My Only Sunshine

My Only Sunshine

By Amanda Rose Adams

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essay was originally published on Brain Child in May 2015

Photo: Alexander Shustov

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He Has Autism

He Has Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

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

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

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

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

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

“I will,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does he go to a special school?”

“Is Asperger’s the same as Autism?”

“How does he tell you what he wants?”

They used words like sickness, and disease.

“Will he grow out of it?”

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

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

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

“Hi Jackson.”

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS I’ll work on her spelling!

Best,

Mindy

 

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

 

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What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

Muslim-girl-resizeBy Stephanie Meade

“I wish I could eat pork like Eryn!”

It’s a harmless statement really. My four-year-old wishes a lot of things. She wishes she could have a dog and a monkey, she wishes she could “buy” a princess (I explained to her you can’t buy people but left the discussions of slavery and human trafficking for a later date), a certain dress or a stuffed animal. Sometimes she wishes she could be other people or have other family members. But something in this statement felt a little like sandpaper on my skin and I couldn’t at first pinpoint why.

The month of Ramadan just finished—a time of spirituality and fasting from sunup to sundown—and I tried to fast like I always do but didn’t succeed beyond one day. The maximum I have fasted is 12 days, which made me feel like a superstar. But when you think Muslims are fasting for 30 days, my sense of accomplishment dwindles. The thing is, I’m not Muslim so I don’t even have to fast like my husband looks forward to doing every year. But I try—not because my husband wants me to (I had to put that up front as that’s what most people assume)—but because I like the holiday spirit it creates in our household, the togetherness. Our household has two sets of beliefs but each of our traditions is part of the same family canvas, blending seamlessly like a watercolor painting.

Before we had kids, my husband and I had decided to raise them as a balance of both of our belief systems. Even though I lacked a formal religion, I consider myself spiritual. But after the kids were born I changed. I felt strongly that being raised within a faith is beneficial, especially when you go through hard times in life. I always wished I had been raised with a strong sense of faith versus the nominally Catholic-but-never-went-to-church religion I grew up with. So Muslim became their predominant identity, with perhaps a trace of something else that doesn’t have a name, like when my daughter once told me between tears to say an “om” for her to calm down.

The thing about celebrating Muslim holidays in the West is they don’t feel much like holidays. You can’t pop over to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and pick up some decorations or Islam-inspired crafting supplies while Ramadan-themed music plays in the background. As you go about your daily fast—tired, a little drained and just plain hungry and thirsty until the magical minute of sundown arrives, which in the summer isn’t until almost 9 p.m.—not many people understand why you would undertake such a practice. And when it’s Eid, the big celebration at the end of Ramadan, with presents, feasting, new clothes, social gatherings, candy for kids and holiday cheer, it’s just business as usual for most of the Western world. That part I’ve grown used to.  I should be more used to people’s surprise (putting it mildly) when I mention my husband is Muslim and we celebrate Ramadan. I don’t seem to fit their profile of what they think a woman married to a Muslim guy would be like. But that discussion, on stereotypes and Islam’s negative portrayal in the West, is not the one for today. But it’s not entirely irrelevant to my four-year-old’s innocuous statement about wanting to eat pork either.

For now, I know my little one’s proclamations of wanting to partake in foods outside her religion don’t mean much. She is secure in her Arab and Muslim identity and still protected at age four, just barely, by the paper-thin innocence of childhood.  When we were in Mexico recently boarding a plane, someone asked where she was from. “Morocco,” she answered, even though she was born and has lived her whole life in the U.S.  Boisterous and chatty, she tells strangers pretty much everything and anything on her mind, even stuff that makes us squirm a little, like yelling to our twenty-something neighbors over the fence that they shouldn’t be smoking.  She loves experimenting with different head scarves, likely because she adores our babysitter who wears one, and looks for any excuse to wear her fancy Moroccan dresses, putting together color combinations that make me sure I will be asking for her fashion advice in a few short years. Unlike her six-year-old sister, she brings up God a lot in her questions. While my six-year-old doesn’t talk much about God, she enjoys praying with my husband when it’s Ramadan.  She also loves singing Arabic songs and teaching them to her friends. But she identifies herself differently from her sister. “I’m English,” meaning American, (as she was making the distinction from speaking Arabic).

However, as they grow older in a society that regards Islam unfavorably, they will face questions, comments and likely even criticism. I hope the foundation we are building for them of confidence in themselves, pride in their heritage and an appreciation and love for many other cultures and religions will be their source of strength. I hope they will not just recognize that people are different and that’s what makes the world beautiful, but take confidence from that statement I regularly repeat. And with that confidence they won’t want to be anyone but themselves.

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising globally minded children.

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

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Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield

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

 

Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

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

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

And I’m better for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few months later, I quit everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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On Friendship

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life.

Great friends are thrilled for you when you go from the least likely of the bunch to settle down to all-out smitten and engaged in the span of fifteen months. They wonder a little about this fellow you met in the middle of the woods and how you’re only 22, but then they meet him and no one has any questions, just joy.

They agree to hike four miles round-trip to watch you get married in your favorite hiking pants (with a veil thrown in for good measure) on the mountain closest to both your hearts, and then help to remove the blowdowns from the “altar” before the ceremony starts.

Even when most of them are doing more productive things with their lives, they don’t judge you when you decide to put off graduate school for a while to spend too much time in the woods and hang out by the sea.

They are thus super impressed when you adopt a dog, buy your first house, and decide to actually apply for graduate school.

A week after they find a lemon-sized tumor in your 27-year-old husband’s brain, they approach your car in the parking lot after work and hand you a half-gallon jug of homemade “apple pie” comprised of spices, apple cider, and most importantly, 100-proof-liquor. Also included is an offer to make more.

They ask what you need and they mean it.

They don’t doubt you for a second when you decide to become parents and they offer to babysit after the little one arrives.

They mow your lawn, plow your driveway, and take your trash to the transfer station.

They take your daughter overnight when it’s time for the second brain surgery and then drive her down to the hospital when he’s out of the woods; they pick her up from daycare when the chemo treatments run late or you have to travel out-of-state; they take her for a few hours here and there so you can try and juggle nursing school on top of everything else.

They call and it is like no time has passed at all.

They fly a thousand miles to help you survive school and take care of your family like their own, and then accept it despite their effort when you leave school a few weeks later when your husband can no longer safely stay home alone.

They start a fundraiser for your family to use to take a vacation, then for alternative treatments, then for just anything because sometimes that’s how quickly it goes.

No matter how inopportune the timing, they meet you at the local emergency department every time.

Knowing your daughter needs as much love as humanly possible, they give, give, give.

After the oncologist tells you there is nothing left to be done, they fill the house with visitors and love.

When your husband starts hospice two weeks before your daughter’s 3rd birthday, they arrange an enormous, spectacular party for her where all you have to do is show up and try not to cry.

When he becomes home-bound, they come visit with incredible spreads of food and booze, to play with your daughter for hours on end, and with enough meals for the freezer so that you won’t have to cook for months.

After the hospice nurse says hours to days, they stand at your side until family arrives; they hold his hand and say goodbye; they put Patty Griffin on in the background, every album repeating; they shake their heads right alongside you in disbelief that this is actually happening.

They meet you at the funeral home to fill out the cremation paperwork and tentatively look at urns.  When you find a little slate one with a golden tree and say you’re not going to buy it just yet, but look at this, they completely agree.

When he dies, they shower the world with tributes of his good spirit, love for teaching everyone about the woods, and how much confidence, humor, and knowledge he brought to their lives.

They help plan his celebration of life and spill into your neighbors’ house to fill it with love and laughter and stories.

When you turn 30 just over two months after his death, they take you out to a coastal town for dinner and drinks and the comforting smells of diesel fuel and the sea.

They hike 12 emotionally and physically grueling miles with you up your mountain to spread his ashes where they need to be; at the summit they all dip their hands and join you in setting him free.

When you return to nursing school that fall, they are there to support you through and through; when you find that you are miserable and leave the program six months later, all they want is for you to be happy.

As the horror of that first Christmas approaches, they entertain and distract.

They house/pet/chicken-sit so that you can travel for the first time in half a decade.

As the one-year mark nears, they gather with you at his favorite pub to reminisce and love.

When you start to date again, they want to know EVERY. LAST. DETAIL.

Your life is what it is in great part because of these friends, these friends who kept you afloat through the best and worst years of your life, through thick and thin, through marriage, birth, death, and life again.

Oftentimes, especially early in the morning with your first cup of coffee, you wonder where you would be without your friends. You breathe deeply, slowly, gratefully for all they have done, all they have sacrificed and loved. They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. You hope they never experience anything even remotely similar, but because of them you’re there: ready, strong as hell, and by their sides to rally, protect, love, and provide anything they might ever need.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

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The Pit

The Pit

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

By Ellyn Gelman

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

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

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

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

“Yes. So excited,” I said.

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

We waited for the gates to open.

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

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

“Dayna, do we have seats?”

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

“Do we need lawn chairs?” I said.

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

“The pit?”

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

“I know what the pit is,” I said.

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

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

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

“You’ll love it,” She said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” I said. Thinking, fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to the two women.

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

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

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

Dayna grabbed my arm.

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

“No,” I said.

I turned and grabbed the security guard’s arm.

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

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

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

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

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

Dayna gave him a pick, too.

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

“Wasn’t it all so great mom?”

“It was perfect, Dayna.”

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

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

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To My Son, Turning 8

To My Son, Turning 8

By Wendy Wisner

8

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

 

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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On Being A Soccer Mom

On Being A Soccer Mom

Soccer player's feet on the ball

By Dawn Davies

There’s that embarrassing mom thing where, if you’re like me, and you’re at a soccer game watching your children play in say, a tournament, and your soft, delicious little child, the one who still sleeps at night with a stuffed horse, is making a drive toward the ball, and she reaches it, pulling ahead of several lesser children, feigning out a slow-thinking defender, putting out an arm to steady herself against the face of said slow thinker, squaring up to shoot, and you are watching her from the sidelines, wearing shorts short enough to allow you to survive the oppressive heat yet long enough to cover the ugly purple thigh veins your pregnancies gave you, pacing and tripping over a cooler full of Capri Suns and orange wedges, and at the same moment your child is about to make contact with the ball, your own foot reaches out and kicks the air like a marionette. You cannot help it any more than you can help gagging the first time your baby has diarrhea, or yelling “fuck” in front of your preschooler when you grate a hunk of knuckle skin into the pile of Monterey jack cheese on Taco night. It is a reflex and you cannot stop it.

Then there’s that thing where, if you’re like me, after you’ve watched a number of children play soccer for a number of years, and although you have never once played soccer yourself, you begin to believe you have developed a nearly psychic coaching gift, and in a series of brilliant illuminations of strategy that assert themselves only after you shingle your hair into the bobbed, highlighted helmet the other soccer moms are wearing, you realize you know exactly who needs to come out and who needs to go in in a given game in order to win it, and you see your husband on the other side of the field, coaching the game, and you pull out your cell phone and dial him up. You watch him reach into his pocket, check to see who is calling, see that it is you, and decline the call. You call him again.

“What?” he says. You can hear him scream this from the other side of the field a portion of a second after it comes through the phone.

“Pull Kristi out. Put Maya in goal. Move Alexis to midfield.”

“Right.” Your husband says and he hangs up. He makes no substitutions and ignores your frantic waves, then as your daughter makes another run for the ball, you kick your foot in the air again, this time screaming, “Shoot it!” as if your telling your child to shoot the ball is what will make her do it, as if she who has played soccer for five years would never think of this on her own when running up on the goal. There is another battle for the ball and you involuntarily kick the air a third time, as if you are a frog on a dissection table in Bologna and Luigi Galvani is electrifying your muscles with a charged scalpel. You can’t stop yourself from looking like a sideline fool. You cannot not kick. It’s a thing soccer moms do, and nearly against your will, you have become one.

When is it you realize you have allowed your children’s accomplishments to begin to replace everything you have ever done? Oh, it’s now. It’s right here on the sidelines of this under-watered, crispy field in the sports complex designed with the maximum legal square feet of asphalt parking lot and minimum legal number of trees. It reaches nearly one hundred degrees here in peak sun, and your naked neck broils like a steak while you watch twenty-two children burn a collective 6,600 calories. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym in three years because you have been too busy washing sports uniforms and returning them to the proper bedrooms, and checking gear bags, and feeding your progeny supper at four in the afternoon in time to get them to their various practices, which you must stay and watch, because that’s what the good soccer moms do. You must appear to be a good soccer mom, even though you fear you are not one. You are barely holding it together, and you just want to go home and take a nap pick the kids up after practice is over, only you can’t do that. The good soccer moms will notice if you don’t stay and they will judge you for it. You know this because you yourself judge the “bad” moms who drop their children off, firing bitter darts of jealousy from your eyes as they drive away to meet a friend for coffee, or grab a massage while they know their child is safe at practice. Even though they tell everyone they have to go “pick up a prescription,” or “take another child to math enrichment,” you know and you judge them.

Your soccer mom status is cemented by a few other behaviors. First, there is the belief that your daughter is an irreplaceable anchor—the star, if you will, even if only in your own eyes, on any given team. Or your son is the star. Or your stepson is. Or it’s not soccer, but lacrosse, or it’s not lacrosse, but football, or basketball or baseball or softball or dance, and at any given moment, two or three or four of your kids play on several different sports teams and you spend your afternoons, evenings and weekends coordinating practice times and carpools with other mothers whose children are not as good as yours, mothers you would ordinarily have no interest in spending time with, though it’s not because their children are boring or average, it’s because their mothers talk too much. You drive to windswept fields teeming with hundreds of other children, and plunk your ass in a folding chair while your children exercise, watching them with the same obsessive interest slower members of society have in reality TV shows. Sometimes you bring snacks. For yourself.

Next is the unhealthy obsession with outfitting your children like professional athletes. Sporty kids need gear, so if you are a regular person like me, you fork over whatever you can swing, handing down cleats and outgrown gloves and gear bags to your smaller children in the gear queue, occasionally shopping at Play It Again Sports in a neighboring town where no one you know will see you buying used sports equipment. You forgo new clothes for yourself, or luxuries of any sort in order for these children to have the extra thick shin guards, or properly fitting Under Armor, even though you remember playing childhood softball and basketball in sneakers from K-Mart and cheap, silk-screened team t-shirts without any ill effects, except for the fact that you did not get a college sports scholarship. You begin to believe that your children need this gear in order to have the athletic opportunity they deserve. If you are rich or a sociopath who cares not one whit about running up the credit card bills, you buy the best of everything you can find at Dicks or Soccer Max, or Sports Authority, thinking, almost against your will, that a $160 shellout in football cleats for a nine-year old now, might translate into a professional football career that will allow your little QB to one day buy you an upscale house and a silver Escalade. As if a pair of cleats will be the thing that turns your child into a winner.

Then there is the schedule juggling. If you are at all like me, after you recover from the cost of the gear, and the league entrance fees, insurance fees, uniform fees and conditioning coach fees, and your children are safely ensconced on their various teams, you use the last of your money to purchase a master organizer they sell for moms who are trying to get a handle on a schedule every bit as complicated as a teaching hospital’s surgical schedule, or the daily flight schedule managed from an air traffic control tower of an international airport. You spread out all the practice times and game times for the Bombers, the Eagles, the Blazers, the Knights, and the Intimidators on the kitchen table and begin to input data into the organizer, carefully orchestrating who has to be where when, and what time dinner needs to be on the table on various nights, and which sports events coordinate with school events that can’t be missed. If you are lucky, your child will not be on both the school team and the travel team of the same sport in a season, as that is a scheduling state so stressful that it has been known to cause mothers to develop trichotillomania. You can easily spot these poor women: they are the ones quietly plucking out their own eyebrows or eyelashes at red lights or in sports complex parking lots. They looked pinched and backed up, because they have had to train their bowels to follow a certain schedule, as they have no time of their own to take a dump from seven am until midnight on weekdays or at any time during the weekend, especially if they still have preschoolers at home.

This schedule reckoning takes a spreadsheet and enough wheedling and favor-trading with other carpooling moms to where the high-stakes détente you manage to sustain are of the kind you might find at an international political summit. If you are like me, this herculean effort makes you cry at least once per season, or drink alone at night after everyone has gone to bed.

Then there is the ill-lighted, miscast pride that comes with knowing that you birthed a remarkable athlete. If you are anything like me, when other parents can’t help but notice your child’s extraordinary athletic ability, your ego swells as if they are complimenting you, and you can’t seem to separate your child’s personal accomplishments from your own. This is the shameful part of soccer momming. It is heady stuff that can weaken the soul. You see your child twist in space in an artful way, and watch them outrun or out-think a competitor, and even though the competitor is a pony-tailed princess who sleeps with her own stuffed animal at night, your mind has reduced her to enemy status. Instead of seeing her as a person, you categorize her as an obstacle for your child, the star, to overcome, and what’s more, you created that star. It came out of you. You did it. It’s yours and there is a dirty aspect of ownership that comes with watching your child play sports, so when you think about it in the heat of the moment, the other child is a dangerous condottiere that you yourself must overpower. It’s awful and thrilling at the same time, because it is the only bit of power you feel in your life. You are triumphing, by proxy, over a nine year-old child. Bully for you. Kick the air and scream “Shoot it!” until your voice is hoarse and you will later need to cool down by overeating at the post-game fast food restaurant after the victory you had nothing to do with.

If you are like me you cannot stop these thoughts and actions, even though you know you are a walking cliché, and it is something you swore you would never become. Like kicking an invisible ball on the sidelines like an idiot, this suburban movement is a part of something that has its own tide, a tide that moves in and out with the seasons, a tide you feel yourself drowning in on occasion, because after all, you were the tattooed, boot-shod rebel who swore she would never live in the suburbs and drive a minivan, and yet you have ended up rocking that minivan hard and living in the burbiest of burbs, which frankly, bores you to tears, but is so, so safe and so good for the children. You are the woman who swore you would stick your kids in daycare the moment your maternity leave was over so you could go back to building your career, but that plan scorched up like a dried leaf the moment your first child was placed in your arms. You quit work “for a while,” planning to go back when the child started school, but here it is ten years later and your second or third or fourth child has yet to start kindergarten and you have found yourself working pro bono as the chief operating officer of a very small, cluttered business that seems, at times, to have no purpose. Others might tell you to check your privilege for complaining about such a luxury, but it is more confusing and complicated than simple middle class wealth. It is the battle between a loss of identity, and its crooked bookend: the promise that women can have it all, the promise that we have choices, yet are looked down upon for choosing this path when we could have done “so much more.”

Maybe, if you are at all like me, you struggle with job skills required for being a soccer mom, and must hide these struggles, because your natural skill set has slowly revealed itself to be the kind that prefers simplicity and order and quiet, and you know you are forgetful, and you know you will make mistakes because you are forcing yourself to do this hard job as best as you can when really, you would be better suited for a different job, a simpler job, say, perhaps as a painter (house or art), or a philosopher, or a clock repairwoman, or a artisanal baker of gluten-free masterpieces which you sell at local farmer’s markets. At times, especially during the middle of a given season, you may remember college, when you had the luxury to write short stories for fun and you wrote one about a married woman with kids who fakes her own death and uses a new identity to start over in the Pacific Northwest, a place that seems cool and woodsy and quiet, a far cry from standing in four inches of palm tree shade on the sidelines of a sports field, or your sour laundry room, or the inside of your sweat-soaked minivan.

You might even attempt to become the best soccer mom in all the land, wearing the bobbed hair helmet, keeping the minivan vacuumed, remembering which child wears which uniform, remembering to never again leave the middle defender on your daughter’s team, who you are responsible for driving home Wednesday nights, at the field like you have done twice before, only you are not naturally organized and become easily overwhelmed by the complex details and responsibilities, often forgetting to bring the orange slices on your assigned game day. This deficit requires you to occasionally dump your kid on the field and race to the grocery store, buy oranges, race home and cut them up, and bag them and bring them back to the field, often missing the first quarter of the game. Or you forget to turn in the cookie dough or gift wrap fundraiser orders in, or worse, you forget to sell the cookie dough or gift wrap at all. You certainly can’t get it together enough to make the t-shirts with your child’s picture on it, and give it to your family slash cheering section to wear on game days, because you can’t remember to tell your family members when the various game days are. There are so many game days.

Why do you suck so badly? If you are like me, it’s because you either didn’t read the job description of what parenting would be like before you signed up, or you were not willing to extrapolate “years of extreme sleep deprivation and constant chaos” from everything everyone has said since the beginning of time about parenting. It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now want out, only there is no way out without going to prison.

Lest I appear to be one-sidedly bitter and negative, let me say this: despite living your life on the sidelines, or setting up mission control from a seven passenger vehicle shaped like a manatee, or listening to books on tape through headphones to protect yourself from soccer mom colloquy, despite your bobbed helmet of hair reducing your sexual attractiveness by a factor of ten, despite worrying about your contribution to the collective cultural anxiety of women’s achievements by staying home and devoting all of your energy to a few non-influential people who don’t even thank you, and despite such an overall uncooperative reality, there is something golden about this time.

It is a time when your children are as beautiful as they have ever been, though you thought nothing could be as beautiful as their babyhood. The flushed, salty cheeks, the hair sticking to the sweat on their necks, their knobby knees, bandaged fingers, their giant protective equipment that seems to dwarf them at the beginning of the season, but which look perfectly fitted by the last game. The effort they give forth that makes you weep at times. If you are like me, you have cried while watching the two teams shake hands after a particularly difficult game.

Your children are doing important work, even though it looks like they are playing games. They are building their bodies, learning how to move, learning how to listen, learning how to take a small desire such as “get the ball” or “stop the ball,” and turn it into a hunger to make something bigger happen. They are learning how to lose graciously, one of the most valuable of life skills, and if they have good coaches, they learn about devotion: to team, to coach, to someone other than you, and this is healthy. It helps them grow up to be the kind of children who won’t live in your basement after college.

This is a time when the children still need you to show them how to be. They won’t always and the assertion of this truth will be increasingly painful as time goes by, but for now, know that, even though they don’t thank you and they leave their God-awful, wet, stinking shin guards on the cloth upholstery of the minivan time after time, they need you to orient them in society. You are training two or three or four little people to grow up and be better versions of yourself, and this is one way to leave your mark on the world, one way to make a difference—to produce people who are consistently good to others despite personal obstacles, ones who will be decent to others despite having menstrual cramps, or being cut off in traffic, or feeling exhausted, or losing something important, like a big game, or a contract, or a job, or a friend. It’s a marathon of slow growth.

You can see this growth transform them, sometimes from week to week. One day, you will see the coach introduce a skill and your child will fumble with it like a puppy, yet improve bit by bit, until one day during a game, when the pressure is on, you will see the child execute the thing perfectly, exactly the way she was taught. Later, you will see the quiet pride on the child’s face when the coach praises her for it in front of the team.

If you are like me, the first time you realize that the effort you invest in making these activities happen is a finite thing, and that one day it will go away, it stops being a chore, and begins to be something precious, like oxygen. You watch them with a different eye while they repeat the same drills for weeks, running, jumping, getting knocked over, failing, laughing, weeping, building friendships, pushing their limits, and for a brief while, all things considered, there is no limit to the hope vested in these beautiful young people of yours. The ones who sit with quiet anxiety during breakfast before a game are the same one who sing “Diarrhea” at the top of their lungs in the back of the minivan after the game, and you see sublime work happening here—a slow burn of something transformative—and you think, if you ae at all like me, as you shove the balled-up, sweaty gear into the washing machine one more time, that like with all things parenting, it’s not about you. It never was.

Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essay collection, Mothers of Spata, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She was recently featured in the Ploughshares column, “The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” She had a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2015, and a Pushcart Prize special mention for nonfiction in 2015. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.

 

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Book Review: The Informed Parent

Book Review: The Informed Parent

51DnMpXkTqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_by Jennifer Richler

So much parenting writing these days comes off of as preachy or alarmist or both. Check out the parenting section of your local bookstore and you will find titles like The Collapse of Parenting. A quick Google search of “parenting” yields articles like “Six Ways Good Parents Contribute to their Child’s Anxiety.” The title alone makes me feel anxious.

The Informed Parent, a new book Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, is different. It is a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the latest research on parenting young children. And it is completely non-judgmental. “[W]e don’t know your family and can’t say which route would be best for you and your child. But we give you the scientific information to map your own path,” they write. How refreshing.

If you’re about to be a parent or recently became one, poring over reams of research on everything from antidepressants in pregnancy to home births to breastfeeding to vaccines is probably the last thing you want to do. Luckily, authors have done it for you, and have translated it all into easy-to-understand terms.

The result is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking to a really smart friend, one who knows a lot more than you do, but never acts like a know-it-all.

As someone who spent many years conducting scientific research, I’m always skeptical when a book bills itself as ” science-based,” as this one does in its subtitle. I worry that it will mislead readers by oversimplifying the research or overstating what it can tell us.

But Haelle and Willingham deftly avoid these pitfalls, explaining the findings clearly and thoroughly, while repeatedly reminding the reader about the limitations of scientific research: variables the researchers didn’t or couldn’t control for, biases on the part of the researchers in terms of how they collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. When the findings on a given topic are particularly scarce or messy, as is the case for many parenting issues, the authors come right out and say so.

Even when the data are clear, the authors avoid being prescriptive, acknowledging the many factors that influence people’s parenting decisions. They cite the evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding, for example, but are quick to point out that “for an individual woman, those benefits may or may not outweigh other considerations or possible harms of breastfeeding,” such as the psychological stress a woman might experience if nursing proves especially difficult.

When they lay out the risks of certain practices, such as co-sleeping, the writers keep their tone practical, not preachy. As veteran parents themselves, they acknowledge that some will choose bed-sharing with their infants as a way to get a few precious hours of sleep. Instead of admonishing parents for the practice, they review the research in a clear-headed way, highlighting evidence on ways to reduce the risks (e.g. , avoiding waterbeds, smoking, sharing a bed with a preemie, and having multiple bed sharers). Refreshingly, they also suggest potential risks of not bed-sharing, including a higher chance of falling asleep with the baby on a couch, which is a dangerous practice.

In the spirit of showing that there are many ways to approach parenting, the writers include “What we did” paragraphs at the end of many sections, each describing various decisions they made in their children’s early years — where to give birth, how to feed their infant, how to manage postpartum depression (both experienced it). By revealing these personal choices in a matter-of-fact way, the authors lend credibility to the claim that there is no one “right” way to parent.

The authors balance this emphasis on personal decision-making with a healthy respect for scientific research and what it can tell us when carried out rigorously. They choose high-quality, well-controlled studies to review in depth and relate findings that might surprise many parents, even those who try to keep up with the latest developments. They cite an “incredibly detailed UK analysis” that found no environmental benefit to cloth diapers over disposables, for example. They also describe studies that found no evidence of harm to the fetus from a mother dying her hair while pregnant, and no evidence of health benefits from eating organic rather than conventional food. Among the most recent research they discuss is the evidence that early introduction of peanuts actually lowers risk of peanut allergy, contrary to what was previously thought. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to revise their recommendations last year, advising parents to introduce peanut products to infants between 4 and 11 months instead of waiting until after 12 months. By highlighting the latest research, Haelle and Willingham remind us that research is a dynamic process, and that the “accepted wisdom” is always in flux.

This openness to challenging ideas leads the authors to entertain claims others might shy away from. Instead of the standard disapproval of all things screen-related that you’ll find in many parenting books and magazines, for example, they discuss the potential advantages of touch-screens over TV: interactivity, personalization, and progressive learning, which allows children to build on concepts they’ve already mastered. “It’s entirely reasonable that touch-screen devices could promote as much learning and traditional toys,” they write, showing their willingness to carefully consider an issue for which other parenting experts might have a knee-jerk reaction.

Screen time is one of the few topics relevant to parents of toddlers and preschoolers that the authors discuss. Despite describing itself in the subtitle as a guide for “your child’s first four years,” over two-thirds of the book is devoted to topics relevant to parents of infants. This is probably because the research on these topics is more abundant and somewhat cleaner; there’s simply more to say about the research on breastfeeding, circumcision, and medications during pregnancy than on complex topics like discipline.

Still, I was disappointed that the book didn’t go into more depth on certain topics, particularly developmental delays. There is a section about the possible causes of autism (the research is unambiguous that vaccines are NOT one of them, a fact the writers thankfully state plainly), and another on screening for delays. But given Willingham’s incisive writing about autism elsewhere, I expected more, particularly guidance for parents on when to be concerned about their child’s development without becoming unnecessarily alarmed.

Readers will find more discussion of certain topics on the theinformedparentbook.com, where the authors maintain a blog highlighting the latest studies on everything from migraines in pregnancy to hydrolyzed formula.

Overall, The Informed Parent succeeds as an informative, reassuring guide to parenting in the early years. Toward the end of the book, the authors say that they set out to create a “factual resource in the face of the relentless messages about ‘how you should be doing it’ and ‘what you’re doing wrong’ that no parent can escape in the modern age.” Mission accomplished.

Jennifer Richler received her PhD in clinical psychology and is now a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana with her husband and two kids. Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

Amsterdam, Netherlands - JUNE 08, 2011: Starbucks coffee logo in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on June 08, 2011 in Netherlands. Starbucks Corporation is an American global coffee company and coffeehouse chain based in Seattle, Washington

By Kathryn Streeter

When our son was 4, he fell in love. The object of his affection was voluptuous—far too old for him. He saw her constantly. She had long flowing hair and intense eyes. He called her his “little love.” The crown she wore lent an air of power while sleek fins encircling her projected steady but enticing mystery.

The fact that our son was smitten by the Starbucks Mermaid was our fault.

One of our oldest family traditions is spending Saturday mornings at the local coffee shop. Started long before kids came along, this easy-going tradition was a sweet opening to weekends. We didn’t have a lot of money and the coffee shop fit our wallet. Wherever we lived, we targeted the local, indie or chain, just as long as we could reach it by foot. Whether sunny and blistering hot, wintry and blowing icy winds, we’d wake up and sleepily trudge towards the coffee shop hand in hand.

When we started having kids, going out for coffee each Saturday morning was a tradition we were determined to continue. We selfishly coveted this entrée into the weekend as a young couple and didn’t want kids to change this beloved routine.

Looking back, it was inevitable that our son’s first love would be the Starbucks logo. At our Washington, DC neighborhood Starbucks, we’d wolf down our weekly dark-roast coffee and cinnamon scone with our baby son and his slightly older sister in tow. It was exhausting. No longer a peaceful, relaxing way to begin the weekend, our treasured tradition had been turned upside-down. It would have been easy to let this tradition die with the arrival of kids.

Yet, we persisted, trying to roll with the times.

When the kids morphed into fidgety toddlers, we’d pull out toys. We started talking about what restaurant manners looked like because coffee shops offered a forgiving environment in which to begin these lessons

As they grew, we adapted, stashing coloring books and crayons, drawing paper for doodling, designing mazes or gradually, for hangman tournaments. We would pair up, one parent, one kid and go the distance, watching our little ones work with letters and spelling.

Once, R-E-C-Y-C-L-E was the word that stumped the boys’ team, handing them a loss. I remember this hangman tournament well because by then, we had moved to Dubai on short-term assignment, where recycling was very much a cultural afterthought. After consulting with my daughter, we decided “recycle” was apropos for the championship round.

“Dad, think harder!” our 7-year-old son pleaded.

Time passed and the kids grew. Their tastes changed, resulting in them branching out, trying new items on the menu. Previously, they had faithfully ordered chocolate chip cookies because they knew that on Saturday mornings, we lifted parental law regarding what made for an appropriate breakfast.

“It’s up to you. One thing. You decide.”

As they grew older, they took to dabbling:

 

A cinnamon roll, please.

Izze soda, please.

Pumpkin-bread, please.

A hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream, please.

A vanilla latte, please.

A yogurt parfait, please.

An egg-sausage breakfast sandwich, please.

A macchiato, please.

An Americano, please.

Time sped by and one Saturday we suddenly realized that the day we had been pining for had arrived: we were having conversations with our kids. We realized we could actually finish our sentences without meltdowns, outbreaks, or an impatient, is it time to go yet?  They answered in fully formed sentences with increasing thoughtfulness, making eye contact. In fact, we were experiencing intentional, meaningful time together regardless of the topic of conversation.

Sometimes we’d just chill and review the week. Sometimes we’d address what we needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes we’d talk current events and big ideas. Sometimes we’d have a rare moment when our blooming tweens needed to really talk, letting us into their world. Away from the distractions of the home, there was more space.

This basic tradition was mercifully adaptable, able to accommodate the various seasons of family life. As our family moved around from Dubai to London, Indianapolis to Austin, this tradition followed us, so easily transferable into new surroundings.

An old friend, this was a tradition we came to count on, a comfort during often painful adjustments.

Yet, from its infancy, the core point of this family tradition—to hang out, celebrate and support each other—remained unchanged. With amazement, I watched as we grew closer to our kids through our steady and persistent Saturday habit. We intentionally had built a routine which had serendipitously brought ease to our parent-child relationships. Additionally, our kids had grown close as siblings.

Now in high school, coffee on Saturday mornings starts much later, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all because teens need their sleep. And that is ok. There’s no question good things are happening because the kids will often text us, asking to meet up after school for coffee. Or for family happy hour where dad orders a beer, mom orders a glass of red wine and kids suck down soda, another form of caffeine. By this we know that our kids are choosing to hang out. Talk. Laugh.

There’s an element of trust. They know we’re not going to ask for deep conversation in exchange for buying them a coke. Our little inexpensive outings—whether coffee or happy hour—are going to be whatever they end up being, no strings attached. Together, just hanging out as a little family.

Could it be that this tradition is in part responsible for the young adults I now see sitting across from me at Starbucks discussing the current presidential campaign?

We all want close family relationships. We all hope for strong relationships with our teens. Yet, if not careful, we can find ourselves going from day to day, week to week, living under the same roof but in every way disconnected from one another. Is it possible that intentionally putting everything aside to walk to the coffee shop together is also a path toward stronger family relationships?

I realize now that this simple tradition of hitting the coffee shop each week started something in motion long ago. Though I’m still trying to appreciate its fullness, its richness, its direct contribution to building the relationships we have today with our young adults, I’m thankful. Starting with Starbucks, this coffee shop routine helped our kids want to be with us—their parents. And that’s no small thing.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and The Briar Cliff Review. Her essay is included in the best selling anthology “Feisty After 45.” Connect with Kathryn on her website, Twitter @streeterkathryn and Instagram @kathrynstreeter.

 

 

Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

Art-Mom-I-Need-a-Ride-768x630By Francie Arenson Dickman

Back in 1998, right before we got married, my husband suggested that we trade in both our cars for a new one. And so, we did. I traded in my black two-door Honda, a tiny thing that fit nothing except for me, a death trap according to my parents, for a bigger one. A safer one. A car that could and would carry children. My husband, who loves all things auto—I assume because he’s from Detroit—was giddy with excitement. But I, who tends to love merely what’s mine, stood in my Ann Taylor suit unloading tapes of Enya and Indigo Girls from the glove compartment, maps from the side pockets and cried. I wasn’t just trading in a car, I was mourning the end of an era. I was saying goodbye to my solo passenger status and paying my respects to the concept of mine and only mine.

And with good reason. In a matter of years, the backseat was occupied with carseats and with twin backwards-facing riders. My glove compartment was filled with pacifiers. My side compartments were stuffed with toys and wipes. My CDs played Ralph, but who could hear him over the all the crying. For driving, like for mothering itself, these were tense times.

