Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate


I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn.


I cried in the Star Wars aisle of Toys ‘R’ Us at 10 a.m. this morning.

In a rare show of industry, I was trying to knock out the majority of my Christmas shopping in just one (painfully expensive) trip. With my four children all safely ensconced at their respective schools from middle down to preschool, I took my sweet time pushing my cart through the giant toy mecca, pausing at each aisle, carefully picking out candy canes and wands for stockings.

It felt indulgent and strange to actually give myself the permission to shop leisurely instead of bum-rushing my way through an online order—or, more likely, five online orders. I enjoyed picking up the toys and reading the boxes the way I obsessively did when I was a child; though I find the whole “unboxing” phenomenon on YouTube a little jarring, I understand why my 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching others open and play with toys so much, since it reminds me of how I was riveted to the Saturday morning commercials at her age.

I had made it through most of the store, and my cart was piled high with things for my youngest, who is my only girl—Calico Critters and Beanie Boos, Breyer horses and Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Paw Patrol figures and a Play-Doh kitchen I know she will squeal over—when I found myself in the Star Wars aisle. I was suddenly staring at a pile of lightsabers, red and green and blue.

Like a blurry video in fast forward, years flashed through my mind: all the other Decembers when I had walked through these same aisles, picking up Little People farms and Hexbugs, Hot Wheels tracks and Razor scooters. I remembered running my hands over heavy plastic playhouses, debating between massive Lego sets, searching for Thomas trains we didn’t yet own. I thought about 12 years of Christmas mornings, oranges in stockings, tiny, sticky candy cane fingers, nights of driving around neighborhoods with the radio station set to the Christmas music channel, the kids in their pajamas staring out the windows and admiring our neighbors’ handiwork. They were always ready to go home before I was.

And that’s when, for a few minutes, I just leaned against my shopping cart and let myself cry, right in the middle of Toys ‘R’ Us, amidst the Yodas and the Ewok dolls—not an ugly cry, not heaving sobs, but just a few tears—as I realized that those days, when I had little people constantly underfoot and Santa was definitely real in my house, are over. My oldest boys have grown out of toy stores altogether now. They’re not even that interested in the video games sold there; they now look to download more sophisticated computer games straight from the source. My 8-year-old, whether because of his personality, because he is a third boy and jaded by the knowledge he’s acquired through his brothers, or because 8-year-old boys are now somewhat more savvy and less into toys than they were in generations past, barely plays with traditional toys at all. And after a recent brutal grilling by the third grader, I am pretty sure the 3-year-old is the only one left who truly believes in Santa Claus.

So I cried, because I miss those little boys who so carefully placed the plate of cookies and glass of milk by our fireplace chimney and brought home sacks of be-glittered handprint ornaments from preschool and kindergarten. But in truth, I cried more because I miss those days that I used to just survive, and then only barely. I miss when my days were just chaotic blurs, ping-ponging through naps and playgroup meet-ups and hurtling toward bedtime every night. I miss them because now, through the magnifying glass of hindsight and the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, they seem so much simpler, even in their tedium.

My days have a different timbre now. No one wears diapers, no one drinks from sippy cups with a bazillion parts to clean. There are no naptimes to work around. Instead, there is homework and practices and school. My little girl still keeps me with one foot partly in the world of the toddler; she is my excuse for knowing what’s popular on Disney Junior, my reason for collecting picture books and acorns from the yard. But things have changed.

I am mourning the Christmas tasks I had just a few years ago. I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn. But even more, I mourn their mother—the younger version of me, who was able to immerse myself in the physical labor and emotional chaos of young motherhood, whose parents were still strong and hearty and not yet concerned with the trickiness of retirement and aging, who didn’t worry about puberty and high school transcripts. I miss the version of me who could spend naptimes baking dozens of Christmas cookies and whose biggest worry was making it to the preschool Christmas concert on time.

One of my friends often quotes George Bernard Shaw: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.” As my children grow up and out of the routines and rites of childhood, I learn with them. I learn what each new stage means for them and for me as a parent, what the view from here now looks like and feels like. Yes, at first, it feels like I have lost something. I miss something. I mourn something. But even as I wipe a few tears off my cheeks, I know that this Christmas, when we are all piled around the tree again in our pajamas and bare feet—the bigger kids with smaller, fewer, and yet more expensive packages, the youngest with a plethora of tiny treasures to delight a preschooler’s big eyes—I won’t miss anything. Everything will be there, in new shapes and sizes: all the pieces of my heart.

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.

