Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer


I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.


“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.


I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.


I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.


Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.


Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”


While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.


Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.


On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.


The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.


I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.


At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.


 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.


A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”


I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”


Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.


The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.


Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.


Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

16-x-16-x-1-3-4-kraft-corrugated-pizza-box-50-caseBy R.L. Maizes

Mama Jane’s Pizza sign gripping the roof of his silver BMW, Neal pulled up to a small ranch house with a shattered concrete drive. “Could be she’ll have the money, could be she won’t,” Mama Jane had said, handing him the pie. He rang the bell twice and was about to turn around when a boy of perhaps eight opened the door.

“Mom can’t find her purse.” The kid stood with one bare foot on the other, knobby knees pressed together. He had curly black hair Neal imagined girls would one day run their fingers through.

Neal could pay for the pizza. Probably should pay for it, but where did that end. He had never been especially charitable. It would be odd to start now, when he was neglecting his own family. Nevertheless he had the urge to hand over the pizza. He pictured the kid thanking him.

The boy touched the red delivery bag with two fingers.

“What’s your name?” Neal asked.


“I can’t give this to you, Charlie, you know that, right? That’s not how it works. Mama Jane has to get paid. Otherwise there are no more pizzas.” It was a crock. Charlie looked like he knew it, too, narrowing his eyes and shaking his head. What was one pizza?

Air conditioning rippled Neal’s frayed Sex Pistols T-shirt as he drove back to the pizza shop. A lifetime supply of mint gum filled a Seven-Eleven bag on the floor of the car. His girls, Allie and Avery, sophomores at Long Island Prep, inhaled the stuff. Used pieces wrapped in foil sparkled beneath the seats, tumbled across floor mats when he took a sharp turn, flattened beneath his sneakers.

He had stashed five thousand dollars in the glove box that morning and now he opened the box to gaze at the loose stack of hundreds. He had no immediate need for the money, but it reassured him they weren’t poor, not yet, which meant he could put off getting a real job. His wife, Maddy, would be furious if she knew he had cashed in a CD. The thought made him smile.

At Mama Jane’s, he slipped the pizza under warming lights to be sold by the slice.

He got home at 10:00. Maddy was in bed, reading a British novel, the kind that would make an unbearably slow movie. They used to watch movies like that together. She set the book on the nightstand and turned off the light. A halo burned around her white silk pajamas before his eyes adjusted. She punched up her pillow. “Landtech is hiring a manager.”


“So we’re spending the kids’ college funds.”

The room smelled of the Tom Ford lavender perfume he had put in her stocking last Christmas. In the past, she had worn it as an invitation. He wasn’t accepting invitations from her now, though he sometimes imagined entering her roughly, hearing her cry out. He had always been tender. Maybe that was the problem.

He walked down the hall to his daughters’ room, his footsteps muffled by dense wool carpet. Standing outside, he re-read the stickers on the door: “Enter at your own Peril,” “Quarantine Zone,” and “If We Liked You, You’d Already Be Inside.” Light from the room leaked out beneath the closed door. He knocked.

“Who is it?” Of the two girls, Allie was kinder.

“It’s Dad. Can I come in?” He grasped the brass doorknob. When they remodeled, Maddy had made him look at hundreds of knobs he couldn’t tell apart.

“What do you want?” Sharpness came naturally to Avery, especially when she was talking to him.

He let go of the knob. “Just wanted to say good night to my girls.”

“We’re not dressed,” Avery said and laughed in a way that made him think it wasn’t true.

Since Maddy had gone back to work as a paralegal a month ago, he drove the girls to school in the morning. He had looked forward to spending the time with them. When they weren’t in school, they were off with their friends, kids whose names he no longer knew, and he rarely saw them. But as it turned out they had no problem disappearing in plain sight, riding with ear buds in or furiously texting, as if he wasn’t there.

“Take that thing off,” Avery said, pointing to the pizza sign.

He had forgotten it the night before. “I’ll just have to put it back on later.”

“I’m not riding in the car with that thing on.”

“We’ll help you, Dad,” Allie offered.

It was his fault they were pushy. His and Maddy’s. Always giving them whatever they wanted. He had once taken pride in earning enough to spoil them, and it had been easier than saying no. Now it was too late. He knew from experience to give in or Avery would throw a fit.

Wrestling with the sign, he scratched the roof of the car, cutting a jagged line through the luminous paint. “Fuck!”

“Dad!” Allie said.

“I guess it’s alright to say that now,” Avery said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He drove to school, both girls riding in the back, making him feel like a goddamn chauffeur. They used to fight to sit in front with him.

In the rear view mirror, he stared at them. They were beautiful, even Avery when she didn’t know she was being watched and wasn’t scowling, skin perfect and pale like their mother’s, straight black hair touched only by the world’s most expensive salon products. Allie had recently cut hers in a bob, he guessed so people would stop calling her Avery. Avery’s was past her shoulders. How two such attractive girls could have come from him was a mystery.

After he dropped them off, emptiness took hold of his day. Alone in the house, he started at sounds of appliances breathing on and off, and birds smacking into windowpanes. Maddy had left a printout of the Landtech job description on his desk. When he saw it, his chest tightened. Struggling to breathe, he ran out the back door, sat on the concrete stoop, and put his head between his knees.

The first time it happened, he was in front of a room full of clients, giving a presentation, like hundreds he had given before. As he clicked through his PowerPoint slides. Sweat soaked his forehead and splattered the remote control. He mopped his face with a linen handkerchief. Never had he been so afraid without knowing what he was afraid of. The oak conference table wavered. His clients were a blur of blue suits. Somehow he managed to get through the slides and never-ending questions.

That was five years ago, and hardly a week had passed since then without an episode. They happened at work and occasionally at home if he was thinking about work. When his consulting firm went bankrupt two months ago, he secretly celebrated, filled with relief. He didn’t know how much longer he could have gone on generating reports, attending meetings, currying favor with his CEO., all the while convinced he was having a heart attack and would die if he didn’t get out the building. Ashamed, he hadn’t told anyone about his condition, not even Maddy, who was never happier than when she was straightening his Burberry tie or brushing a piece of stray lint from his Dolce & Gabbana suit.

He had an MBA. How could work terrify him? Early on, he had diagnosed himself on the Internet, ordering Klonopin from a Mexican website, popping two when the panic attacks were at their worst.

When his breathing returned to normal, he went inside. On their monogrammed stationery, Maddy had left him lists of things to do. They had let go of the housekeeper, but if Maddy thought he would scrub toilets or mop floors she was mistaken. She had never done those things, taking golf lessons while the kids were in school. He crumpled the list of household chores and tossed it in the trash, folded a grocery list and put in his pocket.

At 3:00 he picked up Avery. Allie had stayed after school for band practice. They had gone only half a block when she opened the glove box. “Holy shit!”

“Close that!” How had he forgotten to put the cash back in the bank envelope? His heart pounded in his temples.

“I was looking for gum. Are you a drug dealer? Is that what you do all day?”

Glancing over, he saw her counting the money and he grabbed the bills, swerving and nearly hitting a parked car.

“It’s cool. You can hook me up.”

He shoved the money back in the glove box and banged it shut. With the back of his hand he wiped his forehead. “The gum is in the bag on the floor. I’m not a drug dealer. What do you need to be hooked up for, you don’t do drugs!”

“Did we win the lottery?” She had found the Seven-Eleven bag and was stuffing gum in her backpack.

“Leave some for Allie. We didn’t win anything. Don’t tell your mother about the money.”

“Why are you keeping secrets from Mom?” She opened the glove box again and fingered the money. “Can I have a hundred?”

What did she want it for? Did she do drugs? If she did, he didn’t want to know about it. “No.”

“You don’t want me to say anything, right?”

He had raised an extortionist. “Don’t tell anyone. Not even Allie.”

“We hardly talk to each other. She’s a geek.” She peeled a hundred off the stack.

When they got home he offered to make her a snack.

“Yeah, Dad, some milk and cookies because I’m three,” she said over her shoulder. She couldn’t seem to get away from him fast enough, and then he heard the door to her room slam shut.

Neal watched market reports on TV until it was time to go to Mama Jane’s.

He attached the sign to the roof of the car.

“It’s a gag, right?” Maddy had said when she first saw it. “It’s not enough for us to be poor, you want to humiliate me, too?”

Maybe he did. After he was laid off he was using Maddy’s laptop—his had belonged to the firm—and he discovered hundreds of e-mails to Jackson Lohr, the golf pro at their club, about their family, the girls’ social lives and her mother’s deteriorating health. Things she hadn’t even told Neal. But the worst of it was how she mocked him, writing in one: “He’s practically useless in the bedroom.” In another: “He reeks when he comes home from work. It’s like he’s run ten miles, yellow stains under his arms. I have to buy his shirts by the dozen. What’s so strenuous about sitting in an office all day?”

He had positioned the laptop behind his rear wheel and backed over it, thinking about the man in the plaid cap whose red nose Maddy had so often mocked. Then he had laid the machine on her pillow.

When she found it, she brought it to him in the kitchen.

“How are your golf lessons going?” he asked.

Red splotches darkened her cheeks. “I needed someone to talk to.”

He pretended to look at the issue of Sports Car Market he had been reading.

Maddy cradled the computer, trying to keep its shattered parts together. “To talk to. Like a shrink.”

“A shrink you fuck.” He turned the page.

“He never touched me that way.”

“What way did he touch you?”

“In a lesson.”

“Those must have been some lessons.”

To get to the pizza shop, Neal drove through a neighborhood of castle-like homes. Swimming pools liquefied sprawling backyards. Changing rooms the size of small homes pushed up out of the ground. Anorexic teens lay on lounge chairs, sipping lemonade served by Central American maids. Once, he’d delivered to one of those homes, and a man his age had tipped him fifty dollars, a kind of karma payment, Neal figured, so the man wouldn’t end up in Neal’s shoes.

At the shop, Mama Jane wore the same thing every day, jeans dusted with flour that matched the color of her hair, and a chef’s coat. “I got one for you,” she’d say when he came in the door, and he’d pick up the box and the receipt. She never asked personal questions, though she must have wondered about the BMW and the thick gold wedding ring. Or maybe she’d seen it all in her years behind the counter.

He’d applied for the job the day after he found the e-mails. “Long as you don’t mind your car smelling like pizza we can use you,” Mama Jane had said. Neal remembered delivering pizza the summer of his senior year in high school, sleeping until two in the afternoon, getting stoned before heading to work, and flirting with a girl named Melissa who came in for slices. When she learned he was starting Cornell in the fall, Melissa waited for his shift to be over and then blew him in his Camaro among empty soda cups and burger wrappers. “When can I start?” he asked Mama Jane.

No spouse or kids of Mama Jane’s ever stopped by the shop or called. Even without a family, she seemed happy. Perhaps that was the secret, Neal thought.

“Do you mind sharing with me how much longer you’re going to be on your vacation?” Maddy asked, when he returned that night. She muted Jimmy Fallon.

“I go to work every day.” He peeled off his T-shirt and cargo shorts, and dropped them on top of a full bathroom hamper. Delivering pizzas out of his car the past few weeks, open space all around him, he had felt calm.

“What you earn doesn’t pay for our groceries.” She sat up, arranging two pillows behind her.

“We should simplify our lives. People all over the world live on less than a hundred dollars a month.” He half-believed it was possible that the life they had constructed around wealth could somehow be reconstructed around—what? He wasn’t sure.

“You want to pretend you’re in Bangladesh? Do it alone. Explain to our girls why they can’t get mani-pedis with their friends.”

The girls were a problem. Their expectations were too high. “You earn good money. We should sell the house and move to an apartment. I could get rid of the car, buy a beater for the pizza route.”

She turned toward the TV. Gave Jimmy back his voice. The studio audience was laughing at a bit, but Neal imagined even they thought his idea was ridiculous.

“That’s what you want to do? Deliver pizza?” She was shouting.

“Maddy, the girls.” He closed their bedroom door.

She hugged her legs and dropped her forehead to her knees. Her voice, softer now, sounded like it might crack. “Why aren’t you looking for a real job? Just because I sent e-mails to a golf pro?”

Here was his opportunity to confess his malady. She’d have to understand. She was a compassionate person, wasn’t she? When he first met her she was living in an upper west side studio with a one-eyed cat she’d rescued. She was volunteering at a soup kitchen. But it had been years since their lives revolved around anything other than the girls and the remodel and getting into the right golf club, which turned out to be the disastrously wrong golf club. “The corporate life isn’t for me anymore.”

“Not for you anymore. Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

When he picked Avery up after school the next day, she snapped open the glove box. “Where is it?” she demanded.

He was starting to hate her. He still loved her but he also hated her. “None of your business.” As he pulled into a busy intersection, he saw her rummage through the glove box and find the bank envelope. “Leave that alone.”

“I need another hundred.” She slipped it out of the envelope.

“You can’t have it.” He snatched it and stuffed it in his pocket. “What do you need it for?”

“It’s for a friend. You don’t know her.” She pulled another bill out.

“You can’t have it. I’m not kidding.” When he tried to seize it, she lifted her hand against the window, out of his reach. The car swerved but he righted it. “What does your mystery friend need it for?”

“She’s on the golf team and can’t afford the green fees.”

Golf. It was at the root of all of his problems. Or she was making the girl up. “I’m not giving your friend money. She should ask her parents.”

“They don’t have money. She’s on scholarship.”

“We don’t have money, either. Maybe you haven’t noticed but I deliver pizza.”

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I don’t give a fuck.”

Furious, Neal leaned over and grabbed her arm. All he was to her—to all of them—was a paycheck. Once he stopped bankrolling their private school and designer clothes, he wouldn’t exist. Maddy had already replaced him with an alcoholic golf pro.

The sound of the impact wiped everything else out. The interior of the car flashed white. Neal was shoved back in his seat, his eyes closed. When he opened them, the BMW was facing oncoming traffic and Avery’s head was covered in blood.

Later that night, after an ER doctor examined and released him, after an officer cited him for reckless driving and he called a lawyer, Neal stood trembling next to his daughter’s hospital bed thanking a god he didn’t believe in that he hadn’t killed her. Maddy sat on a chair on the opposite side of the bed, clutching Avery’s hand. Avery had broken three ribs and had a concussion. Her hair was a patchwork, shaved in half a dozen places where the doctors had stitched her scalp. A jagged cut furrowed her right cheek. Asleep under heavy doses of painkillers, she didn’t know what she looked like. She would find out soon enough, and she would blame him for destroying her appearance and the status that went along with it and for all the glances she would get that would be curious rather than admiring.

It was his fault. When he had reached for her arm, the light turned red, but he didn’t see it and continued into the intersection. An SUV rammed the passenger side of the BMW.

Allie stood behind her mother, staring at Avery. “Is she going to be alright?”

“Yes,” Maddy said. “It’ll take some time. She’ll need your help.”

“What about her face?”

“We’ll do plastic surgery and tattoo the scar. You’ll hardly notice.”


“What is it?”

“I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

“That’s okay, baby.”

Allie fell asleep in a chair and Maddy motioned for Neal to follow her into the hall. “What happened?” she whispered. Since the morning, she’d aged. New lines appeared beneath her eyes. She’d run her fingers through her hair so often it looked slept on.

Bright hospital lights bounced off the walls and the linoleum floor. It seemed an appropriate place for an interrogation. “I leaned over to take something from her.” A firebox hung on the wall and Neal was tempted to pull it.

“What was so important you had to have it?”

“Cash she found in the glove box.”

“You should have let her keep it.”

“If I had known this would happen, I would have.” Carrying a stack of clean sheets, a nurse’s aide glided by on rubber-soled shoes. Neal longed to go back in time, uncash the CD, and save Avery.

Maddy had rushed to the hospital from work and still wore her tailored gray suit and narrow pumps. She shifted back and forth, uncomfortable in the shoes or the conversation, or both. “How much was it?”

“A lot.”

She wrapped her arms around her belly. “You’re planning to leave us.”


“Then why?”

“It reassured me.”

“If money makes you feel so good, go back to work.”

When he tried to take her hand, she pulled away. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack when I’m in an office,” he said. “Like I’m going to die if I don’t get out.”

“Since when?”

“Since forever.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She shook her head and looked past Neal.

“I was ashamed. And we were doing that goddamn remodel. Everything was so expensive. The fixtures, the windows, the cabinets—they might as well have been made of gold. I didn’t see how I could leave the job, so there was no sense worrying you. I was worried enough for the both of us.” Neal looked down at his bloody T-shirt and shorts. “Besides, you only like me in a suit.”

“That’s not fair. You stopped talking to me. Telling me what was going on inside you. I thought you were having an affair.”

“You were the one having the affair.”

“They were just e-mails.”

“And lessons.”

“And lessons. But I don’t take them anymore. And we don’t e-mail.”

“How’s your handicap?”


 Finally, some good news. She didn’t have time for golf.

He spent the next day in the hospital with Avery, who ignored him except when she wanted something. In the hospital gift shop, he bought the copies of Elle and Vogue she had asked for.

“I’ll never look this good. Not anymore,” she said, when he handed them to her.

“Sorry.” What else was there to say? He was sorry. And anything he tried to say, about how she would get through this, she would contradict. That was how it had been lately. She wouldn’t accept comfort from him, neither of the twins would.

She turned back to the soap opera she’d been watching. “Get me a diet coke and a salad. Not from the cafeteria. From the health food store on Lakeville.”

He returned with her lunch and was about to enter the room when he heard her sobbing. If he went in, she’d stop and pretend she’d never started, so instead he sunk to his heels, leaned against the corridor wall, and waited.

“I’m starving,” she said, her voice quieter than usual, when he brought the food in. “You took forever.” Crumpled tissues were scattered across her blanket. Neal gathered them, dropped them in the trash, and washed his hands.

Maddy came over after work and Neal drove her Buick to the pizza shop.

Mama Jane was kneading dough without looking at it, pressing and folding it over itself. The dough looked pure and smelled ripe with yeast. Neal briefly wished he were a pizza chef instead of a delivery boy.

“I got one for you. It’s that woman hardly ever has money. Okay if you don’t want to take it. I could sell it by the slice and save you a trip.”

He picked the box up off the counter. “Maybe tonight they’ll get to eat it.”

“Hope—that’s good.”

But it wasn’t hope. He was betting on a sure thing. When he arrived at the house, he set the pizza down, rang the doorbell and retreated to his car. Driving away, he saw in his rear view mirror Charlie take the box inside.

R.L. Maizes lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, and her dog, Rosie, under the benevolent dictatorship of Arie, the cat. Her stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Blackbird, Slice, The MacGuffin, and other literary magazines. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spirituality & Health, and other national magazines.

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones


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.

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

By Patrice Gopo


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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage/Having a Kid Strained My Marriage: Two Perspectives

Having children together is a big step in any couple’s relationship and one that will invariably affect the dynamic between them. For some people, like Zsofia McMullin, the arrival of a baby can put a strain on the marriage. For others, such as Carinn Jade, the joint act of childrearing can pull a couple closer together.


Having Kids Strengthened My Marriage

By Carinn Jade

My husband and I met in law school, both of us on the clearly marked path to becoming lawyers. We built our relationship on equal ground, walking parallel and in the same direction. With a healthy chemistry, complementary personalities and a similar vision of marriage, careers and kids, we felt confident as we moved swiftly towards our future together.

We were in sync, but we never learned to operate as a unit. This reality set in only after the outpouring of love and support that held us up during our engagement celebrations fell away, and everyone else moved on with their lives once the wedding was over. We knew we were expected to do the same, but we didn’t know how. We felt unsure and alone as the new entity of “married couple.” We dealt with those feelings of isolation in very different ways, causing our parallel paths to hastily diverge.

We broke the vows we’d made—love, honor, cherish, for better or worse—like naughty schoolchildren testing boundaries, and no one came to save us. When we arrived at the point of collapse, we faced one another with the daunting choice to stay together or divorce. On paper, it would have been easy to leave: we had been living apart, we had no children, we had absolutely no idea how to fix us. Yet neither one of us could do it. That visceral knowledge has proven powerful beyond measure. Surviving that period created some sort of invincibility shield that has protected us from everything else life throws our way.

Once our marriage was on solid ground, we dove headfirst into starting a family. While we waited for the baby to arrive, I soothed my anxiety with knowledge, reading dozens of parenting manuals. When our son was born, colickly and high maintenance, the books went out the window and we operated in a constant state of emergency. Our strategy was nothing less than all hands on deck. Our teamwork was shoddy, our interactions tense. But as our son grew, we grew, and soon the parenting machine ran without mechanical failures.

Our second child completed our transformation from individuals into a team. With a toddler and a newborn, we quickly learned to operate not only with efficiency, but with gratitude for the other adult in the room. My husband’s extra pair of hands provided the relief I needed after a long day at home, his office stories kept me sane amidst a sea of cartoon theme songs, his sense of humor kept me laughing when I wanted to cry.

Despite the fact that I’ve held full-time positions during my six years as a mother, our division of domain always remains shockingly traditional. I’m the lead parent and he’s the lead provider, but we manage careers, money, childcare and household chores together. It’s never easy or simple, but it’s part of our lives. We do all the cooking and cleaning and childcare by ourselves. We don’t have a bankroll to fund tropical island vacations. We are mired in the unsexy, mind-numbing details of domestic life, but our marriage thrives because we work as a team to set and achieve the goals for our family: we debate approaches to discipline, we budget for Legoland, we squirrel away money for higher education.

We do not share all marital responsibilities equally, but we maintain tremendous respect for one another. We treat each other with as much kindness as we can muster. We make no space for contempt and bitterness. We put all our effort into empathy and communication. At the end of the day, I suspect our marriage looks like so many that are strained. Many an evening we’ve gone to bed angry, exhausted and frustrated. But by morning’s light, we shed the tension like the cloak of night. We begin the day in the same bed, as part of the same team.

It helps that I think my husband is as interesting and entertaining as the day we first met. We love doing the same things, we enjoy the stories the other brings to the table, and our vastly different perspectives offer a wider view of the world than we could ever have alone. Do we annoy each other? Yes. Consider the other’s ways of doing things mildly infuriating? Of course. But after eleven years of marriage our initial chemistry has deepened into an unshakeable rapport. I’d rather spend my days with no one else.

Friends often want to know our secret to having a stronger marriage after kids. Sometimes I dip into my well of possible answers: live in close physical proximity to one another (think: Tiny House, or a 1000 sq. ft. apartment), find someone who shares your interests, pick a partner that makes you laugh. If you’ve got nerves of steel: bend your marriage until you find its breaking point and work your way back. But the truth is I don’t have a single ingredient that ensures a relationship will thrive, with or without kids; I only know the magic recipe is one you have to make together, even when the kitchen is a mess.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, yogi, writer and habitual non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and publishes parenting essays on Welcome To The Motherhood, both in an effort to distract her from the novel her agent has in submission.

Photo: Somin Khanna


Having a Kid Strained My Marriage

By Zsofia McMullin


The story I like to tell about how having a child strained my marriage takes place on the third day of our son’s life. We had just arrived home from the hospital with our tiny, precious baby. My parents were waiting for us with dinner and a house warmed against the snowstorm winding down outside. All I wanted to do was eat a bowl of soup and go to bed.

But we had bills to pay. As in, some of our utility bills were due soon and when my mom offered to help us, my husband immediately accepted and asked her to take them to the post office. But first, I had to write those bills—we’ve always done it this way, because my husband has horrible handwriting and is distrustful of online payment.

So there I was, ripped and bleeding and sore and so, so incredibly tired, writing checks to the electric company. I remember sitting there, thinking that this was absurd, that I should really just tell my husband to cut me some slack and deal with the bills on his own while I took a shower. But I think I was even too tired to do that.

Five years later, I am sort of able to laugh about this. But at the same time I know that first moment at home has come to symbolize how our marriage changed almost instantly when our son was born. All of a sudden, I had needs and wants and priorities that were completely different from what they were just mere days earlier. My husband’s world jiggled a little with the new arrival, but then it settled right back to where it was before.

I don’t want to paint my husband as insensitive, nor do I want to suggest that keeping our marriage strong is his responsibility alone. Clearly, there are two of us in this relationship, and if there is strain, we are both at fault.

But still, that discrepancy between how my life has changed since our son arrived, in the mind-blowing way it can for mothers, and how his life has stayed the same continues to be a fault line in our marriage. And yet, I have come think of it as a gift, as something unique that I carry as a mother, along with my stretch marks. My husband didn’t get those either, that’s just the way it is.

Before kids I was able to be more tolerant of my husband’s eccentricities and whims, I had patience for whatever “typical male” behavior would surface and just roll my eyes and then roll with the punches. I was a lot more forgiving with him—and with myself. Once our son was born, however, whatever grace or patience I had left me. What was once a cute, quirky personality trait that made me smile during our dating days, became a huge annoyance, a problem. My husband didn’t really change—I did.

Having a kid was not the first strain on our marriage. There was the usual tension during our newlywed years caused by not being used to living together, by not having enough money, by moving around for jobs and constantly compromising about careers and where to live. “We made it through those all right,” he said. “Having a kid is just another one we have to get through.”

But to me, this is not some kind of a race to clear hurdles. This strain feels more abiding. We will always be parents, our son a permanent fixture in our relationship, the third point in our triangle. We will always have differing views on how to raise him—we are getting better about negotiating those differences, but the conflict is there nevertheless. And frankly, I will always be a mother first, and a wife second.

We married pretty young—we were both 26. Looking back I realize I was too young to be able to determine what I would need the father of my child to be. At that point, there was just no way to imagine us as parents. The roles were too unfamiliar, too open to interpretation and circumstances. Sure, he is loving and tender and gentle and flexible and caring and understanding. But how could I possibly have known how he would react when I thrust a baby in his arms? I was surprised, for instance, that even bleary-eyed with exhaustion my husband loves order, that he is a disciplinarian and says things to our son like, “not while you live in my house.”

The truth is, we don’t know what life would have done to us without a child. The arrival of our son strained us, but it hasn’t broken us. We have good weeks and bad weeks, days when we can be patient and kind and forgiving and days when we can barely look at each other through our resentment and anger. It has been hard work to get to this point where we know that, although the way we express our commitment to our family is different, we are both motivated by love.

Our marriage has changed—I don’t know if I would call it a rift, but there is a separation there, a distance between who we used to be, how we used to be together, and how we are now.

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


The Perks of Being a Grandmother

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

By Susan McCoy


“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”


Monday afternoon is Scrabble day. My 12-year-old grandson Jax and I hole up for a couple of hours at a local coffee shop for serious word competition. Well, perhaps I’m overstating … friendly, word building is a more accurate description.

This past Monday, after setting up the board, we went to the counter. The owner smiled, “Hi, ready for your game? You two want the usual? Hot Chocolate with marshmallows?” (He’s got us down. We are what you would call: regulars.)

Scrabble between us began this past fall and, as I said, I made sure my grandson knew that vocabulary building is the intent. During the first couple months he played open dictionary—this variant, dictionary use, was my idea and I thought using it would keep him on a level playing field. I recall those first few games me saying: Let’s not worry about who wins. We’ll go for improving our personal score each week. Deal?

I thought he had agreed. Me, I continued babbling about how fun it would be to play for the joy of making words and improving. I went so far as to discuss sportsmanship, like if he drew a challenging combination of letters. In fact, in the beginning games, we strategized together instead of staring blankly at a rack of lackluster tiles, for example: iiiiooe—boo hiss.

About 30 minutes into Monday’s game, an employee stopped by our table, chatting us up a bit. Who’s winning? Every week, someone asked that question: Who is winning? Why does everything have to be about winning?

I humbly adjusted my halo, “Oh we play to improve our vocabulary … the score doesn’t matter.” I offered a smile. How could anyone expect a twelve-year-old to beat an ole Scrabble fan like me?

Glancing over at Jax, I noticed he was studying his letters not even aware that a question had been asked.

He was taking a long time with his play. “Do you want me to look at your letters?” I asked sweetly.

“No, I want to figure it out myself.”

“Well, remember, you can use the dictionary if you want.”

“No, I’m okay.”

He reorganized the tiles several times on his rack, stopped, then bit his upper lip suppressing a smile. He looked at me, smiled full out and plunked down the word: perkish. The “k” covered a double letter, the “h” on a triple word and also joined to the word “ut” at the right angle forming “hut”—yes, another triple word. And, since he used all seven letters, a 50-point bonus was allowed.

Arrgh … my back straightened.

“Perkish? Is that a word … perkish?” I was taken back at the play.

“Well, if you are perky then can’t you be sort of perky?” We locked eyeballs. “That would be perkish,” he stated in a matter of fact tone.

I grabbed the dictionary. Yes, I knew we are playing for fun but … what kind of derivative of perky was that?

The answer to that question: perkish is not in Webster’s nor Oxford Dictionaries (I know this because later that evening, I looked it up at home—and, yes, I recognize what this says about me; don’t remind me) BUT, it is in the Scrabble Dictionary. And, according to Scrabble, a person can be sort of perky.

I added up his score: 131 points. I added it again … are you kidding me? 131 points. I also lost my next turn for questioning the move and being proved wrong.

“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”

“You are so not using a dictionary for help ever again,” I mumbled. I scrutinized my next play.

“I didn’t use the dictionary,” he said quietly as he pulled seven letters from the black felt bag.

His final score: 414. Yes, 414!

Vocabulary be damned. (The halo is not remotely near me and likely never has been.) The guidelines have now officially changed. Monday’s game will no longer be “sort of” anything to do with me demurely correcting folks who ask about the score.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the coffee shop also serves beer and wine … could become my new “regular” order. Hmm, I’ll have to remember that: “regular” is a seven-letter word. I could place the “go” on a triple letter, put the “r” on a triple word a word, and receive the 50-point bonus. A perkish move, wouldn’t you say?

(A final note:  I have had to hit the ignore key six times when spell checking this article.)

Susan McCoy is an author and teacher who lives part of each year on an island in the Straits of Mackinaw. 

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure


My co-worker was miserable about his ambivalence regarding children. His relationship with his girlfriend was getting serious, but she wanted to have kids someday and he thought a childfree life might suit him better.

I was 27-years old, a newly divorced mom of two very small children and quite enamored of those children. I was also exhausted by a life that felt relentless: I woke the children at 6 am on the weekdays, and they woke me at 6 am on the weekends. I drove them to daycare, went to work, went to my classes at the university, picked the kids up at daycare, fed-bathed-sang to them, and when they were asleep I studied until I was too tired to hold my head up anymore and I went to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do the laundry and cleaning on Saturday, go to church and do the yard work on Sunday, study in every available minute, try to blend parenting and schoolwork by reading Hamlet to my kids in between performances of Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham. I tried to shoehorn a bit of a social life into the few evenings the kids spent with their dad.

My co-worker, feeling like he was at a point in his relationship where he had to make a decision about children right away, was a little frantic when he asked me, “If I don’t have kids, will I be missing out? Will I be cheating myself somehow?”

I broke into laughter, which I regretted immediately. I could see that he was struggling with a major life decision and I didn’t want to make light of it, but the answer seemed so clear to me at the time.

When I pulled myself together, I said, “Yes, if you don’t have kids, you’ll be missing out. If you do have kids, you’ll also be missing out. Whatever you choose, you’ll miss out on some big, amazing things.”

“But you love your kids so much. The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re magic or something.”

“Oh, they’re magic. I didn’t know I could love anyone like I love them, but look: my relationship with their dad failed and leaving was agonizing because divorce is hard on kids. I wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money, but being broke with kids is a hell of a lot harder than being broke on your own. I don’t know; I don’t think you can really compare two lives this way.” I trailed off because I did adore my kids and never thought of them as burdens or mistakes, but it seemed a dangerous mental door to open.

*   *   *

When we were little girls, my sister and I would try to press our mom into expressing some hint that one of us was favored over the other, each of us hoping fervently that she was the one, the best one, the most important. Even now, when I call her, I respond to my mom’s hello by saying, “Hola, Mamasita! It’s your older, better daughter!”

The question we asked, to try to pry the secret of who was best loved from her, was, “If we were drowning (or burning, or being attacked by a bear, or otherwise being killed), and you could only save one of us, who would you save?”

Her unvarying response was, “I’d sooner die trying to save you both than make a choice like that.” The answer was not as satisfying as hearing that I was her favorite, but it was reassuring nevertheless. She wouldn’t choose me over my sister, but neither would she choose my sister over me. Inexplicably, she would choose us over herself, a thing I would not appreciate until I was newly pregnant with my first child and was nearly hit by a car in a parking lot. I slammed my fists down on the trunk of the car that was backing towards me, startling the driver into hitting the brakes, then screamed at her for almost murdering my baby (a seven-week fetus no bigger than a pinto bean) while my then-husband dragged me away.

I was pleased and surprised, and not a little relieved, to know of myself that I was capable of loving someone more than myself, but I never wanted to be the self-sacrificial mom. I didn’t hope I’d be the one who gave everything up, ignored her own needs, or let her life grow hollow while she fed the children everything about her that mattered.

*   *   *

My co-worker, still at sea and still trying to find his way to a decision about whether he would be a father someday, was frustrated with my inability to tell him if not having children would be a tragedy. He emailed me the evening after our conversations and said, “They bring out the best in you, right? Will I live my whole life, never being my best, if I don’t have kids?”

I couldn’t answer that question either, but I know that being a parent has showed me all the extremes of myself, good and bad. First I discovered my vast capacity for patience, and then I ran up against its limits. I found that I am a fierce advocate for my kids, and then I found that I may go too far before I knew what I was doing and sever essential relationships.

In short, my kids showed me my humanity. I thought having a child would make me something very different from myself: that I would know more, feel different, that somehow Adrienne as mom would be a new person entirely, with none of the challenges and maladaptive behaviors that plagued Adrienne as person without children. My children would be my redemption. As a mom, I would be worthier, better, nearly perfect.

*   *   *

Children should never be born with a job. It is unfair to conceive or adopt a child in the hopes that child will save a relationship, or be the person who finally loves us, or redeem us, or bring out the best in us. Those are enormous responsibilities to hang on a wee babe.

I had no conscious idea when I had my children that I hoped they would change me. It took years of self-reflection to understand that I had expectations of my children before they were born. Having a child is both cataclysmic and utterly ordinary, an experience that changes us in surprising ways, but never in all ways. Under the surface, I hoped having children would making me someone new, but I found (unsurprisingly) that once I had children I was still me, with kids.

I don’t know what my co-worker eventually decided. We were both students at the time, making the frequent job changes that some adult students make as our marketplace value shifts. I hope, whatever he chose, that he’s very happy, and that he remembers our talk as often as I do. When I feel like the worst parent ever, our conversation reminds me that my worst moments don’t tell the whole story of my life any more than my best moments do. I’m glad to know I’d rather die trying to save all my children than choose just one. I’m relieved that, in spite of my secret desire for my kids to save me from myself and the selfishness that lies beneath, I love them with an intensity that surprises me. Being a parent has showed me the worst of myself, but it’s also revealed the best in me. That doesn’t mean it’s better to have children than not, but it’s good to live a life in which I love some people with such ferocity it occasionally takes my breath away.

Photo: Olivia Henry

Lifelong Friends

Lifelong Friends

By Jennifer Palmer


Mom is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself.


China, two years after the end of World War II. Two American couples, husbands both pilots for the Marine Corps, wives both new mothers. A shared love of flying, a shared enjoyment of golf. A shared language, not to be disregarded in a foreign land far from home. Superficial things on which to build anything lasting, perhaps, but these were the foundation for a lifelong friendship, one that spanned six decades and more.

It’s a bit of family lore now, the meeting in China, the friendship that bloomed there. John and Gloria—my husband’s paternal grandparents—spoke long and often about Roy and Shirley, about their shared history. Though they were well into their adult lives when they met, already parents and spouses, theirs was a friendship for the ages, of the type you only ever expect to find in fiction. Even when the Marine Corps sent them to Southern California and they returned to the familiar sights and sounds of the States, they chose to remain close to each other, sharing meals and stories and life.

When Roy died flying one of the planes he loved so much, John and Gloria were the support Shirley needed as she and her young sons picked up the pieces, providing love and advice and help during her darkest days. Later, she remarried, and John and Gloria celebrated with her, and welcomed her new husband into their lives.

Shirley remained in Southern California for the rest of her life; John and Gloria did not. When Uncle Sam sent John to Korea, Gloria returned to her native Missouri, and after retirement the couple finally settled in Northern California. Still, even when time and distance separated them, Shirley and Gloria found a way to maintain their friendship; until Shirley’s deteriorating health would no longer permit it, the two women spoke on the phone every day.

I never knew Shirley, but there were days when I felt as though I did. Gloria never failed to mention her at our weekly lunches, never failed to share some anecdote from their shared past. It hit her hard when her dear friend passed away; though it was not unexpected, it is no small thing to lose a companion of more than sixty years. When Gloria lost Shirley, she lost more than a gabbing partner. She lost a treasured friend, the one who understood her better than most everyone else.

Those of us who knew Shirley or Gloria think of them as lifelong friends, and, indeed, they were. It is nearly impossible to picture one of them without the other, to imagine what their lives would have been had they never met. And yet this struck me recently, as I looked into the face of my own sleeping infant: Shirley and Gloria met after they were married, after their boys were born, at a time when they were well into their adult lives. Their lifelong friendship, the relationship that came to define them in so many ways, wasn’t formed until they were mothers, until they were in a place in life that looked pretty similar to where I am now.

It is hard to wrap my mind around this concept, for I have lived thirty years on this earth, in all likelihood a full third of my life. To a large extent, my identity and character are established. I have likes and interests and friends and hobbies that have nothing to do with the fact that so much of my time and energy is wrapped up in keeping a small human alive and thriving. Though I know that, in the eyes of that small human and in the eyes of any who may come after her, I will be “Mom,” first and foremost, always and forever, my life and my identity precede children.

What I realize when I contemplate Gloria and Shirley, however, is this: “Mom” is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself. I may meet somebody tomorrow, or next week, or next year, who will become integral in my children’s lives, who will shape and mold me to the point that my kids will be unable to picture me without her. Some person or lesson or experience may yet come my way which will change me profoundly, leave me a different woman from the one I am today.

This idea inspires me, for it reminds me that even now, as an adult and a wife and a mother, my life is not static. I have the room and the opportunity to grow and to change and to learn. Who I will be in my daughter’s eyes, the woman she will remember when she is grown with children of her own, is yet to be defined.

More than that, though, Gloria and Shirley’s example shows me that it is not too late for me to form lasting new friendships or to rekindle old ones, that it is not too late to invest time in meaningful relationships with other women. This truth seems to contradict my everyday experience; even in the modern world of Facebook and email and Skype, these early days of motherhood are often quite lonely, and making time for friendships sometimes seems impossible. Gloria and Shirley demonstrated otherwise. Their friendship did not happen by accident; though they had young boys at home, they found a way to spend their hours and their days together, to build a lasting relationship. Their families and their lives were better for it.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.


I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney


Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.


Sometimes I am that parent: the one in the grocery store holding her son by the wrist, hissing at him to watch where he’s going; the one hollering in the front yard beseeching my son to climb off the ladder—”Right now, or I’m going to lose it!”—as if no one else can hear.

I don’t yell at my kids all the time. I mean, it’s not my immediate response every time they annoy me. There are times of the day when I am calm and patient and can present everything in rational “I” statements. (“I’m feeling crowded. Please move your foot away from my face.”) And then there are the other times, like bedtime, when I’ve asked my son over and over to put his dirty socks in the hamper, or to stop pouring water on his brother’s head, and yet he pretends he hasn’t heard. I don’t count to ten or practice my deep breathing. I yell.

I try to keep my yelling in check for two reasons: First of all, it’s ineffective. Though I might get my son’s attention, his reaction is usually to rail against me rather than comply. Also, unlike a good cry, yelling doesn’t bring me relief. Instead, yelling leaves me feeling empty, deflated. Though I may try to keep a lid on my temper, I embrace the occasional flare. I want my children to see me—all of me—and the truth is that I’m often cranky, or tired, or sore, or overwhelmed.

I grew up in a household where anger was taboo. We buried our daily grievances, and kept our conversations formal, pleasant. If I sensed that either of my parents was in a dark mood I treaded lightly. I offered to set the table; I helped with dinner; I asked questions and offered compliments, hoping I could brighten the mood. “Did anything good happen to you today?” I might ask, cheerily. But it was like trying to plug a leaking dam with my bare fingers: immobilizing and impossible. My efforts may have warded off small bursts of anger, but rage became an event that hit my family in the middle of the night. As my parents argued on the other side of our shared wall, I hid under pillows and cried. The next morning I’d wake up, determined to be perfect. And so I did the laundry. I said please and thank you. I kept my voice soft. Because I spent my childhood avoiding anger, I couldn’t be all the things that I was. I could be sweet but not sassy, helpful but not demanding, competent but never bossy. All of those traits most common to children were traits that I resolved to squelch, and the effort left me feeling small, a miniature version of myself.

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life. I want them to see that I often struggle to keep my cool, sometimes I lose it, and that when I do I attempt to make amends. I say “Sorry,” or “Can we start over?” Or sometimes I say, “I’m not sorry for yelling because that ladder is shaky and you weren’t paying attention.” I don’t need to provide them with an emotional landscape that is flat.

As a result, my sons learn to live with my flaws, and hopefully they learn to live with their own as well. Though sometimes I worry that my regular outbursts will train them to fear me, so far, I’ve noticed the opposite result. “Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?” my older son asks me moments after I’ve lost my temper.

And at six years old, he’s already mastered the art of the apology himself. A bad morning sometimes sends him stomping into his room. He slams the door, and stacks piles of books so I can’t enter. But I can count on him to emerge ten minutes later, collected and loving. “I’m sorry Mommy,” he says, and hugs me at the waist. We put the books away together.

Rupture and repair, a therapist once told me, are the basis of a healthy relationship. And so I mark the daily ruptures as they happen and try to repair them swiftly, one by one. It’s not so much like plugging a dam as it is like patching the tears on a favorite pair of jeans. The jeans continue to hold their shape, their worn-in softness, but the fabric of the patches and the color of the stitching adds to their appeal. They are lived-in, not perfect, the way a family should be.

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

Play With Me

Play With Me


In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.


“Mom, I need you!”

I hadn’t heard these words from my almost 15-year-old son in what seemed like a decade. Calling for me from his end of the hallway was something he hadn’t done since a bout of bad dreams and restless sleeps a few years ago. “What’s up?” I said, resting the book I’d been reading on my chest, propping my glasses on top of my head. “I need you,” he repeated, this time a little firmer, a little louder. “Can you come here?”

He sat at the edge of his unmade bed as I entered his room; he was shirtless and wearing gym shorts, a baseball cap hung low over his hazel eyes, his foot crossed over his leg, resting on his other thigh. A quick scan of the room revealed a wet towel or two, inside out clothes, was that a fork and a plate with banana bread crumbs on the floor next to his bed? I cringed before refocusing my attention to the strange looking item sticking out of his size-12 foot. He was looking down at it, shaking his head, his hair still damp from his shower, sweat lingering at the nape of his neck.

“Can you pull this thing outta me?” he said, his man-like hands still gripping his foot. “I think I’m gonna pass out, ” he added, his wince coated with a thick layer of Daniel-like drama.

He’d been playing hockey in his room with the new stick we had just given him for Hanukkah. An accidental hit of the rubber ball somehow ricocheted off the bulletin board hanging on his wall, with a direct strike to a thumb tack, the one with a neon green clip and a white strip of paper still attached. A slight misstep and now the tack, clip and all, was lodged in his foot. But it wasn’t just the length of the tack and clip jutting out of his foot that had my attention—it was the strip of paper with “Play With Me Coupon” written in royal blue block letters.

It had been Daniel’s 7th birthday, and big sister Emily gave him a stack of her homemade coupons, all wrapped up in a shoebox filled with hues of blue tissue paper she’d found in the upstairs closet. Over the years, he had used them all, or so I thought, presenting strips of paper to her, like tickets to a show, whenever he wanted immediate access to join her fun.

Not many things had been pinned to Daniel’s bulletin board, only his most special and coveted trinkets—a New York Giants Super Bowl pennant, a Derek Jeter picture, and a homemade “Play With Me Coupon” his sister had given him for his 7th birthday. And he had kept it, all these years.

“I’m Mrs. Olin and you are my student,” Emily had said to Daniel, her lopsided pigtails bobbing as she pointed to the purple plastic chair for her younger brother to sit in. She had hung geography and math posters on the walls of the playroom, using a pointer to “teach” him. On a different day it was a game of library, she and her friends the librarians, setting up areas of different themed and labeled books, Matt Christopher in one corner, Junie B. Jones and Henry and Mudge in another, with a check out station, using bookplates and a stamp pad for Daniel to take out and return his selections. Over the years the games changed, made up worlds on the backyard swing set or on their bikes, drawing roads and stop signs with different colored chalk on the blacktop of our long driveway.

But then, one day, it stopped. “Mom, can you tell him to leave us alone,” Emily said, her bedroom door shutting, her make believe games now “for members only,” behind closed doors, with her friends. Her brother now stood on the outside, his head and gaze downward, his little shoulders slumped; he was no longer invited.

