midnight, crying,” Sarah recalls. By eighth grade the problems had smoothed over, and mother and daughter were back to their normal routines at work and school. Another mom in South Carolina, whose story I encountered after posting a query on the About:homeschool forum, withdrew her daughter from middle school after the girl repeatedly came home with injuries, including marks on her neck from a choking incident. That parent informed her other children that they could stay in the public schools for their elementary and high school years if they wished, but when it came to middle school, homeschooling would be mandatory.

Short-term homeschooling also has a special appeal for families on the move. Kelly, a Georgia mom who also frequents the About:homeschool site, explained that she homeschooled for a year when, in the midst of relocating, her family lived in a neighborhood with a weak school system. Once the move was complete, her son was back in the public schools. “I do not regret my decision to homeschool,” she says. “I would do it again if needed. I also do not regret putting him in this particular school and teacher. She is great and does a superb job with my son.” Kelly described short-term home education as a valid choice, since many families today are transient.

Finally, there are the mothers who simply want more time with their children, or vice versa—the children are asking for more time with Mom. In the same year that Julia and I were playing geography games on our living room floor, at the opposite end of our county Christi and her ten-year-old daughter, Susan, were sitting at their kitchen table doing art projects. They, too, had entered homeschooling on the one-year plan, at Susan’s request. Although Christi was initially inclined to refuse, in the end she thought, “You know, they grow up so fast.” Meanwhile, Rebecca, three miles away, was reviewing multiplication tables with her fourth grade daughter, who also had asked to stay home for one year.

I often wonder if short-term homeschooling has a particular appeal for mothers and daughters. Most of my acquaintances who have tried it describe a need for “special time” with their girls. Of course my musings on this topic are wholly unscientific. The Department of Education’s homeschooling statistics show that girls and boys are almost equally likely to be homeschooled full-time, and since there are no studies on short-termers, I can’t say how their numbers break down by gender. It may be mere coincidence that among the twelve mothers who shared their stories for this article, seven were homeschooling a daughter, usually in response to their girl’s emotional needs. “I really got to know my daughter,” explained June from Alexandria, Virginia, a mother whom I located through the Virginia Organization of Homeschoolers. Homeschooling allowed June and to have long bedtime conversations with her eighth grader, rather than trying to finish homework and hurry to get minimal amounts of sleep. “We are so much closer now,” added Sarah, my local acquaintance, who loved her months with her middle-school daughter, but would never do it again. “I’m not cut out for teaching.”

And therein lies one of the greatest challenges behind short-term homeschooling: How can you do it well, when most parents have no professional training as educators and must try to go from zero to sixty in a matter of weeks? A mother may be the expert on her own child (and I stress mothers because women are the primary home educators nationwide, especially married women who aren’t employed full time), but most moms have no expertise in sifting through curriculums and pedagogical methods. Long-term homeschoolers have years to hone their craft, plenty of time to make mistakes and plot course corrections. But short-term home educators—in particular those who view the experience as an opportunity for enrichment, an educational bonus, not just a stop-gap measure—need to catch on fast if they want to make the most of their brief time. “I imagine that, as in any new endeavor, there’s a learning curve,” says the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey. A parent can spend much of her first year “just trying to figure out how best to do it.” That was precisely the case for June, whose experimentation with teaching methods lasted well into the school year: “I was still trying to figure out our homeschool style (Charlotte Mason? Unschool? Classical?) when my husband declared, “You have six months left! Pick one and be done!”

As I discovered during my own sharp learning curve, there aren’t many resources to guide the short-term crowd. A basic Internet search yields a wealth of sample curriculums, how-to guides, and book-length pep talks, all designed to help novice homeschoolers get started. But most of these are written by authors with an all-or-nothing approach—parents who have removed all of their children from the public schools, or who never tried those schools in the first place, and who often have negative attitudes toward public education, ranging from mildly dismissive to openly nasty. None of these authors consider the pros and cons of supplemental homeschooling, i.e., how to build on the public schools’ foundation, to give a child one good year.

Some folks might question whether separate advice is needed for short-term homeschoolers. “Supplemental homeschooling isn’t all that different from the regular deal,” one Internet correspondent told me. “All the usual books apply.” But that’s not quite true. While the homeschooling books on today’s shelves are a crucial starting point for any curious parent, in their philosophies, their curriculums, and their pedagogical methods they often offer advice that doesn’t apply to one-year dabblers.

Take, for instance, The Well-Trained Mind, one of the most impressive homeschooling guides available, written in 1999 by the mother-daughter team, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. These women advocate a classical education in which global history is the guiding principle, with literary masterpieces and scientific discoveries taught in a historical chronology. In this model, the first through twelfth grades are divided into three repetitions of a four-year pattern: the ancients (5000 bc to ad 400), medieval through early Renaissance (400 to 1600), late Renaissance through early modern times (1600 to 1850), and modern times (1850 to present). Grade school children study each time period at a simple level; fifth through eight graders delve into the same subjects with increasing complexity, and by high school, students should be reading original sources in translation.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and not without flaws; the authors often slight children’s creativity, and they minimize the importance of music and art and the need for play. Still, reading The Well-Trained Mind provides an education in itself, and offers an ideal vision of human intellectual potential. For me, however, the book was also a major guilt trip. It reminded me of how, in our imperfect worlds, we mothers are constantly falling short. The best I could hope for Julia was that, by year’s end, she would have read some children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

At the other end of the spectrum stand the advocates of “child-centered education,” who let the curriculum follow each child’s interests (an approach which, in its loosest variety, takes the form of pure unschooling). David Guterson’s Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992) offers beautiful descriptions of how he nurtured his sons’ curiosity about salmon: “Feeding the salmon fry, weekly, at a nearby holding pond, and measuring their growth and development, graphing changes in water temperature and flow, examining eggs, weighing out feed.” Not to mention the days they spent “visiting the Elwha River hatchery, the fish ladders at the Rocky Reach dam, the Science Center Display on the Nootka people.”

It all sounds wonderful—extended field trips and hands-on learning and long, winding conversations. These are the freedoms that homeschooling allows, whether short-term or long. But unschooling in its freest form doesn’t appeal when re-entry into the public system hovers in the near future. At a minimum, short-term home educators must ensure that their children do not fall behind the public benchmarks in math and English, as well as any foreign language track where the child wants to keep up with her peers. Even in the Guterson household, his wife insisted that their nine-year-old spend a few hours every morning at the kitchen table with her, practicing math and writing.

Short-term homeschoolers usually remain tethered to their school systems’ educational priorities. “That’s the biggest difference between short-term and full-time homeschooling,” explained Rebecca, who chose to stick closely to her elementary school’s curriculum when teaching her fourth grader. Rebecca was content with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) model, and wanted to be sure that her daughter didn’t miss anything.

Other parents start out with their school’s objectives in mind, but leave them behind as mother and child gain their own footing. So it was for Sarah, hunkered down with her seventh-grader at the other end of our town. They began in January with a stack of heavy textbooks, planning to follow the middle school assignments which were posted daily on the Internet. But civics was never meant to be learned from a book, and neither were half of the other school subjects. For Sarah, the greatest “Aha!” moments came when she set aside the texts and followed her daughter’s budding culinary passion. Lessons in Mediterranean cooking expanded into explorations of geography and history.

My own plan was to use the public curriculum as a foothold, and try to climb the fifth grade mountain from there. Math provided a typical example. I was surprised that my ten-year-old had never encountered Roman numerals. Nor did she have any concept of where “Arabic” numerals came from, or the history of zero (why didn’t the Romans use it?). So I wanted to back up and look at the history of counting and examine early Mayan and Egyptian numbers before we continued with the public agenda of fractions and decimals and long division.