Movie Night

Movie Night

By Natalie Singer-Velush


The movie begins lovely. Somewhere in rural Japan an aging bamboo cutter is working in the forest. Toward the end of the day, the setting sun is spilling, golden-peach, through the bamboo stalks. The sky beyond the grove moves from this peach to honey, to amber, to a sustained pause of breath quickly cooling. In a small clearing, a bamboo shoot pushes up through the earth. From inside, a silver glow. The man peers into the bamboo flower; there lies a tiny sleeping girl, watercolored. Startled, he falls in love. The cutter cups the girl in his palm. He will take her home to his wife, where they will raise her joyfully as their own. As they watch this animated story, my daughters’ faces are open moons.

*   *   *

When I was 10, I loved a book in which the protagonist, a girl on the cusp of moving beyond girlhood, like I was, loved the colors aquamarine, lime and purple. She loved the colors in combination, how, in concert, they satisfied an unnamed need she had to see things a certain pleasing way. Many changes were happening to the girl, things which, out of fear of the unknown, I couldn’t think about directly. But I could hold that wheel of colors in my mind, and I searched relentlessly for a triple-color combination of my own, some crafted palette that could pass as guidance.

*   *   *

The day we watched the movie I overheard my youngest daughter say: If you sat on a cloud and looked through the cloud like glass, you could see. See what, I wondered, knowing as soon as I did that what she meant was everything.

*   *   *

The bamboo girl blossoms under the care of the old couple. She grows quickly, peculiarly so, and in the permissive air of the country she begins to run with the band of nearby children. She laughs; she runs and runs. She whispers to bugs. The blades of grass shift in the summer breezes, paintbrushed in diffuse light, pale greens and lemon. The earth’s dirt a crumbling cake of dried red and copper under the girl’s bare, pinwheeling feet. The air, infused with sweet melon, echoes the chorus of dragonfly wings. She even finds a boy to love. All is as it should be. Until, one day, the father finds a pile of gold glowing in a stalk of bamboo, offered to him in the same way the tiny girl was. He becomes convinced that heaven has shined down on the family, that the girl is truly a princess and must be raised in a mansion in the city, as a noble. The parents shower the bamboo girl with mountains of precious fabrics and silks and take her off to a new life, where she is trained in the ways of docile, obedient, inert princesses. The luminosity leaves her face. A string of wealthy princes come courting, determined to possess her as their own. The girl’s father, enamored with this life of riches, becomes greedy for a lucrative marriage and pushes his daughter to give herself away.

*   *   *

This is where the shouting at the TV begins. Don’t do it, we urge her, we order. Run away! Find the boy you loved from the country. Follow your desires, resist! All of us, the 8- and 10-year-old girls and me, plus my own 10-year-old self, are on the edge of the couch.

*   *   *

When I was young I had an imaginary life at night, after I was tucked in to sleep. My bed became a floating boat on a distant sea, and I rode the sea wherever it took me with a crew of stuffed animals, a white polar bear with a heart around its neck, a nervous gray donkey, a celadon bunny. There were dangers out there, to be sure, but I had jurisdiction over the boat and its destinations: While I sailed, I could do anything I pleased. It was a shame I had to be the only person on board, I might have thought from beneath the sheets (or not), but that was the cost of my freedom.

*   *   *

Can I stay with you forever, my daughter once asked me. I answered yes, yes.

*   *   *

I had checked the rating of the film ahead of time—PG on a trusted website with the emotional limits of children in mind. But there was no warning that the little bamboo girl who became a noble princess would be forced back to the place from which, it turns out, she first came: the moon. That the wealthy princes would all be frauds (yes of course) but that the good boy from the country, in the bamboo girl’s absence—during her time spent bending to the will of others—would marry someone else. That, in the end, there was no way for her to undo the knot of things, to go in reverse. That she would be forced to drift away from the impossible world on a cloud, the memory of her girl life erased, the future an approaching blank sphere.

*   *   *

I tuck my girls in, faces pale, their soft bodies long, brows furrowed. I kiss their cheeks, which smell of pink cherry blossoms. We have talked about the “lesson” of the movie—rich does not make you happy, we work it through and all decide.

What we don’t say is what else: How fast the moon arches across the windowpane. How unready we are.

Natalie Singer-Velush is mother to two daughters and the editor of a Seattle-based parenting magazine. She is also experiencing an acute case of “feeling old” as she returns to school to earn her MFA in creative writing and poetics alongside a bunch of idealistic twentysomethings, none of whom have children. Natalie keeps herself as young as possible with endless cups of coffee and red velvet cupcakes. You can find her on Twitter @Natalie_Writes.

Photo: Jason Ortego

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

BT 15 Graduation Speech ARTBy Ellen Lesser

In the graduation speech I won’t give at the therapeutic academy, I’d tell them all how cute you were when you were little, with your one dimple that showed up more when your cheeks were round and those hazel eyes, crazy big. Cute and smart as could be and so good—easy, at least that’s the way I remember it, though certain relatives and professionals would say that’s because I let you do whatever you wanted.