Growing up, my brother was my childhood playmate. We were superheroes running around the backyard, DJs choosing our radio station’s playlist from our selection of 45s and cassette tapes. What I didn’t know then but am certain of now is that besides our parents, our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood, the ones who share the kaleidoscope of family experiences both high and low. If we are lucky, like I have been, they are among the deepest and most meaningful relationships we will ever know. “I’m playing ball with my friends, go find something else to do,” he told me one Saturday afternoon, discarding me along with our days of head-to-head Coleco football, Battleship tournaments and Monopoly marathons.

He was the first to leave for college, my brother. The dinner table felt quiet without his sports talk and our inside jokes, his humor and our banter. Our family square quickly became a triangle and I hadn’t been ready for it. In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.

Had Daniel been holding on to the coupon these past eight years for the right moment to cash it in, or was the strip of paper a silent reminder of the passage of time?

“On the count of three, I’m going to pull it out,” I said, crouched down next to him. “OK, go for it,” he said closing his eyes. “One. Two. Three.” I pulled the tack out quickly, in one shot, and it was gone. Blood spurted, and Daniel re-opened his eyes as I held a bath towel firmly on his foot, putting pressure on the wound. “You’re going to be fine,” I said. “The pain will eventually stop.” Surprisingly, the white “Play With Me Coupon” was still intact, without a spot of blood, a crease or a tear. Without him noticing, I slipped the paper into my pocket, not wanting anything to happen to this remnant of my children’s bond. “It’s done,” I said, our eyes locking a half-second longer.

Without another word, he picked up his hockey stick and found the rubber ball, as if nothing had happened. And I headed back to my room to finish the chapter I had been reading, trying to pretend nothing had yet changed.


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Relationships That Can Never Be

Relationships That Can Never Be

By Jennifer Palmer

Relationships 2

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.


She sits on his lap, tiny fingers reaching first for his own age-spotted ones, then for his starched plaid collar, then for his mouth, which curves up as her touch flits across his cheek. Her head follows her hand, slowly traveling up until their gazes lock. The look lasts only a moment before she is drawn once again by his shirt, dropping her head and her hand to examine the stiff fabric. I wonder whether some special understanding was reached there, in that instant when their eyes met, some knowledge passed from one to the other that none of the rest of us could comprehend, or if it was just a glance, a chance look not registered or remembered.

My pragmatic side thinks it must surely be the latter; neither of them is likely to remember this encounter for any significant length of time. She is only seven months old, after all, and at ninety-five, his mind just doesn’t hold on to things as it once did. Still, I hope that I am wrong. I hope somehow, my daughter has formed some special connection with her great-grandfather. Though she may not keep conscious memories of this gentle man, I hope, at some level, these brief moments might settle into her heart and soul and she would be better for it.

Before long, she tires of sitting on this stranger’s lap and she twists her head around to look for me. Though I want to draw this moment out, I also want it to end well, so I swoop down and pick her up before her agitation turns to tears. She clings to my sweater with one small fist, looks over my shoulder to grin at him as I move away, and his face lights up to match hers.

The moment passes and life continues and all too soon, our weekend visit has come to an end. This one brief encounter may be the only time he ever holds her, for the drive is long and his days are short and who knows if we will make this trek again before his time on earth is done?

*   *   *

It grieves me some, the thought that she will never really know her great-grandfather this side of eternity. It is likely she will never know any of her great-grandparents; of the eight of them, five left this earth before she was even born. The remaining three are all in their nineties and age, cruel tyrant that it is, has already robbed them of so much. Even should she have memories of them that survive to adulthood, they will not be of the fun, wise, loving, creative, quirky people her dad and I had the privilege of knowing as we grew, but rather they will be some hazy shadow, some half-glimpsed vision of easy chairs and wrinkles and age.

It cuts both ways, this knife does, for they would have loved to have known her, too. I stand in the middle, having known and loved all eight of her great-grandparents, having also been entrusted with the care of this girl of mine, and I long to turn back time somehow, to work some magic so that these beloved people might be more than just a story to her, more than just old photographs, so that she might charm them with her big brown eyes and her sweet little chuckle and the adorable way she wrinkles her nose when she grins.

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.

*   *   *

My daughter will never know any of her great-grandparents, and this saddens me. Still, I know her story is not my story and this is a good thing. Her life will be supported by a different cast of characters than my own and there will be those—please, God, let it be so—who will be to her what my grandparents were to me. Though I see her in my dad’s dad’s lap and mourn what will not be, she will likely never feel the lack; young as she is, she is already surrounded by many opportunities for rich and meaningful relationships. Her future is bright, her possibilities endless.

And yet, this is one aspect of parenting I never really considered before my daughter was born: that those who have meant the most to me might mean very little to her, that she may never even have the opportunity to meet many of the people who have played important roles in making me who I am today. She comes from a rich legacy of love and faith and family, and yet she will only ever know the key figures in that history through old stories, the stuff of myth and legend, not of flesh and bone.

There will be many relationships, many experiences, many passions and loves I will want to share with her in the years to come which will mean little to her, whether due to a difference in age or personality or preference. As she grows, she will diverge from me more and more, rely on me less and less, and I think this must be the heart of this melancholy I feel: she is yet an infant, and already I feel this break between my life experiences and her own, between those I love and those she will love. Already I feel her slipping away from me, moving on and growing up.

Of course this is a good thing. Of course this is the ultimate goal of parenting: to help her discover who she is, to help her learn how to be a kind and loving and productive member of a civilized society, to help her find and develop the skills she needs to make her own way in this world. Of course it is, and I will rejoice each step of the way even as I mourn the too-quick passage of time. I’ve known from the first time I saw her, a tiny teddy bear on the green-gray screen in the doctor’s office, that she is her own person and that the world is better for it. I just didn’t expect to feel the separation pangs so soon, when she is still so little.

She will grow and she will change and before I know it, I will no longer be the center of her world, and this will be a good thing. And one day, a day not so far in the future, I fear, her own son or daughter will sit in the lap of someone she loves—my dad, perhaps, or my husband’s—and she will wish for a wand to turn back time, for a way to create space for relationships that can never be.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

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

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

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


I Have Children Ten Years Apart

By Julie Bristol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I Have Children One Year Apart

By Debra Liese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One, Lucky Granddaughter

One, Lucky Granddaughter

By Jennifer Reinharz

Gram and me wedding picture

On October 15th, I lost my grandmother to cancer. The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

Three days earlier, when the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home from my hospital visit, gathered my notebook, and made plans to capture my grandmother’s unusually talkative mood.

There were so many possibilities. Perhaps, as my husband’s Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll; or maybe, as a member of her church’s quilting guild, she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I reached my grandmother’s home hospice bedside, she was already in a final sleep. Weeks whittled to hours. Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain-free, and at home surrounded by loved ones. Her last days, passing, and funeral had been a fluid waltz. Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I had to stretch my accordion memory file for tucked away treasures. Two came to mind; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Sixteen was her forever age, the age at which she liked to remember herself.

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

My notebook soon filled up with Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.


1. Listen for understanding. When talking with other people, don’t uh-huhright, or yes them. Take it all in. Dot was everyone’s ear—mine included.

2. Visit the sick. My grandmother was not afraid of the fray. She recognized that a friend’s comfort was more important than her own. The key to helping those failing feel alive, she had recently told me, was to talk about old times. Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3. Create a warm and inviting home. Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house. Even as the family grew, her apartment was “the place to be”; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table. A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4. Keep an open door policy. Dot always left an empty plate on the table. Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends would traipse through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parmesan, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle. Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them in. No appointment needed.

5. Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest. My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting; she could work any room. From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged. In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology. “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said. It made her sad.

6. Be a good time Charlie. Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing. Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

7. Send cards. I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark. My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise. Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.

8. Watch your television stories but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant. When my grandmother told my husband she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9. Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility. Although my grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties, she loved to drive. With a dashboard tap for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go. But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10. Forge ahead. My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication. Not once did she complain to anyone.

11. Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever you see fit. My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as HomemakerMore so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.

12. Say “I love you.” Dot had a hard time saying “I love you”; showing love seemed easier for her. In the hospital, the last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13. Avoid self pity. Dot was a Depression kid with an estranged, alcoholic father. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work. These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14. Communicate. My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time. “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised. “Grudges are worthless. Life is too short.”

15. Keep the faith. Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church, attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement. She embraced what spoke to her in this universe, and in the end, it was her faith that helped her to let go.

16. Love well. During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort. At her funeral, it was no surprise that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”

Before Dot’s death, my five-year old said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospital bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came—all too soon and all too suddenly.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine. Her spirit and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Jennifer Reinharz writes for children, and blogs for grownups. She is a teacher, CrossFitter, and most importantly, Mom to Bubbe and The Skootch. Jennifer is the creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? ( Follow her on Twitter @redsaidwhatblog.

On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

On Nitpicking and Co-Parenting

By Carley Moore

FFIR Image 1“Where did you get that?” I stared at my ex-husband as he affixed a headlamp to his forehead and our five-year-old daughter wriggled off her shirt and settled into his office chair for what had to be the millionth hour of Angelina Ballerina.

“Duane Reade.  Jealous?”

I nodded.  I was impressed.  Not to be outdone, I offered, “I bought coconut oil and tea tree oil which we can melt together and slather on after we pick.  I also brought my hair dryer.  I’ve heard they can’t take the heat.  Oh, and new hair clips to section off the hair.”

“Mama, is there candy?”

“You can eat whatever you want.”  The only way to get a five-year-old to sit still for an hour or two of nitpicking is to stuff them with sugar and cartoons.

M. rummaged around in the brown shopping bag of lice treatment products her dad and I had been toting back and forth between our apartments for the last week, and pulled out a bag of cherry hard candies.  She scratched her shoulder and returned to the mouse dance drama that was unfolding in the English town of Chipping Cheddar.

This was our second lice battle.  I’d found them crawling around on M.’s head before Christmas and spent a disgusted six hours shampooing and combing the still kicking lice out of her hair on a Saturday night.  M.’s dad was out of town and after I was done, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and cried for a quick minute.  I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I feared being a single mom would feel in the months before my separation from M.’s dad.  This time, the school called her dad, and he called me since it was my day.  We agreed to get supplies and meet up later to nitpick.  When I arrived at her school, M. had been quarantined in the nurse’s office with at least twenty other kids.  Instead of speaking to the school nurse, I was greeted by a lice-removal salesperson, who was charging parents $1000 to comb through a child’s hair and de-louse the apartment.  He thrust a flyer into my hand, and turned to one of his employees.

“She’s got live lice, right?”

“Yep,” the young woman didn’t look up from the hair of one of M.’s classmates as she deftly parted it with two small sticks.

M. buried her head into my leg and cried.  I wanted to cry again too, but I didn’t.  I’d learned that in my five years of being of mom—if you’re a good parent, mostly, you don’t get to cry.  Or you do it later, on your own, with a glass of wine or with a friend or for a quick minute in the bedroom while the Backyardigans are dancing the two-step.  There was something so galling about the cold practicality of the lice removal salesman when I was hoping for the folksy comfort of a school nurse.  Do public schools even have nurses anymore?  I haven’t met ours yet.

A week later, I found out from another mom in my daughter’s school that she actually paid over $1300 to have her daughter combed out and nitpicked.  Neither M.’s dad or I have that kind of money lying around, and if we did, we’d probably spend it on summer camp or three year’s worth of school clothes or half of a shitty used car.  I get that parents need help, and that many of the parents at my daughter’s public school can afford these treatments.  Nitpicking and lice removal are big business, especially in cities where infestation is common and there are a lot of middle-class overworked parents.  I found several articles about Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn who had become professional nitpickers after dealing with their kids’ lice.  One has put six of her nine kids through college by nitpicking.

Nitpicking, I’d learned was a very particular kind of hard focused labor.  It reminded me of the kind of feminine precision work I’d failed at growing up:  needlepoint and quilting.  You needed good eyes, and really good light, and you needed to care.  “Don’t drop the stitch,”  I heard my mother saying gently over the hoop of a sampler I’d botched.  “You have to follow the pattern,” my 4-H teacher sighed into the soft light of her Singer.  I was too impatient to be much of a seamstress.  I refused to use the seam ripper on mistakes, instead insisting that I had my own vision, one that included dropped and crooked stitches.  The results were shoddy and embarrassing.  I usually stuffed them under my bed or threw them out altogether.  As an adult, when I saw a quilting show of the African-American quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama, I understood the difference between improvisation and mistake.  Intention.  Vision.  Belief.  My daughter’s kindergarten teacher calls a mistake that turns into something viable, a “beautiful ooops.”  As a young girl, I knew only patterns and rules.  I wanted to be an artist, to improvise off of a mistake, but I couldn’t make the leap.  Mistakes were to be ripped out.  They were not a riff to extend.

Staring at my daughter’s teeming, bug-infested head for that first comb out, I knew I had no choice.  I had to remove every last bug.  It was tedious, precision work that we were too broke to pay anyone else to do.  The nits are the size of a grain of sand, and you have to look on almost every hair follicle.  My daughter’s hair is fine and long, and as her dad and I have taken to calling it under our breath “louse brown.”

M.’s dad and I have been separated for a year.  We are slowly heading towards mediation and a divorce.  We are friends, we talk or text most days, and we are co-parenting.  M. spends half of her time with each of us.  He is an excellent dad, and my dear friend.  I miss him a lot.

When you Google the words “nitpicking” and “women” most of what comes up is relationship advice.  The top hit is, “Want a Happy Marriage?  Don’t Nitpick.”  As I learn the true meaning of nitpicking, I think now about the ways in which I nitpicked M.’s dad when we were married, especially in those last two very hard years of our marriage.  I suppose we picked at each other, or I picked and he withdrew.  We both felt so wronged and so misunderstood!

You’re bossy.  You’re very detail oriented.  You like to be right.  You cross all of your t(s).  You can’t let it go.  You have to have it perfect.  You always get your way. I’ve heard phrases like these from parents, friends, and even-well meaning colleagues.  I suppose my ex hurled one or two of these at me too, and I’m sure I deserved it.  They are code for nitpicking, ball busting, acting the part of the difficult woman.  The nitpicker is a good foil, a scapegoat for larger struggles around relationships both at home and in the workplace.  And I admit too that I can be difficult and disappointed and exacting.  But I’m also funny and sexy and smart!  I may pick nits, but I am no longer that nitpicking wife—maybe I never was.

The last year has been hard on us all.  M. is adjusting to living in two apartments, and to the loss of married parents.  M’.s dad and I are mourning our marriage and learning how to live as single adults.  But I see in our relationship of late, in our shared quest to rid our daughter’s head of vermin and our resistance to getting fleeced out of money we don’t have, some core beliefs about co-parenting that are at the heart of my new favorite parenting book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas.  I was drawn to this book because of its tagline, “practical advice from a formerly married couple.”  Wow, I thought.  They’re divorced and they managed to co-author a book!  I’ll buy that!  In their introduction, Philyaw and Thomas define successful co-parenting as “any post divorce or post-separation parenting arrangement that (1) fosters continued, healthy relationships for children with both parents and (2) is founded on a genuinely cooperative relationship between the parents.”  They urge co-parents or divorcing couples that are considering co-parenting to put the kids first and to remember, “It’s not about you.”

And so for the two weeks, M.’s dad and I have come together to nitpick.  We have two metal combs now, and though we can not both fit around the small circumference of our daughter’s head, we keep each other company, we make jokes, and we divide up the sections of her head.

“I’ll do the bottom, if you do the top.”  He clicked on his headlamp.  M. scratched at her shoulder again until it was red.

I suppose I write this essay as a wish to return nitpicking to its original lice hunting origins.  Nitpicking is precision work, often relegated to wives and mothers, but it needn’t be so.  M.’s dad is actually better at getting the nits off of her hair than I am.  His vision is sharper and he has a firmer pinch.

Carley Moore is a poet, novelist, and sometimes blogger (  Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012.

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These Are Not My Beautiful Children

These Are Not My Beautiful Children

By Virginia Woodruff

IMG_4070.JPGI was not someone who was meant to have three children, a house, a husband, a job and two cats.

In my pre-child life I wasn’t known for being organized. I moved every two years and often lived off of credit cards. A friend got in the habit of telling me things started an hour earlier so I would (maybe) show up on time.

I slept under piles of clean laundry, selecting my outfit the next day from the nest of clothes. I ate dinner—usually cold ravioli, sometimes cereal—in the bath with a wrinkled book.

I lived outside the world, confused about how people went about their lives of ritual and routine. Working in the cubicle. Making the money. Investing the money. Buying the house. Changing the diaper. Driving the minivan. It all didn’t make sense to me.

I wallowed in melancholy, taking long walks at night and watching people through windows as they watched TV, my own “little-matchstick-girl-out-in-the-cold” routine.

Mainly, I was scared, so I protected myself. I thought deeply and felt sensitively but shut people out of my intimate life. If I had a stance, it was “arms crossed.”

When I held my first child, my arms uncrossed. You can’t love something that much without some of it trickling over to the rest of the world. With his help, I became a fully manifested human who is both more alive and more tired than ever before. But mostly: open.

I didn’t know when you had a baby you crossed a river into another country, a country of mothers. Now I feel an instant connection to any other woman with a child. We know. It’s like a secret society. And I finally belong.

Seven years into parenthood, life is busy and hectic. I don’t have time for reflection, much less ennui.

But sometimes, when I stay up late reading the biography of honest, hurting David Foster Wallace, or when I pass the framed pictures of our smiling family dotting the hallway, I catch myself disbelieving.

Do I really have 600 Facebook “friends” with whom I share every nuance of my life?

Do I really have 2,000 digital pictures waiting on my phone?

Do I really wash, fold and put away the clothes of five humans, only to have to do it all again?

Do I really sob while reading blog posts about children with cancer?

Do I really drive a minivan to arrive (mostly) on time for school pick up every day?

Do I really spend weeks researching winter camps, spring break camps, summer camps and family vacations?

Could this possibly be my life?

And then, someone spills hot chocolate and someone punches someone in the face and someone wants to talk—again—about Minecraft.

There’s nothing like children to keep you bouncing along.

When I was a teenager my mother used to say, “I can’t believe you’re my daughter” after she watched me walk home from the school bus stop. It was meant as a compliment, but I didn’t understand. I thought it separated us—I was nothing like her.

Now I know what she meant. When I look at my kids, with their intricate worlds and sure sense of justice, I can’t believe these wild-with-life creatures are my offspring. It is just amazing.

And now I know how those through-the-window families did it: step by step. They did it because they had to. They did it just to keep their worlds turning. Turns out there is no magic to being a productive citizen, or having a fireside family, just hard work.

When I feel myself skirting that familiar existential territory—”Is this my beautiful life?”—I say: Don’t think. Just keep going, keep doing, keep swimming along.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every morning I spring up smiling to meet the reveille of young voices. And there are nights when I sit too long at the dinner table because I dread the routine that follows—I can’t wash another head of hair or read another story. There are times when I miss my old spontaneous life.

But I don’t miss the aloneness.

Virginia Woodruff founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, a SXSW Interactive Award nominee. She lives in Austin with her husband and three kids.

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Here We Go, Grace and I

Here We Go, Grace and I

By Lindsey Mead

sling2When Grace was nine she broke her collarbone playing soccer.  It happened days after I wrote a piece about how I wanted my children to be physically fearless and push themselves in the world.  When I watched my crying daughter, through a glass window, standing in front of the ER’s x-ray machine in her soccer uniform, I was forced to confront my own biases about parenting.  Did I still believe that, about being physical, athletic, confident in their bodies, even if this happened.  The truth is, I did.

I couldn’t believe how quickly she healed.  The first few days were very painful, especially because she fell on day two and caught herself with the bad arm, pushing the bones further out of joint.  The low point was the second night after the injury.  Grace came into my room around 2 a.m., her face wet with tears.

“Mummy?” she whispered and my eyes popped open.

“Oh, Gracie!” I sat up. “Are you okay?” Matt was away so I was alone in bed.

“Will you help me get back in bed?  I can’t do it.”  Her face was contorted with a mix of pain and shame.  She hates asking for help.  I think I know where she gets that particular trait.

I leapt out of bed and gave her more Tylenol with codeine before lifting her carefully into bed.  I flashed back to lifting her baby self, swaddled in a yellow blanket covered in white stars, into her crib, putting her down slowly, willing her not to wake and begin wailing.  As she lay back in her bed, arm propped up a stack of pillows, she looked at me in the dimness of her nightlight-lit room and I could see that her eyes shone with tears.  I sat down next to her gingerly, not wanting to jostle her body, and smoothed her hair back from her forehead.  It was damp, and she felt warm.  “I love you,” I whispered.

The next morning Grace was dismayed to still be in so much pain.  I helped her get dressed, easing a baggy shirt over her shoulder, trying to move it as little as possible.  Over breakfast, she asked me to tell her about the bones I had broken.  I smiled and told her: an ankle, two bones in one arm, multiple fingers and toes, and several ribs.  Her eyebrows shot up as she chewed her toast.

“Well, I’m not going to break any more bones.  Ever.  It hurts too much.”  She shook her head.

“I don’t know, Grace.  It’s going to happen sometimes when you do sports.  I’m pretty sure there will be more injuries to come in other games.”  I hesitated.  “I think it’s part of the deal.  But I promise,” My eyes swam with tears, but my tone was suddenly firm.  “I promise you it’s always worth it to play.”

Within a week of the break she was just taking regular Motrin a couple of times a day.  Within two weeks she was annoyed with her sling and didn’t want to wear it anymore.  The bones had already begun to knit together.  The doctor told us that while she would always have a bump, it would become less and less noticeable as she grew.  Then he looked at us both and said, with a shrug: “So?  Everybody’s got bumps.”

*   *   *

Everybody does have bumps.  I think of that doctor’s offhand comment all the time.  In fact we have matching bumps now, Grace and I.  I separated my left shoulder just months before she broke her left collarbone, so we both have visible protrusions by that shoulder.

I wrote my thesis in college on the mother-daughter relationship, a detail that now seems full of portent.  It gives me goosebumps to think back to my 21-year-old self, hunched in a small carrel in the library, writing about questions I would intimately inhabit almost 20 years later.  Specifically, I wrote about the mother-daughter bond in the lives in three 20th century poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin.  I called them the first generation of true mother-poets and asserted that in all three cases their work was both haunted and enriched by the long shadow of the mother-daughter relationship and specifically by the interplay of identification and separation that marks this bond.

I chose this topic for my thesis with what I remember as an almost utter lack of deliberation; I just knew I wanted to study those poets and to explore these topics.  I went directly into the heart of the relationship between a mother and daughter, and spent six months deeply immersed in psychoanalytic theorizing as well as close reading of poetry.  I researched and wrote and felt my conclusions fiercely, a fact which amazes me now because I realize how little I knew about the topic.  Of course I was a daughter, with a mother I loved dearly, but my real understanding of the fertile and complex layers of relationship between generations of women came only after I had my own daughter.  I am struck, not for the first time, by how the perspective provided by the arc of years illuminates choices we made long ago.  From those months of work I understand intellectually that the separation of daughter from mother in adolescence is critically important.  I know how painful and violent it can be, but also how transformational.  Now I am living it.

Grace has begun to wade into the whitewater of emotion that swirls around adolescence.  The uptick in her moodiness and frequency with which she’s mad at me are harbingers, I know, of what is to come.  As is my pattern, I turn to the page; hoping that writing down my experiences, my observations, and my hopes will somehow help me through this period of dislocation and difficulty.  I dread what lies ahead but simultaneously feel great guilt about that very dreading; so far, parenting has surprised me by being better and better every single week, month, and year.  Is that golden uphill climb over?  Have we, now that the summit is in sight, transitioned to a speedier, less joyful downhill slide?  Oh, I hope not.  But the truth is, I don’t know.  There is so much that lies ahead.  I want fiercely to make it through to the other side of this transition with my cord that I know ties my heart to my daughter’s intact, though stretched, of new, different dimensions.

Here we go, Grace and I. 

Read more of Lindsey’s work in This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.



By Kerry Cohen

fourkidsJames and I were going to get married at city hall, so I went to the den to tell our combined four kids. Ezra, my ten-year-old autistic son, shook his head.

“No married,” he said.

“You’re coming,” I told him. “I don’t make you do a lot of things you don’t want to do, but this you’re doing. My children will be there when I get married.”

I went back upstairs, rushing around to get things together to leave. Ezra showed up in the kitchen with a blue pool noodle.

“Can you marry this?” he asked.

I laughed, but I did. I performed a quick ceremony in which the pool noodle and I became husband and wife. I never know what is going on in Ezra’s head, or rather, it can take me a while to figure it out. Ezra watched me the whole time like I was crazy, so clearly I wasn’t understanding. He followed me into my bedroom, holding the pool noodle, and he lay on the bed.

“Are you upset that I’m getting married?” I asked him.

“No married.”

I didn’t know whether he didn’t want me to get married because he wanted to stay home, playing on his computer, not having to face the uncertain world, a world he rarely understood and that too often took him by surprise, or if he didn’t want me to get married because I was marrying someone new, someone who wasn’t his father.

“I don’t want you to worry,” I told him. “Everything is going to be just the same. You’ll be here for one week, and then with Daddy the next week, back and forth like always. Nothing is changing.”

“Can James fall into a hole?” he asked.

“You want James to fall into a hole?”

“Can I ruin James?”

I sat next to him and brushed his thick blond hair away from his eyes. I understood this was a big deal for him. It was for all of us. Both James and I had two children each, and the past four years of blending our families had been immensely hard, riddled with complications and arguments and negotiations about how we could make it work. It had been a long road, and I didn’t expect it to get easier, but we had finally made it here.

“I love James,” I told him. “I don’t want him to be ruined or fall into a hole. James loves you. Daddy loves you. And I love you.”

He pointed to a laundry basket. “Can I marry that?” he asked.

“The laundry basket?”

“Can I marry that?” He pointed now to the pool noodle.

“The pool noodle?”

“Can I marry things?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think you can only marry humans.”

“No humans!” he said.

I understood then what he was trying to wrap his head around. Things. They had long been important to him. It’s a classic symptom of autism: more interest in things than people. When he was little, he carried around the flat foam inset animals from a book. If he lost one of them, like the purple cow, he grew upset enough that we had to spend hours retracing our steps to find it, more often than not buried in the mud at a park. We thought we’d be smart and buy a second copy of the book with the flat foam inset animals, but then his collection included two of each animal, and there were more things to lose.

James had been listening to my conversation with Ezra. “Ezra,” he asked. “Do you want to bring the pool noodle with us to get married?”

“Yeah,” Ezra said.

So, we did. The two other boys used it to chase and hit each other, swatting one another on the back. Ezra dipped his shoes in mud, paying no attention to us or the pool noodle, and James’s daughter held all the flowers. It will forever be a part of our story. Because Ezra was right about this one. James and I are the ones doing something terribly difficult, blending our two loopy families and trying to make it work. Almost weekly, something happens in which I feel like I can’t do it, this was a mistake; I should have just married the god damned pool noodle instead. So, I get it. Things. They’re comforting. They’re uncomplicated. They make sense. If you lose one of the parts, you go find it. Usually, it can be found. Whereas we humans can hardly communicate our feelings are so complex. And then we wind up divorced, like Ezra’s dad and me did. The things you lose don’t always come back.

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the memoirs Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Seeing Ezra: A Mother’s Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal. She practices psychotherapy and writes in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with the writer James Bernard Frost and their four children.

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Lessons From New Friends

Lessons From New Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Little Things Take Root

When Little Things Take Root

By Heal McKnight

WO Little Things Take Root ArtIt’s early summer 1990, and Shelley’s kneeling among the carrot tops, running her hands through the dirt while I watch from the kitchen window. She looks to me like another organic shape out there, surrounded by soil and new green leaves and small staked tomatoes. Later, when the plants grow higher, I don’t always know at first glance which one’s her. She’s brown all over, her curly hair red and brown and gold all at the same time. I think our vegetables grow because they want to see her better, because she slowly and daily becomes the color of their dirt and they’ve come to trust her.

I know the mechanics of it all, the planting, the watering, the weeding, because I do that, too. But Shelley’s the one who notices the incremental, minuscule changes: the first flowers on the thick itchy squash vine, the first yellow-green shoots of leek. She brings me the first bright cherry tomato and slices it in half. We eat it together, sweet and warm, a perfect red-orange dome on my tongue before I bite down. By late August there’s salsa, armloads of tomatoes and peppers and onions all ready at the same time. Shelley brings them inside to me and I start chopping, hustle everything together into a bright bowl, then let it salsafy. I get out the chips. It’s what we’ll eat before dinner, what’ll fill us up so much we don’t really need dinner. This is how it is.

Shelley wants to be pregnant—we talked about that before we started dating, when we were just friends, when she was with a man and it seemed like they’d marry. “I wonder what it’s like to feel somebody growing inside your body,” she’d said one morning at an old diner over breakfast. “I wonder what it’s like to feel that kind of connection. I wonder what it’s like to give birth, and then have all those years with somebody. I think I’d be really good at it.” She’s a zoologist. She knows the science of breeding and the gestation behaviors and little pink babies. It makes sense to her and it also still seems like magic, and that’s what drew me in. And a few months later, when we started kissing, the fact that we were both women did not change her dreams of a baby. “Why should it?” she said. “Love is love—and love with you feels so much more real and exciting to me.” And that’s what drew me in deeper.

I want to parent. But I don’t want to give birth. I imagine myself a very bad pregnant person, nine months of dreading what’s coming next, the stretching and tearing and bearing down. Pretty easy decision, we tell people later when they ask why Shelley was the birth mom, my knees clamping together even as we explain.

We’ve talked to other lesbian moms so we know about Teri, the nurse-practitioner downtown. She treats us as an infertile couple. “You’ve been having unprotected sex for years, right? Still not pregnant? That’s infertility.” Shelley’s insurance covers that.

“So,” Teri says, settling into the chair next to us. Her office is decorated with pictures of speed skaters and rock climbers and people’s babies, plus one enormous jade plant. “How long have you been together?”

“Two and a half years,” Shelley tells her. “And we were friends before that. Part of why we’re together is that we both wanted kids.”

“And because she cracks me up,” I say. “Because she paddles a canoe beautifully, and she does these hilarious impressions of rodents.” Teri laughs and makes a few notes. I wonder what she thinks of us. I wonder if we look like we’ll make good moms.

We’ve done these things to get ready, we tell her: bought a two-flat near a great elementary school. Renting out the apartment upstairs pays most of our mortgage, so our money has gone into repairs and improvements: insulation, siding, better windows, warm wood floors. Shelley’s had the same job for eleven years, using animal models to research cancer cells. She’s got great insurance and a boss who knows she wants to get pregnant. As of last month, her car’s paid off. It’s a four-door, much easier when it comes to carseat installation. Also, for the last year we’ve been providing child care for two neighbor kids—practicing. We’ve held Meg through long afternoons of teething, learned to make the mushy beige cereal she likes. We’ve taken dry clothes to her brother Michael’s kindergarten in the middle of the day, after he’s fallen in a puddle again—the same puddle, many days in a row. Thursday afternoons we have both kids, and we take them on small adventures, visiting barnfuls of cows or pounding nails into wood scraps or making our own frozen yogurt. Last week we went to a playground by the lake and took windy pictures of each other, Shelley wearing Meg in a backpack, Michael floppy and disorganized and laughing hysterically with his hair blowing all over. Thursdays are my favorite day.

These are the early years of the lesbian baby boom, when two-mom families aren’t impossible but still aren’t common. We’ve become practiced at reciting our Why We Are Doing This resumé, assembling it dozens of times in our own heads and together, asking quiet questions late at night: What are we after here? Is there something we’re trying to prove? Are we made of strong enough material to be parents at all, let alone lesbian parents? What are we asking of a child, born into a family that needs explaining, patiently, more than once? Is this really okay?

In Teri’s office, Shelley’s holding my hand tight. “Can’t think of anyone I’d rather do this with,” she’d told me in a cave of covers one unexpectedly chilly June night, and right then something new had begun growing between us. “We’re really sure of this,” she says to Teri. “We’re ready.”

“I wish other couples were this prepared.” Teri’s stacking up paperwork for us. “The list of donor sperm is on this sheet.” She starts drawing on it with a green Hi-Liter. “With anonymous donors you get basic information: race and ethnicity, occupation, blood type, height. Not much else. You can get anyone on this list, if you’re willing to wait a few weeks. But if you really want to do it in the next week or two, the ones I’m highlighting are in stock.” She hands us the sheet with thirteen choices beaming at us, thirteen bright green possibilities.

We leave the office laughing, my arm around Shelley’s shoulders so hard she has to walk a little sideways. We know it’ll be soon-Shelley’s charted her temperature every morning for months, and it peaks and drops on graph paper like a drawing of the same mountain range over and over and over. Teri sends us to the pharmacy for an ovulation test kit, but we know it will likely be Thursday. We know that one of those hi-lit guys is our guy. I think we know we’re on our way to making something beautiful.

I hadn’t wanted to be a mom until after I came out; before I accepted my own queerness I’d imagined myself always alone, somehow avoiding the uncomfortable fact that I loved women. But once I did come out, in the first month of college to a sweet girl who liked me back, something new sent out tentative roots and began unfurling tiny green leaves and buds. My heart grew sweeter with each passing season, a little awkward and embarrassed with each new flower, but I secretly loved the smell. I started leaning in toward other people’s babies, toward other people.

In the end, the story was that simple, that old, that familiar: we love each other. We like kids. We’re ready.


We’re looking at a little paper strip, trying to determine “twice as blue.” The ovulation indicator measures levels of lutenizing hormone, which Shelley describes to me as the hormonal trumpet blast that comes just before the egg’s released. When the strip turns twice as blue as it was the day before, we should fertilize. Yesterday’s test is a gentle blue, robin’s-egg. Today’s is slightly bluer than a bleached sky on a really hot day.

“Is that twice as blue?” Shelley’s looking over the top of her glasses. We’re sitting on the foot of the bed, the wrought iron one she’s had since third grade. She holds the test strip near the window, then under the reading lamp by my head.

“It’s darker under the lightbulb,” she says. “Definitely darker than yesterday. I don’t know.” She stacks the strips on the dresser and slides back under the comforter with me. Her hair, a wild explosion of corkscrews when I first met her, has been cut short. I put my arms around her. She scootches down, fits her face into the bay of my neck and shoulder. She reaches across me, hands me the strips. “What do you think?”

I’m a little intimidated, frankly. Today, I don’t feel quite ready. She’s 32 and stable. I turn 25 this month. I’m working a hippie job that pays hippie wages. I don’t have health insurance, or even a doctor—just the bald guy at the pharmacy by the train tracks. Articles about saving for retirement now mention people in my age bracket, and I am not contributing to a savvy investment account. I still dress like an adolescent boy, still skateboard, still want to take drum lessons someday. Today I don’t feel like parent material. I’m okay about trying now because it almost never happens the first time-fourth, fifth, sixth try is the average, Shelley tells me, because she’s researched the stats. And those stats are for straight people getting pregnant in more traditional ways, which they can practice several times each month. Somehow by the time I’m twenty-five and a half, I can imagine being ready. But not today. Because today I can’t even responsibly form an opinion on shades of blue.

“I don’t know,” I tell her. “Today’s is definitely more blue. What’s your chart say?”

“I think I’m ovulating today or tomorrow,” she says. That’s what the chart predicts. And she’s been practicing feeling it happen, trying to feel the little pop of an ovary firing an egg. “I can’t tell exactly,” she’s saying now. “But I know we’re close.”

She looks so serious when she talks, but even then she’s got those eyes: light gray, small and intense but looking at me so softly and holding on. “Should we just try today?” I ask. “Just to get that first try out of the way?” I hug her closer—I’m still scared but I feel a little squish of excitement, too. I think about how happy Michael sounds when he laughs, how much I love it when he draws Shelley with a crayon, and I know how quickly I could get all the way ready.

We’ve already chosen our donor—he’s white, German and French, has wavy brown hair. He probably doesn’t look that different from both of us. He’s an occupational therapist, which we hope means compassionate. He has a medium-size frame, which we hope means a nice size to push out of a birth canal.

“I’m free after lunch,” Shelley says. “I’m taking the afternoon off.”

“I can leave work,” I tell her. “I’d have to go back, but I can miss part of the afternoon.”

She calls for an appointment.

*   *   *

Insemination doesn’t take long. I hold Shelley’s hand, our palms sweating together, as Teri slides in the speculum. “I’m putting the sperm right by the cervix,” she says, “so it might be uncomfortable.” It’s uncomfortable for me-I feel my own body folding itself tighter, notice my own knees mash together harder as I see Shelley’s face squinch up for a minute. “And that,” Teri says, “is all there is to it. Lie on the table for ten minutes or so. Let ’em swim. We’ll do this tomorrow, too—same time.” She clicks off the overhead fluorescent on her way out, and the room goes all soft, sweet late-September light filtering in through the blinds, and we’re both a little teary. I lean down to kiss her. “I love you,” I tell her. She wipes her eyes and nods.

Within a day, she says she feels a quick grab happening in her body, a sudden cramp, a minor wave of nausea. She’s sure, though nobody she calls has ever heard of somebody feeling implantation. But this time empirical evidence doesn’t matter as much—she knows what she felt, and what changed on her face stays changed.

We can’t use the home pregnancy test for two weeks. We plunge into our jobs, the sports we play, anything not about babies because we don’t want to mess it up. It starts getting cold out, and like every year we avoid turning on the furnace—just layer blankets on the bed, bundle ourselves in sweatshirts, wear stocking caps inside. We rake leaves, put away the hammock, and I suspect we’re both imagining springtime, wondering what will be ripening then in Shelley’s belly. We clean out gutters, tidy up, batten down, and when it’s time Shelley pours her first morning pee into the little test tube and squirts in chemicals. Clear means no. Pink means yes.

“At least there’s no twice as clear,” Shelley says, as soon as she mixes. The test tube sits in its own little holder in the bathroom. We’re huddled together watching it, waiting, bundled up and plump in layers of sweatshirts. The oven timer goes off. The mixture is still clear.

“But I felt something happen,” she says. “I know I’m pregnant.” She sounds frustrated, the way she sounds when she’s puzzling over experiments at work. She peers at the tube. “Let’s give it more time,” she says. I turn on the coffeemaker. We wait.  After breakfast the tube is still clear. We pack lunches and finish getting dressed. I hug her for a long time at the door. “It almost never happens the first time,” I say, though I can feel her thinking in my arms. “We’ll just keep trying,” I say. I’m not sure yet how I’m feeling, but I’ll sort that out while I bike to work. I suspect I’m disappointed.

“I think the test is wrong,” she says, checking it again—still clear. I can see her trying to pick apart its science. We kiss each other quickly and ride off in different directions.

When I get home she’s already there, grinning hard. “Room temperature,” she almost shouts. “I thought about it right before lunch. These things work at room temperature, and our house this morning was fifty-eight degrees.” She raced home right away, picked up the test tube, held it in her warm hand—and it pinked up almost instantly, she says. “Then I went in for blood tests just to be sure.” She’s thrusting a pamphlet at me. “You Are Going To Be A Parent,” it says.

We’re laughing so hard we can’t tell whose is whose. “I can’t believe you didn’t call me,” I’m saying into her neck, laughing and tasting her hair and feeling her whole body buzzing inside her skin. “I would’ve gone with you. I would’ve loved that.” She was too excited to wait, she tells me. Drove to the doctor like a banshee, wanted to get the blood test and know absolutely, wanted to say something to me only after she had proof. I can imagine her driving home slower, more carefully, auditioning ways to tell me.

“I was glad for the pamphlet,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to show you that.”

I’m looking at it now in my shaky hand: purple copy paper. A smiling heterosexual couple on the front, gazing at a sweet bundle of baby. I rearrange things in my head until it’s two women, maybe Shelley and me, holding the little person who’s maybe half the size of a poppyseed today, or even smaller. I can’t stop hugging Shelley and whoever’s inside. I can’t stop knowing that from here everything gets bigger.

Heal McKnight lives with her family in Arcata, California. Her work appears in Brevity, poemmemoirstory, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

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A Yelper Spreads the Love

A Yelper Spreads the Love

By Bonnie J. Rough

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

Owp, owp, owp.

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


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

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

Owp. Owp. Owwwp.

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

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

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

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

Owp! Owp! Owwwp!

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

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

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

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

Owp. Owp. Owp.

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


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

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

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

“What is that?” she asked.

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

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

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

Owp! Owp! Owp!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Window treatments?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too!” I said through toothpaste foam.

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

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

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

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

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Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

Love in the Time of the Parenting Plan

By Theo Pauline Nestor

TheoPaulineNesterWhen you divorce as a forty-two-year-old mother of two, you can almost see the trajectory of your dating life stretching out before you, as solid and real as your seven-year-old car and your century-old house. As you file away the notarized papers decreeing your solitude legal, you know with complete certainty that you will be totally alone for several months or maybe even a year with not even an occasional thought of your romantic future. You will meet no one of interest in your trips to the grocery store and the library, and you do not expect to.

Around the one-year mark, friends will begin to set you up, and perhaps you will dabble in online dating on the Friday evenings when your kids are with their father. You will meet someone; he will be wrong for you in ways clear to you but not to others who are just so glad to see you “getting out again.” Suffering through long dinners and Scrabble games for the promise of mediocre sex, you will deny to yourself the ways that he is only half-right and date him half-heartedly for six months, and then, suddenly but somehow expectedly, the day comes when you never hear from each other again.

Acquaintances are nice to you because they know that this is your fate, that you are, in fact, the latest member of the country’s most congested demographic—middle-aged women in want of a good man. Nice married people think of you as someone who has it worse than they do; they treat you in the manner they normally reserve for the elderly or the terminally ill, and you do in some ways depend on the disability status that being female, middle-aged, and single affords you. No one asks if you’ll be attending this year’s school auction.

But what if, in fact, your life swerves abruptly and veers away from this dreary course? What if just months after a long marriage you fall headlong in love and you are no longer an object of pity but regarded now with some strange mixture of suspicion, guarded good will, and maybe even a little envy?

I was in what I now refer to as The Winter of My Home Improvement when news of our upcoming twenty-five-year high school reunion began to circulate among my old friends. During this home improvement season of my divorce, I channeled all my disappointment, anger, and loneliness into spackling, painting, and repairing wallpaper. I would run a roller dripping with Terra Nueva pink over a dingy wall with all the force of my being and then stand back to admire, as I kept insisting, “how much better things were becoming.” I manically charged through all the tasks that I’d been perpetually waiting for someone else to do when I was married, and it was only when I was hip-deep in some job of Herculean enormity—moving a pile of rocks from one side of the yard to the other, reorganizing all the junk thrown into the basement—that I felt any of the sense of peace and contentment that I’d once been able to garner from everyday activities like making dinner or folding a basket of laundry. Whenever my ex had the kids overnight, I obliterated the nagging sensation that I’d somehow misplaced my children by cruising the aisles of the jumbo hardware stores, filling my senses with the soft pile of carpet samples and the smell of freshly cut plywood. Yet, underneath my remodeling obsessions, I was haunted by my newfound isolation, and I immediately began to look forward to the reunion as a chance to get together with friends and warm myself around the bonfire of their company.

I didn’t give the reunion that much thought, though, until late spring, when I received a reminder e-mail. I recognized Thomas’s e-mail address on the “To” list as soon as I opened the message. Our names were side by side just as our lockers had been in the eighth grade, a coincidence of alphabet once again. We didn’t talk that much back then—just a shy word or two exchanged as we spun our combination locks. It wasn’t until a couple years after high school that our big romance ignited. We got together on a cloudy summer day for coffee at the beach and ended up spending the next year tangled up in each other, drinking blackberry tea in bed and confessing our love in three countries, chasing a dream of a life of a two-artist home, a dream we were too young to really live out but too old to dismiss. It took us all of the eighties to really break up, although we were never quite the same after our fateful re-entry into the U.S. from Australia at LAX. I went through the “US passports” line at customs and he went through “All Others.” His Canadian passport was stamped but he was granted only two weeks in the U.S. before he’d have to leave the country, me, and our Santa Fe life behind. When he left for Canada two weeks later, we broke up and spent the next six years trying to make it final, opening things up at random intervals by sleeping together and then having a fight over nothing the next morning.

In the nineties we both married other people and started families. Once in a while, he’d phone me and the room would spin until I’d catch my breath. We’d talk about our daughters and family life. When his marriage broke up in ’97, we talked on the phone until I said at last that we couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for him. His marriage was sinking, but I still had mine to keep afloat.

But now I wasn’t married. And neither was he. When I saw his e-mail on the list next to my own, I thought, Well, he can certainly see my name there just as I can see his. I went to sleep that night smug and certain there’d be an e-mail from him by morning. But there wasn’t one the next day, and I noticed that but then forgot about it in almost the same instant I rushed off the computer to get the kids ready for school. Yet, a week later, when another reminder e-mail came from the reunion organizers, I couldn’t resist the desire to e-mail him. It took me fifteen minutes to write the three-line note. His reply came a few hours later: Your “locker” is still next to mine.

Within a day we were on the phone, and once we were on, we couldn’t seem to get off. One night we talked until four in the morning and the next day we finished where we’d left off the night before. We talked of our marriages and their respective demises, our daughters, our gardens, and finally what had happened between us. He invited me to visit him, and soon I was juggling my parenting schedule, school performances, babysitters, and the favors of friends to cover my life as a single mom so I could take the two ferries and the bus between my house and his.

