20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers


Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”



Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.



Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AM
By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.


The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.




Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.


Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”



The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.


Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.



This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.



How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.


On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.



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.



Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.



She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”




Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

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.



love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.


Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.



Armageddon Mama
By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.


MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.



Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.



Through the Lens of Boyhood

Through the Lens of Boyhood


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


When my firstborn was an infant and the days opened like huge blank canvasses, pristine, challenging and monotonous, I sometimes shared advice I knew would become more difficult to deliver far enough in the future to be unfathomable. My infant son’s hands and arms danced in midair, like some exotic meditative exercise and I knew about every bit of saliva that dribbled from his mouth. Not only was independence unfathomable, I couldn’t really envision his ability to roll over or crawl, climb stairs or toddle. “Don’t drink and drive,” I’d tell him. Rather than respond, the unblinking baby boy stared at me. “Use condoms,” I’d counsel, “regardless of whether anyone asks you to do so.” He wriggled in my arms. “No means no,” I’d declare. “These are things you need to understand.”

If I glimpse a photograph of that wee babe, he seems simultaneously completely familiar and almost a stranger. So is the mother who held that tiny boy. Time is strange that way.

My third son is twelve now. His voice has lowered but not yet dropped. He’s moody (actually he’s always been moody; he’s moodier). On the brink of adolescence, I feel his attentions shift, and so I love when we connect and shrug it off when he’s grumpy and try extra hard to blend into the background when he and his pals get silly together so that I can drink in their exuberant, giddy energies. Last night, snuggled under a blanket, we watched Boyhood together. He reserved the right to leave and watch something that interested him more (The Walking Dead). And then, he got sucked right in. We both did.

Beyond the simple but mesmerizing idea that time passes, the film illustrates how our stories happen not just because of time’s march or personality’s existence; so much of who we become occurs in response to what happens to and around us. This family, through the frame of Mason’s boyhood unfolding, faces all sorts of bumps and disappointments and growth, and little bits of joy. We see that love is and isn’t enough and certainly falls short. We see that however much we love our children, to raise them isn’t easy and can be burdensome. We see these things, perhaps, because anyone who has been inside a family appreciates their truths.

For many of us, parenting feels active, a verb, if not a life choice. It consumes us. We harbor a hope that if we do things correctly—best diapers or food, careful words, the key classes and just enough benign neglect—we can ace parenthood and ensure our children’s happiness and success. That’s a myth, of course.

Regardless of circumstance, whether we’re too young or too old or too much in need of an education or a steadier source of income, life happens to us while we’re parents. We lose parents or our relationships fall apart. We fall in love again and even if the new loves work for us, the same may not be as true for our children. A job takes too much effort and we can’t focus upon our kids or we don’t have a job that’s absorbing and we focus too much upon our kids. Insert your story here.

We can do many things, but control our lives isn’t one of them. The thing Boyhood illustrates as much as anything else is that within families we are one another’s collateral damage. But so often, we are the most tender collateral damage that anyone could dream of—and so we can continue beyond the years of boyhood or girlhood or intensive parenthood—to search out what and who to love, and how to love. That’s what I couldn’t have begun to envision when I kissed the smoothest cheeks I’d ever put my lips to: the sincere sweetness of goodhearted failure. Even though we’re much more worn, every single one of us, rather than feel sad to know this, I’m grateful. If it’s possible, I feel more tenderly toward my children, my spouse and myself now than I did back then.


Photo: Indiewire.com

Heritable Traits

Heritable Traits



“Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion.” 


There’s a wicker chair in the corner of the dentist’s treatment room. It’s the parent’s chair. I sat there while my five-and-a-half-year old daughter, Saskia, lay back on the magical chaise. First, she pushed the button to recline it, per Dr.’s instructions and then she was stretched out long with her mouth wide open. The dentist and his assistant labored to pull decay and infection and whatever else from inside her tiny tooth and medicate it and save it. “Saskia should keep this tooth till she’s eleven,” he explained. “We need those teeth to stay there in place to help her entire mouth grow correctly.” That’s how a baby tooth gets a root canal, in case anyone was wondering. “The good news is that I think we can save it.”

“That’s great,” I offered. I wanted rather desperately not to be in the room. More than that, though, I wanted to be in the room and appear calm, so she’d stay calm. Amazingly, she was wholly compliant and funny and signaled when it hurt.

I sat there and felt guilty about the bottles of milk Saskia still drinks at night before she brushes her teeth (almost every night) and about the fact that she refuses most healthy food and has a wicked sweet tooth. Saskia’s our fourth child. Battles we fought hard—two chocolate chips counts as a treat—are long behind us. So often with her, it seemed that getting through the day mattered more than exactly what she ate. Overall, she is healthy, engaged, smart, and strong. I watched her do a chin-up at gymnastics just last weekend, thanks to her summer of daily monkey bar practice.

Whether Saskia’s weak teeth are inherited, I have no idea. This was the second emergent visit to the dentist in as many months. It sounded as if her teeth weren’t very strong, and so when a cavity hit, the stress was greater than it would be on a more constitutionally robust tooth. I never asked her birth mother about her teeth. Her teeth—and her birth mother’s sister’s—look really great, though. We never met her birth father, so I can’t vouch for his.

Adoption, from the start, took any sense of control away. Her birth mom smokes cigarettes. She smoked during the pregnancy (less than usual; she tried to smoke as few as possible, and felt guilty about the ones she smoked). Obviously, the smoking bothered me; I knew it was less than ideal behavior and I knew I wouldn’t have ever done the same. What I focused on though was her birth mom’s concern over the baby’s well-being. Love trumped smoke, I reasoned.

During my pregnancies, I didn’t feel fully in control, either, between the nausea and vomiting and the aches and pains, the aversions and the few things I could eat for long stretches. One morning at the market, I emptied the contents of my shopping basket onto the checkout conveyor: white grape juice, jellybeans, and a doughnut. It was the only doughnut I ate during any of my pregnancies, and it stayed down. I felt simultaneously disgusted and triumphant. Someone sent me a copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a book that should have a subtitle like “Or How to Feel Like a Failure at Parenting Well Before Your Child Arrives.” All your actions are terrible: caffeine, white flour, white sugar, not sleeping, you name it. When we first met our daughter’s birth mom, she didn’t have any prenatal vitamins. I sent her some. The gesture was just that. I wanted to contribute to my future baby’s health. I wanted to ward off my anxiety. When I worried about behaviors beyond my control, I tried to focus upon my diet of jellybeans and goldfish crackers and the fact that I’d birthed three healthy boys despite what I ate and what I didn’t eat.

Every family has heritable traits, some wonderful, some difficult. There is no way to avoid gene pools’ inconsistencies. The golden American family, the Kennedys have great teeth and alcoholism. The Windsors have homeliness and corgis and fabulous wealth. The wealth seems to be encoded in their genes by now. William did well to marry the beautiful and capable Kate.

“There’s depression in the family,” I declare. I want to bring those shadowy story shards into the open for my teens. As soon as one teen asks whether I was ever depressed, I realize most of the people in the stories I cannot recount anyway are practically strangers to them. Me, I can tell them about much more easily. “My parents weren’t all that happy. Their divorce wasn’t all that easy,” I offer, to speak a hazy enough and honest enough non-blaming truth. As I say this, I fill in details for myself so clear I can’t believe I still remember them this way: the flower print on the suitcase I carried between their houses, the smell of Stouffer’s baked apples, and the dry, nearly-dead plants I’d return to after five days away from my permanent childhood bedroom. “I went into therapy more than once,” I say. “If not for all the help I had throughout my twenties, I don’t think I’d be married to your papa now, or be your mom. It’s good to ask for help. It’s good to let the help actually help you. To get help is a wise thing to do.” I want them to feel supported enough to ask for help if—I assume when, really—they need it.