The same was true with social studies. Julia was bored with her school’s heavy focus on American history. She wanted to study the Maya, Aztecs and Incas. She also loved natural history, especially dinosaurs—a topic our school had removed from its first grade curriculum, since dinosaurs are not included in the Virginia first grade Standard of Learning topics. And so we tried to do it all, beginning with the Big Bang (and a brief nod to creationism) followed by an overview of the planet’s development and the evolution of successive life forms through multiple ice ages. We leaped from homo habilis to the Maya, then in January spent a month on Native Americans before we ever reached Columbus. In the end we squashed the usual fifth grade history curriculum into three months, and spiced up the SOL basics with more provocative women, like Anne Hutchinson. “That’s ambitious,” one homeschooling mom laughed when I described our course. In other words: “That’s too much.”

The danger of trying to balance a public curriculum with personal interests is that you can fall into a game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.” If the public school fifth graders are adding and subtracting fractions, then your child should be multiplying and dividing them. If they are studying place value through the billions, you should consider trillions and quadrillions. This is not as difficult as it sounds, since the public school day includes an enormous amount of repetition and wasted time. But keeping tabs on your local school produces paranoia. Is my child missing something essential? Will she fail her first sixth grade math test because I overlooked a key concept?

Trips to the local bookstore can further feed the short-term homeschooler’s paranoia. In my town’s cozy cat-inhabited store, with its children’s section twice as large as that at any Barnes and Noble, Julia and I spent wonderful hours soaking in the new titles. And yet, whenever I passed the Education shelf, my stomach lurched. There was E. D. Hirsch, perched atop his hill of Cultural Literacy, expounding on What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know. Julia hadn’t been exposed to most of Hirsch’s third grade essentials, which included Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, and scientists like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Elijah McCoy. Even I, with my Ph.D., didn’t know half the stuff.

Equally intimidating were the displays of Summer Bridge Activities—those big paperback reams of worksheets, designed to keep your child grinding away over the summer months. The fifth grade book placed a major emphasis on human anatomy, which convinced me that Julia was missing something essential. So she and I spent two futile weeks learning the names of all the bones in the human skeleton. (The metacarpals are connected to the…phalanges).

So much to learn, so little time. Full-time home educators have the luxury of years upon years spreading out before them: “If we don’t get to the Maya this spring, there’s always next fall.” In addition, homeschoolers with strong religious and philosophical approaches tend to be weaned from the public schools’ competitive mindset, in which children are constantly graded, ranked, and compared. They don’t feel the same pressures to keep up with age-based curricular models. As one mother from Earlysville, Virginia, told me in an e-mail:

In short term homeschooling I personally felt very tied to the school system, to make sure my son was “keeping up” with his peers. But the families I know who make homeschooling a long-term commitment see it as a lifestyle, and they feel much less pressure to stay the course… It’s about learning as a way of life, and finding what makes you happy.

In the end, every parent must cling to his or her own pedagogical rock, whether that involves lifelong learning, religious teachings, or, in my case, a belief in the value of the written word. So long as Julia was constantly writing, I felt that we were on the right track. My confidence grew with the length of her portfolio.

At the same time, I was glad that Julia and I didn’t entirely abandon the public curriculum, because Virginia’s standardized learning topics inspired some of her brightest epiphanies. Take, for instance, the time when we studied the earth’s layers—core, mantle and crust—one small component in Virginia’s fifth grade requirements.

“We should make a model of the earth’s interior,” I said to Julia one morning. “What would you like to use? Playdough?” I imagined concentric rings of clay, balls within balls, cut in half to reveal the multi-colored stratums. “Or would you like to slice a Styrofoam ball in half? You could paint the earth’s layers onto the flat center.”

Julia shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to use?”

“Fruit,” she said.

“Fruit?”

Yes, fruit.

From the basket on our kitchen table Julia lifted a kiwi, then took a steak knife and cut it in half. She held the green fruit to my eyes, and there was a model of the earth: the white core, surrounded by the squishy green mantle, with black seeds like the rocks that float in the earth ‘s magma, and on the outside, the thin dry crust. I felt completely humbled, reminded that all life is connected in repeated patterns—as when one learns that the ratio of water to land on our planet is the same as the ratio of liquid to solid in the human body.

The lesson continued for ten minutes more as Julia and I took turns cutting tectonic plates into the kiwi’s crust, carving a drippy Ring of Fire. “Look,” said Julia, “when the plates shift, the mountain ranges form.” She squeezed the kiwi, and a ridge of lumpy green flesh emerged on the surface. I couldn’t have been more proud if she had painted the Mona Lisa. My daughter could see the world within a slice of fruit.

One final challenge for short-term homeschoolers rests in the arena of social life—how to keep it active for both the child and mother. Socialization is a key concern for all homeschoolers. Fortunately, with the nationwide expansion of home education, more and more communities have established support networks, with families gathering for field trips and pot lucks and classes taught by visiting experts. “Those are life-savers,” says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College in New York who has studied homeschooling. According to Huerta, the potential for alienation is one of the biggest reasons why some parents give up on home education. It’s an enormously difficult job, and mothers who take it on usually need strong support groups.

But Huerta didn’t know whether the majority of homeschool networks would welcome short-term visitors into their midst. His research into homeschool charter schools revealed bitter divides between parents who want nothing to do with government-funded education, and those who are willing to take advantage of classes or resources offered at public sites. One mother in Huerta’s study contrasted the early “people of conviction” in the homeschooling movement with “the new breed” that want to have their cake and it eat too.

I count myself among this new breed (although I’ve never laid eyes on a charter school), because I want my daughter to experience what’s best in the public system, supplemented by whatever I can offer as a homeschooling novice. If homeschooling purists feel antagonistic toward their long-term peers who have taken advantage of government-funded charter schools, I can imagine how they’d roll their eyes at folks like me, deeply entrenched in the public system and using homeschooling as a temporary sabbatical—an approach which, admittedly, cannot yield any of the long-term benefits of home education. In fact, one thing that short-termers must get used to when reading most homeschooling literature is the chastising tone toward parents who maintain bonds with the public schools. Even Isabel Lyman, an otherwise open and helpful homeschooling advocate, had this to say in a 2003 blog interview with author Peter Brimelow: “Why in the world would any parent with half a brain place their precious child in an American public school?” (“You have to remind me how punchy I can sound, huh?” she replied when I showed her the quote in an online exchange.)

There is bound to be a social void between committed homeschoolers and the short-term crowd. Some temporary homeschoolers with strong religious roots have reported being welcomed into local Christian support groups. Meanwhile June, from Alexandria, found homeschool Girl Scouts to be a godsend. But not everyone can expect the same social support. In our own small town, Julia and I attended a few of our local homeschooling functions, including one very good trilobite dig, but while everyone was nice enough, it was clear that we were merely observers in these families’ world. We were neither as religious as some, nor as liberal as others. The high school kids were too old for Julia, the first-graders too young. If we had possessed vast amounts of time to get to know them all, the distinctions in ages and beliefs might have faded. But social bonds require years to grow, and we never became regulars on their e-mail list.

At the same time, Julia missed out on the social rituals of the public school year. At our elementary school’s annual Halloween parade, when the costumed children marched through the school’s neighborhood, Julia stood beside me on the curb, watching the long procession of fairies and wizards, her sisters among them (who’ve so far been content with their school routine), waving their butterfly wings. When the principal spotted Julia, she stepped out of the parade long enough to give her a hug, and I pitied my daughter in her homebound exile.

Later that year, when her fifth grade friends performed a musical version of Schoolhouse Rock, I glanced at Julia, sitting in the audience by my side, thinking that now she must surely regret our decision to homeschool.

“Would you have liked to be in that play?” I asked when we walked out.

She shook her head. “No way.”

Julia didn’t miss the plays or the concerts, the kickball games or field trips (we had plenty of our own). What she missed were the parties. Her elementary school was a party heaven, with Halloween bashes, Thanksgiving mini-feasts, Christmas celebrations and birthday cupcakes. “Can’t we have a party?” Julia asked on Valentine’s day. So we went to our local tea room, where one can dress in wild hats and tiaras and long white gloves, and we sipped Moroccan Madness tea while munching on cookies and sorbet. But a mother in a boa does not a party make. Julia received no Valentines that year, except from Mom, Dad, and Grandma.