It was rainy as I walked off the final ferry. And I was worried and nervous and obsessing about whether or not I should put down the umbrella and let my hair get wet and frizzy or should I attempt to keep the thing aloft gracefully while also taming my clumsy rolling suitcase at the long-awaited moment of our reunion. Which hand should I carry the umbrella in? Did the rolling suitcase make me look middle aged and foolish?

And then I saw him. I saw his smile first, and then we were hugging and I reached up to kiss him and he pulled back and looked at me and then kissed me and put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me towards him. The wet black umbrella sat upside down on the dock where I had dropped it. All the little things I’d been worried about seemed from another life.

*   *   *

I live in a city, but it’s a city of small neighborhoods that are almost as insular and self-contained as mountain villages. It is rare for me to go to the library or the grocery store without running into someone I know. “Coming out” with my new boyfriend made me feel inconceivably brazen. It was only eight months after my husband and I separated when Thomas and I walked hand-in-hand into the local burger place, and I realized that the only people who seemed to know that my husband and I had split were those I’d actually gotten around to telling. It is, in fact, much easier not to mention that you’re getting divorced to acquaintances you bump into selecting their organic celery in the produce section. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat about the comings and goings of children than to say, “Hey that’s quite the head of romaine. Did I mention that my husband and I split up?” And who notices whether you’re wearing your ring or not? We’re all in our forties, not twentysomethings gushing over newly acquired solitaires.

My Seattle community is not prone to gossip, which I suddenly realized was somewhat unfortunate. Gossip has a distinct social function— it is an efficient and effective means of disseminating information. When you want said information to remain a secret, gossip can be a nightmare, of course, but when the news is the sort that everyone will inevitably find out—such as that of a divorce—you can almost find yourself wishing that there was someone whispering, “You wouldn’t believe what I just heard,” rather than having to awkwardly say, “Oh, we’re not married anymore” and deal with their sympathy (if you’re alone) or their open disgust (if you’re holding hands with your new boyfriend). At times, I’ve wished there were some sort of newsletter in which I could post the news of my marital disaster, sparing others and myself a number of awkward moments.

Before I was divorced, I had this naïve black-and-white view of divorce and tended to see divorced moms as something like the untouchables, a class of people whose lives had cast them into a dark and lonely sea, perpetually just out of reach of the brightly lit shores of happiness. But suddenly I was starting to look around and realize that the divorced moms weren’t inherently more miserable than the married ones and, in fact, many of the divorced moms seemed to be unapologetically happy.

I noticed another divorced mom, Kari, the first day at my daughter’s new school. She was wearing cute low-rise jeans and a ball cap and was laughing mischievously into her cellphone while the other mothers were straightening backpacks and chatting with each other. Kari and I started talking in the parking lot and quickly exchanged divorce stories. She was a year and half further into the process.

“You seem like you’re doing okay,” I ventured, hoping for some good news about the future, I suppose.

“Well,” she laughed, “I have a boyfriend. That helps!”

“You do?” I was surprised how open she was, no tone of guilt here. I lowered my voice and whispered, “So do I.”

“Co-ol!” She called out, nodding and giving me the you-go-girl look.

A few weeks later at basketball practice, one of the married mothers, Becky, was idly cleaning out her purse as a cluster of us chatted on the bleachers, only half-watching our seven-year-olds’ attempts to dribble balls down the court. Becky, sighing, passed me a Victoria’s Secret coupon from her purse’s discard pile. “Do you want this?” she asked with a sort of despair in her voice. “I’m afraid you’re the only one of us having the kind of sex that requires good underwear.”

*   *   *

The rule of waiting a year before introducing a new Significant Other to one’s children is apparently so pervasive in our culture of divorce that even my friend Nancy (also separated from her husband but far too sensible to become mired in the competing voices of advice books) cited the one-year rule to me as if it had been sent forth from the Ark of the Covenant.

“Aren’t you supposed to wait a year?” was her only response after I rambled on about Thomas and his latest weekend at my house with my daughters, Grace and Elizabeth.

What happened to being happy for me? “Yeah, you are,” I said. “But sometimes your life just happens and then you have to work with that.”

For a divorced mother of two, it would seem that falling in love should have a waiting period, like the purchase of a handgun. If my life had gone the route of occasional Scrabble playing and futile dating, I know the world would still be on my side, but apparently there is something deeply disturbing about a newly divorced woman slow dancing in the living room with a man other than her children’s father.

It wasn’t just my friends, though, who were concerned about my children and how best to juggle their need to have nothing more change in their lives and my need to love and be loved. I had obsessed endlessly on the phone to Thomas about how best to tell my daughters about him, how to reassure them that I was still there for them even though I was clearly—even a six-year-old could see it—crazy in love.

My eldest, Elizabeth, tended to think of this relationship as an affair I was bold enough to have out in the open for all to see. She is nine and a half and precocious, and it is with a suspicious tone—a tone not unlike the one Rita Moreno’s character uses on Natalie Wood’s when she realizes her sister has fallen for a member of the rival Jets gang—that she asked me, “So, are you ‘in love’ with him?”

She is the girl, and I the grown woman, but still I trembled a little as I nodded my head with a yes.

She looked at me with the exasperation of a mother of a teenage girl and said, “So soon?”

“It’s not like I planned for this to happen now. If I could’ve chosen a time, I would’ve waited.”

Gracie, my six-year-old, nodded and tried to make sense of it all by drawing from her far-too-extensive knowledge of Disney films. “Yeah, in the movies,” she said, “When the characters fall in love, it just happens. They don’t know it’s going to happen.”

Elizabeth turned her frustration on Grace. “Grace, can’t you see this? Mom and Dad are a match. For every person there is just one person. Dad is that person for Mom. There cannot be another person!”

Resting her head on one hand, Grace looked strangely detached, something like the Dalai Lama, as she said to Elizabeth very calmly, “I don’t believe that. I think there can be more than one. Wait here. I’ll show you.”

Grace leaned over the front porch and plucked two waxy camellia leaves from the overgrown bush that borders the house. Carefully, she tore the first in half, but before she did this she waved the one whole leaf that symbolized her parents’ intact marriage before our eyes, like the magician’s dramatic gesture of showing nothing up the sleeves. Then, she calmly demonstrated the autonomy of the two newly freed halves and the ease with which the mother half of the first leaf was able to hook up with the male half of the second torn leaf. “See how the leaf can split in two. I think,” she paused and then continued in a measured, emphatic voice, “there can be more than one true love.”

Stunned by Grace’s demonstration and by just how far beyond my reach and control things had really gone, I sat there speechless for a moment, and then Elizabeth spun on her heel and dashed to the same camellia bush to yank off another leaf.

“Well, this is what I think,” she said, looking me right in the eye as she waved her leaf in my face. “This was Mom and Dad.”

She then shred the leaf violently into minuscule pieces, shouting, “This is them now.” I was terrified of her anger and the enormity of the situation. I knew all the anger she felt was justified, and I knew too that I was the one who had set the match to this blaze of emotion. But as scary as that was to realize, I also felt genuinely relieved. Maybe now we could start to move forward. I pulled her close to me and held her for a long time while she cried and cried, and I said the words I could only hope were true: it’s okay, it’s okay, it really is okay.

*   *   *

The first few times that Thomas came to visit when the kids were home were at times akin to a root canal, a thing to be endured so that life could be better later on. He slept on the couch because it seemed too early for him to be sleeping in the same bed Mom and Dad had slept in together less than a year earlier. I would wake up at five in the morning and creep into the living room and lie there beside him, wishing I could freeze time and stay tucked into his arms all day, but at the first footfalls upstairs, I leaped off the couch as if I’d just received an electric shock, just as I had when I was sixteen and heard my mother start down the basement stairs to check on my boyfriend and me.

It was excruciating to watch Elizabeth struggle with how to just be around Thomas. She’d cycle through a gamut of emotions, from disdain to giddiness, in five-minute intervals that were exhausting to follow. Sometimes she would be very nice to Thomas but then glare at me or say something snide when he left the room. He’d somehow return just as I’d be telling her to smarten up, and he’d look at me surprised and come over and rub my shoulders and say something like, “Hey, easy there.” And then she’d say something like “Yeah, Mom,” even daring once to add, “Why don’t you chill?” After a few hours of this, I’d go lie down in the bedroom, Thomas would come lie down beside me, I’d go to touch him—wanting more than anything to just kiss him—but then Elizabeth would plunk into my desk chair and spin, browsing with obvious glee through my normally forbidden papers until I’d find myself shouting something like, “Hey, that’s enough!” and find myself awash in remorse and guilt.

But I also knew throughout this that if I just gave the situation enough time, love, and patience, as well as the right mixture of attention and detachment, it would improve. And it did. The day before Halloween, Thomas and Elizabeth sat on the front porch carving pumpkins in the fading afternoon light. They talked in quiet voices for a long time and when I walked by once to take out the trash, they both gave me a look warning me not to interrupt them. By the time they came in, their hands were cold and it was almost dark, and there was a shift in Elizabeth—very tiny, almost imperceptible—but still an undeniable shift.

By our second Christmas as a two-home family, Thomas has been part of our lives for six months, and it is more mind bending than working a Rubik’s cube for my ex and me to figure out how, when, and where the holiday should be celebrated, despite the legal “parenting plan” that delineates the children’s movements down to the millisecond. Somehow it’s just not as simple as “on even years the children will spend the first half of the Christmas break with their father” when Santa, stockings, and a new boyfriend are all involved.

We agree somehow that Thomas will stay at my place (alone) Christmas morning, and I will come to my ex’s (where Santa has been smart enough to scout out the children and the stockings, which normally reside with me) and watch the kids open their gifts there. But then on the twenty-fourth, Thomas and I are dropping something off for the kids when Elizabeth rushes down her dad’s front steps.

“Mama, Thomas can’t stay at home alone on Christmas morning. It’s not right. I want him to come over here.”

I look up the stairs and I meet the gaze of their dad and ask with a shoulder shrug, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. Both of us know that’s not true.

The next morning Thomas and I walk hand-in-hand to the house where the man who used to be my husband and my two children wait for us. Inside, we will drink hot chocolate and eat muffins and then we will notice the stockings. Beside the four matching ones of a Christmas mouse, reindeer, penguin, and bear that our family has used for years, there is a new stocking, a fifth one made late last night by a nine-year-old girl who would never want anyone to feel left out.

Author’s Note: The other day Thomas and I took a walk at the beach with the girls. We sat down for a moment on a bench so Elizabeth could adjust her roller blades. When they were tightened, she leaned back into Thomas and rested her head momentarily on his chest. It was one of those breathtaking gestures that is so small and yet undeniable in its significance. Neither Thomas nor I said a word but our eyes met in that split second before she scrambled back up to her feet and began to glide along the path once again.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg.

Brain, Child (Fall, 2005)

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By Carol Paik

Paik_ConcertMy mother announced that she was about to give her last solo recital, at Lutkin Hall at Northwestern University. “I’m sixty-six,” she said. “I don’t feel like doing this any more.” She told me this months in advance, to make sure that I—and perhaps more importantly, my two children, her grandchildren—would be able to attend. Meredith and Jonathan were four and six years old, and I thought about what it would be like for them to fly all the way to Chicago and then sit through a full-length piano concert at night. It didn’t sound promising. But if this was in fact going to be their grandmother’s last recital, I wanted them to see it.

So we traveled from New York City to Evanston, Illinois, on an unseasonably warm November Friday. Evanston is a place of significance in my family’s history, but an unfamiliar place for me. My father and mother met at Northwestern as undergraduates, my mother on a full piano scholarship, my father studying engineering. Not far from the hotel where we were staying were the practice rooms where my father used to study lying underneath the grand piano while my mother worked the keyboard above his head.

We arrived at the hotel around four o’clock, the children were hungry and tired, and I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to come. Then I spotted my father across the lobby, just as he spotted us. He and my mother had flown in from Boston the day before. He grinned and hurried over, taking Meredith up in his arms.

“I thought you’d be getting in about now,” he said, squeezing Meredith until she protested. “I came down to look for you.” (“Ants in his pants,” I could just about hear my mother mutter.) He sat down and the children draped themselves over him.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Resting upstairs,” he said. “She wants me to bring her a hamburger at five o’clock and then the rest of us can go out for dinner.”

I had almost forgotten these pre-concert rituals. Before a concert, my mother likes to eat, but just a little bit of something to keep her energy up. (“Something high in protein, nothing with milk or onions.”)

“We should probably go soon, if Mom wants her hamburger at five,” I said.

“There’s plenty of time. There’s a Burger King around the corner. It’ll take two minutes to get there, two minutes to get back.”

“It’ll take more than two minutes, Dad.”

“Alrightalright,” he said. “Five minutes to get there, five minutes to get back.”  (I could picture my mother, eyes rolled to heaven. “Have you ever seen such a stubborn man?”)

 *   *   *

On our way back from Burger King, Meredith asked if she could bring Grandma her hamburger, so just outside my parents’ room my father placed the small cardboard boxes in her hands. He quietly unlocked the door for her and sent her into the dark. He and I waited outside, listening.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I heard my mother say.  I realized she thought it was my father who had entered, and that I was hearing the way she speaks to my father when no one else is around. I was surprised by the softness of her tone.

“Sweetheart?” she repeated when no one answered. Then, “Oh, Meredith! Come here my darling! What a wonderful surprise!”

My father and I went in and opened the heavy hotel drapes. My mother was sitting on the edge of the bed with Meredith on her lap, looking happy and calm. Not tense with energy the way I expected her to be. She reached around Meredith to give me a hug.

“Hi, darling,” she said. “I like your hair that way.”

I hadn’t combed my hair since that morning, but I knew why she’d said that. There was a story behind it. When I was in college, in an all-out effort to please her I once told her that for her next concert I would wear whatever she wanted. She bought me a high-waisted, blue and pink flowered dress with a hemline below the knee—the sort of dress no one older than ten or younger than sixty should ever wear. I wore it, fairly confident I wouldn’t see anyone I knew at the concert. I also permitted her to curl my hair. I felt ridiculous, but I was proud of myself for being mature enough to bend a little for my mother’s pleasure. Then, as we were about to enter the auditorium, she turned to inspect me and her face fell.

“I guess your hair really doesn’t hold a curl,” she said.

I had turned to my father then and demanded the car keys. He fished around in his pocket and handed them to me, and I turned and walked out of the hall. I spent the recital in the car, amid the shreds of my newfound maturity.

After the concert, she said she had no idea I would be so hurt by such a comment. She hadn’t meant to be critical, she said. Since then she has only bought me black clothing and routinely compliments my hair. She herself often wears the blue and pink dress and it looks quite nice on her.

I thanked her for the hair comment with a kiss. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

She shook her head and groaned theatrically. “The Rorem is my nemesis—twentieth-century music really isn’t my bag. I’m so glad this is my last solo recital. It’s just too much work! I want to spend that time with my grandchildren! Come, Meredith, would you like to see my gown?”

Meredith nodded, and my mother led her to the closet, where a new shell pink gown was hanging in its plastic bag. During my childhood, in the weeks leading up to a concert, my mother would be focused on her practicing to a point near frenzy, but the concern about what she was going to wear would linger just beneath, occasionally spiking up and sending her to rifle frantically through her closet—and, once I grew to be her size at about age eleven, my closet as well. Sometimes, as a last resort, she’d make a grudging trip to Filene’s Basement. She always came up with something that met her criteria: it had to be dressy enough to show respect for the hosting organization; it should sparkle a little for a festive note; its sleeves had to cover the wobbly underside of her upper arms. It also had to cost next to nothing, for she would never willingly spend money on a dress she would get so little use out of. She would decide that the black wraparound skirt I had sewn in Home Ec and sequined top—eight sizes too big—from the church rummage sale fit the bill. I remember, in particular, clunky silver lamé platform sandals that she got for half price because her size, four and a half, had been used as the floor sample. The dignity, bordering on smugness, with which she always carried herself, no matter what her outfit, confirmed my belief that she and I would never agree. But when I saw the lovely fairy-princess-pink gown she had bought for herself, now that she and my father had more means, I wondered if for all those years her smugness had masked disappointment.

“My dress is pink, too,” said Meredith, delighted. In fact, her dress was almost the identical shade. The bond between my mother and my daughter surrounds them like a force field. They even look alike: large brown eyes, small noses, and mouths that form thin lines with downturned corners when they are displeased. Occasionally, when Meredith was an infant and I was holding her in my arms, she’d look at me in a certain loving yet measuring way and I’d be struck by the impression that I’d given birth to my mother. They understand each other at a deep and strange level. “I always know exactly what she needs,” my mother often says. “She doesn’t have to tell me.”

My mother and I never shared that sort of understanding. She seemed, on the contrary, to have a particular knack for dwelling on irrelevant details of the story I was telling, dismissive of things that mattered to me while praising me for things I cared nothing about, offering “constructive criticism” when what I needed was support. For instance, it was my father, not my mother, who took me shopping when I was in high school and quietly bought me Levi’s jeans when my mother said the ones from Fashion Barn with elastic waists were perfectly fine. As for Meredith—sometimes I felt uncertain how to approach her, standing there with her little lips turned down at the ends. How do I show her how much I love her without annoying her? Did my mother ever feel that way about me?

“Tonight will be a fitting swan song,” said my mother. “Did you know that when I was in college I gave my senior recital in the same hall? Charlotte Gackle and I gave a joint recital. And she’s coming tonight, can you imagine? Of course, she has changed her name. No soprano should be called ‘Gackle’!” She laughed. “But anyway, it’s a nice close to my solo career, I think. Full circle.”

*   *   *

I have seen photographs of her senior recital. They are black and white, so I can’t tell the color of her gown, but from the way its folds catch the light I can tell the fabric had a sheen. I know it was handmade, either by her mother or by her sister-in-law, who also sewed her wedding dress. My mother is seated in the photograph, slender, obscured from the waist down by a large bouquet of roses that are darker than the dress. She always took her glasses off for photographs, and she smiles at some point to the left of the camera, glamorous and blind.

My mother’s relationship with the piano began when she was a very small girl. She remembers playing the piano in her grandmother’s house in Seoul, and she remembers playing the piano on the boat that brought her and her family across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 1940. When they finally reached Chicago, there was a piano in her new home, or more accurately, in the church that occupied the top floor of the small brownstone where they were to live. On weekdays my mother’s father peddled trinkets to factory workers, but on Sundays he was the minister of that church. The top floor was heated only on Sundays, and during the long Chicago winters, when my mother needed to practice, my mother’s mother walked in a semi-circle around her holding a small electric heater.

My parents were married in June, 1957. “Everyone got married after graduation,” my mother says. “That’s just what you did.”  Within three years they had two sons, and they all lived in student housing in Palo Alto, California, subsisting on my father’s fellowship while he earned his Ph.D. There was no room for a piano, even if they could afford one, even if she had had the time to play it.  After my father received his doctorate, they moved to Massachusetts, where I was born. We moved to Chicago, and then back to Massachusetts, when I was almost three; my parents decided this would be our permanent home. They were able, finally, to acquire a Baldwin upright and my mother began to play again. I had to go with her to her lessons. Her teacher was an ancient French Canadian lady who spoke accented English and lived in a townhouse filled with fragile items. I sat as still as I possibly could in a corner of the music room, but invariably Miss Giguère would sigh and tell me I had to sit somewhere else.

When I started school, my mother began teaching piano at home. She also began to arrange performances for herself. At the public library fundraiser. At the retirement home. Accompanying the church choir. Soloing with the high school orchestra. Any time she saw an opportunity to give a recital, she snatched it up. Performing gave her exposure, she said, and the exposure brought her more opportunities.

“I had to decide what I was going to do,” she told me recently. “And I realized I only knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play the piano. It’s not that I love it so much. But it’s the thing my parents labored so hard to give me, and it’s the only thing I know.”

*   *   *

We needed to let her get ready. “I’ll see you in just a little while, darling,” she said to Meredith, who nodded, took my hand, and came away without any protest. I wasn’t so understanding when I was young. I was already older than Meredith when my mother began to give concerts again, but I remember disliking the oddness of dinner being served by Dad, the percussion of high heels on the floor above our heads, the sight of my mother coming down the stairs two to three inches taller than normal with a hairdo like a helmet and lipstick like a warning.  She would help me into my tights in a distanced, careful way, and she would inspect us all, her mouth turned down, looking right into our eyes and licking her thumb to stick a stray hair in place. She would inspect my father, too, and question him about the status of the tape recorder and whether he had tested the batteries, making him defensive and impatient.

But now she saw us off cheerily without even asking what I was planning to wear, without admonishing my father to come back in time to take her over to the hall. We left to find my husband and my son, and I found myself looking forward to the evening, looking forward to hearing my mother play.

When I was young, and even when I was not so young, I disliked going to her concerts.  I particularly dreaded the aftermath. I would be relieved that it was over, and there were usually some cookies and juice on a table. But there would be a large crowd of well-wishers around my mother—old friends, colleagues from one of her piano associations, as well as complete strangers. She greeted each one with smiles and warm conversation—she never knew when someone who could advance her career might show up. I would want to go to her, but I knew that if I got too close she would introduce me to everyone and I hated that. My father and my brothers and I would stand around at a safe distance. It would be late. We would be tired. Finally, we’d gather up the freshest of the roses and get into the car.

And then she would ask us:

“What did you think?”

I knew there was something I was supposed to say, that there was a right thing to say, but I didn’t know what it was and neither did my father or brothers.

“You did very well,” my father might try.

“That doesn’t mean anything!” she would snap. “What did you think, Carol?”

“I thought you sounded very good,” I might offer tentatively.

“Which piece did you like best?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were all nice.”

“Oh!” she would groan. “Were you paying any attention at all?”

And we would ride dumbly home, where she would be unable to sleep and would sit up at the kitchen table long into the night.

*   *   *

After a quick dinner we dressed and walked the short distance to Lutkin Hall. As I watched my father striding ahead with the children, I noticed that he was not carrying the tape recorder. He had brought it dutifully to every concert I could remember, a dense black rectangular box that wheezed as it recorded. Because of the tape recorder we always had to sit close to the front, but not so close that my mother might be distracted by some slight misbehavior glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. But there was no tape recorder tonight. I assumed the old thing finally gave up the ghost and they had not been able to bring themselves to replace it, unwilling as they are to read instruction manuals. Once we reached the hall, my father seemed quite free about choosing his seats. In fact he changed seats, with the kids in tow, more than once.

Finally, everyone was seated and the house lights dimmed. After a pause, the stage lights went up dramatically, the side door opened and my mother stepped out in her pink gown. She walked briskly to the piano, placed one hand on its side, smiled graciously and inclined her head. I used to think it was funny, when I was a child, seeing her act that way. My children clapped and clapped. She sat down before the piano, half-rose, adjusted the bench a bit, sat, looked up to a spot on the far wall and began the Beethoven.

When I was a child I never knew the composers or names of the pieces she played, but I knew every note by heart from listening to them so many times. She practiced at night after we had gone to bed, after her long day of teaching recalcitrant students, making dinner, and otherwise providing for the needs of three children and a husband. Night after night I would lie in the dark and listen. Just as I would begin to drift off to a particularly lovely part I would be jerked awake by a wrong note, or a garbled passage, which would be followed by an abrupt stop and then several laborious repetitions of the offending phrase. Each repetition would jerk me awake anew. Because of this nightly conditioning, each mistake she made in a concert was almost physically painful to me. The other result of this conditioning was an unfortunate and much unappreciated tendency to fall asleep during her concerts.

But I had left home twenty years ago. I didn’t know this Beethoven. As usual, she was playing new repertory. Although I discerned a few falters, they caused me no distress. The children, taking their cues from their grandfather, held their applause between movements.

The second piece was a Chopin barcarolle, followed by his Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Chopin has always been my mother’s favorite composer, and she is at her best with him—her affinity for this music obvious from the fluidity of her movements. Gradually I stopped listening for mistakes. I did what I always used to do at her concerts to help me stay awake—squinted at the stage until it became just bright light and two shapes, one large and black, one pink and animate, together producing sound yet disconnected from it.

*   *   *

When I was about six, someone who ran a prestigious piano workshop heard my mother play. He approached her after the recital and encouraged her to apply. My mother was very excited by this man’s attention, and she spent days carefully preparing her application and a tape. A few weeks after she sent it in, she received a letter from the workshop organizers. The letter said they were very impressed with her tape, but, unfortunately, one had to be twenty-five years old or younger to participate in this workshop.

“Isn’t that hilarious?” she said, holding the letter. “That man must have thought I was younger than twenty-five!” We all laughed, for it was a very funny idea. We sat down to eat lunch.

I saw it first, a pinkness spreading from the tip of her nose.

“Mom?” I said, just as she began to cry.

“Twenty-five!” she sobbed. “He thought I was twenty-five! Can you imagine?” My father squatted by her chair and put his arms around her, but I knew there was nothing he could do to make her twenty-five.

*   *   *

By the time I left home for college, my mother had made a name for herself in our town and the surrounding area both as a performer and a teacher. She couldn’t go to the grocery store or the post office without someone stopping her and asking, “Aren’t you Wanda Paik?” She had performed twice with the Boston Pops Orchestra, once under the great Arthur Fiedler himself. After I left home, she continued to expand her repertoire. My oldest brother joined the Foreign Service and she gave concerts at the embassies  where he was stationed, adding international performances to her résumé.  Her students, who now came to her from all over the state, regularly won contests and prizes. They kept in touch with her into their adulthoods, crediting her with changing their lives.

But: “Never be a musician,” she would tell my brothers and me. “It’s a life of drudgery. Most musicians have to teach tin-eared children day and night or else play at parties where people can’t hear you and put their drinks on the piano top. And for what? After all that drudgery, they’re too exhausted to play the music they want to play. So what’s the point of that? I’m so lucky, because I can choose my students now, and I can play whatever I want. But I only have those choices because I married Dad, and he’s such a good breadwinner.”

*   *   *

After the intermission she played the Rorem barcarolle and toccata. She used the sheet music for the Rorem—something she rarely does at a recital. “When you play twentieth-century music,” she had said, “it’s a good idea to put up the music just so the audience doesn’t think you’re making it up as you go along.” But in this case I knew she needed the music because she didn’t entirely trust her memory. I knew these pieces were a reach for her, almost as foreign to her nature as rock and roll. But she has always chosen to play, along with Chopin, pieces that make her reach.

As she began the final piece, a Bartók suite, I wondered about the tape recorder. This was her last solo recital, she had said. I would have liked to have a recording for my children. I would have liked to have something to remind me, something solid I could hold in my hand. We don’t have any recordings of her concerts, for the tapes my father so diligently made had never been intended for posterity. They were for her edification. In the days following the concert she would play and replay the tape, biting her lip over the worst parts, holding her breath through the best. Eventually, after she had wrung all the information out of it, she would reuse the tape.

There was one practice tape of hers that we kept for a while. On it, you could hear her practicing, and in the background the little sounds of my father and my brother playing chess. From time to time you could hear my brother, in his nine-year-old treble voice: “Cheap! Super cheap!” Then you heard him say, a little louder, “Oh, that was so cheap!” Then there was a banged chord and a clatter and my mother’s voice, shrill: “Get out of here!” We called this tape the “Get Out of Here” tape, and we saved it because it never failed to make us all laugh. But even that was gone now.

I was afraid that once she stopped playing I wouldn’t be able to remember what it sounded like. With no recording, my memory would have to suffice. I became a little panic-stricken and tried to listen harder. Perhaps if I somehow listened harder now, I would be able to keep it in my mind. I wanted the music to continue, for as long as it continued it could speak for itself and I wouldn’t have to try to find a way to describe it.

But eventually the music stopped, and everyone was clapping. My mother bowed, exited, returned, bowed again. Someone ran up the few steps to the stage and handed her a bouquet of red roses. My mother disappeared through the side door.

I took my children by the hand and we hurried up onto the stage and after her so we could get to her before the well-wishers. We rushed through the stage door and found her in a small room with a little square table. When she saw us she dropped the roses onto the table and knelt down to gather the children in her arms.

“I think you were great,” I told her.

Author’s Note: Now that I’m a mother who’s trying to be a writer, I finally have some appreciation for my own mother’s struggle to fulfill both domestic responsibilities and personal aspirations. Her energy, determination, and relentlessly high standards are inspirational to me. Not surprisingly, the concert described in this essay was, in fact, not her last. Five years later she’s still going strong.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at  

Brain, Child (Spring, 2006)

The Good Mother Myth:  Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

By Lori Rotskoff

Good Mother MythWhy haven’t we done away with the mystique of the “perfect mother”? We know she’s a mirage.  And yet, as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in her introduction to The Good Mother Myth, the “fabled ideal” of maternal perfection retains its power to make us feel anxious, guilty, and even depressed. The myth of the “Good Mother” reigns on screen and in print, on blogs and on Facebook, flattening the complexity of real mothers’ lives and fostering a “manufactured culture of conflict and judgment,” of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Here, Nathman gathers thirty-six personal essays that hone the raw material of maternal experience into pithy, pointed vignettes that make a strong impact on the reader.  Sometimes confessional; sometimes questioning; and frequently defiant, subversive, and bold, they challenge our understanding of what it means to be a good mother beyond stereotype and social convention.

Some writers plumb the depths of anxiety when a child faces medical problems or life-threatening situations. Parenting experts may chide “helicopter mothers” for stunting their kids’ development, but for a mother like Heather Hewett, whose daughter has severe food allergies, such hyper-vigilance is necessary.  “All parents know the fear of losing their children,” Hewett writes, but for some, controlling a young child’s environment is a daily task in which “perfection becomes an expectation.” Jessica Valenti struggled with a similar issue when her daughter was born premature and spent two precarious months in the NICU. “When I find myself scowling at some other mother’s parenting style, or even being hard on myself,” writes Valenti, “I remember that being ‘overprotective’ is … a mostly reasonable response to the oh-so-scary act of having something exist in the world that you love more than yourself.”

Of course, guilt can arise from less grave circumstances, such as how often Kraft Mac and Cheese surfaces on the dinner table. Any reader who adores her  mother’s holiday cooking will understand the import of Carla Naumburg’s confession: “I’ve never successfully roasted a chicken.  That’s right. I’m a Jewish mother who has never fried a latke or made matzah ball soup.” And let’s not forget the PTA. If you’ve ever found yourself chairing the school book fair against your better judgment, Soraya Chemaly’s trenchant analysis of the gender divide in school volunteer culture might empower you to “just say no” next time. Chemaly doesn’t denigrate the work that volunteers do; on the contrary, she criticizes the fact that female-dominated volunteer groups unintentionally de-value women’s unpaid labor, mirroring and perpetuating the wage gap and sex segregation in the broader economy.

Here, in fact, lies the book’s greatest strength:  illuminating the extent to which mothers’ choices and lifestyles are enmeshed in a broader context, too often constrained by economic insecurity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Can a woman who takes psychotropic drugs to combat bipolar depression be a “good mother?” Is a poor, teenage mother by default a “bad” one?  What about a mom who smokes pot because it gives her the “patience for just one more puzzle, one more tantrum, and a few hundred more questions” from her three-year-old? Does a filmmaker who makes erotic films about S&M qualify? How about an observantly Jewish male-to-female transsexual whose children resent her radical shift from daddy to mom?

And what about black mothers? Although the book might have profited from more African-American women’s voices, as well as Latinos and women who practice non-Western religions, T.F. Charlton’s piece speaks volumes about the insidious impact of racism and white privilege. “The myth I contend with is not that of the Good Mother, but that of the Bad Black Mother,” Charlton writes.  “It’s a myth that renders my motherhood at turns invisible and suspect…Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”

While some essays suffer from vague or familiar observations about pregnancy, childbirth, or toddler mishaps, and most lack the long-term perspective gained through parenting teenagers or young adults, this provocative book is valuable simply because it asks us to suspend preconceived judgments and absorb the stories of women whose experiences differ profoundly from one another, and from our own.  It shows us that the best way to battle the barrage of saccharine sound-bites is to arm ourselves with alternative, candid “tales from the trenches” depicting the messy, real dilemmas of real mothers in an imperfect world.

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian, writer, teacher, and co-editor of When We Were Free to Be:  Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made (2012).

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

The Sun-Drenched Chaos of Family

The Sun-Drenched Chaos of Family

By Laura Petelle

This is the final post in our What is Family? blog series. Click here to read all of the posts in the series.

PetelleThose early years all blend together, from when I was about three until I was maybe twelve. It’s one long summer of sand and sun, bare feet and itchy clothes.

Every summer, for twenty-seven years, my mom, her brothers and sister, and all of the spouses and kids, made their way by car and plane, from Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky to The Beach.

That’s what we called it—The Beach. It was Ocean City, Maryland, but it didn’t need a full name. We anticipated it all summer and cried when it was over.

It wasn’t until I got older that I appreciated what the adults gave up for us to be close to our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s not everybody’s idea of fun to spend a week with their parents, adult siblings, and a herd of noisy children in close quarters, especially if it’s the only vacation of the year.

We children never knew how much work went into this sublime sun-drenched week—the dozens of loads of laundry, the hundreds of sandwiches, the scores of mediated spats. For us kids, it was a week of sheer bliss, packed into two condos with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. We had freedom and a pack of built-in playmates, plus time at the beach, with acres of sand and crashing waves.

In the end, there were thirteen cousins. Nell, Big Mike, and I were the oldest, and I desperately wanted to be included with them rather than the three Bubbas—Pat, Chris, and Brian—who were all the same age and came next, two years after me. After them were Danny, Kate-o, and Kevin. Then Jamie and Michael, the same age, and last of all Will and Rachel. But what I remember most about those years are my aunts. I had four of them, plus my mother, with Aunts Cathie and Carolyn playing the young “cool” aunts. What stands out most about those earliest years is Aunt Janet, Aunt Ellen, and my mother—a trifecta of mothering.

In those days at the beach, when I was waist-high and the world seemed to exist in two distinct levels—those of us whose heads didn’t reach the countertops and those who stood near the ceiling—my mother was suddenly multiplied. I would patter around the condos busy doing “errands” until confronted by a woman’s knees and a kind, smiling voice. I would look up – up – up and see my mother, or Aunt Janet, or Aunt Ellen inquiring about the events of my little world.

In that wonderful week, I would walk up to my Aunt Janet just as imperiously as I would my own mother and demand that she “goop me” as my mother was busy smearing sunblock on one of her nephews. I would beg and whine to Aunt Ellen for extra donut holes as if she were my own mother—no company manners there. And I watched as my mother adopted nine extra children as her own, changing diapers and making lunch for a baker’s dozen of children.

Of course their husbands were there too. When I think of my uncles, I remember them reading the Washington Post, and if you asked nicely, Uncle Bob or Uncle Gene would usually be able to find you the comics section. Uncle Dick and Uncle Jack and my dad were the lifeguards and mission commanders, organizing the massive trek down to the beach every morning, assigning this cousin to carry the umbrella, that one to carry two chairs, this one to carry the blanket. They decided when we could get in the water and how deep we could go, and they took the babies into the shallows to splash in the waves.

They were always smiling, my aunts and my uncles. The years seemed to drop away from them at The Beach. They have all grown wrinkles and bellies and gray hair with age, but still when they smile I am transported back to the eternal summer of The Beach. At The Beach they were children, teenagers. Uncle Dick knew the best way to dig a hole in the sand. Uncle Bob told the same joke over and over—and we always fell for it. Aunt Ellen would nearly always give in, with a look of disapproval that was never effective because her eyes were twinkling, when we teased her for an extra donut hole. And my mother seemed like a girl, laughing and teasing, more carefree than she ever seemed at home.

They would sit around the adult table long after dinner was done, retelling family stories as we hung over the couches or crawled into their laps or played quietly with our toys in the deepening dusk. Some of the stories were the same every year—the time Nell switched all the tags on the wedding presents, the time Chris fell asleep with a mouth full of hamburger—and some would have a sudden resurrection from the depths of memory. We listened hungrily to learn the stories that made us family, so that we too could repeat them one day

The room was full of laughter, so loud it would echo through my child-sized head, sometimes hurting my ears. The laughter was almost a living thing. Was this what being an adult was like? This endless laughter? I would shift in my seat, itching where the sand was still in my clothes, bask in the salty sea breeze that rolled in from the waves, and revel in the happiness around me.

My aunts and uncles grew older, and inevitably I did too. I stretched from childhood into gawky adolescence, and eventually slid into adulthood, without gaining the extra inches I had so hoped for. My uncles grew bellies and my aunts’ capable arms began to sag. They grew wrinkles from mortgages, gray hair from driving lessons, and those knees I so loved began to resemble elephants’. In time, the chill hand of death touched our family, and I saw my uncles cry. In time, I learned that family meant tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter.

Now, when we gather as a family, some faces gone from us and some new to the clan, we cousins can join in when the stories are retold. And now, when my mom and Aunt Ellen and Aunt Janet smile, their faces relax into labyrinths of lines and those who admit it wear their gray hair like crowns. But in their happy faces and sparkling eyes, I can see more than a score of summers stretching out behind them, smell the sea air of my childhood, hear the lonely call of the gulls across the years. I see them as young wives, and harried mothers of teenagers, and a wonderful trinity of mothers, six knees all in a row, smiling down at me like a benediction.

Laura Petelle is an attorney, author, and mother of two who writes frequently on parenting and education. She lives in Peoria, Ill., and is on the web at

Click here for all of the posts in the What is Family? blog series.


Choosing Our Family

Choosing Our Family

By Candy Schulman

unnamed-1The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. -Richard Bach

In middle school my daughter was given an assignment to draw a family tree, a fun way to strengthen vocabulary in her French class. She had a pet hamster at the time, and her family tree renderings turned out to be furry and nocturnal, with tails. So was her best friend Nicki’s. No one was surprised. Each of our families were imploding, and our human family structures had shattered irrevocably. At the time, hamsters provided more family support than human relatives.

Madelyn met Nicki as an infant in a Mommy and Me class. We lived a few blocks away, and our families became instant friends, babysitters, weekend travelers. We bought matching outfits for the girls, and they slept over each other’s houses more than they stayed at home. They grew up with a unique friendship bond—more like sisters, without the sibling rivalry. When Nicki’s sister Hannah was born, Madelyn became a big sister too.

Every December we took off in different directions: Nicki’s family to celebrate Christmas in Ohio, ours for Chanukah in California. We reconvened every New Year’s, sharing a bottle of Champagne at midnight long after the girls had gone to sleep, snuggling next to each other in the same bed.

Madelyn was an only child and often asked to have a brother (never a sister). Later she changed her wish from “sibling” to “puppy.” But when she saw other friends who shared weekly Sunday dinners with nearby family members, she knew something larger than a puppy was missing in her life.

“Nicki and Hannah are our family,” I told her, even though she already knew. “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. We are more fortunate than many: we’ve picked friends who have become our family.”

Once when Madelyn became dehydrated and my husband was away on business, I alone had to do everything from getting Madelyn to the hospital to excessive worrying. In my haste, I grabbed the duplicate stuffed Golden Retriever she slept with every night (in case we ever lost the original). When the nurse was setting up a cot for me to sleep next to her hospital bed, I realized the real puppy was home. IV fluids had begun to work, and Madelyn was more aware than the nearly comatose five-year-old in the ER. She sobbed, begging for the only puppy who could coast her into dreamland.

I couldn’t call my family in California for help. So Nicki’s mother rushed over to the hospital on a frigid January night, fetched my house keys, went to pick up Puppy, ran back to the hospital, and generated the first smile Madelyn’s face since she’d gotten a bad case of flu five days ago.

That’s true friendship. That’s family. How many parents are lucky enough to have both?

Years later both of our DNA families began to splinter. Coincidentally, we were both going through disagreements with siblings about our mothers’ wills. Vicious arguments. Law suits. Tears. Families torn apart.

Nicki’s parents invited us out to dinner—without the kids. Before the entrees arrived, they asked if we’d be willing to be the legal guardian of both girls. “It isn’t possible with members of our family anymore,” they said. “And besides, you’re our family now.”

We were honored, yet apprehensive of the large responsibility. Of course we said yes. Who can turn down the needs of true family? And we loved Nicki and Hannah as much, if not more, than blood relatives.

A year later my sister and I were embroiled in a lawsuit over our mother’s will. She’d left me her jewelry, knowing I made less money than my sister did. And I’d been her main caretaker for the last five years of her life. My sister and I had never been close, and even though she lived near our mother, I was the one who spent every Chanukah and birthday with Mom when she was bedridden with dementia, while my sister was gallivanting around Hawaii with her boyfriend

Now we were adversaries in court, a heartbreaking process where my sister told lies about me to the judge and to my nieces and nephews. After our suit was over, I knew I’d never talk to her again.

It was my turn to invite Nicki’s parents out to dinner. They said yes, just as we had. That night I downloaded a legal document from the Internet, notarizing it the next day. My daughter had a new guardian until she’d turn eighteen.

Each year as Chanukah and Christmas nears, I shop for gifts for Nicki and Hannah the way I used to enjoy giving personalized presents to my sister’s family. Together we light the menorah. Madelyn never did get her own puppy, but she’s been crowned guardian aunt to Duke, Nicki’s English bulldog. She walks him when they’re away on vacation. She loves him as if he’s her family—even though he drools and snores.

We have an extended family too. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with Jill, whose son is Madelyn’s age. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we cooked for a friend of Madelyn’s since preschool, whose Jewish father now lives in another state and whose mother was raised Catholic. Passover is always with Nicki, where the two girls have searched together for the hidden matzo. Sometimes we have holiday dinners with friends who don’t have children. John, a lifelong friend of my husband’s, is known in our house as “Uncle Johnny,” always interested in hearing details about Madelyn’s soccer games and knowing that she loves dark chocolate whenever he brings her a bakery treat.

Creating a family for our only child, we replaced the families we’ve lost through needless disagreements, but the grief for their absence is always there. No one can ever predict the surprising twists that can cause great distances, beyond geography, among family members. You do what you must to compensate for loss. Our family and holiday gatherings don’t look like they did when I was a child, but there is always plenty of laughter and hugs. Sure we have the occasional disagreement—but after all, we’re family.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents,,, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Juxtapositions: The Blended Family

Juxtapositions: The Blended Family

Next in our What is Family? blog series. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

0-10I wrote an unpublished novel in which one of the central events is a group of people jumping in a freezing lake in February. That’s my philosophy.

I love that weird jolt I get when I don’t get it. Calls me to attention. Slows me down. When things don’t make sense, they force me to make sense. So wait. People jump in a lake and what’s his philosophy? Exactly. It doesn’t matter what’s on your mind when you trip and fall. Money? Unrequited love? Fundamental ontology? Nope. Just stick out your hands stick out your hands stick out your hands. Brace yourself and protect your face.

As a young man, I was overjoyed when my studies collided with the likes of Dada and Surrealism. These art movements spoke my language; I felt as if they validated the operations of my mind. I’ll never forget where I was when I read Pierre Reverdy on the poetic image: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality…” Just 24-years-old, I was sitting on a mushroom in a black dream forest and I wept and wept and wept.

I live in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m in love with a woman in Chicago, Illinois. Two more or less distant realities. She has two kids. I have two kids. The plot thickens. Say it with me: juxtapositions.

Shall we insert here right near the middle that I make no claims for prudence or being a good parent? I have no idea if I can be what the people call a “positive influence” on my kids. Right now, my 15-year-old son, grounded from all technology for failing Computer Science, is reading the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Confederacy of Dunces and my 9-year-daughter is flapping her arms and screaming that she’s a bird. They’re interesting little creatures. They are, by most standards, very good people but I’m uncertain as to what that has to do with me. My best guess is that they will go through an early adult phase of resenting me for being cool and distant and, as people do, will eventually learn to love me for my flaws through the lenses of their own. Or perhaps they will go to prison because, you see, I don’t understand how these things work because I shunned all the parenting books. However, for now, my daughter is a damn good bird.

Because I’m an English teacher and Gwen, my girlfriend, is a high school librarian, we both have the summers off. Do you see where this is going? Are you sure? Gwen is made of sugar, shattered glass, and David Mitchell novels. And my philosophy is jump in cold lakes. Stick out your hands. Protect your face.

So, yeah, we’re mulling over the potential image—the strength and emotional power—created by the juxtaposition of our more or less distant realities. In other words, living together, mixing our kids into a foursome of pseudo-siblings, and exploring that poetic reality for a summer. How would that be, we wonder, for the kids? Undoubtedly terrible. Inescapably so. And yet still, before August expires, perhaps beautiful, as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

“It doesn’t terrify you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “But in the best possible way. Do your daughters like birds?”

When I was a very young boy, my mom married a man who had two adolescent sons. They were not nice boys. My dad remarried and I eventually had two half-sisters. They confused me, but I intuitively knew that I loved them. Later, I developed a taste for bourbon and dangerous philosophy. These sentences aren’t linked by causation; they are pure creations of the mind, knocking together to make some sparks.

Gwen grew up in the jungles of Borneo. The water was not cold. There were alligators in the river and cobras on the path. When I imagine her mind, I see a giant chess board and all the pieces’ potential moves in a flash of neurotransmission. We’re an evocative juxtaposition. Distant and true. A car crash. The bliss of collision. What we decide to do next summer will not be found in a book written by experts but rather discovered in a blind leap informed by intuitive vision. Build a fire and look up. Look for shooting stars.