The work that lies ahead of our children—anyone’s children—isn’t so much about what they’ve been handed; it’s about how they take whatever complicated and contradictory gifts family provides and make peace with them so they move forward.

Or, I’m scared and I’m in over my head and I don’t know how, exactly, I went from miserable to happy—and so, kids, I can’t tell you how to do it. I want to, though.

The dentist told my girl she’s awesome about fifteen times during the course of her appointment. “My boy’s so silly,” he said, while he wielded his instruments. “He wants to be a dinosaur or a hermit crab for Halloween.” Saskia kept her mouth open when he asked her to and in return he said, “You can have three prizes.” She got that, and the promise she could keep her tooth. I felt fortunate—and very relieved.

I’ve had these worries, the ones about what was passed Saskia’s way by people I know and people I don’t—her family members by birth—and I know it’s likely that if I fast-forward another decade, I’ll have them again. Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion. There are things that lurk around corners, things that we have to round a corner in order to glimpse.

In this way, I realize that the children I gave birth to and the one I didn’t share something I couldn’t have named before they came to me: they aren’t entirely “ours” or at least aren’t at all within some control we imagine when we envision childbirth or sleep schedules or systems to keep them neat and polite and earnest and well. It really is more like Sweet Honey in the Rock sings: “Your children are not your children… they pass through you, but they are not of you.” Or from you, they aren’t within your grasp, even though you hold so tightly and even though as you let go you still want to cling sometimes. You cannot.

I had to take a deep breath before I stood up from the parent’s chair. I followed Saskia, my intrepid girl, so she could pick out her treasures. Then, I took my own advice and I let go of why and how and who caused what and hugged her. “You are amazing,” I said. “You are so brave and so cooperative. Good job!” And I took her home.

To read more Brain, Child adoption-themed essays, purchase our adoption bundle.

Photo credit: forestfoundation.org

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths


White Fence with Roses

I began this summer with a list—and mostly, a wish to take an internal pressured sense of hurry and worry down a few notches. Things had built up, some work, some family, some general “stuff” of life around me and at home. Essentially, I needed to rediscover how to take some deep breaths.

Summer is not over, but the sense that it’s waning has overtaken. Cue: school supply lists, other people’s “first day of school” photos, and the way everything shifted a little cooler, the golden light at certain times when before it was brighter, and whiter.

We have a little bit of time to hang in “family” mode ahead, but not so much. We have some of those back to school things to do, and we have a block party to throw. The time between now and the next will fill up quickly. Like everyone around me, the way I look at all that’s surrounding me is different: the world has pushed in, too, and brings unease and sadness and disbelief and even horror. I listen to the birds chirp sometimes, and feel I should let other worries in more. Yesterday, however, I admit that I shut NPR off in the car. My push and pull to get to deep breaths can’t always involve NPR.

Meantime, there are the summer highlights (the “roses” in the speak of gymnastics camp), like how awesome it is to see small kids glimpse my sixteen-year-old around town and gaze up at him with “my camp counselor” eyes. Certainly, the two weeks of overnight camp for the eleven-year-old-boys were rosy.

Last night, the camp my Saskia attends this week had a Family Night. As she showed me around (I was the proxy for family, as the rest of the crew scattered other places) with her friend, Mattea, who had some family in tow, the first stop was Mermaid Cove (or rock? Or point?). Anyway, the girls climbed on a couple of big rocks by the lake and explained that if you see shimmering on the water that’s where the mermaids are. I can’t tell if this is their idea or the camp’s. I think it was fed via camp (as we are deep into the television program H2O whatever the conduit, mermaids are “in” with us, especially Australian mermaids). Suddenly, Saskia was IN the water. This was an accident, which stunned us all (it was very shallow, but she did manage to get very wet). “Climb out,” I told her—and stunned, she did. Tears followed.

Her ankle was scraped and her shoes (and pants and most of her shirt) were soaked, and her pride was bruised. We skipped the rest of the walkabout and the campfire. We went to the lodge to nab her backpack and painted rocks. In the van, we wrested the wet clothing off and zipped her into her sweatshirt for the ride home. By the time we’d gotten there, she was no longer teary. She drank some milk and calmed down.

“You handled a hard thing so well,” I said as we reached the car. “I’m really proud of you.”

Having been a parent for nearly nineteen years, you might think I’d have known that’s the most important part—not the missing of the s’mores. I have to confess, it may have taken me all this time. In that, perhaps the answer to why the leisurely route through childrearing isn’t boring for me, not at all (there is, between this six-and-a-half year-old girl and her oldest brother about a dozen years).

To learn how to handle hard things could fall under “life lessons,” obviously. By hard, I really don’t mean bad, or all bad. I really mean something different, something about the ability to see “hard” more with prism in mind—how does light reflect and how to do you see the various sides and still breathe? That’s the lesson I went for this summer. I can’t say it’s felt relaxing, this space that had me trying to make room for breaths. It’s certainly not a bucket list item. But I am breathing, raggedly perhaps. And smiling, and comforting, and still in search of a good answer to: “Was it a good summer?”

The short answer: “Yes.” How about yours?

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

Should You Tell a Close Friend When You Know Her Child Smokes/Drinks?

By Candy Schulman


Debateicon“Make me a promise,” Lisa said the night before our daughters started high school. “If you ever see Hannah smoking or drinking, you must tell me. We have to tell each other.”

Hannah was Lisa’s younger daughter. Lisa had already survived raising one teenager. I was a novice: my first time jumping blindfolded into the unpredictable age between tween and empty nest.

Our daughters had once been playmates, sharing birthday parties and sleepovers. Then suddenly they grew apart, old enough to choose who they wanted to escort home after school. Lisa and I no longer chatted in the playground while our girls pushed each other on the swings. We could no longer orchestrate their play dates, but Lisa and I still had our own.

I agreed to tell Lisa if I ever saw Hannah smoking or drinking, believing it was the ethical thing to do. I just didn’t know how hard it might be, or even if I’d be able to keep my part of the bargain. I had smoked at a young age, and in retrospect I wish someone had persuaded me to stop before my addiction took hold—and as an adult suffered through withdrawal. Besides, today we know how dangerous cigarettes are, and mourn for strangers whose teenagers are killed by drunk drivers.

The issue grew more complicated when a group of ninth-grade parents arranged a meeting to discuss drug and alcohol use among adolescents. Our adolescents. Our adorable children, who just yesterday, it seemed, were hugging stuffed animals as they sailed into dreamland. It was frightening to face the topic, but I knew my daughter had been catapulted into a world where she had to navigate Physics and Calculus as well as peer pressure, booze, and pot. We’d all heard about unchaperoned high school parties, where Facebook and texting made it easy for groups of teenagers to congregate at whoever’s house was free of parents.

One parent, who had the wildest son in the school, waved a piece of paper in the air. She made a bold suggestion: “I want everyone to sign this pact. We must tell each other if we see anyone’s child smoking or using drugs. We’re obligated.”