Of course, Julia was constantly meeting other human beings—chatting with historical re-enactors; counting change with shopkeepers; asking questions of librarians and park rangers and musicians. Her after-school schedule included dance classes and tennis lessons with schoolmates who asked about her homeschooling with curiosity and envy. “I wish my Mom would homeschool me,” one little dancer lamented. “I hate school.”

But despite the social contact that I took pains to schedule, for many, many hours in the week Julia and I sat alone in our quiet rural house, while outside the cows and ducks and herons moved in slow motion. After a while one understands why homeschooling is most common in households with three or more children. The family becomes a social unit, taking the scrutiny off one child, and distributing the parent’s attention and frustrations. In the one-on-one homeschooling that I and most of my acquaintances practiced, the dangers of isolation and resentment loomed large. “I did feel at times that there was a noose around my neck,” confessed Christi, reminiscing on her year with her ten-year-old. The rope was less tight than when her children were babies—those wonderful and terrible days of diapers and bibs and bottles had been the most claustrophobic experience of her life. But homeschooling had its own quality of constriction.

So it was for Sarah, who had felt relieved, years earlier, when all her children were off at school. At last she could have time for herself, working at a job that she enjoyed. Homeschooling meant paring that job way down and returning to the house for much of her day. Inevitably there were tensions, especially when her daughter failed to meet her end of the bargain, becoming uncooperative, or surly, or slow.

Most homeschooling books never speak of these tensions—the power struggles and resentments and irrational moments of fury that emerge in any family, however loving. Many authors, even the secular ones, have an evangelical, sometimes self-congratulatory tone, trying to persuade other parents to join the fold. Reading them, one would think that homeschooling is an endlessly rosy enterprise, filled with brilliant, cooperative children well on their way to the Ivy League. In all my reading I never found a book that addressed what I feared most—the battles.

Julia and I have had power struggles since she was two. Getting her out of bed can be a Sisyphean task. And so I never expected our year to be smooth sailing; but neither did I expect that I could so easily be pushed into raging temper tantrums. Halfway through our year Julia nicknamed me “the volcano,” because of my tendency to swing from a state of calm, green dormancy into a heap of spitting lava, especially on those days when Julia seemed to get nothing done.

This is where advocates of unschooling are bound to wave their flags. “Follow the child ‘s interests,” they always say. “Then she’ll be self-motivated. Let dragon books lead to lessons in flight and fire, studies of winged dinosaurs and the legends of ancient China.” In fact, we tried all of that. But whether the subject was dragons or fractions, the result was always the same. If I was not nearby to push and prod and cheer, Julia would muddle through her tasks at the pace of an aging sloth.

One afternoon at our public library I described my concerns to a seasoned homeschooler, a teacher-certified mother with an advanced degree in early education. I expected her to tell me what I was doing wrong. Instead, she sadly shook her head: “That’s the story of my life.”

The more mothers I queried, the more confessions I heard. Many moms had similar trouble keeping their young learners on track, and the relentless foot-dragging sometimes drove the parents crazy. “I was sobbing” one mother put it; “absolute fury” said another. “There were days,” according to June,” “where I felt that if I didn’t get away from my daughter I would plotz.” Maryanne, who’d expected to be a long-term home educator when she removed her two sons from the local middle school, gave up on the plan when she found herself locked in ugly confrontations with her elder son. “Look at what this is doing to you,” her husband finally said. Her boys were back on the school bus the following fall.

Social bonds with other homeschoolers are essential, if only to allow a mother time to air her frustrations. In my darkest moments I was glad that my homeschooling was limited to one year. That light at the end of the tunnel served as my guiding star. But when the light expanded into the sunshine of mid-June, I felt surprisingly sad. For in the end, it had been a good year. Julia and I had grown closer through our moments of triumph and anger. She had read and written and calculated more than ever before in the public schools. And now that she has entered a conventional middle school, and is once again oppressed by the combination of piles of homework, little fresh air (no recess in middle school) and endless multiple choice tests (multiple choice is the greatest sign of the failure of American education), she often grows nostalgic.

“Remember last October when the leaves were turning? We walked around town identifying trees with our field guide, making photographs and leaf rubbings and writing a paragraph about each one?”

Yes, I remember.

“That was fun,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”

Julia has even begun to ask about homeschooling for the eighth grade, a possibility that I have not ruled out. But in the meantime, my daughter needs more time away from Mom (excessive mothering is one of the most common concerns about homeschoolers). A third-party adult can often inspire a child more deeply than pleas from dear old Mother, which is why many homeschoolers hire tutors. In addition, the presence of a peer group in a public classroom can keep a child on task, who might, in a home setting, have problems staying focused, and the social diversity in the public schools can’t be matched in today’s homeschooling communities.

In the end, I believe in supporting public education in America, especially in districts like ours, where the schools are small and safe. But in return, the public schools should be supporting America’s families, not filling our children’s family time with more schoolwork. While I am willing to leave my daughter’s education in the hands of the public schools until three o’clock each day, after-school hours should be devoted to exercise, art, music, and unstructured play—all of the highly educational activities that many schools, in their test-bound shackles, have cut to the bare bones. When excessive homework gets in the way of family time—time for long conversations, as well as visits to museums and parks and concerts—that’s when the schools have crossed my line in the sand. And that’s when Julia and I will be back in our local coffee shop, spending our Wednesday mornings speaking bits of French over a game of chess.

Laura Brodie teaches English at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She is the author of The Widow’s Season, Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women, Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year (Harper 2010), and All the Truth. Find her at http://lbrodie.publishpath.com

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

 

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths

 

White Fence with Roses

I began this summer with a list—and mostly, a wish to take an internal pressured sense of hurry and worry down a few notches. Things had built up, some work, some family, some general “stuff” of life around me and at home. Essentially, I needed to rediscover how to take some deep breaths.

Summer is not over, but the sense that it’s waning has overtaken. Cue: school supply lists, other people’s “first day of school” photos, and the way everything shifted a little cooler, the golden light at certain times when before it was brighter, and whiter.

We have a little bit of time to hang in “family” mode ahead, but not so much. We have some of those back to school things to do, and we have a block party to throw. The time between now and the next will fill up quickly. Like everyone around me, the way I look at all that’s surrounding me is different: the world has pushed in, too, and brings unease and sadness and disbelief and even horror. I listen to the birds chirp sometimes, and feel I should let other worries in more. Yesterday, however, I admit that I shut NPR off in the car. My push and pull to get to deep breaths can’t always involve NPR.

Meantime, there are the summer highlights (the “roses” in the speak of gymnastics camp), like how awesome it is to see small kids glimpse my sixteen-year-old around town and gaze up at him with “my camp counselor” eyes. Certainly, the two weeks of overnight camp for the eleven-year-old-boys were rosy.

Last night, the camp my Saskia attends this week had a Family Night. As she showed me around (I was the proxy for family, as the rest of the crew scattered other places) with her friend, Mattea, who had some family in tow, the first stop was Mermaid Cove (or rock? Or point?). Anyway, the girls climbed on a couple of big rocks by the lake and explained that if you see shimmering on the water that’s where the mermaids are. I can’t tell if this is their idea or the camp’s. I think it was fed via camp (as we are deep into the television program H2O whatever the conduit, mermaids are “in” with us, especially Australian mermaids). Suddenly, Saskia was IN the water. This was an accident, which stunned us all (it was very shallow, but she did manage to get very wet). “Climb out,” I told her—and stunned, she did. Tears followed.

Her ankle was scraped and her shoes (and pants and most of her shirt) were soaked, and her pride was bruised. We skipped the rest of the walkabout and the campfire. We went to the lodge to nab her backpack and painted rocks. In the van, we wrested the wet clothing off and zipped her into her sweatshirt for the ride home. By the time we’d gotten there, she was no longer teary. She drank some milk and calmed down.

“You handled a hard thing so well,” I said as we reached the car. “I’m really proud of you.”