Our two young girls have yellow hair and are separated in age by less than a year. The most curious thing to me? When their eyes meet. Who will they see? And then juxtaposed, distant and true, who? Who will they be?

Art: René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

This is the fifth post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. 

image-1FLAW: A defect in physical structure or form; an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness

I come from a typical family. You know, the kind with more than one dad contributing to the creation of the children but less than one dad sticking around to raise them. Typical. Flawed.

I grew up aware that there was a defect in the physical structure of my stick figure drawings. My family only had one peak. We were lopsided. One adult. Three kids. Two hands for guidance. Six hands for mischief.

It turns out that families like mine weren’t as rare as I perceived them to be. In recent decades they have become even more common. But, the general demographic trends hadn’t reached our corner of suburbia in 1985 and the one block sample size that defined normal for my childhood years said our family was anything but typical. The official diagnosis was “broken.” I was from a “broken” home.

Even as a kindergartener, I knew broken was not the desired state of anything. Broken crayons were inferior. Broken toys went to the dump. What did you do with a broken family?

Our family was broken. Other families were fixed.

Our family was shattered. Other families were intact.

Our family was in pieces. Other families were whole.

My family didn’t look like the others on our block and for years I let the differences define me.

I wasn’t just a kid working in the yard. I was the kid without a dad to mow the lawn or trim the hedge.

I wasn’t just a kid enjoying a backyard BBQ. I was the kid who had to ask the dad across the street to open the pickle jar.

I wasn’t just a kid making a Father’s Day card to deliver with this year’s bottle of Old Spice. I was the kid whose dad didn’t fit in Hallmark’s box.

I was the kid who had to save up fourteen days of greetings for a man who pulled into the driveway every other Saturday.  Sometimes he arrived with a new truck. Sometimes with a new girlfriend. Sometimes with bourbon on his breath. Always with a cowboy hat and a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Every other Saturday I hopped into trucks of varying colors hopeful that an eight hour visitation would scratch the itch.  Satisfy the longing. Fill the void.

And when my mom inquired, I pretended it had.

I pretended to be satisfied by an afternoon of John Wayne movies in a cramped apartment filled with secondhand smoke.  I pretended not to care that another little girl was getting the daily greetings from my dad that I so desperately craved. I pretended it was funny he couldn’t remember my birthday. I pretended sixteen hours a month was enough.

I became good at pretending.

I pretended not to notice the signs for the Daddy/Daughter dance in the high school hallway.

I pretended to be satisfied with a prom send-off from my brothers.

I pretended it was enough to have my mom cheering on the sidelines.

I pretended not to notice the “S” on the campus parents’ weekend flyer.

But then I stopped pretending.

I met a man I loved and told him about my deepest desire to have a symmetrical family. I told him I was worried that a broken home had broken me. I told him my fears of messing things up for another generation.

And together, against the odds, we built a symmetrical family.

My kids draw stick figure drawings with two tall people. My kids never have to cross the street when they want a pickle.  My kids enjoy a highly ritualized nighttime routine of daily stories, piggy-back rides, and back rubs from their father. My kids wake from nightmares and call out for “Daddy” with no trace of doubt that their calls will be answered. And, when they hear the word “camel” they think of an animal with humps.

I’m not as smug as that comparison makes me sound. Parenthood is a great humbler and I have been humbled in more ways that I can count. I’ve also learned a lot about love. I understand now that love between parents is a bonus but has nothing to do with love between a parent and child.

My kids are deeply loved.

So was I.

Love can be lopsided. Love can be imperfect.

Symmetry is overrated and perfection is unattainable.

When you think about it, making a family is a lot like knitting a holiday scarf.

Sometimes pieces need to be unraveled to fix a fundamental flaw. Sometimes flaws can be fixed by stretching the piece into shape after the fact. Sometimes flaws can be camouflaged with a button or embellishment. But sometimes, you have to make a choice. You can either start over or embrace the flaw as proof that the scarf was made by a real person.

Sometimes families need divorce. Sometimes families need therapy. Sometimes families need permission to laugh at their quirks and failings. Mostly, families just need to embrace who they are and get on with life.

The family I come from is full of real people. People with flaws. People with addictions. People with dreams. People who left. People who stayed. People who loved.

Mostly, just people.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly ( and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Discovering the Day-Cation

Discovering the Day-Cation

our family vacation, circa 1978

    Family vacation, circa 1978

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

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

Enter Reality

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

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

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

“Do you not want to go?” Bryan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering the “Day-cation”

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

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

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

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

Parenting Multiple Children, When One Has Special Needs

Parenting Multiple Children, When One Has Special Needs

By Adrienne Jones

0-13I was in the waiting room at my youngest son Carter’s therapist’s office in January 2011 when my cell phone rang. I answered and heard the voice of Jacob, my 18-year-old son, his voice choked with fear and pain, telling me that he couldn’t find a job. “I put in tons of applications and I didn’t even get a single interview! You know how bad I’m doing at school, but I really, really tried last semester, Mom. I don’t even think I can graduate this year. I’m going to end up working at fast food restaurants my whole life.”

He began to cry, and I was broken hearted at the despondency in his voice. I wanted nothing but to sit down next to him and reassure him, then help him explore options. I wanted to be with him, to be his mom.

Just as I began murmuring words of love and support (You are smart. We’ll find something. I’m here to help you.), Carter’s therapist tapped me on the shoulder. He had the look on his face that I dread, the one that tells me life has to pause for awhile so I can keep my youngest son safe. My littlest child, the one whose brain got broken before he was born, the one who we all love deeply but who needs much more than we can give.

The one who stole two kids’ mom and one kids’ stepmom.

When Carter’s therapist tapped my shoulder, I froze for a second. This child, or that one? I cannot meet both needs, yet both needs are urgent.

“Jacob, I’m so sorry, but I have to call you back. I’m at Carter’s appointment and his therapist needs to talk to me.”

“Whatever, Mom,” and the phone was dead in my ear.

I’m not quite sure when Jacob’s patience ran out. He was eight when Carter was born and as Carter cried through his first year, Jacob was frustrated. While Carter cried through his second year, he began to get angry. When I began to crumble emotionally during Carter’s third year, Jacob began to develop a resentment that only grew as his brother got sicker and I was less and less available for homework help, dinner cooking, and even simple conversation.

These days, I take Carter to about 100 appointments a year, including lab draws. In his early years, I took him to three times as many, often dragging another child (or 2, or 3) along with me because babysitters were in short supply. They rode to appointments to the sound of their brother’s screams, they sat in boring waiting rooms and tried to occupy themselves with books and games, and they rode home while their brother continued to howl in his carseat.

They asked me for help with homework and I tried to give explanations, Carter in a sling on my chest and wailing so loudly that I had to shout my descriptions of what adverbs do or how to solve for x.

I was at the psychiatrist’s office with Carter when my daughter Abbie (13 at the time) called me from home. “Mom, I think I broke my leg! Please, can you come home Mommy? Please? I really need you,” she begged from the place in our driveway where she had fallen.

Of course I went to her, but her pleading had torn something in me. A child who is hurt should not have to beg for her mother’s presence; her mother should come running. Her fear that I might not come shocked me.

Parenting multiple children tears parents in many directions sometimes, even if all the children are healthy and developing typically. When one or more of the children has out-size needs, though, the parents must make out-size decisions, and the children must make out-size sacrifices (often unknowingly and unwillingly).

During his first three years, Carter was virtually inconsolable by anyone but me (and even with me, he cried hour after everlasting hour), so my older kids missed my presence at their plays, band concerts, and games. I skipped Parents’ Night at school, or left early because Carter was disruptive with his screaming.

During Carter’s preschool and early school years, they missed having a mom because I was exhausted to the point of near collapse for weeks and months at a time. They stayed home alone too often because it was better than dragging them along to yet more long, boring appointments. Throughout it all, they lost sleep because Carter has severe sleep issues and until recently (and sometimes, even now) he was never awake and quiet at the same time.

Carter has been relatively stable for almost three years now, and in that time I have begun working to repair my relationships with my other children, but much damage, much of it likely irreparable, has been done. They lost their mom during some crucial years of childhood, and while I always made sure they had food and clothes, got to school on time, and saw the doctor and the dentist, I was not nearly as available to them as I was before their brother came.

People often reassure me that kids are resilient; that there are benefits to having a sibling with special needs that have yet to reveal themselves. Perhaps. I hope so.

But I also know that sometimes, the fallout from a family crisis reaches very far, much further than we can imagine when we are in the midst of the crisis. I don’t know the solution; even now, thinking back on those years, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I only hoped I could meet all my kids basic needs and keep Carter alive, and by those very basic standards I’ve been successful.

All I can say to Jacob and Abbie and my stepson Spencer is, yes, it was hard, and it’s still hard. I hear your pain, and if I can help you heal, I want to do that.

And still, even now, I have to take Carter to his appointments. I have to stay with him most of the time so that his emotional life is steady. If I can help heal you, I have to do it in the in-between. There is more of that now, but it is still the in-between.

I failed, but I promise I tried to choose all of you.

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 [].

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.

Being Raised By Lesbians

Being Raised By Lesbians

By Lara Lillibridge

0-26The story everyone wants to hear isn’t the story I want to tell.  Everyone wants to know what it was like to be raised by lesbians, how we functioned, what made it different.  I want to talk about other things, the things that formed me and shaped me and scarred me. Not my mother’s sexuality.  I want to say that isn’t what scarred me or made me different or made me who I am today.  I want to say that it didn’t matter.  But all of that is a lie. Of course it mattered more than almost any other aspect of my childhood.

Perhaps I don’t want to write about it because I feel an obligation to represent lesbian parents well, and to show that children of lesbians are normal. I don’t want to be a poster child for lesbian families. I don’t want to say it is or is not okay.

It is not something you can place a value judgment on, because it is not something my moms had any control over. They are who they are, and it isn’t fair to say that something that is intrinsically part of them is open to a value debate.  I prefer to use my writing to scold them for things they could control.

Maybe I don’t like the voyeuristic component. After all, every teenage boy I ever told asked if he could come look in my windows, even though I explained that my parents weren’t people any teenage boy would want to see naked. I resented every straight adult asking me if I ever thought I was a lesbian. I don’t like the reduction of my entire life to a discussion on sexuality. I wish there was a way to define who makes up your family without the connection to what happens in the bedroom.

But the case may be that I don’t want to talk about having two moms because I am overshadowed by it. The most interesting thing about my life is not about me at all; it is about my parents. Perhaps I deny its importance because I want to be the most interesting character in my own story.

I can tell you what you want to hear. I can tell you about the kids that weren’t allowed to play with me because of my moms. I can tell you that I was called Lara the Lezzie for most of Junior High. I can tell you about the fight I had with one of my best friends in the locker room after gym class where she accused me of being a lesbian just like my mom and how I never forgave her.

I can tell you that I needed a boyfriend for years to prove I was straight to anyone who wondered during my teen years.  I can tell you that I had nightmares that I would wake up one day and find I had turned into a lesbian overnight, and no longer was the person I was when I went to sleep.

I can tell you about the blue-collar, republican parents of my friends who never batted an eye about my two moms and allowed their daughters to have sleepovers at my house.  I can tell you about the time my best friend’s mother caught her daughter playing doctor with me and how she didn’t freak out any more than was appropriate, and how she never tried to keep us from being friends.

I can tell you about the family my parents created, made up of other lesbian women, because my cousins stopped talking to us after my mom was outed.  I can tell you about the Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve parties and everyone laughing and talking just like a normal family, and about how their conversations were as boring to me as a child as grown up conversations are to children everywhere. I can tell you how both of my moms went to every school concert and even a few track meets, that the school administration accepted that I had two moms even though it was the late 1970s and wasn’t very common. No teacher ever made me feel weird when I made my moms name tags for open houses or introduced them at parent teacher conferences. The Boy Scouts allowed my mom to volunteer with the troop when they asked for father-helpers. The Girl Scouts gave my two moms a troop to lead.

Or maybe you’d rather hear about me living in fear that I would confide in the wrong friend, and that they would tell my deep dark family secret. A lot of people like the story of how my mom lost jobs for being gay, and how I was afraid we’d get chased out of our neighborhood. Another popular story of neighborhood hate can be told two ways; maybe once someone threw a rock through a window, or maybe it just was kicked up by a truck and meant nothing at all.  Most people prefer to think it was a hate crime, although there was no note to clarify.

I can tell you all of it or none of it, but I can’t tell you what it was like to have lesbian parents.  I can’t speak to some universal experience. I can’t tell you what it would have been like if my parents were straight, and what parts would have been different and what parts would have been the same.  I have no other point of view.

Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer. 

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.


Learning to Enjoy the Cake I Baked

Learning to Enjoy the Cake I Baked

By Kris Woll

0Several days before my daughter’s second birthday, we received an email from my mother-in-law—Subject: Kuchen Backen—with a photo attached. The photo featured a relative in Germany baking a cake with her granddaughter at her side. Flour floated in the air around them like fairy dust.

The photo made me feel a little sad. Those Kuchen bakers, in their matching aprons, live just steps away from each other. We, on the other hand, are among those modern families who do not live near family—a drive several hours one way, a flight several hours the other. We do not bake together without significant planning; no extended family would be at our home for cake-baking or even cake-eating this birthday.

I longed for the sweetness captured in that emailed picture.

So I decided to Backen our own Kuchen.

But unlike the relative in the picture, I am not known for my elaborate and delicious cakes. I’m more of a bakery counter sort of mom. And so I sought out the easiest recipe I could find. I avoided any version that required flour to be sifted and eggs separated. The recipe I selected—called “one-egg cake”—appears in the “Quick Cakes” section of my very worn The Joy of Cooking, a section that opens with a warning: “we all want a good cake in a big hurry … let’s not delude ourselves that shortcuts make for the best textures or flavors.” I chuckled at the disclaimer, doubting that it applied to this cake, to me, and assuming—as I so often do—that my want for it to be wonderful be enough to make it so.

I mixed and measured and added the one egg while the children played around me, and the cake looked nice enough when it came out of the warm oven. A little flat perhaps, but absolutely like a cake. It smelled very cake-like, too. Later that evening, our little family frosted it with “quick white icing” (from the “Quick Icings” section of the same cookbook), and added polka dots—aka M&Ms—on top. My husband and I meant to send a photo of our decorating efforts (Subject: Birthday Kuchen!) to family in Germany and New York, but our hands were too full—with kids, with frosting—to snap any pictures.

*   *   *

Rain pounded the windows the next morning, and the birthday girl coughed and sniffled. We called off the party we planned to have in a nearby park. Instead, we stayed in our little house for a quiet day. Presents were opened and played with and fought over and played with again. We ate lunch, we did laundry, we took naps. After dinner we pulled out the polka-dotted dessert. We sang the song and the birthday girl joined right in with glee, blowing out her two candles with gusto. She clapped as a big chunk of “one-egg cake” with “quick white icing” landed on her plate. My husband took a few pictures as I lit candles; at least we caught a few moments to share.

The children ate their cake from the top down—M&Ms, then frosting, then a few bites of cake—but I took no offense. The M&Ms were the best part. As warned, the cake I baked seemed to lack something. Maybe it needed more than one egg, or some sifting and separating, or more flour fairy dust. The kids didn’t seem to mind— and they would have started with the M&Ms regardless—but I noticed the difference.

And as I cleared dishes from the table, the big chunk of cake still sat in the middle of the table. Far more than my little family could eat.

So I called a friend who lives just a few blocks from our place and far from her own parents and aunts and uncles. She is the “in case of emergency” contact for my kids on school and camp forms, as I am for her.

“Can I bring you some very sweet, dense, sort of mediocre birthday cake?” A testament to the friendship, she said yes.

We loaded up the sniffling birthday girl and her older brother and drove the few blocks in the rainy fall night. Warm light filled the windows of her lovely home. Her children greeted us at the door, eager to play.

“Can you stay for a bit?” she asked, offering a glass of wine and a comfortable seat on the couch. The children disappeared in search of toys. The birthday cake rested, sticky and sweet on the table, still in the Tupperware. Though that cake didn’t quite turn out as I imagined (though I can’t say I wasn’t warned) it did brighten our dinner table, summon some singing and—this is the sweetest part—bring us into the company and comfort of our own extended family that night.

Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.  

Loving Kip

Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

Transgender ArtWe’d been watching Oprah the day my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, shared her secret with me: a show featuring transgenders who were transitioning. Frankly, I was surprised. Julia never watched Oprah. Movies: yes. Sports: all the time. But talk shows: not a chance. I thought, It must be pretty interesting if she’s watching. Maybe I’ll watch, too.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders or transsexuals. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Doctors think this phenomenon happens in the first trimester of pregnancy. As the fetus develops, the brain forms as one gender, and the body the other. It is referred to as Gender Identity Disorder.

Each of Oprah’s guests had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had trouble finding love. Staying employed was a problem. Being brutally beaten was not uncommon in their stories.

Jul had decided this was the time.

She quietly turned towards me. With a surrendered look, she raised her fine eyebrows and in an almost whispered voice, she said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

I remember all the air leaving the room; thinking my lungs had decided that, nope, they weren’t going to cooperate any longer. I fought for air, but life had punched it out of me. Realizing Jul was watching me, I began my persuasion. “No honey … you’re not. You’re just uncomfortable being a lesbian. You’ll get used to the idea.”

With hurt in her eyes, my daughter’s chin quivered as she spoke. “I can’t stand the thought of a girl, or anyone, touching this body; it’s humiliating. It’s not a choice, Mom. I have the wrong body.”

I sat listening, trying not to hear.

Panic. That was the first feeling in a chain of emotions that now seem like some strange twelve-step program. Fear followed. They’re not the same: panic and fear. Panic grabs you, squeezes fiercely; it paralyzes you, the pressure leaving you unable to think. I wanted to hide.

The fear that followed was a different type of weight. It bore down gently, but continuously, dropping a thought into my head every now and then.

What would people say? What if she transitioned and still wasn’t happy? How would hormone therapy change the way she looked? All parents have to adjust to their child’s choices: piercings, tattoos, haircuts, clothing. Even the gradual, natural changes are an adjustment. But the process of seeing my daughter become a man seemed unthinkable.

The fear wore me down for a while. But slowly, very slowly, I made my way through those feelings, and acceptance followed. I felt like I’d just carted a canoe through the drizzling rain for miles, feet wet, finally reaching the river, the sun coming out as I set the canoe down. I felt the warmth. Acceptance has a wonderful warmth to it.

But there, in that feeling of surrender, where I knew it was the love for my child that mattered, I still felt a twinge of something uncertain. How would the hormone treatments change her? No, how would the hormone treatments change him? Would I recognize my child in the end?

I wanted my new son to have what we all take for granted: to feel natural in his body, in his face. I wanted him to no longer wonder whether people were looking at him because he looked androgynous, questioning his role and how he fit into society. At 21, it had been over a decade since he’d resembled someone who could even remotely be called girly, except of course on those dressy occasions when I’d forced it. Since before ten years of age, he’d had our hairdresser chop his hair short, wore a ball cap, and sported either a basketball or hockey jersey with jeans. The jeans were always over boxers. She had always been boyish. Most of her “look” wouldn’t change, but part of me was having a very tough time at the thought of losing Jul’s face.

Once the process of hormone therapy started, a manly stubble would rub against my cheek when we hugged. The hormones would change his bone structure just enough to make him look less like Jul, and more like “Kip.” His facial features and hairline would shift to give him the more masculine look he craved. But just how much would the hormones change the young adult version of the face I’d grown to cherish?

Baby Jul had a beautiful face. I’d peer down at her and love the sweet little thing peeking back up at me from her crib. Her perfect full lips. The Gerber Baby cheeks that were always chubbed up, rounding out her oval face in a big, eager grin. The little button nose. Her squeezable little chin. It was the face of my perfect little angel. How much would I miss it? I couldn’t imagine not seeing it anymore.

It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the fear of losing her quiet, natural beauty, though. She had been five the first time. I was home, sick, when the shrill sound of the phone woke me. A car accident. A serious head injury. Danger of internal bleeding in the brain. I was needed at the children’s hospital immediately.

The person on the other end of the phone cautioned me not to drive; she said I might be in shock.

I was.

The scene I arrived to at the hospital instantly slapped me out of my numbed state. First I heard her voice. It was aggressive, tortured, demanding, loud enough for me to hear before I even entered the busy emergency room. “I want my mom. I WANT MY MOM!”

If that familiar voice hadn’t been coming from the little thing stretched out on the gurney, I wouldn’t have had my heart shredded to a million bits when my eyes rested on her. I wouldn’t have known my little kindergartener. Her face was swollen and horribly flat. Tiny little fragments of glass, and some not so tiny, were embedded everywhere. As I walked toward her, I watched as the hospital staff bent her arms, her wrists, and her fingers, in an attempt to locate broken bones, Jul fighting every second of it, her panic increasing. At the top of her lungs, she chanted, “I WANT MY MOM! I WANT MY MOM!”

I stood over her in disbelief. She didn’t know I was there. Her eyes were swollen shut. I took her little hand in mine and cooed, “Mommy’s here, honey. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.”

I only have fragments of memories about that first day, the first out of a week I spent sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. But I do remember one question that, somewhere during the craziness of that first day, selfishly passed through my mind. Oh, her beautiful little face. What’s it going to look like when it heals?

What a trivial, stupid thing to worry about then. My daughter had survived a massive head trauma. I still had my child; that was the important part. But as parents, we get so attached to the face we’ve looked at and loved.

Maybe that car accident was a lesson given to me years before, in preparation for the loss of my daughter’s face. I had been a kindergartener then too, I guess; a beginner in the years of parenting classes ahead. I didn’t know then that the body was merely the packaging of the soul I loved.

As I waited for the call to confirm that the first shot of testosterone had been scheduled, marking the beginning of my daughter’s transition, I began my goodbye to Jul’s face. I was grateful that I was at least learning to be a little less absorbed with outside appearances. I might still feel a little twinge when the time came and the changes started, but I was ready to confront letting go. I will admit I was worried, but I would try to love the new face as it came.

To Kip, however, the day of that first shot of testosterone could not come soon enough. Once started, his facial characteristics did transform. His forehead worked its way backward, as the hairline framing it receded, and took on squarer, sharper lines. I noticed something else about his forehead. The bone structure just underneath his eyebrows seemed to change. I could see something that sort of reminded me of a Neanderthal. Now, I’m not saying that the more male hormones kip received, the more Neanderthal-like he became, but really, don’t laugh, it was there. It wasn’t a pronounced thing; it was subtle, but his forehead was different, and in a very distinctive male way.

The other changes in his face were subtle, too. There was definitely something about his cheekbones. They appeared to recede a bit or shift position. His jaw seemed to change, as well. It took on a more squared look. Actually, his whole face seemed somehow squarer than before. He even developed a new, unfamiliar space between his two front teeth—something he did not appreciate; his teeth had been one of the only things he had liked about himself— but it was a small price to pay to feel at home in his body.

The changes didn’t happen overnight, however. In fact, they were so gradual that I didn’t even notice them at first. It wasn’t until I compared a year-old photo to a recent one that I could see the full effect of the injections. His bearded image had become handsome.

It seemed strange. I’d been so worried about how much I’d miss Jul’s face. But I’d grown to love my new son’s face as it emerged, without even realizing it.

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same. His face wasn’t really a loss.

I think about the parents who don’t learn to accept. How can they let their relationship with their children die? Or worse yet, how do they survive the tragedy of suicide that sometimes lands on families who can’t open their hearts to the transition? How do those families carry on? That is loss.

Now, ten years later, I still have my first-born child sitting with us at family dinners. From across the table, I see the same smiling hazel eyes. Framing those eyes is a new man. A man who wears a strip of short stubble from one sideburn to the other, the way his wife loves it so much. I look at him now and smile. This mom has no regrets.

Author’s Note: Seeing a person with our eyes brings such limited results. When we see with our hearts, looking inside, past the surface, underneath what society dwells on, we see so much more. What we are isn’t the most important thing: it’s who we are. My son helped me learn that lesson. The physical changes were not important. My son’s spirit and courage are going strong. That makes this mother proud.

Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.

Art by Michael Lombardo

Baby Questions and Later Questions

Baby Questions and Later Questions

IMG_1246There’s a twelve-year span and two more kids between our oldest child and our youngest, the original and last babies. When they are tiny, the babies, they are wonder and mystery and vexingly sleepless at times you want them to sleep. As parents, especially the first time round, you imbue so much upon these tiny creatures. Who is this? Who will this become?

At the same time, there’s all the baby minutiae, the sleeplessness and the poopfulness and the questions about whether the smile is gas and the tears are teething. Recall how many times when you care for babies you ask yourself how it’s possible that an intelligent person such as yourself could give away so much brainpower to excrement. You, or speaking for myself, I shook my head many times over at the absurdity of the enterprise, equal parts grateful and bemused and horrified and exhausted. Maybe, if I’m honest and let myself remember how grinding the sleep deprivation was, exhaustion edged out the rest.

My eldest recently turned eighteen. I remember during my own adolescence, maybe a bit earlier than eighteen, that I spent a lot of time on some swings near my dad’s house wondering whatever happened to childhood. I felt a little sad about growing up, I recall, even though I cannot say I was so very happy as a child. This fall, between one turning eighteen and another starting kindergarten and some question about the future of a neighborhood playground that has swings, I’ve thought of those swings a lot. I’ve remembered that sensation of time passing and the awe and the melancholy and the fear that accompany it. Three pregnancies later, swings make me nauseous. Yet, I’m on the swings in my mind: wondering how one child’s childhood evaporated and another is fifteen, another eleven and the baby girl, the last baby, is five-and-a-half and in kindergarten.

During her infancy, I was pulled in two directions. I thought I knew what there was to know about babies, as in how to smush her into a ball for comfort and improved digestion and how critical it was to set her on her tummy. At the same time, I thought a lot about all that I couldn’t know. I couldn’t know how early her teeth would come in or whether there was a genetic disposition toward or away from happiness.

Did she cry more than the others? Was she fussier? Did she nap less? Did she laugh more? Maybe, I’m not sure. Babies fuss. Some babies sleep more. Some sleep less. What I didn’t realize as I worried and wondered about stuff I wouldn’t know—her father’s family medical history, for one thing—I neglected what I already knew: for all the things we think biology can tell us, there’s still so much we can’t know. Biology is a piece of a larger puzzle. It’s not as simple as nature versus nurture or nurture over nature or any one element against another. And it’s not as if the happiest kid becomes the happiest adult or the one who sleeps most feels the most rested. It’s all just so much more complicated, and so-not-straightforward.

I had an inkling of that as the bigger problems began, as in small children small problems big ones big ones—mostly the ones that awareness of the larger world bring. One of the first glimmers of this happened while we waited for this last baby to be born. My eldest boy was in sixth grade at the time and wanted, rather desperately for a few weeks, for the baby’s pregnant birth mother Caroline to move to the apartment on our third floor to raise the baby because he couldn’t fathom how she’d let the baby go and how we could let that happen to her.

“It’s so complicated,” I remember saying over and over, as I tried to convince him that as heartbreaking as this seemed and felt and was, it was also okay. Caroline would be okay and the baby would be okay and we’d all be family in a way that helped it become okay. Had I known I’d have such a sensitive and stellar person emerge? I was so blown away by his ability to feel for everyone at that moment. I didn’t feel responsible for his smarts or his compassion. I just felt awed. And I felt humbled. That sensation, the awed and humbled one, it’s endured, about all four of them.

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Portrait in Nature and Nurture

Portrait in Nature and Nurture

By Christine Koubek

0-31Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—”tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”

Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.

I knew none of this, not even the correct state of my birth, until the letter arrived.

“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a sealed brown-linen envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.

I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of a girl, and a woman, with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.

Dear Christine, The time has finally arrived. I don’t know if you even know you are adopted. I was 17 when you were born. I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is. Words cannot express how I have felt for 19½ years, not knowing anything about you. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you or kiss you because you were behind a glass window. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house. I named you Ann Marie. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of. Love, Ann”

While I knew I was adopted, I also understood that adoption agencies brokered two things in the sixties—babies and secrecy, but somehow she had found me.

“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

My cheeks felt hot, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother, had suffered miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved any less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.

*   *   *

I was 13 and playing the board game Sorry with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care if you win, YOU’RE adopted!”

I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I cried at the kitchen table. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.

She rushed home from the double-shift she was waitressing. We went to her room. I sat on the edge of her waterbed, across from a photo of us kids dressed in matching green-and-beige plaid. Our clothes matched, but in my family of lights, I looked darker than ever. My mother had always said I looked like my grandmother, her mom, and that I took after her too because I loved music and making things.

“Honey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said. “Wait here a minute.” I listened to her rummage through the deep part of her closet, behind her clothes, where the ceiling sloped down. My sister once told me our mother hid our Christmas presents back there, but I never peeked—I always wanted to be surprised.

My mother emerged from the closet, her hair a little askew. She held a large beige envelope and opened the tiny metal prongs that had clamped the envelope shut. I’m not sure how I knew, or what I knew, but when she pried those prongs apart, something clicked in my head, that noise, the way a padlock clicks before it opens.

She pulled out notes from my first visits to the pediatrician, and a letter, typed on white parchment paper from a caseworker at Catholic Family Services.

We sat together on the bed’s black cushioned edge. My arms goose-pimpled as I read the letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.

I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. In a single afternoon I had traded one ancestry for another. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at my mother. My father had been gone for over four years and she was the only parent I had.

“Chrissie,” my mother said, “when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.

*   *   *

“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.

I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “Mom … it’s from my birth mother.”

“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is sending you a letter? What if you hadn’t known you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted. I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t know what to say. It was all shocking to me too.

My mother didn’t bring the letter up the next day, or the next, and I took that to mean she didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe I didn’t want to either. Adoption had always seemed like something you don’t discuss.

Yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later after I finished my last final exam. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following night after I got off work from the local department store.

I scanned faces that entire evening wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.

After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a shrouded part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the spring night’s chill.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair walked toward me. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She looked like the woman in the pictures, and she was studying me.

When she was only a few feet away, I whispered, “Ann?”

Before I could say anything more, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”

I put my hands lightly on her back. I felt cold. I’m hugging a stranger. I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said and pulled back. I don’t recall tearing up, or saying anything more in that moment. I felt as if someone had shot me with Novocain—nothing but numb.

She introduced me to her husband and then I followed them to an Italian restaurant down the street, where Ann and I filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. It was the first time I’d heard a true story about the night I was born. If an adoptee grows up believing one history to be true, what happens when you learn part of it was fiction? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are? I didn’t know it that night, but it would take more than a decade to answer those questions.

What I remember most from that night were her arms. She had the exact same lightly freckled skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”

A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had contacted him in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My initial lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.

As the months passed, though, that initial excitement ebbed as we each struggled with the fact that I was not Ann Marie. I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed like our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.

Gregg put it into words in a letter a few months after our first meeting: “I think there is such a gap between reality and the dream in this situation. Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m trying to say that I want to be everything you want me to be, but, realistically, I’m not sure I have the foggiest idea what that is—do you? I say to myself I hope we can get close—but how close?”

I didn’t have any idea. But those words and a mailbag’s worth of beautiful letters those first few years fostered a kinship and a second chance to have a father. We’d meet for coffee, go to concerts and talk frequently on the phone. But I felt guilty every time I did the same with Ann.

Though our reunion certainly answered those central questions—”Where did I come from?” for me, and “Whatever happened to Ann Marie?” for them—for every detail, every question answered, more unanswerable questions arose, such as: How do I introduce these people whose genetic makeup I share? How often should I see Ann or Gregg? Do I invite them to my graduation? Will knowing Ann and Gregg jeopardize my relationship with my mother? My siblings? My cousins?

 *   *   *

At the time I met Ann, adoptions were still whispered about, and reunions like ours occurred mostly as a result of a private investigator. It was seen as disloyal and ungrateful for an adoptee to want to know his or her birth parents. Somehow a primal desire for ancestry had been construed as a statement about adoptive parenting.

For all those reasons, I grappled with my need to know Ann and Gregg. And I found it easiest to offer people a practical excuse, such as: I’d like to know what medical conditions I could inherit. 

But the truth is, knowing them made it profoundly easier for me to feel at home in my own skin. I discovered Gregg and I both tried to figure out life through writing, and that Ann and I shared many of the same spiritual philosophies. And I realized why I was so damned introspective and curious: I got a double dose from them.

Given all that, I didn’t want to say: Thanks for answering my questions, for letting me know where I came from. Now can you please go away and we’ll catch up again in another 19 years. 

So I fumbled on, even as it became complicated having them in my life, especially around the holidays. “I haven’t seen you in a long while,” Gregg’s mother would say. Or Ann would ask, “A bunch of us will be at my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. Would you like to come?” Though it was wonderful to be included, I was trying not to lose my place in my own family gatherings.

One weekend visit home, a few years after I had moved to Boston, I divided 48 hours among my mother and beloved grandmother (my mom’s mother), who had just suffered a stroke; my brother and his new baby; my sister, who was enduring a trial; Ann, who was going through a divorce; and high school friends who just wanted to catch up over a beer.

No matter how I allocated my time, there was never enough. I was always letting someone down, and always struggling with this sense that I was being ungrateful to my mother.

Through all of this, my mother remained fairly silent, which I interpreted to mean she was stepping back to let me figure it all out. I was immensely thankful for that on my wedding day. My mother looked beautiful in her floral-pink dress as we rode in the limousine to the church. She sat in her place of honor, the front row of the church, like all mothers of the bride. Except this mom shared the day with her daughter’s birth parents as Ann played Christine’s songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano and Gregg waited at the church entrance to escort me down the aisle.

I know my mother’s stomach was in knots that day as she endured endless questions from relatives who hadn’t met Ann and Gregg, but she handled it with grace. She gave me a gift perhaps not many parents could: She let go and loved me unconditionally, wanting nothing more than for me to be happy. And that is what makes her my mother in every sense of that word.

 *   *   *

For that brief time surrounding my wedding, all my relationships converged, but it didn’t last. I could quietly be a part of each individual family, but not one whole. A few months later, Gregg and I hit a reunion rough patch and took a break from one another. After that, I wasn’t sure I was capable of traversing this rocky terrain anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother and Ann might have felt the same.

A few years later, when my son was born, something shifted. I now understood the anticipation my mother must have felt before picking me up from the infant home. And I began to realize the despair Ann spoke of as I breast-fed my newborn son and stroked his pudgy legs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine having to relinquish him, never to touch his baby-soft skin again, or know the person he would become.

As my son grew, Gregg and I grew close, and Ann and I settled into a sisterly relationship of sorts supporting one another through the ups and downs of our lives: for me, the birth of my second son, and postpartum depression; for her, artistic endeavors as a painter, and a first bout with breast cancer. We’d meet for lunch, then stroll a park when my first son was young. She called him “a wise old soul.” He called her “Grannie Annie.”

  *   *   *

A week before Mother’s Day in 2009, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee before crossing the boulevard to the card store. I had learned that this annual greeting card ritual could take a while, and I needed cards for my mother, mother-in-law, a couple of grandmothers and, toughest of all, for Ann.

That particular Mother’s Day marked our 22nd anniversary. More than two decades of knowing each other, after a childhood apart. It also marked the year Ann’s cancer had spread.

I opened the door and meandered down the card aisle, hands warmed by the cardboard cup as I perused the racks of cards for mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, godmothers and women who were “like a mother to me.”

I stopped at “grandmothers” and selected a few, then moved on to “mothers” for my husband’s mom and my own. I found one for my mom that thanked her for always being there, for teaching me to take care of myself, to persevere and be strong.

Every year I tried to find a card for Ann, but they invariably said: “the one constant in my life,” “being there when no one else could,” or “since I was a child”—none of which applied. There was no card that said: “I’m sorry for all you went through back then.” “I can’t thank you enough for giving me life and for the gift of my family and for the opportunity to know you, as well as that part of me that is Ann Marie.” Or “in a world where we all could use a parent who truly knows and loves each of us—thank you for being one of mine.”

I tossed the cards aside, and rounded the corner to the blank card aisle. I figured I’d just keep writing it myself.

 *   *   *

Four months after that Mother’s Day, Ann lost her battle with cancer.

A few days before her death, Ann’s younger sister, Lisa, asked how to refer to me in the obituary. “I don’t want to offend your mother by calling you Ann’s daughter,” she said. I thought: God, how that question sums up our 22-year journey.

I told Lisa I needed to think about it. I asked my mother, who said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I know you’re my daughter.”

And then I had an idea. I wrote to Lisa:

After all these years with Ann (and Gregg), one thing I’ve learned is that none of the labels (nor their associated roles and obligations) have been sufficient, and I am so happy that Ann and I were able to create our own meaningful relationship despite them. 

But an obituary needs a label, and you’re right: “Daughter” is true but confusing in the sense that I’m my mother’s daughter. And yet, I’m not a stepdaughter nor a goddaughter, and “birth daughter” sounds ridiculous…. I think using the name she gave me at my birth is the truest way for me to honor her and our relationship. Therefore, please use:

“Survived by a daughter, Ann Marie Roberts.”

Christine Koubek’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Coastal Living, Washingtonian and many other publications. “Portrait in Nature and Nurture” is adapted from an essay she had published in Bethesda magazine shortly after Ann passed away. An adoption-related short story she wrote earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2012 Family Matters contest.  Christine is the Cofounder and Editor of Secret Sons & Daughters: Adoptee Tales from the Sealed Records Era — A digital publication and community based on the power of shared stories to inspire hope, healing, and change.

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Why I Worry About Twelve

Why I Worry About Twelve

By Kathleen Harris
558225_10201065632895516_1316489195_nMy first-born child—my daughter, my baby, my soft, powdery, little one, whose infant body shook with love and the very electricity of life as she clutched my face, and bestowed upon me the most precious gift of open-mouthed, applesauce-ed kisses on my lips and nose and cheeks—will be twelve in the fall.

My baby girl is gone. There’s no one to call, and nothing to do. She no longer shakes with excitement at the sight of me. She shouldn’t. It would be odd if she did.

It’s abject selfishness, really, to still want to be adored in the way that small children often do. To want the chubby clap of hands to greet you, to see the glow and glint in your child’s eyes when she recognizes your face. This light—her fiery, warm, living light—must envelop and surround other people, and be directed towards other passions. And inward, to stoke the furnace of her very being.

She started middle school in September. Her father and I gave her a phone, because we don’t know what else to do, except set up rules that she hasn’t even thought of breaking yet. We are lulling ourselves with the illusion of control. It seems to be a common practice among mothers and fathers.

I want to believe that I’ve done right by her. But I already have proof of what I’ve done wrong. That’s why the number twelve hovers. The anticipation of its arrival awes and frightens me.

I had my own twelve. We all did, of course, if we found our way through the blind maze of adolescence out into the harsh light of adulthood. But I—shamefully, secretly—superimpose my twelve over hers, like fragile onion skin paper, noting the similarities, the places where our outlines run together, so alike, so close, and then spread so far apart.

My twelve took place in 1982—the summer before my parents and I moved from Queens, New York to the affluent suburbs of Connecticut.

I was a city kid, although it never occurred to me to think of myself that way. We were simply where we were, where generations had lived before us, and where we always expected to be from. We weren’t tough kids living in the south Bronx, in Washington Heights or Jamaica. But we were all harder and wiser than we knew ourselves to be. All of us were. Every single one of us who called a New York City borough their home.

At twelve, I smoked Parliaments, wore ice-blue eyeshadow and roll-on lip gloss, and started being silent. It was a time when I acted as if I liked metal bands, so I could stay at the parent-less party in another girl’s basement, and drank whatever I was offered.

That summer, I sat on a soiled, abandoned couch in a wooded area that separated my childhood playground and the Interboro Parkway. I gathered with friends around a cast-off air-conditioning unit, serving as an unsightly coffee table, with candles melded to its vents. I watched friends smoke PCP-laced pot that they’d bought from the “dusties” hanging out in the park, and I didn’t take any when it got passed around. Instead, my friend Debbie and I—the girl who sat next to me, hands folded and knees together under pleated plaid skirts in our kindergarten class photo—now held hands and pressed knees together in some sort of naive united front, and both shook our heads no while the boys laughed too loudly at our refusal.

Debbie’s long nails dug into the back of my hand as we watched Michael, another Catholic school classmate, light the joint and make the end glow. Michael had red-rimmed eyes every day that summer. I watched him adeptly twist the rolling paper, and thought of him crying at his desk in first grade because he missed his mother. He had a bowl cut as a little boy, and his hair fell in a thousand, swaying strands of yellow, brown and gold. I remembered his clip-on tie, which was always askew in class when he was little, and that at seven or eight, I had yearned to straighten it.

That was the summer my friend wanted to set me up with a boy from the neighborhood. He didn’t go to our Catholic school. I’m not sure where he was from. His name was Johnny. That’s all I remember. I didn’t want to know him at all. I didn’t understand yet what he wanted from me. I’m sure he didn’t understand, either. I only knew that I didn’t want him to be the first of anything in my little life.

We moved to Connecticut at the end of that summer. I never told my parents about the couch off the Interboro Parkway, about the beer purchased from the back window of the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, or about the Parliaments I’d purchased from the same delicatessen where I’d once bought Yoo-Hoos, gum and Funny Bones.

I don’t expect that my daughter’s life will unfold in the same way. I tell myself that the world is different now, that parents are more aware of problems, that we see the signs of worry or trauma, long before it indents forming souls.

But I think of the fact that I became silent. I never told my parents that I’d grown older, or grown up, in a matter of weeks. Children never do.

That’s why I worry about twelve.

Kathleen Harris is a fortysomething wife, mother and writer, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Her work has been featured at The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, and Rebellious! Magazine. She was named as a Glimmer Train Press short Story finalist, as well as a 2013 winner at the Woodstock Writers Festival Story Slam. You can find her regular blog postings at The Mommy Chronicles ( Follow her on Facebook or Twitter at @tristatemomma.

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.

Pajama Night Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Pajama Night Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what.

This is a story about why I find myself in a bar most Tuesday evenings, often wearing penguin pajamas. (The penguins themselves are wearing scarves and pompom hats, very stylish.)  I was driven to this ritual the usual way: Chili glops on the kitchen counters.

*   *   *

Some years ago, I floated downstairs on a Saturday morning, heart swelling with a fantasy of breakfasty togetherness. The work week was behind me, and this morning I would orchestrate a cozy domestic tableau: a pajama-clad family smiling around homemade yumminess. Anthony, bless him, had cleaned the kitchen last night. I was about to mess it up again, in the name of Motherly Love.

My fantasy cracked when I walked into the kitchen and stuck to the floor. It shattered completely when I saw the counters, still sporting the crumbly, saucey reminders of last night’s chili and cornbread. DAMMIT.

To be fair, pots had been scrubbed and the trash taken out. But I was smacking right up against our most reliable drudgery trap: Anthony just doesn’t see some things. And I do.

You can’t make someone notice that which he does not notice. So as prime notice-er, I faced a familiar choice: I could gently point out the problem:  “THIS ISN’T WHAT IT MEANS TO CLEAN THE KITCHEN!”

Or I could finish the cleaning myself, doing last night’s work before whistling up a delectable breakfast.

I felt my golden-glow morning slip-sliding toward resentment. Those options suck.

Then . . . waitasec. What were the essential elements of my fantasy? Surely the parts about being cozy in our pj’s and enjoying each other mattered more than my star turn as Donna Reed. Could I salvage what mattered most, without needing to develop a Glop Strategy?

I threw on a sweatshirt and scrawled a note: “Gone to Fargonian. Saw no reason to get dressed. Come!”

Anti-drudge strategy #1: Flee the scene of the drudgery.

*   *   *

On that Saturday and for two years following, our family dribbled by ones and twos, as we woke up, into the tiny café just three blocks from our house. Each week, Heidi, the café’s owner, would ask “Strawberry crêpe?” and Youngest, whose pj’s still had feet, would answer “YES, PLEASE!”

Heidi gave extra whipped cream and never asked the kids to pay. She knew Anthony and I would be along eventually and our family would loll on her couch, licking our plates and reading old National Geographics.

That first morning had just been about ditching the nobody-wins options of the drudge dynamic. (And by the time we got home, all the juice was out of my frustration—I mentioned the chili-n-crumbs to Anthony, he cleaned it, and that was that.). But it turned out our new ritual had a whole ‘NOTHER drudgery antidote built inside it: other people. We’re not always our best selves around strangers (see: The Entire Internet), or even around the people we love best. But toss some nice neighbors into the mix?

Anti-drudge strategy #2:  Community.

Community isn’t just a small-town phenom—we live smack in the center of a metro area of three and a half million people. It’s whether you bother. Bother to go to the same little place every week, tell the person behind the counter your name and ask hers. It’s whether you talk to her a bit, ask how the morning is going, and how her son is liking Kindergarten. Friendships make the world merry. And good feelings quash the drudgey ones—that’s just scientific fact.

Yes, yes, community, nice. But where is the Tuesday-night drinking?

*   *   *

Our Saturday goodness came crashing down when Heidi closed her restaurant. (Turned out my panacea was her drudgery. Who’da thunk?) A bar—a BAR—moved into the space, and our cozy family refuge was replaced by hipsters and noise and all like that.