This “pact” had been successful in her son’s school where she’d just moved east from California. Arguments exploded. We all had different values on the subject. I was thankful that my daughter was not on this boy’s radar or party list. She still spent weekend evenings baking brownies with her best friend. There is a wide spectrum of acceptability among parents when it comes to our children’s substance use. At this particular meeting, one European-born parent confessed to serving wine to her daughter’s friends when they came for dinner. And there were other parents, who still smoked pot themselves, possibly in front of their kids. Wouldn’t their alarms go off differently than mine?

Only a handful of parents signed the group pact; I wasn’t one of them. Lisa quickly took me aside and whispered, “We still have our own agreement, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping I’d never have to oblige. Hoping she wouldn’t either. “I trust my daughter,” I added.

“Believe me, you’d want to know,” Lisa assured me. I came to agree with her—in spite of ambivalences surrounding privacy and the possibility of risking my daughter’s trust.

Our kids live in a more complicated social world than when we were teenagers. From R-rated movies to celebrity gossip where substance abuse is commonplace, our teenagers have seen more—and probably done more—than we can imagine. Without stepping over boundaries, we still have the responsibility as parents to keep them safe, and offer them help if they are in trouble.

I must confess I avoided looking at Facebook photos where Lisa’s daughter might be guilty of holding up those telltale large red plastic cups, toasting to her friends. As it turned out, Lisa was the one who had to do the unthinkable. Hannah’s friend started getting drunk and smoking pot a year after her mother died of breast cancer. Lisa picked up the phone and asked the father to meet her for coffee. She didn’t even know him well, but she told him what he’d been expecting—and ignoring—all along. He thanked Lisa for her honesty and concern.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lisa told me.

“We’ve both been so fortunate,” I said.

“So far,” she said, nodding. “We still have our private pact, don’t we?”

“Of course,” I said. And hoped I’d never have to honor it … knowing that I would.

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


By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser


debateicon2Full disclosure: I’m a fixer. Not the Olivia Pope variety, but I am the kind of person to whom adults spilled their lovelorn conundrums before I hit puberty. This tendency to be told things continued into adulthood. Once a friend confided an impending marital split two months before the spouse learned of the plan (yes, very awkward at school dismissal). So, I’d have thought by the time my sweet little kids garnered pimples and problems with love or illicit substances, I’d be the one to glean all the dirt. Given my moral compass, my desire for safety, and my fixer-leanings, I figured I’d be the one to call all the parents, too.

I’m not the person I thought I’d be. While the reason for this should have been obvious, somehow it wasn’t to me until I became a parent to adolescents. Here’s the thing: if my adolescent confides in me, I cannot betray his trust by calling his friend’s parents, even if I wish I could. That’s because I want to be sure the next time my adolescent is worried, he’ll come to me again. Might there be an exception? Yes. It’d have to be connected to immediate danger.

With two teens and a tween not so far behind, whether to tell seems so much thornier than I’d have imagined back when the incidents between peers were playground-centric. “He didn’t let me play on the team,” pales in comparison to underage alcohol consumption, drug abuse, initial sexual activity, or acts of self-harm.

I remember how charged—parent-to-parent—those early elementary school years were. Once, a kid intentionally spilled milk on my kid’s lunch; another time, my kid teased a classmate. There was the epic incident that involved some softened wax from cheese in a peer’s lunch having wound up in my kid’s very long hair. Whose fault that was never became clear. The apologies between kids remained equally murky. For the moms, a confusing, difficult round of “he said, he said” ensued as its own sticky mess between us. The conversation resolved well, if not easily. In retrospect, I think we were both stunned our boys might not have been entirely innocent and we were also surprised by how without simple answers the ability to support one another well—as fellow moms—became challenging, too.

That’s one of the things about the parenting of adolescents I find tough: we are, as parents, in it to protect our kids through what feels like—and is—a vulnerable, important, and volatile period. Through these teen years, kids change enormously. They are exposed to so much more than we wish at times and much less prepared for some of that than we wish, too. Often, they befriend new kids, and we don’t know the new friends’ parents well or at all. We don’t have the playground any longer as a place where we get to know our peers while our kids get to know theirs. In other words, add to these raised stakes lowered connectivity. And then, heap on pressure to protect their trust. We’re not talking is-the-tooth-fairy-real trust; this is can I trust you parent, to help me when myfriends engage in behavior that might not be okay?

Um, wow. No one mentioned any of this during childbirth class.

When my teen divulges some variation of what so-and-so’s done, inevitably, the lead up is “I’m worried because…” What I hadn’t anticipated is that those moments of disclosure aren’t simply confessional nor are they shared because my teen seeks a fixer.

Presented with a high-octane parenting moment, I do try to establish why my kid is worried, how imminent he thinks any danger is, how likely it is the kid’s parent knows orcould know what’s going on, what other adults know about this, and what I can do. I always offer, although it’s unlikely my fixer skills will come into play. I always emphasize that this isn’t my kid’s to fix—and that concern, like substance abuse or self-harm require a qualified adult’s attention (my go-to is the school’s guidance counselor). Is this irresponsible of me? Or am I responsibly parenting my child? I hope I’m being responsible enough to everyone. I do follow up with my kid to make sure an adult’s attention was enlisted. And I hope that when my kids need me, I’ll have built up trust enough to ensure I can be right where I need to be.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on Twitter-@standshadows.

Digging Summer

Digging Summer

diggingsummerThe most summery of projects ever to begin in our backyard spilled into fall. Here’s what happened: my two middle kids and their friend Kate—I think this was a going into second grader and two going into sixth graders—began to dig a hole. I do not remember why the hole needed to be dug or why the hole wanted to be dug. As they progressed—into the fall—with the dig, I’m not sure the original purpose retained relevance.

What I know is they dug. They dug for hours, and days, and weeks. The hole got pretty big. They could step into the hole, jump into it even.

In fact, sometime during the dig Kate had her annual check-up with her family doctor, who asked what she liked to do after school. “We’re digging a hole,” was Kate’s answer. The doctor, apparently, nodded her head, which was tilted as she did so. “It’s really cool. We are getting stronger digging the hole and we’re thinking about how to dig the hole. It’s really good for us.”

For the barn structure that happened to be perilously encroached upon by the hole, it was a different story. Eventually, digging ceased and the kids began to fill the hole back in at our insistence.

The hole digging project brought the classic Ruth Krauss written, Maurice Sendack illustrated book “A Hole is to Dig” to the forefront of my rotation with the toddler.

If a hole is to dig, then summer is prime time to dig holes. It’s when you can occupy yourself with things you cannot dream up during the school year crowds your days. On the “otherwise occupy yourself front” the former going into second grader now headed toward sixth grade has begun to teach himself card tricks via You Tube. He needed to go to sleep at a sleepover and learned self-hypnosis.

This kind of boredom has relegated my own work life to air quotes, because it’s a pretty direct relationship: kids out of school or camp means a work-from-home mama, unless she had fulltime babysitting, which I do not have at present, isn’t exactly a productive worker. That’s a luxury. I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience a little of my own boredom.

The officially unoccupied period is followed by a three-week arts camp and then he goes to his two-week overnight camp on a little farm in Pennsylvania where one year an entire afternoon was spent in focused attempt to break a resistant-to-breakage stick. There is no You Tube there. He’ll see old friends of the human variety there and the two Alpacas and other farm animals, including a (new) calf, and the farm’s dog and a cat or two.