But, the reliable thing about time is that for better or worse it keeps rolling on, and with it so did we. From facing backwards to forward, from boosters to butts. From Montessori straight through middle school, I drove on. Until, suddenly, a decade and a half later, we’ve reached a marker, not a destination, but a rite of passage. As it is time, a friend just brought to my attention, to sign my passengers up for Driver’s Ed. Their classes won’t start until September. They won’t have their licenses for another year after. Nonetheless, the end of another road is in sight. A road I never imagined would end. Napping, I always knew was a phase. Just like the park, Princesses and playdates. But the carpool, like Twinkies and cockroaches, seemed like something that couldn’t possibly expire.

“When one door closes another one opens,” my mother told me that day I gave away my Honda. She tells me this often, as I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the passage of time, and she was, of course, right. Though I had no idea that when the door to the Honda shut, the next one would be opening and closing ad nauseam for the next 15 years. Had I only known that I would be blessed not only with two daughters but the job of chauffeuring them around, maybe I wouldn’t have cried so hard. Or maybe I would have cried harder.

Driving’s what I do—it’s what we all do. Working the wheel is an essential part of the parenting job. On most weekdays, I’m in and out of the car from 3:00 to 8:30 pm, and on weekends we go to dance shows out in Timbuktu. Is it tiresome? Yes. Do I complain about it? Certainly. Would I trade it in for another two-seater? Not for the world. At least not now.

Although my husband is now bugging me to do it. Once again, what is to me a momentous occasion is to him simply an opportunity to head to a dealership. “Let’s get you a new car, maybe something a little smaller,” he tells me. He wants to hand down my big old car to our daughters. The bigger, the better, he says, as far as their safety is concerned.

But I know better. As does Bessie, my first car, a Caprice Classic station wagon, the biggest car ever created. Together we crashed into fire hydrants, backed into other parents’ cars, and plowed through the dry wall of our garage. In fairness to us, Bessie didn’t give a warning beep when we got too close to objects like cars nowadays do. All I had was 3 or 4 of my backwards-facing friends to scream after the damage was done. In this regard, I suppose my kids will have technology on their side. On the flip side, I didn’t have a phone in Bessie to distract me. And so, regardless of the car they drive, I am worried. Times two.

But more than that, I’m not ready to come full circle. Although this time around, it’s not the car itself that I care about losing. I’m mourning the loss of my status as driver.

“Mom, can you give us a ride?” is the most commonly asked question in our house (next to “Mom, do you have any money?”) One would think I’d hate those words by now. Those reliable words. They ring down from upstairs. They appear as texts on my phone at random and often inconvenient times. But I say, “yes” whenever I can, not because I’m such a good sport, but because I’m selfish, as it’s now almost only the car, or more accurately, my ability to drive it, that continues to reliably bind us.

My black SUV has become the last great bastion of guaranteed togetherness—like a prison for teenagers—a place where my girls who once faced backwards and cried now sit next to me and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their days. Most of which are spent away at school or with friends. At night, of course, I lose them to their rooms. But during those afternoon hours in the car, or better yet, the weekend hour after hour going to dance shows, they are still mine and only mine.* And I love that. I always have.

*Okay, well, like 60% mine and 40% Snapchat’s.

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

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.

 

They Are Not Half Sisters

They Are Not Half Sisters

By Stephanie Sprenger

halfsisters

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

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

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

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

And the fighting resumes.

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

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

Love,

Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

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

 

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

Love, I Mean Like(s), Conquers All

By Francie Arenson Dickman         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: gettyimages.com

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

Raising a Multicultural 4-Year-Old

By Sarah Quezada

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

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

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

“Yes.” There it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

The Joyful Mysteries

The Joyful Mysteries

Woman with Rosary Beads

By Maria Massei-Rosato

Prayer beads are used by many different religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Catholics use a form with 59 beads and pray the Rosary.

I don’t remember owning a set of rosary beads when I was young, although I’m sure every Catholic girl did. My memory of rosary beads is of a cranberry colored glass “necklace” resting on my mother’s nightstand. I rarely saw her pray with them, but when she did, she fingered each bead with eyes closed, in silence. I wondered what she was telling God. At some point I understood that when you held a smaller bead you recited a Hail Mary, and when you held a larger bead you recited The Lord’s Prayer: the mother and son duet first taught to Catholic toddlers.

Later, I learned about the “Mysteries,” vignettes meant to focus the Rosary recitation on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are the Joyful Mysteries which begin with the Angel Gabriel telling Mary she would conceive a son of God, and end with the young Jesus teaching in the temple; then there are the Sorrowful Mysteries representing the pain and suffering of Christ culminating in his crucifixion, and the Glorious Mysteries that exalt Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s ascension into Heaven.

If I had attended Catholic school, these Mysteries and the recitation of the Rosary might have been performed by rote quickly breeding contempt and contempt breeding rejection. Instead, twenty years later, I was intrigued to discover something familiar yet unfamiliar. I found a particular connection to Mary, mother of Jesus, mother to all, perhaps because her prayer is the dominant force of the Rosary: ten Hail Mary’s are recited for every Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps, I also felt connected to Mary because I became a mom.

Joyful Mystery #1: Humility

Originally the rosary had 150 beads, the same number of psalms in the Bible. In the twelfth century, religious orders recited together the 150 Psalms as a way to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. Those people who didn’t know how to read wanted to share in this practice, so praying on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate could remember the Lord and his mother throughout the day.

Sue, my mother-in-law, died in 1999, the year my son was born. At sixty-six it was unexpected. She had broken a hip. Then the doctors discovered bone cancer and told her she’d live because they had caught it in time. But when you don’t want to live, your body listens to that desire. She recovered from hip surgery in a nursing home – a rehab center with overworked nurses’ aides and a community of residents parked in wheelchairs along the hall waiting for visitors, the next Bingo game, Jell-O dessert, death. She felt old, her mind stifled by years of living with a man who floated through jobs, leaving them with no pension, no hope, no desires, and no money. Her voice had been muted, her life force sucked out.

My husband and I bought Sue a clear set of rosary beads in a gift shop at the legendary New York City, St. Patrick Cathedral’s. We brought it to the nursing home thinking they’d provide a sense of peace while she waited. But she insisted on using the white plastic set provided by the nursing home. “I don’t want anyone to steal my rosary; you don’t know the people here.”

Soon after, I coordinated the details of her wake so my husband and his father could grieve. I searched Sue’s closet for the rose colored chiffon dress she wore to our wedding, the matching pumps, her glasses. Wanting to bury her with the sparkling translucent beads, I searched for them in the two black Hefty bags sent by the nursing home stuffed with her personal belongings. A pair of sneakers, a silk jogging style jacket interlaced with gold thread, a well-worn cardigan, a bunch of nightgowns. I searched the bags three times but never found the beads. I thought, maybe Sue was right; maybe someone had stolen them. She was buried right hand on top of left, holding the rosary beads provided by the funeral home.

A day later I opened one of the garbage bags. I froze. The beads lay atop a sweater, cradled by the gentle folds of the fabric, in plain sight. I sucked in a deep breath and knew with certainty that these rosary beads were meant for my daughter, a daughter yet to be conceived.

Joyful Mystery #2: Love thy Neighbor

The Rosary gained popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks planned a raid on the coast of Italy. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked the faithful to say the Rosary and implore the Blessed Mother to pray for the Lord to grant victory to the Christians. Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians, the Moslems were defeated.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I decided to learn how to say the Rosary. I purchased a pocket guide and began carrying Sue’s beads with me. I learned that the smaller beads represent rosebuds—each prayer like a rosebud being lifted to heaven. Ten beads represent one mystery or one decade, and each decade begins with reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I tried to begin each day praying one mystery: one Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be.

I work two blocks from the World Trade Center and when my son was a toddler, I dropped him off at a daycare center nearby. On the morning of 9/11, I exited the subway station with debris raining from the sky and I realized it was not a day for daycare. So I found myself in the bowels of my office building pointing to comic book characters to keep my 2-½ year-old son from realizing the danger we were in. I didn’t remember that the rosary beads were in my bag. I didn’t remember as we stepped into the white powder of death that lined the sidewalks. I didn’t remember as we walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hardly able to breathe through the soot that permeated the air and shrouded the trees. I didn’t remember I had them as we sat on a bus that took us across the bridge. It wasn’t until we were on the commuter railroad, on our way home, staring at a woman who was uncontrollably crying that I remembered the beads. I could not comfort her because I feared I would end up crying just like her and I had this toddler who didn’t understand how difficult the world had just become.

“Mama, we’re taking the train. Is this the 4 or the 5?”

“No honey, this is the Long Island train.”

“I want to sit next to the window.”

I took out Sue’s rosary beads. “Anthony, let’s pray together.”

He pulled the beads.

“No Anthony, they’re not a toy.” I tugged back.

He laughed. He was testing me. I didn’t want to be tested. I just wanted to pray.

“Anthony, please let go of the beads, or they’re going to break.”

I pulled gently, and a fragile silver link broke, yet the beads remained intact.

Joyful Mystery#3: Detachment from Things of the World

When England and Ireland were severed from Rome under Henry VIII, Ireland maintained a separate allegiance to Rome. Practicing Catholics carried small, easily hidden rosaries to avoid punishment, sometimes as severe as death. These rosaries, especially the smaller ring-type, became known as soldiers’ rosaries because soldiers often took them into battle.

Mom had been widowed at the age of fifty. When I married, she began her empty-nest stage and then nine years later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her nighttime routine: eat dinner in the living room on a snack table watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, turn off the television after the Mets lost the lead in the bottom of the ninth and mumbling to her empty rooms “Oh they stink!” climb the stairs, sometimes brush her teeth, change into a flannel nightgown with white anklets so her feet won’t be cold, and reach for her rosary beads on the nightstand as her mattress enfolds the body it knows so well.

At seventy-nine she suffered two heart attacks and congestive heart failure. One of her nurses remarked, “Her breathing sounds like a washing machine.” For the nineteen days of Mom’s hospital stay, I arrived in the mornings elated to see her alive. Her hands were a bruised plum and mustard map of the IV needles and blood tests. I placed her frail hand in mine so her fingers rested gently over my palm. “How are you doing Mom?” I knew she couldn’t answer, but trying to create normalcy was a habit I had developed during the Alzheimer years. I silently thanked her for hanging on overnight, and then, as if I had split personalities, I prayed for her death. I would settle into a stiff hospital chair to begin praying the Rosary on a set of wooden beads. I savored the mysteries – Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious – as part of a routine that would get me through the hospital day.

The set was a miniature version, only 10 Hail Mary beads—the soldier rosary. A woman from my church had given them to me a few months earlier. I didn’t know her name. I recognized her in the emergency room of our local hospital when I had to be intravenously hydrated because a parasite had made its home in my intestines. The woman was lying on a stretcher just across from me, her arm extended over the gurney, her face distorted in excruciating pain. She had dislocated her shoulder and cried in agony even after she had been pumped with painkillers. All I could offer was my prayer card – the one I had searched for before leaving my house for the emergency room; a Saint Anthony’s prayer, the saint of miracles and the saint my husband prayed to when, before his birth, my son was diagnosed with hydronephrosis, a swelling of the kidney area. The saint had delivered on our miracle six months later when the pediatric urologist announced, “I looked over the latest CAT Scan and I don’t understand it, but it’s gone.”

I reached over and handed my prayer card to her husband. He took it, whispered something to his wife and gave her the card. She looked at the portrait and immediately placed the card under her face, clenching it tightly. The next week at church when mass was over we exchanged, how are yous. We both were better. Then she lifted my hand and placed inside the miniature rosary with a wooden cross and beads and a Padre Pio medallion. In her broken English, she said “Pray for Saint Padre Pio.”

I had heard of Padre Pio, something about the stigmata, but the beads prompted a bit more research. Born in Italy, he became a priest in the early 1900’s. He suffered various illnesses most of his life. The stigmata, bleeding from wounds similar to those caused by crucifixion, began early in his priesthood and lasted for 50 years until his death. He believed in the power of meditation, often meditating with the rosary. He is quoted as saying: “Pray, Hope, Don’t Worry.” He died holding a set of rosary beads in his hands.

Mom outlived her rosary beads. On day seven of her hospital stay, the link connecting the cross was broken and the cross was missing. On day twelve the Padre Pio medallion had disappeared. Both times I searched the sheets, the floor, the drawers next to her bed. I asked the nurse’s aide. “I saw them last night after I changed her.” Then she proceeded to look in the same places I had. The day before her death, I walked into my mom’s room and after I kissed her forehead, I searched the usual places for what had been left of the rosary, ten wooden beads held together in a circle. I came up empty. This time I asked the nurse. “Oh, yes. I remember seeing them next to her pillow. Maybe when they changed the sheets…I’ll check with Laundry.” She returned ten minutes later to say nothing had been found. That day I prayed the Rosary using my fingers to keep count.

Joyful Mystery #4: Obedience

In 1917, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared before three children in Fatima, Portugal, telling the children she was “Our Lady of the Rosary” and asking them to pray the Rosary to help save the world.

A week into Mom’s hospital stay I became extremely ill; severe diarrhea, like hemorrhaging of a life. My husband visited my mom while I slumped on the couch and my 4-year old son alternated between concern and helpfulness. He handed me the thermometer: 105! I took it again, 104.5. Again 105.2! In a flash of panic, I remembered a vision I had had two days into Mom’s hospital stay as I was folding myself into a hospital bedside chair, half asleep: Mom, dressed in a red and white flowing robe was standing, which was remarkable since she hadn’t been able to lift herself to an upright position in years. She was talking to me, also something she hadn’t done in years. “Maria, I want you to come with me.”

At the time of the vision, I rationalized its meaning. Since my father’s death thirty years ago, it had just been the two of us. Perhaps the reason she had been defying the expectations of doctors, nurses, and me was because she was so worried about me; leaving this earth meant detaching from the bond we had shared for so long.

Processing the vision with a 105 fever, my panic deepened and I found myself offering a silent plea: You can’t take me with you. I need to be here for Anthony. You need to do this on your own.

“Can I read it?” Anthony asked for the thermometer. His concerned face mirrored mine. He walked over to the mantel, opened a red wooden box decoupaged with pansies in search of his children’s rosary beads. Colorful oversized wooden beads; they were a Christmas gift from a very good friend. Ever since receiving the gift, our bedtime ritual had begun with Anthony and me reciting the Rosary – one mystery every night before bed – accompanied by a CD version of children praying with an Aussie accent. It was a bedtime routine unconnected to illness, so it surprised me that he was searching for the rosary beads. He walked back over to the sofa, beads in hand, and said, “Mama, you’ll feel better. I’m going to pray the Rosary.” With that my 4-year old began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Joyful Mystery #5 True Wisdom

Christians believe that those that recite the Rosary are promised during their life and at their death the light of God and His graces, and at the moment of death they will participate in the merits of the saints in paradise.

Mom died in the hospital without her set of rosary beads. I held her hand as her breathing became shallow until there was none. And in that moment, a chilled gust swept through me as if her soul had passed through mine on its way to heaven. On the day we buried her, standard issue funeral rosary beads were placed in her hands.

Author’s note: I don’t attend Sunday mass as often as I used to. I don’t pray the Rosary every night with my son. I believe God loves me even when I don’t show up to mass and even though I don’t pray the Rosary as often. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I found Sue’s broken set of rosary beads and asked my husband to reattach the links. He did. Then I placed them in my 5-year old daughter’s jewelry box.

Maria Massei-Rosato has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities and currently teaches a writing/yoga workshop in NYC and in Maine. She bicycled across the country in 1995 and completed manuscripts of a memoir and screenplay depicting how the journey, which began in Seattle and ended in Brooklyn, New York, taught her valuable lessons about caring for her mom.

 

The First Disappointment

The First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Their Birthday

Celebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

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

 

My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.

“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.

  *   *   *

The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.

“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”

Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.

“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.

“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.

But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.

When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.

At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”

Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.

Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.

That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.

But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.

These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.

The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.

However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.

For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.

But then, that day became theirs.

“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.

He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.

Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.

The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

By Allison Slater Tate

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

What I Wanted For My Daughters

What I Wanted For My Daughters

By Patrice Gopo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because society says they can have it all.

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

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

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

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

  • *   *   *

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

Because she read my graduate school entrance essays.

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

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

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

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

  • *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

Because I called one laughter and the other miracle.

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

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina | Unsplash

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”

 

No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.

What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.

No one ever told me grief was something you owned (or does it own you?), something that settles in and takes up residence like the lump in my throat and the dampness around my eyes.

No one purposefully neglected to tell me these things about grief. Loss, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, they are all simply topics that aren’t discussed in depth and that are experienced in both unique and universal ways. To say: this is how you will experience grief robs it of the unique, yet to say: this is how we mortals experience grief is to give the gift of not being alone. How do we talk about things for which there are no words, in any language that can capture the whole of it? The pain of tragedy burns so deeply and transformatively that we pander around in art, movies, poetry, flowers, songs, essays, trying to grasp the unfathomable. That’s what tears are for, they are the words of the utterly crushed.

But now I have to talk with my children about grief, about endings, about things that cannot be changed. There are so many difficulties in life but the only thing that cannot, ever, be changed is death. For those with faith, there is hope of life after death but this is not the hope of a miraculous physical resurrection in the days before the funeral, before the burial. Death is final, the last word before eternity.

How do I talk with my daughter about her friend? She hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened or what she is feeling and thinking. She resorts to action in place of words and so I’ve been letting her light candles and stare at them, her eyes full of wonder, confusion, and sadness. She taped photos to her bedroom walls and filled the first pages of her Christmas journal with cutouts from the memorial service bulletin and notes on what their friendship meant to her. She found a small bag of gifts her friend had given her and buried it deep in her dresser drawer. She showed me some selfies they took together.

I’ve told her about how my body is reacting to this sadness, she knows. She sees me crying while I do the dishes or yawning in the middle of the afternoon after a sleepless night. She hears me talk about the messages passed between the adults involved. We share memories of her friend, pictures, words that feel both full and far too empty. I don’t know if, as my daughter grows and faces more loss, she will remember these discussions or her current sadness, she is only ten. She struggles to articulate what she is feeling. Later, she might feel like no one ever told her grief would be so physical, so close to fear, so inconvenient, so exhausting.

Though I don’t know exactly how to talk with her about grief and loss, we still talk. I tell her about the accident, I answer her questions. How is a body transported internationally? What happens at a funeral? What does her friend look like now? I don’t know how to answer all her questions but that’s what I say. “I don’t know.” This is one thing I want my daughter to know. When she experiences sorrow, now and in the future, it is okay to not know everything. It is okay to be surprised by what sadness feels like, or doesn’t feel like.

The friend who died lived in a different country and one day my daughter said, “I don’t miss her today because I didn’t see her every day. But when I go there to visit and she is gone, I think I will feel sad again.” The words had a question mark in them. I think she was asking, “Is that okay? To not feel sad now but to feel sad in a couple of weeks?”

This is another thing no one told me about grief but it is something we all know. There is no timeline, no proper moment to start or end the mourning. It becomes part of our days, woven into the sunrise and the dirty dishes and the photos on our computer screensavers.

C.S. Lewis also said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

It is scary to raise my daughter to love, hoping she will stay tender and vulnerable, in other words able to be wounded. But this wounding love is also what makes us strong. In love we build friendships and communities and when grief takes our breath away, these connections step in and become our strength. We are so easily broken but when there is no strength to stand, the communities that love us move closer, tenderly gather the shattered pieces, and hold us.

No one ever told me that explicitly, either, but I think I’ve known it all along. That love both breaks and heals. Walking through loss with my daughter and sharing our grief is strengthening our relationship. Even though it won’t miraculously heal scars or close up black holes of loss, shared grief is what love looks like.

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

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

By Liz Henry

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She does love swimming, we got that right.

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” I say.

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

“Mom, what color do you think I am?”

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

A Mother’s Love Of Discipline

By Cindy Hudson

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

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

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

By Eizabeth Bastos

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Dear Son,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We might laugh about it later.

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

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

Darling, Mommy loves you.

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

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

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

Mommy

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

Illustration: Christine Juneau

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

Scared By My Abuelita Amable

By Kelly Clem Ruiz

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

 

Chicomuselo, Mexico, 2009

She was having trouble breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

In the ER

In the ER

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By James M. Chesbro

Over my four year-old son’s shoulders the wounded adults gazed across the room in our direction.  Between their absent stares, maybe they replayed their accident and the ways they could have avoided it. What replayed in my mind was coming home from work and seeing a gash in my boy’s head. He was mimicking the downhill skier on TV, lost his balance and banged his head on a table. As I zipped his jacket over his pajamas he choked back sobs, accepting the news that instead of going to bed, we were going to the hospital. The receptionist said “Anna” into the microphone, another name that was not ours. My son’s eyes followed the movement of white fish in the large tank by the receptionist’s desk.

“Dad, look,” James said. “The fish have blood on them.” As I considered my response I saw the two drops of crimson stain on the collar of his sleeper. He kept his eyes on the fish.
“No, James.” I said. “That’s not blood. It’s just the color of the tips of their fins.”

“Oh,” he said, relief spreading across his face. We stared at each other for a long moment. I spent the day teaching high-school students, the early evening teaching college freshmen, and I hadn’t seen James since I waved to him in the driveway as his mother drove him to school. The big automatic doors to the main entrance opened as two people approached the receptionist over his head.

When James needs a haircut, his stubborn cowlick gives him a perpetual case of bed-head. When the hairs on the top of his head sprout into the shape of two ears of corn, the husks half peeled, it’s an indication of how busy I’ve been, since taking him to the barbershop is exclusively dad duty. In the morning, he runs away from me when I try to wet and comb his hair before nursery school and the husks shake.

“Can we leave now?” James asked as he twisted his white ID bracelet on his wrist. Until I told James we had to see the doctor, he was feeling pretty good about himself. We had left the triage room where the nurse fingered his way through his husks of brown hair to the wound. Neither of us knew we had three and half more hours of waiting.

“Probably two staples,” he said, as the rubber gloves snapped off his hands.

To pass the time we made up games together. We played follow the leader, which didn’t last long. We played a game of stepping on tiles and not the gray grout. If you stepped on the grout we called cracks, you were frozen and could only move if the other person tagged you.

We checked in with the receptionist to see how many people were in front of us. James sat himself in the chair, placed his elbow on her desk, rested his head in his hand and told the woman about his sisters, classmates, and teachers as if this woman knew who they were. A man wheeled an intoxicated woman to the desk. She demanded pain medication for her ankle. She waved her pointed finger at the receptionist and shouted.

James and I retreated back to the pediatric section where we sat at a small table. The TV blared over the woman’s proficient use of the f-word.

In the emergency room, I wasn’t cutting off his pleas to evade going to bed. I wasn’t standing on the landing, pointing to the second floor, exclaiming, “Up!” I wasn’t thinking about the work I still had to do after James and his sisters finally settled in their beds. I wasn’t thinking about how our three month-old might fuss throughout the wee hours of the morning. My objective that evening in the ER was as singular and apparent to me as the fear in the brown eyes of the boy in the green-fleece sleeper and sneakers. At home his younger sisters require more of my attention, but in the ER I could devote myself entirely to him. I didn’t know it then, and I hope I don’t have to repeat the experience soon, but my four hours with my son in the emergency room were a gift, because it gave me the opportunity to be the kind of father I wish I could be all the time.

Eventually, around 1:00 am, James slumped over my shoulder. I saw his body covering most of mine as I stood before the wall of windows, his legs dangling, his sneaker-covered feet tapping my kneecaps.

With two staples in his head, James slumped over me again, his sobs eventually steadying into more rhythmic breaths as drizzle fell on the slick blacktop, shining in the glare of parking lot lights. In the rearview mirror I watched my boy bring his knees toward his chest, and place his hands between them. The motor started. The interior car lights glowed orange. With his eyes closed, the cornhusks on his head rustled as he turned his head to the side. As I drove I thought about carrying him to bed, and wondered when we’d be able to go get him a haircut.

Author’s Note: I had a conference with parents of one of my high-school students the same day I ended up taking James to the ER. As they were leaving my classroom they asked me how my kids were. They told me it goes by fast, to enjoy spending time with them while they’re young, that before I knew it they would be in high school.

James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Writer’s Chronicle, Under the Gum Tree, The Huffington Post, Connecticut Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Find him on Twitter or on his blog

 

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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My children recount my eighty-four-year-old father’s childhood escapades the same way they do the episodes of Friends. The One Where the Dog Took Pop’s Cookie. The One Where Pops Stole the Truck. And their favorite, The One When Pops Quit Camp Freedom Because They Only Served Bologna Sandwiches. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, they flung ’em to us out of the back of a truck like we were dogs,” he tells my kids from his kitchen table in Palm Springs, where I take my kids every winter break.

“Do me a favor,” he tells me each year, “stop bringing them here. There’s nothing to do.” If you’ve ever been to Palm Springs in the winter (or any other time of year for that matter) you know that he’s right. There is nothing to do. Which is why my 14-year-old-daughters end up sitting around the breakfast table for hours every morning listening to him tell stories. My father says it’s like putting them in prison, like Camp Freedom itself. There’s no beach. There’s little sun. There are no other kids for miles around and you can’t show up to the table with your smart phone because not everyone at the table has one. My father hasn’t the faintest idea how to work a smart phone. In fact, during our most recent visit, he showed up to the table with a phone book.

“What is that?” My daughter asked after my father dropped perhaps the last remaining Yellow Pages onto the table. We were deciding, as we do every breakfast, where to go for dinner.

“What do you mean, ‘What is this?’ It’s a phonebook.” He opened the book, shoved it in front of my daughters and added, “How else you gonna make a goddamn reservation?”

My girls studied it like it was something out of King Tut’s tomb as my father sat down, took a bite of his bagel and began to impart knowledge on my kids in subjects and in language that they’re not getting in school.

Breakfast, for my father, is a thing. It’s leftover, I suppose, like he is, from a time when folks had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than sit around the table and tell stories. When I was a kid, he’d get up at the crack of dawn to get the bagels that he and my mother would serve to my grandparents and whichever of my father’s friends came and went during the course of the lazy weekend day. It was the same every winter vacation of my childhood which we spent with my grandparents in Florida. No one had a tee-time or a tennis game to get to. Instead, every morning, we’d sit at a table at the Rascal House Deli where the adults shot-the-shit for hours on end while I watched them chew their bagels and prayed that no one would die.

The same, I’m sure, as my kids do now, as my father huffs and puffs, recovering from the carrying of the phone book. But all the while, they are learning, like I did, despite themselves. From their penance in Palm Springs, they know how to work a dice board, the same way I learned from my time around the table how to smoke a cigar. They know how to drive a car. And we all know how to dance the Charleston.

As my father is the only person they know who doesn’t own a cell phone or have an email address, he is one of the only people my kids know who is 100% present in their presence, 100% of the time. And therefore, so are they in his. They check their phones at the counter, just before the kitchen table where they munch on bacon and fried salami while they listen to his stories, the same ones my brother and I also know by heart. They rely on a regular cast of characters and a predictable plot, that of the underdog overcoming against all odds a series of hardships that tend towards the ridiculous and make his presence at the table nothing shy of a miracle. He is his own serial, a living, breathing situation comedy from which my kids learn (I hope) lessons that I don’t know where they’d learn anywhere else. From the practical—like entertainment need not come from a screen and success need not come from school. To the past—like how FDR ended the depression and the mob created Las Vegas. And for better or worse (there is, after all, The One Where Pops Gets His Mom Out Of Prison), they learn who they are and from where they came, which experts say is important in developing a child’s self esteem and confidence.

So maybe we don’t go zip-lining and we don’t go home with a tan, but in Palm Springs there is no bologna. Only salami and bacon and a perspective that is priceless. Especially now that my kids are teenagers and tend to tune me out. Especially now as their confidence waxes and wanes with the moon, with their identities up for grabs and the pressures of tomorrow upon them. They are, these days, preparing to go to high school, which means making decisions in areas in which they lack the necessary information. What subjects interest them? What activities do they want to do? These decisions domino into bigger ones about where to go to college, and to my anxiety-prone, analytical daughter, they trigger existential ones like, “Will it all turn out okay?” Naturally, they have answers to none of this and their parents’ reassurance carries no weight. But from a survivor of Camp Freedom and everything else, “Take it from me, none of this matters,” is comforting to hear. I can tell from the way they laugh as he talks and they recount throughout the year.

Pops is living proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat, which, in a society ridden with rules and driven by convention and a fear of the road less taken, is a valuable lesson. As valuable as knowing how to use a phonebook. “Just in case those phones or whatever they are stop working,” he explains as he chews his bagel, “you’ll know how to get your hands on a goddamn pizza.”

Author’s Note: I am excited to say that between the time I wrote this piece and now, my father acquired an iPhone. Of course, owning the iPhone and using it are two different things. He is set to start iPhone 101 classes this week. According to my mother, my father says he will attend. However, when asked to comment, he told me only that he is not throwing out his phonebook anytime soon.


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

 

Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

Blue Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair

By Angelique York

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney

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Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.

 

When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

All Mom and No Fun

All Mom and No Fun

By Sharon Holbrook

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning Alone

Mourning Alone

By Marcelle Soviero

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“I don’t want to watch Grammy die,” my son said as he got out of the car, dirt-dusted from his afternoon baseball game.

“I know you don’t buddy.” I took his hand and we walked into the house. “But Grammy had a good life. Ninety-two years is a long life.” My ex-husband Larry’s mother was now in hospice care in Chicago, halfway across the country, and Larry wanted the children to be able to have their last good-byes.

I gathered my three children, Johnny, Olivia and Sophia, ages 9, 10 and 11, into the living room; I got a good look at the three of them seated in a row on the couch, each face punctuated with worry. Tear dots on Olivia’s cheeks.

My ex-husband Larry would be here in an hour to go to the airport. Though I had been divorced eight years, I had long adored my mother-in-law, and I was sad of course, but perhaps even more anxious than sad. I was unraveling knowing I would not be a part of what would be my children’s first attendance at a funeral. But this isn’t about me, I thought. Then again, somehow it was. This would be a major event in my children’s life, their first experience with a death, besides our family pet, and I would not be there.

I had asked Larry if I should go, but I knew I would not, our divorce had been court-worthy contentious, and we still spoke only if we had to. No, we would not fly as if a family to Chicago, instead the children would have their father—a no doubt distracted father—to care and console them. Who would really watch the children on the plane?

But it was more than this. Larry did not believe in a heaven of any sort; our misshapen souls do not rise. I knew matter-of-fact answers would be the only consolation offered from father to child—the details of the aorta, collapsed ventricles and how blood circulates through the body. I knew this because just after Larry and I married, my father had died young of heart failure. Mourning his death was made harder by the fact that Larry would not support speculation on an afterlife, while heaven was the only concept that was helping me through it. After a few weeks, Larry had told a tortured me that I needed to move on. I knew then that the marriage would end, not then, but soon.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to Grammy,” I said to the kids now believing each sentence I spoke would invite more questions in their minds. Perhaps I was hoping for that. Evoking questions and memories so they could mourn with me in advance. I knew Larry would get through it, his coping mechanism would be to intellectualize the death.

“She’ll die and we will never see her again?” Johnny said.

“That’s right, but she had a good long life.”

“Will Daddy be busy being sad?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But he will be OK I promise.”

Johnny twirled the fringe on the couch pillow. I sifted my words, deliberately dumbing them down in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

“I believe in heaven,” I said. “Your father may think differently and that is OK. You can believe what you want to believe.” I went on and on, this would be my only chance to ever tell my side of the heaven story. “Every time you think of Grammy she will be alive again in your memory.”

The concept of heaven wasn’t an entirely new idea for my children, we’d lost our dog years back, which had required some explanation on my part. I was able to persuade Larry then that the children did not have to hear the clinical aspects of how our dog died.  

“Grammy will be watching you from another place, she will see you grow. She will watch over you, you’ll talk with her in your mind, not face to face.”

“I love Grammy,” Johnny said.

“Me too buddy,” I said. Then I surprised myself by taking out every cliché I had in my purse—This is for the best, Grammy will be at peace soon—until I was clichéd out.

Larry came to get the kids at 6:00. Again came the clichés, I was so sorry she was nearing the end. How could I help? Polite conversation, then me escorting the children gently to the car, remembering every other time I piled them into the car to see Larry on his weekends.

The Jeep etched out of the driveway, and I went back inside. I cried anticipating the sadness my children would carry witnessing their grandmother’s death. I cried finally too for my mother-in-law. She was a charming character with good intentions, our only contentious moments being my decision not to breastfeed any of her grandchildren, and my decision to divorce her son. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to him,” she once said, my first and only Jewish mother.

An hour later Sophia texted me. They were at the airport—Grammy died. They had not yet boarded the plane. Neither they or Larry would have a chance for that one last visit.

I clenched my hands, which had already begun to sweat, the kids would not get to say goodbye to Grammy after all. I selfishly consoled myself with thoughts that their grief would be closer to home, closer to me now. Grammy was from New York, the services would be here so they would not board a flight and mourn across the country.

The next day Larry texted the particulars. The services would be on Wednesday.  

Nine-year-old Johnny got on the phone next with questions.

“Yes honey, the funeral will be in two days, on Wednesday,” I said.

“Did Grammy go to heaven already or will she go on Wednesday?” he asked.

 

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child Magazine. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Gary Rockett /unsplash.com

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

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

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Add the loudest rooster crow you can muster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illustration: gettyimages.com

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The Art of Saying No

The Art of Saying No

By Kim Drew Wright

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-after Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing”

When they say Don’t you want to join the PTA?
          say no.

When they ask you to aide kindergartners
at the start of school,
remember last year before buckling.
          Ten minutes guiding cute faces off buses.
          Three hours shoveling packets—stuffed. Paper
          cuts. Numb ears. Manila smile stuck to seven
          hundred bland envelopes.
Then answer.

If they say You’re a stay-at-home mom
          with time.
Do not reply fine.

Start clocking your hours spent
          cutting patterns for gingerbread houses,
          segregating beads by color, shape—piling
          minutes like papers instructing parents how
          to file for discount lunches in an upper-class
          neighborhood.

Tell them you would if you could, but time is
a commodity just as important to you as that kid’s father
who’s a brain surgeon at VCU. You bet he doesn’t give
brain surgeries away for free—at least not repetitively.

When they chase you down in the halls, squat down
and become a water fountain. Let them spout on and on.
Accessorize your outfit with yellow caution tape.

Hang a hand-written note around your neck that states
Shut Down.

Thank them for the invite to the volunteer tea,
          then decline.

 
Kim Drew Wright volunteers at her three children’s schools in Richmond, Virginia. Her debut collection of stories and poems, The Strangeness of Men, won Finalist in the USA Best Book Awards. Find out more at KIMDREWWRIGHT.COM.

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

By Karen Dempsey

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The ten-year-old lies face down on her bed, trying not to cry, clenched in a hot coil of anger. The day has not gone as planned.

I lie beside her, pressed to the wall so I will not make actual contact. She has beckoned me into the room with her grievous moans, waved me closer when I offered her space.

She wants me as near as possible. She does not want me to brush against her. She wants me, she says into her pillow, to help her. She wants me, she says, to do nothing. She does not want me to speak or to be silent. She wants to cleave me to her side. She wants me to disappear.