It’s possible I sulked for a few months.

“I’m not a bar person.”

But by now Eldest was babysitting age, and I was starting to learn about flexing a little.

Two years before, I’d given up my homecooked fantasy but kept its key components:

*   Dress for comfort, and

*   Together time.

We’d added, by happy accident,

*   Community.

Now, we’d transition from café to The Bottleneck. (The hipsters wouldn’t mind—didn’t their species maintain a staunchly pro-pajama stance?) Liquor laws meant we’d have to redefine together, but Anthony and I were due for some moments without the chilluns.

Anti-drudge strategy #3: be flexible.

We learned that the bartender’s name was Tyler.

We call it Pajama Night. In place of kidlets, we invite all the grownups we know. Friends within walking distance often come, but sometimes it’s just the two of us. Pajamas are optional, but the greeting is required:

“Happy Pajama Night!”

“Happy Pajama Night to you!”

We are cheery and making fun of ourselves and dead serious about this. The battle against drudgery that started as a way to keep my life in order without killing anyone has expanded, as all good philosophies must. It’s about finding territory where there’s no work for me to do (or to notice has not been done), and being with people we love. It’s about flexing my requirements, knowing that if I keep focus on what’s truly important, I can scoop up more joy—and leave disappointment behind.

Not everyone has a neighborhood café or a neighborhood bar (or pajamas.) These things are not the point. The point is: What is the essence of what I need, to love my life a little better? Does it have to be an exact thing, or is there a similar option that maybe is easier, and close at hand?

*   *   *

Anthony’s still in his clothes from work but I changed into hoodie + penguin bottoms shortly after dinner. Peter, our new bartender, calls “Happy Pajama Night!” as we open the door. My sister will show up soon, straight from class. Beth might be here later in her bathrobe and slippers, because Beth doesn’t do things by halves. We long for the reappearance of Bill’s robot pajamas, but wardrobe doesn’t matter. It matters that we’ve made it here, again, to enjoy the blessing that is friends.

Without my asking, Peter brings a Pajama Night drink invented just for me—the Pink Margot II. I am in a bar in my pajamas and many of the people know my name. I don’t have any idea what’s in this drink, but I know it is both bitter and sweet, which works.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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By Tracy Lynch

fall2011_lynchThere’s a word in our household that is used rather often. I wouldn’t have thought much of this word even a few weeks ago, but for some reason, its presence has buzzed around my ear lately like a fly-by gnat. Not annoying, but just often enough to get my attention.

The word? “Inappropriate.”

Our family unit has used the word for many moons to describe shorts that are too short, dogs doing their business, the phrase “Shut up,” and the kind of dancing performed by the younger, more-Beyoncé-like daughter. My daughters’ friends giggle it from the backseat of the minivan; my husband utters it when one of his girls pretends to wear half-shirts; I whisper it when one of the girls forgets her manners and comments on the girth of the man in line at the grocery store. It’s a one-size-fits-all term.

When my daughters used this word at a younger age, it was endearing and adorable. The word stumbled out of their mouths whenever something simply wasn’t proper or right according to their itty-bitty worldviews. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a difference—a shift in usage—and that’s the buzzing in my ear. Now that the girls are ten and twelve, no longer does That’s inappropriate refer to something forbidden. Its current translation is now something along the lines of I know that’s wrong or feels weird to me, but I don’t know why and I don’t think I want to know. Or maybe I do. Why are the grownups laughing? What’s going on with my understanding of the world around me?!

My response has shifted, too, moving from adoring to slightly unsettled. The weight of the word seems heavier as their definitions of “inappropriate” evolve from childish simplicity to adolescent curiosity. A few years ago, my older daughter giggled with glee as our new puppy “hugged” her leg “over and over and over.” “He must really love me!” she laughed breathlessly. Fast forward to the present, and the same daughter, now awkward in her own beautiful body and entering seventh grade, stops suddenly one morning to chastise the same dog (who is now also old enough to know better): “Fergus! Bad boy! That’s inappropriate!”

A line has been drawn: the line of understanding. True, it’s a thick line, a foggy patch in the cognitive landscape, but it’s there.  My daughter, thanks to her growing brain, “family life” courses in health class, and television we probably shouldn’t let her watch, knows now that something is just not right. But she also knows enough to know that she has no idea what that is. Something that was once hilarious is now taboo. My daughters may not know why, but they are on the verge of knowing why. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that makes me a little sad.

Once I became aware of this shift, I found myself listening more intently for the word “inappropriate,” swatting at its buzzing with my own attempts at understanding. Finally, I’ve come to this: “That’s inappropriate” is an off switch. It’s a way to stop the conversation, the image on the screen, the dog humping your leg … and thereby stop yourself from thinking too much about something that just doesn’t feel right. If we label something as inappropriate, we stop ourselves from walking through the thick, foggy patch, through the unpleasantness and toward understanding. “That’s inappropriate” keeps us safe. It keeps us comfortable.

For my daughters, and for kids of all ages, that’s okay. That’s called learning your own boundaries. We give children permission to ease themselves into what is and is not appropriate because they are, after all, kids. They are preparing to travel through the foggy patch. Sometimes what growing kids want to label “inappropriate” really are just parts of growing up, like buying training bras, discussing armpit hair and how to work a razor, or talking with your mother about a boy you like in your math class. This kind of understanding can be uncomfortable, but if all goes well, my daughters will emerge on the other side with understanding as their souvenir. Why do we, as actual grown-ups, use the same off switch, “That’s inappropriate,” for any number of situations and in any number of conversations? What are we so afraid of?  For some (like me), political discussions are often inappropriate. So are religious ones. Reflecting on it, I may know why: I get too nervous discussing a point about which I’m not well versed for fear of being called out. Applying the off-switch word—inappropriate—can stop a conversation before it even begins. Of course, perhaps I could benefit from the understanding that broaching these so-called inappropriate topics could bring. Probably. Maybe. After all, turning off conversations has the potential to make us miss out on pretty significant growing up ourselves. If the adults of this world would strive to constantly re-evaluate what we consider inappropriate, we could charge, head-first, right through those foggy patches and toward understanding. Or casually stroll. What’s inappropriate to some is, after all, inspiring to others.

Take the work of David Jay, for example. Jay, a photographer who is slowly gaining respect and world recognition for his The SCAR Project, photographs of women who are on the other side of breast cancer and have the scars to prove it.

I first stumbled on Jay’s photographs on Facebook. They were going viral, and the link was passed around to tens of thousands of members within a matter of weeks. SCAR stands for “Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.” The photographs are, at their very basest level, real. It’s difficult to express the effect his photographs had on me, not because I’m quiet about the emotions they brought (and continue to bring) to the surface, but because, for a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what those emotions were or even how to describe them. Here was a man who was putting to print the most secret, private part of me. A part of me that still felt a little too new to share.

Two years ago, on June 12, 2009, I had a bilateral mastectomy to begin my seven-month treatment of Stage III breast cancer. Walking around without breasts has become only a part of who I am, but it’s always a reminder of what I’ve been through: my own absolute reality. I may not know one woman in the series, but everything about them, their bodies, their eyes, reflected me. Reflected what was left of my cancer. Jay’s photographs tore off the clothes I had been wearing to cover my scars and invited others to click “like” at what they saw. To share these photographs with people, as I felt compelled to do, was in a sense to show them myself naked. My family and friends could now see, on the chests of these women, what breast cancer had done to my body and, through their eyes, to my spirit. SCAR is what happens after the chemo, the surgeries, the hair loss. People who view the works have the chance to be informed.

Or to be confused. Or surprised. Or, even, afraid.

After my surgery and subsequent healing, my own daughters were no longer comfortable being with me when I undressed. A nudist by nature, I was profoundly altered by their response to my naked body. Nights spent putting our PJs on together were no more. Instead, if they saw it was time for me to change, they practically ran to their room, often shutting my door behind them lest I forget to do so myself. They were little and could not be casual about their aversion. My younger daughter, nestling with me in my chair one night, once I was healed enough to snuggle, rested her head on my chest and told me she missed my breasts, that I was too boney and not comfy anymore. The same daughter, with her trademark full-disclosure policy, instructed me once to change clothes in our hotel room bathroom, alone, away from them. She waved her hand in my chest’s general direction and explained, “That’s just creepy.”

This was almost a year after my surgery. Time and again, I was crushed by my well-meaning and brutally honest girls. I was less of a woman. I was a mystery. And, the most difficult pill to swallow, I scared them. My body was, to my daughters, inappropriate.

*   *   *

What my girls couldn’t handle in the flesh, many adults were uncomfortable with even just on paper. Jay’s photos, I learned, were deemed to be too real, too honest, and to show too much. There are nipples. There are lack-of-nipples. There are the curves of a woman’s shape. There are the glaring absences where a woman’s shape should be.

This winter, I worked on a writing project about SCAR and I had a chance to discuss this with Jay himself. He told me that only online publications ever included images of his work. Not one print outlet had ever shown a photograph. None would. One Italian journalist told me that her editor would not include his images in their publication because “he says the images are too much strong, that he makes feel bad.”

The editor’s statement, even in its broken English, says a great deal about what we, as grownups, see as inappropriate in the world. Why are the images so jarring? Are they too painful? Is the “absolute reality” a combination of nudity and illness (or the aftermath of illness) that causes a deep confusion—or simply hurts too much? Is it pushing us too far, too fast toward what we don’t understand?

For kids, facing the inappropriate is scary because they’re learning something that they didn’t know before. Is it the same for adults? Was the Italian editor—merely one of dozens made uncomfortable by the prospect of printing the photos—also afraid of that foggy area, the one that would allow him to cross to the other side, to understanding? Did he turn the switch off? I believe he did. And I believe that he and dozens and dozens of other print journalists missed out in the process. Unfortunately, so did their readers.

One evening in November 2010, a few months after I discovered Jay’s photographs, I was re-examining his extensive collection online. One by one, I clicked through the pictures, sucked into their honesty, until I slowly became aware that someone was looking over my shoulder. It was my younger daughter.

“What are you doing, Mama?” she asked, quietly.

“Looking at these amazing photographs.” Long silence. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” she said softly, and I continued on. Eventually, we reached a photograph of a beautiful woman, arms stretched high over her head, that revealed penetrating eyes and double-mastectomy scars.

“That looks like you!” my little girl practically gasped. I agreed, and we sat there in silence until my other daughter slowly came over, timidly, ready to see, too. They were safe there with me, computer screen in my lap, and they saw something new in that woman who looked like their mother.

A few days later, getting in my comfy clothes for the night, I gave my usual precaution to my little girl: “I’m getting ready to change, honey.” Our unspoken agreement had, over time, become Yes, it’s okay for you to leave now.

“That’s okay, Mama. I don’t need to go.” So she stayed. And we talked, and we giggled. One night soon after, my older daughter, typically more timid, joined us.

Neither of my girls has looked away since. I can try on clothes in cramped dressing rooms with them by my side again. They are comfortable whispering to me when my shirt is askew and showing a bit too much of my scars. I have been given the gift of time back with them.

Two years later, and we’ve turned the switch to on.

Author’s Note: My husband and I were overwhelmed by the love that came our way during my breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. We used to talk about how we could actually feel it. I continue to be grateful for it to this day, and whenever I need to slow down, relax, or remind myself what I’m on this planet for, I just have to remember all those gifts, actual and emotional, from those who love us. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that a stranger gave me the biggest gift of all. David Jay’s work changed how I viewed myself, absolutely; he’s gotten that kind of moving feedback from women all over the world and is still humbled and surprised by it. What I don’t write about in this piece is how much SCAR helped me to accept my body, to view it as more than just “appropriate.” Beautiful, even.

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

Partners for Life: Taking in the View with Our Children

Partners for Life: Taking in the View with Our Children

By Rachel Macy Stafford

0-2I wonder just how many times I’ve asked the question. Not that it is a bad thing—I think most of us have inquired. And more than likely, we were asked the age-old inquiry when we were children.

Perhaps you have heard it or said it a time or two …

What do you want to be when you grown up?

There’s a good chance I won’t be asking that question anymore. I’ve decided there is something even more valuable going on now in a child’s life that deserves reflection. You see, I gained a new perspective recently, and it just happens to be at the heart of grasping what really matters in life.

When I read the following life-changing words, I knew immediately this innovative viewpoint was a gift. Little did I know it would change the way I look at my children … the way I talk to them … the way I listen to them.

“When we adults think of children, there is a simple truth which we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life, childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live – a child is living. The child is constantly confronted with the nagging question, ‘What are you going to be?’ Courageous would be the youngster who, looking the adult squarely in the face, would say, ‘I’m not going to be anything; I already am.'”Professor T. Ripaldi

For days, I was preoccupied by these words. They cycled through my mind like an old-fashioned film reel. I knew Professor Ripaldi’s perspective was important—critical even—but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to apply his wisdom to my life.

Leave it to my children to show me.

My two children and I were crossing a rustic bridge—the same narrow bridge we cross virtually every day—when my younger daughter called out her usual command.

“Look at the view!”

I would estimate that day was at least the 100th time she has said those words since the bridge reopened one year ago after major repairs. But the way she said it that day, like every day, would cause you to believe she had never seen this particular sight. Her voice was etched in excitement as she pointed to the pristine lake, the glorious sunset, and wispy clouds.

As always, I glanced out the window per her request.

“Oh wow! It is beautiful,” I exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm. But I knew I wasn’t really seeing it—not the way she was seeing it. Because the truth is, I can’t possibly see what she sees—not from behind the wheel of a car. But on this particular day, I wanted to see what she sees; I needed to see what she sees.

As I searched for a place to pull over, I quickly spotted an old utility road. There was just enough room for me to park my vehicle at the gated entrance of the gravel path. I had not even put the car in park when confusion erupted from the backseat.

“Did we run out of gas? Did we hit a deer? ” inquired my worrisome first-born.

“Are we going fishing?” asked my optimistic second-born.

I simply said, “I want to look at the view.”

Surprisingly, the kids didn’t question what on earth possessed their mother to act on this unusual impulse. With a shrug of the shoulders, they opened the car doors and indicated they were game for Mom’s strange mission.

We slowly trudged through the wooded terrain so we could get to the water’s edge. Once there, the girls each raised a hand to shield their eyes from the rays of the setting sun. As my children surveyed the vast body of water in complete silence, that is when I saw it.

The View.

It was indeed remarkable. It was as if every miraculous detail was emphasized in a way I had never quite seen before.

But I am not talking about the crystal-clear lake against the backdrop of a brilliant orange sky.

I am talking about my children.

The setting sun, acting as a magnifying glass, revealed every miraculous ingredient of their very being. Their talents, fears, insights, quirks, insecurities, hopes, ambitions, and God-given gifts all beautifully exposed beneath nature’s warm light.

And the revelation that came to me in that moment nearly brought me to my knees.

She says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

But she already is.

A teacher of sight words and letter formation to small kindergarteners who come to her summer school,

A teacher of compassion to a child in Africa named Pricilla who receives her thoughtful letters, pictures, and prayers …

A teacher of parking lot safety, friendship-bracelet creation, and underwater handstands to an adoring little sister …

She is not preparing to live … she is living.  

She is not preparing to become … she already is.

She wants to be a musician when she grows up.

But she already is.

Playing music of joy by offering a smile that brightens her whole face and the hearts of those who receive it …

Playing music of serenity by taking her own sweet time despite the pressures to hurry through life  …

Playing music of kindness by loving four-legged creatures, her baby nephews, and those who are left out.

She is not preparing to live … she is a human being living her life. 

She is not preparing to become … she already is.

In mere days of reading Ripaldi’s words, I have felt a slow release … a further letting go on this Hands Free journey I am on. I need not know it all. I need not control or dictate. Instead, I am open to the wisdom and insights of my children in this amazing process of living.

As my oldest daughter writes her student council speech, I sit next to her but I refrain from making an outline, correcting misspellings, and providing my ideas.  Instead I watch as she articulately describes the strengths she possesses that would make her a good class leader.

And I listen because she knows … she knows.

As my youngest child looks at me with tearful eyes awkwardly holding her new guitar and says, “I don’t think I am quite ready move up to guitar. I want to stick with my ukulele.” I do not argue. Instead I retrieve her ukulele and watch her tears evaporate as she holds the familiar instrument up to her chest and strums the music of her heart.

And I listen. Because she knows … she knows.

As my daughters and their two friends request loud dance music at 7:20 in the morning as we carpool to school, I grant their request. I look in the rearview mirror and marvel at their joy—singing with wide smiles and laughing at each other’s silly dance moves.

And I listen. And I observe. And I even join in the chorus. Because they know. They know.

Our children know a little something about this process called ‘living’ … perhaps more than adults do at times.

Thank you Professor Ripaldi. I’ve decided to take your advice. I will be discussing the trip with my children—after all, life is her journey, too.

And in that act of discussing, observing, and absorbing, I might just be blessed with the opportunity to enrich my own life … to expand my own heart … to grasp more moments that matter.

To regard my children as partners in the process of living means more chances to stop and admire the view.

Read more by Rachel Macy Stafford at and on Facebook Rachel’s book, Hands Free Mama, is an inspirational guide to transforming a distracted life into one of connection and will be available in January from Zondervan publishers. 

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.


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)

Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Nutshell logoIt’s October and you know what that means? It means it’s time to sit down and chat with your children about vulvas and penises and how they work! Yes, October is Let’s Talk Month, a national public health education campaign coordinated by Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth is an organization that focuses solely on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in the United States and in developing countries around the world.

According to a 2012 study by Planned Parenthood, most parents of teens are talking to their kids about sex. Nearly 90% of us have had at least one sex talk with our kids. That’s pretty darn good. Unfortunately, while we’re comfortable talking to our teens, the same research says that less than 18% of them are comfortable talking to us.

So who are they talking to? Research doesn’t say but likely they’re talking to each other, which means the information they’re getting might not be all that good.

You can help your teen get solid information and support by finding trusted mentors you can count on to share your family values and letting your child know that this person will respect their confidentiality and that you’ll respect it, too. This could be a relative or a family friend, a teacher or a coach. I’ve designated my kids’ best friends’ parents, who are people I can trust to give good advice and who have already earned my children’s trust.

There are some other challenges for us, too. While parents are discussing relationships and telling their teens to put the brakes on before heavy petting gets to third base, only about a third of us are also talking to our kids about actual sex, like how to do it safely or how to talk about sexuality with a partner. The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health, found that nearly two-thirds of our teens have had sex by the time they’re 18. Most kids lose their virginity at around 17 (that goes for both boys and girls), which is longer than our generation waited and they’re better about using birth control than we were, too.

But our kids are exposed to way more media sex than we ever were. According to a study published in 2008 in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, 93% of boys and 62% of girls under the age of 18 have seen online porn, which means we need to be talking about it. It’s not enough to tell our kids to shield their eyes; they’re going to see it and they’re going to need to know that it’s not a realistic depiction of sex.

Parents can point kids to, a terrific web site with heavy (and explicit) questions from teens and smart, safe answers. Scarleteen addresses the straight community and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning community

(Note: Scarleteen is a sex-positive site, which means that families who are more inclined to encourage celibacy might not find it appropriate for their values.) With articles like “Porn: How Much (Or How Little) Does it Influence Your Sexuality?” and “Looking, Lusting and Learning: A Straightforward Look at Pornography” teens can start thinking critically and making their own informed decisions about the media that surrounds them.

If you don’t quite feel ready to hand your teen the link to Scarleteen or you’re parenting younger children, you might want to check the site out just to get an idea of what is worrying adolescents today. It might help you start thinking about how you’ll broach the heavier topics and heck, you might even learn something new.

You can also look to the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ for help with sex education. Their “Our Whole Lives Lifespan Sexuality Education Curricula” starts with classes for kindergarteners and continues on into adulthood. A secular program, the Whole Lives curricula was developed in accordance with the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, produced by a task force made up of experts in adolescent development, health care and education from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The curricula values are: Self Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity. Participants learn about human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health and society & culture and are encouraged to examine their own values so that they can make their own good decisions.

For a related piece, read Brain Child’s Conversation Starters by Catherine Buni

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.

Is Grandma Online?

Is Grandma Online?

By Alexis Wolff

431611_858550585584_156766502_nGrowing up across the world from his “village” of loved ones, my toddler is developing many important relationships virtually.

*    *    *

It was 3 a.m. and my cranky two-year-old son still wasn’t asleep. I’d finally brought him into my bed and started an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on my laptop, but not even this usually foolproof last resort did the trick. Neither able to calm my son’s crying nor step away for a much needed break from it, I was beat.

A break wasn’t possible because for the past five months I had been a single parent, geographically anyway. Both Foreign Service Officers, I was finishing up an assignment in West Africa, while my husband had headed back to Washington, DC early to start an assignment of his own. We worried at first that this living arrangement might negatively affect our son, but as far as we could tell we were the only ones suffering. I was perpetually exhausted. My husband was perpetually lonely. But our son, Flynn, seemed to be enjoying his days of beachside play dates as much as ever.

At least that’s what I thought until this particular sleepless night.

After hours of crying Flynn finally started mumbling that he wanted to “talk Daddy.” It was heartbreaking to realize longing might be what was keeping him up, but at least now there was something I could do. Cue the Skype connection noise, and voila, there was my husband, lying in bed on the other side of the world.

“Daddy!” Flynn exclaimed, now wearing a shy grin. He snuggled up under my arm and requested “Row Row Row” followed by “Twinkle Twinkle.” My husband sang, and before long Flynn’s tears were dry and his eyes were closed.

We had moved to West Africa when Flynn was just 11 weeks old, and Skype had been a big part of our lives there from the beginning. His grandparents back in Illinois and Ohio would watch him sleep in his bouncer as we told them about his latest squeaks or half smiles. These early Skype dates were for them, and probably for us, but of course they had no value for Flynn.

When Flynn was six months old, we pointed the laptop to the ground so the grandparents could watch him learn to crawl. By a year we were chasing him around the house and angling the computer in awkward and ever-changing positions trying our best to keep the little guy in his grandparents’ view.  Sometimes he would acknowledge the face on the computer screen with a quick wave or air kiss. But he would do the same to Mickey Mouse and other characters on TV, so we weren’t sure whether he had any idea that these faces on the computer screen belonged to the same people who had tickled and hugged him during a recent visit stateside.

By the time Flynn was about one and a half, though, his interaction with those faces on the computer screen had changed entirely. Suddenly he was giving Grandma high fives, honking Grandpa’s nose, handing his godparents his favorite toys, and even bringing me the laptop and requesting to talk to specific people. This was his portal to those he loved and who loved him most, and he clearly knew it.

To be honest, I was surprised. I’m no expert in early childhood development, but I didn’t expect Skype dates to have any value to my son at such a young age. Maybe I should have known better. After all, his command of technology was more sophisticated than I would have expected from early on.

Despite several full shelves of books, traditional bedtime stories weren’t yet a part of our nightly routine. When Flynn was very little we realized he was best calmed by looking at photos or videos on our iPhones as we told stories for him about when, where, and why they were taken. Before long he was holding the phone himself and swiping his finger across the touchscreen to navigate to one of his favorites.

Then we started to find him perched over the framed photos of friends and family scattered throughout the house, growing frustrated when a swipe of the finger didn’t result in a new image. Judging by the comments I received when I shared this anecdote on Facebook, such a penchant for technology must be pretty standard of 21st century toddlers.

It’s not just ease with technology that’s common of today’s toddlers, but distance from many of their family members and closest friends.

I spent most of my childhood living a few blocks from my grandparents, and a few hours by car from every other relative I knew. We gathered for all holidays and birthdays, and often met at centrally located Holiday Inns for weekend rendezvous of swimming and arcade games just because we could.

Flynn would not have the same experience.

My husband and I think our work overseas is important and see a lot of advantages to an international upbringing for our son, but one obvious disadvantage is the distance. He won’t ever ride his bike to his cousin’s house or earn a crisp $10 bill for mowing Grandma and Grandpa’s lawn. But then, who these days really will?

I think about other friends of mine. Relationships and ambitions have taken virtually all of them to states and countries far from where their own childhoods were spent. There are a few exceptions, sure, but in my unscientific sample at least, the “villages” that are helping raise our children span greater physical distances than ever before.

Sometimes I wonder if Flynn’s generation will serve as a giant social experiment that explores the limits of virtual connection as part of healthy interpersonal relationships. Whereas technology and its capacity for connection to others gradually worked its way into my daily life, it’s been central to his from the day he was born, and in fact even before.

Flynn exists in the first place thanks to such technology: his dad and I met online. Because of various holidays and scheduling conflicts, we grew fond of each other through a month’s worth of emails before we finally found the time for a first date. By then, though we hadn’t even met in person, we were both already pretty sure where the relationship was headed.

I’m not going to claim that virtual interactions are quite the same as face-to-face ones. If they were, then my husband and I would never have needed to move our relationship beyond emails. If they were, I wouldn’t be lying in bed that night after Flynn wanted so badly to “talk Daddy,” awake myself because I happened to miss his dad too. If they were, Flynn wouldn’t have woken up that night after two hours of sound sleep, moaning and crying like before. He wouldn’t have made a new request of me, one quite a bit harder to satisfy than his first.

“Go airplane, see Daddy?” he asked.

One of the most important realizations many of my fellow generation Xers and I have made over time about social media is that while it’s a wonderful complement to face-to-face interaction, at some point you do need the real thing. I suspect this is what my son and his cohorts will ultimately come to find too. Or maybe they’ll grow up just knowing it all along, like they intuitively know how to operate an iPhone. After all, it’s a lesson that my two-year-old son—who liked Skyping with his dad but finally decided he wanted to see him too—already seemed to fully understand.

Unfortunately I couldn’t put Flynn on an airplane to see his dad that night he asked, but the next day I did click the green video call button to summon my husband back onto Skype. He explained to Flynn that he missed him, he loved him, and that he would see him very soon.

“Flynn, when you get here, do you want to go with Daddy on a train?” my husband asked.

Our transportation loving toddler lit up at the idea. “Go airplane?” he asked, turning to me.

“See Daddy? Go choo choo train?”

“Soon,” I told him.

In just two more weeks our family would be reunited in Washington, D.C., where we would live for a year before moving together to another posting abroad. Leaving behind our careers and moving to one of our hometowns just wasn’t realistic for us, but we did make sure to get ourselves onward assignments somewhere that would allow us to visit those faces on the computer screen more easily and more often than we had been able to from West Africa. And one of those faces, Grandma, would be moving abroad with us.

Because face-to-face interaction matters.

But virtual interaction matters too.

I’m sure it matters, because when Flynn spotted his dad in the airport’s arrivals hall two weeks after that sleepless night, it was not the reunion of loved ones reunited after five long months of separation. Instead, Flynn gave his dad a quick hug and then continued their conversation right where it had left off.

“Daddy! Hi!” he said, grabbing my husband’s hand and heading toward the door.

“Go choo choo train?”

Alexis Wolff is currently on maternity leave from her job as a Foreign Service Officer and living with her family in Falls Church, Virginia. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Columbia University, and has previously been published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and in the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others.

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.

Wanting More Than Enough

Wanting More Than Enough

By Kristina Wright

0-2“You shouldn’t have children,” my mother said. “You’re too selfish.”

That word echoes down the timeline of my life. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

I was forty-two when I had my first son, forty-four when I had my second son. I have felt lucky. Lucky. Or crazy, depending on who I’m talking to. My mother, if she were alive, would say I was selfish. Selfish for having them, selfish for waiting until I was in my forties to have them, selfish for feeling lucky instead of … guilty, I guess.

Selfish. Maybe I am. As I look at their faces for signs of me, of my mother, wondering if it’s a good thing or a bad thing when I see some shadow of myself in them, I feel selfish.

*   *   *

I don’t know how to be a good mother. I have no role models. My maternal grandmother died when I was two, I never knew my birth father or his mother and my stepfather’s mother was distant and cold. My mother was not a good mother. She was a martyr to the cause of motherhood. “Look what I gave up for you!” she said when I didn’t do what she wanted, when I wasn’t enough like her. “I gave up my life for you!” Is that what good motherhood is? Sacrificing one’s self to the cause? Because if it is, I’m destined to be a bad mother.

*   *   *

I love my children, I do. They are my sweet, beautiful, funny, playful boys. I love them. But motherhood is not my calling. I have known that my whole life, even into my late thirties when I was told it was “now or never,” even after the miscarriages (three over fifteen years), even when I turned forty.

Conception came easy for me. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-I’m-pregnant easy. Eight or nine weeks later, there was blood. Always blood. I dreamed about babies before I had my own. Now I don’t dream at all. I’m too tired.

 *   *   *

Pregnant again after a miscarriage eight months prior, my doctor prescribed a progesterone supplement. Carrying to term then became as easy as conception. My first son Patrick was born after three miscarriages. One year and one week after his birth, the very first time I had unprotected sex, my second baby was conceived. I thought I would surely miscarry. But no. With progesterone prescribed again, Lucas was born twenty-one months after his brother.

This double success made the temptation to try for a third, yes at my age, almost overwhelming. I could hear my mother in my head. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Two babies in two years, two Cesarean sections to deliver those large, healthy boys. My body had done an amazing job, but two was enough. Enough.

 *   *   *

“Enough!” I’m screaming in frustration. No, anger. Rage. Two kids testing my limits, one not-quite-two, the other a defiant three-and-a-half year old. Where did he learn that, the defiance? He’s not in daycare. He’s usually with me, except for a few precious hours a day when I escape—I mean leave—to write and edit and reclaim my sanity and self. I entrust my boys to a beautiful young woman who could easily be mistaken for their mother. Katherine is less than half my age. I could be her mother. Their grandmother.

“Selfish,” my mother hisses in the cold dark part of my brain. The part that remembers how she gave up her youth to marry the guy she met while working in a bar, the one who was willing to take on the parenting of her bastard baby by a married man. Was she selfish, to be out dating again before I was even able to walk? Was she selfish to keep me when she realized the man she was with had a wife and maybe even other children? Roe vs. Wade hadn’t come to pass yet. It was the late sixties and the options were adoption, illegal abortion or keep the bastard. She kept me. Was that selfish?

*   *   *

All I ever knew about my biological father was that when I was stubborn or did something my mother didn’t want me to do, I was, “just like him.” I took it as a compliment. I was as different from my mother as any person could be. I imagined him to be wealthy, strong, powerful, kind, loving. He would show up and want to take me home with him, my father who may or may not have known I existed (the story changed over the years). I wasn’t told his name, but I knew it must be beautiful and exotic and go perfectly with Kristina in a way my mother’s maiden name and stepfather’s name didn’t.

*   *   *

I didn’t find out my biological father’s name until after my mother’s death in 2007 when an aunt gave me some information about him. His name isn’t beautiful or exotic and I still prefer my married to name to the other three possibilities. So much for that fantasy.

*   *   *

“Enough!” I’m yelling at my children, my pulse pounding, my heart aching. I sound like her. I feel like her. I have become her. I can’t stand it. I am selfish, selfish, selfish, but not in the way she accused me of being. I’m selfish for wanting my children to be better than me. Better than her.

*   *   *

My husband is going out of town. Jay is a lieutenant commander in the Navy. After twenty-three years of marriage, only four of them with children, I’ve been through more three month and six month deployments than I can remember. But he’s never been gone more than a few days since we had our second son. And now he’ll be gone for two weeks. I feel my heart racing like a rabbit cornered by a dog. How will I manage? How?

It’s not the housework or sleeping alone that bothers me. It’s not the noises in the night that wake me. It’s not even the days when I have our sweet babysitter, whom I trust completely and the boys adore. It’s the weekend, stretching out before me. Solitary parenting with no break, no buffer, no way to escape when enough is enough.

*   *   *

Jay was gone for eight months when our first son was born—the entire third trimester and the first five months of Patrick’s life. He was home for eighteen days after the birth, and then I was alone again with a newborn—me, who had never even changed a diaper before. I had to do it all, even things my doctor told me I shouldn’t do. At less than three weeks post-partum, I shoveled snow off our deck so our old dog could get outside to relieve himself. My Cesarean incision burned for days afterward, but I did it.

I have done other things alone. Managed. Survived. I went through miscarriages and emergency room visits and prenatal appointments and endless tests because of my advanced maternal age. I’ve experienced job changes, family conflicts, the ebb and flow of new and old friendships, a dog’s surgery, the death of two cats and the news of my estranged mother’s death—all alone. I even went through a hurricane by myself. I’ve dealt with all sorts of things alone, confident in my ability to do anything. Anything. And now I’m terrified and depressed over spending time alone with my children with no time at all for myself.

Selfish, selfish, selfish. It echoes from beyond the grave. I am selfish for not finding infinite joy in every minute spent with my boys. I am selfish for not relishing the time I have them to myself, the long summer days and nights, just the three of us. I should be happy! I should be excited!

Enough, I think. Enough.

*   *   *

I can’t recall many days in my childhood when my mother seemed genuinely happy. Nothing was ever enough, nothing was ever just right. I wasn’t loving enough, I wasn’t appreciative enough. I wasn’t enough. And yet, I have known many happy days in my adulthood. Yes, even since I had children. Yes, even now when I am alone with them. I just need some time to myself. Some solitude. Something that is mine and mine alone. My self.

*   *   *

I redecorated our bedroom when I was pregnant with my first son. Rather than buying new nursery furniture, we bought a new bedroom suite for ourselves for the first time in fifteen years and had the old furniture refinished for the baby’s room. Selfish, my mother would have said. But Patrick didn’t know the difference and looking around my new bedroom (“It looks like an adult’s bedroom now,” Jay said), I declared it my sanctuary. Home. Haven. Heaven. Mine.

 *   *   *

I just rolled over on a Matchbox car. The sharp metal digs into my hipbone. I am in hell. They bring their toys to my room, their stuffed animals, their little boy laughs and cuddles. It’s a place between the heaven of solitude and the hell of exhaustion and caretaking. It is home. I am comfortable here now. Almost always.

*   *   *

The days pass in a blur, some better than others. We get through the first weekend and Jay comes home in the middle of the second weekend. It wasn’t so bad, not really. Not at all. Really. They were good boys, I was as good a mother as I will ever be. Jay comes home and they are excited to see him, but not overly so. Not as if he has been gone for two weeks or as if I’d done such a horrible job they couldn’t bear one more minute with me. In fact, when I leave to get coffee at Starbucks, they cry. They’re young, they only know what’s in front of them. I try to put my best face forward. For them. For myself. Fake it until you make it, right? I’m faking being a good mother. Maybe I’ll grow into it.

*   *   *

My mother was not the comforting, coddling sort of mother. She believed in tough love. “If you are too sick to come to the table,” she would say, “then you’re too sick to eat.” No chicken noodle soup in bed for me. It made me self-reliant. I can appreciate her tactics now, though I’m not sure it was a tactic. A bitterness, perhaps. Of sharing her parents’ love with eleven other children, of sharing everything she ever owned with someone else. Of never having anything that was hers and hers alone—until she had me and erased my paternity from my birth certificate and my life. She always seemed hungry for something she couldn’t name. I know that feeling. I inherited it, I think. But my hunger is not for more children or more security or more love. It’s a hunger for life itself. More, always more.

*   *   *

The anticipation is worse than the reality. The intangible fear of losing one’s self is greater than the slow slipping away as hours once spent in self-absorption are now given over to thoughts of breakfast, lunch, nap, dinner, bath, stories, bedtime. In between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “You Are My Sunshine,” I pause to think, “This is my life. This is it. Right here, right now. Forty-six years old, two kids, married for half of my life. This is my life.”

It’s a good life. It’s enough, and yet it’s never enough. I want more of this life, and the life I had before and the life I can only imagine. I want it all. For me. For my boys. For my mother, who never had the chance. Is that selfish?

Yeah, it probably is.

Kristina Wright ( is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press. 

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Choosing Gloria

Choosing Gloria

By Claire DeBerg

Art Choosing Gloria 1-1I have heard it called liquid gold. I would call it liquid love. Or perhaps liquid life. Life juice, maybe. Holy juice? Juice of the Divine? Certainly the small yellow swirl tipping out of the bottle was worth more to me than a rare metal. That liquid, now flowing in a water treatment plant somewhere in the middle of Iowa, was my first expressed breast milk.

The nurse, her rough hands dry from over-washing, had come slowly to my hospital bedside—suspect of me, a new, able mother placing her baby for adoption. She picked up the bottle from my side table, pretended to hold it to the light of the window (though it was an overcast midmorning) and frowned. She continued her judgment of my situation by theatrically holding the bottle high above the sink and pouring down my achingly expressed milk, giving the bottle a one-two tap to make sure it was empty. I physically shook as she spoke the next words to me without catching my disbelieving eyes: “That wasn’t enough.”

It wasn’t enough? It wasn’t enough that I would, in the next day, be giving my child, a child I carried and cared for, to other people to raise? The nurses had been warned about my choice—our hospital room and situation was on high alert. Staff had been told to keep their comments on my child’s beauty and goodness, about the miracle of birth, at a minimum, if at all. Not only had I endured nine months of being a young, poor, single pregnant woman, but I was being set apart yet again. So why not let me give all I had—even if it seemed not enough? What would have been enough for this woman? What is enough for any of us?

My request for a breast pump to be immediately available after birth was questioned, but it arrived, and for 45 painful and strangely alien minutes I watched my red and scarred nipples being sucked and pulled by this machine on wheels standing at attention next to my bed. At the time I was confused about the lack of streaming milk, thinking I’d done such good work during my pregnancy that the milk would all but gush out. Instead, my breasts were weighted and taut. For all the suction and mechanical coaxing, only a few heavy yellow drops emerged and gathered at the base of the bottle. The two breasts together perhaps made a tablespoon of colostrum which I carefully closed up in the bottle, certain not to spill a drop.

I hadn’t been inundated with baby books while pregnant, knowing this new life was not part of my plan of marriage, home, babies, dog. So I wasn’t preparing for the ins and outs of what it would be like once the baby arrived and breathed on her own. The pregnancy side of birth I knew—it was the baby part I knew nothing about and invested little energy with those details, as my plan to finally be baby-free was what I looked forward to. The few pregnancy and birth items I checked out from my local small town library were passable, charting for me the stages of a fetus’s growth from conception. Like huge flipbooks, the pencil-drawn babies grew and grew and grew until the super gives her eviction notice. One item I clung to—my last loving act for my child before I said goodbye to her—was the importance of this first milk: colostrum.

Colostrum, the strange word, one I still think must be describing an Indian banjo, was a holy juice. This yellow, creamy milk is available for only the first few days of a baby’s life. The wonder of our bodies makes this then and only then until the “milk comes in,” and then the body changes again and gives a different sort of milk—basically whatever the child needs. So, with the nurse’s turn of her wrist, into the swirl of the sink went a dose of antibodies; a daily immunization; vital proteins that help babies pass that first dark, sticky, tar-like excrement; vitamins; calcium—and my heart.

I had found that there are breast milk collection centers where a woman can donate her precious and valuable breast milk. Milk banks. Perhaps Milk Investment Centers. Milk City. I called the nearest breast milk bank and explained my situation—I was due to give birth to a child whom I would place for adoption, could I please give my milk away, too? The desire to purge myself of all memory of being a heaving woman with child was overwhelming. I wanted to give my baby and my milk. So I acted and found the parents and found the bank. The woman I spoke with was kind, trained to speak with mothers in difficult situations since some donors to milk banks would be those women having lost a child to death. She gave me detailed instructions on sanitation and expressing and transporting the milk at certain temperatures. I asked twice to be sure that my milk would help a child live. The woman assured me that this life-giving substance, unlike anything else on earth, this creamy, light drink of nectar was like liquid gold. Premature babies, babies who’d lost their mothers, twins and triplets and multiples, all of these babies would get milk from this bank.

I had planned, though, to be with my baby two days before saying goodbye. I wanted to give her this warm part of me, my antibodies, my last protection before I placed her in the giving basket I had prepared. Bringing her tiny head to my chest made me ache. She rooted all over my gaudy pink and flowery hospital gown, desperate for my breasts. In the womb, my child had sucked so hard on her hands she had caused red, angry blisters to form, which turned into scabs and then open wounds as she continued to suck over the blisters. I was alarmed when at the last hard push she emerged milky and wet and bleeding from the hands. Her primitive impulse to suck was abundantly apparent.

How could this be happening, I wondered. Though now, as I write and revisit this moment, perhaps it isn’t as devastating as it then seemed. So some breast milk went down the drain. So what? It wasn’t like my baby was born with three arms or no earlobes. At the time, however, with the revolving door of my hospital room ushering in the social security secretary asking what this baby’s name would be or whether she should contact the adoptive parents, the hospital social worker who let me know she was available anytime if needed to discuss this most loving and difficult of decisions, my lawyer with updates on relinquishing my parental rights, the baby’s nurse telling me my baby wants to be held all the time in the nursery, my nurse explaining how she placed a baby when she was 16, the baby’s doctor handing me his card in case I changed my mind, my midwife crying with me as we talked through the labor, my family bringing me flowers and supporting my wishes, my church friends passing around the baby not sure what to say, food service, cleaning staff—with chaos in my environment, and all the pictures I kept taking to remember my child, with uncertainty in my head and longing in my heart for something different, I think it is okay that the pouring out of my first breast milk hit me especially hard.

Colostrum doesn’t last forever and no matter what I did, I wouldn’t get it back. The thoughtlessly wasted breast milk, the judgment of my supposed bad job of pumping—this is how I finally looked at my choice of adoption. Adoption is forever and I would sign on the dotted line, and wouldn’t get my baby back.

My focus on keeping this baby healthy was of utmost importance— though at times I was overtaxed with guilt and let tremors of grief wrack my body. I wanted, ultimately, for this child to be an impeccable gift to the new parents—a package so amazing and pure you’d want it for your own. If I were planning on being my baby’s mother, I would have brought her to the light of my breast as soon as I eased her out of me. But I knew the bond that could be formed; I knew the love line that would grow from watching my baby nurse at my breast. So, instead, after the bright arc of pain from contractions ceased with one gentle push, my midwife bundled my daughter, handed her to me, and I cuddled her on my chest. I wasn’t sweaty or wincing—just confused and floored with the insane and gorgeous idea of humans growing in other humans.

The months of waiting gave me time to prepare for saying goodbye in the healthiest way I knew how. Finding my baby’s parents was a task unlike any other. I felt the rush of consumerism and comparison-shopping and weighing risks and benefits. Folders of potential parents began piling into a luminous tower beside my computer. At first I meticulously read each profile, looked deep into their pictures, tried to get a sense of a family from eight scrapbooking pages. And then the skimming began since I’d grown cold to the idea of investing all my mind’s energy on who would best parent my child. i opted out of the family whose traditions centered on making over 500 cookies for every national holiday or birthday. I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about the extremely conservative religious family with two children of their own already. I felt terrible, of course. Here these people desperately wanted to love and raise a child and I desperately didn’t want the life I’d created, so it would seem any of the profiles were perfect. But I had high standards and wanted a family that fit my mold. Only two weeks before I gave birth did I find my baby’s family. I hadn’t known I would have a girl—the answer to the gender question was quietly slid and sealed in an envelope after an ultrasound.

While I pumped that first morning of being a birth mother, I called the eager and overjoyed family I’d chosen and said, “I gave birth to your daughter this morning, but I don’t know her name.” Sophia Grace was the name given to her. Sophia was angry. She was not interested in the bottles of formula offered to her and spit angry, staining liquid from her mouth. I caught her twice sucking her arm, drawing blood, but finding no colostrum. What Sophia doesn’t know and what I hadn’t shared with anyone until a year after I gave birth to her was that on the morning planned for the Giving Ceremony, the early morning, the 4:00 a.m. morning when darkness is hinting at lifting, I sat her down for a serious talk.

Sophia didn’t sit well, actually, so I propped her up with a pillow on my bed so she could face me. She slept through most of our conversation—a private conversation just between us. Twice Sophia winked open one of her slate-blue eyes and watched me crying and talking to her—her brow pensive. A nurse had come to check on us, wondering if I wanted a break from being awake (I hadn’t slept at all since I only had 48 hours with my baby). I told Sophia all I had needed to say, and then I got up and put the “Do not disturb” sign on my door and got busy setting up my tripod and camera. The morning light was perfect— golden, awash on the plain gray walls of my hospital room. I looked in the mirror for the first time since labor and brushed my hair, tried out a smile. Complications of the birth made standing longer than two minutes a dance with faintness, so I sat in the rocking chair I had positioned in the light and breathed. Once calm and sure of my choice, I picked up my baby and started the timer on my camera. There are less than 10 seconds before the shutter exposes the film and takes the shot, and in that short time I sat in the rocking chair with my daughter, renamed her Gloria, and gave her my breast.

Author’s Note: Choosing to be my daughter’s mama was a singular moment of my transformation into my new, powerful self. I wrote this soon after the experience, though I’ve kept this story close for 10 years. I was reminded of it when I gave birth to my son, Harold, at home last year and he nursed like an old pro at 7 minutes this side of the womb. As he nursed that first, deliciously thick colostrum, my grip on this essay loosened and here it is, offered now with open palms. Since Gloria and I first met those 10 years ago, we’ve been creating a beautiful, hilarious, good life as mother and daughter. While pregnant with Harold, I shared some of this story with her. We had tears during the sharing, but now she quips to me, “Mom, I’m so glad you kept me.” Agreed, agreed, agreed.

When Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing business or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, unschooling her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, or nursing her baby. She’s put over 3,200 miles on her legs after training for and running seven marathons but now she needs to pit some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel. She always adores her littles and her darling husband, Darren, and occasionally adores her hairy Airedale, Velvet.

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Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

By Lara Lillibridge

0-7I looked over my shoulder as I was getting in the shower and saw my naked back. I paused for a moment to really look and see what aging is doing to me. The mirror reflected back a younger version of my mother’s bottom.

My body now has that soft doughy consistency that made my mother so pillowy soft to hug. As I lose elasticity, everything is settling lower like a pair of slightly too big sweatpants that I could just shrug off and find my younger body underneath.

I have always thought that I was a prettier version of my mother. Relatives could always pick me out of a crowd as my mother’s daughter, even if we had never met before. When they told me I looked just like her, I always heard their unspoken phrase, “only prettier.”

That was supposed to be how it worked; every generation was an improvement on the previous; daughters were a shade prettier than then their mothers, a hair taller, their teeth improved by fluorinated water. I always felt bad for girls who had mothers who were far more beautiful than they were; it seemed a cruel trick of fate to not be able to live up to your mother’s beauty. I never worried about it myself, because I knew I was prettier, but when I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s body looking back at me, it occurred to be for the first time that I might be wrong.

It’s unsettling to realize something you have believed to be an absolute truth is wrong, but it is exciting too. I felt like I might be on the cusp of great knowledge, even if that knowledge was that I had lived my whole life as self-centered and arrogant. At least I could come to this revelation before it was too late, as my mother is still alive.

It’s hard to look at someone a generation older than you and appreciate how they looked when they were your age. Bad photography and worse fashion trends mask the natural beauty underneath. I can’t see the lines of my mother’s face in most of the old Polaroids and small three-and-a-half by five-inch snapshots. My mother has the same hourglass figure as I do, but a little more padded. When she was young she had thick straight black hair, which must have been striking and far better than my hair has ever been. It’s hard to sift through evidence of half-remembered photographs; I was always too focused on the once-stylish clothes that now seem atrocious, the cats-eye glasses. I can’t see who she used to be.

If I could see her now how she was then, in modern clothes with non-obtrusive spectacles, whom would I see? Might I see a version of myself more similar than not? When my mother was at my stage of life, she kept her hair short and wore the polyester pantsuits popular for businesswomen in the 1970’s. I can’t remember her wearing dresses more than once a year, and I never saw her with a different hairstyle other than the one she has now. My mother’s hair was salt and pepper almost all of my life, now it is all salt. Although she dyed for a year or two, mostly I think of her as black streaked with white. She always looked older than she was to me, but then anyone over 18 was middle aged in my book. A child can never see an adult as anything but old getting older.

My mother had a bad eye, a swollen red puffy eyelid for all of my childhood. How would she have looked without it? Would I have seen her as a great beauty? I never minded her eye—it had been like that for as long as I could remember. You just looked at the rest of her face and didn’t settle on that one area. It didn’t matter to me, but I know it mattered to her. I know it made her give up on beauty. What if she shaved her legs and had soft, shoulder length hair and wore cute boots? Who would she have been then? Who would I have been, growing up with a mother admired for her looks instead of her brains?

What if I had the mother I thought I wanted when I was a teenager? The kind of mother who cared about clothes and the right hairstyle and taught me how to apply eyeliner properly, instead of the mother I had, who entreated me not cover up my pretty face with shimmery blue eye shadow? Would I have been more popular, prettier, more confident? Or would I have scorned every beauty secret and ran away on my bicycle with unbrushed hair? What if my mother pushed me to sit properly on the sofa instead of reading for hours in the backyard tree, or bought me pretty dresses and yelled at me for getting dirty instead of letting me run barefoot through the grass and hunt frogs in the neighborhood creek? Am I only feminine and pretty because I was allowed to be otherwise, and chose this?

I found an unrecognizable picture of my mother from before I was born. I horde it like the white linen napkins that you only bring out for company; if I take it out too often, other people’s eyes will wear away the image, I fear, with their hungry devouring glares. It is a picture of my parents from before I was born, standing next to my father’s plane. My mother’s hair is dark and shiny, down to her waist. She is wearing contacts and smiling, her figure Monroe curvy in clothes that aren’t mortifying. She is more beautiful than I have ever felt I have been or could be. I don’t recognize her as my mother, but instead as some sort of clone or sister-cousin. Someone I almost know, if I half-close my eyes and picture her with bad hair and big plastic glasses, twenty extra pounds and dated clothing. It is the lurking secret mother I never knew I had, the one that looks like me, only prettier.

Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer. 

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My Girl

My Girl

By Gale Renee Walden

Flag artWhen my daughter Zella was two, she stuck a small American flag with a shiny gold point up through the palate of her mouth and into her nose.

It was a summer evening. We were home alone, in the basement. I was doing laundry; she was right next to me playing. And then suddenly she was screaming; there was a lot of blood coming out of her nostrils and mouth and that flag was hanging. Then the screaming stopped and there was a moment of silent and shocked surprise in which we both looked at each other, eyes wide—she, as it turned out, surprised at the outcome of what had been meant to impress me in the same way her eleven-year-old cousin had impressed her the day before, saying, “Look, no hands.” On my end, I was trying to put together what had happened. I’d always thought there were contexts in which the American flag could be dangerous, but my laundry room wasn’t one of them.

My daughter was wearing only diapers at the time, and I don’t remember which one of us removed the flag, but the next thing I remember was running with her out on the street. My instinct was to run to the calmest neighbor I had, a mother with two toddlers, and she didn’t let me down. She answered the door, took in the situation, and reappeared with a red washcloth, saying, “My mother told me when you have children, you need a supply of red washcloths.”

By the time we got to the emergency room, the blood had stopped and somehow I thought that might be the end of that. A young doctor came in with a flashlight, looked up in my daughter’s mouth and said, “Oh my.”

“I bet you see things like this all the time,” I said, seeking reassurance. Things swallowed and stuck into various openings; this is a part of childhood.

He whistled and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” and then, as if quoting from a Denis Johnson short story, “I’m not going to touch this. I’m calling the eye, ear, and nose specialist.”

When he returned he said, “She is scheduled for surgery at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. Take her home, and don’t let her drink anything.”

Before he left, he asked, “It was an American flag?”

Even in this, I thought, we are going to have nationality questions. Did he really think an American flag wouldn’t do that much damage to a child? Or did he expect her to be waving a Chinese flag?

My daughter is Chinese. I am not. This is something that surprises me over and over, even though it’s obviously a fact I know. Sometimes I look at her and I don’t notice anything other than her: she, presence, other. Sometimes I look at her and she looks like Mao. It’s one of her faces; she has a Mona Lisa face, a Buddy Hackett face, a Madonna face and the Mao face. I am always searching for things my daughter and I share—we don’t come close in hair or eye color—and it’s probably an outcome of this quest that I read my daughter’s Mao face as a physical similarity. I, too, have a malleable face, and one of my faces unfortunately resembles Richard Nixon. All children have a Buddy Hackett face, just like all babies, when they cry, sound a little like Neil Young, but this morphing into less-than-ideal political leaders, surely that is unique to our family.

At home that night, I yelled at the flag, which for some odd reasons wasn’t bloody. “I don’t want to see you ever again,” I said, and I went to throw it away and then remembered there was something about needing the National Guard and a whole ceremony in order to get rid of a flag and I ended up sticking it in some high far away cupboard.

“Ow,” Zella said in her sleep: “Ow. Ow. Ow.” The next morning the eye, ear, and nose specialist informed me that the only way he would be able to see the extent of the damage and what needed to be repaired was to put her under anesthesia and go in. He also informed me that the only possible side effect of the surgery was sudden death. “It’s a slight risk,” he said. “At her age, about one in a thousand.”

This didn’t seem like great odds to me. I could envision one thousand people, could envision the eenie, meenie, miney moe of chance.

“There are substantial risks if we don’t do the surgery, of brain infection, of lifelong sinus problems,” the surgeon said, “and we can’t wait. Scar tissue is already forming.”

I signed the consent forms.

My mother, a nurse, was in the waiting room with me. “This is why I got out of Peds,” she said.

“Boy did you make the right decision,” the surgeon said when he came out of the operating room to assure me she was waking up. “She pushed that thing in deep. But we have it stitched up now.”

When, the day after the flag incident, worried neighbors came to the door wondering what happened the night before, I tried to imagine what I must have looked like, running, mouth opened in a silent scream, carrying a half-naked bleeding child, and the image I got is an image I grew up with—of Vietnamese women running from war with their babies. What doesn’t fit in the image is not my daughter, but me with my blond hair.

Zella and I live in Urbana, Illinois, where many of the sidewalks and some of the streets are still made of brick, where globed lights shine out at night, and where huge trees that have survived tornadoes, ice storms, and disease drape themselves like a canopy over wide streets in summer.

Because Urbana is a Midwestern town and privacy is as essential as a front porch is in some neighborhoods, it’s possible to pass the same people year after year, on the street, or at the gas station, and ignore them in the same way you always do, while simultaneously noting the different hairdo, the slight aging of the faces. Sometimes without any formal acknowledgment strollers appear, sometimes double strollers, and you say, “Oh, you had a baby” or “Oh my gosh, twins!” to people you don’t even know, and they realize you knew something about them and now know something more about them.

All these rules of privacy change in the grocery store. I’ve seen people crying in the grocery store, people making out, people screaming at their children, and people getting arrested, things that aren’t usually visible on the street. It’s a type of theatre amidst rows of the mundane, of Whisk and Dawn and toilet paper.

The grocery store was also the place I first noted that the community at large was not going to automatically connect me to Zella. It was in the grocery store that I realized, like all parents who put their children in day care, that Zella had a life apart from me. I’d be wheeling her around in the grocery store, and in aisle two someone I’d never seen before would say, “Hi Zella,” and then a different someone would say, “Hi Zella,” in aisle four, while ignoring me. Zella never responded, just rode along in the little basket like she was in a parade.

As Zella began elementary school, both her secret life and my knowledge of it became more pronounced. “Did you see Zella interviewed on the five o’clock news?” my aunt once called to ask.

“Zella? Where was she? Why were they interviewing her?”

“She supports the troops,” my aunt informed me. “She was welcoming them home. She had on a USA headband that she made. It was very nice.”

This was the second time Zella had been interviewed on television without my knowledge. Before someone told me about the fine print in the camp and school documents we are always signing, giving them permission to use our children’s images, I started to get worried that no one was checking with me because she was a kid who didn’t seem like she had parents. Of course that’s not really it. Everybody with a second grader at that elementary was surprised to see her child on television. But someone told me once that adoptive children belong to the village that Hilary Clinton is always talking about, and, I have to say, when I saw Zella’s portrait on the front page of the newspaper while walking by the newsstand, I thought, well, maybe she’s the town kid.

I named my daughter Zella after my grandmother. She was not my biological grandmother, having married my widowed grandfather when she was forty. Never having had children herself and having stepchildren too old to parent, she took on the role with more ardor than my other grandmother. She made me call her Grandmother rather than Grandma, a title that fit her formal sense of order. “My girl,” she would call me, after we had finished setting a china table or embroidering a quilt, and I liked being claimed in that way. No one else called me “my girl,” though, in retrospect, no one else had to. Their relations were a given.

This is what I want my relationship to my daughter to be: a given. And what it will never be. There will always be people in grocery stores when we travel; who will say in front of her, “Where did you get her?” There have been people in grocery stores who, when she was really young, asked in front of her, “How much did she cost?” as if she couldn’t understand English. When Zella was three, she was walking in front of me at a large store when an employee with a name badge tried to steer her to an Asian couple at the check-out line, saying, “There are you parents, honey.” I managed to intervene, but not before three people were perplexed. This public attempt either to separate child from parent, or reunite family units is really about race and not adoption. My friend Bev, whose adopted children are from Russia, is never questioned about their origin, and my Irish friend Bill, whose son’s mother is Chinese, is continually asked where he “got” his biological son.

When I go places with my niece Claire, who has light curly hair like mine, I see the difference in the response; people assume she’s my daughter. Once, when I informed someone she wasn’t, the person argued with me: “But she looks exactly like you.” Once when I had both of them out together, a man pointed at Claire (who was doing nothing but being blond) and said to me, “Good job,” while ignoring Zella completely.

I can’t stay away from these people because I don’t know where they are going to pop up. I learn to smile through them or to educate them, or, if it looks like they might say something insensitive, to pre-empt them.

Zella too, learns this. When, at six, she introduced me to one of her little cohorts as “my adoptive mom,” I was a little surprised, and kidded with her: “Your adoptive mom?” But when I went to have lunch with her at school the next day, a seven-year-old boy came up to me, and, as if Zellla weren’t there, said: “Are you her mom?” Zella was silent. I said yes. “Well, you are white,” he said, and then squinted his eyes toward Zella, “and she seems to be Spanish or Chinese.” He walked a little closer to her and considered some more: “I guess Chinese,” he confirmed, and then shrugged and held out his hands as if to say: “Explain that.”

I did, and the little boy nodded seriously, but all the while Zella remained silent, looking ahead, and I thought, for the first time really, about how she, in her life away from me, is probably required to explain our relationship constantly. She was being efficient when she introduced me as her adoptive mother.

By the time Zella was four, we had become firmly connected to one another, at least in the local grocery store community eye. I lost my real name and became known as “Zella’s mom.” I had to develop an expression which showed slight embarrassment and wry amusement along with great fondness (something like the expression everyone on 60 Minutes is required to wear after one of Andy Rooney’s commentaries) when Zella would stop at the “aquarium” to talk to the lobsters before moving onto the meat section (the farm), where she would sing two different refrains of “Old MacDonald,” moving from the beef to the pork when she came to their respective counterparts in the song and arriving finally at the muton chops, where she would conclude her serenade with “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Pretty much everyone except for the butcher was charmed, although I admit I once saw a couple waiting for rump roast turn away. My daughter is no vegetarian, and I thought what she was doing in her ritual was similar to some Native American proverb I once heard, the gist of which was you don’t get off the earth without doing harm, so you should bless the harm you are going to do.

Make no mistake. My daughter is an American girl. A girl who not only waves flags, but impales herself with them. But she is also a girl whose ancestors are buried in another country. Many of mine are buried down the road. Both sets of my grandparents were from this area, and I’m always running into relatives I’ve never met, many of whom, especially the ones who fought in the Korean War, seem surprised to find themselves attached in any way to an Asian Child.

Once, when Zella was a baby and I was out of town, my parents put her between them to sleep, just as they did with me when I was young. My mother said she woke up and looked at the scene and had a thought that prompted her to start laughing and wake my father up. “Don,” she said, “if a psychic had said when we were young, ‘I see you at sixty-five sleeping with a Chinese baby’ we wouldn’t have believed her.” Although Zella is pleased to have an extended family here, consisting of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, as she’s gotten older she also feels fairly free to remove herself from that family if their beliefs don’t match hers, switching pronouns from “ours” to “yours” at will, a freedom I myself have never experienced. “Why is everyone in your family against dragons?” she asked me on her seventh birthday, referring to a fundamentalist, iconoclastic member to whom everyone else acquiesces to avoid fights.

“It’s not that they’re against dragons,” I said. “I think they just don’t understand them.”

“Well I do,” she said.

She understands dragons; she understands animal symbols; by the time she was four, she knew she wanted to study Chinese. A part of her imagination resides in historical China. A part of mine resides on Route 66 and with the JFK administration—both idealized memories preferable to our real current countries. China, it can’t be denied, values boys over girls, and America, well, we’ve got some basic problems here too. I try to teach her about the country of my imagination, but I’ve been too embarrassed to tell her about my first imagining of hers.

Like many children in my generation, I was under the impression that it was possible to dig to China, and I would spend hours trying to make a hole big enough to see the golf conical hats I was sure would be on the heads of the family I would find down there, sitting around the table eating rice. It was heartbreaking and frustrating never to actually meet them, because in my imagination, they were there, just under the next scoop of dirt and sand.

Looking back on this I am amazed, not only by the collective gullibility of all the children who participated in this venture, but also by the parents who exploited this gullibility. And I’m kind of jealous. Obviously, I can’t just tell Zella to go dig to China because it would be cruel and politically incorrect, but also because we as contemporary parents just don’t have the freedom to stick a kid and a shovel out into a yard for hours. We have playdates.

My daughter was not even an American citizen when she stuck that flag up her nose. She had a green card and a tiny red Chinese passport, because, even though I had adopted her as a baby two years before, she was required to go through a naturalization process, which, can take years in some states.

On his way out of office, President Clinton signed a bill giving immediate citizenship to foreign-born adopted children, and I was surprised at how happy it made me to formally share a country with my daughter, how happy it made me that Zella was able at last to become an American citizen. On the day she became an American citizen, shortly after her third birthday, we had a cake with several little flags sticking out of it. “Remember the hole?” she said. And later that year, after 9/11, when flags proliferated up and down our street, it became almost a mantra: “Remember the hole? Remember the hole?” Of course I remembered the hole, and there was new emptiness at the World Trade Center site I was thinking of almost constantly in those days, but there was another hole I also remembered, a more metaphorical one that had to do with a missing child. I was someone who had always wanted children and—through relationship infertility rather that physical infertility—was giving a hard time getting to them. For years, during my thirties, there was a child or children I was searching for, but figuring out a way to call them to me was as frustrating and seemingly as futile as digging to China.

That night, after the party, after the cake, after the flags, I sat down to write my memories of the day. Zella sat next to me coloring. I wrote about how I was glad to have something else to share with her, another reinforcement of the permanent and legal commitment we made when she was six moths old, at the U.S. embassy in China. When the officer had ordered me to raise my right hand, Zella, who couldn’t really sit upright, somehow had managed to raise her right hand while I took the oath, and the promise we made transcends a lot.

After I printed out what I’d written, Zella stopped coloring and asked me to read it to her, and I did. Even at three, her perceptions were acute. Ever since Bush II came into office, she has insisted on calling him “The Magistrate” after the ruler in Amy Tan’s cartoon, Sagwa of China. At first I corrected her, but she was adamant, and after enough time went by, I agreed that we needed a new title for our forty-third president. She had also been practicing “reading” New Yorker cartoons to me, making up her own captions for the cartoons, which often times were funnier and made more sense than the real captions.

So when, after I had read the pages aloud to her, she reached for them, saying, “I’ll read it now,” I handed them to her. I was curious to see what she would make up for this story, this child who hadn’t started to worry things in her head yet, and who doesn’t yet know all the narratives and images of race, biology, nationality, and loss we are going to have to negotiate. Here is what she, my daughter, my girl, told me it said:

“And then she became a Momma. The End.”

Author’s Note: Zella is eight now, and as the dialogue about adoption, both international and domestic, becomes more open, we don’t face as many questions as we used to. Still, we live in a culture that almost fetishizes biological ties (watch any soap opera and see how one DNA test automatically a family makes). I wanted to consider the topic of adoption in writing, partially because in our day-to-day life it’s a minor or negligible issue. My major experience of parenthood: stepping into what you couldn’t have imagined, and being delighted to find out your imagination didn’t have the largeness, or the vision, or vocabulary to define what has become the goodness of your life.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Gale Renee Walden lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her 15-year old daughter, Zella, and their dog, Junebug, and is currently writing a memoir.

The Inner Husband

The Inner Husband

By Patricia Stacey

Dollhouse in human handIn 2003, I was invited on a radio show to talk about a book I had written about parenting. During a commercial break, the host asked me if I wanted to read a passage. Sitting across from me, tall and stately in front of a large microphone, Diane Rehm, the celebrity I had known for years, (though only through her voice), pierced me with her elegant eyes and I knew something about myself in that moment that I hadn’t understood before. While my book was about helping my young son Ian* recover from autism, the passage I wanted to read had nothing to do with him. Or, everything, depending on how you look at it. What I wanted to read was about the most intimate aspect of my life—my marriage. While Rehm waited for my reply, I realized something even more surprising about myself. I didn’t just want to read the passage about my marriage on national radio; I had to.

If there was any truth to my life as I raised a child at risk for autism, it lay in one ridiculously obvious “secret.” My husband Dave* and I were unhappy. For months we had been like two dogs tied together to the same pole, circling it, around and around, while our chains clanked and strained. We were caught in our certain knowledge that the problem with our lives was each other. Why would I want anyone to know that?

As I paged through my book about how children develop, how the brain functions, about how to help re-write a kid’s brain, I became aware of the world of listeners about to rejoin our frequency. I felt a strange and intimate bond with the listeners. I could not see them but felt them waiting, ready to be as done with their commercial break as I was ready to spill. “You have two and a half minutes,” Rehm said. I began flipping through the book. My fingers felt as if I was trying to find my keys outside in mid-January—fumbling, stiff. I knew the opening line about my marriage as if my heart had engraved it on the page. But where were the other words when I needed them? My eyes darted. I couldn’t focus. Words doubled, shifted. I flipped and I flipped. “Ten seconds,” someone warned. “Nine. Eight. Seven. Six.” A green light turned on, and in that moment the page fell open. I nodded that I’d found it and she began her introduction. And then I read.

The passage described my worrying about Dave coming upstairs to our bedroom. During that period in our lives, I was doing an intensive form of therapy with our toddler, ten twenty-minute sessions a day. Because he had early signs of autism, hypersensitivity, an aversion to human interaction, we needed to train him to become used to a world of human interaction (a job which fell largely to me). The prescription? Play, play, play. Smile, smile, smile. But don’t smile too much; that would be too much for him. I was so tired, so played out, so back-and- forth-communicating-with-a-toddler- wiped-out that I was raw. (Imagine Scheherazade, staying up all night to be entertaining, fearing death … oh yeah, but without the sexy parts.) I often joked that it had been like doing stand-up comedy to save someone’s life. I was so tired of interaction that if you’d plucked me and dumped me on a nuclear sub, I would have wept with joy.

In fact, in that period, I had become, in many ways, like Ian. I was pulling away from a world that wanted too much from me. His autistic-like nervous system was so sensitive he could not tolerate the rustling sound of a plastic bag. Stress, work, and mother-anxiety (scourge of all prophylactic manufacturers) was rupturing that thin filament that connected me to my husband. But crisis had brought out something fierce and unrelenting in me. If my hands had stiffened that day on the radio show while trying to find the passage about my marriage, some deeper part of myself had also stiffened.

Helping my child with autism become highly social had been an ecstatic experience, probably the single greatest accomplishment of my life. But there had been moments along the way when I felt like I’d been sent away to war. Ironically, too often, the blitz had been on home turf. When Ian’s psychiatrist, Stanley Greenspan, had learned of Dave and my constant disagreements, he said quite simply and firmly: “Don’t!”

And we didn’t—for a while. But conflict can engulf a home like defoliant spray, settling on everything alive. It stopped up our senses, corroded our peace. Like villagers in times of heated strife, Dave and I took to using whatever implements we could, inept tools not designed for the job of warfare. The tool we used too often was silence, its own kind of weapon. Do not try this at home.

Over the radio I read: Evenings, often, I lay in bed at night before Dave came up, my body humming still with an edgy static from the hours of frantically gesturing and moving and touching and talking and endlessly, endlessly talking and touching our toddler—hours of what the therapists called “rapid back and forth”—I worried about my husband coming upstairs. I had in those moments a rocking repulsion to the idea of more human contact. Full disclosure: I’d loved reading the word “rocking repulsion” on the radio. It was a relief to tell the truth. Like being in a double bed alone—where you can take up all the space for yourself.

Night after night those early years after Ian’s diagnosis, I often went up to the bedroom by myself to read and research whatever I could to help our son. Dave and I hadn’t been talking much after one rich blowout about selling the house, an old argument we were recycling just to throw some battery acid in each other’s eyes. He wanted to sell; I didn’t.

But after I read the piece on the radio, I immediately felt guilty. All the way home, I remembered one glorious evening. Ian was about two. We were having rendition 289 of the house fight—I went upstairs to read. I wasn’t passion- ate those days about my marriage, but I was at least a passionate student—thrilling at the ideas I encountered in brain and child development books. The book I was most in love with at the time was The Growth of the Mind by Stanley Greenspan. I nestled it between my knees and read about how the emotional self develops in a human. We come into being as sentient selves only by virtue of our senses. Senses in a newborn teach the brain how to learn, how to notice, how to love. It was like nothing I had ever imagined. A baby doesn’t come out done; he comes out ready to learn and to become what he needs to become. In fact, the world itself is what teaches the eyes to see and programs the heart to love. So what about my little boy, whose senses struggled to bear the unbearable world? Or what about me now—so “touched-out”—who sometimes thought I would scream if someone so much as asked for a back rub? That night as I sat in bed and read The Growth of the Mind, the question was still: Did I even have time to think about my marriage? Ian was still a toddler. There was a time limit to when all this brain programming was going on.

The problem with hypersensitive kids is that they often can’t let in the information that will teach their brains to see, hear, and understand. Now all of a sudden, science was changing. Out-of-the-box thinkers like Stanley Greenspan were saying that you could reach a hypersensitive baby, change the course of his life. You could teach him to tolerate the everyday noises that make up the life of a healthy, social baby. But there were windows of opportunity; I often feared the windows were closing. Back then, scientists believed we had just a few months to reach our son, or maybe a year or two. That made it even harder to think about my husband. To even change the subject was to betray our baby. The idea was to give him so much attention that he would become used to it, seek it out, learn to one day play at conversation like a maestro. So what did that leave for my marriage? A nagging sense that while Ian grew closer to us, we grew further apart.

One night when I was reading The Growth of the Mind, I left the bed, padded in my slippers downstairs, and sat beside Dave on the couch. “OK,” I said, “Greenspan believes that the highest point of maturity is when you can discuss something emotionally charged with someone and maintain a picture in your head of that very person and one of yourself simultaneously while you talk.”

Dave looked at me. His eyes looked hollow and watery.

“Are you willing to try that?” I asked.

He nodded.

“OK, you talk first,” I said.

“We need to sell the house.”

“You feel we should sell our house because…?”

“Because I am concerned about money. I’m worried about the baby needing therapy and we need to downscale.”

As he talked about moving, my blood pressure began to rise. I felt fluid surging through my wrists, making them hot and cold at once. I tried to imagine myself going through the process of moving, packing boxes, talking to agents, wrapping knick-knacks, cleaning and making beds and organizing—imagining, all the while, my toddler lying in a corner, staring out the windows, disappearing behind that veil I had seen drop so many times—with “stared though our windows to the outside world.” I saw the lost moments, imaginary days passing like pages off a cinematic calendar, Ian’s neurons starting to trim themselves away for good. I was swimming in images of what it looked like to cut neurons, tallied up all of the hours of therapy lost to this senseless packing and moving of objects from one place to another, all to save some money. I wanted to jump off the couch and yell: “Let’s just set the house on fire if you want to downsize!”

But then I remembered Greenspan’s exhortation. I tried to calm my mind, to lose the scary images, to take a breath and bend my mind back to the place of focus. I quickly brought the little action figure of my husband back into the forefront of my mind and at the same time, I focused on an image of the little hologram of his wife, me, beside him. And the image of Dave began to take true form—a man who told silly jokes, a man who had to get up every Monday morning at 6:00, a man who was feeling that he couldn’t hold up this huge, as he put it, “ship” anymore. All this time we’d been arguing, I’d been frightened by his anger. But now I saw what I hadn’t seen before: a man who wanted rest himself, who was tired of paying big bills. I think I saw him as he really was. I knew that he was frightened. And I felt then that this ability to hold the image and under- standing of the other person in your mind while holding onto an awareness of yourself—to Greenspan, the highest level of emotional maturity—wasn’t just the theory of a Harvard-trained brain. It occurred to me that it was a call to enter the spiritual life itself. Reaching this level—even if I was only able to do it for a few minutes every now and then in an argument—helped me to see the ways that we are all bound together, intricate, defined threads in a tightly woven cloth. Greenspan’s method brought me out of my self-pitying, my tired, my nagging mode for a few moments to truly be a friend to my husband. I told him that I thought he was right; we needed to sell the house.

And in that moment, his eyes opened, they lost their watery distance, the glaze. They rounded and cleared. I think he saw me too that night. Maybe he was looking at the figurine in his own head of a tired woman who’d been feeding a kid who vomited three times a day, the woman on a mission who spent time those days acting like a clown in front of her child, jumping up and down singing a strange, stupid home-cooked song she called “the bottle song.” He looked at me lovingly for the first time in so long, and he opened his arms. We held each other for half an hour and when it was all done, we did not speak about the house for many years.

* Names in this story have been changed

Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows. She has written for The Atlantic Monthly; O, The Oprah magazine; Brain, Child; and other magazines and journals. She lives in Amherst with her family.

Baby Watch the Suicide

Baby Watch the Suicide

 By Jordan Langley

Baby Watch Suicide PhotoI kick the headstone. Then I’m dizzy. The leaves sway with me, the forest outlines the pocked, trim grounds of the cemetery. I’m anemic, my urine a dark brown tested at the obstetrician’s office. The water I drink is never enough. The vitamin D from the sun can only help me, says the doctor when she measures my belly. Dry and bulbous.

These woods are a protected nature reserve. A black bear could charge me. A two-for-one. Deer graze here at night, I’m told. Dinner on top of a grave.

The baby had a grandfather and then lost him. He shot himself in a parking lot and the world was surprised. And then the world forgot. Bus routes continued, salon appointments kept. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Such a thing, this poor baby. To have a past before birth. But me, I’m still in a cycle. Round and round my thoughts travel. Every day and every night. He knew he was due to be a grandfather. I’m on bed rest.

The first day, I experience zero morning sickness, which I had in abundance before. If I cared about my well-being when I learned of my father’s passing, I’d be curious about the effect shock has on my body. The surge lasts only a day.

My father and I had many days together. I was the first-born and I believe he’d wanted a boy from the way we watched football on the sofa and how he coached me to shake off a softball hit to the mouth. I’d be whatever he wanted me to be, so beholden was I to his white-toothed smile.

He was most captivating at dinner, when he told stories about growing up on the streets, darting around train tracks, and living across the street from his Catholic school where even on days off the paddle-wielding nuns barked orders from the chapel door. My father sparked for me, a love of the spoken story and a voracious reading and writing habit.

I strangle the urge to cry. It’ll make the baby sad, they said. And don’t put your hands above your head, you’ll miscarry, they said.

Not medical professionals. People.

Still, my belly heaves up several inches when I sob, breathing in, and then jiggles and lowers when I breathe out. Tears release brain-calming chemicals, says my therapist. I see her for over a year and cry about the same thing every time.

The funeral is Catholic and we ask the priest if they “do” suicides. He says yes. They didn’t use to. They wouldn’t have, in my father’s neighborhood in South Side Chicago. Old school. It’s open casket, oh God, who decided that? The songs and speeches are quick and numbing. When my brother’s friend, whom I haven’t seen in years, pays his respects, I retch.

My father’s family leaves too early after the salted ham sandwiches and macaroni salad. I haven’t seen them in person since. My father, a bridge, and now the track broken. Everyone does tequila shots that night, the best agave, and my mouth waters for it.

My mother is a victim, she says. She never saw it coming. I say you can’t live in the same house as someone and not notice they’re struggling.

My husband holds me because there is nothing else logical to do. He’s defensive someone put his child in jeopardy.

My brother found him. The youngest. Another baby. My father hadn’t counted on family, let alone his child, finding his body.  The best laid plans.

I head back to work and hear questions like, why did he do it? How? Hunger for the grisly details. Everyone’s a crime scene investigator. I say I just want to move forward. That’s what I say.

I visit the grave every weekend and lie sideways on the fledgling grass, or sit on a bench with a different dead person’s name engraved on it. I cuss out my father and cry. I tell him I love him. I scream the stupid question everyone asks me, as if I fucking know. Why? My baby watches me from the inside. A man visits the cemetery the same time as me and he stands above his particular grave. I’m careful when he’s there because I don’t want him to hear me talk to the ground, the bones or a spirit. Once, when he leaves, I walk to where he stands and it’s a woman’s headstone. There’s an empty plot beside her.

My father escaped. The note said I’m tired. I’m tired too. The months pass, but I can’t get past my first true love leaving me. We’ve found out it’s a boy and he leans so low on my cervix that I’m dilated three centimeters for months. He’s a bowling ball ready to drop.

I’m asked if we’ll name our son after my father. No.

Is he a sad baby? My son is pulled from my body seven months after the loss and laid on my chest. The lights bright. He lifts his head up and his blue eyes, which will never change color, look at me. Like a friend, a contemporary. I see our years together, the putrid smells, late-night nursing, finger games in my lap, the deathtrap tricycle he loves, grade school, the soccer games, endless distractions.

In the hospital bed, I see his newborn hand shaking on mine, the white down on his head. The eau de parfum his skin naturally gives off. And he knew me. He knew about everything and he cried.

Jordan Langley is a writer who’s essays have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine and on the website Hello Grief. She lives in North Chesterfield, Virginia with her husband and two sons.

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs


pOI_gmpDekM9BudWnVhxh6qTY-qWVdJBMOX-tGa5uTo,nIzZ3TIvwit3Lf7uPO_W9bL7QLo2rNlxR-2PMVJklTUAs the parent of a young daughter, I am on the receiving end of frequent “Wait ’til she’s dating” comments. The implication is that I should be dreading the day she is ready to date. But, the truth is that I want Daughter to date. In fact, I hope she dates a lot. A lot of people. A lot of times.

I want her to practice getting in—and out—of relationships.

I want her to learn to identify the personality traits that bring her joy as well as those that bring sorrow.

I want her to learn how to heal a broken heart without growing the scar tissue of bitterness.

I want her to learn that “something is better than nothing” is faulty arithmetic.

I want her to learn to be comfortable alone and how to make the most of the periods of solitude.

I want her to have epic tales of horrible first dates with which to entertain her friends and family.

I thank every one of my ex-boyfriends for the fact that I am happily married today. Sure, most of the gratitude is rightly placed with Husband for being the kindest man on the planet, but the boys who preceded him deserve a little credit too. You see, they each moved me a little further down the road to understanding the attributes that were endearing in an enduring way. Making some bad boyfriend choices helped me make a great Husband choice.

Trial and error worked for me.

Let’s fast forward through the elementary and junior high “dating” scene to a time when the term meant more than wearing a boy’s coat at recess, calling each other on the phone, or playing spin-the-bottle.

My first real boyfriend was in high school. He was every parent’s dream—smart, kind, and Baptist. He wanted to be a preacher. Catholic guilt has nothing on Baptist discipline. Dating him, I learned a lot. I learned that intelligence, kindness and integrity were important to me. I also learned that I get bored easily if someone is too good.

I was a straight arrow in high school but I knew that I needed a little edgy in the mix for long-term interest. I still had (have?) some crazy to get out of my system. At one point in Anne of Green Gables, the heroine explains that she doesn’t want a man who is truly wicked, but would like a man who could be wicked and wouldn’t. Amen.

I over-corrected when I got to college with a boy full of edgy. Through our short but tumultuous time together, I added humor, fun, adventure, spontaneity, flowers and dancing to my list of must haves. Excessively flirtatious was added to my list of traits to avoid in the future. But, I think the most important lesson I learned was that not all friends make good boyfriends.

Fast forward again through a string of dates and relationships that helped me test my theories of what was and was not important to me.

A fantastic salsa dancer whose other interests were fast cars and football. An outdoor enthusiast with atrocious table manners. A brilliant man with stunted social skills.

Another great dancer who looked like Robert Redford in The Natural on the dance floor but somehow transformed into Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer when he picked me up for dinner. To his credit, he looked appropriately alarmed by the three decade age difference neither of us had noticed on the dance floor.

There was the guy that failed to mention he was married. Hell hath no fury like a duped Irish woman. Then, the musician with no money management skills.

A clingy Brazilian. A misogynistic Australian. Another flirt (some lessons need repeating). A spoiled rich kid that was so obnoxious it wasn’t even worth sticking around for a few weeks to attend dinner at the White House. A nudist. A garage sale enthusiast. And, the guy who attended black-tie fundraisers with ease but pitched a fit when he received a mosquito bite.

Great stories, but not great suitors.

Through the corrective lens of hindsight, I can now see how each and every bad date and doomed relationship helped prepare me to identify and value Husband as my Mr. Right.

I want the same thing for my daughter.

I am a big fan of dating. Kiss a bunch of frogs, I say.

Hear that, Daughter? I said kiss. That is not a euphemism.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Photo by Benton J. Melbourne    

A Ride of Our Own

A Ride of Our Own

By Aaron E. Black

BT Art  A ride of One's Own“But you promised!” I stare up at the huge twisted sculpture of engineering ingenuity, vaguely wishing my son Adam was talking to somebody else. He loves roller coasters. I mean, LOVES them. He spouts off roller coaster statistics like Phil Rizzuto talked baseball.

This one goes so fast, is so tall, has so many loops, and won this or that award. Adam is 13-years-old today. For his birthday present, we drove several hundred miles to this large, Midwestern amusement park. And now here we are, just the two of us with hot asphalt, bird shit, sunscreen, adolescent screams, steamy thick air, damp money, the smell of fried food, and metal. Lots and lots of metal.

Yes, I promised.

I understand the roller coaster’s appeal, intellectually at least. It creates an illusion of risk taking, with a curious blend of fear and excitement. While I see the attraction, I’ve never really appreciated the roller coaster as a metaphor. It’s true that, like a roller coaster, life has its “ups” and “downs” (though Buddhists have something cautionary to say about that) but this is a superficial likeness at best. The roller coaster, unlike life, is controlled and predict- able; it delivers to the rider a sense of unearned bravery. Once strapped into the seat, the machine takes over. There are no choices to be made. No ambiguities to interpret. What could be less lifelike? Some people try to live this way, I suppose. Passively. For me, passivity is irritating and boring. I guess I prefer a personally determined narrative.

“Okay,” I reply, and immediately Adam makes for the entrance, with its long, creeping line of anxious, overheated riders.

As my body moves to follow, I have thoughts about the potential physical effects of the ride. I wonder if I will feel sick to my stomach. Could I pass out? Did I remember to take my blood pressure medication? How pathetic is it that I am even wondering about such things? Will Adam think less of me if I’m physically unable to handle the ride? He seems totally fine with the ride, trusting the adults who built it. But I know better. Is this a turning point in our relationship, where my age starts to yield to the growing strength of his youth?

As we wait, a unique, frustrating monotony sets in. The whooshing sounds of the car on the tracks, coupled with the rider’s screams, the pulsating heat rising from the asphalt, and the chronic desire for water, all give me the feeling of participating in some strange athletic event where the only victory is endurance itself. We are just standing, after all. Yet anxious anticipation in this sort of hyper-organized way leaves me depleted, craving shade, and fantasizing about soap and water. And air conditioning. Periodically, Adam and I compete for my cell phone. I’m looking for email, news, weather, pretty much anything to distract me from my worries. He plays games. I suspect he is doing the same thing.

“Can you believe we are going to do this?” he asks.

“No, I can’t believe it. Are you sure you still want to?” I respond, hoping that this is not a rhetorical question.

“Daaaaaaaaad,” he replies with a roll of his eyes.

When he was a few years younger, I could count on him to profess interest in a roller coaster only to bail out at the last minute when confronted with the reality of actually riding it. That was perfect. I could provide an emphatic, unambiguous “YES!” to his request, knowing a reprieve would soon follow. I’d even help him find a face-saving way to back outthe wait was too long, it was time to go home, we should go eat something. Not anymore. His desires have gathered weight and direction, a trajectory, located in time and space, not just in his mind. Whereas in the past, I heard his expressions of want almost as questions more than statements, now there was clarity and certainty. Confidence even. He seems to have a firmer grip on what he wants because he is starting to know more about who, exactly, is doing the wanting. His self-possession highlights what I have always known, and sought to deny: He belongs to himself. Not to me. He never really belonged to me.

Maybe being his father is just a step in a long process of custodial relation- ships he will experience. First, parent. Then, babysitter. Grandparent. Teacher. Coach. Academic advisor. Professor. Girlfriend. Mentor. Boss. Parole officer (God forbid). Spouse. Therapist. Perhaps another spouse. In each instance, a person will have a kind of responsibility for and to him, and like me, will never possess him. If it is true that I am no more “molding” him than one “wills” the sun to rise, then is it my duty simply to teach him how to be a pliable, if not gratifying, ward of these future custodians? To help him learn how to cooperate with people who have something valuable to offer, who can help him along the way, and to teach him how to reciprocateso that one day, when he himself is the custodian, he will know what to do?

I see that the line is closing in on the area where passengers board.

“Dad, do ya want to wait longer so we can get into the front row?” he says, his excitement palpable.

“Sure,” I respond. “We’ve waited this long, right? What are a few more minutes to get the front row?”

We are now finally in the shade near the track itself. I watch people shifting back and forth, some sitting on the railing, as they wait their turn.

“Are you nervous?” he whispers. “Yes,” I reply.

“Me too,” he says, and adds, “But I bet it is going to be awesome!”

I smile. “I’m sure you are right.” I wrap my sweaty arm around his neck.

We used to joke, when he was younger, that whatever occupied his mind would soon be coming out of his mouth. It was as if he had no private emotional world. Remarkably, he didn’t start talking until just after his second birthday. Well, that’s not exactly true. From about 16 months to his second birthday, he invariably responded the same way to the following question: “Adam, what’s your name?” “Elmo,” he would reply. It wasn’t clear if he was joking. No amount of cajoling could get him to say his real name. Elmo was his only response, his only word, for a long time. Soon after he turned two, the words started coming faster and faster, until he was about the most talkative child I had ever met. He would tell me absolutely everything. What he did on the bus. Who said what to whom at school. Which professional football team he was planning to play for someday. He offered opinions about movies, dinner, and the book he was reading. Not so anymore.

Without my even knowing it, a barrier had been erected, some psychological curtain had been drawn. In the last year, Adam’s internal life had become more difficult to know, as if he was claiming himself for himself. Now, there are mysterious, unfamiliar rules about how I gain access to this private place. Simply asking questions doesn’t work anymore. I remember once, when he was little, like three or four, he climbed into bed with us at 3:00 a.m. during a thunderstorm. As always, despite the hour, he was interested in talking. He told me he was scared of thunder and lightning, but that he wasn’t frightened anymore, being in our bed, head resting on my shoulder. I asked why he wasn’t afraid, and he said, “cause you make the thunder go away, Daddy.” That was the kind of access and influence I used to have. I could make thunder go away, even as it boomed all around us. Back then, I had magical powers. Now, I ask about what happened in school, and he says, “You know, nothing special.” No, I don’t know. In helping me “not know,” he creates a space apart from me. Sometimes our separateness feels like sitting outside a medieval castle with 100 foot high stone walls and a moat. I am his magician no longer.

Finally, more than an hour after we entered the queue, we’re up. I watch him in front of me, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet in anticipation. He cracks his knuckles.

As the tram pulls in, he turns and says, “Dad, you really might want to hold onto your sunglasses . . . .”

“It will be okay,” I say, as we step into the front of a series of connected cars, each containing four riders.

We will be in the front two seats. At his request, I go in first. The seat fits a human body exactly, like a perfectly tailored suit. A metal bar with an attached seat belt has to be pulled over my lap. As I attach the bar, I notice that I have to insert the seat belt into a locking mechanism. I panic momentarily as I struggle to get the belt to click into place. It seems too short. Or am I too big? Either way, visibly struggling is not the sort of attention I am seeking at the moment. After applying extra pres- sure, the belt snaps into place. Now, free to look around, I see the woman in the control booth. She determines when each tram begins to ascend the first, very high mountain of steel. What is she, like 18 years old at best? The other attendants appear even younger than that. I am literally placing my life into the hands of a bunch of teenagers. Excellent. Just what I was hoping for.

There is a pause of a minute or so as the attendants check and re-check to see that the riders are secured in place. “Riders ready? Okay, then. Have a great ride!” the woman in the control booth shouts into the sound system. I love that she says this. The ride is exactly the same every time, of course, but she invites the rider to consider that he might have something to do with whether or not the ride is “great” or something less than great. Right now, I’m thinking my ride will be less than great, given the sweat breaking through my T-shirt, the tension in my stomach, and my recollections of an article on the effects of terminal velocity on the human brain. Whatever I am feeling, we are now clearly going to go. The deliberations are over. We are here.

Then Adam looks over at me, his enormous brown eyes opened wide, as if inviting my mind to be more open too. He slips his left hand into mine. I notice that his hand is nearly as large as my own. Thirteen years ago, I remember holding him, wrapped in that blue and white blanket hospitals favor. His mother required extra medical attention after his birth. There was blood on the floor. The nurses let me hold him first. He was so attentive. No crying. He just stared at me, directly and purposely. I slipped my pinky into his hand, this same hand, and his fingers barely curled all the way around. His grip was strong. I talked to him about how happy I was to meet him and how I thought that the University of Michigan would make an excellent college choice. That made the nurses laugh. I wonder if the anxiety I felt then was anything like the anxiety I feel now. As I recall standing, holding him in the delivery room, I think about my initial worries about becoming a father. By the time the nurse took him and handed him to his exhausted mother, I felt this sort of inner calm settle in. “I got this,” some part of me seemed to say. And when it comes to him, that feeling never really left. I am by no means a flawless parent. But in the most important ways, that feeling of long ago was right: I got this.