On the “more than that” front, there can be the wonderful, varied treasure box that is camp. This week, while one starts his groovy three-week arts camp for 11-16 year-olds, the little girl is at its polar opposite: a camp with required t-shirts and backpacks. Beyond polar opposite to her orderly experience is the camp where my 16 year-old is working all summer. That camp works like this: put kids in a van, and go off on adventures that help you get to know the land where you live. There’s hiking and river walking and just experiencing what’s in the Valley (including ice cream)—and in the course of that you might learn about bugs or birds or native plants or rail trails or power plants.

The theme that ties the very different camp experiences, including the difference between camper and counselor, is this: summer is for stretching—and when you think about it, to handle boredom makes you stretch (and perhaps, dig or truly be amused with yourself as you learn card tricks). To handle whatever camp offers (Spanish lessons or carrying three kids’ backpacks on a hike, take your pick) makes you stretch. By gosh, one kid needs new sneakers because his feet have grown and the small girl stretched out such that she’s suddenly shed some vestige of the smaller girl she was before. You can see, when you look at her, where she’s headed. Summer is for that, too. You have time to grow, even literally.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Threshold to Summer

Threshold to Summer


IMG_1206It’s that threshold to summer moment. The other day I walked, not to go anywhere, simply to enjoy the air, and composed haiku in my head. I won’t tell you how long it took, although I will admit if you saw me walking yes, I did count on my fingers. Tulips, lilacs, gone/Peonies, irises, go./Next, summer. Roses.

With summer, comes a sense of a season set apart. Without school—and here in a college town, that’s a profound difference not just in a household with school age kids but everywhere—the energy shifts. There are longer days, swimming pools to dip into and ice cream to lick outside. There’s dirt and sweat and a sense that we are supposed to have fun (“supposed to?”). For the past four summers on my personal blog I’ve created a Summer Wish List. I will do it again before the solstice. It’s a little wishes, a little resolution, a little what’s great to do in the corner of New England where I live, and a little bit of a note to myself.

My family, I think it’s safe to say about this particular year, is maxed out on “supposed to.” The school year wasn’t easy for every person and there have been big adjustments, like Kindergarten (love, love, love, but still, epic adjustment). There were challenging work disappointments and frustrations. If I were to characterize our recent months, I’d say we did a pretty hefty amount of coping. So, I both feel the ways we could use the breathy delights of expansion—explore, enjoy, just… be elsewhere—and the balm of rest and relaxation. Even if I write a long list, the truer list will be short. The truer list will be about whatever makes us feel good day-to-day and feels restorative.

Also, on my list will be to read books. The little gal has begun to read (and I have the biggest writer-and-parent crush on Elephant and Piggie these days) and it’s a true delight to watch and listen to her determined efforts and reap the benefits of increased fluency daily. My fifth grader has to be pushed to read—and only sometimes, rarely, accepts the nudge. That’s in stark contrast to the eldest guy, who pretty much read his way through childhood. He retains a physical attachment to books; he reads them and carries them and keeps them. I’ve been very hands-off about reading. For the eldest, I stopped insisting he put the book down every single night at dinner (some nights, just not all of them) because he found such comfort in them. I have been hands-off in the opposite direction too because not every kid loves to read and that doesn’t mean the adult version will eschew reading. Still, with him, I’d like to find a way to reintroduce the idea that just maybe reading can be fun and relaxing and interesting.

And my memories of my bigger kids’ elementary school years included some great read aloud times, either as they ate dinner or at bedtime. I want to find ways to recreate that pleasure more consistently for my smaller gal, despite the frenzy that takes place when there’s more activity around us—and more screens. Because these days, books aren’t as omnipresent in the household as devices with screens (my laptop included), and so I realize it’ll take a little effort to change our family’s current culture—and summer seems to present itself as an opportunity for this.

An opportunity for me, too: I have used my writer hat as a push myself to read, as in read a book and then write about it. This turns out to be a reasonable incentive. The thing is, whether I have to fabricate a little prompt or not, once I’m reading it’s such a pleasant thing to do (duh, I always won the summer bookworm contests in elementary school).

Even if it doesn’t happen often, I am going to hold out an image of us at home, lazing around and reading on a rainy weekend afternoon. The image alone makes me smile. Whether I’ll succeed and what success really means to me is anybody’s guess. I don’t want to attach a number of books or amount of time allotted to reading. I don’t want this to exactly be a list item, a de facto chore. I do want to read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle one more time, though. That radish cure is something every kid should hear at least once no matter how dated Betty MacDonald’s cookie-serving neighborhood seems in 2014.

Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

10302745_10152280145048387_2901251374802006728_nI’m guessing that the birthday party Saskia attended in the fall, a trip to the local Build-a-Bear workshop, was a once in a lifetime experience for her. A small group of her pal’s besties got to go there, and they had a fantastic time (I stand in awe of his moms for both idea and follow through, by the way). I had never taken her to the mall. In fact, I had no idea Build-a-Bear existed around here. Her big white bear is sweet and loved. The house-slash-cardboard box her big white bear travelled “home” in and spent two days in the dining room, a few more in the playroom and the winter in the front hallway. I sent the box-slash-house to the recycling, because it’s spring, and because there was another empty box in the front hallway, and because I have declared this goal: a less cluttered house.

Saskia ended up in the barn before the day the recycling and trash get picked up. The box has returned into the house, just as far as the mudroom. While she’s in school today—recycling and trash pickup day—the box will disappear.

Odds are, she won’t ask about the house. Odds are, if she does ask, and I can’t “find” it she will cry. Odds are if I kept the box, er, bear’s house, she’d never actually play with it again. Sometimes, in the name of a clearer house, darlings have to go—and not only hers.

We hosted a graduation party for two beloved friends and babysitters over the weekend, and because we live in a little city that boasts just about the best ice cream on the planet, we served ice cream. I pulled our two ice cream scoops from the kitchen drawer. One of the moms brought a couple more ice cream scoops along. My husband sought a particular ice cream scoop. He asked after it. It was one of the two ice cream scoops I’d tossed during operation-make-the-kitchen-drawers-shut.

I used my mom gesture, the shrug. He used his annoyed-gesture, the hands on hips. We stood there, deadlocked.

“I can get another of that particular scoop,” I told him. “That’s a holiday gift waiting to happen.” While I’d saved a couple of baby bibs for visitors, the last remaining pile of them disappeared. “I also tossed extraneous cheese graters, including a broken one, big spoons no one uses, and frayed dishtowels,” I reported.

“Did you throw out any favorite dishtowels?” he asked, anxiously.

“I threw out the ones that are so holey as to be non-functional,” I replied. I pulled the drawer open. “You’ll see we still have dishtowels.”

He lowered his hands from his hips and scooped ice cream with the inferior scoops. The party was lovely. We had plenty of dishtowels for post-party cleanup. The big white bear watched over everything (okay, it didn’t; it’s somewhere, but you get the idea here; it could have watched over everything because I didn’t toss it out).

Additionally, last week I went through a few large boxes of kids’ art. I tossed old homework sheets scattered in the pile and most of the art. I took not very good photographs of some—and made a good-sized pile for the flat files in my husband’s office at his behest. I was glad not to toss absolutely everything. It is nice to know the “darlings” are safe.

For the box to go, though, was the most helpful. I want to free up enough space in the house to reinvent rooms. I imagine the playroom’s eventual shift from play space to homework and hangout space and possibly guest room, too. I hope to leave fewer dust traps about, especially given that three out of six family members have asthma.