Having been a parent for nearly nineteen years, you might think I’d have known that’s the most important part—not the missing of the s’mores. I have to confess, it may have taken me all this time. In that, perhaps the answer to why the leisurely route through childrearing isn’t boring for me, not at all (there is, between this six-and-a-half year-old girl and her oldest brother about a dozen years).

To learn how to handle hard things could fall under “life lessons,” obviously. By hard, I really don’t mean bad, or all bad. I really mean something different, something about the ability to see “hard” more with prism in mind—how does light reflect and how to do you see the various sides and still breathe? That’s the lesson I went for this summer. I can’t say it’s felt relaxing, this space that had me trying to make room for breaths. It’s certainly not a bucket list item. But I am breathing, raggedly perhaps. And smiling, and comforting, and still in search of a good answer to: “Was it a good summer?”

The short answer: “Yes.” How about yours?

Justamotherphobia

Justamotherphobia

By Andrea Askowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said, “I was born in 1986.”

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

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

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

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

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

PHOBIA                              MOM                                   ME

Cheatophobia (hair)             yes                                     no  (healthy concern)

Gerascophobia (aging)        no                                       yes

Thanatophobia (death)        yes                                      yes

Rhytiphobia (looking old)     yes                                      no

 

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

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

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

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

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

I have Justamotherphobia.

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

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

Photo: http://www.michfest.com

 

We Count to Three

We Count to Three

By Kim Farrar

IMG_6796

My daughter has been crowing like a rooster

for thirteen years, and then asking, What does a rooster say?

Some days her charms are irresistible

 

And I cock-a-doodle-do in response, like a mate

lost in a cornfield.  This is wrong

according to Overcoming Autism.

 

I should redirect the conversation

to something in front of us,

make her touch the carpet and say soft.

 

When she was born, her father

held her up and her mouth made a perfect

O, as if we had some nerve

 

plucking her from that dark warmth

into fluorescent light.  She scored

well on the Apgar, and without knowing

 

I rejoiced in her future

all she would learn, every cloud

I could show her, who she might become.

 

In the park there was a stone frog

that spouted a great arc of water,

but rather than flit and dart

 

with the other little girls who giggled

in their ruffled bottoms, she’d squat

by the drain and listen

 

to the dripping echo in the deep

metallic well.  Today she’s a good swimmer

and at the public pool she blends

 

until an honest boy asks, What’s wrong with her?

I explain as best I can then he disappears

among the swarms of screaming children.

 

We count to three and go under.

 

Kim Farrar is a poet and essayist living in Astoria, New York. Her poetry has been published most recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Rhino. Her chapbook “The Familiar” was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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Family Mythology

Family Mythology

tooth fairy signed

The first time we forgot to fulfill our tooth fairy duties, I declared that the tooth fairy is really quite old and sometimes she gets too tired to finish her rounds in one night. The disappointed, gap-mouthed child took this in stride, declaring that any fairy old enough to have gathered even his own grandmother’s teeth was surely very old indeed.

The next time we forgot to trade a tooth for money (this became frustratingly habitual), I distracted my tearful, toothless daughter by announcing that the tooth fairy was getting a bit confused in her advanced age, and perhaps she left the money in the wrong place and forgot the tooth? The kids and I went on a treasure hunt, peeking under every cushion in the house while my husband slipped a dollar under a mattress and encouraged our daughter to look there.

After this routine played out several times (I’d guess the tooth fairy had a 50% success rate of actually removing a tooth from under a pillow and replacing it with a dollar), my kids began to lament the tooth fairy tradition, because surely, if she was so confused now, would she even know what teeth were by the time their children lost teeth? Spencer, four at the time, piped up that perhaps he could become the new tooth fairy when he was all grown up! Jacob and Abbie, then 6 and 8, sagely informed Spencer that he was a person, not a fairy, and the only hope for a tooth fairy in the future would be a new fairy, though they applauded his sense of duty to future generations.

Around the same time that our three eldest children were losing many teeth, we were preparing for the arrival of our youngest son. My husband, our kids, and I were walking across the parking lot of a big box store that supplies every possible infant need. I was massively pregnant and wearing the awful yellow t-shirt and navy blue shorts that made me look like a weeble-wobble gone wrong, but were the only things I could bear to wear in the July heat.

“Why are we here?” asked Jacob, our eldest. “This store is so boring! Doesn’t the baby have enough clothes by now?”

My husband waggled his eyebrows, then looked at the children seriously and said, “Oh, we’re not here to shop. This is where they keep the baby spanking machine. You know, in case the baby is naughty.”

The two older kids looked amused and exaggeratedly horrified and Spencer, almost five and not yet adept at recognizing fiction when we tossed it about, looked at me, concerned. I gave him a big wink and said, “Oh, yes, this is where they keep the baby spanking machine now. When you guys were small, we had to drive all the way across town so this is very convenient!”

Less than a week later, our youngest child Carter arrived in the world and the kids were crouched around me on the bed, petting his head. So new! So small! So magic! I settled Spencer cross-legged and laid the baby in his arms and Spencer looked at his face and gazed at the wee, wrinkly fingers and told him, “You’re kind of lucky because we don’t hit in our family. The baby spanking machine isn’t even real.”

In some essential way, we built our family identity on these fabrications, both on the stories themselves and the habits of creating and maintaining them. Some of the stories came pre-installed: hiccups come from the toy box, and if anyone starts eating before the family says grace that person will suffer a stomachache, both of which came from my mother’s side of the family. Most we made up on the fly, sometimes to protect our parental butts as in the case of the tooth fairy, some just because. Some we made sure the kids knew were inventions because they would be scary otherwise (I never actually wanted my kids to think we were going to spank anyone), and some we told quite seriously.

I love the mythologies of childhood, and I wanted them for all the time. For several years, I had all my kids absolutely convinced that UPS delivery people are Santa’s elves, and not only do they deliver the Christmas gifts so Santa doesn’t exhaust himself on Christmas Eve, but they’re out in the world finding out what kinds of things kids would like to have for Christmas. At least two UPS delivery carriers deserve thanks from me for playing along when one of my kids announced their Christmas desires to them.

When I met my husband Brian, my children were four and 6 and his son was 2. Brian was adamant that he would never lie to his son. Noble in theory, but I was aghast. “What about all the magic lies? And the fun ones? And the ones that save them from getting their hearts broken too young?”

Eventually, we agreed, because kids make storytelling so easy, and so often start the stories themselves. When friends lost their baby to SIDS, Spencer was so deeply sad for the parents, he drew pictures and described scenarios in which he flew a spaceship to heaven and brought the baby home to his grieving parents. I listened to my kids spinning wild fabrications for each other, and listened to them go along with those stories because so what if a story is not factual? Strict adherence to facts is not necessarily what makes a story true, and I hope all our mythologies tell some truth of our family.

If you come to our house for dinner, and you accidentally pass a little gas at the table, we’ll remind you to be careful not to step on the ducks. I hope you’ll play along.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Glass Half Full

Glass Half Full

By Katy Read

From Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

fall2011_read“We Get It, You Hate Your Kids,” snapped Jezebel, an online pop-culture blog for women, last January. The headline’s sharp tone was startling—somewhat out of character for the staunchly feminist site that often defends women expressing unconventional or unpopular views.

Not, apparently, if they’re negative views about motherhood.

“It seems like nowadays you can’t open a magazine without someone smugly declaring what a letdown parenthood is,” writes Jezebel‘s Sadie Stein.

The post was in response to a London Daily Mail essay in which a writer, frustrated by her difficult three-year-old, confesses (in a tone more guilty than smug) to occasional flashes of dislike for the boy. To Stein, this was merely the latest of “a regular bonanza of reluctant fathers (and) discontented moms.” Specifically, she cites Ayelet Waldman’s 2009 memoir Bad Mother and “every parent on TV, from Modern Family to Real Housewives.”

Enough already, Stein writes.

“[D]oes anyone think parenthood is all roses and sunshine? As someone planning on having kids soon, I feel far more aware of the inconveniences, sacrifices and indignities than the bliss.”