Didn’t set limits or enforce consequences, two things you’re getting in spades in the intensely restrictive school program, on the theory that the extreme dosage now can correct for the early deficiency.

For the graduation speech I won’t give, I’d be that shameless parent who puts on a slide show. I wouldn’t wind it all the way back. Let’s say we kick it off with that shot of you in your high chair on your first birthday, presiding over the gleeful wreck of strawberry shortcake, your face and what hair you had, your bare chest and arms slathered with fresh whipped cream.

Later, once you were almost a teenager, you demanded to know why I’d dressed you for the occasion in only a diaper, like that wasn’t obvious. Like it constituted some form of abuse. Of course in the rest of the slides you’d have clothing on. How about that great Halloween costume: the big, reversible satin cape I sewed, red with white stars on one side, solid blue on the other, lightning bolts stitched onto your pilot cap, and on the front of your sweatshirt, the shield with the big golden “S.” Super Suzie.

And what would the soundtrack be? I could pull out the stops and find that cassette we ordered from the kids’ magazine. We filled in the card and physically mailed it, then waited the predicted eight weeks. How’s that for deferral of gratification? Ten “very special tunes” with lyrics customized to feature your name, just like the ad promised. Cloying but hopelessly catchy, so naturally you played them over and over, though even once through they got plenty repetitive. I want to sing a song about Suzie. I want to sing a song about Suzie. Let’s sing a song about Su-u-ziestretched to give it three syllables.

Did I really steal into your room one night, slip the tape from your player and make it mysteriously go missing? Or did I just dream about doing that? I remember hysterics and tearing the house apart and finally needing to bribe you with something way cooler, whatever that was right then, thereby, in the words of the treatment team, robbing you of the chance to learn how to self-soothe.

No doubt before long you’d have forgotten it anyway, or grown out of it, like you grew out of a lot of things you once loved: dance classes, art projects, mother-daughter baking, the flute, even basketball. A whole slide deck of leotards and paint-splattered smocks and crisp concert blouses, not to mention the treasured Allen Iverson jersey that started out down to your knees. The requisite, adorable get-ups for all those fun and enriching activities you accused me in our last family therapy session of making you do.

Not that I’ll ever really be showing those.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech I’d give for real at the treatment academy, I’d try my hardest not to embarrass you, though every kid must cringe a little when a parent gets up there, wondering what we’re going to say. You are still teenagers—young adults—despite all the therapy.

It’s an odd tradition, asking the parents to make speeches, since we’ve been so far away, having shipped you off to this place where it takes a whole specialized staff and system of rules and ascending ladder of stages to accomplish what we so spectacularly failed to at home just as mothers and fathers. But actually, calling anything at the school a tradition is kind of a stretch, considering how it only sprang up a few years ago, this outpost of authentic Montana-style lodge buildings tucked up into a wild hillside at the end of a road so remote, only the most in- trepid or desperate or crazy would try running away from it.

The parents who get to stand up and give speeches have kids who didn’t try running away. Who only hiked on the designated trails with their teams farther up into the hills every weekend. Who didn’t find the chance unsupervised moment to, say, touch a boy in the cubby room and get caught, because although the school is co-ed, it runs on the strictest no-contact policy. Who sat down at the end of each day and listened to extensive feedback about their actions and attitude and didn’t tell the staffers charged with providing it to go fuck themselves. Who didn’t pioneer a closet method of home-fermentation, filling Nalgene bottles with grape juice and yeast stolen from the school kitchen, until a whole team of girls was found inexplicably drunk in the dorm one night. Who, even though their families were blowing their college funds or invading 401(K)s or taking out second mortgages for the stunning tuition fees, not only made their beds and kept their own shit picked up but swept floors and scrubbed toilets and washed pots and pans, to help break them of an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Who didn’t talk other kids into forking over their meds for depression or bipolar disorder or ADHD, then crush and snort them in the far bathroom stall when they thought nobody was around to hear and report on them. Who themselves scrupulously followed the code requiring them to come forth about anyone else’s infractions, not because they were sucking up to staff or angling for promotion but because they sincerely bought into this as an act of love, a life-line for the person they ratted on.

“I’m not like some snitch,” you said. But then you got tired of listening to the bulimic girl every night through the wall by the head of your bed. You already had enough trouble sleeping.

The team counselor you told would assure you that had nothing to do with the girl, a week later, smuggling a paring knife out of salad prep and slitting her wrists—not very effectively—then being pulled from the school. But that’s hard to swallow. Which means you either messed her up really bad or actually saved her ass.

Wrapping your head around that: now there’s something to keep you awake at night.