But there’s longer term thinking at work, too. Eventually, we might leave this house—and I don’t want every piece of kids’ art or every book read or unread during their childhoods to wait for me to sort through then. I won’t necessarily remember the important ones. This won’t happen for a long time; the kids are 18, 16, 11 and 6.

If we head to a smaller dwelling someday, I certainly won’t be able to keep everything in this big house. I don’t want my kids to have to upend themselves from whatever they are doing to sort through all that childhood stuff (assuming they’d be willing to do so). I remember how much work it took for my mother’s parents to leave the house where they resided for four decades (and how much of my aunt’s time went into that move).

I can’t know what we’ll do or even whether we will move someday in a future I can’t imagine yet. I don’t know whether any of our three sets of parents will move—or how we’ll deal with all of their stuff, the precious and the excess, a word for which you can exchange to mean Build-a-Bear box. All I do know is that I’ve spent many hours and days (with great help I’ve paid for and key spousal assists) to get stuff out of our house, the precious and the metaphoric Build-a-Bear boxes, the good and bad ice cream scoops. My reward is a house that’s begun to breathe again. I hope there’s a reward for the someday grown kids, too.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Irony—and a List

Irony—and a List

IMG_2615Here’s irony: the moments we click as humans—friends, lovers, parents, children, or siblings—often occur when we find the person to discuss the thing we can’t talk about, or at least the thing we cannot talk about easily. The courage to speak a truth less often discussed is very powerful. Intimacy emerges from the sharing of secrets. Good parenting requires us to take on the topics and feelings and experiences where we find discomfort, because being present is not possible if you can’t remain present for the hard stuff, the quiet, and even the secret.

Much as there are “goods” to be discovered when we share our genuine feelings, we so often shy away from the topics that matter most to us, the ones that could—potentially—forge for us strong bonds. It would seem as if we’d crave meaningful connections and so we’d do anything in hopes of creating them. We don’t, though.

How we seem to work in actuality is that we’re worried about taboo topics’ impact. What if by bringing them up, we are impolite? What if we sound stupid or mean or entitled or naïve or totally messed up? What if the person on the other end of hearing our story rejects us in some way? How do we bring our voices to subjects that no one wants to face or that we think people will only be interested in for the gossip factor? This is especially hard when we want or need to speak about our truths without hurting the people close to us.

I’ve been thinking about the things I wish I could talk about more (even write about more) and why these issues matter. As a mom and partner, daughter, and friend, I know that my willingness to address things less often discussed will only make me feel more grounded and more whole once I get past the fear of vulnerability. As a writer, I know that sometimes my best work lies in the places I’m most afraid to commit to on the page. A friend of mine, who’s a photographer, advised me: “Always take photos of someone crying and always take a photograph of someone telling a secret, because those moments are intimate.”

She’s right; those moments of intimacy translate into strong images. They are strong because intimacy is powerful. We wouldn’t want to only live in gut-wrenching confessional mode. We need more than one note to sound like ourselves, so I am not advocating for all-confession all the time. But sometimes I wish I could challenge myself to take more risks of this nature.

Here’s a list of some things I hope I dare to address more, and model talking about well (as in, directly, authentically and with some graciousness and poise):

Puberty (mostly, with my kids)

Sex (mostly with my husband)

Issues surrounding growing older and caring for parents if they need that (mostly, with my family, especially my parents and siblings)

Middle age, as in the physical and emotional changes (mostly, with my friends and my mom and my spouse)

The moments no one admits to like when you just don’t enjoy your kids or your spouse or your life (you love them, but it’d be nice to find someone really accepting to hear you complain without judgment or vilification of the people you love)

Big-ticket fears from climate change to illness to war to failure






What to do when friendships get challenging (other than walk away, mostly to friends I find challenging)


*   *   *

Recently, I’ve begun to schedule a phone call-slash-debriefing with a friend every couple of weeks, about life and work (by life, I think I mean family). We’ve known each other a long time and can lay our challenges out without hesitation.

In big ways and small, this unearthing of what’s often deliberately left unsaid helps. It’s amazing how the chance to share—brainstorm, support, and problem solve and hold each other’s anxiety—lightens the sense of burden we sometimes feel when worn down and buoys us both. Given that I wonder why I’m so afraid sometimes to speak up.

I hope that going forward I can summon my courage. I hope I can do more than make a list like the one above; I hope I can use the list as my guide.

What are some things you hope to address more?

Subscribe to Brain, Child

It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering

It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering

IMG_9243I’ve been that mom, the one who volunteers in big ways, like run the school’s development committee, including the annual phone-a-thon with a glass ceiling of ten callers. I’ve been the aggrieved organizer of that phone-a-thon, because it would seem that two hours wasn’t a lot to ask of more than ten parents, especially ones that received the scholarship dollars we raised during that two hours. Although I am not that mom any longer, I’ve thought a great deal about the equation and the motivation behind my parent volunteerism.

We parent volunteers put the time in, our skills or our willingness to do relatively unskilled tasks like the shopping for the preschool snacks or the collating of the first graders’ poetry anthologies, because we love our kids and because we respect our kids’ teachers and because we want to be involved in some way in the life of the school and just because. I have put loads of time in, hours upon hours. I’ve felt impassioned and put upon and satisfied and frustrated. I’ve felt part of the machine that is my kids’ school, whether it’s because I’ve chaperoned or baked for the high school musical. Also, I’ve wondered whether there would ever be a world for me beyond the duties parenthood opened me up to performing.

We parent volunteers jump in with ideas big and small. Over the years, I’ve raised questions about diversity, sustainability (as in, saving the earth), snacks (as in, why so much sugar at parties and why no guidelines—a provocative effort that earned me an unofficial title as “Sugar Czar” for a couple of years), homework (less, please) and high school start time (later, please—or take head, bang it against wall and still many years later it starts at 7:30 AM). Pretty much each one of these ideas came with the non-dollar price tag of hours donated in pursuit of the idea. I wrote letters, raised monies, and even attended School Committee meetings. Of the last one, I’d have to say if ever I doubted the efficacy of democracy, doubt rose alarmingly high, like a river about to flood, on nights at the School Committee meetings.

We parent volunteers tend to be team player types with a pretty big dose of “should” in our makeup. Need I say more about that?

It’s been pointed out forty bazillion times that when it comes to schools and volunteers, it’s a pretty mom-driven operation almost wherever you go. Like so much other caretaking, this unsung, unpaid and often not so terribly well respected work falls to women. I’ve read—on blogs, in articles and books—about how deserved respect is (heck, yes) and how schools everywhere would tumble into bits without this nearly invisible workforce. Let’s face it, parent work hours—whether on a PTO, for a parent cooperative-run school or to create the staff appreciation lunch or book fair or provide refreshments at what would seem like hundreds of events each year—represent work done and efforts made.

At certain points, my sense of self, my identity, had a lot to do with my parent volunteerism. It was almost a part of coming to know myself as a parent, to put the time in and the effort, to cozy up to administration and teachers by being if not indispensible then very helpful, and to join a corps of worker bee parents. At other times, it wasn’t all that satisfactory. I felt… bad or bore a chip on my shoulder or just felt disrespected and at the end of the day, I’d given myself, in the form of my time and energies, away.

That’s the point I realized maybe on some macro-level I was done.