Stein’s annoyance with disgruntled parents appears widely shared. Criticism, especially of mothers who complain, comes not just from traditionalists but from progressives and feminists—that is, people who might normally be expected to support women frustrated with their roles.

“Why are Moms Such a Bummer?” asked Hanna Rosin of Double X, a women’s blog on the left-leaning website Slate, in 2009. Rosin pointed, again, to the example of Waldman’s book, comparing it unfavorably to a more lighthearted memoir by a dad.

“You and I both know that parenting has its joys and agonies, etc.,” Rosin wrote. “So why is it that in the public forum, it’s become routine for mothers, in particular, to self-flagellate?”

Or why, wondered Emily Matchar, can’t more modern mothers be like cheerful Mormons? In an essay on the also left-leaning Salon, Matchar describes herself as a “childless overeducated atheist feminist” who has become enthralled with blogs written by young Mormon mothers.

Unlike typical “mommy blogs,” which “make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like ‘guilt’ and ‘chaos,'” Matchar writes, upbeat Mormon blogs “help women like me envision a life in which marriage and motherhood could potentially be something other than a miserable, soul-destroying trap.”

Is it coincidence that actual motherhood is still in the future for both Stein and Matchar? In any event, Matchar’s essay struck a chord. Eighteen thousand readers recommended it on Facebook.

As if to counter this morass of motherly moodiness, a host of books have recently popped up to assure readers that, contrary to what they may have heard, raising children can be a pleasant experience.  They speak to working mothers (Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor’s What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance, from 2009) to at-home mothers (Rachel Campos-Duff’s Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood, also 2009) to mothers willing to call themselves housewives (Happy Housewives: I Was a Whining, Miserable, Desperate Housewife—But I Finally Snapped Out of It … You Can, Too! 2006), to mothers in general (Meagan Francis’ The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood, published this year).

Written in a somewhat different vein, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You’d Think (2011) has been getting media attention lately. Caplan argues that parents make their own job unnecessarily difficult. If they’d cut themselves some slack, he insists, raising kids would be more enjoyable—so much so that couples should consider having more children than they’d planned.

At the same time, however, other observers contend that it’s still rare and socially risky for mothers to admit any discontent. Laura Kemp, writer of the Daily Mail essay that triggered the Jezebel piece, presents it as a foray into forbidden territory.

“Among the mums I know, such fierce negative emotion is never spoken of,” she writes.

In last year’s The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, psychiatrist Barbara Almond argues that maternal ambivalence—simultaneous feelings of love and hate for one’s own darling offspring—is quite normal. But it provokes such intense societal disapproval that it remains mostly stifled.

“The negative, or hating, side of maternal ambivalence is the crime ‘that dare not speak its name’ of our time,” Almond writes.

So which are we: A culture in which mothers hesitate to voice misgivings for fear of social reprisal? Or one so inundated with maternal kvetching that onlookers are understandably tired of it?

Either way, the question seems new. Not long ago, the public’s image of parenting must have appeared considerably simpler.

*   *   *

Shortly after my sons were born in the mid-1990s, I became aware that almost everything I heard, saw or read about being a mother failed to mention one important aspect of the experience: Sometimes, it sucks.

My family lived across the country from other relatives and friends with children (local friends, for various unconnected reasons, were mostly childless). With few nearby role models, I looked to pop culture as a guide to my new life stage. What I found was oddly discomfiting.

Everywhere I turned—books and movies, bumper stickers and TV commercials, celebrity interviews and mass-emailed inspirational stories—mothers and offspring appeared to glide through the world wearing beatific smiles and bathed in a pinkish, soft-focus glow. Mothers were generally seen shouldering their responsibilities gracefully, relishing their roles, free of self-doubt or resentment. Children were adorable angels. Caring for them was enjoyable and fulfilling. At worst, the occasional bout of misbehavior might provoke a flash of frustration or annoyance, quickly soothed with a soak in a Calgon bath or vented in Erma Bombeck-style wisecracks.

Huh? My sons were certainly adorable, but “angels” would be more than a stretch. Caring for them was lovely … er, sometimes. As for the other times, I tried to shrug them off with nonchalant Bombeckian humor, but privately the strains of caring for two high-energy, strong-willed, demanding beings often left me with frustration no bathtub would soothe, unless maybe it were filled with gin.

Hard as it is to believe now, the idea that motherhood was not always idyllic was rarely heard back then. As far as I could tell, motherly malaise was practically unknown.?Why couldn’t I achieve seamless contentment? Either something was wrong with me, something was wrong with my children, or I had stumbled into Stepford.

“What about Anne Lamott?” you may be wondering. Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a frank and funny 1993 memoir about her son’s first year, certainly acknowledges the darker side of mothering. Reading it might have gone a long way toward assuaging my insecurities. A friend even sent me a copy as a baby gift. But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to opening it (too busy reading baby-care manuals, I suppose). Nor was I aware, at the time, of a few landmark scholarly books about the complexities of the maternal experience, including poet Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976), psychologist Shari Turner’s The Myths of Motherhood (1994) and sociologist Sharon Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). These books didn’t get discussed on the playground benches, at least not the ones that I frequented.

My eventual savior was Rachel Cusk. Her A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (published in 2002 in the United States, 2001 in the UK) chronicles “the anarchy of nights, the fog of days” with her first baby. Dry and scathingly unsentimental, the British novelist eloquently captures the deep and complex love she feels for her daughter, but also frankly describes sleep deprivation, alienation from typical motherhood culture, a sense of entrapment, breast feeding that left her “gloomy as a cow.”

It was stark and unusual for its time, and some readers found A Life’s Work bleak. The New York Times reviewed it favorably, yet noted that as “a serious female writer,” Cusk had risked “career suicide” by writing a memoir about motherhood.

To me, the book was cause for celebration. Here was evidence that I wasn’t the only one experiencing contradictory feelings, some of which had seemed unacceptable.

Other mothers—and writers—must have noticed the dearth of three-dimensional portraits of motherhood and decided to do something about it. There began a slow but steady stream of memoir, fiction, journalism and cultural criticism about the demands of childcare itself, about mothers’ second-class social status, about mothers coping with shifting identity. They included Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It (1999). Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (2001). Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002). Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (2003). Susan Douglas’s and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women (2004). Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005).

These books are still relevant, insightful, and eye-opening. But it’s hard to convey from today’s vantage point how pioneering they felt back then, how refreshing their messages. Reading them, I could relate for the first time to bored 1960s housewives, setting aside their mops to flip through The Feminine Mystique. We shared some similar frustrations—unrealistic demands, glorified drudgery, culturally enforced conformity, social isolation—except that our focuses had shifted from spouses and households to children. As my foremothers felt socially compelled to pretend not to mind waxing floors or picking up their husbands’ strewn socks, so I felt required to pretend to enjoy playing with action figures on the floor with my six-year-old.

These new messages were heralded as breaking news. The New York Times in 2002 ran a story headlined “Admitting to Mixed Feelings about Motherhood.”

“After two decades in which boomers managed to make children the raison d’être not only of their lives but of the culture at large,” Elizabeth Hayt reported, “another version of motherhood is beginning to seep out, with some mothers speaking up—in the impassioned tones of those breaking a taboo—about the drudgery of child care, the isolation of the playground and their loss of identity.”

Beginning to seep out. Breaking a taboo. That’s how revolutionary complaints by mothers were considered less than a decade ago.

Hayt quotes feminist author Naomi Wolf: ”Motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed-out state that has no depth or complexity. That is the socially acceptable picture in the mass market. But women have discovered that the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood has nothing to do with their lives. Women are hungry for the truth. They want to know they’re normal when they feel overwhelmed, lonely, isolated or ecstatic.”

Say it, sister! That’s exactly why I found those books so comforting.

But the books were not universally praised, even back then. Many saw them as exaggerated, whiny, self-absorbed, silly. Some critics dismissed the problems discussed, mostly by middle-class mothers, as trivial compared to those of women in more oppressive cultures or disadvantaged classes, as if no problem deserved mentioning if there was someone else with a worse one.

“[I]t is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2004 New Yorker review of motherhood books.