It is some small, insurmountable slight by a friend that has brought us here. She needs to move past it, we know. We don’t know how she will do so. She is normally better at the “moving past” thing. With adolescence upon us, it’s grown more complicated.

I put a tentative hand on her back. She flinches it away. Hugs aren’t welcome.

I touch a wisp of her hair. “STOP.”

I wish that she would cry. That would be easier, I think. But I remember the feeling—the not wanting to give in, in the face of such unpredictable emotion. Crying over nothing, over everything. I would cry in the shower to hide my inexplicable weeping. But my mother could always tell, even hours later. She would study my face, give me wide berth, and ask, eventually, “Are you alright?” I would be enraged and relieved that she could read me so well.

Sometimes, but not usually, it helps to say to the ten-year-old, “What is it?” or “I’m sorry you’re sad.” Once I asked her, in a calmer moment, if there is anything that helps. She said one thing that helps is when I say, “Oh, sweetie.”

I say, “Oh, sweetie.” It doesn’t help.  

I study her small, angry frame, too slight to hold onto so much emotion, to steer it. It doesn’t seem fair. Looking at her tensed little shoulder blades, I remember something. “X marks the spot,” I say to myself, silently, and I trace a criss-cross on her back. “Dot. Dot. Dot.” I think, pressing my fist against her lightly. She exhales. “Lines go up, lines go down, lines go all around. Spiders crawling up your back. Elephants walking down your back.” Later, I will research the strange rhyme—the variations passed down through the years. My daughter’s preferred version differs from the one I learned decades ago, taking a grotesque turn, and she knows I don’t like this part but I keep reciting silently, my hands pantomiming the lines that always made her laugh. “Crack an egg on your head and the yolk runs down; stab a knife in your back and the blood runs down.”

I hesitate, not sure if I’ve missed something. “Finish,” she says, and I think I hear a smile in her voice.

I say the end out loud, puffing a cool breath on the back of her neck. “Tight squeeze cool breeze now you’ve got the shivers!”

She snorts and rolls over. “It’s shiveries, mom,” she says. She is laughing and crying, the rage-spell broken, the tears falling free. She threads her lengthening fingers through mine; measures our hands. Hers are catching up but she still has some room to grow. She lifts her shining eyes—enormous dark lakes of future tears.

“It’s shiveries,” she says again. “But you got the rest right.”

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

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

Why I Have Never Cut My Daughter’s Hair

By Lela Casey

REDHEAD GIRL

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is my very own Anne Shirley.

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

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

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

By Marjke Yatsevitch

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While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner.

 

The recliner sits in the corner of a storage closet, surrounded by old telephones, bedraggled hangers, boxes of bank statements and purchase orders, and spools of tickets used for 50/50 raffles. It is not a nice chair. Its upholstery might have once been a shade of pink, but it now reflects a low-pile sadness that must have a name like puce, or dun, or boiled yam.         

For the second time today I am sitting in the intermittent light of a motion sensor, wearing a brazier-like contraption that allows me to write, while I extract as many vital ounces of breast milk as I can, before second lunch ends.       

I am at work—and compared to many other nursing mothers who work, I have it pretty good. I am not perched on a toilet trying to negotiate an absence of power outlets. I have not been walked in on, yet. I have not made agonizing eye contact with an athletic director as he stands in the doorway of my hiding place, jawing a palm-sized piece of pizza, and too slowly, saying, “I heard a weird noise,” without apology. I have a supportive and generally good humored administrative team, and I have a Styrofoam cooler next to me on which I can place a water bottle and the apothecary of herbal supplements that I need to produce 16 ounces of milk each day.        

The whole situation would be hilarious if it weren’t so important; if it didn’t drive the two greatest pressures of my life, teaching and parenting, right into each other, divining one of my least favorite circumstances: one in which it is impossible to succeed.

On the first day of school, I returned from maternity leave knowing I would need to pump. I underestimated what that meant, and had not developed any real system for it. I glibly transported my subpar breast pump in its neat little carrying case to work with me that first morning, with a few bottles and an ice pack. What I should have done is walked through the step-by-step process with impeccable precision.

Instead, I was a hot mess. I made the rookie mistake of washing all of my pump parts in the front office sink. Where else could I have gone? Could I have laid out some elaborate sanitary blanket on a bathroom floor somewhere? Where would I put all of these damp tubes and bottles? I hadn’t thought through the systems, and I was too embarrassed to ask a veteran. While scrubbing a sink full of phalanges and nipples, the school art teacher came to my rescue—she suggested I put the unwashed parts into a paper lunch bag, one that breathes, to keep in the front office fridge until the next time I would need them.

Even armed with the cleverest of tips, so much depends on timing; fire drills and schedule changes, faculty meetings, and kids in crisis can dismantle the best laid plans. Or, more intimately, the limitations of my own body: dehydration, leaks, swollen breasts, raw nipples, and exhaustion compromise my professionalism, daily. Milk production is mostly out of my hands, and so are the inherent needs and obligations of my career.

I had not spent a day away from my son until that first day back; I had never developed a pumping schedule, one that might work once I returned to school. Thankfully, the first day had been for staff members, not students. The principal’s secretary lent me her storage closet key.

A low mechanical drone overpowered the room, with halting thwacks sounding like a tennis ball hitting a wall. I wish I could multitask while pumping, but most are off limits: phone calls, filing, anything that involves movement or engaged brain cells. I settle on answering email, usually, but still wonder at the surrealness of me in my surroundings: shirtless in a storage closet sending out missives to unsuspecting colleagues. It just feels weird.

In the throws of pumping at work, so many things can go wrong. Spills, overflows, running out of bags, power shortages. There are figuratively and literally a lot of working parts—tubes, sterile bags, bottles, caps, phalanges, membranes, motors, power supplies, adapters, freezer packs, and a whole array of materials used to disguise my goods when I have to store them in the community fridge. But the comedic humility of it all is nothing.

There is something about having to hide, even as I perform a vulnerable and essential task. While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner. For each of us who sit in a storage closet, while trying our damndest to remain invisible, there is a cost. The variable conditions and compromises that women who return to work have to make, reveal the wide gaps in understanding what we go through, and the need for some candor.           

I count the bells through lunch hoping that I am still safe within a cushion of time that will allow me to return to my room with my game face on, ready to perform, as if nothing humbling and indiscrete has happened. As if I had not just balanced everything that mattered on a very thin wire.
Marjke Yatsevitch grew up in the woods among reclusive farmers and artists, and has slowly been adapting to quasi-suburban parenting, teaching high school English, and seeking comforts in gardens and kitchens on the Seacoast in New Hampshire.

Learning to Get Out of the Way

Learning to Get Out of the Way

By Jennifer Berney

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What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him.

 

For the six years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to enrich my child. When he was a baby, I hovered as he explored a toy xylophone, wondering if he might be a prodigy. As he grew old enough to talk, I wondered if, with a little coaching, he might be reading and writing fluently by the time he was four.

This is what good parents did, I figured. They helped their children identify their passions and then, through active instruction, they crafted them into geniuses.

About a year ago, I thought I’d found my opportunity when my son started dancing any time there was music within earshot. My partner and I had a blast watching him shake his booty across the living room, mimicking every kind of dance he’d ever seen. Within a week, I was on the phone with our local ballet school, asking them if my child was old enough to train. From what I understood, boys were a rare commodity in ballet. Clearly, my son would be the next Baryshnikov.

My son wasn’t certain that he wanted to take a dance class, but he agreed to visit the classroom with me on a Saturday morning. We sat together on the sidelines and watched a group of girls and boys his age move across the room like dinosaurs and elephants. I looked at him to see if he was inspired to join them, but his face remained blank. As they moved into formal instruction, practicing standing en pointe and demi plies, he leaned in and whispered “Mommy, I’m not interested in that.”

“Are you sure?” I prodded.

Though I gave up on ballet, I still waited for my moment to help him shine. That summer, I signed him up for a day-long painting class. He had agreed it sounded fun, but when the day arrived, he clung to me, not wanting to go inside the classroom. It was the sight of a like-minded boy in a Spider-man shirt—not the easels and paintbrushes—that helped him settle in. That afternoon, when I arrived to pick him up, the other children had painted skies, mountains, and trees. My son held up his canvas, smiling. Apparently he had started painting and couldn’t stop. He enjoyed layering color after color. The result: a canvas that looked like mud. This would not be going on our wall.

For a while after that, I laid off the courses and stopped trying to turn our time together into a curriculum. I accepted that my son, more than anything, liked to play Angry Birds and watch Spider-man on Netflix. He liked to be read to, to play with friends and build forts, and he didn’t care to go for walks. In short, his interests were unexceptional.

And then, about a month ago, my son began asking me for paper. I’d pull a couple of pages from my printer and he’d spread his markers across the kitchen table and fill the width of the page with sketches of superheroes and remembered scenes from movies. He found a sketchbook I’d bought for him a year earlier and began filling the pages systematically. Looking at my son’s sketches is like looking at a cross-section of his brain. There are lines firing like neurons in all directions, depictions of good versus evil, of the sun and the moon, his baby brother, and all of his friends. Taken together, the pages are his universe.

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him. By definition, a passion is something that can’t be controlled. It’s not the thing that someone pushes you to do; it’s the thing you have to do, the thing that beckons you. That’s why it’s called your calling. It knows your name. It comes to find you.

For once I’m learning to hang back and let him do his thing. I bought a small set of pens that I thought might allow him more precision than the wide-tipped markers he’d been stuck with. But that’s it. I don’t correct the way he uses his pen. I haven’t signed him up for any more art classes. For the moment, I don’t want anyone to come between him and his passion—not me, not a teacher, no one.

As it turns out, my son is the one instructing me. I watch the way he gravitates to paper, the way he ignores any bids for his attention. I watch how the minute he completes one sketch he moves on to another. Lately, when I bring him a plate of toast in the morning, I usually find it untouched twenty minutes later as he continues to sketch Darth Vader’s cape.

“Why haven’t you eaten?” I ask him.

“I got distracted,” he explains.

Really, it’s the opposite. The daily tasks of life are the distraction. The work that calls us is what matters. It’s a lesson I try to teach myself daily when I find myself buried in the daily minutia of laundry, errands, preparing meal after meal. “What do I actually want to do?” I ask myself.

It was a quiet voice at first. It whispered, walk that trail to the beach, or blow off laundry and watch TV. The more I listen, the louder it grows. Write that book, it tells me. Not just on the weekends, but every single day.

With two sons now, I’m busier than ever, but that voice will not be ignored. On the best of days now you’ll find us in a house piled high with unfolded laundry, dancing and drawing and writing till we drop.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: Harlan Shincke, the author’s son

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

By Mary O’Brien

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Not everyone considers a promotion in the military cause for celebration—it often comes with an inevitable relocation. After seven moves, my 13-year-old daughter knows all the signs leading up to moving. She brings it up every chance she can. What are your options? Where will they send you? When will we know? If Dad retires, can we stay here in Maryland? If you move somewhere boring, like Texas, I don’t want to leave. I like our new house, my school, my basketball team. I’ll only move if you go somewhere cool, like Europe, Japan or Korea.

This go around, I get the news shortly before Christmas, but we decide to wait until mid-January to tell the kids. We choose the sunporch, the most cheerful place in the house we bought seven months earlier, when I saw retirement on the horizon. We used to go to a favorite pizza place to break this kind of news but can’t anymore because both kids learned that pizza restaurants mean family discussions regarding new assignments. The last two family discussions broke the news that my husband and I were being sent in different directions. We’ve been stationed apart ten of the last fifteen years.

I tell my daughter she was right—I’ll have a new job in the spring. Before I can finish, she asks “Is it overseas?” I pause a moment, not expecting her to ask about the overseas options, and say yes. Bursting into tears, she tells me, “I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t want to move.” I try to talk over her sobbing, “You aren’t going—I’m going to Afghanistan and you’re all staying here.” Her crying stops immediately. Embarrassed, she admits being relieved, but immediately feels guilty for being happy that I’m going to a war zone. They all know how deployments work. My husband spent a year in Helmand while the rest of us were stationed in the United Kingdom, meeting him in Germany to ski on his two week mid-tour leave.

Once we break the news, both kids promptly go back to their own worlds; to them, I suppose, five months until my departure seems a lifetime away. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of concern behind their denial. After I make white chicken chili, a particularly favorite meal, my son asks my husband “Do you know where mom keeps her recipes?” Which reminds me, I have to share the kids’ practice schedules and game locations with my husband.

One morning in May shortly before my deployment, I laugh at my son’s comment about only being able to picture me sitting behind a computer when I announce I’m going to the shooting range to requalify on the 9mm. He can’t imagine me carrying a weapon, even if it’s just the small handgun that officers carry. “Contrary to popular belief around here, the Air Force is a branch of the military,” I respond. Soon after, I add my departing flight information to our family Google calendar and note the possible conflict with my son’s lacrosse game. “I can do both,” I tell him, hoping I can keep my promise. We drive to the airport in my minivan after his game and I feel a little guilty standing in the long line with my family. Other deployers who don’t live in Maryland already said goodbye to their families days ago and won’t get any more hugs tonight. My husband keeps the mood light and they all manage big smiles for the last photo at the airport—the kids on either side of me in my scratchy Army multicams.

In Afghanistan, tears creep out of the corners of my eyes every Sunday in the dusty base chapel, the only time I allow myself to admit just how much I miss my family. I’m the senior military woman in Kabul, and possibly all of Afghanistan—showing weakness is not in my job description. I follow the guidance I’ve given to many new military mothers I’ve mentored over my career. Limit the photos on your desk—a family portrait and one individual shot of each child. Too many cutesy photos and the men (and some women) won’t take you seriously. My husband and I are both in uniform in my carefully chosen family photo. My way of saying our whole family is “all in.”

The days turn to weeks, weeks to months. I try unsuccessfully to set up predictable times to call home. The 9 ½ hour time difference, my long hours on duty and the kids’ busy after-school schedules make it impossible. High school basketball tryouts are underway so I rummage through the stack of greeting cards I picked out before coming to Kabul. “You won’t be able to get anything good over there,” a friend told me. Taking her advice, I spent an hour in the Hallmark store picking out a “Congratulations” card, then decided I didn’t want to risk jinxing my daughter, so added a “Don’t Give Up” encouragement card. Remembering her sprained ankle from 8th grade, I threw in a “Get Well Soon” card for good measure. She makes varsity; she’s elated, and I promptly mail the “Congratulations” card with its handwritten “FREE MAIL” where the stamp normally goes. Knowing by then that the card will take at least three weeks to arrive, I use the Internet to send flowers overnight, too.

Surprise and disappointment set in when I realize our FaceTime calls are too hard for my son. He’s never been able to say good-bye. I ask my husband to stop coaxing him into the room when I call. I’ll wait until he asks to talk to me, which isn’t often. I’m thrilled by the rare text from him—”hi mom I lost that molar.” I accidentally discover that he’ll talk to me longer if I catch him home alone when my husband drives my daughter to basketball practice. I try to synchronize my work schedule and the time difference to take advantage of these moments. When my boss tasks me to attend multiple long-winded PowerPoint briefings about the possible reduction of troops in Afghanistan, I try unsuccessfully to hide my grumpiness as I see the rare opportunities to talk to my son slipping away.

My favorite aunt vows to make this Christmas special, but privately shares with me that my son has convinced himself that I am going to surprise everyone by coming home for Christmas unannounced, just like all those military reunion stories on Facebook and YouTube. I’d like to say that I despise everyone who has ever had anything to do with these videos, but actually I’m also envious.

On Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to hear my son play Christmas carols on his saxophone for all my relatives. It’s still Christmas Eve in Maine. Everyone can see me on the iPad placed on a chair in the center of the room and I’m mildly embarrassed that I’m still in my pajamas with messy hair and puffy eyes. My son opens with “Blue Christmas” in my honor and my heart breaks all over again. They sing along to “Deck the Halls” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He’s sounds really good and I’m surprised by the noticeable improvement in only six months of middle school concert band. “I take requests,” he boasts proudly. I’m amazed at this new confidence—what else will happen this year—and I request “Silent Night.” I hide a few tears as he plays it perfectly.

Mary O’Brien has more than 26 years of Air Force service and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from June 2014 to May 2015. She is currently stationed in Maryland with her husband—a retired Marine, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. She hasn’t missed a basketball game this season.

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

What the Photographer Saw in My Special Needs Child

By Marilyn Maloney

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When my daughter was born, she was perfect. She had blue eyes like sparkling pools, dimpled cheeks, and a smile that gave her a constant look of a kid opening presents on Christmas morning.

She slowed down in development and started missing milestones around 8 months. When she was 13 months old, an MRI told us she had a Leukodystrophy, a fatal disease with no cure and no treatment. We went from a state of baby bliss to rock bottom and had to start over in a world we had not been exposed to. It was like we had previously looked through a pane of glass at the world of special needs, and now we were on the inside.

Even as my daughter grew, she did not look like she had a disease. She had bouncy curls and a happy smile. Although she did not walk or talk, she was small enough that people didn’t notice. Well, maybe they noticed, but I told myself they didn’t.

When I saw other special needs kids and adults who could not control their movements, arms in odd positions and drool sneaking from the side of their mouths, I was ashamed of my thoughts. “Maddy is different. She is beautiful and any drool is from teething. She holds a spoon and brings it to her mouth.”

As months stretched to years, she slowly began to look like she had special needs. She had a hard time holding up her head. Receiving blankets transitioned to become bibs for the drool. She lost her grasp reflex and could no longer hold the spoon. There was no denying that we were a special needs family.

Avoiding the Texas heat, we had family photos done while visiting my mom in Western New York. We asked the photographer to come to the house during that short time when neither our toddler, Jimmy, nor Maddy would need to eat.

Megan came walking down my mom’s street in a loose white top and shorts, camera hanging from her shoulder. She looked relaxed and welcoming, even while carrying a bean bag chair about half her size. We played and sat with the kids while she snapped photos and chatted. There was no formal setup. The humidity pulled Maddy’s curls up into perfect spirals as she laid on the bean bag chair in the shade.

My mom’s backyard grass was a vivid green color I don’t think exists in Texas. It was soft and cool, a background framed with Rose of Sharon and lilac bushes. Jimmy was quiet and curious, just starting to walk on shaky legs. He stared intently at the camera while holding my hands. Maddy smiled and laughed when my husband, Jim, threw her into the air.

The shoot was simple and easy and the time flew. Megan tried some gluten free coconut chocolate chip cookies my mom made and we thanked her as she said goodbye. She thanked us too, because, we quickly learned, that’s just how she is.

Over the next week or so Megan emailed me about how gorgeous my children are and told me she was interested in learning more about doing photography focused on special needs. Many special needs families don’t bother getting family photos because after the stress of getting the family ready, the photographer may not catch one smile or the slightest hint of eye contact.

Another week passed and Megan sent me the link to our photos. I logged on with a password and there she was–my Maddy. The first photo was the way I saw my daughter every day, as if the camera saw through her disease. She was a beautiful girl with the big blue eyes, bouncing curls, and a smile that makes everyone around her smile. I did not see my daughter struggling to hold her head up or drooling onto her bib while unable to stand and walk. I saw my girl looking right at the camera, smiling and laughing with her dad.

To the outside world, my daughter is the girl in the wheelchair, with children staring and friends who are so sorry she has this disease. These photos showed the girl as we see her, disease-free, holding up her head and smiling proudly, free to be Maddy, instead of Maddy who has Leukodystrophy. These were so much more than family photos.

You know how in some photos, you can tell what the photographer is feeling? In these, I could tell that Megan saw my daughter as her perfect self, Leukodystrophy and all.

Marilyn Maloney is an engineer and late-night medical journal reader.  She lives with her hero of a husband, beautiful puzzle of a daughter, and her cheeky son who likes to jump off the furniture.

Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

By Barbara Brockway

After the initial joy of finding out I was expecting my first baby, a dark thought crossed my mind. This was in addition to all the concerns first-time parents have; will my baby be healthy, will I make a good mom, will I survive labor?

“I’m worried about the baby’s birthday being so close to Christmas,” I said to my husband, Matt. The December 19th due date was determined after an early sonogram, and declared to be extremely accurate by our doctor.

“Honey, I know how you feel about your birthday being right after the holidays,” Matt said, wrapping me up in a hug. “We’ll do things differently than your parents.”

“We have to always make a big deal out of the baby’s birthday, to not let it be overshadowed by Christmas” I said, thinking about a young me feeling hurt that my special day was treated as an afterthought.

“I promise,” Matt said, smiling a goofy expectant-father smile.

I secretly vowed to hold him to that, more importantly, to hold myself to that.

I had first hand knowledge of the disappointment that comes with having a birthday so close to the holidays. Raised in a small, midwestern town with no diversity, Christmas was my end-all, be-all of holidays, followed by runner-up New Year’s Eve. My birthday, coming on January 2nd, was at the tail end of this bacchanalia. After all the rich food, expense, and parties of the holiday season, who wanted to celebrate a birthday–my birthday?

As a kid, my presents were always wrapped in leftover Christmas paper, my birthday cake eaten begrudgingly by my parents on what should have been the second day of their New Year’s resolutions. My friends were no better. Amidst the excitement of returning to school after the long break and exchanging stories about what Santa had brought, they rarely remembered to wish me happy birthday. What should have been my special day was celebrated as a half-hearted afterthought or forgotten altogether.  

I pledged to do things differently for my child.

The weeks leading up to my due date flew by, filled with an ambitious home remodel, gearing up to turn over my job to a co-worker, and frenetic nesting. I stopped working on December 18th and picked my mom up from the airport on my due date.

“Any signs this baby is coming?” she asked as she happily clutched my big belly.

“The doctor says it could be anytime,” I replied. I unfurled a big list from my purse.

“In the meantime, let’s do some last minute shopping,” I said.

I dragged my mom around Atlanta the next few days, running Christmas errands and buying last minute things for the baby’s room. I delighted when someone asked me when I was due.

“Last Tuesday,” I’d say with a big grin. My mom and I loved the shocked responses. Inside, my worry grew. Each passing day meant future birthdays would be that much closer to the “big” day.

I took to walking around our neighborhood for hours, as walking was supposed to induce labor. Not one contraction. I ate spicy foods. Nada. On December 22nd the three of us walked up and down Stone Mountain. The baby didn’t budge. On December 23rd, Matt and I dined at Indigo, requesting the locally famous “labor table.” I kept the fingers of my left hand crossed all during dessert. I woke up the next morning feeling no different.

With each passing day I worried not only about the baby’s birthday being one day closer to Christmas, but about the health of my overdue child. The doctor started to talk about inducing labor.

On Christmas Eve, the three of us went to see the Live Nativity at East Rock Springs Presbyterian. Matt grabbed my gloved hand and held it in both of his. “You know, honey, at this point, I’m almost hoping the baby is born on Christmas,” he whispered.

My heart swelled as the tinny first notes of “Silent Night” strained through the outdoor speakers. “Me, too,” I confessed. “If it’s this close anyway, it might be better if it’s actually on the same day.”

We stared into each other’s eyes, grinning like two fools who didn’t know what was about to hit them.

At about 3am on Christmas morning, I woke with a start. Was that a contraction? I waited a few minutes. It was definitely a contraction. My heart pounding, I woke Matt.

He flipped on the light and started timing them. At about 6am, we took a two-hour walk around the neighborhood, reveling in the perfect quiet that is Christmas morning. I spent the day alternating rest with walking, squeezing in Christmas dinner, present opening and It’s A Wonderful Life.

At about 10pm we headed for Northside Hospital. Sweet baby Nicholas was born at 2am on December 26th, missing Christmas by two hours. And no, he’s not named after that Nicholas. My husband is Italian; it’s practically a requirement that every Padula family has a Nick.

Was I disappointed that our baby was born the day after Christmas? In retrospect it seems so silly. Once I locked eyes with my trusting, precious little soul all else seemed insignificant. I understood the meaning of unconditional love, and, as a faithful person, felt closer to God. I understood the fuller meaning of Christmas for the first time in my life.

Have Matt and I kept our promise of always making a big deal out of Nick’s birthday? We’ve tried to, although as the years have ticked on, we might be slipping a bit. Last year, we gave him the dreaded combined birthday and Christmas gift, an expensive GoPro camera that seemed too extravagant to be given for just one special day. Did Nick think he’d been ripped off? I’d like to think not, but I can’t really be sure.

One thing I am sure of is that my perspective on having a holiday birthday has changed. Gifts and celebrations aren’t meaningful, no matter what time of year, unless you’re spending them with loved ones. My favorite birthday memories now revolve around special times: ice skating, playing board games, or just watching a movie. No need for cake or decorations, just togetherness. Maybe keeping the focus on that should have been my objective for my son, instead of trying to create space and distinction between the two events.

As for me, If I’m ever asked about a favorite Christmas, how could I say anything but the day I spent laboring with my firstborn, and how could I say my favorite present was anything but my son?

Not a cherished family tradition or a perfectly wrapped gift, my favorite Christmas memory involves sweat, panting, excruciating pain, and, of course, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 
Barbara Brockway’s work has appeared in The Maine Review, The Southern Tablet, Torrid Literature Journal, and elsewhere. She’s received writing awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Read more on her website: barbarabrockway.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

It Takes an Indian Village

It Takes an Indian Village

By Sharon Van Epps

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The day I left Delhi with my new 5 year-old-daughter, Didi, an Indian “auntie” I’d only just met issued a warning: Take good care of our child.

We’d been invited to attend a friend’s birthday luncheon mere hours before our departure for the US. The unexpected admonishment came from another party guest, a woman who’d never even seen Didi before but nevertheless felt the right to claim her. The woman’s message was clear: You are not an Indian, and this Indian girl will never truly be yours.

“Of course she will take good care!” my friend snapped in my defense. “You think this lady would go to such trouble to adopt an Indian child for some other purpose!”

I’d spent enough time in India to know that offering unwanted advice is a national sport, but still, the stranger’s words pricked. The truth is, in that moment I scarcely knew this little girl who stood beside me, bravely holding my hand. She was an Indian. I was an American. As soon as we boarded the plane bound for San Francisco, everything she understood about the world would disintegrate. We didn’t even speak the same language.

Adopting a child from another culture demands that you incorporate her culture into the identity of your family as a whole. My husband and I felt as prepared for this task as any two non-Indians could be. John had visited India multiple times, and I’d briefly lived in the southern city of Hyderabad. I had Indian relatives-by-marriage eager to be role models for our daughter. I’d even perfected my aunt’s recipe for yellow dal. Still, the list of things I didn’t know was long: Hindi, for starters. The Ramayana. Or how to make roti, or butter chicken, or gulab jamun. Most importantly, I had no idea how to tie a sari, a skill that I was certain that my new daughter would one day want to learn.

By the time Didi reached fifth grade, I’d mastered butter chicken but still couldn’t speak Hindi. Thankfully Didi had learned English, as international adoptees are forced by circumstance to do. With her elementary school graduation looming, she made an announcement: “I want to wear a sari to the grade graduation dance.”

I offered a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Saris are hard to move in. She didn’t own a sari. I wasn’t sure where to buy one. A salwar kameez (a long tunic with pants) or a lehanga choli (a skirt, blouse and scarf set) might be more practical. Most importantly, I couldn’t tie the sari for her, and I suspected I didn’t have the aptitude to learn. I can’t even tie a scarf more than one way.

“Get me a sari,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”

And so I bought my then 11-year-old her first sari, a dress traditionally reserved for adult women in her birthland. Didi chose electric blue with silver embroidery, plus matching bangles, a necklace, electric blue heels, and a package of stick-on bindhis. Finding somewhere to shop in Silicon Valley wasn’t hard at all – I’d fibbed about that. A quick trip down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale put dozens of saree palaces at our disposal. We picked one at random, where the shopkeeper kindly explained how to wrap and drape while I filmed the tutorial on my phone, hoping her advice would be enough.

Once home, we consulted YouTube videos, but of course there’s more than one way to wrap a sari, and we both ended up confused. I asked my cousin’s wife, Priya, if she could help tie Didi’s dress the night of the dance, but she confessed that she wasn’t adept at wrapping herself — my cousin Gabe or her mom usually tied her sari for her, and besides, both she and Gabe would get home from work too late to help.

“Why don’t we ask Reya’s mom?” Didi suggested.

Reya, the only other Indian girl in the fifth grade, was a friend, but the girls weren’t especially close, though when they’d played in the basketball league together, Reya’s grandmother had once brought Didi a bag of sweet ladoo. Remembering that thoughtful gesture gave me the courage to approach Purvee, Reya’s mom, for some assistance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Saris are really hard to wear. She may not be able to walk in it. I don’t even like wearing them.”

I agreed with her completely, and then I begged. Donning a sari meant something to Didi that she couldn’t fully articulate. Purvee relented, inviting us over to her house for a trial run, expecting that once she’d wrapped my daughter up, Didi would come to her senses. That didn’t happen, of course. Once draped in several feet of satiny blue material, Didi grinned and gleamed like a sapphire.

“This girl was born to wear a sari,” Purvee admitted. “Some people just have a knack for it.”

On the night of the dance, the girls got ready together at Reya’s house. Thanks to Purvee, Didi’s vision for the night came true.

A couple of years later, another occasion arose that Didi deemed sari worthy: my cousin Mike’s wedding. There would be plenty of Indians at this wedding, including Gabe and Priya, but they were in the wedding party and too busy to help Didi dress. My Aunt Allison volunteered her sister, who recruited her daughter, which is how Didi ended up getting wrapped by the cousin of my cousin, a confusing turn of events that felt culturally authentic. Cousin Robyn turned out to be the ideal teacher, patient and perfectionistic in terms of folding and refolding the pleats in the skirt. Once again, Didi looked beautiful and confident and the sari didn’t even unravel when she danced to Michael Jackson at the reception.

Last month, when an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah arrived, Didi again announced that she’d be wearing a sari, but not the blue. She wanted to go swathed in gold, wearing a dress she’d picked up on her first return visit to India, but getting her wrapped was more complicated now. We’d left California for Seattle, where we had no Indian contacts at all.

“I can do it myself,” Didi said.

This time, with more hands-on experience, the YouTube tutorials made sense, at least to her if not me. In the end, the golden fabric proved too slick to wrangle, but the old blue sari came through, and when Didi descended the stairs to depart for her friend’s celebration, she looked perfect – the beautiful and self-assured Indian American I’d hoped to raise. I’d been afraid that day we left India together that I would never be enough. Now I know. I’m not enough — what mother is? — but I’m also not alone.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said.

“The pleats aren’t quite right,” she replied, “but I’m okay with it.”

 

Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, and mother of three teenagers whose work has appeared in Redbook, McSweeney’s,  DailyWorth, Motherlode and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @sharonvanepps

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

61nvr3kwpnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_It has been said that the Bard’s words can be applied to any human situation. James Andrews, a British humorist, puts that to the test in Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting, just released in the United States. In a month full of planning and parties, this short book (155 pages) is a great way to wind down, reflect, and chuckle as you head into a new year.

William Shakespeare had three children—first a girl and then twins, a boy and a girl. While he must have been familiar with the demands of children (including but not limited to dirty diapers, sleepless nights, teenage insolence, etc.) none of his works are devoted to the topic. Enter Andrews who organizes quotations from Shakespeare’s oeuvre into timeless and timely comments on parenting.

The book is divided into five acts that are roughly chronological. Act I focuses on newborns, so the issues here are evergreen. There is crying, breastfeeding, and calming. Of the latter Andrews pulls out a quote from The Tempest to apply to a father who tosses his child, with these words in a thought bubble above the baby’s head: “Prithee, do not turn me about. My stomach is not constant.”

And then, of course, there is the biggie, loss of sleep:

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Notice that the drawings that accompany the quotes are very basic, which adds to the charm of Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting. The words are the stars, but the images do add to the sardonic tone that is pervasive throughout the volume.

That tone is evident as Act II begins, with a focus on the toddler years. Sleep remains an issue, as these two pages on “Up In the Night” illustrate with not one, not two, not three, but four lines from different Shakespearean works (both tragedies and comedies):

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Act II also begins to take on some of the more modern challenges of parenting, like tantrums in supermarkets. Andrews and Shakespeare advocate for a denial approach, captured in this line from Much Ado About Nothing: “No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins.”

Acts III and IV continue to wind through way through childhood, both perennial and contemporary (car trips, sweets, hobbies, siblings, school refusing, and the list goes on), while the penultimate act, Act V, culminates with teenagers, who present new challenges.

 

For parents of female teens, there is this about clothing:

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And for parents of male teens regarding food consumption:

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Modern audiences need to keep a sense of humor when reading about punishments, and remember that Andrews is not advocating physical abuse or food deprivation, but rather cleverly using Shakespeare’s words (and even when taken out of context of a play, remember that disciplinary standards were quite different in the 1500s and 1600s!). For instance, a quote from Titus Andronicus regarding “smacking:” “You shall know, my boys, your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong.” And another from Titus about children who act improperly at the dinner table declares, “There let him stand and rave and cry for food.”

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting draws exclusively from the plays, and does not include any lines from sonnets. You can imagine that the tone of the book would change quite substantially if it included lines like, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” as opposed to, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me.”

The purpose of James Andrews’ illustrations and commentary in the end is to make you smile, and perhaps provide some reassurance for those days when you say to yourself in your head the line from The Tempest: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She has two good sons borne from her good womb.

Buy Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

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“Why didn’t you tell me about the bomb threat at school?” eleven-year-old Brennan said when he burst through the door, before he’d even shaken off his backpack.

“Oh, honey, I didn’t know before you left,” I said. “I would never keep that a secret.”

With the violence in the headlines very much on people’s minds, our schools were suddenly the subject of an anonymous threat, sent late the night before to the local police department. While Brennan was upset that he’d had to learn about it from a friend, some parents were complaining that the district should have communicated more quickly and clearly with us, too. As it turned out, there would be plenty of opportunities to refine our information-sharing, because threats of bomb and gun violence against the schools continued for a week.

“It was so much better this time because they told us,” ten-year-old Liddy said, after the next threat. Her teacher had mentioned the situation and said police were in the building to help keep everyone safe. As distressing as it is that my kids can now compare the reactions of authority figures in such circumstances, their insights have something to tell us about how we can do better in the future.

Liddy wanted to talk about the threats, but not too much. She needed to be able to turn off the conversation. The person who handled this best, she said, was her afterschool program director. “Kaitlyn told us the truth,” Liddy said. “And she didn’t promise everything would be fine, but said it was her job to keep us safe. And then she said people could choose to stay and ask questions or go do an activity.”

Things that weighed on Brennan, along with hearing about the first threat from a rumor instead of a trusted adult, was seeing some of his classmates pulled from school by anxious parents, and worrying that the heightened security would mean missing recess. “We did get recess!” he said triumphantly, later that day. “There was a cop on the roof!”

The image pushed my heart into my throat. Liddy said the police presence was “like a wall of cops.” I had seen a few officers at drop-off, milling about and talking to the kids, and their presence felt less ominous than I’d feared. But in her sheltered experience, Liddy hadn’t experienced police in those numbers anywhere, much less at school. And they’re easily three times her size. Of course they felt, to her, exactly like a wall.

When the third threat came, my phone rang at six a.m., jolting me from sleep. I let Brennan hear the carefully formulated message after breakfast. He listened, and asked, “I’m still going to school, right?” I was glad we were passing on some kind of confidence. But just as he headed for the door to get his bike out from the garage, he turned back to call out a question: “Has there ever been a bomb threat when there was really a bomb?”