As K.J. Dell’Antonia pointed out in a long ago Motherlode column: “No is a complete sentence.” I remember reading that and nodding and at the same time wondering how I’d ever actually say no like that. Sure, she was busy with work. Sure, other parents were busy with work or coffee dates or whatever. Her point was that she didn’t have to explain. She channeled a little inner Nancy Reagan and just said, “No.”

“No” is a hard word for me. However, I have practiced and I’ve prioritized and I’ve worked on the simple “No” that involves no explanation or apology. I’m not quite there (yet) but it is my intention to become that mom, the one who doesn’t volunteer (much).

Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

IMG_2021Not that you asked, but here’s my advice: if there’s a question about whether to send your child to overnight camp, I say, “Yes. Have your child go to overnight camp.” And for a minute, I’m not saying this for your child (I don’t know your child). I’m saying this for YOU.

Here’s why: beyond all those good coping skills and peer experiences your kid will have at camp (and let’s face it, probably your child will have a blast), you get a lot out of the deal. You are dubious. Hang with me, here.

You get to miss your child. Sure, this is tender and a little sad, even melancholy, but it’s also the sweet kind of tender. You remember what you like about that kid of yours in little unexpected bursts. You almost buy the favorite flavor of yogurt—and then, for a week or two, you don’t. There’s something about pining for someone that parents in the 24/7 grind of life don’t experience with their children. It’s really, really nice to be reminded just how much you adore your child, through the absence that does make the heart grow fonder.

You get, I hope, mail. Depending upon your child, age, fluency with writing, this can be informative or not informative, but no matter what, it’s fun to get a letter and to see what your child does or does not reveal via post. I am not sure all camps require letters. Ours does, one a week. And there aren’t electronic communications, like postings of photos or emails or texts between parents and children or really even camp and parents. There aren’t phone calls. Thus, the mail—so old school—becomes authentically significant again. There’s really nothing like an envelope through the chute when that is all the communication you’re going to enjoy for a period of time.

You will, I hope, send mail. You know what? If you let it be fun, it’s fun to send postcards and letters with a little comic from the paper and or a Mad Lib or crossword enclosed or what have you off to camp. Most camps don’t allow food (mice, jealousy, food allergies, sugar highs). This means you have to be inventive and send a tiny flashlight or a deck of cards or yoyo strings if you want to add to your missives. I find it interesting, at least this is the case for me, to realize how little I have to say; you might realize how little you have to say—or you might be surprised by just how much you have to say (and then, please let me know so I can follow your lead and write juicier letters, quality over quantity for a change). It’s delightful to wonder aloud on paper about what’s happening where your child is. It’s kind of nice to communicate in such a different way. Personally, I’m reminded that I enjoy drawing hearts.

To that last notion of wondering aloud what’s happening where your child is—I think it’s really nice not to know everything when on some level, in day-to-day life with familiar haunts and kids and even teachers or destinations, there’s just so much you don’t know about the rhythm and feel of your camper’s day. This is why I favor the no photos posted by camp decision. I like so much that camp is for the campers not for parent voyeurs. And I say this as one who will pick up at camp, and take photos and post them and email them to the grandparents. Put another way, what happens in camp stays in camp. This is good for your child. I think, in our helicopter-leaning era, it’s even better for us. The tethers we keep so tight do have to get longer and looser in order for our children to grow up and out. And we have to loosen our grips in order for this to happen. To hear your child tell you of some adventures and misadventures later on is to realize your child’s resourcefulness and to realize that your gift to them as a parent has just as much to do with letting go, as with holding tight.

You may not miss your child—at least not the entire time. It might be nice to have a break. And that’s awesome, too.

Subscribe to Brain, Child


The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

IMG_0564-1You know that pair of simply breathtaking little shoes you just can’t stop eyeing for your toddler even though they are too expensive to justify the purchase?

I happened upon a photo of them the other day. The photo is four years old now; the toddler has turned six. Seeing those empty shoes, I was reminded of something very smart I learned, but often forget.

Here’s what happened: the cute little soft shoes, pale sky blue with perfect Portlandia “put a bird on it” birds were something like forty-odd dollars. We have a generous hand-me-down stream, so there wasn’t a “need” for any shoes, let alone ones that cost an arm and a leg (I couldn’t help myself; never does a cliché work so well as this one right here). But I coveted the shoes. I’d go to the store where a sweet bird was perched on each shoe and I’d pick up the left then the right, and admire. And then, I’d put each shoe down. I’d walk away, slowly.

I really, really loved those shoes.

The most amazing thing happened: my friend passed a pair of them on to us when her daughter outgrew them. “These are scuffed up, so I feel bad about passing them on,” she apologized. “They aren’t perfect.”

Are you kidding me?

They were more perfect that way. “I love that they’re scuffed and loved and I love them more than you can know and I’m relieved that I didn’t have to buy them or not want to scuff them and there’s now absolutely no pressure on Saskia to wear them loads, but if she does, I’ll be thrilled,” I said, the words gushing out. “This is the single best hand-me-down we’ve ever gotten,” I declared.

I most certainly meant “we.” The perfectness of the gift had about nothing to do with my fast-walking toddler.

Don’t you know even as a toddler the precious pale blue bird shoes were not my pink-loving, sparkle-loving daughter’s favorites? She wore them plenty, but not the way I would have had her wear them—not with ardor. I often had to put them on when she had no agency over her wardrobe, like after I’d carried her to the car or stroller in her socks.

Fortunately, she wore them and I enjoyed them (to the hilt) and eventually, she outgrew them. Fortunately, hand-me-downs continue to serve as the basis of my now-six-year-old-daughter’s wardrobe. While few things have been as personally swoon-worthy as those shoes, my hand-me-down or bust mentality can be challenged by a few pricey brands with glossy catalogues that clutter our front hallway or sneak peeks via my email inbox. Inevitably, I fold every now and then for some dress that’s so adorable I can’t stand it, and rarely are the things I gravitate toward frilly or sparkly. I don’t even always go for pink.

Not surprisingly, this means that the clothes I purchase because I can’t stand not to are not necessarily my daughter’s favorites. Some, she likes fine, others less so, and some, not at all. I find myself in an uncomfortable position when I care about her clothing.

I cared, at times, about my young sons’ clothing, too. I loved to get beautiful clothes for my small boys, too. There were things I fell for, like the OshKosh overalls size six months or the smoky blue hooded chenille sweater. With my daughter, sometimes it feels different than it did with my sons. I’d call “daughter as doll Syndrome” and I’d have to admit, I am uncomfortable placing my sensibility about how she should look or dress atop hers and the pressures she already feels to look certain ways, pretty ways (not from me, but all the messages from everywhere). This place where my fashion sensibility and dress-up the doll impulses meet pit my desire not to care or covet against how much I like little girls’ cute, comfortable dresses for my girl. I’m caught between not wanting looks—or clothes—to matter and the love for the pretty object on my pretty gal.

Clothes and appearance and girls, that’s a thicket of questions to contemplate. For now, sometimes I buy the pretty thing on sale or get her a pair of shoes I know she’ll love (see, next year’s red canvas Mary Jane sneaks with a flower affixed). More often, I just look, lust a bit, and don’t buy. The tension remains. While the little shoes signify the beauty of hand-me-downs, perhaps they endure in my memory as a reminder that it’s okay to care about my daughter’s clothing—just not too much.

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.