Though more familiar these days, motherhood writing is not noticeably more welcome. The difference is that now, in addition to finding fault with individual books, critics complain about their multitude.

Even Rachel Cusk—my onetime hero, author of A Life’s Work—piled on in a 2009 interview. Asked what she thinks of the “slew of mommy memoirs” that followed her own book—once again, poor Ayelet Waldman’s book is dragged in as an example—Cusk resoundingly trashed them:

There’s definitely this strand of “I’m going to be really honest and say I don’t love my children” or “I’m incompetent,” ha ha ha. It’s an old form that repeats itself. I’m sure it’s dishonest in one way or another, although I can’t put my finger on why. People write—”I drank like a fish when I was breastfeeding” or “I didn’t sterilize the bottle,” and of course you know they did nothing of the sort.

There are people who are genuinely in crisis, who are alcoholics, say, and can’t cope with a small baby, or who are truly psychologically vulnerable and are a genuine threat to themselves or the baby. But that’s not who is writing the “bad mother” memoirs. When I wrote A Life’s Work I didn’t just set out to say every single thing or reveal my failures or flaws. I made very strict decisions about the kinds of things I would say so that they had a larger purpose, and got to something bigger, more universal. It doesn’t console anybody to know that Michael Chabon’s wife loves him more than her children [Waldman, who is married to esteemed novelist—and fatherhood memoirist—Chabon, notoriously confessed in a New York Times essay to loving him more than she does their children]. This kind of memoir writing is a toxic, and dishonest form of writing.

Why do you think these memoirs have proliferated?

I don’t know what to make of it. I remember a good writer, a literary person, wrote one of these and it made me so angry. It was so dishonest, and it’s exactly this lack of honesty that makes the culture of motherhood so treacherous to navigate.

Here I’d like to attempt an authorial analysis of Cusk’s vitriol, to try to explain what she means by sweepingly condemning an entire genre into which her own book could reasonably be considered to fall, why she fails to state any objective differences between her book and others, why the interviewer (again, it’s Slate’s Hanna Rosin, the writer who just a month earlier had wondered why mothers are “such a bummer”) doesn’t ask her to clarify.

I’d like to do this, but I can’t. Frankly, I’m mystified by the whole exchange.

One thing is clear, though: Women who write about negative aspects of motherhood open themselves to disapproval ranging far beyond the literary merits of their work. More than with any other nonfiction genre that comes to mind, critics tend to question the validity of the writers’ intentions, their sincerity, the appropriateness of their even expressing their views.

All of which would seem to both contradict and underscore psychiatrist Almond’s point. Over the past decade, maternal ambivalence has finally been daring to speak its name. In return, it frequently is told to get itself back into the closet.

*   *   *

Bryan Caplan does not slam motherhood memoirs in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kid. In fact, he gives no indication he’s aware of their existence. But he seems to have heard their message, at least in part.

If raising children was once seen as rewarding, in Caplan’s view it is now widely assumed by both mothers and fathers (as well as their still-childless counterparts) to constitute an endless treadmill of hard work, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights.

“When asked, ‘Why don’t you have as many kids as [Americans] used to?’ both men and women respond with groans,” writes Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. “To be brutally honest, we’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain.”

Think again, Caplan cheerfully advises. While he doesn’t offer to abolish dirty diapers, he brings news he expects to even more comprehensively alleviate the toil of child rearing.  It’s this: Parents can’t really control what kind of people their children will become. All attempts to mold our kids one way or another are bound to be futile, he says, so don’t bother trying. We’re off the hook!

Caplan draws heavily on ideas that Judith Rich Harris presents in her breakthrough 1998 The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a book Caplan credits with getting him to start “thinking seriously about parenting.” Harris is a former textbook author; like Caplan, she is not a professional child psychologist. That may have helped her think outside the box, since child psychologists (especially those who write books themselves) often have a vested interest in convincing parents that their actions are extremely important. But Harris found evidence that nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, a conclusion drawn from behavioral studies on twins and adoptees.

Twins studies isolate the effect of genes; studies of adoptees eliminate it. By doing so, they overwhelmingly indicate that parents’ practices have little to no effect on their offsprings’ eventual health, intelligence, happiness, success, personalities, or values. They challenge the familiar assumption, for example, that if you read to your child she’ll grow up to enjoy reading. In fact, if you like to read yourself, chances are she will, too. Or not. Either way, you don’t have much control.

Caplan fills more than a quarter of his book with support for this theory, detailing study after study. As a bonus, he offers statistics showing that parents need not fret excessively about their kids’ health and safety; childhood mortality rates have plummeted to a fraction of their 1950s levels.

If you can’t hope to mold your children to your liking, and they’re probably not going to die, Caplan argues, then you might as well sit back and enjoy yourself.

“This knowledge should inspire every parent,” Caplan writes. “Raise your children with love, control your temper, and enjoy family time. They’ll appreciate it when they’re children and fondly remember their happy home when they grow up.”

Oh, Bryan Caplan, if only it were that simple.

Let me first state that regarding nature and nurture, I’m completely in Caplan’s camp; with me, he’s preaching to a devoted member of a tiny choir. For years, I wanted to carry a copy of The Nurture Assumption around in my purse so that I could pull it out for anybody—from in-laws to fellow grocery-store patrons—who might question my own parenting approach. I have examined some of those twins and adoptee studies, interviewed scientists involved, written articles about their work. I also have been embroiled in numerous debates on the subject, attempting like Caplan to convince skeptics—i.e., almost everybody—who understandably bristle at the counterintuitive findings, widely perceived as implying that “parents don’t matter.”

Although Caplan presents his case adroitly and supports it with mountains of research evidence, experience tells me it’s an uphill battle. But I applaud him for making the effort, because if parents could relinquish the belief that they have both the power and responsibility to turn their children into brilliant students and model citizens, they’d shed a substantial chunk of the guilt and self-doubt that modern parenting typically entails.

Why do moms “self-flagellate”? Because they’ve been taught that kids pay a long-term price for their parents’ ordinary mistakes. They don’t. Because they think they’re to blame for their children’s flaws. They aren’t.

But guess what. Admitting you can’t control phenomena that nevertheless significantly color your emotional well-being and day-to-day life is not necessarily a ticket to relaxation. Even armed with twins studies and mortality stats, I have not experienced parenting as the carefree romp that Caplan promises.

Sure, much of it has been wonderful. However, not to get all whiny mother on you, raising children remains an often complicated, frustrating, and stress-inducing enterprise, involving many kinds of challenges.

These may include—to pick a random handful— financial strains, sibling rivalry, troublesome content in video games and other mass media, children with disabilities and disorders, children who break rules or laws, children with academic difficulties (even if you don’t hope to mold a star scholar, it’s hard to shrug off a report card dotted with D’s). And even if you understand that kids are safer than they were in the ’50s, just try going peacefully to sleep when your sixteen-year-old has the car, was supposed to have been home an hour ago, and isn’t answering his cell phone.

Caplan often mentions how much he fun he has as a parent. As of the book’s writing, he has twin babies and a seven-year-old. Cynical readers may wonder if he will still be this cheerful when the kids are teenagers.

And I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t hear much about Mrs. Caplan’s take on all this. The author does hint, at one point, that he and his wife aren’t always in total accord.

*   *   *

Although The Monster Within was published just last year, author and psychoanalyst Barbara Almond does not agree that complaints about motherhood have reached a cultural tipping point and have now become excessive, obvious, old hat.

On the contrary, she contends they’re still very much taboo.

“The concept of maternal ambivalence and its forbidden quality has been explored by various writers but still remains highly unacceptable in our culture,” she writes. “It is one of those societal problems that fill us with outrage and horror, even as some part of us secretly understands its normality.”