*   *   *

In the speech I’d like to deliver for your graduation, I’d leave out that part of the story. Forget the setbacks and stumbling blocks, the delays and demotions, all the scary-bad or just stupid shit that made the odds of my standing up there seem impossibly slim. Better to keep it light and upbeat. Beginnings are good that way. So I’d tell about our arrival at Glacier Airport in the dead of the night that first time. What was the end of one road but the start of this new—let’s call it journey, a popular word in the lingo there. I’d booked us on the last flight into Glacier, a plane we’d only make if we hit no snags earlier. Such a long way from home for us, and we weren’t even starting from home. Home, which already you hadn’t seen in three months, since you first shipped out for wilderness treatment. But at least that was wilderness Eastern Standard Time. That’s where our day began, before dawn, under the canvas tarp you strung for us between trees in the Family Transition Camp.

“Montana: is that even a state?”

That’s what you asked your field counselor when she delivered the news about your therapeutic boarding school placement. Because of course, you weren’t coming back to our house and your regular high school—not yet. Twelve weeks in the woods was only Phase One of the cure for what all was ailing you.

In the letter I wrote that same week, I admitted I’d had to pull out your old atlas myself to check the location. (This could make a good laugh line for the speech: Geography had never been an “A” subject for either one of us.) But then I assured you the distance on a map didn’t matter, since once we got you out there, traversing it would be on me, and I’d come see you, whatever it took, as often as the school let me.

That sounded fair enough—smart—when I said it. But by the time we rode the rental SUV out of the forest to the base office, where you took your first actual shower in twelve weeks, and cruised the couple-hundred miles back to the airport from which the wilderness transporters had collected you; by the time we flew across the plains to the eastern slope of the Rockies then over the mountains up to Salt Lake; by the time the western night had fallen and deepened and we boarded the tiny prop plane through this weird cross between cattle stalls and gates at a bus depot, and roared over an expanse of unbroken black to touch down at the one brilliantly lit, empty terminal, it might as well be the moon we had landed on.

Mom,” you said in that tone you reserve for me and me alone, that particular mix of outrage and disappointment, like the world is this appalling place and my fault on general principle. That’s when you spotted it, in a giant glass case between us and the one baggage carousel. Our eyes were so bleary from traveling, so struck by the glare, it looked to be out in the open just standing there. “What the fuck is that?”

It was a mountain goat, though I didn’t know that yet. A massive billy with its lush coat of pure white and curving horns and great beard and kind but no-nonsense expression. I stared into the glassy black eyes, out of which it appeared to gaze back at me.

“Is it real?” you said.

“I think so. But dead. You know, stuffed.”

You gawked at me not so much like I’d just stated the obvious, but as if I’d killed the creature and performed the taxidermy myself. “And you decided to send me somewhere they’d have this Thing in the airport—why exactly?”

At that moment I had no answer. Do I have one now? But I’ve lost my thread. Why was I thinking the arrival bit would work well for the speech again?

Something about beginnings—that’s right. How distant and alien it all seemed, unlikely as the mountain goat greeting us at one in the morning, this sentinel at the gate to another world. How maybe you had to go that far out to find your way home again.

How we passed through that portal and stepped into the Montana night air, which was thinner and smelled different—dry—I guess. How we climbed into another rental car and steered toward the town, along a road littered with motels and fast-food places. How even driving that strip you sensed something. Lowered your window and stuck out your head.

“Oh my god, Mom—the sky. It’s so big. How is that even possible?”

When we hit a red light I looked too, through the neon wink of a pawn-shop sign, and saw what you meant. The sky was bigger than ours back east—exponentially—though strictly speaking that didn’t make sense, since really it was the same one.

Why did this suddenly fill me with a mad hope? The sky itself, but more, the fact that you noticed it.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech that runs through my head, I follow that train. I don’t mention the silence in which we drove the dirt track up to the school the next morning, or the emptiness I felt once I left you there. I don’t say I had to pull over at the base of the hill to beat back the voice shouting this was all a mistake, and I should go scoop you up and fly you back home with me.

In the speech I still hear myself giving sometimes when the roaring stops, I stick to the positive. How I looked forward all week to those Thursday nights, for the scheduled phone call we had once your homework and chores were done. How I had to pinch myself to believe it really was you, given what you were telling me: that you actually liked your school classes, not just because there were boys but because you could feel your brain starting to work again. That the academic subjects were cool but art was your favorite. That you were busy and working hard and actually happy in a way you’d forgotten you knew how to be. That you missed me and loved me—how long had I gone without hearing that?—and were counting the weeks until my next visit there. That you’d earned your Stage Two pro- motion, so when I came, after family therapy, we could leave the school grounds for a whole afternoon. That you’d made Stage Three, so you could stay with me at my motel overnight, and we could tour Glacier National Park, try to spot a live mountain goat.

So when did it change? When did things start to turn again?

You won your Stage Four promotion, which meant that if you kept on course, you’d graduate in three months. But part of how you earned that bump was ratting the puker out. Is that what started to eat at you? The guilt, or maybe the jealousy, since she was gone? Or was it the community service glitch?