To Gather and to De-clutter: A Mini-Meditation on Stuff—and Time

To Gather and to De-clutter: A Mini-Meditation on Stuff—and Time

Diaper Aisle 3 w grayLike most people (I mean, parents actually and maybe some grandparents, too), before the first baby, I spent an awfully long time in gathering mode. We acquired everything from unfathomably tiny items of clothing (we are Jewish; we weren’t observant of the have-nothing-beforehand rituals), a crib, crib sheets, bumper, and blankets, stroller, a soft carrier, a changing table, a diaper pail, diapers and wipes, and some baby grooming items, like the smallest nail clippers known to humankind. The things, most new, were so very curious, so filled with promise and mystery, and I think, ultimately, hope.

It was a little bit like back-to-school shopping, or filling a big backpack for some Outward Bound kind of experience, except instead of a classroom or a mounting our brand-new, mind-blowing adventure would be placed in our care—and off we’d go, a family of three.

I read up on the things and looked at catalogues and wandered through stores and felt nauseated (that was the pregnancy, at least mostly) and excited and overwhelmed. As I transformed my study into a nursery I shifted identities and I dreamt and I hoped and feared and tried up front to get it “right.” I set up treasures and picture books on the shelves in the sweet, little L-shaped periwinkle room. I’d fill a baby book with memories. I’d change diapers on the changing table. I’d set the babe down in the gigantic crib.

However pretty the room was, what I’d neglected to imagine turned out to be the import of room darkening shades on the windows. I guess that sums up what turned out to be my fatal retail error: real life isn’t like a glossy picture and real babies don’t need pristine anything. They aren’t pristine creatures, after all.

I didn’t gather as much stuff for the second, less for the third and for the last I didn’t really buy a thing (although a pink bomb arrived otherwise known as hand-me-downs). If anything, after the first two, while we still had more (and more and more) stuff, the thing I found myself studying and dreaming about and trying (again and again and again) to get right was proper storage for all that stuff and all those pieces and all those clothes someone would outgrow before the next kid grew into them. Seduced by wicker bins, metal bins, wooden shelves and plastic bins with lids, nothing truly worked.

Each time we approached the return to baby-dom, I froze. The moment I came to twice, once with the third and again with the fourth was the hesitance to walk down the diaper aisle at the supermarket moment. I knew we’d need diapers; I couldn’t quite comprehend that we’d be changing all those diapers, again. I couldn’t quite face knowing that I’d care about the color or consistency of poo. I couldn’t quite own up to the tether I’d be on—between me, a baby, everything ingested and everything excreted. By the third and fourth baby, I understood that’s what the diaper aisle meant.

At the same time, I also appreciated that the diaper era doesn’t last forever and that the accoutrements that seemed all-important, from wipes warmer to onesies, can be optional. I slowed my imagined need for lots of stuff. And now that we’re beyond diapers I can attest this is true—for once and for all.

Along with all those baby things we also accrued toys and games and books and blankets and stuffed animals. I carefully chose to have on hand for my boys the range of play options, not solely “boy” toys, so by the time our daughter arrived (last), we had baby dolls and a dollhouse along with train tracks and a legion of trucks. We do have three Barbies, now—and some My Little Ponies. And more things that sparkle, but anyway that’s not the point of my story: this all leads me to the other side of all that consumption—the moment when you’re done with so much gear and so many toys. It’s very freeing to realize we’re done with train tracks and wooden blocks and (almost all) the board books. It’s fine to let go of stuffies, even some of the most-loved ones. It’s like reclamation of space that will lead us to a renewed sense of house—as fitting the space in time we inhabit now. I will not lie; the process is quite consuming. Yet, as my playroom moves from engorgement, I have reached an amazing realization; the bins and shelves work best when they are not full.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

Friend Time

Friend Time

One of the reasons we like where our house is situated is its proximity to the local high school. If you have a house near the high school and are reasonably welcoming, I think the likelihood that many teenagers will pass through your doors, sit (or sleep) on your couches and eat your food is high.

Location, location, location!

The crowd we know is the theater folks. They are dramatic (ahem) and relational and funny. They sometimes show up between school and rehearsal; they often show up after performances (fortunately, my husband is a night owl by nature).

This snowy winter has made me keenly aware of my good fortune in terms of location. Our neighborhood boasts not only this teen central roost (with another a few blocks away; we can ship ’em between spots when necessary, say, during four-day snow day plus weekend marathons), we have besties within reach for all of them.

Sometimes, it means we have many kids of one basic age or kids of all ages. Occasionally, it means our house, even during a snow day, empties out (or weekend day). This access to others lessens the cabin fever when we’re relatively stranded and makes after school hours and weekends much more pleasant.

I was reminded on holiday last week with three kids just how much I rely upon the “home away from home” aspect of our daily lives when I was in a house (in the lovely, lovely Mecca far from New England midwinter, Florida’s Gulf Coast) with three of my four kids (and my mom) and each day there was some cabin fever in the form of siblingitis. There were, too, many companionable moments when the play flowed like so many waves—the sand digging or wave hopping, the underwater play in the swimming pool. However, my eleven-year-old wanted his yoyo buddies and my six-year-old wanted her BFFles and even my not all that social fifteen-year-old wished to speak with people other than his siblings, mother and grandmother. I wanted more time to speak with my mom! Therefore, for this one week, I missed my kids’ friends far more than I missed my own.

Anyway, on Thursday morning we woke to young voices next door. And there was Pippa, age seven and her brother Ben, age five. For my just-turned-six year-old gal, life was absolutely brilliant. For two glorious days, she played and played and played.

I loved how the duo—Saskia and Pippa—and the trio—Saskia, Pippa and Ben—spent hours between our two houses. I’m not sure what they did. Mostly, they wandered back and forth. The freedom of this bubble—friends in motion—entertained them even when they didn’t exactly “play” anything specific. It reminded me how both vacation and childhood have that suspension of time and that the lack of specific activity is, in fact, important. It’s not boredom and it’s not boring to pass the time with a friend or with friends.

Come to think of it, my house often feels exactly like the space between our vacation house and the vacation house next door felt—only with teenagers. They, too, fill a lot of time together—and they aren’t bored, exactly; they are companionable.

I logged my companionable hours during adolescence, too. When I try to remember what we actually did, it’s hard to pinpoint so much. Sure, we went places and had parties and did homework and studied for tests. But the memories are much less about events than a film—not video—in my mind that’s more carpets and beds and couches and there’s a soundtrack (Joni and Jackson and Bonnie and the Stones and the Who, etcetera) on vinyl. We kind of just were together. I know that when I see many of these folks, even after years apart, I feel so familiar, so comfortable with them and it’s because, I think, I lived some life with them. Plus, we shaped each other with our sensibilities.

My adolescent BFFle lives in my town and so, although our kids aren’t exactly the same age, we’ve logged time in adult years and parenting years and we each call our kids “lovey” at times and I know that somehow we got that from the same city and the same era and our very different parents. Obviously, through our parenting of adolescents, we serve as one another’s touchstones. Not only do we remember one another as teens, we remember each other’s parents and how we were parented (but that’s another story, for another day).

For now, it’s Pippa and Ben, who served to remind me that friends matter, new ones, old ones, and ephemeral ones.

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

IMG_0548Last week, my youngest child turned one-two-three-four-five-SIX. Six. Six requires two hands, after all, as Saskia’s godfather pointed out when I emailed the photograph of her with the count displayed across her fingers.