Dropping off Liddy, I saw a mom in a head scarf offer our weary-looking school counselor a hug. It reminded me that others’ experiences of all this ran much deeper than mine: parents who have to worry about their kids because of the all-too-real threat of bias and intolerance; families who have come here, to this very school, after leaving places where violence and trauma were a part of everyday life; and kids whose skin color alone means they might have a completely experience of law enforcement than my kids.

All week, I watched teachers and staff put their own safety concerns aside to manage kids’ distress and competing demands from parents and administrators. I was glad that the complaints I read on various parent listservs were balanced out by notes of gratitude, reminders that the person behind the threats could be one of our own troubled kids in need of support, and even a volunteer effort to deliver breakfast to staff at the affected schools. It was this sense of community that bolstered me the most.

My husband John and I shared the goal of keeping the days as normal as possible. But I still got a rush of adrenaline with each new update and phone call. I texted my sister about it one morning. In her line of work, this is familiar territory, and I wanted to get her take.

She wrote back that the kids would be likely safer that day than any other. With so much to worry about in the world, she said, we already have to decide whether we’ll ever let them leave the house at all. And then do it. She also said that parents should be grateful that they were told.

The kids want the very things we want. The right information. The confidence that people who care are doing all they can to keep us safe. And, ultimately, the knowledge that we’re not in this alone. Making sure that our kids get those things — that is something we can control.

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

Photo: gettymages.com

My Flight From The Empty Nest

My Flight From The Empty Nest

By Wendy Biller

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Nothing really prepared me for the day when my child would go off to college, and I would join the dreaded “empty nester” club.  

We do everything in our power to try to brush it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the term gets slapped on anyway. One day you are a parent. The next day, an empty nester. It takes you back to your most primal self. We birth our children, protect them in the nest, and then they are yanked away from us, leaving behind a path of blood and regrets. No matter how we prepare ourselves, there is nothing natural about their leave-taking.  

Friends and family try to be hardy and forthright and write you emails with the subject line HEY EMPTY NESTER! The exclamation point being the clincher. But I was determined not to fall into the “empty nester” stereotype. I would accomplish this by making sure I did not have a moment to breathe. I would drop my daughter off in Oklahoma City, where she was beginning college, and then immediately segue to New York City where I was fortunate to have my play in rehearsals. I had already experienced this with my other child, saying goodbye, four years earlier. Weeping unabashedly for weeks, venturing off to the supermarket for the first time. Joining the ranks that clutch that box of Honey Nut cereal, knowing that it might never get off that shelf. Discarded, because it was a kid’s favorite cereal but he is no longer around. And you don’t think the others can smell your despair? It’s like a scent that permeates through the supermarket. The scent of the lost tribe of motherhood.  

But when there is a remaining child, you do not join the empty nester club. You are spared from that title. In fact you parade the remaining child around, reminding everyone that your membership in the club is years away. You shower the remaining one with gratitude and chocolate and neediness until they want to kill you. In fact, they can’t wait to leave the nest, almost throwing it in your face. “Ha ha, you will soon be an empty nester. Get used to it sucker!”

I vowed not to let my sentimental side get the best of me when we arrived at the college. That would mean doing things I hated. I hated going to Bed Bath and Beyond where I’d have to feign enthusiasm over a garbage can. And let’s not forget Target, for the rest of the billions of necessities for dorm living like posters, and special tape to hang the posters that wouldn’t damage the walls, or make the paint peel. I feigned enthusiasm for meeting all the other dorm gals, from the sullen hipster from Westchester, NY to the perky church gal from Texas. Back again at Target, I faked excitement for picking out towels, and a mesh shower caddy holder. But then something strange happened. As I clutched my huge bag of popcorn that I secretly bought for comfort, I forgot I was in Oklahoma. The layout of the store was exactly the same layout that was back in Los Angeles, my hometown, with one minor difference. The people seemed kinder and gentler.   

And then I glanced up, and saw my daughter down the aisle. She waved to me. I waved back. The realization hit that she wouldn’t be coming back to Los Angeles with me but staying on that prairie where “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” For one fleeting moment, there was a pit in my stomach. But I brushed it off burying myself in the popcorn.

The day finally came to leave. We said our goodbyes, mine behind a humongous pair of black sunglasses. I headed straight to New York City, got on the sweaty trains, headed to Long Island City, to watch the actors rehearse my play. Not one actor knew where I had just been roaming. I even spent two nights in Brooklyn with the first born, who made the mistake of saying “How does it feel being an empty nester?” I wanted to smack him. I was fearful of sleeping with this thought in my head. Luckily my thoughts were diverted when a mouse darted out from the closet. I began screaming and tripped over a rug, pulling a leg muscle. The rest of the trip was spent in pain, which I strangely welcomed.

Two weeks passed quickly. I felt like a vagabond with a suitcase filled with filthy clothes. But I was determined not to get back to LA. Six hours later on a Peter Pan bus, one ferry ride, I arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to talk shop. “Hey Ray, maybe you would consider directing a play I wrote?” I exhausted everyone with my non-stop chatter.  Three days later it was time to leave. Bus and ferry back to New York. There were no more places to crash. No more rehearsals. People stopped answering their phones. There was no other choice. I willed myself to Kennedy Airport where I booked a flight using frequent flyer miles. Sadly the flight left on time.

That night I stumbled in around 1am. The house smelled dusty. Like it had been hibernating for weeks. I finally figured it out. The smell of childhood was gone.

I set my alarm clock. Morning came. I opened the door. Dirty underwear under the butterfly chair, papers and candy wrappers, and a stuffed teddy bear with one eye. But the bed was empty.

 

 
Wendy Biller is an award winning screenwriter and playwright. She has written and produced projects for Showtime, TBS, Fox and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best family film as well as the Andaluz jury prize for her play The Refrigerator that was produced as part of The Seven (Cell theatre, New Mexico).

Photo: gettyimages.com

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

Dear Diary, What Ever Happened To Having Crushes?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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You know you are old when you think all of the boys in your daughters’ 8th grade class look adorable.

“Are you crazy?” my girls say as I mention this to them as we wait in the drop off line which moves at a snail’s pace, leaving me plenty of time to study the student body.

“Don’t you think anyone is cute?” I ask. They roll their eyes and run out of the car. I don’t blame them, I remember having similar exchanges with my mother who was also obviously old because she, too, used to think all the boys in my grade were adorable. The difference between my kids and me was that I could laundry list a slew of guys that were in fact cute, while my daughters, now fourteen, cannot.

“You’ve got to have a crush on someone,” I said to my daughter last year. We’d just watched the movie The Duff and my big take away was that the boy next door was no ordinary boy next door. “I didn’t notice,” my daughter said.

“That’s impossible,” I argued back. “You are thirteen,” I told her. “That’s what girls do when they are thirteen, they have crushes.”

She shrugged. “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

“That’s no excuse,” I told her. “Even if you were a lesbian, you’d have crushes, they’d just be on girls.”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Before I wrote this essay, I researched—meaning I talked to friends with daughters around my kids’ age. Most said that their daughters had no interest in boys, either. They were too busy with school work and extracurricular activities. This is the same thing my girls tell me when I ask, and I do ask because I’ve got to be honest, I’m just not buying it. Liking boys is not a business decision. Liking boys (or girls) is hormonal. Crushes just happen. Like acne.

Who among us didn’t love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield or the entire cast of The Outsiders? We did, and we had Teen Beat posters to prove it. For the personal crushes we had diaries. Or at least, I did. My mother gave me a diary in 6th grade when I was being bullied, and a few months ago, I shared it with my daughters. I don’t know where I got the brilliant idea that by reading their mother’s first-hand account of her year dealing with mean girls that they would come away more enlightened than they already were from having heard my stories ad nauseam. I’ve shared the stories despite that my girls, to my knowledge, never have been bullied and never have been the bullying kind. Until of course, I shared my diary. Then they began to bully me.

“I wasn’t boy crazy,” I told them, grabbing the diary from their hands.

The truth is that I should have read the diary to myself before I read it to them because there was a remarkable dearth of material on girls. Maybe a line here and there about my daily existence, like “Lisa was mean again today.” But for the most part, the pages were littered with charts ranking my favorite boys on a scale of one to five and hearts with initials in it. You know, the kind that we all used to doodle.

“You were weird,” they told me. Not only do girls these days, at least the ones in my house, not have crushes but they don’t doodle, either. I’ve leafed through the pages of assignment notebooks looking for signs of crushes, only to come up empty handed. The diaries I’d bought them, in preparation to start journaling when the bullying and crushes began, are empty. Their walls hold no posters. Their bulletin boards are collaged in pictures, all of girls. Girls hugging. Girls piled in photo booths. Their worlds are raining girls. There are the school girls, the camp girls, the dance girls. Not that I wish it were different! I’m so grateful that my girls have girls. That they have spent years learning to be a good friend, understanding how to have female relationships. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some boys? If not in body than at least in initials penciled on the side of sneakers? Or maybe these days kids’ personal lives, their secrets and representations of their inner selves are buried down deep within their smartphones instead of their diaries, making it impossible for people who don’t Snapchat (otherwise known as parents) to get a picture of who they are. Or maybe, as hard as it is for me to believe, they really are just too busy.  

I don’t know where I got the notion that my daughters’ teenage experiences would mirror mine, and I’d be able to turn my childhood lemons into lemonade by dispensing relatable advice in a way that my own mother, who never proclaimed to relate, could not. But sure enough, time, as it tends to do, has created gaps between my middle school days and my daughters’, making not just my diary but my thoughts on how girls and boys should relate, outdated. According to my “research,” the trend among high schoolers these days is to have “hook up” parties, gatherings en masse in basements to fool around. Rumor is, these occur weekend to weekend, and kids switch partners as often as they switch houses. Like musical chairs with sexual favors, which I for one, find horrifying.

I suppose there might have been a time when I would have found it gratifying that young girls would prioritize goals and friends over going out with boys, and I would have believed that they could actually be okay with this free love business. I would have called it feminism and progress, and I would have been proud. But now that the girls are my own, I call it crazy. I can’t help but think that by-passing the harmless crush phase and heading straight for the physical will backfire. I can’t help but think that kids in middle school who don’t have the time to daydream and doodle are getting shortchanged. And, with the same benefit of time and distance that allows me to see all of the boys in the 8th grade class as adorable, I view my own middle school experience, no matter how brutal, as better than my kids’ today. Maybe my mindset makes me old. Or maybe it just makes me a mother.

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

When Parents Can Have Some Fun of Their Own

By Campbell C. Hoffman

Can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

 

If you want to see the face of fun, to know what it sounds like and looks like, just watch kids jumping on a trampoline. Santa Claus brought one for our family last year, and the kids still haven’t gotten bored with it. Their ragdoll bodies flop and fall, they squeal and scream. When I worry for just a second—is it a belly laugh or a broken bone—the laughter becomes contagious, smiles abound, and I know that my kids are having fun. Real, playful, uninhibited fun.   

As I wipe my hands with a dishtowel and throw it over my shoulder, I pause for a moment to watch them before I have to put an end to it, for now. I try to remember the last time I laughed like that, easy and carefree. I come up short. I begin to wonder if maybe my only way to know fun is to witness it in my kids. But does it even count, then, if it’s not actually mine? Maybe my days of fun were officially over, now that I’m a parent.   

“Ok, guys, time to come in to wash up for dinner,” I tell them, marching toward the trampoline.  

I help them with the zipper of the net, offer a stable hand as they climb out and march towards the house, grumbling about dinner, but still smiling with residual joy from their play.

I’m not even sure I know how to have fun anymore. At best, having fun seems outside of my grasp. At worst, it looks like more work. The circles of dishes, dinner, laundry, and lunch can be tedious and never ending. When it is punctuated it is either with the opposite of fun in worry and drama, or small meaningful moments that, though glorious, are not ripe with play and fun. It seems that the grown-up way of handling this lack of fun is to suppress the desire even to have any at all. If I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t want to have fun anyway, then I can’t be grumpy or resentful of all the things that displace fun in my life, can I?

There are countless things that hold me back from having fun, things like being too self-conscious, or the fear of being foolish or selfish, or worse, unproductive. Not to mention, so much of my job as a mother is risk assessment, which can be the nemesis to fun. So I wonder: can grown-ups have fun? Can we play? Can I experience something akin to what my kids feel when they are bouncing on the trampoline?

As parents, we are often on the sidelines of fun. We are the wallflowers at birthday parties, pausing in conversation to wave to a child who has reached the top of the slide. We are the ones that tuck sweaty hair behind ears and offer a drink of water. We are the ones who listen to the stories afterward, collecting these treasures and holding onto them for the kids, like souvenirs in a pocket for later, even noting their beauty and goodness. We stand in our places, safe and on guard, on this side of the line of fun. The un-fun side.

Last week, my son, Griffin, age 3 and the youngest at his cousin’s birthday party by a handful of years, was unsure about climbing the tall blow up slide at the bounce-house. He sought me out, wanting help, or company maybe. I looked at the other parents and felt sheepish about joining him—like I was breaking some unspoken rule: parents wave from the sidelines and leave the laughter and play to the kids. But my son wanted me (and truthfully, I was glad for the break of small talk with mothers I didn’t know). I smiled wanly, tucked my shoes into a cubby, and then, with his outstretched hand in mine, walked toward the bounce slide.

For the next 20 minutes I followed Griffin, climbing, scrambling, toppling, sliding, sometimes with him on my lap. It was real fun, physical fun, a deep tickle in my belly, a smile and even laughter that I couldn’t hold back. It was not just an intellectual understanding of blessings or goodness, not witnessing the fun of someone else, namely my children, but fun of my very own. By the time we were called in for pizza and cake, I was the one with the sweaty ponytail and a smile I couldn’t contain. I even compared brush burns with a few of the kids as we were ushered into the party room. I had crossed over, following the kids’ lead, from stoic parental responsibility into pure childlike fun.

My default posture of motherhood has been as the onlooker, arms crossed holding water bottles and jackets, at the ready to rescue and serve, but after the freedom of fun that I experienced at the birthday party, I realized that fun was within my grasp. I didn’t always know how to get there, but I was pretty certain my kids could show me the way. I started saying yes to that childlike sense of play. Yes, I’d love to jump on the trampoline. Yes, turn up the music and let’s have a pajama dance party. Yes, I’ll go down the water slide, too. Timidly at first, finding it work to choose yes, but the more yes I said, the louder and stronger I said it. I was saying yes to fun.   

This past spring I coached my oldest son’s soccer team. It was a slow yes, a reticent yes, to agree to this responsibility, and that’s exactly how I saw it: a task, a job. There is joy and beauty in watching our kids grow in strength and accomplishment; heart-swelling pride in seeing them try something new or work hard at something practiced. But as the weeks of the seasons ticked by, I began to feel myself having fun, playful fun, fun of my own, running alongside these first graders back and forth on the soccer field.

Our last practice of the season was a parents vs. team scrimmage. A handful of the parents showed up, and what happened was glorious: we had real playful fun together. Parents laughed as we tried to play this game, whiffing a ball, missing a goal, occasionally making a nice pass. The kids saw us, unpolished, unfettered, unproductive even, smiling joyously having fun of our very own.
Campbell C. Hoffman lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode. She can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.

Photo: gettyimages.com

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

When We See Our Kids For Who They Are

By Jennifer Berney

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

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Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

“You’ll miss these days when they are gone!”   

Parents hear these refrains from every corner these days, especially when their children are small.   

I know better than most how fast it can go, how quickly it can be gone. In 2010, my seventeen-month-old daughter Hudson died from a sudden, aggressive bacterial infection. If anyone were going to tell parents to cherish every moment with their children, you’d think it would be me.   

But what I really want to say is this: it’s okay if you don’t.   

In the early days of my grief, I felt a terrible resentment toward parents of young children, even close friends, as their children turned two, or potty trained, or graduated to toddler beds—I was so heartbroken that Hudson would never get the chance to reach any of those milestones. I didn’t want to resent my friends, but I did. I flinched at their Facebook photos, which showed an intact family enjoying a life I would never enjoy again. And now, five years on, I still flinch when I see a family with three living children like I should have, or my friends’ children all turning seven in the coming year like Hudson would be, all of them looking so grown, while Hudson will never be any bigger than the chubby-cheeked toddler I last saw lying on a bed in the pediatric ICU.

What I’ve never resented, though, are my friends’ frustrations about parenting young children. After my daughter died but before my younger children were born—during the long year when I was a childless mother—I often saw Facebook posts or listened to friends’ woeful stories about children who wouldn’t stop crying, or potty-training lessons gone wrong, or strong-willed toddlers refusing to do what they’d been asked. When I heard these stories, I’d first think that I’d give anything to be dealing with these problems myself. But the next second, I’d remember that if I were dealing with these problems myself, I’d have many difficult moments, too. I’d complain and express frustration. It was only when held up against the unimaginable crucible of the death of a child that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood might seem like they should not be so hard. The last thing I ever wanted was for any other parent to feel guilty for feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered with their children—solely because my child was not here for me to experience those same emotions.   

Now, seven years into the journey of mothering small children, one dead and two living—Hudson’s younger siblings Jackson and Ada—I can say that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood are unbelievably hard for me. Are they as hard as losing my daughter? Of course not, but just because they are not hard relative to the death of a child does not mean that they are not hard in absolute terms. There are many moments when my kids can drive me to the precipice of fury, when I have to clench my jaw and speak to them through gritted teeth in order to keep myself from flying over the edge directly at them. And during those moments, it’s rarely the memory of my daughter that pulls me back from the brink—instead, it’s the small, warm body right in front of me, my child who, in his or her own exasperating way, is asking for my attention or my love or my help.   

My daughter’s death changed me, irrevocably, but it did not make me superhuman. It did not magically endow me with equanimity in the face of poop smeared all over the crib after my two-year-old decides to remove her diaper during naptime, or in the face of my four-year-old’s nonchalant but persistent “No” when I ask him to take his plate to the sink, or in the face of the rapidly intensifying shrieks of “MINE!” from both of them as they struggle over some suddenly coveted item that neither cared about until the other picked it up.

I’ve been so grateful when others have shared that Hudson’s story has changed how they look at their lives, and their relationships with their children. I say often that the only consolation I have after Hudson’s death is knowing that her life can continue to have meaning in the world that she loved. Sharing her story with others is one of the only ways I can still mother her, so I take great comfort whenever another mother tells me that she thought of Hudson during a frustrating parenting moment and found a way to pull her own child closer. At those times, it feels like Hudson’s spirit is somehow still doing important work.     

And I, too, am grateful to Hudson, every day, for pushing me to be a better, kinder parent. Her absence does help me better appreciate even the most mundane moments with her siblings. And being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

But life is also life. A healthy dose of perspective is helpful, but it is relative. There is little value in downplaying our feelings because we think someone else has it rougher than we do. Someone else will always have it rougher than we do. I survived my daughter’s death, but having to clean up poop smeared all over the crib (not to mention all over the child who did the smearing) is still really hard, right now, today, in this moment.   

Living in the moment means actually living in the moment, not taking ourselves out of it or stopping ourselves from feeling our feelings. Among the many things I’ve learned on this long road after my daughter’s death is that it’s not only possible, but totally normal, to experience deeply conflicting emotions at the same time. Extreme grief and extreme joy. Deep anger and deep love. Incredible frustration and incredible gratitude. Parenting both living and dead children at the same time is a constant lesson in that kind of emotional duality.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Moms Night Out

Moms Night Out

By Susan Buttenwieser

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You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.

 

The Moms from Toddler Room A have the night off. They are letting loose at the back table in a T.G.I.F. knock-off.

“Get your husbands to baby sit,” the email from Cruise Director Mom instructed earlier. She’s the self-designated organizer of the monthly snack schedule, teacher thank-you gifts, and lice outbreak alerts. “Because tonight is MOM’S NIGHT OUT!!!!”

Immediately, the Reply Alls started rolling in.

Compara-Mom was the first to rsvp. “So TOTALLY psyched!! Can already taste the salt on my margarita! I am ready to PAR-TAY!” Her main reason for getting out of bed each morning is to display her vastly superior child-rearing skills.

Cheery-Bitter Mom chimed in. “Literally cannot wait! Stuck at home all week with two sick kids and they are driving me crazy! Let’s get this PAR-TAY started!” She makes baby food from scratch, sews all her children’s clothing, and loathes them.

“Just wish we could start the PAR-TAY right now!” Overly-Aerobicized Mom signed off with her signature yellow smiley-faced emoticon.

Now here you all are in this brightly lit restaurant with no discernable cuisine. It is mostly empty except for a few happy-hourers anchored to the bar. The Moms pound umbrella drinks and nibble at nachos smothered in cheese and hot chilies. Nearby speakers blare that one Edie Brickell hit that gets Cheery-Bitter bouncing in her chair.

At first everyone is giddy and the conversation is easy. It is seven p.m. and you are in a bar. Not home navigating baths or bedtime stories or scraping barely touched chicken nuggets into the trash. So giddy that everyone is able to overlook the fact that the Cruise Director chose a place that is subpar to an airport lounge.

You discuss the preschool teachers where you all know each other from. How hard it is to find something to wear that feels remotely flattering. How hard it is to find time to exercise. How hard it is to find time to do anything for yourselves. How lucky you all are that the Cruise Director organized this.

But then that first sheen of excitement wears off and an awkward lull washes over the table. You are missing the social crutch of attending to your children’s constant needs in the confines of the playground or the pre-school hallways. The Cruise Director tries to flag down the waitress for another round. Compara-Mom tells Cheery Bitter that she looks like she’s lost weight. Overly Aerobicized agrees. And then there is more awkwardness.

So the Moms turn to the one subject that comes so easily: husband hatred.

Compara Mom won’t let her husband buy groceries. The Cruise Director can’t trust her husband to take their kids to the playground because he doesn’t provide “appropriate supervision.” Cheery Bitter’s husband always fucks up the laundry and Overly-Aerobicized’s can’t cook.

“He still hasn’t figured out how to put a diaper on!”

“He won’t get up with the kids in the mornings. Not even on Mother’s Day!”

“He thinks cereal is a suitable option for dinner. Sugar cereal!”

“He has no idea what he’s doing!”

Another round of umbrella drinks arrive along with baskets of Buffalo wings and fried mozzarella sticks. One Eagles’ song after another plays, followed by a Randy Newman double shot. The fluorescent lights beat down on as the grievances fly around the table.

“He never even thinks about buying wipes.”

“Oh don’t get me started on wipes.”

“They think the wipes somehow appear mysteriously in the apartment by themselves.”

“He won’t do anything about a routine.”

“He’s let’s the kids watch TV whenever they feel like it.”

It is hard to get a word in edgewise as the outpouring of vitriol grows louder and more vicious. Then Overly-Aerobicized over-shares about sexual problems.

A long silence follows. Finally the Cruise Director comes up with a lighter topic.

“Do you remember right before you gave birth? Those last few days of freedom,” she slurs. “What is your favorite memory from The Before?”

The Moms clamor to share their memories: getting breakfast in bed, foot massages, candlelit dinners.  

You decide to keep yours quiet. The week before your daughter was born, you and some friends went to a strip club in your neighborhood, which has since been shut down and turned into a bagel cafe. It was a no frills dive, a rarity in the city now. A small stage lined the whole of one mirrored wall with the bar directly opposite it. At one point during the long evening, the dancers all gathered around you, placing their hands on your outstretched belly, squealing whenever they felt movement. “Bless this baby,” the women said a few times, in between quietly complaining about the lousy tips they were getting that night.

You don’t feel like these Moms would understand how at that particular moment, right on the edge of motherhood, it was just the boost you so desperately needed. The dancers’ collective excitement at your huge belly was like having your own personal alternative cheerleading squad.

Remembering this right now only widens the chasm you have been feeling all evening. You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.  

Instead, after making up an excuse about needing to get back home you leave some money on the table and start gathering your things. When you stand up to leave and push your chair in, the Moms seem to barely even notice your imminent departure. As if you hadn’t really been there in the first place. 

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in  Women’s Media Center Features and other publications. She teaches writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. This piece is part of a collection that is being developed with the artist/illustrator Sujean Rim.

Photo: Patrick Schöpflin

Sleeping Children of War

Sleeping Children of War

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

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We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.

 

On Friday night, my son is strewn sideways across my bed, one arm over his head, face buried in a pillow, his foot peeking out from the duvet. I should have put him back in his bed hours ago, but the sight of him sleeping is comforting. It is also resoundingly surreal as I listen to sirens raising welts on the smooth skin of night.

I reach over and run my fingers through his curls. In the places where we sip our coffee, poke our chopsticks into noodles, and listen to concerts, the warm bodies of young Parisians are plunging forward into pools of blood. Slightly buzzed people are dragging their dying friends across the vintage fifties tiling. People are holding their breath in kitchens and crouching behind shiny zinc bars while lipstick-painted glasses of wine shiver with each round of bullets. A concert venue is under siege. The dying children of rock n’ roll are scattered across the floor where we dance. My baby boy sleeps as if none of this were real. He is even dreaming.

My husband is managing an artist tonight, but not at the Bataclan. He calls to tell me that he is stuck. They are not letting anyone out. The show goes on. At the end, people leave in droves, texting frantically. He catches a ride with a colleague and they get back to the office and turn on the TV. At the Bataclan, hostages are being taken. The night stretches itself out into a long, thin, pointing finger of horror.

He takes his usual route when he walks home the next day, and passes over bloody sidewalks. Someone has thrown sand over the area. He arrives at the door with tears in his eyes. The children run and jump on him joyfully crying Papa! then squirm away as he clings to them.

On Saturday, we are restless and withdrawn. I am stuck to my phone, answering questions about our safety from friends and family back home in the US. I scroll mindlessly over my Facebook feed, over and over again, reading bits of articles. My husband cradles his iPad on the couch. We don’t say much to each other. We are like those old couples that speak by moving about the room.

In the evening, I invite some friends over and my husband traipses dejectedly toward the shower. Our friends’ children are all three years old like our oldest. They are gloriously happy to be together, jumping on the beds, screaming and running from room to room. The Big Bad Wolf is chasing them. My littlest patters after them, wherever they go. “The wolf!” she cries with raised eyebrows, giddy with fright.

On Sunday, we go out to buy bread. The temperature is warm for the autumn season. My daughter refuses to walk, then my son refuses too. We end up carrying them. We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.  

When we bump into friends, we ask them if they have lost someone. The answer is yes.

There is a thick, funereal atmosphere as we proceed. People are standing on corners, bread in hand, speaking in low voices. The terraces of the cafes are empty. It is much too warm for November.

What will change, I ask my husband as we walk back.

He shrugs. Then he answers: Maybe now when we go out, we will know that it is possible to not come back. Maybe when I go to concerts for work, you will have that thought in the back of your mind.

On Monday, there is an epidemic of children peeing their pants at school.

In the evening, my son goes to the window with his little sister and looks up at the building across the street. His little head peeks through the wrought iron. He waves, calling out a bright “Hello, soldier!” to an officer smoking a cigarette out of the window. The officer smiles and waves back at him. Since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, our street has been under continuous patrol. The troops protect the Jewish school and the synagogue on our block. They camp on the third floor of the school building, taping cardboard to the windows for privacy. Sometimes they come back with a pizza. I think they might be bored out of their minds.

Tuesday, I come across a Buzzfeed post with images of Syrian refugee children by Magnus Wennman. Like my baby boy, their sleeping bodies contort into the strangest forms, as if they have been dropped from the sky into the arms of Morpheus. But they are stretched onto dirty, abandoned mattresses, onto a cardboard box on a thin strip of sidewalk, and across patches of grass in the night.

 

Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

 

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

“Mommy, Will I Be OK?”

By Sharon Holbrook

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I’d look around at a room of smiling, playful children, and wonder why mine was the only one crying and clinging to a parent’s leg. I had known my child—a bright, fun, and friendly 3-year-old—would love preschool. But I was wrong. “I missed you, Mommy, and I wanted you to hug me,” he cried as he tumbled into my arms at pick-up that first day. Though he eventually adjusted and enjoyed preschool, the separation troubles ebbed and flowed for years, tearing at both our hearts. Even in early elementary school, goodbye kisses came with a daily send-off question: “Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’d been blindsided that my bubbly, happy child was so different at school. I was used to knowing my child better than he knew himself. I had seen his laughter and inquisitiveness, and his friendly nature with kids his age. The child I thought I knew was comfortable, confident, and smiling.

What I didn’t know was what he was like when I wasn’t there, and as a first-time parent I had mistakenly assumed what I saw was what the world would get. But, no, the preschool world got a child with struggles I didn’t recognize.  

I ultimately became the mother of not just one but three children with sensitive natures, and with experience I realized the clues had been there all along. During library storytime, I always had a plump diapered bottom in my lap, and a sturdy toddler back leaned firmly against my chest. While other children clapped, laughed, sang, and danced during library storytime, mine always watched quietly from the safety of Mommy, thumb in mouth.

Even earlier, there had been the baby picture debacles. At home, my babies were deliciously round and smiley, perfectly photogenic. In the photography studio, though, with a bright light shining and a strange person making faces, each of them in turn cried and cried. One studio offered a free sitting and a small package of free photos, assuming that parents would snap up an armful when they saw the endearing results. I left with a free set of photos of a somber 1-year-old with tears in her eyes.

What was “wrong” with my kids, that they seemed to have a hard time with things that seemed easy for most other children? Had I done something wrong to make them so delicate? Now that I was noticing, I saw even more of what I had missed. My children were different: Preschool, babysitters, loud noises, and the doctor’s office. Introductory sports or classes, distant relatives wanting hugs, and mildly “scary” kid’s movies. When other kids might take on these things with gusto, for mine each situation was a source of overstimulation and distress, of tears and wanting to opt out and curl up in Mommy or Daddy’s arms.

An astute friend recommended The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and the subtitle said it all: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. Highly sensitive people are not disordered, this 15-20% simply have a personality that comes with a highly attuned nervous system, one that notices everything. Sometimes noise and busyness and unfamiliarity can be too much for a sensitive kid, as if the volume of the world is cranked too high. But sensitivity often comes with gifts, too:  notable empathy, kindheartedness, intelligence, creativity, insight, wit, imagination, and curiosity.  

Aron’s book told me what my children needed: Understanding of their temperament. Routine. Quiet play. Calm. A sense of safety. Parental patience in new situations. Encouragement to take on new challenges, which can feel unsafe to sensitive kids. Acceptance of their feelings, both positive and negative.

This was good news. There was reassurance that my kids would be OK, and that they would indeed learn to cope. Yet—I was the one who had to get them there. Their father of course, too, yes, but in those early years, I was undoubtedly the lead parent. I was at home full-time. I was in tune with the rhythm of their days, and the witness of their moments both grand and small. So, too, I carried much of the weight of how to get them from a fragile, tentative participation in life to confidence and resilience.

I understood, rationally, what my kids needed, but that didn’t always mean it was easy. I tried to respect their temperaments by not pushing too hard. At the same time, I knew they didn’t need coddling, either, and I wanted to avoid treating them as delicate, breakable souls. Figuring out how to translate this into practical, everyday decisions was an ongoing challenge.  

Should they learn to swim, for example? I decided that they must, that it was a safety issue and a nonnegotiable life skill. After much trial and error, and tearful children who one after another would not put their faces in the water, their (third) teacher and I found the middle line between pushing and coddling, and that line was years of consistency, patience, and encouragement. The last child, now 5 years old and in the water since age 2, is at last finding her way in the water after what feels like the slowest, longest swim lessons in history. (Actually, it’s been eight years of on and off lessons, starting with my firstborn.)

Some blooms cannot be forced like an amaryllis bulb on a winter windowsill. Some must instead plod in their own good time towards their natural season, though the winter may feel long. I knew this rationally, but I admit to impatience and worry and frustration along the way.

I’ve had to project a calm I did not always feel, since my sensitive, intuitive children would be sure to sense my own unease and pile it on to their own. More than once, I fought tears on my way down the preschool stairs after leaving a bereft child during a particularly bad period of separation anxiety. Once or twice, my voice shook during preschool parent-teacher conferences while discussing one or another of the children’s social-emotional development and resilience, and whether they needed an extra year of preschool. Though I am usually placid, at these times I felt their struggles physically, with tightness in my throat and a sweat breaking out.

My children are all in elementary school now, and, to my great delight, they are all thriving academically and socially. I still walk a line between respecting their sensitivity and resistance to certain things (none is a big fan of sports or risk-taking, for example) and pushing them out of their comfort zone so they can live in the real world without fear and fragility. I confess that even now I still sometimes feel a pang as I watch my kids’ occasional struggles with things that seem to come easily for so many other children.  

But I’m seeing those beautiful positive qualities of a sensitive temperament, like a daughter’s poetic description of a tree or a son’s tenderheartedness towards the weak and small. I’m also seeing an admirable toughness and independence in all of them, qualities that they’ve more than earned through years of struggle.

I’ve had to change along the way too, and that is perhaps the hardest part. I’ve had to understand, and accept, and resist comparison. Mostly, I have had to believe that along with patience and encouragement, time and natural development would give them the coping skills they needed to make their sensitivity an asset rather than a liability.

“Mommy, will I be OK?”

I’ll say again what I said back then: an emphatic yes. They were always going to be OK. We just had to believe it, to take our time, to walk the scenic route together. And we’re getting there.

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

Photo: gettyimages.com

My Kids Does That, Too

My Kids Does That, Too

 By Laurie Foos

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My son was standing at the window looking out at the cars when I knew. He was four years old and talking to himself, repeating bits of dialogue from television and things he’d heard during the day, a practice I’d learned much later is called “scripting.” I sat next to him by the window as he leaned against the glass. Together we watched the cars whizzing by on the busy road in front of our house.

“See that blue one? Look at the red one,” I said, and he kept looking out at the cars, not at me, and said, “See that blue one? Look at the red one.”

I tried to get him to look at me, but he wouldn’t, even when I said his name. Zachariah.

“The world is a confusing place for you, buddy, isn’t it?” I said, and for a moment it was just the two of us looking out at the cars and saying nothing.

That morning the speech teacher at his developmental preschool had called, a call I realized much later she must have rehearsed many times before picking up the phone. I no longer remember her name, but I know she was young and pretty, as most of my son’s favorite therapists were, and as soon as I heard her voice on the other end, I knew why she was calling.

“I wanted to touch base with you about Zachariah,” she said. She paused, as if waiting for me to cut in, and when I didn’t, she said, “I’m seeing some of the things we talked about, some of those things I mentioned back in January.”

I won’t make you say it, I thought, even though, since everything had begun, the Early Intervention, the hours each week with my son strapped in a booster seat while therapists tried to coax him to say new words, to make eye contact, to feed bottles to baby dolls and send Diego riding an elephant, that all along, I’d been trying to make someone say it. Your son is on the Autism spectrum. I’d spent so many late nights doing Google searches, trying to figure out why all the therapists who traipsed into my home four times a week kept stressing his inability to point at objects in books or call me by name. What were they getting at? I’d wanted to know. What were they all looking for? Why did they keep saying I shouldn’t worry, that it was just a speech delay?

By then, though, I’d done enough Internet searches for “Signs of Autism” to know that my son had nearly all of them.

“I understand,” I said to the speech teacher that day on the phone, “because I’m seeing them, too.”