We’re moving now, slowly at first. Directly ahead is the moving chain that will drag our car up to a peak, he tells me, of 390 feet. Then we will travel, literally, straight down, reaching 90 mph, and into the first loop. That is taller than a foot- ball field is long. I feel his hand grip mine with greater force. I squeeze back. The ride sits alongside a beautiful, large lake to my left. A short distance from us, I see what appears to be a father and son fishing, their boat bobbing gently on the greenish water. Maybe I should have encouraged Boy Scouts? Then, he and I could be fishing and talking and fishing some more. A quiet lunch floating on the water doing manly things with my son. That sounds MUCH better than this. As we ascend, the most soothing thought I have is – there’s nothing to do now – just go with it. As the car reaches the arch, Adam pulls away his hand suddenly, knowing that it is better to grasp the safety bar in front of him than it is to hold onto me.

When we let go of each other I realize that we won’t really have this ride together. The woman in the control booth was right. He will have his ride, and I will have mine, sitting side-by-side. Everything technically will be the same for both of us, certainly, but we will each have the ride that we have. No matter how much I love him. No matter that I would give my life for his. There is nothing I can do to help him, to alter or change him, to “fix it” if he has a problem. If his seat belt fails. If the car leaves the track. There is nothing I can do. At all. I am completely helpless in this moment when it comes to him. When it comes to nearly everything actually. I can hold onto my sunglasses. That I can do. And I can grab the safety bar. My ride will be my ride. His ride will be his ride.

The whole thing takes about 120 seconds. It’s remarkable. The initial drop hurtles completely straight down at the ground below. Being in the first car gives us a particularly intense feeling that we are about to kiss concrete at a very high rate of speed. But we don’t. The feeling of falling, of being suspended like an astronaut in zero gravity, is exhilarating. After the first loop, I get those black dots in front of my eyes, but it lasts only a few seconds and then they disappear like the sea gulls circling the track overhead. The rest of the ride is brilliant. It ends with a long, sideways loop to the right, before settling down on magnetic brakes just before the passenger loading area.

I hear his laughter before I see his face.

“THAT! WAS! AWESOME!!!” he keeps shouting.

He is giggling and rocking back and forth, just like the toddler that I would lift and pretend to drop, only to slow his fall almost immediately. Uncontrolled, unselfconscious, piercing joy. Over and over again we would do this, until my arms hurt. I turn and take in his radiant, flushed face. I see that the bangs of his hair have been blown skyward by the rushing air, like some kind, powerful hand was caressing his forehead for the last two minutes.

As we climb out of the tram, I rethink my criticism of the roller coaster metaphor. I was wrong. It’s perfect actually. The ride with Adam represents what is unpredictable; it captures the joy, fear, and helplessness of being his father. Riding next to this boy whom I love so much, reminds me that the only thing I can do is be by his side. That’s it. Everything else is merely wishful thinking. I can just be with him. I hope he feels that I am.

As we make our way down the long, meandering exit ramp, he says over his shoulder, “Dad, can we please do that again? The line looks a lot shorter now.”

I stare skeptically at the completely filled maze in which we were just standing for what seemed like for- ever. The line starts at least 30 yards beyond where we entered the last time. Incredibly, the day has become even hotter and muggier.

“Absolutely,” I say. “Absolutely.”

Author’s Note: Being an attentive parent sometimes means engaging in a noxious activity just to be with your child. But to really “be” with your child, you have to find a way to enjoy it with them. This story evolved from my attempt to find the beauty in the relation- ship with my son, while doing something that I find anything but beautiful.

Aaron Black, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice. His work as a psychotherapist is rooted in the attachment theory, which holds that emotional contact with others is the building block for all human development. He has published numerous professional articles; however, this is his first published essay. He lives in Pittsford, New York with his wife Lara, and sons Adam and Noah.

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Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

My idea made perfect sense to me; I don’t know why everyone acted like I’d lost my mind.

“Sight unseen? On eBay?! In PASADENA? How do you know this car will even drive?”

Well, sometimes you don’t get to know.

My fun program had been baby steps so far, but this was going to be high drama. It had to be, to counter all the emotional unspooling.

You hear sometimes of the breakdown that can happen in a marriage, right around the decade mark. Some marriages survive it, some don’t. But regardless of outcome, an awful lot of marriages tank for a while. Anthony and I proved to be super awesome at the tanking.

That spring was the Spring I Cried. In the kitchen, in the car, in the office. Would I ever not be tired? Did I love Anthony, really, the way you’re supposed to love your partner? Had he ever loved me? Wasn’t marriage supposed to have more movie-montage elation, fewer protracted silences? While Anthony and I were disintegrating, our poor children were busy being ten, seven, and almost three.

I was a wreck, but it wasn’t a job for antidepressants. I wasn’t inexplicably blue; I was blue-with-explication: I was in a marriage, but it felt like it was just me in there. The man brushing his teeth beside me was kind and good, but utterly silent. Well, not utterly.

“Good morning.”


“Can you drive to soccer?”

“Um…sure. Yeah, that works. You can get to daycare?”

“Yep. Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

I loved my children more than breathing, but most mornings I woke up barely able to breathe myself. Evenings, Anthony and I sat on the couch after the kids went to bed, completely spent, not remembering what it was like to have things to say.

Darkened rooms are for amateurs. I demonstrated my ability to fall apart in the chipperest of settings one sparkling May evening. We’d all gone for burgers, then to the playground. Eldest dangled on the swing with her book and Middlest spouted baseball stats and chewed with his mouth open, but Youngest still loved the slide. I put her at the top and launched her with a gentle push – wooosh.

The tears came silently, and without warning or reason. I tried to blink them back; too late. They, too, launched.


And then more. Eldest sidled over and slid her hand into mine.

Over and over. Youngest slid. I cried. Eldest held on. Anthony and Middlest, unaware, talked infield fly rule.

Well. This wasn’t sustainable.

What do you do when you feel the very core of your life isn’t working? You carefully, thoughtfully, examine that core and make changes, right?

That’s a big process. In the short run, could I maybe just keep from losing my shit on the playground?

More everyday joys to get us through, I thought. Big ones, while I figure out what to do with my head and my heart.

I thought about driving, its slogging constancy. Work, practices, orthodontists, school—I covered an endless loop in our ratty used cars, Corolla and minivan, both older than my marriage and about as tired.

I’d never been a material girl, but I suddenly flashed on a way to transform those hours and hours of drive time. It was so out-of-character I knew it must be right. That night, I looked up the bluebook value of the Corolla—$5,000; I could work with that—then drew a circle with a thousand-mile radius, our house dead center… Any location outside the circle was fair game. My driving renaissance would start with a road trip.

I approached Anthony with my plan, explained how it didn’t have to be expensive.

“I think you should go for it,” he said.

(Eventually, I would notice that the quiet I was raging against was simply the frustrating alter ego of this sterling quality: Anthony doesn’t sweat things. Two sides, same coin.)

I opened an eBay account. I practiced entering ridiculously low bids, to get the feel of things. Four days later, when BMWDude456 was auctioning off his – my – convertible, I knew to wait until the final moment.

At 11:29:30 PDT on a Wednesday, I sat in my office with a conference call on mute—just for a minute; it’s not my fault my car was being auctioned during weekly status—and eBay on my screen. I had already typed in my maximum bid of $5,800 and positioned my cursor square on the Bid Now button.

I kept my hand above the mouse, not touching lest I bid too early or start a nuclear war. I held position until 11:29:52, and then I clicked.

Eight seconds later, I was the gasping owner of a 325i. Fifteen years old, condition: “Excellent.” (Cherry red, but fuck the jokes about midlife crisis. I wanted the car much more than I resented the cliché. Anyway, I was only thirty-four. HOLY MOLY! I WAS A MIDLIFE-CRISIS PRODIGY!) I finished my meeting.

When they heard, my friends and coworkers had a collective cow:

“You bought a CAR on eBay?! How do you know it can even make it home? That the guy isn’t a total crook?”

Excellent questions, one and all, I acknowledged, and made a plan to pick up my car.

*   *   *

I’m pretty sure I met BMWDude456 at a Pasadena strip mall, but I don’t really remember him. My car was so red, so cheerful. It even had those wheels with the super shiny spokes. Twenty minutes later, I waved goodbye to Dude—I think—and headed up the California coast. I’d gone to Pasadena by myself, to be alone for the first time in ten years, to fall to pieces in peace. But as my red car and I tootled up 101, I didn’t feel much like falling to pieces at all.

*   *   *

Back home, two weeks after my historic mouse-click, I witnessed a kind of magic: The circuit was still there and still endless, but carpool-mom drudgery was replaced by unalloyed glee. Someone always begged to join me, on errands I no longer dreaded. The sun shone down on our upturned faces as we sang along with The Magnetic Fields, shouting our delight into the blue, blue sky. Just going to the dentist became sun on the water, wind in the hair.

When Anthony and I were in the car together, I felt the wind whipping away the miasma that had formed between us. Yes, we still had work to do. But the space between the bucket seats was easier to penetrate than the exact same distance, sitting on the couch.

The red-car atmosphere was pure and fresh, easy to move through. In it, I realized that the laughing, the fun, the lightness—they’d been available all along, just as true and as real as the confusion and the lonesome. I’d been missing the great while I focused on the hard. The hard was still there too, of course, but this car—a car, how ridiculous—drove me right up to all the good stuff, made me stop and look.

The mood of the red car persisted even when we weren’t in it, and I knew:  People who say you can’t get joy from material objects have never met the right material object. We zipped around our lives, creating montage after montage.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Potting Season

Potting Season

By Emily Grosvenor

Pine bonsai on whiteIn the months after I became pregnant, my husband, Adam, introduced a forest of 37 tiny trees into our life. As I sat reading parenting books propped on my expanding belly, he was rescuing them from the sale section or pulling stray seedlings out of the mulch.  He gave them new pots on the brick patio of our 1910 cottage. There, he would train them in the styles of the great bonsai masters: formal and informal upright, cascade, exposed root, windswept, literati, clinging to a rock.

To me, they were just one more thing to take care of, worse than a puppy. Given the right care – years of training and attention – they can live forever.

“Don’t you think you should be reading some of these?” I asked him, shaking a book on the Bradley Method in the air.

“Nah. You read them and tell me what you find out,” he said, humming and trimming.

A few weeks later, after 68 hours of labor, a hemorrhage, and four units of blood from a stranger – our baby was there. We drove him home as if we had an IED in the backseat, and in a way, we did. Adam lifted him gingerly and cradled him in the glow of a scraggly, 1.5-foot-tall Christmas tree.

When Adam gives you his attention it is as if your own personal sun is shining down at you. I could always feel it, even across continents and through a five-year long distance relationship.  He’s a talker. He’s a listener. I had never known such connection before Adam.

From the beginning, though he had never before held a baby, he jumped into fatherhood with his whole being. He danced with the baby for hours. He rocked him to Johnny Cash’s “Run On” on repeat. I caught them once, laying on the couch in the dark.

“In a way, he justifies every mistake I have ever made,” Adam said. “If I had made the tiniest decision differently he never would have been.”

He carried the baby outside to his tiny forest and dangled him over the tops of the trees.

Adam snuck out every chance he could to spend time in his forest of azalea, juniper, maple, pine, santolina, devil’s tongue, flying dragon, crab apple. He trimmed, he repotted, he watered, but more than anything, he just looked at the trees, remembering what they looked like before and seeing how the changes he made to their structure would make them prosper. In the tiny forest, the trees were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were becoming more and more like themselves, like full adult trees but on a smaller scale.

Inside the cottage, though I was deeply connected to my baby, I found myself feeling increasingly out-of-sorts. The baby’s screams were so piercing they made my arms tingle. When my milk let down, I broke out in hives.

Adam took the baby for me as much as he could, but I was always expecting a cry, always on edge, always waiting like a bell to be struck. If Adam took him outside so I could rest, I could tell you which brick they stood on. This is how it is supposed to be, I thought to myself. Every cell in my body has turned over. I am a good mom. Every day I thanked Adam for giving him to me.

With my child strapped to my chest I was free to never sit down again. I baked soufflés and fermented my own yogurt. I canned blackberry preserves. I outlined a novel. I cleaned behind furniture. I worked through every recipe in the Bride & Groom: First and Forever Cookbook. My hunger went away, as if my frantic activity was enough to take sustenance from the air around me. I had figured this motherhood thing out. I had more energy than I had ever had in my life. But when I held my crying child, I thought about everything there was to be done, and when I worked during his naps, all I could think about was my child, about to cry out.

The night the baby slept through was the first I could not. I thrashed in bed until 5 a.m. The next night, the same. The click of a door latch. The mewl of the cat. The clink of a coffee mug. The sounds in our cottage amplified to Hitchcockian levels and sent my skin crawling. As the leaves changed color outside my mind latched on to increasingly more disturbing images, as if my mind were a movie real of worst-case scenarios.

“What can I do to help you?” Adam asked me more often each day.

“Get me some time to myself so I can work,” was the only answer I had.

After three months of not sleeping, the walls of our cottage seemed to close in. So one bright September morning I decided on the spot we had to get out of the house. We raced to pull together car seats, diapers and extra clothes for an overnight trip. It wasn’t happening fast enough for me. By my projections we should have left at 8:45 a.m. It was already 8:53.  That’s how I ended up on the hardwood floor, breathing into a brown paper bag of branches from Adam’s lavender bonsai.

It might have been a tad late for aromatherapy.

That spring, Adam repotted all of his bonsai as I sat staring at the television. I watched him as he petted them gently and spoke to them. I seethed as he stood in the rain, looking joyous and entranced in his work, covered in mud. Did I remember what the juniper looked like before he coaxed it into a cascade? Could I envision the way the fig had all but shriveled before he poured himself into its care? When he held me at night – as he always had – I felt nothing. During the day, with him gone, working a 12-hour shift, I would rock with our baby at the window and imagine all of the pots – smithereens.

“Can I be your bonsai?” I asked Adam one evening as I watched him hack away at the root bundle of a burning bush. I was aware of how ridiculous I sounded.

He tucked my hair behind my ear, looked straight in my eyes and said: “You don’t want to be my bonsai.”

“Yes, I really do,” I told him.

“You wouldn’t want your roots pruned,” he said.

Bonsai are not very menacing, you know. They’re not some sexy co-worker or flirty neighbor. If you find yourself unraveling and you get it in your head that your husband’s having an emotional affair, you would do well to find out it’s with bonsai. With a bonsai, you have to look into its future and anticipate how it is going to grow. If you try to change a bonsai too quickly it dies. It requires years of focused attention with each individual tree to get it to get that wabi-sabi look of transience and imperfection.

I was desperate to look like that, desperate to be everything and perfect and under control. but felt more like a mass of seaweed tangled around a piece of driftwood, floating, always floating, with the storm.

Adam had never once in our relationship forced me to do anything, but for the first time, all I wanted was for him to shape me. Rewire me. Repot me. Look at what’s happening to me and fix it. Care for me like I’m doing for this plump, wailing ball of skin.

“What are you thinking about when you’re out there with them?” I asked him one night, and on many nights thereafter, as I stood on the porch step watching him with his bonsai.

“I’m not thinking about anything. I’m thinking about what I’m doing,” he said.

This sounded like baloney to me. I have always dreamed while I was doing things: sweeping, laundry, perhaps even typing this very sentence. I wasn’t sure I was capable of it for very long. But I began to try anyway. As I was driving, I would sense the grip of my hands on the leather wheel. Doing dishes, I would feel how the water slipped over my hands. I did less – every day even less than before – but I began to really do it, was there as it happened. When I held my child I caught the scent of soap and skin with a hint of fir. Over time, I was able to rewire myself, but not without some mistakes.

“I’m glad you have time for a hobby!” I yelled at him once as he shuffled pots around.

When I look back at Adam in our first year of parenthood my heart crumbles for him. He coped with a colicky baby and an exasperated new mother in his own way. He watched me wither before his eyes and didn’t have the tools to bring me back. Still, he was playing out a scene of something I needed that every new parent figures out eventually, with or without nervous exhaustion: constancy, presence, the repeated cutting and trimming out of all necessary things we must do in order to shape a beautiful life.

“I know and control nearly all of the variables in which those plants live,” he tells me one night when I ask him again if I can be his bonsai. “Everything I do is with the idea of keeping them as healthy and contained in as small a space as possible, which may not be in tune with their natural growth. If you know how a plant grows, you can predict how they’re going to react. You can’t do that with people.”

Adam’s been watching his plants a lot lately, and I’ve been watching Adam.  I see him out there working on our spruce halfway to Christmas.  God, are they gorgeous. It looks more like a real tree now, with tapered branches, a bound and determined habit, every one of its needles stretched to the sun.

These days, we joke about what kind of bonsai we would be if we, too, were tiny trees. We both agree he is totally the style called “informal upright,” with a trunk that can be bent in many directions. I’d like to be the “literati,” which has a refined elegance despite looking like it is about to blow away. But I’m probably “clinging-to-a- rock.”

Emily Grosvenor is a magazine writer and essayist based in McMinnville, Ore. She is working on a humorous travel memoir, Pioneer Perfume, which shows what happens when you try to maintain the attitudes of a globetrotter in a world that has shrunk to a 30 ft. radius. You can visit her at

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The Gift Of Our Girls

The Gift Of Our Girls

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-3“You love Gabriel better than me.” My daughter’s eyes are twin moons of accusation, trying hard to eclipse a bright hurt that nevertheless flares out at the edges.

“That’s ridiculous.” I hold her gaze, concentrating on the anger that brought me here—to the doorway of her room—after driving her inside by the tone of my voice. She is ten years old, her brother five; they’d been battling over a toy and she’d wrenched it away hard enough to cause injury, screaming that she’d had it first. Of course I’d scolded her. She’s older, stronger. She should know better. In truth, my anger has faded; Gabriel’s fine. But I keep my expression stern because underneath the solid mask of righteousness is a creeping fissure of doubt.

Abigail has accused me for so long of preferring her brother that I’m beginning to believe it. I do feel differently about my children. One is a preteen girl, the other a kindergarten boy. One challenges me on a regular basis: slamming doors, stamping feet, talking back, and throwing fits. And it’s not the kindergartner.

Gabriel’s at a golden age. When I was pregnant, my friend—who’s the mother of two sons—told me, “You’re lucky; boys adore their mamas.” I see now what she meant. In my son’s eyes, I can do no wrong. Every day, he showers me with kisses and compliments like, “You are the prettiest mommy in the whole wide world,” and, “I love you more than my whole life.” What’s a heart to do but melt?

Physically, my relationships with my children are worlds apart. Gabriel snuggles with me on the couch, strokes my hair when I read his bedtime story, and holds my hand in the grocery store. Abigail is five feet tall; she requires the whole couch to sprawl out. She’s done holding hands. Sometimes I catch her staring at me when Gabriel’s securely folded in my lap or when I wake him with a trill of butterfly kisses. I feel guilty, wondering when I last held her beyond a quick hug or let a kiss linger on her cheek. But Abigail’s body is so firmly her own; the girl that used to pee with the door open now locks it to brush her teeth, and once when I walked into her bedroom as she was changing clothes, she pinned her arms across her chest and ordered me to leave. Gabriel’s body still seems mine to claim: always angled toward me, always receptive to affection. He makes it easy.

Abigail’s hands curl into fists. “You DO love him better,” she snaps, and I sense the tremor in her voice is not a preteen’s anger but a child’s fear. As a parent, there are times to respect boundaries and times to cross them. I cross the room and take her in my arms.

“Leave me alone!” she twists and shoves but I hold her anyway, closer than I have in too long. Her slim frame thrums like a live wire, but the fall of hair against my cheek is as soft as when she was a newborn. I remember how I was so in love with that baby, I couldn’t sleep. How those early years we lived—just the two of us—on the brink of poverty in tiny apartments, but I felt I would never need anything more than my gorgeous dark-haired girl. How the first time Abbey’s father took her for a week-long vacation, when she was three, I called my friend and said, “I need to stay with you for a week. Because I can’t be here without her.”

As a mother, it’s easy to lose confidence. Oh, but how can I cater to such lazy indulgence, when what my child needs right now is for me to show strength and total conviction? I tell myself, I am absolutely certain that I’ve never loved anyone more than this child in my arms. This child. My daughter. And it’s true. That’s the gift of our girls: they bring us to the center of ourselves, demanding we examine our hearts and face every flaw, making us better mothers. While our sons thrust us on pedestals, it’s our daughters who force us to balance.

Abbey’s resistance falls away and she wraps her arms around me. “Abigail,” I say, “you know how much I love you, and—” I can’t tell her I love her more than Gabriel, and it isn’t enough to say I love her just as much. So I whisper what’s hers that he can never have. “—remember that I loved you first.”

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website

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Fighting Words

Fighting Words

By Elissa Wald
summer2010_waldMy daughter’s trouble began with the word Mommy. One day I noticed that her name for me had become prolonged, so that it sounded like “Ma-ah-my.” And I guess it was wishful thinking, but at first it seemed as if she were nursing the word, drawing it out on purpose, perhaps out of pleasure.

This special rendering of Mommy went on for a few days before another development surfaced. Charlotte began to repeat the first syllable of whatever she had to say: “I-yi-yi want to go outside.” I thought nothing of this either. Every excitable child sounded like that sometimes.

Then the repetitions became more frequent, sprinkled throughout her sentences. Two or three echoes each time, with not much notice on her part. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my husband. “This speech pattern?” He didn’t, and then he did. We consulted What To Expect: The Toddler Years, and right in the section corresponding with her age, there was a paragraph or two about stuttering. It was very common, the book reassured us, for children her age to experience a period of some disfluency. I told myself not to let my family history distort what was going on here. Her repetitions were few and brief; she was in no apparent distress; it was just a little hitch that she would surely outgrow.

And then came the moment during story hour, just before Charlotte’s bedtime. She was asking for one of her Frog and Toad books when I finally understood exactly where we were. “Fr … fr … fr …” she said. “Fr … fr …  fr …”

She stared at me as she tried to talk. She was wide-eyed, as if something had her by the throat.

“Fr … fr … fr … fr …”

I held her gaze without flinching, even as I waited to be able to breathe.

*   *   *

Stuttering is a mysterious affliction that even the most informed experts don’t understand. The disorder affects more than three million Americans, about one percent of the population. Long thought to be a manifestation of psychological and emotional issues, it is now recognized as a neurological phenomenon with a genetic component (about two-thirds of people who stutter have at least one other relative with the impediment). Stutterers are usually fluent when they whisper, or sing, or impersonate another voice, or speak in unison with other people. They rarely stutter when they talk to animals or to themselves.

In my mother’s family, stuttering has surfaced in every generation as far back as we can trace, affecting her great-uncle, one of her maternal uncles, her cousin, her son (and my brother) Eric, and now her first grandchild. Because of my brother’s lifelong struggle with his speech—which is still with him at the age of thirty-nine—I grew up as a witness to what stuttering can do to a life. I know about the fear of introducing oneself, ordering in a restaurant, picking up the phone, or being called on in class. I know about the weeks or even months of dread that may be inspired by having to deliver a spoken presentation.

While growing up, Eric was resourceful in the ways that stutterers usually are. When his fourth-grade class put on a pageant portraying the history of Pittsburgh—our hometown—Eric imitated the speaking style of sportscaster Howard Cosell while reciting his part about the Steelers. Whenever we went out to eat, he would avoid attempting a hard “c” by asking for a Pepsi.

“We don’t have Pepsi,” was the usual response. “Is Coke okay?”


He never went so far—as so many stutterers have—as to order something he didn’t like, or to incur major inconveniences, for the sake of word substitution. In his memoir Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, Marty Jezer describes buying train tickets to Hartsdale rather than his true destination of White Plains, because the letter “w” was his nemesis: “There were no buses or taxis from the Hartsdale train station, but walking four miles home was preferable to stuttering in front of the ticket seller.” Jaik Campbell, a stutterer who does stand-up comedy, once joked that he was performing for the British Stammering Association when a would-be heckler yelled out: “You’re sh … you’re sh … you’re quite good.”

Eric also never went to the lengths that other stutterers have described in order to avoid speaking. “Often I would make myself physically sick so that I wouldn’t have to talk to or be around people,” prominent zoologist and wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has confessed. “Once I stabbed a pencil through my hand and had to be taken to the hospital so that I wouldn’t have to read in front of the class.”

Still, there was the time Eric was trying to order in a diner, unable to get the words out, when the waitress sighed with impatience and stalked away. There were the phone calls he made, in which he couldn’t respond to someone’s hello and the person who’d answered would hang up, thinking no one was on the line. There were the taunts on the playground: “W-w-what’s wrong w-w-with you? W-w-why can’t you t-t-talk?” There was the time that even a friend—angry after losing to Eric in a basketball game—called him a stuttering monkey.

And there is also one of my worst memories:

My brother and I were with our grandmother at a McDonald’s in Florida. I was eleven and Eric was nine. We had brought our trays to a table when my brother asked me to get him one of the little packets of salt that they kept behind the counter.

“Why can’t you get it yourself?” I asked.

“You go and get it,” my grandmother told me.

“Me?” I said. “He’s the one who wants it. Why do I have to get it for him?”

“You go,” she said again.

I turned to Eric. “Why can’t you get it yourself?”

“Forget it,” he said.

“No, tell me. Why can’t you?”

“Why are you being this way?” my grandmother asked.

“Being what way?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“How am I being mean? If he wants salt, why doesn’t he get it for himself?”

“You know why,” she said.

“No, I don’t.”

“You know he doesn’t want to ask them for it. Because of his speech.”

I looked at my brother in surprise. (I don’t know how to explain, even to myself, the fact that I was startled at that moment. How could I have failed to understand what his reluctance was about?) He was glaring at me and his eyes had filled with tears. He had to take off his glasses to swipe them away. His little paw was grubby and left faint smears of dirt on his face.

*   *   *

After my daughter started to stutter, nearly everyone I knew felt compelled to tell me, “Well, it didn’t hold your brother back.” And certainly that’s true. Eric is now married to a lovely and accomplished woman with whom he has a beautiful son. He is respected and successful, a pediatrician and intensive care specialist, and I believe he brings a special integrity and compassion to his work. Though he puts in long hours and is often exhausted, I have never heard him speak to a child without empathy or warmth. No one would have guessed the words that came to him in response to a young patient’s recent remark.

“You talk funny,” the boy told him.

Yeah, well, my brother refrained from saying, that’s not as bad as having Crohn’s disease, you little bastard.

*   *   *

Because of Charlotte’s physical agility, her intrepid nature, and her ready joy, I had assumed a certain social ease would always be hers. That notion has since deserted me, along with certain traits I’d thought inherent to her character. Within days of beginning to stutter, my little chatterbox seemed to go silent. She no longer prattled in the car, no longer supplied the words she knew in familiar books, no longer tried out every new word she heard me say. Suddenly the most commonplace parental request—”Can you say please?”—was laden with danger. (“P-” she began gamely, the last time I tried that. “P-p-p-…”)

What had been the most empowering part of her life—her ever-increasing speech skills—has become something that frustrates and inhibits her. It’s as if her small body has already betrayed her.

Soon after her speech became affected, I picked Charlotte up from preschool and found a bright orange envelope in her file folder. Inside was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. Charlotte had been invited to plenty of parties in the past, but never before had it occurred to me to do what I did then, which was to glance through all the other children’s folders—twelve in all. There were only two other orange envelopes among them. And suddenly I found myself in the midst of an anxious little analysis: Okay … it’s not that they invited every kid in the class. Not even close. And we’re not friends with his parents either. So he chose her; he must have. And standing there, I was overcome by a rush of love for this child. A rush of gratitude, even—gratitude to a three-year-old. Of course this was not only pathetic but far from rational: These kids were too young to discern anything amiss in one another’s speech. But somehow it felt like reassurance that Charlotte would continue to be invited, to be included. I went shopping for the birthday boy the very next morning and spent too much on his present.

*   *   *

Most websites devoted to stuttering post a list of famous people who have struggled with the disorder. When Charlotte joined their ranks, I looked these people up and read about how stuttering had affected their lives. A fairly reliable pattern emerged: early on, stuttering was a source of pain, humiliation and inhibition. The famous person was teased, bullied, silenced, estranged. Then an art form or other calling presented itself—usually as an antidote to, or reprieve from, stuttering—and transcendence was achieved. Stuttering is usually cited as the most essential part of this alchemy.

“I was in a play and when I got onstage I stopped stuttering—I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the reason the stutter stopped was because I was acting.” (Bruce Willis)

“The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is a sanctuary.” (James Earl Jones)

“Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

“I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering.” (Carly Simon)

“It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of my stutter. [It] ended up being a godsend for me … the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life and my career.” (Joe Biden)

“Scatman” John Larkin, a jazz musician and poet who stuttered, referred to his creative shift into scat singing (a vocal art form comprised of random syllables, nonsense words, or no words at all) as a process of “turning my biggest problem into my biggest asset.”

It would seem that as a culture, we are deeply invested in this particular narrative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason; that every problem is an opportunity. Those in whom I confided about Charlotte responded much in the same way.

“Maybe she’s meant to do something really introspective, like writing, and this is the experience that will draw her inward,” one of my closest friends suggested. (If an axe had been handy, I might have split open her skull. Writing? A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Inward? This is my boisterous little spirit, who loves to make noise.)

“I’ll just say—without trying to downplay the difficulties stuttering will create for her—that our troubles and strengths are usually interlinked,” another wrote in an e-mail. This insistence—that the affliction and the gift are inextricable—is reflected even in songs about stuttering, even in jokes:

Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters,

But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings.

But what you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you right now:

That the stutter and the scat is the same thing.

(“Scatman” by John Larkin.)

A man asks his doctor, “C-c-can you c-c-cure my s-s-stutter?” After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I’ve discovered the problem: your penis is too big. If you’ll consent to have half of it removed, your stutter should disappear.” The desperate man agrees to the surgery, the operation is a success, but a few weeks later the guy’s back in the doctor’s office. “I can talk with no trouble now,” he reports, “but my wife and my mistress have both left me. I want you to reattach what you cut off.” The doctor replies: “F-f-fuck y-y-you.”

*   *   *

A scene from the week that Charlotte started to stutter:

It is the middle of the night, and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m in bed beside my sleeping husband, staring at the ceiling. It has been a terrible day. Charlotte had trouble with almost every word she said. I’m picturing her in some future schoolyard, surrounded by jackals. Tears are sliding down my face and into my ears.

This isn’t the worst thing; I know there are far worse things. But I’m heartsick and afraid. I can’t bear the thought of other kids making fun of her, the idea of her singled out and set apart. I feel as if I can’t draw a deep breath and can’t get warm. I’m trembling beneath every extra blanket in the house.

When people attest to having received a divine message, they usually describe it as happening during moments like this. I’m not a believer, but in the deep of this night I find myself overwhelmed by a desire to pray. The only way I can ease into the endeavor is to think of it as an exercise: If I were a person who prayed, what would I say? For that matter, what kind of God would I seek to address? Not some omnipotent magician who might lift the curse—that’s so far afield for me that prayers of this nature would feel worse than useless. But what about just … some source of otherworldly sustenance … some current of gentleness and love, to be accessed on Charlotte’s behalf? I lie there trying to visualize this presence and the closest I can come are the faces—some living, some dead—of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known. I try to hold their images in my mind, but they blur and fade and burn out. Before long, I’m left with only a sense of their collective essence, but it occurs to me that I’m not cold anymore. And then toward four a.m., a message does in fact present itself, like a lone hold high on a rock wall, and I close around it and cling for all I’m worth.

The whole world is hurting.

It would be hard to explain the comfort I took from this idea. It went beyond misery’s love of company, beyond an inventory of the ways that others have it bad or worse. It was more like a sudden and visceral conviction that stuttering did not truly place Charlotte outside of anything. In his song “Scatman,” John Larkin says, Everybody stutters one way or the other. It’s not an insight that adversity and suffering are inevitable, no matter who you are; this is something we all know. But like the fact that one day you’re going to die, it’s one thing to know it in the abstract, another to wake alone in the middle of night and know it in your bones.

My parents used to tell my brother that everyone had problems and struggles and pain, whether it was apparent or not. This seemed like just another lie that adults not only told but appeared to believe. Well, I recall thinking, maybe a few other kids do, but most don’t.

It occurs to me that I know better now; that in fact, the reverse is true. There might be a few kids who are truly (and temporarily) untroubled, but most aren’t—and undreamed-of grief can lodge beneath a faultless surface.

I think of the seven-year-old son of my former boss: The boy might have been a poster child for Aryan supremacy. Once I overheard his father talking to him on the phone. You’re a pussy, he told the kid. You’ll never do the right thing.

And there’s the situation related by my friend Amy, who has chosen to maintain an open adoption policy for her two grade-school-aged sons, Samuel and Matthew. Samuel’s family of origin is eager for regular involvement in his life, but Matthew’s biological mother refuses contact with him. Matthew is tall and good-looking and plays several sports. His birth mother’s ongoing rejection of him is a deep and secret sorrow, of which his classmates have no clue. In fact, he looks so much like Amy that no one would even guess that he’s adopted.

I remember a classmate of my own, from middle school: a talented actress even then, with a flair for comic roles. I didn’t find out until well into adulthood that her father committed suicide when she was in the third grade. He hanged himself in the basement, and she was the one who found him.

Then there are the children whose parents are divorcing, or fighting every day, or just mired in separate miseries. Kids with parents who are gone, or sick, or just terminally preoccupied. Children of alcoholics and drug addicts, kids who are abused and neglected. Driving around, listening to the country music that dominates the airwaves where I live, I hear songs about orphans, unwashed and unwanted children, dirt-poor and hungry children, cowards of the county, boys named Sue.

The whole world is hurting.

*   *   *

My husband and I spend a lot of time reading the current stuttering literature, which tells us there are things we can do to help Charlotte. We can slow our own speech as much as possible, pause often, take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. We should try to do all this not only in conversation with Charlotte, but even with each other when she is present.

These changes, it must be said, do not come naturally to me. I talk too fast; everyone has always said so. I cut in when other people are speaking. I ramble and rant.

We consult a speech therapist, who confirms that these changes are difficult, and that they won’t happen all at once. She suggests that we start by trying to implement them for just five minutes a day.

There are other efforts we can make as well:

Hold her gaze while she’s talking, even when she’s having trouble, despite any temptation to avert your eyes.

Resist the urge to supply a word for her, or finish her sentences.

Listen to what she says, not how she’s saying it.

This last directive is startling, and I wonder what would happen if I tried to heed it in every interpersonal exchange. What if, say, I could listen to a friend’s relentless stream of self-promotion and instead of hearing him say that he’s the greatest, I could hear that he needs affirmation more than he does his next meal?

With the therapist’s advice in mind, I decide to try this for just five minutes a day. The effect is immediate and profound. Right away it’s less manifest that people are power-hungry and greedy and obnoxious and hostile, and more apparent that the whole world is hurting.

*   *   *

On that list of famous people trotted out by the stuttering community, there is one man without a whiff of gratitude about him, and that is John Melendez of The Tonight Show (formerly known as Stuttering John during his time with The Howard Stern Show). In a wildly ironic inversion of the usual scenario, Melendez was one of Stern’s many interns when he was chosen—sight unseen—by the master provocateur to conduct celebrity interviews. (“He stutters?” Stern said. “Hire him.”) Stern was delighted by the possibilities posed by a stuttering interviewer: the tension inherent in every exchange; the idea that celebrities would be afraid to look heartless by snubbing him; its consistency with the “freak factor” that is the show’s trademark.

“Stuttering’s a great defect for radio,” Stern mused on the air to Melendez the day the latter joined the team, “because obviously, we have a guy with no arms or something, no one can see it and … only we enjoy it here in the studio, but stuttering … we always wanted a stutterer. I mean … you’re priceless!”

And Melendez did not disappoint. While on camera, he peppered dozens of celebrities with insulting questions, asking Oliver North if he’d ever had a nightmare where his penis got caught in a paper shredder, Gennifer Flowers whether she would be sleeping with any other presidential candidates. To Imelda Marcos: “If you pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?” And to supermodel Claudia Schiffer: “Who’s smarter, Christie Brinkley or Forrest Gump?”

I’m not sure why, among the dozens of other famous people on these lists, Melendez was the one who mesmerized me. Maybe it’s that my brother’s experience of stuttering is the only one I’ve witnessed intimately, and his main response to it seemed to be anger, and John’s chosen line of work was arguably an angry thing to be doing. Or it could be the fact that Melendez is one of the only celebrities who has stuttered mightily in the public eye. Those who identify stuttering as a gift tend to do so in fluent voices; they are usually the ones who have “conquered” the disorder, at least to the extent of controlling it on camera.

On Melendez’s website, along with his bio and blog and event calendar, is a list of tips for stutterers. Over the past several months, I’ve seen many such lists, without much variation among them. But Melendez offers tips that I haven’t read before:

“Know in your heart that whomever you are talking to is no better than you.”

“Laugh at it, let people make fun of it … don’t let it define you, it’s something you do, it’s not who you are.”

And perhaps the one that is most interesting to me: “Get angry in your mind when speaking.”

Late one night, researching Melendez online, I stumble across an interview he did for a radio program called Stuttertalk. Has every parent of a child with a “challenge” flashed on their own version of this fantasy? Let’s find a place where everyone stutters; let’s move there immediately. This channel creates an illusion that there is such a place: Let’s call it The Isle of Stuttering. Everyone on it stutters: the moderators, the guests, the voices on the promotional clips. As on any other radio station, there’s a little riff where a succession of guest stars introduce themselves, saying some version of: This is J-j-joe Blow, and you’re l-l-listening to Stuttertalk. Most dramatically, one woman says, “This is…” and more than ten tortured seconds elapse before she is able to say her name. In this interview, the show’s two stuttering hosts talk at length with Melendez. Listening in the dark to three stuttering voices feels a little surreal, even a little eerie, as if I’m standing in the shadows beside some house on the Isle of Stuttering, eavesdropping beneath the kitchen window.

Toward the end of the interview, Melendez is asked whether he has ever used his stutter to help him pick up women. He seems truly bewildered by the question and says no, if anything it has been a hindrance to picking up women.

The next query, by now, seems inevitable to me.

“John, do you think of your stuttering as a gift? H-h-has it been a gift in your life?”

“A gift?” John repeats. His tone is half incredulous and half uncertain, as if he suspects he has heard wrong, or maybe the host is putting him on.

“Yeah,” his interviewer persists. “A gift.”

No,” he says. “I think it’s a handicap. The truth is, if I could trade in and say, you know, let’s start again, and I’ll be twenty-three again and … here’s my choice: I could be Stuttering John, or I could just speak fluently and go on in my life the way that I would want to—I would choose speaking fluently.”

Ah, I think. Finally.

*   *   *

Having said all this, let me say as well that I wouldn’t choose John Melendez as a role model for Charlotte. And I’m glad that so many inspiring people have wrested something redemptive from their struggles with stuttering.

But I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe every problem is an opportunity, or at least, an opportunity worth the price. And I think that stuttering is unmitigated misery for the majority of those with the disorder. The truth is that if I could choose either happiness or greatness for Charlotte—not that they’re mutually exclusive, and not that the choice is mine—but if it were up to me, and it could only be one or the other, I would want her to be happy. I don’t have any reason to doubt that she’ll eventually be all right. But I want her to be happy now; I want her to have a happy childhood.

Of course, this isn’t up to me either, at least not past a certain point.

Whenever I’m asked whether I see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full, I like to say—truthfully—that I see it as half empty and half full. And so I take a certain satisfaction in this same equivocation from the collective stuttering community. I’m glad that Joe Biden and his ilk are there, and I’m glad that John Melendez is there. And I can even concede that stuttering has already offered me some benefits as a mother: a different way of speaking and hearing; a deeper apprehension of the fellowship of suffering; the understanding, finally, that the point of parenting is not to forever keep adversity at bay for one’s children. The point, I believe—one of the most important points, anyway—is to help one’s children feel at home in the human family.

Not long ago, my husband said something that—in its very simplicity and self-evidence—seemed to me as lovely and wise as anything I’d ever heard. “We will do everything we possibly can to make this go away,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, then we’ll live with it.”

If Charlotte ultimately feels that there’s no silver lining to stuttering, if it offers her not a shred of transcendence, I want her to know that’s all right. And if, on the other hand, she comes to regard it as a gift—one that was given to her for a reason—I devoutly hope I’ll have the grace to stay out of her way.

Someday, in any case, she’ll have made her own way with it. She’ll tell me how it is. And I’ll be listening.

Author’s Note: Although my brother’s struggle with stuttering was a part of everyday life within our childhood home, he and I didn’t talk about it very often. Writing this essay gave me a chance to ask him intimate questions about this very formative experience. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to revisit some of the territory we covered, and I am deeply grateful for his thoughtful and candid answers.

Brain, Child (Summer, 2010)

Elissa Wald is the author of three books: Meeting The Master, Holding Fire: A Love Story, and The Secret Lives Of Married Women. Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Beacon Best of 2001, Creative Nonfiction, The Barcelona Review, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Rumpus, Poets and Writers Magazine, and The Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames. She lives with her husband, daughter and son in Portland, Oregon, where she freelances as a writer and editor. Readers and new friends are welcome to connect with her on Facebook.

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Imagining Autism

Imagining Autism

By Carrie Montanez

Family PicI wake up. The light is so bright. I cover my eyes with the pillow.

“Are you getting up?” I hear my mother yell. She doesn’t know she’s loud but she is. She could call much more softly.

I throw the covers off and roll out from under the pillow. These sheets are scratchy against my skin – I don’t like that. I should probably tell Mom so she can get me new ones. She doesn’t know about that either.

I look around my room. I see my toys by the wall and start thinking about them. I imagine other universes, with cybernetic beings and aliens controlling the world. If I were a cybernetic human, then I could just heal myself whenever someone shot me or hurt me. Or I could just go to the repair bay, where the cybernetic experts can fix my body.

“Don’t forget to get dressed before you come down for breakfast!” My mother’s second call breaks me from my imaginings. Sometimes I forget what I’m supposed to be doing. Mom reminds me though; she’s good at that. Some things she knows.

I go to my dresser and start digging through clothes. I’m still imagining myself as a robotic human, so I’m making mechanical noises as I move. I look for a shirt with no tag because tags really bother me. Most of my shirts have the tags cut off, but sometimes Mom forgets that. I put the shirt on, and start looking for pants. Pants can have tags; those don’t bother me. There are no pants in my dresser that I want, so I put on the ones I wore yesterday. I put on my shoes and leave my room.

I go down the stairs and into the kitchen. I am aware that Mom is folding laundry. I am aware of everything. The music playing in the kitchen. The light coming through the window. The hum of the refrigerator. The hiss of the coffee machine. The smell of the coffee itself. The smell of the laundry mom is folding. The smell of Mom. These are things only I notice. They are all competing for my attention and overwhelming my brain.

The smell of the coffee triggers my gag reflex. I’m getting good at controlling it, though. I grab a bowl and spoon from the clean dishwasher and get my cereal out of the cupboard. Then I go get the milk. I always pour the milk in first, then the cereal. Mom says that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it, but it’s the way I do it so it’s okay.

“Those are the pants you wore yesterday, hun, you can’t wear them again,” Mom says. She hands me a clean pair of pants from the pile she’s folded and tells me to change after breakfast. I nod, my mouth full of cereal, and set the pants on my desk. I sit down to eat. I take very large bites. Mom doesn’t like that; she worries I might choke myself. She reminds me to take smaller, slower bites and chew them really good. I try to remember, but I really love this cereal.

Suddenly, my little brother is in my face and he’s yelling. He’s smiling and laughing, so he must think it’s funny, but I don’t. He is too close and too loud and he’s scaring me. I push him away, but Mom snaps at me. She tells me I have to be careful and remember I am much bigger than my brother. She worries I could hurt him.

“But Mom, he was bothering me. Can’t you tell him to stop it?” My brother and sister like to bother me a lot. I don’t know why they think it’s funny. It really annoys me.

“Stop bothering your brother, little hell-demon. Be nice.” Mom tries to tell him, but he never listens. He just keeps bothering me. I get up and run outside.

Out here, it is quieter. I hear birds twittering, and I hear cars on the highway. The breeze is a little cool and smells like grass. I see my cats sitting on the porch. They come to meet me as I go to pet them. I love my cats. I love coming outside and sitting with them and petting them and talking to them. Cats are soft and quiet. I like to cuddle them. Sometimes when I come home on the bus, they are waiting for me on the sidewalk. Mom says that’s normal for dogs, but not cats.

Mom opens the door. “Don’t forget to change your pants, hun.”

“Oh, I almost forgot! Thanks for reminding me Mom.” I go back inside and grab my pants off the desk. I go into the bathroom and lock the door to make sure nobody bothers me. In the bathroom it is quiet. The lights are not too bright, but it doesn’t always smell the best. Today it smells okay I guess. Mom should probably clean the toilet, though.