You were gung-ho about that requirement: twenty volunteer hours for a local non-profit or charity. After all, hadn’t you spent the past year and some reawakening empathy? Habitat for Humanity seemed like an excellent cause: helping fix up vacant buildings in town so homeless people could live in them. We talked right after you worked your first shift. (In Stage Four, you could call whenever you wanted to.) You were crying so hard I could barely make out what you were telling me. Something about an abandoned crack house—”like, what the fuck?” About how there were pills everywhere: stuffed behind the rank toilet, under the piss-smelling mattresses, inside the slashed-up, mildewed upholstery. How you couldn’t believe they’d send a crew of kids with drug problems into a place like that.

I kept saying I was sorry, that someone had clearly made a mistake. You didn’t have to go back, you’d switch over to some other agency. I figured it was the unspeakable squalor that got to you, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe the vision of all those pills—of a life where such freedom and plenty existed—fired that other part of your brain back up.

Maybe you managed to pocket some and smuggle them back with you, because in the calls after that, something wasn’t quite right. I want to say you didn’t sound like yourself but that wouldn’t be true. You sounded like that other Suzie, the one before wilderness therapy. Always some reason for indignation, some run-in with staff or a teacher or another girl on your team; some way that the stage system, the school, the universe, was singling you out for special injustice.

You’d go on about it in that old way you had of cycling up, then catch yourself and apologize; say you’d just had a bad day, you hadn’t been sleeping well. You still talked about graduation, but more and more it was with this speculative, vaguely confrontational air, leading with “if” instead of “when.”

“If I graduate, remember you promised I could get a tattoo.”

“If I graduate, what’ll you say in that speech?”

“If you fly out for graduation, can we skip Glacier Park this time?”

When I saw the school name on the caller ID last night, I had that little thrill I always get when I hear from you, but something else too. I caught myself thinking, what now? then feeling so bad about that, it took me a second to realize it wasn’t your voice but the staff person’s.

She said they weren’t sure how many hours you’d been gone exactly, but probably only a few. They had reinforcements fanning out in the hills, and the local police were putting extra cruisers on the roads to watch out for you.

“What can I do?” Even as I spoke the words, I sensed the cosmic futility, all those thousands of miles away. But she said my job was to stay by the phone, in case you got someplace and tried calling me. ?I was about to ask if that happened—a kid runs away then calls home—but she was still talking. “And praying might help.”

If we’re down to that it doesn’t look good, I thought, but didn’t say that aloud.

I said the same thing I did when I found out there were schools like this: “I’ll try anything.”

*   *   *

The whole time I’m packing, the different speeches spool through my brain. The school people said don’t fly out right away but that made no sense. Of course I need to be there, in case you turn up. Or to hunt for you.

I should start with the meth dens, the crack houses, those sketchy, falling-down places on the wrong side of town. Ask if anyone’s spied a girl with huge eyes, green or brown—it depends on the light; with a dimple that won’t necessarily show that day.

But really, I see myself steering across Glacier Park again, scouring the cliffs and crags like we did when we searched for the mountain goats. I picture the nanny and kid—perfect miniature—materialized on that ledge, as if our wishing had conjured them. And suddenly it’s like the first time we took that drive on Going to the Sun Highway.

I’d read the warnings: this trip was not for the queasy. And yet it led off mildly enough, winding through woods along boulder-strewn streambeds, and I thought, I can handle this. Then we started to climb, threading the switch-backs up, up, up until my gaze slid sideways and I glimpsed the sheer drop—three-thousand feet downward to the glinting seam of the river below, not so much as a guardrail between us and that gorgeous oblivion.

Vertigo. It would occur to me later that was the sensation but it struck like pure terror, paralysis. And it came to me, we could die like this. Then it hit me I couldn’t let on how afraid I was. I’m the grown-up, I had to push through. Plus oxygen—maybe that’s what I needed. A while back we’d shut all the windows, the gusts had gotten so strong. Now I scanned the dashboard and punched AC, cranked the fan dial.

I don’t think you even noticed, you were so awed by the view. The whole attack might have lasted mere seconds, though it felt like much longer. Once I drew in the cool air, the dread lifted and I could go on.

How about that for the graduation speech, if I were still giving it?

Forget graduation, screw the speech, only breathe. But that’s what this loop in my head has become: a method of breathing, a mantra.

In the graduation speech that’s no longer a speech, it’s a meditation, a promise, a plea—

In the speech that was never a speech but a prayer, I ask that you live is all.

Ellen Lesser is at work on a collection of linked short stories about mothers and teenage daughters in crisis. She is the author of The Shoplifter’s Apprentice, The Other Woman, and The Blue Streak. She teaches in the MFA Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.