The actual diagnosis happened rather uneventfully in the basement of the office of a developmental pediatrician. The nurse practitioner tried to get him to do the things all the other therapists had been trying to do: to build a tower of blocks; to comb the dolly’s hair; to point at the duck and the sheep in the book; to answer the questions, “Can you show me the cat?” and “Zachariah, what’s this?”

My son spent much of the time at the window looking at the lawn mower outside. Periodically the nurse practitioner directed him back to the blocks and the doll, but inevitably he’d get up to check on the mower blaring outside.

“He’s worried,” I said. “He’s worried about the lawn mower. It’s very loud.”

I sat on an orange chair in the corner of the office and counted the minutes until the test was over. I wanted the noise outside to stop, for my son to do just one of the things he’d been asked to do, to get us out of that office where I could sit somewhere by myself for a very long time.

Finally the nurse practitioner wrote the letters, “PDD-NOS” — Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, a disorder on the Autism spectrum — in block letters, touched my arm and said, “But mild, though. Mild.”

When I got home that day, I sat in the bathroom on the edge of the tub. My father had died a year and a half earlier after a seven-year battle with colon cancer, and I realized sitting on the edge of that tub how many times I’d sat there worrying about someone I loved: my father, my bereaved mother, my son. I remember I thought that day of writing e-mails to friends about that day at the office, about the testing, about what had been confirmed about my son — this was before the wildfire of texting — but I didn’t know what I’d say, or what they would say in return. What was there, after all, to say?

Eventually I told people that my son had been diagnosed, many of whom told me stories about other children who had needed extra help in school at one time or another or who had recovered from some type of developmental delay.

“Look at Einstein,” one friend said. “He didn’t talk at all until he was four or five.”

“Maybe he’s just tuning you out,” another friend said. “My kid does that all the time.”

Every mother I knew had a story of a child who had triumphed. Did I watch the kid on 48 Hours who had been on that special diet and who no longer had Autism, or had I seen the kid on Youtube who suddenly spoke full sentences at six-and-a-half after being utterly mute? And what about those non-verbal kids who couldn’t speak at all but could type those lines filled with  striking images and turns of phrase?

“He’s only four,” they’d say, and I’d agree and try to feel reassured, as I knew they wanted me to, but what I really wanted to say, even to my own mother still in grief and feeling protective of her only grandson was, “I know you mean well, but you just don’t understand.”

Not long after the diagnosis, my husband and I attended a fundraiser at the developmental preschool where our son now received ABA therapy in addition to the speech and occupational therapy, and other therapies that are offered to children like my son. During the break from bidding on baskets of gift certificates to benefit the school, we drifted into the cafeteria where they were serving coffee and donuts and taking membership for the Special Ed PTA. At my typical daughter’s preschool — my kids are sixteen months apart — the moms often walked by each other in the hallways and gave each other those half-smiles at drop off but said little else, and to be fair, I hadn’t made much of an effort with those moms, either.

“Hi,” I said to the woman behind the table who stood over the paperwork. “I’m Laurie, and my son is four, and I just found out that he is on the spectrum…”

Before I could even finish the sentence, this woman I’d seen many mornings at drop off with two boys, one on each arm, a haphazard ponytail and bags under her eyes, reached across the table and took my hand.

“Don’t feel alone,” she said. “Listen to me. You don’t have to feel alone.”

I almost stopped her and said, “Oh, it’s okay. Really, I’m okay,” mentally going through the list of women I had in my life who had listened to me talk about my son. But instead I let her hold my hand. All this time of feeling so self-aware, I had never realized how deeply alone I had felt.

I don’t know what happened to that woman, as our sons ended up in different districts after aging out of the developmental preschool. I never did have the chance to thank her for her kindness that day. Now my son is nine years old and in a self-contained class, a small class made up of children like my son, children with cognitive and social delays that set them distinctly below grade level and unable to be fully integrated into typical classroom settings. He speaks constantly and has made great strides, reads and writes and is distinctly more interested in other children and in the world around him, though he struggles with change and with the kinds of social and cognitive issues that my friend with “typical” children don’t experience. With the advent of Facebook and other social media outlets, support groups, and the like, I have found a way to remind myself when I need to that there are other moms out there like me, other moms with nine-year-old boys who eat the sleeves of their sweatshirts, who can’t understand why babies don’t speak, who scream and cry when the bus has a substitute driver, or when it rains, or when something is moved in their bedrooms.

Sometimes at night when I lay my head  on my pillow, there are worries that course through my head, worries about what life will be like for my son when he’s no longer nine, when it’s time for girlfriends and college and jobs. When those moments happen, I think about that woman at the preschool and wonder what her worries are, and I think about all the other mothers like me with children who struggle. I’ve had many other moments since then, with mothers on park benches, in dressing rooms, and in line for the ladies room. We recognize each other; it’s as if we know our own kind. My son may hold his hand over his ears at the sharp sound of the hand dryer, and another boy may flap his hands or walk on tiptoe. We may talk about a fear of haircuts or an endless need to open and close doors. On the days when there are meltdowns or when my son eats the wash cloth or lies down on the floor during homework time, I’ll go into the bathroom before I get into bed, sit on the tub, and think of these other women and the things we say to each other, those snippets of conversation, a phrase here or there, and know that somewhere, one of these women is saying, “My kid does that, too.”

 
Laurie Foos is the author of Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus By a Young Artist, Twinship, Bingo Under the Crucifix, Before Elvis There Was Nothing, The Giant Baby, and a new novel, The Blue Girl, published this July.

Photo: Getty Images

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

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

By Jennifer Berney

HarClimb-2

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

 

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

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

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

“Oh,” she said, unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a suh-pwise,” he told me.

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

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

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

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

By Rachel Pieh Jones

boys1

Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.

My son is fifteen years old. He is still shorter than me but for the first time since birth he has passed his twin sister and I suspect I will be next. He has always been thin and wiry and a scrapper and now he is stretching out long and lean.

I spent the first roughly thirteen years of my son’s life being bigger, faster, and stronger than him. And then one day, I wasn’t. Well, still bigger, but barely. I remember the moment it struck me clearly. We were swimming at my parent’s lake and he wanted to dunk me. I had a meeting soon and didn’t want to get my hair wet but I could do nothing to stop the onslaught of octopus-like arms and legs and teenage laughter. Before I knew it, I was under the water and he was victorious.

The other day I told him I have a goal of being able to complete three full pull-ups. He laughed at me. Laughed at me! And then went and did fifteen without even breathing hard.

Now I stare at him in awe. I made that, I think. Obviously not all by myself but I played a major role in bringing this human into the world and now I can no longer physically control him or even catch him.

Now he is the one who carries my heavy suitcase in airports, he is the one who hauls 20-litre water jugs, he is the one who unscrews glass jam jars for me. It is totally awesome.

He is also teaching me new things, like how to throw a rugby ball, and he offers me tips on improving my soccer game. I need a lot of tips.

When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.

A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.

An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?

A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.

When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?

I suppose the past fifteen years is when this happened. I didn’t miss it, I marked every inch on the wall. But somehow I never comprehended what it would feel like to become physically smaller than my son.

It makes me feel dizzy, old, and powerful. It makes me hopeful and humble and inspired about his generation. It helps me appreciate roots and history and it feels like a weighty responsibility – to give a young man this strong to the world in a few short years.

It also makes me wonder, how does he see this development? Will he lose respect for me? I know he wants to be taller than my husband and me, he is aiming at several inches taller, as though by sheer force of will he will pass us.

My husband and I are the same height, 5’6″. We don’t have high height expectations for our children, though I suppose subconsciously we expect at least our son to pass us by. And we would both be happy for him to do just that. Height, especially for men, is fraught with social baggage.

According to this article in the National Geographic, physical height is associated with power, a sense of vulnerability or paranoia (if lacking in height), leadership ability, even financial situations:

“Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males,” Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: “What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development).”

While it is true that height has been proven in exactly zero studies to actually correlate with these positive characteristics, the fact remains that this is the culture we live in. A culture that values height, that associates height with strength and positive leadership qualities and physical prowess.

While my son continues to hope that one day he will look down on his parents, we are more focused on preparing him for the cultural context into which we will launch him one day. That means developing leadership skills, building confidence, encouraging his academic pursuits. Oh, and we tie buckets of cement to his ankles and drape them over the end of his mattress at night to encourage the bones to stretch. Okay, maybe not. But I do feed him well, if that counts for anything.

And for me, for this mom who is watching my son pass me by? I’m not worried. I’m not worried about him losing respect for me or his dad as he grows. I’m not worried about the physical strength he could exert over me. I’m not worried about him never growing taller than 5’6″.

He is strong and gentle, intelligent and creative and no matter what height he reaches, when he offers to carry my suitcase, I’ll admit: It feels pretty awesome.

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

Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

Dear Fellow Soccer Mom: I’d Be So Grateful If You’d Talk to Me

By Kristen De Deyn Kirk

Soccer Ball on Blackboard

 

We’re both watching our teens play soccer, and we’re likely to see each other three times a week for a few months, so please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Kristen, middle-aged mom of two teens. I’m an introvert who knows for sure that “introvert” does not mean “anti-social.”

Let me explain. Most days, I talk to no one outside of my family. It’s my fault; I choose to be a freelance writer, comfy in my yoga pants and day-old hairdo, at home, with my laptop. Yep, me and my laptop.

Sounded ideal at first. Then the loneliness kicked in.

My next-door neighbor, a fellow work-at-home mom, used to be reliable for a couple of chats a week near the mailbox. But she moved.

My other friends are weighed down with homeschooling, from-home businesses or traditional jobs. We catch up once a month in person, a true treat.

If only those 29 days between get-togethers flew by instead of dragging….

So, fellow soccer mom, when I see you standing near the field, I smile. Forgive me, my smile might be too wide, and as I approach you, I might talk too loudly.

I’m not completely crazy, I promise. I’m grateful to see someone who is around my age, who gets the agony and amazement of raising teens and who is bravely stepping outside the safety of her minivan.

You can talk about whatever you want. Tell me your son is not much of a talker, and you wonder if that’s true in school, too. I’ll understand when your face lights up when you then see him chatting with a teammate. (My face did the same at our last game, when my son saw an old friend and actually walked over to him to talk.) If you’d rather talk about the long drive you have to the practice field, and how your husband can’t get out of work in time, that’s fine too. I will commiserate and share that mine is hoping to drive to the next practice. We like the dads involved, don’t we? You can also mention that you’re starting a full-time job soon and you’re thinking of a million contingency plans. What happens if the school bus doesn’t come in the morning — and you’ve already left for work? What if one of your children has an afterschool club and no school-provided transportation back home? How will you manage dinner and then practice if you’re late driving home because of traffic? My heart will ache for you, and I’ll tell you I get it: The trade-off for a full-time job is a gut-wrenching juggle of responsibilities. As we continue to talk, you can even go political and tell me you love the candidate I hate. I’ll appear diplomatic. I’ll ask questions, and you’ll think I’m in the undecided camp. Or if you’d rather keep the conversation light and mention your addiction to The Real Housewives of New York City, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the team and The Property Brothers, I’ll do my best to play it cool, nod in agreement and save my happy dance for the privacy of my kitchen.

If you want to talk as long as that last paragraph, I’ll listen.

If you want to talk as short as this sentence, I’ll talk instead. Either way, I’d be happy.

Kristen De Deyn Kirk is a freelance writer from Virginia. She writes about parenting, education, politics and wine — and dreams of regular assignments that combine the four. She tweets at @KristenKirk.

Photo: Getty Images

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

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

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

 

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

By Debi Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*This name has been changed.

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

 

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

By Lisa Sadikman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

I Know You Had Surgery, But How is the Dog?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Pickles5One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. 

 

This was going to be like any other road trip home from Wisconsin to pick up stuffed animals that had been accidentally left on the camp bus, except that on this one, I needed to tell my kids I had cancer. I’d been stewing on what I’d say for sometime, and being a writer, a fan if there ever was one of controlling the narrative, I had my presentation scripted. I’d kick off with, “This is going to sound worse than it is.” I’d wrap up with something like, “It’s no big deal.” In the middle, I’d drop the phrases, “a little bit of breast cancer” and “a little bit of surgery.” I’d be breezy. I’d be calm. And I’d be acting. Isn’t that so much of what mothers do? Spin-doctoring is not in the basic job description. But it should be. All mothers, at some point or another, will pretend the new hair-do isn’t hideous. Or the bloody gash is just a little scrape. Or the bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstruction will, for her kids, be just another day, only without their mother. I suppose these maternal charades fall into the category of the little, white lie. We mean well. We’re out to either make our kids feel better or ourselves look better so that in some therapist’s office somewhere down the line we’re not catching the blame for something.

My own mother, for example, in effort to introduce healthy foods, once tried to pass off fish as veal. She disguised the fish in breading so that it resembled her familiar veal cutlets. “Tonight’s veal is going to be delicious,” she told us gesturing, without pause, to the baking sheet on the counter. But then she put the “veal” in the oven, and the house began to stink. Like fish. Her cover was blown. We ended up at McDonald’s.

But where would we end up aside from a therapist’s office if my own cover was blown, if my daughters had to digest the full story of my bout with breast cancer, including the risks of surgery and my own fear? And so, I went to great lengths to ensure that during the weeks of my surgery and subsequent recovery, our house would run so smoothly that my girls, both 14, would barely know I was gone. There wouldn’t be a wrinkle in their routines, let alone their psyches. I arranged for dinners. I typed out schedules. I even sent the dog away to a sitter. As anyone who’s ever had a dog knows, if you are attempting to control a narrative, a dog in the picture is the last thing you need.

I went into the hospital. I came out. All with little issue, fanfare or expression from my daughters, which at the time—right up until the dog was in a fire at the dog sitter’s—I took as a sign of their strength, that they’d bought into my campaign of “It’s no big deal.” It didn’t cross my mind until, as I mentioned, the dog got stuck in a fire, that the absence of their questions and their stoic sweeping of floors while their mother sat motionless on the couch was, in fact, a charade, as well. They didn’t know how to handle the situation, I’m sure they’ll be telling their therapists, because their mother, who was plugged into Netflix, binging on Friday Night Lights and Norco, wasn’t giving them the words or the tools or the permission. In fact, they’ll tell their therapists, their mother was beginning to enjoy herself.

This was true. While a six-hour operation does seem like a ways to go for a little time off, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part of me wasn’t enjoying the role-reversal. “There are many positives that come from cancer,” people all along my journey had told me. All along, I’d added the words, “assuming you survive,” in my head. But now, with the surgery behind me and drugs in my system, I was beginning to buy into this narrative, too. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” I told my husband. I was getting rest and our kids, who lacked in household skills, were gaining experience. “It’s a win-win,” I said from the couch as my children took in the mail and boiled the noodles.

Soon after I convinced myself of this, the house began to smell. Not like fish but like smoke. The dog hadn’t been burned, but he’d inhaled smoke for hours on end. My husband had collected him from the sitter’s while my kids and I, exhausted from pretending that everything was no big deal, were still asleep. When we awoke, there it was—a furry hole in my narrative—another patient on the couch. This one couldn’t open his eyes. Or wag his tail. Not only couldn’t he move, but he couldn’t breathe either. My first reaction was, of course, to curse the situation. One look at the dog and I knew that my surgery had been upstaged. Next to him, the beloved dog, I became as I’d been wanting to be seen: no big deal. Forget the research I’d done on how to talk to your kids about cancer, I was now scrambling to explain the term hyperbaric chamber, which is where the dog spent the next four days at a hospital in the hinterlands with my children and my husband at his side. So long to the mother being mothered. So long to the round-the-clock care. So long to the drugs, even, as I now needed to be lucid to care for myself. So long, too, to my charade. Our house turned to chaos. My own mother, who I’d forgiven for the “veal” incident, came over. She did the laundry and brought me food, while I murmured, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Only after the fact, after the vigils were held for the dog, the tears over the dog dried, the worry about the dog’s prognosis died down, could I see that the dog did us a favor. The dog himself had wagged the dog. He’d made me seem in relatively good shape, but more than that he was, as he always is, a diversion. He vomits on the car keys as we’re rushing to leave. He pulls the last piece of steak off the dinner table. He lightens the mood, relieves tension and makes us forget our concern of the moment, which on that day at that time, I know, was me. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself now.

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

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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

My Son Lived

My Son Lived

By Nicole Scobie

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We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop.

 

Most mom friendships are formed because of a shared mutual experience, like two kids in the same daycare, the same class, or team. The moms get to know each other, first exchanging a few words at drop-off or pick-up, then warming up over a cup of coffee. Over time, they become friends. The shared experience of their children’s similar activity creates a bond that can last for years, as the moms watch their kids grow up together.

Natalie and I met that way, when my son Elliot was 5 and her daughter Zoé was 4 years old.

Our kids had shared the experience of cancer.

Elliot was diagnosed two weeks after starting school. A 6-inch tumor in his abdomen, multiple smaller tumors all over his lungs, making it stage 4. Zoé’s was in her bone marrow, requiring high intensity treatments.

Almost a full year of some of the hardest days (and nights). I held my son’s hand as he asked why this was happening. I talked to him about life and death, telling him how brave he was, while I was shaking with fear inside.

Friendships between two moms born this way are like no other — there are so many things that fall away when you’ve seen each other at your worst, at your angriest, at your most anxious and at your most relieved.

Bizarrely, despite the horrific situation we found ourselves in, the thing that drew us closest was laughing together. Nothing beats watching your child squirt a syringe of liquid at the doctor with another cancer mom there to witness it and laugh hysterically with you later. Laughing is great — I actually think laughter might just be the antonym of fear.

The downside of these friendships is that you now worry for another child. The burden is huge — knowing just how serious the situation is, feeling the fear because it is so bitterly familiar.

And then, the magic word: remission. No cancer left. Clear scans.

Both our kids entered the world of “normal,” where they could play outside with other kids again, where their hair started to grow back, where they, and we, were free of the hospital except for the regular three month checkups.

Natalie and I founded a non-profit organization together, to raise funds for research and help other families. One out of four children with cancer will die — we wanted to change that. We worked endless hours at it but still laughed at some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Speaking in front of large groups, for example, something we both hated, became a regular thing. What a strange path our lives had taken.

And meanwhile, there were always those three month checkups, to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back. The stress of watching Elliot lying on that table, me standing nearby with a heavy lead vest on. The technician telling him over the intercom, “Ok now lie very still.” The table sliding through the scanner. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.” The table sliding back through the scanner. “Ok now breathe.” I’d exhale. “Now we’ll do it again, lie very still…”

And the wait until days later, when my husband and I would be escorted into the oncologist’s office to get the results. Scanning the face of the doctor and nurse for some sign. Relief streaming out of me like hot air from a kettle after finding out all is clear. No relapse. We were free to go, back in three months.

First thing out of the meeting with the oncologist, as we walked down the hallway and before we got to the hospital elevator, I texted Natalie. We were both thrilled, relieved.

And then, a few months later, I got Natalie’s message, when she was in the hallway of the hospital.

But it was not good news this time.

Zoé had relapsed.

The cancer was back.

You are expecting me to write that we cried together and supported each other, like close friends do in the movies. But we didn’t. We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop. And won’t help anyone get through what happens next.

We didn’t cry. We fought back. We rallied. We researched and learned about this cancer, about the treatments. When one treatment failed we were ready for the next. Up until that last day when Zoé had bravely endured a brand new promising treatment and her parents went in for the results to see if this time, it had finally worked.

And I got the message from Natalie. I can’t say what I felt. Empty, I think.

The cancer was still there. The scan showed a little 4-year-old body, full, from head to toe, with cancer cells.

We knew even before the oncologist officially said it that there would be no more treatments.

Zoé died in her mother’s arms two weeks after that text message. I spoke at her ceremony. I couldn’t face the audience so instead I turned and spoke to the big, poster size photo of Zoé on the altar next to the flowers and toys placed there. I thanked her for what she had given me, the chance to have known her, the friendship with her mom, and I thanked her for her laughter. Zoé laughed a lot too.

My son lived. Her daughter died. There was no logical reason for it to turn out that way. It just did. We got lucky with one and unlucky with the other. Despite it all, we are still close friends.   

Almost two years have passed. Elliot has checkups every six months now. I text Natalie right away, and she’s relieved.   

Our non-profit has grown and now funds critical research, and supports families while their child is in treatment. It’s what we always wanted. Even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

Author’s Note: Nicole and Natalie now run zoe4life.org, the non-profit organization that supports kids with cancer and their families.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

I Just Needed A Hand

I Just Needed A Hand

By Amy Challenger

overwhelmed-mom“Get that kid OUT OF HERE!” yelled Cindy the music teacher, swatting at the air with one hand while holding up a basket of CDs with the other. She elevated the gifts she had promised to the toddlers, high above their chubby grabbing hands. Her torso twisted, pulling at the seams of a tight, bright-colored jacket. One fuzzy-haired 3-year-old grabbed at her polyester pants. Determined to get to the CDs first, he had already leapt across the room to get to her, like a mini ninja warrior, ignoring her request to stay seated. The other toddlers had followed—a drooling sea of arms and “gimmees.” Now Cindy toppled onto herself, tripping on her awkward feet, before regaining her balance. Her round nose wrinkled beneath her eyes bulging downward, glaring at the lead ninja.

My boy.

Did she really just yell that in front of all of these moms and kids? I thought, glancing at the horrified faces of the women standing along the rim of the scene.

My face flushed. I felt like I might pee my pants. I was helplessly on the far side of the mass of little bodies, and now my arms reached out, paddling through the toddler current to get to my boy. Must. Get. There. Before he tantrums! I thought, panting, trying not to fall on top of my seven-week-old baby girl, who was sucking from my breast, beneath a white cotton sling attached to me.

As music class had ended, Cindy announced that she’d give gifts to all children who remained seated, waiting for their names to be called. The gifts were CDs packaged in colorful cases. I had calculated that these “flingable” objects handed around could trigger my boy’s impulse to chase and grab. And surely the word “gift” would zap his impulse control. The excitement could inhibit his ability to consider other bodies, recognize sounds, or follow commands. As I had considered the impending doom, my infant started to cry. Surely this additional shrill sound would only make my boy’s sensitivity worse. I quickly looked down to quiet the baby, latching her on to my nipple beneath the white cotton fabric of my sling. And then my boy disappeared.

Now Cindy’s perfectly manicured fingers were attempting to detach him from her thigh. “Let go!”

While still clinging to the polyester, he screeched back, “Gimee. Gimee da CD!”

He had been diagnosed with ADHD and symptoms of sensory processing disorder. He had anxiety, maybe PTSD, possibly from his open-heart surgery during infancy and the hospitalization and medications he had received for a life-threatening arrhythmia.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” I said nervously, knowing loud noises, chaotic motion, and prizes yanked AWAY would ensure a complete meltdown.

Weeks before that morning, I had explained to Cindy that my boy had special needs. He’d been kicked out of preschool on the first day for no specific reason while I was in the hospital having my third C-section. “He just doesn’t fit here. Can’t return tomorrow,” his preschool teacher had said through the phone by my hospital bed. Since that morning, I had called all sorts of classes, therapy groups, and preschools, searching for help while caring for my two toddlers and infant, all born in less than three years. When I found Cindy, the music teacher, I had explained that my boy sometimes became “over-stimulated,” particularly during transitions; but a calm music class could provide therapeutic benefits if lead by a patient instructor. She had assured me that, with her numerous years of experience teaching in Tiburon, California, she was fully capable of teaching every kind of child—even a boy like mine.

But there we were. Commanded to GET OUT.

“We have to go, honey! Come on!” I tried, when I finally reached my boy. He kept jumping and pulling on Cindy, so I lifted him with my free arm and pulled him away hollering, kicking, and hitting me. Once close to the doorway where our shoes waited, I lowered myself to the floor, with him on the opposite side of the baby still nursing in the sling. I groped for his shoes with my free, shaky hand. “We have to go,” I said, using my feet to slide our bottoms toward the door while my clumsy swinging arm attempted to land a blue crock onto his wild foot. It was hopeless. My boy hated shoes—they itched his skin—they confined him.

Meanwhile, Cindy handed out the CDs, smiling to the other moms and children, compensating for her earlier outburst. She dropped a plastic case next to me with a grimace, reminding me that I needed to leave.

“I’m trying!” I yelped in disbelief as my boy grabbed for his prize.

“Lemme go!” he screamed kicking at the air, scratching my arm. My infant girl finally became irritated, belting out a cry from below. It was all so ridiculous—opposite of how I had imagined motherhood to be. I sucked cracker-smelling air inward, as I tried to imagine a way out of my humiliation. The tears forced their way out with the exhale, exploding down my red cheeks. My sobs jerked uncontrollably, revealing the truth. I was so tired. So lost. So lonely.

I’m a terrible mom, I thought. Pathetic. I couldn’t even get out of the damned classroom. Worse, I was partially blocking the door, like a wet, ugly mat. The other moms’ white sneakers stepped across our sobbing heap on their way out of the classroom, yanking children behind them, tripping and bumping our legs. They did not speak to me. They did not look down at me. They just left. The children stared a little, peering back, as they were pulled out the door.

After most mothers had disappeared, I finally dragged my shrieking boy outside by the legs, into the dry fall breeze. As soon as we reached the pavement, he jumped up and ran barefoot through the busy parking lot. I chased him, seeing Cindy through my tears. She watched through an open window. “I told you about him… I told you,” I cried.

“This was your fault. Not his. Your infant, your breastfeeding was disruptive,” she called like an angry crow. (I had seen many other moms come with infants, so her comment made little sense to me. But nothing did that day.)

Six years later, after thousands more difficult days of parenting, I reflect back on that episode, and I feel sad. I needed kindness. I needed help. But believe it or not, I think that flailing on the floor of a classroom was one of my early motherhood gifts in disguise. That day, I was forced to learn about parenting from down on the floor where part of my pride fell away in a stream of tears. I had to learn to stop seeking approval from Moms. In order to embark on my mothering journey, I had to find my reward in loving, understanding, and advocating for my struggling boy and his siblings. I needed to focus on my family.

And later, as my mama feet became steadier, that lonely low-down perspective taught me to watch closely for the mothers who might need me. Because I know that a hand lowered, a nod, or even one kind word can make all the difference to a mom.

I hope that my lessons from the floor can become another Mom’s bench to rest on—perhaps a sturdy platform to reach out from, finding at last another mother’s welcoming hand to hold.
Amy Challenger is an artist and writer working in Fairfield, CT on her first novel about a boy’s struggles and triumphs growing up “different.” This year her work relating to parenting has been published in the Washington Post, Mamalode and on her two blogs specialneedsblessings.blogspot.com and thefruitofmotherhood.blogspot.com.

The Broomstick and the Plunger

The Broomstick and the Plunger

By Rachel Ida Buff

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The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth.

 

My kids don’t need me anymore, not like they did when they were little and wanted to dress up as my familiars on Halloween. Of course, they still depend on me for some things: who else is going to stockpile the discount candy, order the pizza, and plunge the toilet?

Witches too are useless in a way, beyond the demands of husbands, children, town or civic associations. Maybe this is why they are scary: they soar defiantly through the night sky, glorious in their freedom. Sometimes they are seen together, in the dreaded covens. But they are more often outsiders — alone.

I am not exactly alone tonight. My house is full of enough to delight even that cranky, child-luring, deep woods creature made notorious in the story of Hansel and Gretel. My husband is out of town and both of my daughters are getting ready for the evening with their own covens of friends.

The archetypical witch rides a broomstick, converting that modest implement of domestic order into a vehicle for nocturnal flight. Her hands are free to clutch the broomstick while she is riding it, even when she dismounts, she is often seen holding the thing. When the girls were small, I barely swept, let alone drag a cleaning utensil around for show.   

Instead of taking off on a broom tonight, I ply the plunger. This is urgent: some indignity cannot be swallowed by our toilet, and we have eight of us, in and out of the house. Dressed in my long, black witch dress, wearing the green-face I have carefully applied, I confront a familiar adversary — the toilet in the second floor bathroom. I have a complicated relationship to plungers, more fraught than the question of order or flight provoked by the broom.

For one thing, there is my father-in-law’s house, where they don’t stock the regular rubber bulb with the stick coming out, the kind that waits unassumingly behind the toilet, to be mustered into service when the time comes. Instead, when the need arises, a request must be made from the master of the house. The plunger, a tripartite device the likes of which I have never seen before or since, is retrieved with great fanfare from my father-in-law’s workshop in the garage.  A big deal is made of the inconvenience. The plunger is then paraded through the house, before being deployed in the bathroom. Only the master of the house can use it; the rest of us are forced to stand by.

This happened on two successive visits, before I realized I had to conjure an alternative. I now make a habit of driving to a nearby gas station once or twice a day during visits to that household. That solved that problem.

But somehow, our toilet at home also backs up frequently. Thinking it might have to do with the ancient plumbing in our house, we eventually sprang for a new toilet. The handyman who installed it left the house grinning, assuring us, “you could get a bowling ball down that thing.” But plunging is still a routine task, something that just has to happen. And somehow it often seems to fall to me.

Plunging takes skill as well as courage. First, when the water refuses to go down, there is the grudging realization that something will have to be done. The shit lurks towards the bottom, silently threatening to ride a swirl of water back up, even out. So I try again, flushing and jiggling the handle, hoping for a miracle. I panic as the water swirls up and threatens to surge over the top of the rim. Then I am antic with the plunger, relentless, until that sound I have learned to wait for–the unmistakable suck, the still second before the water swirls and goes back down, this time.

What would a real witch do? I hitch the long black dress up and deal with the situation, emerging victorious from the bathroom. There is riotous teen laughter on the front porch, where Celeste and her friends are handing out candy and waxing nostalgic about the costumes they used to wear. Ginger and her friends are roving the neighborhood, dressed as pirates and hippies; they are almost too old for costumes, but still flushed with the excitement of the cold, dark night.

My current long black witch dress was once a pregnancy shift. The label announces it: “Full Moon.” I first wore the dress trick-or-treating with Celeste on a warm and misty Ohio Halloween evening over a decade ago. That night, the dress caught moisture from the air, from the ground and from puddles. It lengthened, trailing behind me as we made the rounds of our neighborhood. I was a few months out from giving birth to Ginger then, that elasticity a welcome reminder of what the dress and I could be capable of.

Growing up, I never thought that witches were ugly. I knew that the Wicked Witch of the West was supposed to be dark and ugly in contrast to the simpering good witch of the North. But Margaret Hamilton looked a lot more like the women in my family than Glenda ever did. I am far more scared of simpering blonde locks than scolding dark tresses.

Since my twenties, the opportunity to dress as a witch on Halloween has seemed like a relief and a party rolled into one. “Type casting,” I cackle to myself. (A cackle does not ask for or require an audience.) And dressing up as a witch is a popular costume: you can easily go witch-sexy by tossing on your favorite little black dress, a pair of heels and a pointy hat.

The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth. Ginger cried until I convinced her it was really me. “Mama Witch!” she finally said, happily. After that she always recognized me, waiting impatiently for Halloween and planning ever more non-traditional familiar outfits.

The witch archetype reaches back, through wicked Hollywood witches west and east, to Salem, to the medieval European archetype and her troubles with the law. Witches are scary because they are powerful outsiders. And because of that cackle. When The Wizard of Oz was first screened, Margaret Hamilton’s laugh was considered by many to be over the top. Small children had to be escorted out of an early screening.

Having cleared the toilet, I rove the house. Most of the candy has been given out; I locate a bag of Snickers my husband has hidden for himself, pour it into our black plastic cauldron, and hand it out to the last tiny stragglers. Ginger and her friends go up to the attic to engage in elaborate candy trades. Two of Celeste’s friends go home, and she and her best friend, Serena, shut themselves in her room to pour over their iPods together.

It is cold and I am almost ready to shut off the porch light on the evening’s trick or treating. Just then, a boy of around 6 in a rainbow afro wig rings the door. I have seen him already and given him candy. “Back again?” I ask him.  

He shakes his head and gestures to a tiny, barely-walking girl dressed as a pumpkin. She is almost completely hidden behind him. I crouch down and address her. “Want candy?” I ask.  

She shakes her head. “Pee!” she says, wide-eyed. Her brother nods vigorously. I prop the screen door open, looking beyond the porch to the sidewalk. A woman bundled up in a wheelchair waves and nods emphatically. I take the pumpkin girl’s hand and lead her inside, and up the stairs to our fully functional toilet. Her brother stays on the porch. Halfway up the stairs, I realize that this tiny pumpkin girl, her brother and her mother in the wheelchair have to put their faith in me: a strange white woman in a pointy hat, black dress and greenface.

Pumpkin girl is small enough that she needs me to help her get her pants down and sit on the toilet. I wonder if I could have let tiny Celeste climb the stairs with a stranger who would have had to help her in this way. I don’t think so.  

Pumpkin girl slides off the toilet; I help her with her pants. She pauses at the top of the stairs, and I pick her up and slide her onto my hip, carrying her down to where her brother waits. She grins at me and snatches a Snickers bar from the cauldron. Her brother takes her hand and they run down the stairs to where their mom waits for them.

I take off my hat and close the door. Sitting on the couch, I sort through the cauldron to see whether there is one Almond Joy left for me.

For several years, off and on, I have had the feeling of flying. It comes at odd times, like when I am driving Ginger and Celeste to the dentist and we are all singing songs we remember from the Shrek soundtrack; or when I am walking the dog in the morning after we have all eaten breakfast and the girls have gone off to school and I am thinking about what to do with a couple of hours of writing time. It occurs to me to google this, just to see if I am suffering from some identifiable syndrome: “feeling of flying in middle age.” And then I remember the witch, soaring off on her broomstick into the night sky. I turn on the computer and get to work.

 
Rachel Ida Buff is a mother, a writer and a history professor who has already stocked both greenface and tooth blacking makeup for Halloween. She is a writer of essays and short stories as well as academic articles and books. Currently, she is completing a novel, Into Velvet.

Pure Nepali

Pure Nepali

By Elizabeth Enslin

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Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

 

My six-year old’s wooden arrow arced toward the sun and nailed its mark: a yellow nylon kite. Both fell into the sawdust of the beachside playground.

Amalesh had whittled the arrow and bow from sticks he’d collected during our hikes around Whidbey Island. I had reluctantly let him bring both to the year-end kindergarten picnic because I couldn’t imagine such a crude bow propelling a heavy arrow any distance at all.

For a few seconds, I froze, replaying the event in my mind and marveling. Then I noticed many eyes turned our way.

Once again, my parenting skills were in question.

Since I’d separated from Amalesh’s Nepali father four months earlier, I’d been learning to bear such judgments alone. That, plus the inquisitive stares and mostly silent questions: A brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired boy with a White, blue-eyed, blondish-haired woman? Where does he come from? Is he adopted?

I shook off my dreaminess and scanned the crowd: the child–not from our group–cradling a torn kite, his mother and father comforting him and glaring at me, other adults edging closer as though to intervene.

I took Amalesh’s hand and dragged him over to the now-crying child and told him to apologize. He mumbled a quick, “Sorry.” I made an apology to the parents too and offered to replace the kite. The parents said it wouldn’t be necessary and turned away. I took Amalesh aside. Grinning, he refused to look at me. His eyes beamed back and forth between his bow and that victory spot in the sky.

Before I had a chance to scold, he said: “Ma bow shoot garnai parthie. Ani ma target hit garye!” Since we had left Nepal, I had grown accustomed to sentences made of two languages and understood: “I had to shoot the bow. And I hit the target!”  