I put my pants on and hurry to put my shoes back on. I don’t like the way the rug feels on my toes and feet. Mom thinks it’s a great rug, that it is beautiful and soft, but I think it feels funny. I look in the mirror. I start to imagine again. If I were a cybernetic human, I would have robot arms and a robot body and a human head. I could touch hot things and they wouldn’t hurt me. I wouldn’t have to take a shower because it might fry my circuits. I wouldn’t have to eat things I don’t like.

Mom knocks on the door. “You about done in there? Your sister’s gotta pee.”

“Oh, right!” I say as I open the door. “I got a little distracted.” Mom pats me on the back.

“It’s okay, kiddo, I understand.” Yeah, some things she gets. I start telling her about what I was imagining in there. She nods and asks me questions. It really makes me feel good about telling her what’s in my imagination. After our talk, I sit down and try to finish my cereal. It’s been sitting there for a few minutes, and now it’s mushy. I don’t like that, so I dump it out.

“Coat time!” Mom yells. It is too loud for me, so I plug my ears. When I am sure she isn’t going to yell again, I go to get my jacket on. I find my backpack and my lunchbox right where I left them yesterday. If Mom moves my things she always tries to put them back where I left them so I can find them again. I lose things very easily.

We go outside to wait for the bus. My brother and my sister are playing on the sidewalk, but I am standing on the porch with my cats. I feel safer over here. I know that they won’t bother me if they are busy playing over there. I sit quietly and pet my cats, telling them all about the things in my imagination.

The bus is here. It’s a small bus, and only a few other kids ride on it. I like to sit by the window so I can wave goodbye to Mom when we leave.

Mom says, “Goodbye! I love you! Have a good day!” and we all wave and smile. My brother and sister stick their tongues out at Mom, and she sticks hers back. I don’t like that, I think its gross, so I don’t do it.

At school, my helper comes to meet me. She goes with me to my classes and helps me with my homework. She is really nice and I like her a lot. We are friends.

All the kids in my class are my friends. They are very nice to me and they help me sometimes. They all say hello to me when I walk into the classroom.

“Are you ready for your math test today?” My helper asks.

“Oh no! I forgot the math test!” I am very nervous. Having tests always makes me nervous, even when I’m very good at things. I start to breathe in and out very quickly.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, nothing to get upset about. We studied for it yesterday and you knew all the answers so I know you’re going to do perfect!” My helper’s words calm me down and I start to breathe normally again. She is right. I am good at math and I shouldn’t worry. Besides, she will be there to help me if I can’t figure out a problem. We sit down and review for the math test. Then we go to the math room for the test, and it is really easy. I can’t believe I was ever so worried!

Later, it is lunchtime. I sit at the table with my helper and open my lunch box. Every day my mother puts an apple into my lunchbox. I don’t like them, but I try to eat a little of it anyway. Mom doesn’t like it when I throw them in the trash. I also have a sandwich with only jelly. I used to like peanut butter with jelly, but then I think Mother started using crunchy peanut butter and I didn’t like that. I take the peanut butter half off and eat the jelly side. So now mother only puts jelly on my sandwiches.

After lunch I have English class. We are reading a book. I read very well, but I don’t always understand what I’m reading. We go very slowly and read just one paragraph at a time. Then my helper and I go back through it sentence by sentence and talk about what the paragraph means. It is slow, but it is the way I learn.

In the hallway, there are lots of other kids. They are all talking and it is very loud in my head. I also hear locker doors opening and shutting loudly. I walk by the bathroom and as the door opens I hear the sound of a flushing toilet. Bathrooms always smell bad to me, too. The busyness sometimes makes me feel dizzy and makes my head hurt. I’m glad my helper is here for me.

At the end of the day, I say goodbye to my helper and rush to get on the bus. I want to make sure I get a comfortable seat. I am so glad I don’t ride a big bus; they are so loud and there are too many kids. My brother and sister get on the bus and it is time to go. When we get to our house, my brother rushes in front of me to be the first in the door. Mom reminds me that he likes to be first, but I don’t like that he always gets his way.

I want to get on my computer, but the parental controls are on. I’m not allowed to be on it until five o’clock. I decide to go up to my room and play with my toys until I can get on the computer. Sometimes I like to play with Mom’s tablet. Mom wants me to read books, but I don’t like to. Sometimes it’s too hard and I start thinking of other things instead of thinking about the book. It’s much easier for me to just play with my toys and use my imagination.

Later, Mom calls me down for dinner. She’s made me a grilled cheese sandwich, because she knows I don’t like tacos. I sit at my computer and open my digital designer while I eat. I love making things on my computer, even if I’m just painting. I like to play Minecraft and use my Lego Digital Designer. Everyone seems impressed by the things I make. They are only things from my imagination, though; I see them inside my head all the time. And I don’t like it when people are too impressed. Sometimes all that attention just makes me nervous, so I don’t like people to make a big deal out of things.

“Where does your plate go when you’re finished?” Mom asks me. I remember it goes in the sink, so I get up to take it in there. On the way I start thinking about Transformers and what I would do if I had the Matrix of Leadership and Megatron was trying to take it away from me. I would run very fast, and hide behind things, like this table. All I have to do is get the Matrix to the sink, and everything will be safe. I sense Megatron is coming around the corner of the table, so I jump up and shoot at him. Direct hit!

“Plate. Sink.” Mom reminds me. Oh, right. I got a little distracted again. I put the plate in the sink and go back to my computer. I play for a few hours, designing and creating fantastic things, until Mom says it’s time for bed. Sometimes I like to sleep on the couch, because my sister likes to sleep there and doesn’t want to sleep alone. I usually like to sleep in my own bed, in my room where it’s quiet.

Mom comes in to say goodnight, but I have been thinking and I want to tell her some things.

“Mom, maybe one day I will create a potion that will make you never get hurt, and never be tired. And all your atoms will reproduce faster. And then humans can split apart and still retain their bodily organs. And maybe I can make an aging potion so we can all stay the age we are.”

“Wow that sounds fascinating. You should go to college and be a scientist when you grow up.”

“Well, maybe I’ll go to college for one day – just to learn how to make potions.”

“Whatever makes you happy, kiddo.” Mom kisses me on the forehead and I giggle, embarrassed.

“Goodnight, Mother. Sleep well,” I say to her.

“Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” She turns the light off and shuts the door. The sheets are still scratchy. I should tell Mom about that. But at least it is dark, and the house is quiet. As I fall asleep, my imagination comes to life.

Carrie Montanez is a 32-year-old stay at home mother of three kids, living in Iowa, and Navy wife to Jacob Montanez, who is currently stationed in Pearl Harbor.

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Secrets From The Grave

Secrets From The Grave

By Rebecca Braun

0-1My four-year-old son came home from childcare and said, “I have a secret. I get to tell you?”

I nodded vigorously.

He leaned close and stage-whispered, “Odin wore red pants today!”

I breathed in to combat the laugh sneaking out. My son’s complete lack of secrets struck me as the purest form of innocence, the embodiment of childhood beauty.

It happened that I had been thinking about secrets. In a moment of courage I had agreed to participate in an amateur storytelling event, after which I learned that the topic of the evening was secrets.

Since my husband’s sudden death 18 months earlier I’d felt exposed and naked. I didn’t intend to spill any secrets I might have left. I simmered with resentment. That is, until the Secret of the Red Pants incident.

Secrets mean something different to all of us. I’ve always considered myself a good secret keeper. I’m extroverted and talky and I try to give genuine answers to genuine questions, but I’m fundamentally private.

As I think about the story I’m supposed to tell, I make a melodramatic vow to myself: I’ll take my secrets to the grave.

And that’s when it hit me. My secrets have already gone to the grave, I think in a moment of inner black humor. Or to ashes, I correct myself.


I’m not really the support group type, but when you’re 39 and your husband dies in a freak accident, you kind of get a hankering to feel like one of the crowd. So I joined a Hospice group for young widows. The first evening, the facilitator, a platinum-blond with a luscious Boston accent, comforted one of my weepy peers: “I know, honey, you’ve lost your future.” [pronounced, yoh fewcha]

Lost my future? I rolled the words around on my tongue. It didn’t ring true. I don’t feel that, I thought. If anything, I gained a future. Where my future was once known, now it’s big and undelineated, needing to be re-imagined. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s open. I think about the future more than I used to.

I haven’t lost my future, I’ve lost my past. I’ve never been great at taking pictures. Most of the journals and diaries I’ve written are lost. I left one behind a rock where I was writing in Joshua Tree Desert, one in a hotel night table on the island of Fiji, one at an airport gate. I just can’t hold onto my memories.

One of the beauties of marriage is the creation of shared memories. There are certain stories you can only tell together, even when you tell contradictory versions. The story of my daughter’s birth is one. I don’t remember the moment when the nurse snapped at my husband, who had been trying to encourage me, “It’s like pushing a Mack truck out your butt, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or something like that. I don’t remember the moment I pushed Rosie out. That was John’s job.

And I don’t remember what happened on our honeymoon, when we took a spontaneous detour to China and then further into China and found ourselves in a bar in Lijiang where we befriended the owner. There was something magical and genius that occurred there, but it was filed in John’s memory.

And when we did that mini trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, did we rescue a goat from a well, or is that a fabrication of my imagination? What route did we take when we canoed the Boundary Waters during my first pregnancy? Did we catch a fish, or was that someone else’s story?

I outsourced my memory and didn’t realize there was no back-up. So much happened only between us, was known only by us–benign, mundane details of our lives. That intimacy is the fabric of love and marriage. But when one’s co-keeper of memory disappears unexpectedly, those details vanish too. So here I am, ace secret-keeper, and I’ve forgotten my own secrets.

It’s like I saved my money in a currency that no longer exists, or wrote my memoir in invisible ink. It happened, but I can’t access it.

A grief counselor once told the story of a four-year-old trying to figure out what to do for her dead father’s birthday. The girl hit on the idea of making a cake and putting M&M’s all over the top, because, she said, he loved M&M’s.

It turns out, according to the mother, her husband didn’t have any special attachment to M&M’s. But the girl loved the cake and now makes him this M&M birthday cake every year. So what if it’s a fabricated memory, argued the grief counselor; it brings the little girl joy.

I toyed with this idea, how we create our own legends, mythologize those we’ve lost. It’s happening already with my dead husband. Do I correct my children’s inaccurate memories? Does truth matter in personal memory?


When the police officer told me, “John died,” I knew with instant clarity that this was the defining moment of my kids’ lives. I think I keeled over, and from my prone position on the floor outside our hotel room, I was third-person omniscient. I saw my daughter Rosie as an adult, saying matter-of-factly, “My dad died when I was eight.” It was a new and stunning and permanent truth.

I tried out my son’s life story. “My dad died when I was two.”

I knew Rosie would have memories, and I knew I needed to help fix them. I knew Alder would need his memories planted and cultivated. I set to talking about John as often as I could, telling little stories whenever they would come into my head, pointing to the line on the wall marking John’s height, reminding Alder:

“Your dad used to juggle apples and eat them as he juggled.”

“Your daddy used to make egg sandwiches like this.”

“Remember when you and Daddy would put coffee beans on the floor and tell Rosie and me it was goat poop?”

About 18 months after John’s death, we walked by a bin of peanuts in the shell while grocery shopping. Alder said, “I want those.” I’ve never bought peanuts in the shell, but I suddenly remembered that very occasionally, John did.

So I said, “Okay,” and bought some, unsure whether Alder really knew what they were. When we got home he started cracking them and he said, “When John was alive I ate these with him.”

I never fed him that memory. We have no pictures of John shelling peanuts. Somewhere within Alder his own secret memory emerged from the darkness. It was such a small thing, Alder remembering John shelling peanuts, and it made me almost ecstatically happy.

Some months later, Alder started talking about Daddy. A journalist by profession and habit, I recorded his words:

I have like ten reasons why I didn’t want Daddy to die.

Daddy was the best thrower.

And he loved to play trains with me.

I just didn’t want him to become dead.

And he did lots of stuff with me, he just played and played and played.

I was at my Grandma’s house when I was a baby; he did the guitar.

And I like that red chair also, that was right there.

And I liked that little table near where the lamp was.


John, Daddy John.

And he loved to play and play and play and play and play and play and play and play.

That’s the end.

My son’s words may sound sad to others, but they brought me relief. His bursts of memory affirmed for me that beams of light will illuminate our past. Memory ebbs and flows. When the only other living witness to a moment is gone, that moment itself isn’t gone. It happened, and we the living are the sum total of all that happened to us, whether or not we remember it.

I never know what will leak from the vault of personal experience within each of my children, or when it will happen. I can only hope these storehouses will give them strength and wisdom when my own words and memories fail.

Rebecca Braun lives and writes in Alaska with her two children, Rosie and Alder.

Why It’s Not OK To Label Our Children

Why It’s Not OK To Label Our Children

By Julie Hill Barton

0-6When my first daughter was born, I fell madly in love with her. I remember crying in my hospital bed, my dad whispering, “You okay?”

“Yes,” I said, wiping my tears. “I knew I would love her.  But I didn’t know I’d love her this much.”

That baby is eight-years-old now, has a five-year-old sister, and I still vividly remember how blessed I felt that day, how confident I felt that I could raise a strong, kind, loving, self-assured girl. I always had a deep-down faith that I knew how to teach my girls’ right from wrong, kindness from thoughtlessness, respect from carelessness.

That is, until our oldest daughter reached kindergarten. At our spring parent-teacher conference, we learned that our sweet girl was sometimes monopolizing her best friend, could be grumpy with peers, and had rolled her eyes at the teacher. The teacher suggested our daughter needed to see the school counselor. When the conference ended, and I managed to extract myself from the tiny chair, I walked outside and burst into tears. What had I done wrong?

It has taken me almost four years and lots of drama to understand that all of this has very little to do with me. I’m doing my best. My daughters have vastly different personalities, and that’s just how they came. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and both are at the core, nothing but good.

My oldest is in third grade now. I’ve watched as she has learned, through trial and error, to be a good friend. She is strong and confident, but she gets hurt sometimes too. It’s all part of that sticky process of growing up.

In second grade, she asked her best-friend-since-kindergarten if they could have a play date. Her friend replied, “I can’t have any more play dates with you because my mom says you’re mean.” My daughter came home with eyes as big as saucers, collapsed into bed and wept.

That was a year ago, and she still talks about it. She still asks me if she’s a mean person. She was seven-years-old when this happened, and I fear that the trauma of this one word being uttered about her by one careless adult will forever be etched in her heart, making her question her own goodness.

I called that mom, who was my friend, and she mumbled that our daughters were both mean sometimes. She tried to make a joke about girl drama, but I wasn’t laughing. I hung up feeling sick and guarded, and hyper-aware of how nonchalantly we, as a society, label children.

A short list of things I’ve heard parents say about other children: “He’s a shy kid.” “She’s such a sweetheart!” “Ugh, that kid’s a nightmare.” “She must have ADHD or something.” When we say these things, it’s the emotional equivalent of juggling knives in the NICU. We’re putting children in narrow boxes, cornering them into behaviors and personalities that they’ll then feel that they must inhabit. We all experienced this as children in the 60’s and 70’s. Isn’t it time we changed the course for our children?

I can’t say it clearly enough, both to myself and to other parents: There’s no mean one. There’s no nice one. There’s no sweet one. There’s no nasty one. They’re all little imperfect, nascent beings with every single one of the above qualities healthily intact.  As my daughter’s third grade teacher says, “Label the behavior, not the child.”

I was in school just a few days ago and watched my daughter walk by her former best friend in the hallway. They waved at each other with a longing so sweet and strong that I wanted to hug them both, tell them it was okay to be friends, that it was their choice and no one else’s, and that they were both nothing but walking goodness, simply and beautifully learning their way in the big, wide world.

Julie Hill Barton is a writer and mother of two daughters in Northern California. She has an MA in Women’s Studies and an MFA in Writing. She is currently writing a memoir about battling depression with the help of a remarkable therapy dog. You can read more about her at

Reconciling The Past By Looking Into The Future

Reconciling The Past By Looking Into The Future




You were either oxygen or Saturn and, like you, I have developed a taste for the jarring juxtaposition of opaque metaphors. “Make them wonder,” you used to tell me back when I was 9, writing incomplete story after story in green and yellow notebooks, motivated by a blurry mess of loving language and loving the way you loved me when I dared to imagine. “If you get bored, don’t finish and just start a new one,” you instructed, “All the wildest culture and coolest philosophy is unearthed in fragments, pieces, ambiguity. Leave a trail of incomplete pieces. It’s a way of showing respect for your reader. Make them wonder.” I stared at you like poets get drunk on the moon, wondering what you meant, trying to be bigger. “How do you spell tomorrow,” I asked.

Your black guitar.

Oxygen because you were so often there, in my face, and Saturn because you so often weren’t. There were times, Dad, when I felt utterly submerged in your attention, an extension of your presence, with no doubts, unquestionably there and granted like grass and clouds and the illusion of safety. And other times, sitting in your lap with my arms draped around your neck, it was as if you were no less than 746 million miles away, gone, lost in some thought or desire or world in which I didn’t exist. It wasn’t easy being your daughter, but I don’t hold that against you. It’s not easy being anything.

The broken coffee pot.

You were a piece of trash in the wind, a mad scientist, a ghost—you had no time for toast, a blue ribbon, a bomb, and you exploded with the belief that everything was a metaphor for everything. “Two unlike things,” you’d say, pacing, arms flailing, crazy-eyed, “with nothing at all in common but then you think and wonder and bang your head against them until a bridge spans the space between, informs them, and makes meaning. Everything is everything and bridges—bridges are metaphors for metaphors.” You were a fire. You got out of hand.

Reading books aloud. Stopping to wonder.

I want to wish you a happy Father’s Day, Dad, and I want to wish you a terrible Father’s Day, Dad, and the only way I can contain and express the way I feel about you is to imagine that I am two—maybe more—people and we, all my mes, have these simultaneous and conflicting perspectives of you. And maybe, when all these angles collide, you are a Picasso or a Braque, a beautiful calamity of cubes and a mad riot of color or, maybe, all these conflicting perspectives of you embrace and, like something whispered in Sanskrit, they cancel each other out and you are a library. A dead end road. Zero, infinity, or both.

The pink hat from Kate. Was it worth what we paid?

I don’t know. But, because I am your daughter and because bridges span the spaces, no matter how the pieces of me cohere or don’t or what they signify, I want, on Father’s Day, to love all of you. The empty bottles. The home you broke. The way your enthusiasm and attention created me line by line like a little poem that revealed the worlding of a world with the girling of a girl. All of you. All of us. Because you’re my dad, yes, and it’s Father’s Day, too, but also for me, your daughter, a metaphor for you, weeping blue flowers, big yellow stars that howl in the dark like coyotes, juggling clowns, everything.

I love you,

Lola Blue

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That Maternity Outfit Is Not Very Slimming: Living With A Family Of Truth Tellers

By Tracy Sutton Schorn

0-4I come from a long line of oracles from Detroit. I’m a fourth generation oracle, actually. In antiquity, oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke directly. Frenzied women who made predictions and told unpalatable truths like: “Yes, the Trojans are going to slaughter you in battle.” The Detroit oracles of my family says things like: “That maternity outfit is not very slimming” and “no you can’t have the income from your trust fund because you’re going to need that money for your divorce.”

(For the record: It wasn’t. And I did.)

My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother were all truth tellers. Women who were not one bit afraid to hurt your feelings. “You look washed out. Put on some lipstick.” And “No one employs majors in African history. Are you afraid to work?” Nor were they afraid to give an unvarnished assessment of their offspring. “When your mother was born, she was such a beautiful baby. She looked like a rosebud. But not your aunt. Your aunt looked like a chimpanzee.”

How is this different from verbal abuse? Well, abusers often make things up and say shit just to hurt you. Oracles, on the other hand, are dead on. They just don’t care if it hurts you. The other difference is — an oracle’s prediction comes true. In ancient times, people traveled perilous distances and sacrificed expensive offerings in order to consult the oracles. In my family they just give it away for free: “Sue will never conquer her addiction issues and she’s cheating on your brother.”

It’s a burden being an oracle. Some people need a lot of evidence to come to conclusions. As oracles, we can see around the corner of things and come right to the (usually sad) conclusion. We can suss a lot out with just a few scraps of information. The trajectory is apparent to us. The twins are autistic. Your uncle is having an affair. Cousin David is bipolar and will spend a lifetime locked in his parent-subsidized apartment drawing obsessive portraits of Christina Aguilera.

What do you do with this knowledge? If you are a mother and an oracle – you speak the truth to your kids. You respect them enough to warn them of certain unpleasant realities. But are wise enough to back off and let them decide what they’re going to do with that knowledge. “The Trojans are going to kick your ass. I’m sorry, they are. I told you not to date a Trojan, but you wouldn’t listen. Look, you’re going to survive.  Of course you are! The world is full of conniving Trojans, people hiding in horses pretending to be things they’re not.”

What a mother oracle is NOT going to do is sugarcoat things. They love you too much to let you blunder into this world uninformed with your shirt untucked. They will grab you by the lapels and force you to consider things you’d rather not consider. That your marriage is failing. That your hair looks ridiculous. That you ought to consider a teaching career instead of gun running for the African National Congress.

I would argue that oracle mothering is a harder path. The natural path is to want to comfort your children, protect them, and coddle them in their delusions. The last thing a loving mother wants to do is intentionally hurt her child. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to dust off your child, after some colossal misfortune and coo “Sweetie, they’re just jealous. It’s because you’re so much prettier/smarter/more special than they are.” It’s reflexive to want to blame-shift responsibility for some shit outcome on to some one else. “That teacher’s grading system is really unfair.” It’s harder to accept that your kid is at fault. Or that when someone else is at fault, it doesn’t really matter. You still have to deal.

An oracle mother wants you to be the kind of person who can cope. And you can’t learn to cope with things you don’t face head on. And if facing it hurts? Well, suck it up. Don’t crumble to pieces. You’ll either figure it out, or you’ll learn to live with it.

When I went to visit my grandmother in Florida while six months pregnant with her first great-grandchild, she took one look at me and said, “that maternity outfit is not very slimming.” Frankly, it’s an idiotic thing to say to someone who is enduring maternity summer casual wear in her second trimester. Maybe it was cruel. But it was accurate. You can wear all the cotton tunics you want to, but you can’t disguise the fact that you’re carrying a baby there around your midsection.

Hearing it put so bluntly, well, I accepted it. Yep, I’m fat and pregnant. May as well embrace it. I waddled around accordingly.

I’ve had to embrace my share of unpalatable truths during my life. As the saying goes – the truth will set you free — but first it will piss you off. I want to thank the oracle women in my family for all the ugly truths. And all the love and support that followed. I might still be mad … but I’ve got lipstick on and I don’t look washed out. Thanks.

Tracy Sutton Schorn is a writer living in Lockhart, Texas. She writes the blog

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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All My Children

All My Children

18883895975_2a16b01868_bBy Katherine Ozment

Our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jessie, is curled in my lap—as much as any five-and-a-half-year-old child can curl in her mother’s lap. Her long, gangly legs don’t quite fit anymore. She’s got one thumb in her mouth, the other hand pulled tight to her chest, and her face is resting against my breastbone—the fetal position, kindergarten-style.

Across the room, Annie, our eighteen-month-old, sees Jessie in her favorite spot and blows a gasket. Her brow furrows and she waddles toward us like a mad duck, her round belly clearing her path as she steps on strewn toys and bangs into the table, then a few chairs, en route. She’s making a noise I can only describe as keening, and I’m reminded once again of the wild intensity—and sheer absurdity—of this thing called sibling rivalry. A keening, waddling, pissed-off duck is coming at me as a delicate, too-tall flower lies limp and sad in my arms. This can’t end well.

Annie reaches us, and with one meaty-armed shove—surprising in force for someone who weighs as much as a holiday turkey—pushes Jessie, who falls from my lap in a long, drawn-out tumble, like an origami swan coming unfolded. Writhing on the floor, Jessie yells, “I hate her!”

Annie smiles, climbs into my lap, tilts her sweet face up to me, and chirps, “Book?”

William, our nine-year-old son, saunters by on his way to the fridge for a snack, notices Jessie crying, and says off-handedly, “She just wants you—like we all do.”

And, with that, our big, bookish boy sums up the whole mess. A natural historian peering in through our kitchen window might call the episode a clear case of the survival of the fittest. An economist might deem ours an obvious example of competition for scarce resources. And a writer might wax poetic on the positive outcome of all that sisterly competition, as Simone de Beauvoir once did: “She helped me to assert myself … I believe I should count the fact of having had a sister, younger than myself but close to me in age, as one of my pieces of good luck.”

Brother-brother, sister-sister, and brother-sister relationships have been mucking up the works ever since Cain fell out with Abel. But, as a field of study, sibling relationships are relatively new. While Freud probed parent-child and husband-wife bonds, the study of siblings has long existed in a kind of academic backwater. But, with a rise in new ways of looking at these age-old relationships in fields as various as evolutionary psychology, sociology, biology, anthropology, and even zoology, siblings have taken their rightful spot amid the forefront of the study of families. What has emerged can be as thorny as it is fascinating. But at their best, such studies shed new light on these fundamental relationships, which, perhaps more than any other, shape who we ultimately become.

This fall, a new book was published that condenses much of this research in one volume. In The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us, published in September, Jeffrey Kluger, a Time magazine writer, gathers the latest sibling research and intersperses what he learns with his own memories of growing up with three brothers, and later, a half-sister and half-brother. The result is a rich, thought-provoking mix of social science and memoir.

Looking back on his childhood with three brothers, Kluger often waxes nostalgic. “The four of us, we came to know at a very deep level, were a unit,” he writes, “a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much, much stronger that way than we did as individuals. And whenever the need arose, we knew we’d be able to call on that strength. Even now, several decades on, we still can.” But the point of his book goes much deeper: Those who don’t feel such warmth toward their siblings have also been shaped in fundamental and inescapable ways by them, whether they like it or not. We may believe that once we leave home and the daily company of our brothers, sisters, step-sibs, and halfs that we’re free of their influence. But the new research suggests that that is far from the case.

Eighty percent of Americans grow up with at least one brother or sister, and our bonds with our siblings are often the longest lasting and the most intense of our lives. In contrast to parents, whose relationship with us is more authoritarian in nature, our siblings swim alongside us in the family pool. We take baths with them, share bunk beds, kick each other under the dining room table, and wrestle across the back seats of station wagons through the crucial years of our young lives. From such intense, abiding bonds grows a family tree so tangled, so beautiful, and sometimes so bruised that those of us with siblings see traces of them, like a fine dust, on everything we do—even, or perhaps especially, when we become parents to siblings ourselves. In my case, I am particularly attuned to how my kids play—and fight—with one another, because I lost a brother when I was nineteen, and it wasn’t until long after he was gone that I realized how much his life had influenced my own. Will it take a lifetime—and a tragedy—for my own children to reach similar conclusions?

Turning to Kluger’s book not just as a sister but also as a mother, I was sometimes left with more questions than answers. Like: What power, if any, do I have in shaping my children’s relationships with one another? Should my husband and I try to promote loving bonds among our three kids, or is the degree and type of connection they share pre-ordained by birth order, age spacing, and temperament? Does the way they act toward one another now affect how they’ll interact later in life? And, most importantly for me these days, when all hell breaks loose, should I step in and referee, or can I let them pummel one another in the other room as I drink my coffee, serene in the knowledge that their relationships are their own and have nothing to do with me? For answers, I dug more deeply into the history of siblings, and the research itself.

For decades, sibling research lagged behind other kinds of psychological and sociological family study. In large part, that’s because it is so hard to do. Unlike probing a simple two-person relationship—say, a mother and child—the study of siblings is rife with variables. Researchers have to take into account such elements as age, background, gender, and overall family size and structure. And, not only is each family different from one another, each one changes, itself, in multiple ways over time. Added to that, the increase in divorce and remarriage in modern times have blurred family boundaries. So now, for the purposes of research, who do we call a sibling? For those of us in blended families, how do we explain which branch we occupy on the family tree? In my case, for instance, my parents divorced and my father remarried, so I grew up with two full brothers who were nine and seven years older than me, and, later, two half-sisters, twelve and eighteen years younger. At various times in my life, I have thus been the youngest child, only child, oldest child, and middle child. What can any researcher really say about that?

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Nor have sibling relationships been the same throughout history. Over time, the imprint of culture has shaped the way families behave. From the countless sibling stories in the Old Testament and classical mythology, it’s clear that Western civilization has long acknowledged the importance, reward, and difficulty of sibling bonds.

Sibling relationships evolved dramatically through the modern era. By the eighteenth century, historians note, sibling relationships had grown strained by the practice of primogeniture and the rules determining which daughter could marry when. The resulting sibling conflicts began to subside as those laws and customs fell away. The nineteenth-century saw middle-class families embracing the importance of loving relationships within the family, especially between mothers and children. With family money no longer handed down strictly according to sibling birth order, parents began to emphasize loyalty among their offspring instead.

At the turn of the twentieth century, sibling rivalry among the middle class heated back up as families had fewer children and an even stronger focus on maternal-child love developed. No longer steeped in messages of cooperation or required to pitch in to raise the youngest of the brood, children started competing for their parents’ love and affection. Sibling relationships continued to evolve in the twentieth century, as closer age spacing and longer time spent in high school meant older siblings were even less able to care for the younger ones. Instead, they were more likely to turn on each other in jealousy. By the late 1900s, the prevailing parenting philosophy led parents to foster a strong sense of individuality in their children via such things as private bedrooms and separate toys.

Interestingly, it was around that time—the 1980s and 1990s—that the modern science of sibling research took off. In 1996, Frank Sulloway, a psychology professor now at the University of California at Berkeley, published Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, which quickly gained acclaim; Harvard’s E.O. Wilson described the book as “one of the most important treatises in the history of the social sciences.” It begins with this startling fact: “Siblings raised together are almost as different in their personalities as people from different families.” Sulloway wanted to know how this could be. He was particularly interested in creative, revolutionary types, wondering why some people through history are able to reject the status quo to upend societal thinking. Did they owe this capability to age, Oedipal rivalry, gender, random influences—or something else altogether?

Sulloway argued that birth order was the greatest driver of lifelong achievement. Using Darwin’s theories of evolution, particularly the survival of the fittest and competition for limited resources, he attempted to show how birth order determines personality, achievement, and adaptability throughout one’s life:

In nature, any recurring cause of conflict tends to promote adaptations that increase the odds of coming out on top. In their effort to gain a competitive edge, siblings use physical advantages in size and strength … Over time, the strategies perfected by firstborns have spawned counter strategies in later-borns. The result has been an evolutionary arms race played out within the family.

In other words, once struggling for survival, and now vying for love and attention, siblings compete by developing unique character traits. As in nature, according to Sulloway, children are constantly adapting to get what they need from their parents. This is why the oldest, with assured resources, often cherishes authority, he proposes; the middle child, who can’t possibly gain firstborn status, often disengages; and the youngest, nearly lost in the shuffle, seeks the most creative ploys for attention and ends up the family risk-taker. And though other scholars have pushed back against Sulloway’s theory (most famously, Judith Rich Harris, in her 1998 opus The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do), such a scenario gives me some sense of solace; maybe my kids’ fighting isn’t because of something we’ve done—it’s in their genes. Surveying the chaos on our dining room floor, I start to see my kids less as ill-behaved rapscallions than as a band of Galápagos finches clawing for territory in the family nest.

After our son, William, was born, he, my husband, Michael, and I were a simple triad. As first-time parents, we had lush reserves of time, energy, and resources. Sure, we were slightly panicky in our new roles—William made more first-year trips to the ER than the other two kids have, combined, in their lifetimes—but he seemed to bask in our undiluted attention.

Could we ever love another child this much? According to Jeffrey Kluger, though every parent denies it, “Firstborn favoritism is a very real thing.” That’s because all the resources we ladle onto our firsts are, in corporate-speak, “sunk costs.” Like a business creating its original, flagship product, first-time parents pour so much time and energy into their first child that he will never lose his top spot. We really want him to make it worth our while, and we’ll do whatever we can to bolster him so our investment pays off. Then, as the brood grows and we don’t have the same reserves of time and energy to dole out, we become less invested, consigning ourselves to being happy with the younger ones for simply breaking even.

The decision to have more than one child—when it is a decision, of course—is personal. In our case, it was born in part from Michael’s experience with parents who were both only children. When first his father and later his mother died, Michael and his brother were thrust into caretaker roles for their aging grandmothers. They vowed then that they would each have more than one child. My own family fractured early, and there are wide age gaps among me and my siblings—and a brother who died. I knew I wanted William to have what I never did—a companion of sorts, or at least a sibling who wasn’t leaving for college as he was going into fourth grade or being born when he was graduating from high school.

I remember a friend whose family I admired saying, “You have your first child for yourself and your second child as a gift for your first child.” I took those words, along with my and Michael’s past experiences, to heart. We had that next baby, and then another. And, while our family of five now feels full and complete, I imagine our kids sometimes wish they could return their “gifts.” But they can’t, and I’m increasingly determined to figure out what, if anything, I can do to make their sibling experience a good one.

“You never say anything when she mimics me,” William complains to me one night. “You turn a blind eye, and I can’t take it any more.”

He’s talking about Jessie, who, be it known, cried in my arms that very night because she’ll “never be first in our family” then, in the next breath, howled: “I wish I was still a baby but that I didn’t fall off the bed or the table.” (Because, I suppose, falling off the bed or the table is inherent to the experience of being a baby in our house.) She does have a way of sneaking in her attacks, but they’re small and slight—at least to me. To him, they seem to cut like knives.

It wasn’t always this way. When Jessie was born, William went through the age-appropriate regression: crying more, sleeping fitfully, and being generally more needy. And then she started to babble and scoot and do outrageous things like slather herself in melted Fudgsicle and make her hilarious “old lady face,” and he loved her and it was good. For several sweet years, he tugged her around like a beloved puppy dog. Once, as I pushed them through the aisles of the grocery store in one of those giant blue whale carts, he sang a made-up song: “Jessie is a good little baby, and she will never die!” She followed him, laughing and joining whatever game he devised. She would even try to comfort him when he was upset, toddling over with a stuffed animal or a gentle pat on the back.

But, while she played along when he introduced a game he dubbed “Tackle Jessie,” you could see that she was just learning his tricks and biding her time. And then, one day, it was her turn to make a few decisions. The roughhousing and teasing that he’d taught her, she demonstrated with ease. Suddenly, she wasn’t such a cute, innocent baby anymore. She was her own person. “Tackle Jessie” became “Tackle William.”

And so, for the past year, he has grown increasingly angry, muttering beneath his breath—and worse—when I don’t choose to punish her for a perceived (and, in my mind, microscopic) infraction, and taunting her with his big-boy privileges of sleepovers and a later bedtime. (Of course, it could be worse. If I were, say, a black eagle mother with two eggs in my nest, my first chick would have already pecked the other one to death, days after its hatching. Or, take spotted hyenas, wherein a quarter of pups are mauled to death by their siblings. The sad thing is, in our house, chicks used to play lovingly with chicks, and hyena pups once laughed and frolicked.)

My attempts to quell the rising hostility around the dinner table often take dramatic twists, like a series of Hail Mary passes I keep making as my desperation increases. I’ll start by trying to channel the How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk technique. Turning to William, I’d say, “So, you’re feeling like Jessie making a weird face at you was unkind?”

When that tactic doesn’t work, Michael and I will go old-school on them, pulling privileges like computer time, TV, and dessert. By the end of it all, everyone is usually in a time-out in his or her bedroom. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.

I picked up the Kluger book for insight. I could recognize that something was going a bit haywire in my own family dynamic, but I could also recognize that I was one player in the middle of our unfolding story. The researchers, I hoped, could offer a broader view—one that could help me gain some perspective so I could find a happy ending. Or at least one with less bickering.

It turns out that the influence of birth order is just one corner of sibling research. Researchers have moved beyond how your rung on the family ladder shapes your personal trajectory to explore more complex issues among a variety of sibling configurations. The range of findings is broad, and sometimes leaves me with cognitive whiplash. For instance, according to a study by psychologists Holly Recchia and Nina Howe at Concordia University in Montreal, when parents get involved in sibling conflicts, it takes kids twice as long to resolve the problem, but, with their parents present, they reach compromise slightly more often. (Is “slightly more often” enough of an incentive for me to buckle down and intercede?) I also read that intense sibling rivalry in childhood can lead to difficult relationships later in life, according to Deborah Gold, a psychologist at Duke. (So maybe I should step in and try to squelch it before I miss my chance?) An “unfavored” child is more likely to suffer anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, according to Clare Stocker, a research professor of developmental psychology at the University of Denver. (So, don’t have favorites. Got it.) Having an age spread of four or more years eliminates the issue of competition, says Shirley McGuire, associate professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. (Really? Cause I’m not really feeling that one.)

Of course, I realize no single study can encapsulate the whole ball of wax. I call Susan McHale, a professor of family studies at Pennsylvania State University, for an in-depth discussion of why my kids may be acting up and if they’ll ever get along. She explains families are “comparison machines” that exaggerate children’s differences to prevent head-on competition (as, for instance, you might see with those fratricidal hyenas.)

She brings up the idea that launched Sulloway’s book—that, in terms of personality, siblings are no more similar to one another than they are to strangers. How can that be?

“Parents think that they’re treating their kids the same,” McHale says. “And yet, you get these findings. So what is it about the non-shared part of their environment that causes this?” By “non-shared environment,” she means anything that multiple kids in the same house experience as being different.

“One of those differences is in the sibling relationship,” she goes on. “One has a sister and one has a brother, or one is a first born and one is a later born. And then there’s the differential treatment of siblings by the parents.”

And that’s where we come in. As McHale explains, some in the field believe that the differential treatment of siblings is the most powerful shaper of personality. In other words, you are who you are not just because of how your parents treated you but because of how your parents treated you as compared to how they treated your siblings. Is this why William is getting so upset with Jessie—because he’s constantly comparing the way I treat him to the way I treat her? I’ve long known that I do it, but not in a bad way. It’s just that they are such distinct individuals, I can’t imagine treating them each in an identical way.

Yeah, McHale goes on, it doesn’t help matters. “In order to reduce competition,” she says, “siblings de-identify with one another—they consciously or subconsciously pick the niche that’s different. So, if you have a smart older sibling, you become the jock, and if your family already has the student and the jock, you become the social butterfly. And if there are no positions left in the family, you become the black sheep.”

The kids do this themselves, but—and here’s the rub—the parents egg them on. “Parents can be very good at managing this,” she says. “We studied sisters who played soccer and we asked them how different they were, and they said, ‘Oh, completely different, totally different,’ and, ‘Well, how are they different?’ And the answer was, ‘Well, she’s on the offensive and I’m on the defensive, and so we’re totally different.’ So we can see how parents orchestrate this so that their daughters can’t compete on how many goals they made that day because one girl’s job was to make the goal and the other girl’s job was to keep the other team from scoring.”      

What ends up happening, McHale argues, is that the family acts as a powerful, too-bright hothouse, based alongside a nuclear power plant. We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along.      

Put this way, it makes sense. But what other counter-intuitive insights are out there?

I call Judy Dunn, developmental psychologist at King’s College in London, and co-author, with her husband, Robert Plomin, of Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different (1992). She and Plomin found that young siblings are profoundly affected by their mother’s interactions with their siblings, and that the little ones notice these interactions from a surprisingly young age.

That little fifteen-month-old or seventeen-month-old, she says, “is watching like a hawk” what goes on between her mother and the older sibling. In one study of this behavior, Dunn noticed that “if either the mother or the sibling showed irritation or anger, the younger child did not ignore it. And the way in which they responded differed, depending on the sort of relationship they had with their siblings. So, if the older child had ticked off the mother by breaking a rule, the younger child would come in and repeat the broken rule and so join the older child in antagonizing the mother.” Alternatively, the child might show support for the mother. But, whatever the situation, it’s clear—the kids are watching from the get-go. “And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention,” she argues in her book, “the more hostility and conflict between the siblings.”

Starting with the birth of the second child, Dunn and Plomin write, parents can set the tone by minimizing the differences in their relationship with each kid. This, Dunn says, goes against the conventional wisdom doled out in parenting magazines. “A line you see sometimes is, ‘Think how you’d feel if your husband said, “It’s been so lovely having you, I’m going to have another wife too.” ‘ The implicit advice is not to dominate this first child’s life with the baby.” But she found the opposite tactic was more effective. In a study of fifty mothers, she found half of them were “those who went out of their way to draw the first child into looking after the baby. So, if he’s crying, they’d say, ‘Oh why is he crying? Do you think he needs his bottle? I wish we could cheer him up’.” The other half took the commonly held advice of keeping the kids separate so they could have full-on parental attention. Guess who fared better.

“On the whole,” Dunn says, “the ones who brought the child into the baby’s life and vice versa, talked to the first child about the baby as a person with needs and feelings—in those families, the relationship with the siblings did develop more positively.”

I like to think I did all that, but as with so much else in those early months with a new baby, I can’t precisely recall.

However it all started, I’d like to know how to make it stop. I call Laurie Kramer, a professor of Applied Family Studies and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was the among the first to quantify sibling conflicts (typically, eight an hour).

Kramer works with parents who want to stop the incessant fighting but don’t know how. For her research, she wires kids up with recording devices and leaves them with alternating parents on two separate occasions. The results show that, while parents believe they should intervene in sibling battles, they rarely do so.

“Parents often chose not to respond, and when we looked at the questionnaires we’d asked them to fill out, we found that their confidence was low,” she says. “They didn’t feel skilled.”

I nod so hard in agreement into the phone that my neck starts to hurt. When I describe my own struggles, Kramer replies in a soft, soothing voice.

She explains some of what the Family Resiliency does in teaching siblings to interact with each other. “Maybe your older child needs to get in your middle child’s head and vice versa.”

This approach sounds good in theory, but I sigh inwardly, imagining another failure.

“Couldn’t I just leave them to their own devices?” I ask.

“What we found,” she says, “is that when parents do nothing, kids fight more. Especially for kids under age eight, they just don’t have the social and emotional competence to work it out themselves.”

So, turning a blind eye, as William claims I always do, will not solve this problem.

Armed with the fruits of all this new sibling research, I’ve started to view our family interactions in a fresh way. I spend thirty minutes rubbing Jessie’s back at night, then, exhausted, give William a pat and race off to bed. (Differential treatment.) As I tend to Jessie’s tangled hair before school, Annie climbs onto the Thomas table and dances like a wild chicken. (Not Enough Resources, Risk-Seeking Behavior). When we try to get Jessie to take up basketball, she turns up her nose, saying that’s an activity for her big, athletic brother (De-identification.)

I also start trying to put the practices that may well work into use. When, for example, a recent dinner was about to implode, I asked the two big kids to try understanding what the other was feeling. It wasn’t pretty (I believe the word “nincompoop” was tossed around), and I was glad Laurie Kramer hadn’t wired us all up for close examination and Judy Dunn wasn’t lurking in the corner with her notepad in hand. But, staying firmly rooted at the dining room table as I attempted to guide them, instead of throwing up my arms in surrender, felt like a small step toward my goal of family peace. The two of them even shared an exaggerated eye-roll afterward at my expense, and our little one made us all laugh by making her own version of “old lady face.” It was a rare instant of family harmony—the sort of thing we might one day remember, not in stark detail, but in the warm feeling of belonging that washed over us in that moment and remained, in some intangible way, as night fell around us.

Siblings matter. I’ve always known that, but I guess I hadn’t appreciated just how much and in how many ways. But now, as I watch the unfolding tableaux of my own children’s relationships with one another, I think of how all the moments they spend together and all the feelings that crop up, are collecting into the fine dust they will carry with them, whether they like it or not, for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes, at night, I watch William and Annie as they play on our bed. He likes to “babysit” her while I read to Jessie. He carries her up the stairs and bounces her on his lap. Later, when I come up, I see her laughing and squealing as he tickles her. He sometimes tells me she is the only person in the family who understands him. I catch my breath. I fight back tears. I think: What will they give each other in their lifetimes, and how will they break each other’s hearts?

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until after my second daughter, Annie, was born that I realized she and my son, William, share the same seven-year age difference that separated me and my brother, Matt, who died. So, watching them now, I see something I can no longer touch—him and me, growing up. Sometimes I stare, falling out of myself and into the deep chasm of my life’s great, unanswered question—not so much “Who am I?” as “Who have I been?” I know the root of the answer lies in our childhood home, with my brothers, one of whom I so rarely see and the other of whom is gone.

I have but one photograph of my brothers and me when I was a baby—we are sitting in a circle, holding hands. My back is to the camera, but I can see their faces, angled toward me and smiling. Other than that small, glossy, black-and-white photo with the thin white border, I don’t exist to myself before I began having my own memories. And, once I start to exist, I do so most immediately in the context of my brothers. My parents, dwelling across some invisible bridge in their grown-up world of work and relationships, moved to the periphery of my days and the edges of my consciousness. But there, in the center—in the backseat of the car, in the neighbor’s pool, in the garage filled with their motorcycles and my toys—are the three of us doing the complex, fitful, sometimes tender dance of figuring out who we are.

Brain, Child (Winter 2012)

Katherine Ozment is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Boston Magazine, where she also writes a weekly parenting blog. The baby boy she was pregnant with when she wrote this essay is now ten years old, stands up to her shoulder, and has two younger sisters, ages six and two. More of her writing can be found at