Last Call

Last Call

By Daisy Alpert Florin


What surprises me is that the very thing I craved for so long when the children were small and seemingly always underfoot—space and time away from them—is exactly what frightens me now. 


When I was younger, I dreamed of having three children. Three kids felt chaotic, messy, and fun; three kids was the best kind of party. I feel incredibly lucky to actually have three children who kick my butt each and every day. My plate is full, blessedly so. So why can’t I stop thinking about having another baby?

I’m as surprised by this as anyone. The only time I ever thought about having a fourth child was soon after my youngest son, Oliver, was born five years ago. Late one night, I looked down at his soft pink cheek gently pulsing as he nursed and said to my husband, Ken, “Maybe we should do this again.” He turned over and muttered, “Maybe with your next husband.”

In the busy years that followed, that late night urge was packed up as definitively as the boxes of maternity clothes I sent to a friend right after Oliver’s birth with a note that read, Won’t be needing these anymore! But for some mysterious reason, I find it tickling my consciousness again now just when, by some miracle, we are almost on the other side. Oliver started kindergarten last week. Our house no longer looks like a nursery school classroom, and we’re finished with diapers, strollers and cribs. Yet the desire for another baby, long dormant, pulls at me. Please explain.

This is how Ken and I discuss whether or not to have a fourth child: he tells me it is a terrible idea, reminds me that we are old, have three other children to care for, and do I want him to have to keep working for the rest of his life? “You’re not exactly Mother Earth,” he adds as I grump my way through breakfast. I nod and agree with all of his reasons and we decide to move on. And yet, I can’t.

Despite circling around the topic again and again, we never really come to any resolution. And with both of us into our 40s, there is a very good chance that we may “run out the clock” on this particular decision. I don’t want to pressure Ken into making such a big decision, one that involves not only me and my wishes but every member of our family. But there’s something else that stops me from pushing the conversation further, something other than my reluctance to return to sleepless nights and the terrible twos. It’s because, deep down, I worry that my wanting to have another child is just a way to avoid facing the scary prospect of what comes next. For me, that is.

What happens to a mother when her babies grow up? I wonder as my daughter Ellie outgrows another pair of jeans and my older son Sam packs his bags for sleep away camp. What will I do with the freedom I’ve earned now that the rope that has tethered me to my children for so many years finds a little more slack? And since I’ve been a mostly stay-at-home mother for the past eleven years, I worry about job security. Is having another child merely a way for me to ensure against my inevitable slide into obsolescence?

What surprises me is that the very thing I craved for so long when the children were small and seemingly always underfoot—space and time away from them—is exactly what frightens me now. In the mornings, when my kids are at school, I vacillate between being thrilled at having the whole house to myself and terrified of being alone. During those quiet hours, fears float around me like ghosts. Is this what it will be like when everyone is gone? Have I given up too much for them? These disembodied thoughts pelt me from all sides, and a baby seems like the very thing I need to swat them away. And although I know another child would only offer a temporary reprieve, sometimes I can convince myself that’s all I need. Just a few more years and then I’ll figure out what I want to do with myself. I promise.

“You realize if you have another baby,” Ken tells me, “you’ll basically be 60 before everyone moves out.”

I have to admit this sounds both wonderful and nauseating.

Ken, who is my heart, has told me that he would try to have another baby if it was something I really couldn’t move past, but he asks me to look closely at my reasons for wanting one, to tease out the threads of maternal longing from fear of stepping into my future, some place only I can go. In the meantime, I ponder the decision to have another baby or to close that door forever, turning it over and over again in my head until it is smooth like a river stone.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at

The Tooth Fairy is Over

The Tooth Fairy is Over

By Kris Woll


Our kids lose teeth, they move forward, they change. But as parents, through it all, we try not to forget.


This week my 7-year-old son lost his eighth baby tooth. They are dropping at an alarming rate. I bought more applesauce and yogurt than usual in case we have to move to a very soft diet; steak and chewy breads are off the table until some of gaps are filled.

My son didn’t even bother to put the tooth under his pillow—he just popped it in the trash. The next morning, he came out of his room in a huff.

“Mom, you forgot to put money under my pillow!”

I calmly walked into his room. I actually had placed a little something under his pillow while he slept, emptying mouth wide open, the night before. (Not like tooth number 5—or was it 6?—when I had to make lame excuse for why the tooth fairy sometimes waits an extra night to deliver the booty.)

I suspected he flopped around at night, shifting his pillows and pushing the money to the floor. I moved the bed away from the wall. “Check back there,” I ordered, and then before he could, asked, “And why did you say that I forgot to put money under your pillow?”

He stared at me seriously, considering his response.

“I meant that the tooth fairy forgot,” he said.

“Hmmm. And what do you think about the tooth fairy?” I asked.

He stared at me again, silent for a while. The ceiling fan swooshed above us.