By “maternal ambivalence,” Almond means simultaneously loving and hating your child. Though that might sound shockingly aberrant, she assures readers—based on her clinical practice, her research and her own experiences as a mother—that it’s a normal emotional state, usually harmless, universal and pretty much unavoidable given that the legitimate needs of mothers and their children are often in direct conflict. You want five minutes alone in the bathroom; your three-year-old feels abandoned. You want to relax with a book; your nine-year-old needs posterboard for the science project due tomorrow. In fact, maternal ambivalence can actually serve constructive purposes, she says, leading mothers to closely examine their relationships with their children and helping children understand themselves as separate individuals (therapist talk, perhaps, for “Get your own damn posterboard.”).

But contemporary culture exacerbates normal ambivalence, Almond says, placing higher demands on mothers even as it dismantles the support system on which we used to rely. Modern mobility has geographically separated parents from relatives who once helped with child care; divorce generally leaves a larger burden on mothers.

Yet standards for adequate parenting have not relaxed—on the contrary, they’ve increased.

“[A]s the conditions of mothering become more difficult, more is expected from mothers, and mothers, in turn, expect more from themselves,” she writes. “Perfectionistic standards of child care in every area—feeding, sleep, play, emotional and intellectual development—prevail.”

No wonder mothers are ambivalent. But the biggest problem isn’t the ambivalence itself, in Almond’s view, it’s the guilt and shame that stem from society’s prohibitions against expressing it.

“I believe that that today’s expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time has become more unacceptable to society as a whole.”

More unacceptable? Well, you wouldn’t know it, would you, given all those books and articles by disgruntled mothers? Or wait—does the fact that those books are often met with scorn and skepticism simply prove Almond’s point?

It’s tempting to see the backlash against parental complaint as some sort of cultural correction, to assume that the pendulum has culminated its decade-long swing in one direction and is now heaving back the other way.

But maybe it’s more accurate to say that both trends—the original backlash against Stepford mothers and now the backlash to that backlash—are happening simultaneously, feeding each other, continually bouncing off each other. Cultural constraints lead mothers to complain, which draws societal condemnation, which makes mothers feel even more stifled, which provokes further complaint … Even this article itself could be seen as complaining about complaining about complaining.

So maybe a more accurate metaphor is not a single giant pendulum but a Newton’s cradle, one of those mesmerizing desk toys from the 1970s. It consisted of multiple small pendulums, a row of metal balls dangling from separate strings in a frame, in which a swing and strike on one side causes a swing and strike on the other and back again. Get it started and the two sides clack back and forth, back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy, endlessly clacking away.

Author’s Note: If I were the conspiracy-theory type, I might imagine a sinister plot behind efforts to keep mothers from complaining. After all, mothers perform the lion’s share of unpaid housework and child care—and pay a steep economic price for doing so, on average making less money than fathers or childless people and suffering from a higher rate of poverty. What better way to keep mothers from rebelling against those circumstances than to discourage them from voicing any objections? It’s ingenious: convince women through cultural conditioning that mothers are blissfully content—or ought to be, anyway—and penalize those who contradict that image by lashing back with criticism dripping with contempt.

Luckily, I’m not a conspiracy nut. So of course I don’t seriously think that the writers and publications I quoted in this piece, whom I respect, are in cahoots with opponents of reforms that would make mothers’ lives more manageable (universal health insurance that would make part-time work more feasible, for example). Still, it’s worth asking why the reaction is so swift and harsh—why the outrage? where’s the threat? what deep, dark fears are being tapped?—when a mother dares to mention the empty half of the glass.

Katy Read’s essays have appeared in Salon, More, Real Simple, AARP The Magazine, Working Mother, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her two sons.

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.

All About Me

All About Me

By Galit Breen

BrainChildMagazine-GalitBreen-AllAboutMe“One more,” he says, sleep still wrapped around his eyes, his cheeks, his voice.

“Okay,” I say, never being one to resist a child asking to read another book. I glide my thumb along the bottom edge and slip the book open. It creases in a way that is satisfying to this former teacher.

I used to sit in front of my classrooms of students in this exact same way. Thumb beneath page, smile lifting cheeks, eyes searching for one answer: Will they dive into this story?

Ten years ago I traded in my teacher voice for my mothering one. I’ve been told they’re eerily similar. And I’ve never—truly, not ever—regretted this decision. I do, however, have an undeniable soft spot for school projects and chapter books, hand written stories and the chubby fingers wrapped around the sharpened pencils that write them.

Brody has his first school homework assignment due this week; it’s an “All About Me” poster. And like many teachers before me, I’m a horrid student and we’ve left it until (almost) the last minute. So brushing his too-long golden locks out of his hazel eyes that match mine, I add, “And then we’ll do your poster.” He smiles. This makes me almost giddy.

We settle into the story sitting on the yellow couch, our heads tilting toward each other, his elbow on my knee. Our puggle, Louie, is curled on my toes. These two are my, very comfortable, bookends.

My mind quickly checks the next hour off of our list. Brody and I will work on his project while his sisters, Kayli and Chloe, play outside. I’ll ask him the questions and help him list his favorite and his not-so-favorite things. We’ll share the pen, I’ll watch him print.

I used to love this stage as a teacher, when children are on the cusp of making sense of letters and sounds and the magic that turns their words and into stories. With something that can only be described as a pang, I suddenly realize this is my last child that I’ll watch learn how to write, that I’ll teach how to curve tiny fingers fingertip-to-fingertip and stretch each sound out until it becomes so very clear to them.

I brush those locks away one more time as we close the book. “My poster!” He breathes. I smile and nod his way.  He runs to the table and unrolls the poster that’s almost as big as him. It curls back up and he laughs from the deepest part of his belly. I pause to memorize this giggle, tuck it away for a cooler time.

Just as we begin carving out a new place made just for two, the girls come back inside. Their voices fill the space from one room to the other. They have stories to tell, adventures to share. Their cheeks and their noses and even their foreheads are pink tinged. They look like they’ve been kissed with childhood.

Their words braid over each other in a loud, magnetic way. Brody is stilled at the table. He’s sitting barefoot, knees tucked beneath him, tiny toes peeking out from behind. His eyes are wide; he’s taking them in. I’m awed by their sibling-ness.

When he can’t possibly hold his news in any longer, “We’re doing my poster!” escapes between his thin lips.

The girls’ eyes scan the table. The magazines piled high to his side, the pencils, the crayons, the tiny scissors and the full bottles of glue scattered in front of him, and that poster that refuses to stay flat.

Their cheeks raise and their eyes light in the exact same way mine always did at the prospect of a project, at the idea of teaching.

And with a speed that I can’t imagine ever owning as my own, they slip out of their jackets and sneakers and into the two spots by his sides. I lean against the counter behind them, arms crossed at my chest and watch as he looks to them with—once again—wide eyes.

“What’s your favorite color?” One asks. He answers and they help him write, placing their fingertips together, showing him how to stretch his words, listen for the sounds, write the letters that he already knows.

What I feel in this moment is a little bit hard to place my own fingertips on.

That small pang of last child is still there. And at second blush, if I’m being honest, so is the feeling of this is my moment to share in.

But all of this is, of course, painted over with the brightest strokes, by the real magic in the room. The way he turns to them and the way they want him to, the way they teach him and the way he learns from them.

I remember being told how very magical a sibling relationship can be. Being an only child, I had no idea what to expect, what to look for, what to teach. But as it turns out, all I really needed to do was stand back and watch this—all of this—unfold.

The girls help Brody finish his entire poster. They flip through magazine pages together and find his likes—balloons, tootsie rolls, puppies—and his dislikes—asparagus, fires, brushing his teeth. They bite their lips and don’t say a word when he writes his B backwards or his name in the wrong spot.

And when his poster is complete, they stand in front of me and practice sharing it; my uneven HeartStaircase. Brody stands between his sisters, his own comfortable bookends, with a wide smile and lit eyes.

This moment didn’t go the way that I planned it to, but it worked out exactly as it should have, didn’t it? It was a truly perfect way for my third child’s “All About Me” story to unfold.