*   *   *

Up until that point, Amalesh had spent nearly half his life among his father’s extended family in Nepal. I had given birth to him there, so Nepali was the language he’d heard more than any other during his first six months. Then we moved back to the U.S. for three years, where he spoke his earliest words in English, the language his academic father felt more comfortable using when not in Nepal. For several years after that, we lived between two countries. Every move required an adjustment in language. Talkative and outgoing, Amalesh usually transitioned well.

The family farm in Nepal was the most permanent home Amalesh had ever known. Homes in the U.S. had been temporary–graduate student housing at Stanford University, various rental homes for my postdoctoral position in Iowa City and his father’s professorship in Syracuse, New York.

Our last stint in Nepal had lasted eighteen months. Amalesh had been surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, numerous cousins and even neighbors who spoiled him. As they doted on everything he did and said and excused his tantrums and mischief, he became fluent in Nepali. Now I had wrenched him away from that language of unconditional love and adoration.

*   *   *

“Kina angry hunuhuncha?” Amalesh asked.

Why was I so angry?

Early June sunlight shimmered on Useless Bay. Snow capped the Olympic Mountains behind. Amalesh skulked off to sit alone on a log in the sand. I decided to gave him his space so we could both cool down. I mingled with other parents in his class, attempting feeble explanations and apologies for my son’s behavior.

Amalesh’s kindergarten teacher took me aside. “It wasn’t right for Amalesh to do that, of course,” she said. “But I had to keep myself from smiling when he brought that kite down. He had to see if he could do it, and he did. No one but you understands his words right now, but we can understand when he aims an arrow and shoots a kite down so skillfully. He’s speaking to us with his actions.”

*   *   *

When Amalesh and I had arrived back in the U.S. in February, my parents were getting ready for an extended RV tour of The Southwest and invited us to live in their house on Whidbey for as long as needed. I figured Amalesh might adapt better if I put him in a local kindergarten. I would have some time to update my resume for college teaching positions, and he would have playmates to help him ease back into American culture.

I began my inquiries at the nearest public school.

“He doesn’t speak English right now,” I said. “He understands it, but he chooses to communicate mostly in Nepali.”

“Don’t worry,” the woman at the front desk told me. “We know what to do. We have ESL teachers. They can straighten him out.”

Sure that I did not want my son “straightened,” I thanked her for the information and drove down the road past llama farms and into a forest to check out the Waldorf School. I didn’t know much about it then but was enchanted by the curved walls and toys made of wood, stone and natural fibers.

School had just let out, so I was able to meet the kindergarten teacher, a soft-spoken woman about my age. I explained the language issue to her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll find other ways to communicate with him.”

I enrolled Amalesh the next day.

Except for occasional outbursts in Nepali, he remained mostly silent in his class that spring. For a boy who usually chattered from waking until bedtime, that must have been tough. Unable to make himself understood through language, he often squabbled with classmates, threw fits or pouted more than expected for a child his age. But his teacher guided him without words and often calmed him better than I could.

A few weeks before the June picnic, Amalesh’s teacher told me he had finally spoken English in class. It had happened during a forest walk. He touched Douglas fir trees of various heights and announced their relationships: “mother, father, brother, sister.”

After that, he used some English words at school. But he still didn’t speak in complete sentences with anyone but me since those still came in a mix of Nepali and English. By the time I picked him up each day, he had a lot to say and talked for hours.

*   *   *

Two days after the kite incident, we sat in the living room of my parents’ house. Drained from single parenting, I stared out the window at the ferry gliding back and forth between Mukilteo and Clinton. Amalesh drew stick figures on drawing paper strewn across the carpeting. He pushed some drawings and a crayon into my hands.

“Book banaundaichu, Aama. Tapai write garnos, huncha?” I’m making a book, Mother. You write it down, okay?

“Sure.”

“There was once a girl who was the spirit of the whole world,” he began in his usual mix of Nepali and English. “That is, until the evil giant decided to trick her.”

Translating into English, which was easier for me to write, I scribbled quickly to keep up.

“He brought her a beautiful gold coin that he had stolen from a magic box. It was so beautiful that she wanted to taste it. But the moment she tasted it, she fell down and died. She was on the very top of a tree, so she fell down far.”    

I continued writing as Amalesh described gnomes and fairies who were sad to see the girl fall but too scared of the giant to get involved. Then, came a giant who could see for millions of miles, even across the Pacific Ocean.

“Don’t write this part, Mom. But remember how we flew across the Pacific Ocean when we came back from Nepal? It was pretty far, huh?”

“Very far,” I said.

I thought of all the ways that distance would grow now. Over the months since leaving Nepal, I had reassured Amalesh that his father would soon return to the U.S. But he may not have understood that we would no longer all live together. He and I would make our home somewhere in the Pacific Northwest while his father lived three thousand miles away in Syracuse.

“You can write again now,” Amalesh said.

Working with the thick crayon, my hand began to cramp. I shook it out and tried to keep up as he described the hot lava–a popular theme in his stories–and the girl falling toward it. Then the fairies reappeared, caught the girl’s body and brought her back to life with a special potion.  

Finally, the story returned to a giant. This one was good and wanted to help the girl.  

“He gave her a sword to cut her in two so that she became two spirits,” Amalesh said , then stopped, put his fist to his chin and looked over his drawings. “Maybe you shouldn’t write this part,” he said. “But one was Jesus and the other was Buddha.”

I didn’t write that at the moment, but—please, forgive me son–how could I not remember and write it down later?

“We made a book, Mommy,” he said and hugged me. “I’m going outside now to play.”

I watched him from the window and read what I had scrawled. It may have been the first story he ever told that had a beginning, middle, and end. I sensed something else important in the narrative but didn’t realize what until a few minutes had passed.

It wasn’t that his father’s family was Hindu–not Buddhist–and that my family never went to church and rarely talked about Jesus. Nor was it the violence, magic and hope. It wasn’t even the imagery of being divided by an ocean or a sharp blade. It wasn’t the content at all. It was the transformation in Amalesh as he told it. He began telling the story in Nepali grammar with mostly Nepali words. By the end, he used all English grammar and English words.

Squealing and laughing outside, he chased my mother’s dog in circles.

Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. I tried to commit to memory his lilting, singsong way of speaking Nepali. Pakka Nepali, our neighbors had called it back in the village. Perfect Nepali, indistinguishable from the Nepali other children spoke. He even ornamented it with the same head bobbles and hand twirls.

Now he shouted commands at the dog in English. I could still hear a faint Nepali accent, but just barely. Maybe he’ll weave some Nepali words and phrases back in once he gains more confidence in English, I told myself. Surely, this won’t be the end of his birth language.

But in many ways, it was. With his father and other Nepali relatives living so far away, he never did speak that pakka Nepali again. At age nine and again at fourteen, he returned with his father to the family farm for a few weeks and re-learned some Nepali phrases. He went on his own for nine months after high school and six months after college and became fairly fluent in speaking and understanding. Yet even I can hear his American accent.
Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press 2014). She has published literary nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Raven Chronicles, Opium Magazine, and other journals. Currently working on a sequel to her first book, she raises yaks on a farm in northeastern Oregon.

Just One Box to Define My Child

Just One Box to Define My Child

By Michelle Robin La

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My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”

 

Name, address, birthdate. Those were easy questions to answer. I sat at a low table on a tiny chair in an elementary school classroom filling out forms so my oldest daughter, Trinh, could enter kindergarten in the fall. Then I got to the boxes. Check one. One? When the 2000 census forms arrived, I checked off multiple boxes for each of my three children to define their race. Which box should I check when my child fits into more than one category? White like me or Asian like her dad?

“Your daughter doesn’t look anything like you,” the owner of the photography shop said when he developed our family pictures. “It looks like you didn’t have anything to do with them at all,” a family friend told me. I had laughed away these comments. But when I was forced to choose one box in which to define my child, I didn’t want to justify these comments by checking a box I didn’t fit into. My dad had joked that because my husband was half Chinese and half Vietnamese, but three of my grandparents were Swedish, the kids were mainly Scandinavian. There wasn’t a box for that.

Despite our superficial differences in appearance, whenever I take my kids to school, the store, or a playground, no one asks if they are mine. Maybe it’s because we live on the West Coast, where interracial marriages are common, or because people mistakenly assume my children are adopted. Or maybe it’s because when a child runs to his mother for comfort on the playground, no one questions the bond. Well, there was my mother’s elderly friend who asked, “Where did you get your children?” When I told her I got them from inside of me, she argued.

I can’t remember which box I checked to enroll Trinh in kindergarten. I probably checked different boxes for each of my three children when I registered them. Trinh, on the other hand, showed no hesitation when her fourth grade teacher had asked which box to fill in on the standardized tests. “Asian,” my daughter said. I was surprised she was so definite. Do people always identify with the most unique part of them? Didn’t my daughter feel she was part of each? Was it the Asian last name? The coloring of her features? The rice we ate every night?

I asked my younger daughter, Emily, which ethnicity she identified with. “Asian, of course,” she answered. “My hair and eyes are brown, so I look it.” She laughed. “Besides, I’m smart—I fit the stereotype.”

I was happy for my daughters to have their own look, different from mine. I resembled my mother so much that people made a joke on her name and called us “Dot and ditto.” Although I take it as a compliment now, at the time, I just wanted to look like me. People used to think my daughters looked so much alike they’d ask Trinh about the smaller version of her they saw.

My son, Kien, looked uncomfortable during these discussions. When I asked what he considers himself, he said, “I’m not anything except me.” When Kien was a toddler, his wispy baby hair was a strawberry blond. I held it up to my own hair and it matched. Later it turned a light brown. People say my son looks just like his father. Now that my daughters are older, people don’t say they look just like their dad. But my friends say they see my smile or expressions in their faces.

My kids have told me they feel lucky to be unique, belonging to two cultures. At other times, they’ve said, “I don’t want to be half. I want to be one or the other.”

Back in Seattle, people thought of my girls as white because there were so many Asian kids, a lot of them their friends, who had both parents from Asia. But, when we moved to Santa Barbara, people seemed to think of them as more Asian because there were so many Caucasian and Hispanic kids but not many Asians. My husband says we’re all-American.

When the 2010 census came, I checked multiple boxes for all my kids. But when Trinh handed me the form for a college class she was applying to for the summer, she had only checked the “Asian/Vietnamese” box. “You can check ‘white,’ too,” I suggested.

Emily—my daughter who said she fits the Asian stereotype—has said people mistakenly refer to her as Irish or Japanese. After her trip to Europe with her grandparents, she became interested in that part of her heritage. We joined the local American Scandinavian Foundation and she’ll be Lucia in their Christmas festival this year. Emily started to check any box she could on forms: Swedish, German, Chinese, Vietnamese. When her AP exam results came, I noticed she checked “white.” Puzzled, I asked her why.

“I could only check one,” she said. “I usually check ‘other,’ but they didn’t have it. I don’t feel Asian because I didn’t grow up in an Asian country. Maybe if both of my parents had come here from Asia….” I told her that on her college application she can check both.

Like my husband, I can only check one box. So it’s interesting to see which boxes my kids choose and how their reasons for checking them change. Curious, I asked Kien which box he picks. “I usually check ‘Asian’ because most of our relatives are Asian.” When I told him his sister usually picks “other” he gave me a funny look. “If I could, I’d check every single box and say I’m human.”

Michelle Robin La is the author of Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands, the true story of her husband growing up in the Mekong Delta during and after the Vietnam War. She lives with her husband and three children in Santa Barbara, CA, and blogs about her culturally-blended life at michellerobinla.com.

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

By Wendy Kennar

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The fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.

 

“So your son is mixed.”

The comment was made by a woman sitting next to me at a writing workshop. And although we were all writers, I was at a loss for words and didn’t quite know how to respond. I stammered something along the lines of some people think my son looks more like my husband, while others think he looks more like me.

For me, the fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.

But then I’ll read something and realize with a start that our family is not only considered “non-traditional,” but up until 1967, would have been illegal as well. (The Supreme Court decision in June 1967 made it illegal for individual states to prohibit two people from different racial backgrounds from marrying.)

When we were dating, I did think about the differences in our skin color. I wondered what it would mean for our future children (a sign I really cared for Paul). How would we explain a white Mommy and a black Daddy? Would our child feel “too different?” But the more I got to know Paul, the less I paid attention to our racial differences.

I think my environment played a huge part in me acknowledging Paul’s skin color but leaving it at that — an acknowledgement not an insurmountable obstacle. I grew up (and continue to live) in Los Angeles where it’s possible to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell items from across the globe. My parents (now married for forty years) were of different religious backgrounds. And although they both faced family opposition regarding their decision to marry, they successfully blended their two belief systems for our family. My siblings and I grew up knowing that you could pray anywhere, you didn’t need to go into a special building. We grew up knowing that all people are supposed to do their best, be kind, honest, and hard-working. And I grew up with our own familial version of holidays — an artificial Christmas tree and a menorah, ham and potato latkes for Christmas Eve dinner.

However, during my childhood I don’t remember any of my friends celebrating both winter holidays. It was either Christmas or Chanukah, not both. And I wanted my son to feel a part of a larger group, knowing that he wasn’t an abnormality in any way. So before he was born, actually before I was even pregnant, I began building his library. Along with favorites such as Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat, I went out of my way to ensure my son’s books reflected him and our family. I purchased Shades of Black, The Colors of Us, The Skin You Live In, and Black, White, Just Right.

In fact, the topic of race never came up until our son was in kindergarten and learning about Dr. Martin Luther King. Then he verbally acknowledged the differences in our skin colors. He commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was not. He asked questions, wondering which section of the bus he would have sat in. (I told him that he would be considered colored which meant the back of the bus). He said it was so unfair that he and Daddy wouldn’t have been able to sit with me on a bus or eat with me at a restaurant. And I told my son that it wouldn’t have been possible for us to be a family back then.

We’ve talked about how the laws have changed because of brave people who worked hard to change them. And for now, the topic of race is a non-issue for our son. He’s more concerned about his loose tooth, his birthday, a class field trip. Race is there; it’s a supporting detail, not the main idea.

Yet, before enrolling our son in kindergarten, my husband and I had the daunting task of determining our son’s “primary and secondary race.” Up until that point, he was Ryan — not an African-American boy, not a Caucasian boy, just our boy. (His preschool forms hadn’t asked any questions about racial identity). But these forms needed us to make a decision, and my husband and I didn’t take the task before us lightly. We paused to reflect and discuss and consider.  Suddenly, we were feeling quite omnipotent, having a power we really didn’t want. In the Jewish religion (my mother’s religion), a child’s religion is the same as the mother. If I followed that doctrine, our son would be considered white. However, during the days of Jim Crow laws, if an individual was deemed 1/8 black, he was black, which means our son would be considered black.

And, ultimately it was our son who influenced our final decision. My husband and I remembered an incident when our son randomly commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was peach. My husband asked our son what color his skin was. Ryan replied, “dark white.”  Ryan’s skin is darker than mine, but lighter than his daddy’s. And so we filled out the forms — “African American” for his primary race, “white” for his secondary race. (Those were the terms used on the school’s enrollment forms.)

Our son was born in 2008, the year the United States elected its first African-American President. The possibilities and the realities are continuing to widen. But, there will be people who make comments, “So your son is mixed,” that remind me that for some, we are considered a non-traditional family. That’s their issue not ours.

My son is used to diversity. We see it — yarmulkes and Indian saris. We hear it — Korean, French, Spanish. We taste it — crepes, sushi, tamales. Our neighbors include a Korean family, a Latino family, an African-American family, a white family, and a Polish/Indian family.

From my experience as a public school teacher and now as a parent, I don’t see one concrete way to define family. I acknowledge actions that define family. Helping each other.  Taking care of each other. Playing with each other. Being patient with each other. Laughing with each other. Showing love to each other. Establishing traditions.

The details: My son is of mixed-race. My husband and I are examples of an interracial marriage.

The main idea: We are a family.

Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer who finds inspiration in her son and from her memories from her 12-year teaching career. Her work has appeared in several publications, both in print and online. She blogs at wendykennar.blogspot.com.

Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

By Chantal Panozzo

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As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.

 

“Look at my house, Mommy!”

My three-year-old daughter grinned and cast her arms wide in front of a pile of big foam blocks. Then two four-year-old boys from the local day camp ran into the park district gym and knocked down her masterpiece.

“Don’t do that!” my daughter said, putting her hands on her hips. “That’s my house!” But the boys continued their destruction despite her protests.

The park district camp counselor walked over to me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s ok. Don’t apologize. Or do anything. They’re kids. They’ll work it out,” I replied.

Two minutes later, the two boys and my daughter were rebuilding the house together. Then the three of them played for the next hour, riding Bobby Cars to and from the house, as if they had always been the best of friends.

My daughter and her new friends had just remodeled their home for a third time when another child entered the gym and began the next episode in home destruction.

“Don’t knock down our house!” my daughter said. She wagged her finger at the newcomer. The two boys repeated her words and antics.

“She’s mean,” the newcomer said to her grandmother.

The grandmother stepped into what had been my daughter’s house.

“You need to be nice!” she told my daughter. “Say you’re sorry!”

Observing, I shook my head at the grandmother’s interference. Despite advice to love your kids, keep them safe, but get out of their way from parenting experts like Kathy Masarie, MD Parent and Life Coach, this helicopter parenting (or grand-parenting) happens a few times a week when we’re out and about in our Chicago suburb: my daughter stands up for herself only to be “corrected” for her assertiveness by other caretakers. Since we’ve moved back to the United States from Switzerland in October, my daughter has been called “mean” and been told to “be nice” more times than I care to count.

But as I observe her, at least through the eyes of an American mother versed in European parenting styles, I see nothing mean (can a three-year-old even be mean?) about my daughter. Is it mean to defend a house you’ve spent an eternity building—since for a toddler, ten minutes is an eternity? And should you have to say you’re sorry for being upset in front of the very person who knocked your house down?

As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.

In Switzerland, where my daughter was born, and where we lived until she was three, I learned to parent as she learned to play. Swiss children are taught to work things out for themselves and parents don’t interfere with play unless there is danger of someone getting hurt. Since moving “home” I’ve considered the hovering and interfering American parenting approach, but I just can’t do it.

Instead, as the other American caretakers correct and hover and instruct, I sit back with a beverage and wonder: Why can’t we let our children work things out amongst themselves? And why are we teaching our children to be sorry for their assertiveness by making them apologize to others for defending something they built and believed in—even if it’s something as simple as a foam block house?

Because here’s the thing: If we don’t allow our daughters to defend their foam block houses, then how will they learn to stand up for themselves later in life when it comes to salary increases, fair pay, and equal treatment? If we don’t allow our children to work things out for themselves as toddlers, how will they learn to work out disagreements as adults?

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, writes, “When children learn to resolve their own conflicts, without Mom or Dad swooping in to the rescue, they build grit, self-confidence, and the creative problem-solving skills that lead to higher achievement.”

Luckily, my daughter has no problem standing up for herself—even in front of other adults. She isn’t “nice” in the way that the grandmother wants her to be. She doesn’t apologize and for that I am grateful.

Then the camp counselor tells the boys that it’s time to go.

The grandmother looks relieved, but my daughter looks like someone knocked her house down again. She runs to the boys and hugs the bigger one.

“You’re so nice,” says the boy.

Nice? I want to hug that boy too, but since he is being escorted away I hang on to his words instead. Then I embrace my daughter, because she is everything I could want in a daughter, and also because she is crying. Her home destructors-turned-friends are now gone, but hopefully her assertive spirit never will be.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

Photo: dreamstime.com

The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

The Truth About a Fat Little Boy

By Trish Cantillon

No junk food words made by post it

He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.

 

I was twelve when I had an electrode strapped to my arm to administer shock. It was all part of the Schick weight loss program my parents had signed me up for in 1977.

Jeff, my counselor, was a handsome, cheerful man who made me want to do whatever he said to please him. He was tan, dark hair, and a smile like someone you would see on a toothpaste commercial.   

Jeff sat me down at a small metal table, making sure my chair faced the mirror that ran the length of the wall. He was to my left, a big machine with dials in front of him on the table. There were several wires extending from the back of the machine to the electrodes encased in a white plastic sleeve. Jeff was chirping about how great it was that I was doing this now, at my age, because it’s so much harder the older you get. He winked as he slipped the plastic sleeve on my left arm, just above my elbow, pulled it as tight as he could.

“Did you bring the items?” he asked. I nodded and reached into the paper bag I carried in with me. “A good food and a bad food?” I nodded again. I set a Nestle Crunch Bar and nectarine on the table between us. “Super! Now, I want you to take the wrapper off the candy bar.” I tore a piece of the wrapper off the end and slid the Crunch bar out carefully. I held it in my hand and looked at him, confused. “Okay. I want you to take your time. Look at it. Smell it. Feel it in your hand.” The smell of the chocolate reminded me of Easter baskets and Trick or Treat bags. Jeff turned a switch on the machine. “Make sure you are facing the mirror,” he pointed to my chair. I scooted a bit to face completely forward. “All right,” he said, “take a small bite.” Zap! A brief stinging sensation on my arm as I chewed. I didn’t flinch. I took another bite while he read the ingredients from the back of the Crunch Bar wrapper. Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Zap! Sugar. Zap! Milk chocolate. Zap! He turned the dial up on the machine. I wondered if I said ouch, if he would stop, but I didn’t want him to be mad at me or think I was a baby. Cocoa butter. Zap!  Milk fat. Zap! He asked me to take another bite. Jeff turned the dial up and as I chewed, he told me why this Crunch bar was “bad.”  No nutritional value. Rots your teeth. Makes you fat. Zap!  Zap! Zap! He checked the dials and then made some notes on the pad of paper next to him. The machine made a faint whirring sound as he turned it off.

Jeff reached across the table to remove the electrodes from my arm. The plastic sleeve scratched my skin as he tugged at it. He carefully folded the wires into two neat piles. He then took what was left of the Crunch Bar, which was still in my hand, and pushed his chair back to stand up.  He wrote on the mirror with the candy.  He settled back into his chair and put the nectarine in front of me. “Just like with the candy bar. I want you to hold it, smell it, and then take a bite.” I rolled it around in my hands once, put it to my nose and looked at Jeff before I took my first bite. I chewed slowly and listened to him tell me how “good” this nectarine was. All natural. Juicy. Tasty. Satisfying. Sweet.     

I went back every Thursday for eight weeks and repeated this scene. Presenting Jeff my “good” and “bad” foods, along with my checkbook-register-styled food diary for his review. He would initial each day’s entry with a smiley face or a frowny face, depending on what I ate. I lost sixteen pounds in those eight weeks, with some help from the stomach flu (a ‘blessing in disguise’ my Mom had said). I was a superstar. An emblem of perfect will power and control.  The pride of my family.     

It’s a typical weeknight at my house. I am clearing the dinner dishes with my husband. He says he worried about our son’s weight.  

“He’s fine,” I say, a little too quickly, hoping he’ll drop the subject.  

“I don’t know. Maybe we need to do something, talk to the doctor?”  

I cut him off.

“He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.”

My husband considers this for a moment.

“I’m not sure that’s right.” His tone is now serious. He’s not buying my explanation.

Just then, our son walks in, fresh from his shower, wearing Batman pajamas. He plops down on the chair across from me, gives an exaggerated smile so I know he’s brushed his teeth. In that moment I am back in the little room with Jeff. Staring at myself in the mirror, sporting my new short haircut that made me look like a fat little boy, the letters “B A D” written in candy bar above my head, eating a nectarine.
Trish Cantillon lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the Berkeley Fiction Review and in the upcoming issue of Gold Man Review.

The Things We Keep

The Things We Keep

By Sharon Holbrook

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I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. 

 

I sat on the living room rug last week, surrounded by messy stacks of DVDs and CDs, almost all of which we have ignored for years. I had pulled them all out at once to decide what to toss and what to save. I blame Marie Kondo for this attack on my belongings, of course. Fresh off reading the Japanese organizing guru’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I was fired up (again) about getting rid of the excess junk.  

I’m a serial declutterer, but it’s not because I’m naturally neat and organized. It’s quite the opposite. My head and hands and house are always full to overbrimming, and I desperately try to throw enough overboard to keep peaceful clarity afloat.  

Why is that so hard? Right now, it is almost 10pm on a Monday night. On my computer, I have open tabs for my kid’s birthday Evite, the sign-up link for the school picnic I am supposed to be running, a flyer for a race I might run with my son if we decide to train, and, of course, email. Each tab represents a long sub-list of items to do. That’s not enough for me, I guess, so I also have a tab open for an article about why punch is the best drink to serve at a party, because apparently I might throw a punchy party soon — even though I’m not terribly fond of hosting parties. My paper calendar, cell phone, several bills, a health plan reimbursement form, and notes and lists for my nonprofit work cover the desk next to me. I am overstuffed with the bureaucracy of life.

It’s no wonder I can’t think straight, but somehow I feel donating the outgrown Curious George DVDs and reuniting CDs with their lost cases will confer serenity upon me. Maybe it will also magically clean my kitchen and inspire the children to hang their jackets up. And so I sort on. I grab a stack of unlabeled CDs (or are they DVDs?) and mull whether to just toss them or pop them in the computer.  

I’m too curious; I must know what they are. The first one is my son’s, a montage of photos from his second-grade year compiled by a thoughtful teacher. Nice, let’s keep that. Next, a mix CD of songs I don’t even like. Easy toss. I catch my breath as the next one whirs to life on my screen. It is a DVD, chock-full of family videos from the year the youngest of my three was born. I didn’t even know this DVD existed.

I ignore Marie Kondo’s tidying-up orders to set aside sentimental items for last. (She warns that they will trap us into relentless reminiscing. She is correct.) I watch.

There we are on Christmas morning, at the zoo, and at the dining room table. I click on another, and there I am in a hospital gown. I had had a c-section that morning. My voice is dry and cracked, and I wear no makeup. My husband is taking the video, and I hear his and my parents’ voices floating in the background. My older children are there too, with their impossibly high voices and impossibly round cheeks. They have come to the hospital to meet their new sister. The 4-year-old gazes at the baby, beams, and pronounces her “good!” The 2-year-old stares at her, serious and silent. Now they want me, and my mother offers chairs, but I don’t seem to hear her, and I eagerly make cozy little nests in the bed on each side of me to snuggle my big kids.

The next one is shaky, a sure sign that one of the children is taking the video. It’s an ordinary day, and the images flash by, blurry, sideways, and now and again clear. There are shoes on the floor, pairs I’d forgotten. The cat wanders by, and toys are sprinkled across the rug.  I am wearing my glasses and slippers, and not all the children all fully clothed, so I take it we are parked at home for the duration. It is no day in particular, and it is every day.

I have decluttered, I realize now. I see the evidence there in the videos, the toys and outfits and baby gear that are now gone. Outgrown, and jettisoned. Even that old house is gone — our family grew and moved on, quite literally.  

We are encouraged, always, to look forward and keep discarding. Don’t look back. Don’t keep items you never use. Don’t hold onto old, outdated things that don’t suit you anymore. Ask yourself who you are now. And, yes, watching those videos, I didn’t wish for one material thing back. We have changed, after all, as we should.  

But — that change that has happened — that is exactly why I find myself wanting to grasp and hold on to those people, those moments. I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. Looking at them from afar, like a shadowy time traveler, I am surprised by the pure fullness of their past selves, their golden, glistening kernels of individuality, ready to pop into who I know they are today.

The real stranger in the videos is me. I do not recognize this young mother — not really. She is very sweet, and a tender mother to all three children. Somehow, I have let myself forget this part of me, or maybe I never knew her. Those years were at once full and fierce and lovely, and I gave myself over. I truly saw the children during that time, yes, but I was in too deep to see myself as a mother, unless it was in my failures.  

I remember yelling. I remember the winter mornings when I struggled to get out of bed, and the evenings when I counted the minutes until Daddy would get home. I remember thinking I thought I would be better at this mothering thing — more patient, more joyful. But now, seeing this woman in the sum of small moments and with the distance of years, I see that she — no, I — was a good mother.   

When you’re on a mountain, the climb is rocky, exhausting, treacherous. Once you’re past it, you turn around and it’s lovely, magnificent, breathtaking. How could you have missed it, you wonder?

I’ll continue to declutter the old clothes and toys and almost all of that never-ending stream of youthful artwork. But I won’t let go of all of the past. I’m clinging to the parts that let me turn around and take in that scenic view after the climb, the things that let me fill in the pieces of the pictures of ourselves I was too close to see the first time.

There’s something else, too. Every present day somehow twists and flips into the past, even if messes of bills and to-do lists and homework and calendars don’t seem like the stuff of memories. If someone took a video of me at my desk today, and I watch it in ten years, what will I think? Maybe how young she is, so smooth-faced, and only 40! How dedicated she was, showing up every day for the minutiae of life, simply because it had to get done. (And, hey, look at that old computer!) If my children were in frame, I’d see a warm closeness with those small people, and I’d long for it, perhaps with tears in my eyes.  For they will not be small people in ten years.  

Just tonight, my ten-year-old hugged me at bedtime, proclaiming, “I want to hug you for ever and ever and ever!”  In a decade he will probably be gone, far away at college, and he won’t be saying that anymore — not to me, anyway. I’ll be left to hold on to that moment any way I can.

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

Photo by Scott Boruchov

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

5 Ways Living Abroad Changed My Parenting

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bedtime in 21 Easy Steps

Bedtime in 21 Easy Steps

By Christine Alderman

21 steps to bedtime

To the Management,

Lately my bedtime has not been to my satisfaction and there has been some confusion about what I require. Here are just a few tips to help clear things up.

1. I prefer a bath that is warm, with some more cold water, and then some more hot water, and then some more cold water, with a little bit more hot water.

2. Only empty the bathtub after I am done playing. Which is never.

3. I try to make you proud by using the potty. I prefer to climb to the potty on my potty steps myself. Unless I don’t. Please know which one it is.

4. I prefer at least three books from each parent. And then one more from each of you so I don’t forget your voices all night. Because I love you. And then another one. Because I love books.

5. Please rock me in the big chair until I am ready to get in bed. I will indicate this by going stiff as a board.

6. I want to climb in my own bed. Do not help me. Except if I slip. Then help me. But don’t help me too much or I will need to do it again so I can show you I know how to do it.

7. I am hungry. I think I need dinner again now.

8. Thanks for the cold milk cup that is only cold enough if it waits in the fridge until the minute I need it. I will keep telling you I need milk until you get back upstairs in case you forget.

9. My bed feels nice. A clean sheet each night helps my complexion. Thanks.

10. My bed is too hot. I need a different blanket.

11. My bed is too cold. I need a different blanket.

12. My bed is not right. If I get out and climb back in that might help.

13. Please cover me up with almost all of my arms covered up, but not covered up too much, and my feet, but not my left foot.

14. Please fix my pajamas so that the footies don’t cramp my toes, but aren’t so loose that monsters can get in there and get my toes. Monsters love toes.

15. Now that I think about it my teeth are a bit sore. Medicine would be great. Purple would be great. I will say please over and over until you get back with it. You like it when I say please.

16. My mouth is sticky. I need water.

17. I need to go potty. You like me to go potty. You ask me all day. I will make you proud now and use the potty!

18. Please cover me up again with my blanket. But not this blanket. The other blanket. The one that is in the washing machine. I miss that blanket.

19. Please pat my back for a little bit. A little bit is the same amount of time as when you say we will be at the grocery store for just a little bit more.

20. Please put sweet dreams in my head. Only the best dreams. I have suggestions if you need them. Sit with me and I will tell you about them.

21. The door needs to be open a crack so I can hear you. Please don’t be too loud.

If I am not asleep please see above steps. You must have missed one. I can remind you of them if you want.

Please note that I have a separate issue with your naptime performance. I will address this in a separate memo.

Best Regards,

A. Toddler

 
Christine Alderman has worked with children, youth, and adults in juvenile detention, prison, and schools. Christine has a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. She lives in Texas with her husband and her threenage daughter.

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The-new-Chinese-style-modern-Chinese-palace-lantern-carving-ornate-chandeliers-sheepskin-lamp-lights-work-lights copyBy Mai Wang

Jing Jing was lying on the couch when she heard the scream. Mama had invited some friends over for Sunday night poker, and Jing Jing was stuck at home listening to the adults fight between the highs and lows of their game. Now Jing Jing pressed her hands to her ears. The scream sounded a bit like a wolf’s howl, one of the American wolves Mama always warned her about. Better stay inside, Mama liked to say in Chinese, in this country animals eat the kids who play outside. Jing Jing looked over at the adults and almost rolled off the couch. It was her mother who had screamed. Now the other adults sat with their cards lying face down on the table and their cups full of cooling tea. Their eyes were all fixed on the Year of the Tiger calendar hanging from the wall. Her mother threw her cards on the table, and that’s when Jing Jing knew she had lost the round.

Mama noticed her and glared.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” she asked. Jing Jing’s 10 pm curfew hadn’t changed for years, even though she had just turned twelve. Luckily, Mama was more forgetful on poker nights.

“It’s too loud, Mama,” Jing Jing said. Her mother could be scary, but nowhere as scary as her father got when he was in a bad mood. “I can hear it through the wall.”

Every Sunday, Jing Jing used the same excuse to stay on the couch instead of going to the bedroom where her father was asleep. She hated poker, but what she hated more was the cramped bed she shared with her parents. She slept in a dip between their two pillows, and every night she tried to edge away from her father’s side. When her father slept he made loud whale sounds through his nose—they were even worse, Jing Jing thought, than the sound of his farts.

 On Sunday nights, her father went to bed early in order to get away from her mother’s guests. If he wanted to see so many Chinese people, he always complained, he could just go back to Beijing. Jing Jing wondered if all the men there were as noisy as her father, but she knew that asking him would earn her a kick in the butt or a slap in the face.

Jing Jing almost giggled at the way Mama looked now, as if someone had forced her to drink a bottle of dark rice vinegar. Mama was already gathering the cards and clearing the teacups off the table. She poured the remains of one teacup into another, and when the cups clinked together they made an angry sound. The way she was rushing, no one would ever guess it was her night off—she could have been back at Imperial Garden working the lunch crowd.

“Can’t play with someone watching me all the time,” Mama mumbled as she stacked the teacups in a tower. “Jing Jing, maybe your bad luck is infecting me tonight.”

The last thing Jing Jing wanted to hear was how she had ruined the game. Ever since Jing Jing chipped her tooth on a radiator at the age of three, Mama had been convinced that bad luck haunted her footsteps. None of the lucky amulets that Mama forced upon her—the red silk string, the fake gold rabbit, the jade lion—could stop Jing Jing from tripping on the stairs or skinning her knee on the sidewalk.

“Don’t blame me, Mama,” Jing Jing protested. “I haven’t done anything bad.”

She got up from the couch, filled with the sudden urge to gaze up at her mother’s sweaty face. Without the makeup Mama wears to work, Jing Jing realized, she looks a lot older. Jing Jing made her way over to the table, where the adults were sitting in a circle of her mother’s mismatched garage sale chairs.

“Let Jing Jing stay. She’s not bothering us,” Auntie Su said.

Looking at Auntie Su up close made Jing Jing feel funny. Auntie Su was much younger than her mother. She was wearing a pair of frayed jean shorts and a tight t-shirt that spelled out the word “Baby” in glittery letters and revealed a strip of her stomach. If Auntie Su were a student at Jing Jing’s school, she would get detention for violating the dress code.