“Thats she’s you?” he responded.

I paused, preparing to give my answer.

“How did you figure that out?”

“Kids talk,” he replied, grabbing the flashlight he keeps on his nightstand and pointing it into the crevasse between his bed and wall.

So the tooth fairy is over, for my big kid anyway. And I noticed he has quite a lot of hair on his legs lately. And one night, after soccer, he almost ate a whole frozen pizza by himself.  It’s undeniable: He’s growing up. He’s getting bigger.  And this is an amazing thing. The best thing. A gift. I don’t want to hold him back from all—ok, maybe from some, but not much—that he is moving toward.

Still, as I notice that last year’s jeans hem graze his mid-calf, I am reminded: time is passing. Days and weeks and years are going by. He is getting older, so am I, so is everyone we know. The adorable pictures and videos we scroll through and open on the family computer—of babies struggling to crawl and toddlers smashing birthday cake all over their chubby faces and proud first this and that—are artifacts, history. I can snuggle and nuzzle and, when I kiss them goodnight, I can call them my babies, but they aren’t and won’t be that again.

Their long bodies spread out on their beds, and once their feet kicked against my ribs.

I don’t wish they were still kicking my ribs. I don’t wish they were not growing up. I don’t even wish the tooth fairy back into his head. I just don’t want to forget, I’m starting to forget, so I write to remember.

Thanks to his trusty flashlight, my son noticed—amidst the Legos and Pokemon cards and bouncy balls and missing socks beneath that bed—his payment for tooth number 8. It had fallen from under the pillow, just as I suspected. He reached his long, strong (but once so small and chubby—man, did he have rolls as a baby!) arm down and grabbed the money, leaving the toys and socks where they were. He quickly added it to the shark bank on his bookshelf, moving quickly so as not to risk that his knowledge or confession might require a recall of the funds.

And then he promised he wouldn’t tell his little sister what he knew, as long as he could be the one to put the money under her pillow when her first tooth came out, and of course I agreed.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at

I Need Faster Shoes

I Need Faster Shoes

April photoThis is the second time my son has left me behind in a race, but the first time my shame was captured in the local paper.  When he pulled ahead at the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, there were only a few friends in the immediate vicinity to witness my lameness.  This time, my lameness was featured in a slideshow.

We’ve been running Seattle’s St. Pat’s Dash as an annual tradition since my son was born.  Well, before that actually.  My husband and I ran this race together before we were even dating and have been running it every year since.

We ran the race in the early days of our relationship when, despite our different running paces, we ran side by side and crossed the finish line together.  We ran the race later too, when our relationship didn’t require the same level of coddling and could sustain an honest revelation of one partner’s superior running ability.

There was the year I felt dizzy the whole race and couldn’t figure out why I was so winded.  Turns out, I was growing a human.  We count that as our son’s first 5K.

Since then, we’ve run the race pushing strollers of the single and double variety; carried toddlers; and coaxed kindergarteners from the start line to the finish.

The race is a marker in our year—a chance to reflect on where we were at the same time in years past.

This year marks the year I was left behind by my husband and my son.   I adjusted to my husband’s superiority years ago, but being beat by a first grader was hard on my ego.

Somewhere in the final third of the race, my son kicked up his heels and began to weave through the crowd without so much as glance over his shoulder to check on me.  As his lead grew and my hope of catching him diminished, I mentally flipped through the images of the journey to this winded moment.

I saw my son’s first steps toward my outstretched arms that were tense and ready to swoop in at the first sign of falling.  I watched a slow motion clip of his drunken toddler run that was really just a prolonged version of tipping over—with his feet trying frantically to keep up with an out of scale head that insisted on leading the way to every destination.  I saw picture after picture of his giant smile, ruddy cheeks, and sparkling eyes at various finish lines of rigged races on the sidewalk outside our home where, against all odds, the grown-ups always came last.

But now, the faking was over.  This grown-up wasn’t pretending to lose.  She was losing.  She was trying her best.  She was sweating.  She was huffing and puffing.  And, she was still losing.

When did it turn from pretending to struggle to keep up to actually struggling to keep up?

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Or, was it?

Sometimes, when I see my kids take a big developmental leap forward, my first instinct is to wince a little.  There is pain associated with their transformation from dependence to independence.  Cutting ties is emotional surgery and it leaves tender places.  So, I wince.

But then, I smile because I know that these are the moments that say I’m doing it right.  Moments of successful independence in my children are the equivalent of a positive performance evaluation.  Moments of growth and achievement mean I did what I set out to do.  I taught my kid what he needed to know, encouraged him to grow his skills, and set him on a path to do things better than I did.

And, it worked.

Somewhere between the mental film montage of precious childhood moments and the finish line, I understood Emelina’s words from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams just a little better:  “It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn’t.”