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

 

 

Where Expatriates Belong

Where Expatriates Belong

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Next, in our What is Family? blog series. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

rachel jones family2My kids are the ones who bring the weird snack to school. The other kids have pain au chocolate (if they are French) or half a baguette with Smiling Cow cheese spread in the middle (if they are Djiboutian). Mine are the ones with homemade granola or banana bread. Nothing wrong with homemade granola or banana bread, but that’s not what the other kids are eating. The food sets them apart. As does their underwear. In swimming class other kids leave thick, single-colored cotton underpants in a heap on the floor. Mine leave Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer thin cotton panties in a heap. The smells of home we carry on our clothes and my accent when communicating with the teacher or other parents mark my family. Other. Different. Foreign. Alien, even. We are the ones who don’t quite fit in. We are an expatriate family.

I thought this awkwardness would disappear when we spent one year in Minnesota, the land of our passports and tax-payments and home-ownership. But in Minnesota my family was the one wishing Somali cashiers at Target, “Eid Mubarak.” At school my kids were the Americans who didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria at lunchtime, the kids who thought people played baseball on Thanksgiving, the kids who wobbled on skates and tumbled on skis and who complained of the cold weather when it was 75 degrees. Here, I had the right accent and provided the right school snacks but I didn’t understand the grading system and spent hours and hours and hours perusing the shelves at the grocery store, searching for those snacks, half in awe and half in shock. After a decade abroad, we didn’t quite fit in here either.

When we don’t fit, we forge our own path. My kids didn’t know how to navigate the cafeteria but our twin teenagers have traveled internationally through three countries on their own. We might have strange accents but we can retreat into private family conversations in French or in Somali or English, depending on where we are. We might eat strange food but have learned to be comfortable no matter the strangeness of our underwear.

We don’t exactly fit in Somalia, Kenya, or Djibouti, though we have spent many years in these places and they are now the holders of our memories, the shapers of our present, and the backdrop against which we will always judge our futures. We don’t exactly fit in Minnesota, though four of the five of us were born there, we (loosely) cheer for the Vikings, and we care more about cheese and fresh water lakes than most expats.

Sometimes I sense a disconnect between my husband and I and our children. Tom and I know how to ice skate, enjoy wool socks, know just how long to let marshmallows smolder in hot chocolate. We know how to rake leaves and roll snowballs and what oofdah means. Because Minnesota raised us and our memories are woven through with the smells and seasons of the Midwest, fresh mown grass and wormy streets after a spring rain. My children’s childhoods sound like bicycle horns announcing the morning’s arrival of fresh baguettes. It smells like salty sea air. Their memories will be forever shaped by this place that is home to them in a way it will never be home to their parents. Sometimes I grieve this. I feel a loss, a loneliness, a separation. Other times I see the wild, extravagant gift of it, this widening of world views, the open-handed reception with which our children respond.

And so we make the conscious choice to receive this expat life as a gift. Like baguettes, my husband and I receive the gift as a current reality but my children receive it as the warm crusty bread they will forever love best because it is the bread they loved as children and it will remind them of learning to ride bikes and green wooden bread carts and dodging goats and football (soccer) in the street.

We are each unique and my children are shaping their own spaces, designing their own memories. In the details these memories look almost nothing like my own of growing up in suburban Minneapolis. But in grand, foundational ways, the ways of curiosity, love, creativity, faith, I am giving them what I received. A family to belong to, a family to come out from.

Everyone in our family eats funny food and wears funny underwear and speaks with funny accents. These funny things that separate us from the world bridge the gap and drive us toward each other, where we do fit. We are an expat family and we belong in the in-between spaces we each carve out, the five of us nestled against one another.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

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


Does Motherhood Really Change Us?

Does Motherhood Really Change Us?

By Jen Maher

me and jackThe mothers wouldn’t stop moving.  It was impossible to focus on any one mother individually as they shuffled into and out of my line of vision, bouncing on exercise balls, rocking from side to side, hoisting babies into patterned cotton slings that allowed one (after viewing the instructional video approximately nine thousand times) to slip ten pounds of naked hairless desire onto one’s chest using only one hand.   In striped wool stockinged feet they swayed to a rhythm of middle-class motherhood, equal parts women’s studies and attachment parenting, self-reliance and self-abnegation.  I had wanted desperately to join this dance for so long I hardly remembered what it was like to walk through the world without the psychic background hum of baby lust for company.  It took three years, two miscarriages, the possible sacrifice of my marriage, and thousands of credit card dollars handed to a reproductive endocrinologist who didn’t understand apostrophes (“Making Families’ since 1996” read the promotional material) in order to get here: my first New Mothers Support Group.   Now, huddled in the corner next to a cluster of half-priced Bella Materna lingerie and BPA-free nipple guards, I nursed my three-week old infant and an imaginary cup of spiked resentment-punch, feverish and hostile as any seventh grade boy at his first dance.

By now it’s a cliché to argue that motherhood is an epic of transformation.  You will finally know what Life Means.  You will know what Real Love is.  You will not believe how little sleep the human machine requires, especially if it doesn’t need to do things like read words or have conversations.  You will re-frame all of your priorities.  You will become an activist for access to clean water for other mothers and to keep guns out of the hands of people who want to harm other people who have mothers.  You will open your own business when you realize how little respect corporate America has for working mothers (that said business will involve either organic baby food, yoga, or brightly colored infant clothing made by an NGO-sponsored Guatemalan sewing collective is a given).   But what hardly anyone ever talks about when they talk about motherhood is this: sometimes it doesn’t change you all that much at all.

Though it frustrates me to have to say this, here goes:  I love my son.  I love him like I never have loved another single creature in all my life (in some sense this should be obvious—I have never had a baby in my life before so how could I have?).  The shape of the pinky toe on his right foot can send me into such a paroxysm of tenderness that only a shot of tequila can bring me back to my senses.

In short I would give up my life for him, but here is my dirty little secret: Given the choice, I’d rather not.

From that first support group I began to realize this.  Love, awe, trepidation, a Stockholm-Syndrome-inspired devotion borne of not sleeping for more than an hour and a half at a time for weeks at a time, had lead me less to towards transformation and more towards recrimination.  The things that parenthood are meant to ameliorate: selfishness, pettiness, impatience, are, for me, often magnified by the practice of contemporary motherhood.  These are the parts of my seventh-grade soul that dig in their heels in the presence of other practicing Mothers whose endless debates over long-term breastfeeding’s effect on IQ make me want to reach into my baby bag and pull out a can of Reddi-Wip to squirt directly into Jack’s mouth, perhaps followed by a generous handful of Baco-O-Bits.   I quit smoking fifteen years ago, about the same time I quit sleeping with guys just because they accessorized with tour buses, but I have never, ever, wanted a Camel unfiltered as badly as during my first “Mommy and Me” music class when all the toddlers not still attached to their mother’s breasts sang of the nature of bus wheels (they go round and round, in case you were wondering).

Still, sometimes after I get home we take an early evening walk and I do my best to be present for the pace of a (now) two-year-old consciousness.   Dry grass, melting snow, the food-encrusted cat bowls on my neighbor’s porch are as absorbing to him as any novel.  Minus his devotion to putting everything he likes into his mouth and his resistance to bedtime, Jack could be a Zen priest.  Come to think of it, without these impediments, so could I.

Of course, I want to be like these Mothers too.  I want to wear yoga pants all day with confidence and skip vaccinations.  I want to make my own peanut butter and bury my high-heeled shoes in a backyard composter.  The Mothers tip a yearning in me that is neither new nor the stuff of transformation.  Instead it reminds me of how badly I secretly wanted to go to the Homecoming Dance instead of staying home and reading The Bell Jar for the fourteenth time.  Luckily, sometimes, if I listen, Jack can help.   The other night I rocked him to sleep with my best imitation of Perfect Motherhood, whispering over his fluffy head, “I love you I love you I love you; Who is the best boy in the universe? You are!”  At perhaps the third recitation of this feeble talisman against my flaws, he responded by placing his sugar-cookie-sized palm to my cheek:  “Enough Mommy,” he declared.    “I go to bed now.”

Jennifer Maher teaches in the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington.  Her work has been published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Popular Culture, Brain-Child (Summer 2012) and a variety of academic venues.

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