“Come on, it’s still early, and I’m playing well,” Auntie Su insisted.

“Game’s over,” Mama said, shaking her head.

Maybe Mama was mad about losing the round to Auntie Su, but no one seemed to notice. The women made no move to pick up their purses, and the men were still ashing their cigarettes into a chipped bowl.

“I might as well tell everyone while you’re still here,” Mama said. She paused and started fanning herself with a card. The small breeze she created stirred the stray hairs framing her face. Some part of her was always moving, even when she was standing still.

“Boss says I have to work the Sunday dinner shift starting next week,” Mama announced. “No more poker night for me.”

“Wait a minute. What are we going to do on Sundays?” Auntie Su said. “Without you, Mrs. Zhao, there’s no game.”

Mama shrugged and returned the cards to their cardboard box. “At least this way I can earn back the money I lost to you tonight,” she told Auntie Su.

“That’s pocket change,” Auntie Su said. “Come on, sit down and we’ll play one more round. You might win it all back.”

“No can do, it’s closing time,” Mama joked in English, repeating the favorite line she gave to customers who arrived a minute too late at Imperial Garden and demanded a table. She yawned as she looked at her guests.

“I feel like an old grandma,” Mama said, switching to Chinese. “Why did you all let me play for so long?”

The Chinese residents of the Big Yard called Mama “Lucky Hands” because she drew the winning hand in their late night poker games week after week. Mama always encouraged her guests to stay until they could barely tell a jack from an ace. She liked to keep them hostage with pleas of “one more round” until the watermelon seeds were gone and the tea was cold. She didn’t let them go until she had won enough coins to pay for a week’s worth of laundry tokens and Fantasy 5 lottery tickets.

Tonight, though, Mama’s full house had been beaten out by Auntie Su’s straight flush in the last round. The adults tallied the score as they gathered their belongings. It was the first time Mama had lost a poker game since anyone could remember, and Jing Jing heard the adults whisper that her luck had run out.

They were all traitors, Jing Jing decided, and Auntie Su was the worst one of all. Suddenly it occurred to Jing Jing that Auntie Su might have cheated. Jing Jing stared at Auntie Su to see if she could find out the truth.

Auntie Su had come to America to become an engineer, though she didn’t look like one. She was the only woman Jing Jing knew who wore mascara and red lipstick every time she left home. Jing Jing had listened to her mother gossip about Auntie Su over the phone, how all the bachelors in the Big Yard wished she didn’t have a husband back in China so they could marry her instead. “Makes you want to be her age again, doesn’t it?” Mama had joked. Still, Jing Jing thought, her mother was much prettier if you took Auntie Su’s ugly perm into account.

Jing Jing circled around the table and stopped next to Auntie Su.

“How much money did you win?” she whispered in Auntie Su’s ear.

Auntie Su counted her stacks of quarters one by one.

“$20.75,” she said. “Not bad for my first time winning.”

“Wow!” Jing Jing said. “That’s a lot.” Unlike her friends at school, Jing Jing didn’t get an allowance. Twenty dollars and seventy-five cents was more money than she had ever handled at one time.

“Do you know what you want to buy with your money?” Jing Jing asked.

“Maybe I should deposit them in the bank,” Auntie Su said. “What do you think?”

Jing Jing didn’t answer Auntie Su. She wondered how much money her parents had in their bank account. She had seen them fight often enough to know it couldn’t be much. Mama kept a cash box under the bed to store her tips, and Baba had taken money from it to buy a TV from the pawnshop down the street. To this day, Mama still refuses to watch the TV. “Your father has yet to earn back the money he wasted on that thing,” she told Jing Jing.

Mama was still in the kitchen rinsing the last of the teacups clean. Jing Jing was ready to join her when the bedroom door opened.

Baba stood in the doorway without his glasses on. Sleep had shrunk his eyes into small red beads, and he wore a thin undershirt covered with old stains. Jing Jing wished she could grab his moth-eaten robe from the bathroom and throw it over his shoulders.

Auntie Su was re-counting her coins and didn’t notice Jing Jing’s father. The other adults waved to him, but no one asked him to join them. Everyone knew he didn’t like guests and never played cards. Now he noticed Jing Jing hovering by the table and glared.

“Don’t you have school tomorrow?” he said.

“School just ended, Baba,” she said. “I already told you it’s summer break.”

“In China, kids never talk back to their elders,” he replied. “Everyone knows that.” His eyes scanned the room. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Su?”

Auntie Su glanced up from her quarters. “Yes, that’s true,” she said.

Baba cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. His hands fell down to his sides, and he kept standing there and staring at Auntie Su even once she turned her attention back to her coins. An absentminded look grew on his face. It was the same look he had when he was watching a TV show he really enjoyed.

Jing Jing was relieved when Baba returned to the bedroom. She vowed not to tell Mama that he had appeared in his underwear in front of all the guests. Her parents were already arguing too much these days. Late at night, after they thought she was asleep, they would hiss back and forth about the prospects of a job—any job—for her father. He was always promising that a new job was right around the corner, but nothing ever seemed to turn up. Mama told Jing Jing that Baba had been a big, important professor back in Beijing—that was why she had married him in the first place—but now she couldn’t rely on him to earn a single cent. Her father blamed his poor English as the reason he had dropped out of his PhD program. Her mother called it an excuse, and Jing Jing secretly agreed. If he could watch people talking in English on TV, then he could learn how to read, write, and speak it too.

Poker Chips

Now Auntie Su was staring at the spot in front of the closed door where Baba had stood. There was a filmy look clouding the strange woman’s face. For some reason her eyes made Jing Jing think of a cold, dead fish.

That night seemed to go on forever. By the time the other guests were gone, Jing Jing was half asleep on the couch, and Auntie Su was sitting alone at the table. Jing Jing wondered why she did not go home when she only lived four doors down in Unit 1C. The buzz of voices had been replaced by the static of running water. Finally, Mama emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.

Auntie Su got up and apologized for staying so late.

“Don’t be so polite,” Mama said. “Won’t you keep us company for a little longer?”

“I should get going,” Auntie Su said. “But I was admiring what a nice apartment you have. Such a big TV.” Auntie Su laughed. “And you have the best poker table in the Big Yard. So round and sturdy. I wish you wouldn’t cancel the games.”

Mama had selected the wooden table from a garage sale in Kendall Lake. If they couldn’t live in a nice neighborhood, she often said, at least they could buy rich people’s old furniture. Baba only asked why they had to keep other people’s junk.

“I was wondering if we could still play poker here on Sunday nights,” Auntie Su said. “No trouble for you, of course. I can be the hostess and clean up the mess afterwards. Your husband will appreciate that, I bet.”

“My husband never notices when I clean up,” Mama said. “So I doubt he’ll care if anyone else does it.”

“He’s like all men,” Auntie Su said. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we kept meeting here. I mean, I’m not suggesting that you owe us anything.”

The smile on Mama’s face trembled. Saving face was even more important to her than saving money.

“You can’t have your games here,” Jing Jing started to tell Mrs. Su, but she stopped talking when Mama gave her a look.

“Now that you mention it,” Mama said in her best hostess voice. “I don’t see why you can’t meet here without me.”

Mrs. Su clasped her hands together and thanked Mama.

“Jing Jing here will help you clear off the table. Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing wanted to whimper, but for her mother’s sake she remained silent.

After Auntie Su left, Jing Jing lay in bed between her parents and thought of all the things she could buy with twenty dollars and seventy-five cents. Finally, she decided she would get twenty Fantasy 5 tickets from the nice Cuban man who ran the corner convenience store. He would sell them to her as long she told him they were for Mama. You had a better chance of winning the Fantasy 5 lottery, Mama always said, because they only picked five numbers instead of six. Sure, the jackpot was smaller than the regular lottery, but who needed millions anyway? Fifty or a hundred thousand dollars would pay their rent for years, even if Baba continued to do nothing. Whenever Jing Jing heard her mother’s complaints she felt guilty, as if she was the one who should be working to make money.

If she ever won the lottery, Jing Jing decided, she wouldn’t just pay the rent—she would take her family out of the Big Yard. Of course, the Big Yard wasn’t its real name. In English, their complex was called the Villas of Dadeland, though that name was also a lie. Villas, she had learned in school, were supposed to be Spanish mansions, not old apartment buildings covered in peeling paint. Ever since her family moved from China, they had occupied a one-bedroom on the bottom floor of Building A. Jing Jing wanted to move out and buy an enormous house in Kendall Lake where she would have a top-floor room all to herself.

Baba was snoring even louder than usual. Jing Jing fidgeted, and the rustle of the blanket caused Mama to turn over.

“What are you doing?” Mama whispered.

“Baba is too loud,” Jing Jing said. “I can’t fall asleep.”

Mama stroked her hair. Jing Jing forgot to be mad about her agreement with Auntie Su.

“I thought I had an unbeatable hand tonight,” Mama whispered. “I haven’t played so badly in years.”

“Don’t worry,” Jing Jing said. “Auntie Su probably switched her cards with yours when you weren’t looking.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” her mother said. “She’s pushy, but she’s not a cheater. It’s just too bad all the luck went to her and not me.”

Mama sighed and turned away. Jing Jing wondered if she had said something wrong, but before she could ask Mama had fallen asleep.

The next morning, Jing Jing woke up to the sound of her parents fighting in the living room.

“What kind of woman invites her friends to come over and play cards when she’s at work?” Baba asked.

“A woman like me,” Mama said. “And if you don’t want to be here, you can leave.”

Jing Jing jumped out of bed and cracked the door open. The bowls of rice porridge on the table had gone untouched. Her parents stopped talking when they saw her.

“Why are you standing there?” Mama said. “Come eat.”

Jing Jing shook her head and closed the door again. She wasn’t feeling hungry.

At work, Mama carried plates of sesame chicken and deluxe pu-pu platters to the American people who ate at Imperial Garden. When a customer was mean and asked for no-salt, no-oil in a dish, she delighted in the fact that they were ordering Fake Chinese Food without knowing it. “We save the good stuff for ourselves,” she liked to tell Jing Jing as she slipped her an almond cookie or a sesame ball she’d smuggled home. The stolen treats were one of the few perks of her job.

The day after losing to Auntie Su, Mama came home late after a double shift. “That stinky boss,” she said as she shut the door. “He’s going to work us to death.”

She sat down in a saggy wicker chair and untucked her crumpled white uniform shirt. She had a dozen shirts like it hanging in the closet, and all of them needed mending. This one was missing several buttons.

“Was it busy tonight, Mama?” Jing Jing said.

The dining room of Imperial Garden was an exciting place to Jing Jing. It had a tank full of goldfish and a fat Buddha statue. Lots of rich-looking people sat in booths drinking watered-down tea. Her mother had taken her to work on summer afternoons when she was little, but now Jing Jing was too big to play in the restaurant. That day, she had stayed at home with Baba.

“Yes, it was busy,” Mama said. “I made good tips. See?” Mama pulled out a wad of dollar bills from her purse and unfolded them to reveal a brand new Fantasy 5 ticket. “I couldn’t help it,” she whispered.

“What did you feed Jing Jing for dinner?” Mama asked Baba.

Baba didn’t reply. He kept his eyes on the TV. Every night, he watched game shows and played along with the contestants. He was learning English on a schedule of his own, he said, no teachers required. He liked Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, but Jeopardy was his favorite. Baba leaned forward as Alex Trebek asked for the name of an exotic sports car for $200.

Mama shook her head.

“Do you want me to cook something?” she asked Jing Jing.

“No,” Jing Jing said. She was about to explain that she was full when Mama noticed the plate of white buns on the table.

“What’s this?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing couldn’t answer. She had suddenly lost her voice.

Mama repeated her question loudly, and Baba looked up as a commercial break began.

“Oh, that?” he said as if seeing the buns for the first time. “Mrs. Su dropped those off. These buns are one of her specialties. You could stand to take a few cooking lessons from her.”

To Jing Jing’s surprise, Mama smiled and reached for a bun.

“That woman knew it was her turn to pay me back,” Mama said.

When Sunday came around again, the sound of the vacuum woke Jing Jing up. She went into the living room to find Mama pointing the nozzle at the space beneath the couch.

“Go get me a wet rag from the kitchen,” Mama said when she saw Jing Jing. “I have to be at work in an hour.”

When Jing Jing returned with the rag, Mama set down the vacuum and started wiping the table.

“Remember to be good tonight,” she said. “Don’t give Auntie Su a hard time, okay?”

Jing Jing nodded, but she was crossing her fingers behind her back.

After Mama left for work, Jing Jing waited for the adults to arrive. She didn’t want to be alone with Baba anymore. He wasn’t acting like himself. His hair was slicked down and parted to the side. He had stationed himself in front of the TV, and he got up and went to the bathroom to check his reflection every few minutes.

Someone finally knocked around dinnertime.

“I’ll get it!” Jing Jing yelled, but Baba was already in the hallway.

He opened the door to reveal Auntie Su. She was wearing a pink halter dress that made her look like a sick flamingo and carrying a stack of Tupperware.

“I thought I’d come over a little early,” Auntie Su said. “I wanted to see if you guys cared to try some of my other dishes. How did you like those buns, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing shrugged. They’d been delicious, but she wasn’t about to admit it.

“Mr. Li, you didn’t let Jing Jing try my sweet bean buns?” Auntie Su said. She hit Baba on the shoulder, and for a second Jing Jing thought he would get mad.

Instead, Baba laughed and rubbed his belly. “I wanted to eat them all. My wife lets me go hungry these days.”

“Is that so? You do look thin.” Auntie Su pretended to examine his belly. “I’ll make sure both of you eat well tonight.”

She smiled at Baba, and he smiled back. Jing Jing couldn’t remember the last

time she had seen him so happy.

Auntie Su set the containers on the table and lifted their lids. Jing Jing walked over and peeked at them. There was sweet lotus root cooked with vinegar, pork ribs covered with black bean sauce, and a whole fish steamed with scallions and ginger. Auntie Su must have spent all her poker winnings on the ingredients.

“Eat up,” Auntie Su told Jing Jing. “Your father seems to like my cooking well enough.”

The steam rising from the food made Jing Jing’s mouth water, but she didn’t want to eat in front of Auntie Su.

“Not right now,” Jing Jing said. “Maybe later.”

“Don’t worry about her,” Baba told Auntie Su as he grabbed a spare rib. “My daughter is too picky for her own good. I’m glad you like to play poker.”

“Only when I win. But be honest,” she said as she laid her hand on Baba’s arm. “I know you don’t want the game here tonight.”

“Nonsense,” her father replied as he chewed. “I’m glad you’re here.” Jing Jing suspected he was telling the truth. He seemed to like Auntie Su a lot, but Jing Jing didn’t know why she felt upset.

Baba kept chewing as he turned to Jing Jing. “Go find the cards,” he said. “I think your mother keeps them in the kitchen drawer.”

When Jing Jing came back with the deck of cards, she found Auntie Su replacing the lids on the containers.

“Your father said he was full,” Auntie Su said. “And since you’re not hungry, I thought I’d take the leftovers home.”

That night the guests trickled in as Auntie Su’s leftovers cooled in the fridge. For the first time, Jing Jing took a seat at the table, and no one shooed her away. Baba also remained in the room. His presence kept everyone else silent. He was watching TV again, and his eyes would occasionally wander over to the game.

Halfway through the first round, Jing Jing saw Baba exchange a long glance with Auntie Su. What was going on between them?

“Can I play too?” Jing Jing asked.

“You’re too young to gamble,” Auntie Su said as she glanced away from Baba. “Besides, you have to learn the rules first.”

Jing Jing wanted to say that she knew the rules better than Auntie Su. She scanned the faces gathered around the table. Uncle Cai laid down two queens. Auntie Chen selected a nine, ten, and jack of diamonds from her deck. Next, it was Auntie Su’s turn to reveal her hand.

“Three of a kind!” Auntie Su shrieked as she laid three aces on the table. “Beat that,” she added.

If Mama were here, Jing Jing thought, she’d be peeling oranges and refilling everyone’s teacups, but Auntie Su was too busy bragging to bother.

Jing Jing looked over at the couch to see if Baba was paying attention. She was relieved to find him watching Jeopardy. Alex Trebek announced that the category was Famous Buildings.

This 183 foot tall building was originally planned to stand vertically.

Baba looked stumped, but the contestant beeped long before the time ran out.

What is the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Back at the table, the game was dragging on. When her three aces won, Auntie Su had the chance to take another turn.

“You guys are no fun tonight,” Auntie Su said as she picked up three new cards. Then she grinned.

“Straight flush!” Auntie Su announced. “I have my good luck charm here with me tonight.” She reached across the table and pinched Jing Jing’s cheek. “Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing twisted away before Auntie Su could pinch her again. Why couldn’t this woman just leave her alone? Jing Jing looked back at the TV.

Famous Buildings was going for $200.

This New York skyscraper was the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed one year after its completion in 1930.

Her father remained silent.

What is the Chrysler Building? the contestant fired back.

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Meanwhile, the poker game had stalled. Though everyone else still had a full hand of cards, all the quarters were already stacked in front of Auntie Su.

“That’s it,” Auntie Su announced. She didn’t seem so happy about her straight flush anymore. “There’s no point in playing another round. I guess I’m the winner for tonight.”

Everyone nodded and threw down their cards. They looked relieved that the game was over.

“Well, let’s clean up,” Auntie Su said. Now she looked annoyed. “Jing Jing will tell us where everything is supposed to go.”

As Jing Jing helped Auntie Su collect the cards, she snuck looks at the Jeopardy game. Famous Buildings remained the category of choice until the $500 answer was the only one left.

This site once saw the violent removal of Chinese emperor Pu-yi.

“What is the Great Wall?” the contestant said.

Go pi!” Baba cursed. Jing Jing thought that a “dog fart” sounded much worse in Chinese than in English. “What. Is. Forbidden. City!”

The correct answer is: What is the Forbidden City? said Alex Trebek.

Baba’s moan made everyone turn around and stare.

“Did you see that?” Baba asked. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “These people are so stupid. I should be the one on TV. I just won. Can you believe it?”

Jing Jing didn’t tell Baba that you had to get more than one question right to win Jeopardy. She knew he wouldn’t have listened.

When no one answered his question, Baba looked around the room. His eyes finally rested on Auntie Su. He stood up from the couch and walked over to the table. Auntie Su was sweeping the quarters into her purse, but she stopped when he grabbed her wrist.

“Did you hear what I said?” Baba said. “I just won.”

Jing Jing decided she wouldn’t tell Mama too much about tonight’s game.

Auntie Su let Baba hold onto her wrist for a minute, then loosened herself from his grip.

“Well, I guess we both won tonight,” Auntie Su said. She shut her purse and began walking towards the front door. “Too bad we’re still not rich.”

Jing Jing stayed up late that night waiting for the Fantasy 5 drawing to be broadcast live on TV. The guests were gone, and Baba was already asleep. Mama wasn’t home yet, and Jing Jing didn’t have the latest lottery ticket in hand, but she knew what numbers her mother always played. The winning numbers just might be a match. She could see it now: the look of surprise on Mama’s face when she gave her the slip of paper with those lucky numbers. How happy Mama would be when they were receiving the giant check on TV.

Right before the 11 o’clock news, the drawing began. Jing Jing scooted closer to the TV and turned up the volume. On screen, an American man who looked a lot like Alex Trebek stood behind a glass case where a lot of painted balls were bouncing. “Welcome to tonight’s Fantasy 5 drawing,” the man said. He turned a giant key that made the balls move up and down even faster. “And the winning numbers are…” Jing Jing crossed her fingers. She watched as the balls began to slow down and reveal their numbers. Any second now her luck was going to turn around. Tonight was going to be the night.

About the Author: Mai Wang is a writer currently pursuing her PhD in English at Stanford. This is her first published story. Her nonfiction has been featured in publications such as The Billfold, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Upstreet Magazine.

Return to the October Issue

 

Bear Country

BJ_Henry_Bears1

By BJ Hollars

One night as I wandered my empty house, I took to the typewriter in my basement to compose my first and last letter to my mother-in-law.

“Just a brief note to wish you well,” I typed, “as you begin the next round of challenges that lay ahead.”

The “challenges” had a name, but I didn’t want to burden her with the language the doctor’s used.  I doled out platitudes and promises instead, the kinds of things no one ever expects anyone to make good on.

I began by mentioning future visits, future plans, the activities we would one day do.  Next, I thanked her for the birdfeeder she’d gotten me for Christmas, told her I’d come to calling it Caryl’s Bird Sanctuary (even though my most dedicated visitors were squirrels).

It was a difficult letter to write, mainly because while those near to her in Indiana knew she was dying, from my vantage point 500 miles away in Wisconsin, all I knew was that she was still alive.

***

From her place on the front lines my wife kept me abreast of the situation, though the news she shared was always bad news, and the bad news just got worse.

“She’s still here,” my wife whispered one night from her place in her childhood bedroom.  “She’s like 20 feet away from me right now, but…it’s like she’s already gone.”

It was all the motivation I needed to return to my typewriter, hopeful that in my second attempt I’d muster the courage to move beyond filler and type what I’d never said aloud.

“Thank you,” I wrote, “for raising your daughter.  I see parts of you in all the best parts of her.”

My words weren’t much, but they were all I had to convey to her what I felt she most needed to hear: that her legacy would live on in her progeny, and that her job—now done—had been done well. They were a small kindness, one I offered because I feared I wouldn’t have another chance; but also because the words allowed me to be there without being there, thereby sparing me the worst of it.

The typewriter offered no backspace, no correction fluid, no way for me to grow shy and take it back.

As I wrapped up that second draft, my wife called yet again.

“We’re trying to move her downstairs,” she whispered.  “But she doesn’t want to go.  She knows once she does, she’ll never come upstairs again.”

I said nothing.

“I mean, we’ll have to move her tomorrow regardless,” my wife continued.  “Which means this is the last night she and my dad will ever sleep in that bed together.”

I folded the letter and stuffed it into the envelope.

***

A week or so prior, our lives had been quite different.  I was in my office at the university prepping for classes when I received the text from my wife who was home with the kids.

bad news, she wrote—no further explanation required.

For a few days we’d been awaiting Caryl’s test results, and though she’d already beaten back cancer twice, we feared the odds would be against her on a third bout.

I picked up the phone, asked my wife what exactly her mother had said.

“That it’s not good,” my wife repeated.  “That there are tumors all over her body.”

“Like…benign?”

“No.  Not like benign.”

An interminable silence, followed by my wife’s voice:

“Go to class,” she directed.  “You have to teach.”

Five minutes later I entered a classroom.

“Good afternoon,” I said.  “Today we’ll learn about academic register.”

***

Today we’ll learn about stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Which, as I soon learned myself, is the cancer and the stage you want the least.  It’s the one that leaves little room for treatment, and even less room for a son-in-law’s assurances that everything will be okay.

Because statistically speaking, if you are diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, only 6% of you will be okay.  The rest of you will not be.  Pancreatic is often considered to be one of the deadliest cancers, not because it claims the most lives, but because the lives it claims it claims quickly, generally within the first year and often much sooner than that.

Caryl was proof. She was diagnosed on January 28 and died 17 days later.

Hours after receiving my wife’s text message, I walked home in the cold in perfect silence—up a hill, across a bridge, and finally, onto my street.  I passed the elementary school, the outdoor ice-skating rink, then slipped inside my house.

I worked my way down the dark hall—bypassing the dog and my infant daughter, Ellie, until arriving at my three-year-old son Henry’s room. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed my wife’s silhouette alongside him, her body filling in the space where his Berenstain Bears books weren’t.

 

It was all the motivation I needed to return to my typewriter, hopeful that in my second attempt I’d muster the courage to move beyond filler and type what I’d never said aloud.

 

“Hey,” I whispered.  “You up?”

We met at the kitchen table moments later, opening wide the bottle of emergency wine and retrieving a pair of glasses.

Our conversation toggled between stunned silence and logistics, the latter involving who needed whom where and when.  The answer was obvious: my wife’s mother needed her daughter and grandchildren there and preferably now.

I sat helpless at that table as my language skills reverted to a Neanderthal state:

“So…this is bad news,” I said, repeating the text message.

My wife reached once more for the wine.

***

On Valentine’s Day, just days after my family’s most recent return home to Wisconsin, my wife was woken by a phone call from her father.

“You’d better start driving,” he said, “if you want to say goodbye.”

Later, I’d learn the facts surrounding that phone call.  How throughout the night Caryl had repeatedly tried to pull herself up from the bed, her anxiety growing along with her fitfulness.  This went on for much of the night, prompting my father-in-law to sleep with his feet propped on the edge of her bed, a cautionary measure to ensure he’d wake if she did.

There is a name for it—terminal restlessness—but none of us knew that then.

All we knew was what the nurse had told my father-in-law: that it was time to rally the troops.

My wife and daughter made up the first wave, while Henry and I stayed behind to perform all Berenstain Bear-related duties.  By which I mean we distracted ourselves in the books’ colored pages, taking refuge in a wonderland of tree houses, talking bears, and problems that always resolved by the last page.  There was a tidiness to their narratives, an inevitable answer, and no matter what the problem (a dentist’s visit, a messy room), the Bear family always endured.

Throughout that day, Henry and I took one trip after another down that sunny dirt road deep into Bear Country.  We were momentarily bachelors, and since there was no one to tell us enough was enough, we overindulged in the saccharine tales.  Henry sat rapt on my lap until the books ran out, at which point we drove to the library for more.

Since it was Valentine’s Day, we celebrated with a post-library visit to the record store.  There, we searched for records to make us feel good, his small hands flipping expertly through the dollar bins, a perfect imitation of me.

Eventually, he settled on a Broadway production of Peter Pan, while, I—after much deliberation—snagged a Stevie Nicks’ solo album.

My wife called as I walked our loot toward the register.

“Hey,” I said.  “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she said.  “I guess my mom’s been asleep all day.  They don’t think she’s going to wake up again.”

I steadied myself by placing a hand in Henry’s curly hair.

“What are you guys doing?” she asked.

I told her about the record store, about our adventures deep into Bear Country.

“Sounds pretty cooooooool,” she said, her voice offering me a flash of our lives before the night of the emergency wine.  “Well, I better go.  It’s super windy out here.  I love you.”

“Happy Valentine’s,” I said.

***

Last Thanksgiving my wife’s family piled into cars to purchase an obscenely large Christmas tree from the lot just a few blocks away.

“This is our last one, Beej,” said my father-in-law as he slipped on shoes and cap.  “One last real, live tree.”

For the decade I’d known them, my in-laws had never wavered in their commitment to the real, live tree.  Year after year, my father-in-law was burdened with the work that it entailed: hauling it into the living room, screwing it into the stand, then rigging a network of wires to the wall to ensure that it stayed upright.  For those of us who simply enjoyed its pine-scented yuletide cheer, there was no question that the work was surely worth it.  Though I imagine this answer wasn’t so obvious to the man charged with carrying it out.

The rest of my in-laws were out the door when I realized my mother-in-law wasn’t among them.  She had never been one to miss anything, least of all a family tradition.

“I’ll stay back with Ellie,” I called to my wife, nodding to our dozing daughter snoring in my arms.  She nodded, and as I watched the headlights from those cars fade into the night, Ellie and I made our way upstairs to Caryl’s room.

She was huddled in her chair, her space heater just inches from her legs as she stared into the glow of her iPad.

“How’s Dr. Sleep?” I asked, nodding to the Stephen King book stationed at her bedside.

“Oh…it’s fine,” she shrugged.  “I don’t know how much I like it.”

I nodded, continued on with the small talk.

We chatted for twenty minutes or so until the family returned with their tree.

“Well,” I sighed, starting toward the stairs, “I guess we better go check on the damage.”

She didn’t follow me.

That was the moment I knew she was sick; that it wasn’t “our” last tree, but hers.

***

 

Throughout  the evening, my eyes focused not on the screen, but on my son’s fascination with those bears. I wanted to remember him that way: riveted, and not yet burdened by our burdens.

 

While driving home from the grocery store on Valentine’s night, my wife called to inform me of her mother’s death.

“She’s gone,” she said.  “It’s over.”

Stunned, I parked the car in the drive and then proceeded to preheat the oven.  Henry and I had spent the last half an hour or so ranking pizzas in the frozen food aisle, and given the extreme care he’d put into his selection, I felt I could hardly deny him his reward.

I stuffed Henry with supreme pizza, then had him wash it down with a 16-ounce can of peach iced-tea.

Comfort food, I told myself, even if he didn’t yet know he needed it.

That night, Henry and I ventured even deeper into Bear Country, watching a marathon’s worth of Berenstain Bears TV episodes from the DVD we’d checked out at the library that day.

We crowded into bed and wrapped the blankets tight around us, then watched as Too Tall and his gang peer-pressured Brother Bear into stealing a watermelon from Farmer Ben’s field.

Throughout much of the evening, my eyes focused not on the screen, but on my son’s fascination with those bears.  I wanted to remember him that way: riveted, and not yet burdened by our burdens.

Later that night, once the TV was muted and Henry was fast asleep, my wife would recount the details of her mother’s death.

How she, her dad, and her siblings had gathered for dinner around the living room bed, when, in the midst of their taco salad, she faded.

My wife stood to grab a napkin, glanced at the bed, asked: “Why isn’t Mom breathing?”

Life continued: calls were made and dishes placed in the drying rack.

An hour or so later, after the counter had been wiped of Doritos’ dust, the hospice nurse arrived to confirm what was already known.

Meanwhile, back in Bear Country, I guided Henry through his nightly prayers.

“…if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

“Amen,” I said.

“Amen,” he said.

Then one of us fell asleep.

***

In the week’s that followed, grief’s pressure points hit hard and fast and often.  One day my wife diced an onion and began to cry, not for the usual onion-dicing reasons, but because her mother had simply loved onions.  Another day she stared at the toenail clippers and was overcome with the memory of clipping her mother’s nails the week before her death.

Today, while driving, my wife asked:

“Do you want to know the saddest thing?”

“Not really.”

“She just renewed her passport.”

***

There was a time before the cancer—or between the cancers—when everything was fine.  It’s hard to remember that now, even though we have the pictures to prove it. All those photos of all those smiles; we had no reason not to.

At the funeral home, these pictures scrolled past on several screens, giving family and friends a place to rest their eyes.  The pictures had no chronology.  There was young Caryl alongside old Caryl alongside Caryl and her kids.  There was happy-go-lucky Caryl alongside first-bout-of-cancer Caryl alongside Caryl in the front porch family photo.

I’m in that one, too, smiling with a newborn on my lap.

Seven months after that photo was snapped, my wife asked her mother if her life had gone as she’d hoped.

“Sure,” her mother replied from her deathbed, “up until now.”

***

I won’t say much about the funeral, except that I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a front row seat reserved for anything.

I didn’t want it, and thanks to Ellie’s wailing, I didn’t even need it.

Two days later—after the house was filled with flowers and the ashes were placed on the shelf—my entire family was brought down by the flu.

My children puked in unison, my wife following soon after.  For a while, I was our only hope, and in an effort to give my wife a rest, I transported the sick kids to my parent’s house just a few miles away.

That’s when I, too, became sick.

My mom helped out the best she could, but Ellie would have nothing to do with her.  She insisted I hold her continuously—no exceptions—which meant I soon found myself cradling my daughter in my left arm while wrapping my right arm around the toilet rim.

As my body heaved its insides out, it was all I could do to hold tight to her.  I trembled, wiped away my spit, tried hard to block out the smell of stomach acid.  Ellie watched curiously, gave me a grin, then gripped my arm as I gagged awhile longer.

Eventually, my mom swooped in to snag my daughter.

“Don’t worry,” she shouted over Ellie’s wails, ” it’ll be fine.”

She was right; it would be fine for me.  I still had my mom.

***

For weeks, Henry and I sought solace in every Berenstain Bear book we could find, scanning the library’s shelves again and again, hoping for something new. And while we indeed learned a lot about cleaning messy rooms and visiting dentists, those bears remained mum on the subject of dead mother-in-laws. Surely the solace we sought resided somewhere down that sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. But despite our best efforts, Henry and I could never quite find that road, that country. Instead, we took refuge in the only country we had. The terrain was rough, the route unmapped, but we walked every step of it together.

Author’s Note: The week before Caryl died, Henry and I walked into the living room where her bed had been moved. “Grandma, how was your day?” he asked. “Good,” she told him, glancing at me “I received a nice letter in the mail.” Later, I’d find that letter folded on her bedside table. No one’s spoken of it since.

BJ is the author of several books, including the forthcoming From The Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human and a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

 

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

By Jennifer Berney

no

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.

Burning

Burning

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I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.

 

In early July, my eldest son, Jacob, called to say he couldn’t make it for my dad’s birthday party at the end of the month because his boss wouldn’t give him the time off. He had moved from Albuquerque to a small town in northern Wyoming almost a year earlier and I’d only seen him once since.

“Oh, man. That sucks. I was so excited to see you,” I said, trying hard to express my disappointment without laying any guilt on him. We chatted for awhile and when I hung up the phone, crushed because I ached to put my arms around him, to put my head on his shoulder the way he rested his head on mine for the first 13 years of his life when I knew him so well I felt like I could read his mind.

He said he couldn’t come and then, two days before my dad’s birthday, I looked out the window and Jacob’s truck was in my driveway. I ran through the house and out the front door and then I was hugging him, gorging on the feel of him, squeaking in his ear like a pre-teen girl, “You’re here! I can’t believe you’re here! You said you couldn’t come!”

I pulled away from him and he shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to surprise you. You really didn’t know?”

“I really didn’t, and I was so sad,” and I squeezed him again, making him laugh.

During the six days of his visit, I made Jacob a little nutty with my desire to hang onto him. Hungry for his presence, I wanted to hug him, sit next to him, be near him. He’s 21 years old, so the fact that he’s moved away and into a life of his own is normal, but the story of our relationship isn’t one of a son who lives with his mother until he’s grown and ready to move away. Jacob hasn’t lived with me since he was 13, when he left my house in a storm of fury and pain to live full-time with his dad. For the next five years we rarely spoke or saw each other as Jacob’s dad exploited my parental weakness during a time of crisis in my life and taught Jacob to hate me.

I remember a phone call soon after Jacob’s 18th birthday and I was resting my hot forehead against the cold window of my bedroom, tears rolling down my face and neck and into the collar of my shirt and I was silent. I will hear his pain I said to myself as he spoke his anguish to me. I don’t ever have to see you again. I don’t have a mom. You never loved me. Do you hear me? Are you listening? Do you know that I hate you? You will never see me again.

I hear you, I said. I’m listening, I said, and the cold window against my forehead was a lie because the world was burning and I burned with the world until I was a heap of ashes on the floor in front of the cold window, my pain the only solid thing left of me.

Two weeks after the phone call that burned me to the ground, another phone call, this one asking for help. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I failed most of my classes last semester and I can’t find a job. I was afraid I’d end up working in fast food forever, and now I can’t even get some shitty job frying burgers.” I heard the tears and fear in his voice and I prayed before each word I spoke: I’ll help you. We’ll find a way for you to get your high school diploma that isn’t so hard. I love you I love you I love you. I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.

I hate navigating large bureaucracies and Job Corps registration isn’t a quick or easy process, but I enjoyed it because it meant time with Jacob. As we gathered the paperwork that Job Corps required, I savored teaching Jacob how to create a home filing system. We shopped for shower shoes and toiletries and I never once checked my checking account balance, so thrilled was I to do this most ordinary of parental tasks. I was so filled with joy I was nearly giddy and I had to remind myself to match his mood, lest I annoy him so much that he would decide to ask his dad for help instead of me.