I found my radiant son at the finish line, congratulated him on his achievement, and gratefully accepted the bottle of water he offered.  I congratulated myself (silently) for accepting defeat with humility.

I really thought I had.

Until the next day, when my colleague sent me a link to local coverage of the event—complete with pictures.  The picture that caught her eye was the one where a photographer captured the very moment my son began to leave me in the dust.

Am I proud of my son?  Yes.

Do I realize there will be many more of these moments?  Yes.

Do I hope this is the last of such moments memorialized on film? Yes.



It Gets Better

It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

Our Children’s Milestones, And The “Firsts” We Miss

Our Children’s Milestones, And The “Firsts” We Miss

0-3I am sitting in the kitchen late one afternoon, my head is buried in the computer. The double doors from the garden burst open and, with the cold, rushes in my oldest son, Oliver, flushed and looking pleased. A helmet sits slightly askew on his head. “Mom!” he starts, but my eyes have already flicked back to the screen. “Mom!” he tries again, “I can ride a bike!” Now he has my attention.

We had bought him a shiny new one for his fifth birthday, two years earlier. The bike was the next size up, because Oliver is tall for his age. Room to grow, that’s what the man at the shop had said, which made sense at the time. It was also a mistake. Oliver is tall, but he is cautious, and when we took to the streets with the thing lurching precariously, the training wheels cold comfort as we rounded the corners, he wasn’t happy. And there I was behind him, gripping the back of the seat in a mounting effort to keep boy and bike upright, despite the pull of gravity. Despite a fundamental lack of balance on the part of the rider.

A few more outings and we both lost interest. The rainy autumn gave way to a rainier winter and the bike was left for time and rust to run their course. As they did, Oliver became a big brother again, twice over. When spring rolled around, life looked different. In the months after the twins were born, I didn’t have the wherewithal to dress myself most days let alone teach someone else how to ride a bike. Oliver found other things to do outside, things that didn’t include me.

There is always a process of letting go as your children get older. Sometimes it happens slowly, naturally, the inexorable result of birthdays being ticked off on the calendar. Sometimes it is expedited by circumstance. Two new babies in the house is just the kind of circumstance that can put a little distance between a mother and her five and a half year old. Where once I knew the details of his every day, now there were nights when I would tuck him and hear the splinters of a story from last week. In my hands, they felt rough and unfamiliar. I wasn’t holding onto him the way I used to. And, loose from my grip, he was changing too.

Oliver made new friends that summer, which doesn’t come easily to him. Our house is part of a development that backs onto a parking lot. If you leave from the garden gate, there is a path that will take you directly to the back gates of the neighboring houses, several of which contain boys his age. They started calling for him to come and play and at first we were reluctant. Oliver was nearing six by then, was that old enough? To walk the 100 meters by himself to the next backyard? To run up and down the side allies unsupervised, building dens and staffing secret agent laboratories? The other parents seemed to think so. Ultimately, we agreed with them.

This gathering of kids became a regular feature. Oliver would come home from school and, with his brother, seek them out at every opportunity. If the weather was poor, they would congregate inside. But if it was fine, they would be racing up and down the stretch of unbroken sidewalk outside, taking it in turns on each other’s bikes. Between them, there was a commune: bikes of all shapes and sizes, different makes and different models. Some had training wheels, some didn’t. And some were “balance” bikes, which have no pedals at all. The point of these is that the child learns to ride by balancing himself. Unlike training wheels, there is no artificial sense of being stabilized by something—or someone—else.

It’s the perfect metaphor for parenting, isn’t it? In one version, we let them learn how to steady themselves on the path to adulthood, even as they tip from side to side. In the other, we prop them up as they go, which feels safer at the time but serves only to prolong—or possibly thwart -the ability to find their own center. The distinction reminds me of how I used to “encourage” Oliver to walk when he was 13 months old and showing no real signs of readiness. I would drag him around the room, taking the weight of his body for him as he buckled to his knees in protest. These marches were for my benefit not his, but I didn’t know that. Back then, I was always rushing his milestones. He was my first child: they felt like a test I was impatient for him to pass.

He took his first steps eventually, of course, and I was by his side when he did. And when he used the potty for the first time and buttoned his first button and read his first word. I was by his side and it was great to see the pride he felt at being seen. But there was a different kind of pride in his eyes when he burst through the garden doors not so long ago, beckoning me to witness, now, what he had managed to accomplish on his own. What I had allowed him to accomplish on his own, even if inadvertently.

What I lost that day in discovering I wasn’t the one who taught Oliver how to ride a bike was softened by the sheer pleasure he took in showing me that he had taught himself. In his own time, on his own terms. For a parent, this is what growing up is about, after all: the realization that while the milestones they hit when we are holding their hands are sweet, the ones that come when we aren’t can be sweeter still.