I don’t know why he lay down his bitter anger that day to call me; I’ve never asked. I only know that we explored his options together and, when he chose Job Corps as a place to finish high school and get some job training, he let me help him register for their residential program. We nurtured our nascent relationship on a dozen thirty-minute drives to the campus, talking about books, music, and his future, but never his anger. Never my pain. We didn’t talk about us, or the five preceding years when we scarcely spoke at all.

During Jacob’s visit at the end of July, I wanted to insist that he spend all of his time with me, but this is a family, and families are better when they’re made up of volunteers, not hostages, so I controlled my urges to beg and demand. We went out to dinner, celebrated my dad’s birthday, and spent a couple of long afternoons working at our respective computers at my dining room table. I was ebullient when I was with him and melancholic when he spent time with his friends, but I tried to remember that 21 year olds want to spend time with their friends and that’s a normal thing, not a rejection of me. The years without him have left me scorched and shriveled and Jacob’s presence is like water, but it’s not his job to heal me. I mourn over the years we lost and the relationship I wished we would have, but if I turn my grief into his guilt, I’d shift a burden to the young man whose burdens I want to ease. I’d not see our relationship become a malignant thing again, as it was during his teens.

After six days in Albuquerque, Jacob returned to Wyoming. I hugged him three times as he tried to leave and I ached to keep him here, but I didn’t beg because no matter her feelings, the parent of a grown child doesn’t have that right. I urged him to be careful, to drive safely, and there was a pleading note in my voice because I’ve lost too much time with him to lose more.

We talk on the phone a few times a month and if the conversations are uneasy sometimes, it’s because we don’t know each other as well as we’d like, not because there is acerbity under the surface. Discomfort and unfamiliarity are better than bitterness, but it isn’t the ease and intimacy most parents would hope to have with an adult child. When Jacob calls or texts me, I always feel a thrill. In between the calls and texts and all-too-rare visits, I miss him, and I have learned to live with the missing. I’ve become accustomed to the grief for the years we lost and the relationship we might have had. I hold the grief in one hand and my tremendous gratitude for the gift of being his mom in the other, and most of the time the two balance.

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

Photo: Casey Frye

The Girl From Anthropologie

The Girl From Anthropologie

By Juli Fraga

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Like many childhood relationships, my friendship with Abby had simply run its course.

 

In the first months of new motherhood, meeting new moms came with ease. Our babies served as relationship glue and brought us together for coffee, walks and play dates. Of course, like any relationship some friendships were better matches than others.

Three months after my daughter’s arrival, I met my “match” in the dressing room at Anthropologie. That afternoon, surrounded by the scents of vanilla and lavender in the dimly lit hallway of the dressing area, our babies were natural conversation starters. Their cries echoed through the doors as we tried on the same blue, bird printed T-shirts. “Nice t-shirt,” I said when I saw her emerge from the dressing room. “Ugh, I was hoping to get a few things to wear instead of my sweats, but I don’t love my post-baby body,” she replied. “How old is your baby?” I asked. “She’s three months old. How old is yours?” “She’s three months old, too,” I replied.

Her name was Abby. She told me she had recently moved to the Bay area. Then she noticed that I was feeding my daughter a bottle and asked if I was having problems breastfeeding (I was). She confided in me about her nursing struggles, too. After months of feeling like a failure because my body couldn’t produce enough milk, I felt seen and validated. We exchanged email addresses. She contacted me the next day. The title of her email read, “Girl from Anthropologie.” Her message made my day. As much as I loved my newly born daughter, I felt lonesome. Prior to entering the mom tribe, I led a heavily scheduled, active social life. My husband and I traveled a lot, and I often joined my girlfriends for dinners and concerts after work.

New motherhood hijacked these social plans, and the freedom I had enjoyed with my friends for years. When I became a mother, most of my girlfriends were single and childfree. While they continued going on weekend vacations, happy hours and late night dinners, I spent my days and evenings at home immersed in diaper changes, burping, feeding, and sleep training. Abby’s email offered a breath of new hope — a thread of adult connection that broke up the long stretches of loneliness that accompanied parenting a newborn. We had coffee that week and met weekly for the first year of our daughter’s lives. We went to the park and every Wednesday we met at a café for an early dinner. I learned about Abby’s pre-mommy life, and how she had once been a preschool, director. We talked about how much we missed our careers, and how they had been impacted by the pause button of motherhood. We even survived our first mom crisis together.

One afternoon Abby called me panicked. Her daughter had a high fever and a red rash on the bottom of her feet Our girls had played together the day before. Not only was she worried about her baby’s health, she was also concerned about my daughter. Her daughter had “Hand Foot Mouth” disease, and within two-days, my daughter had it, too. We spent hours on the phone supporting each other as we both dealt with our children’s first fevers and the worry that accompanied it.

Then, shortly after our daughters turned two, she disappeared. Slowly. Looking back, I had missed the signs. It started when she wrote back after every third or fourth email I sent. Her messages were cordial, but not inviting. “Hope you are doing great, too. Can’t believe it is almost fall.” She ignored my invitations for dinner and play dates, and changed her RSVP to “no” for my daughter’s birthday party. “She’s probably busy after her vacation,” I told myself. My denial served as my armor, a Band-Aid for my hurt and confused feelings. Then, one afternoon as I walked down the street with my daughter and my husband, I spotted Abby walking ahead of me. I recognized the butterfly tattoo on her ankle and her silver Birkenstock sandals. “Abby,” I shouted.

She turned around and things felt awkward. She didn’t hug me. She didn’t apologize for her absence. Instead, she looked me up and down and said, “Hi.” My daughter started crying. Abby focused on my daughter’s tears and said she hoped her day improved. I felt foolish for saying hello. Clearly she had broken up with me and didn’t want to talk about what had happened between us. I mentioned we were going out to lunch, and we made small talk about the upcoming holidays. “Where are you going to lunch?” she asked. “I’m not sure yet, ” I replied. “Hope you have a nice holiday and thanks for saying hi,” she said.

Afterward, I felt a knot well up in my stomach. Her rejection stung, and my stomach bore the brunt of my hurt feelings. I could tell our friendship was over. She had asked me where I was going to lunch because she didn’t want to see me at the same restaurant. Even my husband who is usually clueless about female relationships commented on the awkward interaction. “I’m sorry, but I think she’s divorced you,” he said. That was over a year ago.

This past fall, I once again ran into her at the Anthropologie dressing room. I felt like a hurt ex as I tried to act unaffected by the strangeness between us. We made small talk about kindergarten applications. But this time, we were trying on different t-shirts. She tried on a plain colored tee while I tried on a floral printed cardigan. I almost asked her what I had done that  offended her. Had I unintentionally hurt her feelings? Had she outgrown our friendship as our daughters became older? Like a detective trying to find answers, I replayed our last play dates in my mind. Nothing glaring stood out. Her silence communicated that she didn’t want to tell me why our friendship had ended. That afternoon, I was at the cash register when she left the store. She turned to wave and said, “Bye, Juli.”

While I never learned why my friendship with Abby ended, I grew to appreciate our relationship for the joy it provided during my early years of motherhood. And I realized the person I needed to forgive was the one I had neglected the most: myself. I had beaten myself up as I imagined I had deeply hurt Abby. “What did I do?” I had asked myself repeatedly.

One day, I observed my daughter on the playground. I watched closely as she held hands with a little girl as they went down the slide. Their little hands released from each other as soon as their feet hit the ground. They ran in opposite directions, and my daughter began playing with another friend near the seesaw. Studying my daughter’s fun filled play, I realized that like many childhood relationships, my friendship with Abby had simply run its course. She decided to let go, and that afternoon, so did I.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist, writer and mother. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post and the Mid. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga. 

10 Thoughts On Being a Mom-Friend

10 Thoughts On Being a Mom-Friend

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Friendships can be temporary and still rich and authentic. When it stops working, whatever the reason, give yourself and your (now-fading) friend a break. It’s part of life. Move on – and remember what you gave to each other while it worked.

 

When I had my first baby, over a decade ago now, I wondered how I’d strike up solid friendships with other new moms.

Looking back now, I realize how lucky I’ve been. Here are some gestures, big and small, that can go a long way toward building a real friendship. 

1. Be honest about the hard stuff. We all benefit from being real about how tough it is to be alone with a baby and find time to just use the bathroom. Don’t gloss over the lowlights.

2. But don’t be toxic. Envy, anger, and endless complaining are easy to fall into but bad for both of you. And besides, little ears are listening. 

3. Make her laugh. And hope she’ll do the same for you. Having someone to laugh with is even more important when you are sleep-deprived and full of self-doubt and generally just finding your way.

4. Listen. Put your phone away. Those snippets of real-life conversations will carry you through the hours when you don’t have adult company.

5. Snap a picture of her with her kid. We can’t have enough candids of ourselves with our kids. Take one when she doesn’t know you’re watching and send it to her. Even better, print it out and stick in an envelope before your next play date. 

6. Share your hand-me-downs. But only if it’s something you don’t need back. No one needs the added stress of trying to keep track of your onesies or get spit-up out of your favorite overalls.

7. Ask about her pre-parenthood life. And tell her about yours. 

8. Keep money in mind. We’re all on a different budget. You might need to realize that pricey lunch spot won’t work for her – or learn to put your own constraints, graciously, on the table. 

9. Remember that it’s not always about you. When she doesn’t return a few texts and you’re feeling left out or forgotten, she may have stuff going on that has nothing to do with you. 

10. Strike a balance when it comes to favors. Be willing to offer help and be able to ask for it. Be generous, but not to the point where you become resentful. Remember that she’s not your built-in babysitter and you’re not hers.

Finally, know that friendships can be temporary and still rich and authentic. When it stops working, whatever the reason, give yourself and your (now-fading) friend a break. It’s part of life. Move on – and remember what you gave to each other while it worked.

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.

How Much Should You Help Your Teenager With His Or Her College Applications?

How Much Should You Help Your Teenager With His Or Her College Applications?

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Applying to college is serious business. Although applications are designed to be completed by high school seniors, those students are rarely alone in navigating the admissions process. Parents, as always, hover nearby. They wonder if their children can handle the complexities of the process—identifying a short list of schools, writing essays, filling out the forms, making a final choice—or understand the long term implications or financial burden of higher education. They worry their kids won’t get into a school, won’t get into a good school, or won’t take college seriously once they’re on campus.

Some parents choose to observe, insisting their children handle most, if not all, of the application responsibilities. Others are more engaged, taking on items they think their kids aren’t ready, or are too busy, to handle. Reasonable people can disagree as to how best to guide kids as they prepare to leave home. Lisa Heffernan and Devon Corneal have two such contrasting perspectives:

Lisa:

Different kids have different needs. I helped all three of my boys through the admissions process, but I kept a closer eye on my least-organized child. I didn’t think this was the moment, though, to let any of them sink or swim. The costs of a small mistake simply seemed too great. For example, my oldest was applying to an early action school where, he believed, the application was due November 1. I carefully read the forms and the extra material about the art supplement he was hoping to submit. In the details the university noted that if you were submitting an art supplement your application date was October 15. The good news is that I discovered this fact, but the bad news was that my son had five days rather than 21 days to complete his application.

Parents have 18 years to get their kids ready for adulthood and a couple more during which we act as consultants. The college application is a small moment with big ramifications. There were many moments that were far better to let my kids test their adulthood without the training wheels.  

Devon:   

Unless your kids have unique educational or physical or psychological challenges that require specific support or interventions, this is the ideal time to let them sink or swim. Unlike Lisa, I don’t think the consequences here are very severe.

There are a myriad of excellent colleges and universities in the United States and your child could be successful in many of them, so if he doesn’t get into his first choice college, he’ll be fine. (Don’t believe me? Take a deep breath and read Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” You’ll feel better.) If your kid misses a deadline and can’t apply to a particular program or school, she can apply again the following year. A gap year may be just the thing an eighteen-year-old needs to learn how to get organized and focused. If the school your child chooses turns out to be a lousy fit, he can transfer. There’s nothing in the college selection process that cannot be fixed. Aside from a bruised ego or feeling left out when friends head off for freshman year, the damage of screwing up the application process is minimal.

Our kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. High school seniors are about to leave home and start inching their way into the real world. That world is filled with deadlines and complicated forms and scary choices. The college admissions process, while onerous and time consuming, is not particularly complex. Our kids can manage this process fairly independently, and moreover, we should let them.

Lisa:  

When our sons started the college process they had only previously seen one or two university campuses. When we asked them what they were looking for in a college we got nothing but blank stares. Small? Urban? Liberal arts? Yeah, it all sounded good. So after meeting with their high school college guidance counselors and getting a sense of the types of schools where they might expect to gain admission, I sat at the computer with them and pulled together a list from what we read on the college’s websites. I went to a public university in California (we live in NY) and my husband was educated in England so we were learning right alongside our kids.

Why didn’t I just leave making a short list of schools up to them? They were, in a word, clueless. They had never been to college, had few thoughts about what college life would entail and every time I suggested another school to research online they were both amenable and indifferent. While the Internet gave them access to the information they needed, there is a sense in which it gave them too much. Researching options together allowed us to talk over some of the pertinent issues—how far away from home, what kind of student body—but it also kicked off a year-long discussion about their views on their own futures.

Devon:

High school is all about research—book reports, term papers, where the coolest party will be on Friday night, or how to convince your parents to buy you a new iPhone. Our kids are experts. With a click of the mouse they can pull up statistics about any school they want, compare programs, look at campus videos and pictures, and review a host of factors about any school in the country (or abroad for that matter). There is no reason parents should be involved in picking a list of schools.

We left this entirely to our son. Our involvement was limited to talking with him generally about college before he started his formal research. We asked him what he thought he might want to study, where he might want to live, whether he wanted an urban or suburban experience, and what size school appealed to him. Once we all understood what his initial thoughts were, we sent him on his way and asked him to come back to us with a list of colleges that he thought fit that criteria. We capped the number of schools he could apply to seven (call us crazy, but applying to 20 schools seemed insane) and suggested his list include a safety school, schools he should get into, reach schools and a dream. He handled this step of the process without any help from us.

Devon:

DO NOT. WRITE. YOUR. KID’S. ESSAY. I implore you. This is a waste of time. Admissions officers can spot an essay written by an adult after the first sentence and wouldn’t you rather be having a cocktail? It is also undermining and infantilizing. Discuss topics with your teen if he’s stuck. Offer to proofread essays once they are finished. Do not revise and rewrite. Your kid may write a terrible essay that fails to convey the real obstacles he’s overcome or the unique characteristics that make him stand out from a crowd. That’s a shame, but that’s life.

I have friends who help kids write their college essays for a living. I have no doubt they are good at what they do and that some families want that kind of support. I am even sure that the kids who have that help produce beautifully polished essays. The point of an admission essay, however, is to help a college discover who your son or daughter really is, how he or she thinks, and yes, how he or she writes, without professional polishing and revisions. If your child has passed his or her high school English classes, he or she is fully capable of writing an essay for a college application.

Lisa:

I agree completely that parents should keep their hands off their kid’s essays. First of all, parents have no business doing their kid’s work. Secondly, we have no idea what colleges want. And finally, this is an emotional cesspool that you do not want to swim in. However, I don’t agree that kids should write their essays unaided.

My kids worked on their essays with one of their high school English teachers. Teachers will not do the work for kids, they are not in that business. But they will probe a kid about their intended topic and ask questions, demand succinct writing and reject work that is not good enough. Teachers will encourage and correct and challenge a kid to do their very best work, without the emotional entanglement that parents bring.

Devon:

The Common App makes the form part of the process a lot easier than it was when I applied to college. Gone are the days of requesting individual paper applications from schools and filling them in by hand or with a typewriter. (White-Out, you were a good friend, but I’m glad you’re no longer a part of my life.) Your kid can handle this. Since the Common App asks about parents’ work and educational background, you may need to give your kids information they don’t have (think graduation dates and specific degrees), but otherwise, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to figure this out on their own. We left this to our son and didn’t bother to review it.

The only exception we made was for financial aid forms. Because we are footing the bill for college, and because we don’t believe our kids should have access to our financial information, we took on the FAFSA. Ron Lieber is rolling his eyes right now, but so be it.

Lisa:

Other than the paperwork at the DMV, the Common App was the first set of grown-up forms that my kids had ever completed. And while I let them fill out their backgrounds and ours by themselves, I stayed nearby because there was a litany of questions that never seemed to end. How many hours a week did they do an activity? Well, it varied. If the job started as volunteer and later was paid, which category does it go under? Hmmm, not sure. In theory I could have left them on their own for this one, but that would have meant ignoring a string of questions that all began with the words, “Mom, what do you think they mean when they ask…?” After I had answered all of their questions did I let them take if from there? Absolutely not.

They printed the application and then together we proofread every word. In the process they thought of things they wanted to change and so we did it all again. I wouldn’t turn in a piece of writing to an editor without someone looking it over for mistakes and typos and I felt the same way about my kids and their Common App.

Devon:

If you’ve done your job up to now, the final decision about where to go should be your child’s. Assuming they’ve selected a list of schools that will provide them with a solid education, and you’ve been upfront about the financial constraints and realities of each choice, the schools on their final list should be schools your child likes and can afford. It doesn’t matter which school you prefer, let your son or daughter pick. After all, they’ll be the ones doing the heavy lifting from here on out. (Except on moving day. You’d be surprised how heavy dorm supplies are.)

Lisa:

If your kid is accepted to more than one college and he doesn’t have a clear favorite among them, it is not time to walk away. In the same way I would talk to a friend or a spouse about job options, I pondered my kids’ colleges choices with them. In that brief window colleges allow between March and May to make the decision we visited the schools that had accepted them (this is totally different from the original visit and very useful) and then we made lists of the pros and cons, talked to kids who had graduated and revisited the issue of what each child wanted from college. The Common App had been submitted nearly six months ago and in the life of a 17-year-old that is eons. So together we talked through what they hoped to experience in the next year, I offered them my frank opinions, and then they pushed the button.

Authors’ Note: Despite our very different approaches to the application process, our children have all gotten into college and, more than that, are on track to graduate.

Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books, including New York Times Business Bestseller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success. She co-writes a blog Grown and Flown and her work has appeared in Forbes, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and other publications. Lisa is married and has three sons.

Devon Corneal is a writer, recovering lawyer, mother and stepmother. A policy wonk, litigator and academic in her prior lives, Devon now writes about parenting, child and adolescent development, children’s literacy, and women’s issues for sites including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, and her blog, www.cattywampusblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @dcorneal. 

Join us on Twitter this Thursday, 9/17, at 1:00 EST, for a discussion with Lisa, Devon, and Brain, Child staff members on parental involvement in the college process. We’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives. Use the hashtag #braindebate.

Introducing My Kids to Music from the 1980s

Introducing My Kids to Music from the 1980s

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We don’t want them to copy us in our teenage fashion trends or hairstyles or our 80s and 90s eating habits. We want them to surpass us and move beyond us. Except when it comes to music.

 

My twins turned fifteen recently and I decided it was time for them to listen to some good music. By good music of course, I meant music that I liked and music that was not from this century.

When I was a kid, in the 1980s, the music options available to my generation were what was on the radio or what was available in music stores, mostly whatever was currently popular. We didn’t have the entire spectrum easily accessible. Now because of iTunes and Pandora and Spotify, people can design their own listening experiences, access music from any decade, and ignore what they don’t like.

For my twins’ fifteenth birthday, I decided it was time to broaden their musical horizons, to introduce them to whole new genres and bands. I asked on Facebook: What older songs and artists are important for teenagers to know? I searched online and through my memory. I stirred up hours of nostalgia and musty memories of high school dances and sweaty palms and raucous bus rides and of my mom singing in the kitchen.

Some music should die, this is good and right. But some music should live on and be re-enjoyed by fresh generations. That’s the music I was looking for, along with a Bonnie Tyler song my husband sang at our wedding even though it, too, probably should have died.

I was pretty sure my kids wouldn’t like all the songs I picked but my hope was that by introducing them to some new artists and sounds and possibilities, they would choose a few highlights.

Because we live in east Africa and are far from the world where streaming songs is a regular activity, I purchased the songs on iTunes, loaded up their iPods while they slept, and gave them a printout of my chosen music. I titled the playlist, “Mom’s Music.”

The kids laughed when they opened their gift and saw a list of songs they didn’t recognize, artists they’d never heard of. One of them may or may not have rolled their eyes. I told them I stole the idea from Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy but not to worry, there were no intergalactic travelers in our family and I wasn’t planning to die any time soon. I wasn’t sure I would ever hear them play the songs.

There was the song that led to a vicious argument between my husband and I about whether or not current musicians could ever be as mind-blowingly awesome as musicians from the 1980’s.

There was the one that no one really understood but everyone screamed the words to at school dances.

There was the one that makes me cry every time I listen to it and the one that makes me laugh.

There was the one that meant I will love you forever and the one that meant I know we have lived in several countries but you can always call me and our family ‘home.’

In many ways parenting is about launching children into the big, wide world to experience fascinating and wonderful new things. We don’t want them to copy us in our teenage fashion trends or hairstyles or our 80s and 90s eating habits. We want them to surpass us and move beyond us.

Except when it comes to music.

I would dare to venture that most parents are pretty convinced that music was better before. The specific years of the present and the before aren’t exactly relevant, only the fact that music was better before.

So while we don’t want them to roll their pants like we did or use as much hairspray as we did, we do want them to sing like we did. Or at the very least we want them to know who we are channeling when we respond in certain ways.

Like: when they say, “Mom, can we leave (this boring party) yet?” And we respond with, “Should we stay or should we go now?” Or they say, “I’m going to soccer practice at 7:00 on the bike tomorrow.” And we say, “Wake me up before you go go.” Or when they are moving into their freshman dorm and we say, “Don’t you forget about me.”

I admittedly know very little about music but here are 20 songs from the 1980s that I listened to on the school bus or on mixed cassette tapes from friends or in the basement while wearing legwarmers and making up dances. These are songs that creep into conversation every now and then and they are songs that parents, if they are at all like me, raised in the 80s want their kids to know.

(In all honesty, my list included songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s so this isn’t the exact list I gave my kids. I marked ones I included.)

  1. Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor, 1986*
  2. Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, 1981*
  3. Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler 1983*
  4. Every Breath You Take, The Police, 1983
  5. Should I Stay or Should I Go, The Clash, 1982*
  6. Livin’ On a Prayer, Bon Jovi, 1986*
  7. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson, 1982
  8. Straight Up Now, Paula Abdul, 1988
  9. Walk like an Egyptian, The Bangles, 1985
  10. Material Girl, Madonna, 1984
  11. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Bobby McFerrin, 1988
  12. Now I’ve Had the Time of My Life, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 1987
  13. You Got It (The Right Stuff), New Kids on the Block, 1988
  14. Free Fallin’, Tom Petty, 1989*
  15. It’s the End of the World As We Know It, R.E.M., 1987*
  16. What’s Love Got To Do With It, Tina Turner, 1984
  17. I Think We’re Alone Now, Tiffany, 1987
  18. She Works Hard For the Money, Donna Summer, 1983
  19. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper, 1983*
  20. Don’t You Forget About Me, Simple Minds, 1987*

 

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.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Perfect Label

Perfect Label

By Mandy B. Fernandez

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She was crying, again, my daughter. Red-faced, scrunched up nose, piercing scream crying into my ear. Once Vivian began her fit, I knew it would be at least ten minutes before she’d stop. The noise from the gym could not overshadow my daughter’s tantrum. Other parents and children were now staring. Wailing and arms flinging, my two-year-old was not happy with my decision to move her to the side. She kicked and shouted her entire body spread across the bare floor, becoming even louder. I could not hold in my emotions anymore, my own disappointment for another failed mother-daughter outing. I sat down next to her and began to cry. Why can’t we go anywhere without this happening? Why can’t I comfort her or make her happy these days?

This kind of incident was happening about ten times a day, every day. I was exhausted. My two-year-old seemed exhausted too. I loved Vivian with my entire soul and being, sure. But I didn’t like her very much lately. Who was I kidding, I didn’t like myself much either.

A few weeks later was the play date I’d never forget, at the home of a mom I was just getting to know, with two other mothers and their kids. The other children seemed to play well together with the pretend kitchen, the puzzles and the games. My daughter, however, wasn’t interacting with them. She didn’t want the other kids near her, and she had trouble sharing toys. Vivian had several meltdowns as soon as we’d arrived.

The hostess of the group, a woman I had barely known, watched my daughter’s outbursts. Forty minutes into the visit she asked, “Has Vivian been tested for autism?”

I had several moments of panic… Autism? What? Because of a few outbursts from my child? I never responded to the question. The mom didn’t seem to care because she turned to the other guest and began a normal conversation with her, like what she had asked would have no lasting effect on me.

I looked at my girl—my beautiful, wild-curly haired daughter crying. There is nothing wrong you, with my child! This could not be true! Before I cried in front of the hostess and other mother, I gathered up our things and said we needed to leave for naptime.

With my daughter protesting, I struggled to buckle her into her car seat. And sobbed all the way home agonizing over that mom’s words. Could my child have a form of autism? No, that could not be. How dare she say that to me! She doesn’t even know my child!  Then I let her question seep in, and a sense of intense worry followed. Is there something wrong with Vivian? So what if she doesn’t like loud noises or tags on her clothes? Or that she’s not crazy about certain textures of foods. She makes eye contact. She smiles. She hugs. She’s perfect, a little quirky, but still perfect.

I called Jen, a friend of mine, a teacher, someone I trusted, that I felt truly knew my child. I replayed the scene for her. Jen said I should not listen to those crazy words.

“Don’t be ridiculous! Vivian is just fine. She’s played with Sarah with no issues. Maybe Viv didn’t like those kids or perhaps she was just tired.”

I talked to my husband. He too agreed. That I had overreacted to this woman’s ignorance.

Still I made the appointment with our pediatrician to have Viv examined. If for nothing else, for peace of mind.

“I do not think your child has a form of autism. She is particular and perhaps a bit quirky about certain things but Vivian is within the normal behavioral range,” Dr. Wolff’s told us after performing a series of written, oral and physical exams.

He added, “She will probably outgrow her sensitivity to sounds, and textures, but if you want another opinion, have her tested by the county.”

So we had Vivian tested. My husband and I watched as she spent close hours “playing” and answering questions, forming sentences and following directions. The testing lady scribbled notes onto her clipboard.

Vivian didn’t protest, or ask for a snack or even inquire about the bathroom during the assessment. Instead she was just a kid trying to figure out what this grown up wanted and how she could have a little fun.

A week later, we received the official test results. The academic and behavioral exams came back “normal” within the standard range.

I glanced at the notice, then tossed it in the trash. I didn’t need a piece of paper telling me what I had already known, deep down. No one was going to mislabel my kid.

To this day, over three years later, Vivian still has “quirks” as the doctor put it. She can control her feelings and does not have tantrums anymore. But she still doesn’t like loud noises, especially cries from her sister. She still insists on removing the tags from her t-shirts and dresses.

She is my perfect little girl. This is how I choose to label her.

Mandy B. Fernandez is a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida with her husband and two children. She writes creatively and professionally on topics such as education, business, creative arts, health, family life, parenting and natural foods. You can learn more about her at www.writtenbymandy.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Everything Old is New Again 

Everything Old is New Again 

By Amanda Rose Adams

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Now that my daughter wears adult sized clothes I have bought her Banana Republic sweaters and snow pants at a thrift store.

 

During a rare car ride with my grandmother in the 1990s she shared the stories of her parents’ deaths when she was a child. It was eerie how she described her excitement about getting her father from the hospital and watching her mother gather up his clothes. When my nine-year-old grandmother grabbed her father’s heavy boots, her mother just shook her head. The clothes they were bringing were for burial, and one of Grandma’s many fully grown brothers could make use of their father’s shoes. Their mother died a few months later.

A few years after this conversation with my grandmother I was pursuing my master’s degree and working at a technology company. During a water cooler moment, I made a comment about buying used clothing at a consignment store. My work-friends were troubled that I wore used clothes. One of my friends was visibly creeped out by the idea and shivered at the thought of wearing “used” clothes. I learned to be more selective about with whom I chose to share my shopping habits and wins.

When I had my daughter in 2004, fast fashion coupled with a child who grows like a weed found me buying her new clothes most of the time. However, I was always a persistent coupon and clearance shopper and strategically bought mix-and-match colors to stay in my budget. Then she grew too tall for children’s clothes and I had to change my approach.

Now that my daughter wears adult sized clothes I have bought her Banana Republic sweaters and snow pants at a thrift store, Asics running shorts in discontinued colors for five dollars on Amazon.com, and slightly worn jeans at consignment shops. We also buy at overstock stores like TJ Maxx where my daughter spent her own money to buy herself a ten dollar dress for her first day of middle school and bragged about the bargain to our hair stylist.

When I was my daughter’s age I wore my brother’s used shoes. In fact most of my clothes were from garage sales or hand-me-downs from a family friend. The rest were hand made by my mother or bought on lay-away at K-mart. Unlike my parents who were raising four kids, I only have two. My son couldn’t give two figs about clothes and usually wears the first thing he can grab out of his closet, whether it matches his pants or not. My daughter is far more interested in expressing herself through her hairstyle and clothing choices. But she is also open to the creativity and flexibility second-hand clothing allows.

When I took her sized 5 ice skates to sell at the consignment store, my daughter looked a little sad, but I reminded her that she now wears a 7.5 and that she could have all the store credit for those skates, and she perked right up. Our community consignment stores are all locally owned. Our community thrift store benefit local charities with the proceeds they make from their sales, and by buying chain store clothes on a secondary market we are buying local, and that’s important to me.

My kids don’t wear used shoes, socks, underwear, or pajamas. When I was buying snow pants at the thrift store, I looked at used snow boots and decided that I could afford to buy my kids shoes that fit their own feet. I will splurge on shoes and bras because nothing makes a person more uncomfortable in their skin than ill-fitting undergarments or shoes. The rest can be washed in hot water with vinegar and given a new life.

Financially, I can afford to buy my daughter expensive clothes, but I don’t want to start that habit. I can’t make the emotional leap. Between my great-grandfather buried in his bare feet, my favorite Levi’s 501 jeans that came from a garage sale with a $5 bill in the coin pocket that I wore throughout middle school, and the hand pieced quilt I made from an old flannel jacket I shared with my father in high school as a form of grieving his death, clothing is more to me than a consumable possession. I am quick to pass on clothing we no longer need and rarely keep a sentimental piece. My approach to clothing, and what I hope I’m passing on to my children, is that while we live in a culture of conspicuous consumption, we have choices and the power to decide for ourselves what matters and how we express that.

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.

Image: gettyimages.com

Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

By Francie Arenson Dickman

PiggyGrazer

As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.

 

“I left Piggy and Grazer on the bus,” my thirteen-year-old daughter announced as I stood amid piles of laundry in the garage. Sobs followed, the kind generally saved for the loss of loved ones—the real kind, not the ones filled with stuffing and beans.

“Are you sure?” I asked, already aware we were headed nowhere good.

Between convulsions, she nodded. She’d left them under the seat in the same over-sized Ziploc bag in which they’d lived all summer. She was sure of it, and I believed her. Piggy and Grazer are almost 14 and 11, adolescent like she is. Though in stuffed animal years, they are ancient. Their parts and worn, some are missing. Hence, my daughter kept them sealed in the bag all summer. An act of preservation. She’d never consider leaving them at home, where they’d be safest, as they are her security, her comfort, the things she turns to in times of need.

Needless to say, we experienced tense times in our house as the objects of security themselves were the subject of an intense search and rescue. My husband and I divided our efforts. He kept in constant contact with Wilma at the bus terminal who was on high alert for the arrival of Lamers Bus 502. I calmed my crying daughter as well as my other daughter who was lying atop the filthy clothes, breathing in the smell of what she called “camp” and also crying. All this, while we did the laundry.

Finally, at 9:30 that night, we got the call that Piggy and Grazer were alive and well. Though half-way back to camp in Wausau, Wisconsin.

“Can we go get them?” my daughter asked.

“Wilma says she will mail them to us on Monday,” my husband announced.

“But it’s only Friday,” I said. “Where will they be all weekend?”

My husband explained that they’d stay with George the driver overnight who would then pass them off to a man named Tom who would then drop them at the terminal office where they would wait until Wilma returned. He added that my daughter would have them by Tuesday and maybe in the meantime, learn that she didn’t need them that much. “At least there will be a silver lining to all of this,” he added.

This was the kind of character building exercise that I’d been totally into only weeks earlier as I’d sat idle on the outdoor couch. Fueled by a piece I read in Slate Magazine, Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out, (which reinforces what most of us already know, that when parents over involve themselves to protect their kids, they deprive kids of the chance to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience) I’d promised myself that I was going to be a different kind of mother when my kids returned from camp. I was going to be non-reactive. I was going to be removed. I was going to stop making their lunches and driving them to school. If they needed more money, they were going to get jobs. If they had an issue with a friend, they could resolve it themselves. In the child-free vacuum of summer, reason was allowed to reign. My girls are teenagers, I thought, it’s time—for them as well as for me—to take a step back.

Not that I’m a helicopter parent as the Slate piece described—motivated by concern for my kids academic performance. I’m more of a hovercraft, concerned with their well-being overall. I come by the tendency genetically. My father, like his mother before him, were hoverers, operating on a past century’s premise that a parent’s job is to protect her kids whenever possible from the harsh realities of life, which will eventually provide lessons in resilience whether asked for or not. My parental circumstance doesn’t help my propensity to rescue. That’s the downside of having twins and only twins. Although I have two kids, I get to go only one time around the carousel of childhood. And the ride goes so fast. I’m wont to prolong it. So, I’ll bring the forgotten lunch to school. I’ll make the unmade bed.

I’ll even—despite the Slate article’s warning that “students with hovering parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression”—agree to take a 7 hour car ride (3 1/2 hours each way) to recover a couple of inanimate objects.

“The odds of Piggy and Grazer ever making it into a mailing envelope seem dicey. Waiting doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do.” I told my husband.

My daughter agreed.

So we drove. Resolutions on resilience went out the window of our SUV at 6:30 the next morning with my husband, both of my daughters and the dog in tow.

No, driving was not the rational thing to do. We came home exhausted only to find that the dirty laundry had not washed itself. But mothering is not a rational business. In a week, my daughter would start 8th grade. In a month, she’d turn fourteen. Next year at this time, she’d not only be in high school but in Driver’s Ed. As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.

And our road trip was actually a fabulous reunion. We talked about camp. We looked at pictures. We laughed. We ate McDonald’s. The dog went to the bathroom on the side of the road. So did my daughter. And, I’m happy to say we recovered the animals. Did I miss an opportunity to help my daughter build her coping skills? Maybe. But we certainly made a memory.

Let that be the silver lining of the story, instead.

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.

 

 

 

Microwave Chicken

Microwave Chicken

By Brooke Williams

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When your mother is a therapist, your actions always have deeper meaning. Apparently, the fact that I never liked microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers or self-help books was my way of rebelling against her.

 

We were the first family in Decatur, Illinois to own a microwave oven.

The massive appliance took over the kitchen counter, emasculating the toaster oven the day my mother brought it home in 1975. The entire family gathere