She’s wonderfully set for six. This girl is rocking kindergarten. Although I feel no pressure to have her read or write, she’s begun to do those things and of course, these new skills excite her and the rest of us, too. Her ability to hurl through air—gymnastics, not flight—amazes me. She’s got awesome, patient friends she loves, hugs too hard, cries out “Not Fair!” to all too often but then hugs again. Her One Direction-loving, screen-loving, chocolate-loving, sassy little self tickles me most of the time and proves a bit hard to calm down at night.

What was different about this year for me was this: I didn’t feel sad. The sadness I’ve experienced other years wasn’t connected to my baby, our caboose’s advancement from infant to toddler or toddler to preschooler; my sadness had more to do with her mother—and I guess, with her. On her birthday, I’m forced (this is a fine thing) to remember her birth and to remember that her arrival into our family is defined by a gift and a loss rolled into one. It’s not about a value—adoption is good or bad; sadness even is positive or negative—it’s about how complex it is to make families. I almost added the word “sometimes” here and then hesitated, because families always embody complexity along with simplicity. Our complexity as a family includes this. My memories of that original birth day, the day Saskia was born include this happy-sad truth that our family grew by more than one and that her first mother’s family grew by more than one, too.

Apparently, Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow. Our family constellation could use something like that to describe our roles, and our connections. Even mother doesn’t get a good divvying up. Every qualification of mother serves up room for judgment, words like biological, birth or adoptive. And what of cousins that are, technically, Saskia’s but not her siblings’—why aren’t there words to describe those relationships with more clarity, rather than somewhat convoluted, breathless explanations? Open adoption is relatively new territory and there aren’t so many descriptors or rules or customs or blueprints. There’s some good amount of winging it.

Every single year it’s amazed me that we’re a year further into Saskia’s life. Every single year the same thing amazes Caroline, her first/birth mom (her other mom). Somehow, this year, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, that amazement felt softer all around. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is it simply about the passage of time? Is it that over time, we’ve gotten to know each other better? We’ve enjoyed recent visits with Caroline, with a couple of Saskia’s grandparents, her aunt, and two cousins. Since the visit with the fourteen-year-old-cousin Saskia recalls fondly what they played and things they both liked at the toy store. I think it’s one of those older, cool cousin crushes you get (I did, at least), the kind that makes you wish to grow your hair exactly that long and to wear makeup because she did.

I think that as Saskia gets bigger, she understands adoption and she’s pretty matter-of-fact about it. She isn’t more confused by cousins or grandparents from this family of birth than the rest of her labyrinthine family; she is accepting of everyone pretty equally at this point. She knows this tummy fact and remembers it more often than not. She knows she’s loved. She feels entirely loved.

This is this year—and other years may well feel different. There’s only been one time when Saskia asked why she’s here and not somewhere else and the answer was that this worked well for everyone was met with a nod. Either she’ll want to know more or she won’t want to know so much more than that. The fact is she doesn’t have to ask me whether other family members love her, because she can do so directly. And because I know, for a fact, with my own eyes, that they do. Reassurance is a concrete offering.

Maybe we all understand—and trust—our adoption better over time. I didn’t have to wonder whether to call Caroline on Saskia’s birthday, because she called. Saskia was at her friend’s house so we called back. Sure, mostly Saskia said, “Hi Auntie Cece,” and “Uh-huh,” during the phone call with Caroline. That’s because she was busy with her brand-new coloring book.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

The List I Should Have Made For January

The List I Should Have Made For January

Mom w shovel and cocoaJanuary began. I made my New Year’s Resolutions that first day, a task-slash-process I take seriously. I like this ritual. I think about it for weeks. Some years, I write a long, specific list. Other years, I pen a short and somewhat more ethereal list. Anyway, I began the year caught up in the hopes a list like this stir up—and just a day from the kids’ return to school.

The return to school that wasn’t, due to weather. The return to school scheduled for January second that didn’t occur until midmorning January sixth and by then with a great deal of angst for the fifth grader, loath to return to school. In the meantime, on January third, I twisted my ankle quite badly (carried laundry, missed a stair). Three days in bed followed. There was a sense of the long, social holiday period ceding to the long convalescence and then the school refusal. Oh, and January brought bone-chilling cold all over, the kind of cold that’s settled deep and that makes us all brittle—skin, bones, and spirits.

I’d forgotten January could do that to you. Even a day of thaw here or there didn’t override the sense that we’d become frozen in our winter selves, and our wintry lives.

Rambling preamble to say my New Year’s Resolutions and all that ensued thereafter made me forget you need a list of reminders for January or you can get lost between the bitter temperatures, the cabin fever and the slap routine makes after all those holiday gatherings. Here’s what I should have remembered:

1.  You’re not the only one swept up in the aura of your New Year’s Resolutions. The Y parking lot becomes a traffic jam of epic proportions and the Y fills up with people you won’t see weeks from now. Everything is crowded. Every regular is grumpy.

2.  New Year’s Resolutions can have an adverse effect on some people. They get cynical or self-loathing. Keep your happiness about your own process to yourself. Also, even after you seriously twist your ankle and must take to rest-ice-compression-elevation glimpse your list. Stick to it. Trust it.

3.  As eager as parents are for routine, kids may be equally resistant to it. There’s some law in physics about equal and opposite forces. Whatever that is, it may apply in early January. The snow days’ bonus only made this truer.

4.  Many kids thrive on routine and feel glad to be back to it and to their friends. Still, routine after no routine is exhausting. Post-school, kids are spent, out of sorts, and everyone must accommodate until routine again feels … routine.

5.  This month has been SO VERY FRIGID. Natural consequences: less activity, more cabin fever and the long cold month feels even longer (and colder). Take this into account all month long.

6.  Do not underestimate the power of citrus.

7.  Television is a reasonable escape. Travel sites and desperate searches for deals to leave town before the end of the month are not.

8.  Even if you tire of One Direction, get your daughter to play it—often, loudly. She is happier when she dances.

9.  Try not to be thrown by the fact that everyone starts to discuss summer camp options during the absolute coldest stretch of weather. That’s aspiration or magical thinking, mixed with a little self-hatred. It is not vindictive so do not hate your friends for raising the subject. Despite the grumbles at the return to school, remember that for many children happiness and routine are often intertwined. If there are camps with lotteries, sign up on time.

10.  Practicalities you should remember: hats, mittens, wool socks, leg warmers, neck warmers, fleece, boots … cold weather gear is for cold weather and January’s cold. Wear it.

11.  The promise of hot cocoa is incentive for kids to go outside. So is payment for shoveling snow. In other words, if ever there was a time for bribery, it’s January.

12.  Do note that the light has begun to last later and start earlier by the end of January. January is a very long month and February’s the shortest month. Remind yourself that by the end of February, you’ll practically taste and smell spring. That’s just four weeks from now, regardless of an old groundhog.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

How to Pay Attention (But Not Too Much)

How to Pay Attention (But Not Too Much)

IMG_9697The thing I’ve noticed recently when I spend time with friends whose kids are very young is how hard the parents work. Partially, it’s hard not to make heavy lifting out of a situation that is, by definition, heavy lifting.

The very small mew, they cry. They are constantly in need of milk and burps and sleep and diaper changes and motion and quiet and loudness in the form of dryers or jackhammers or our voices. Miraculously, one day, they roll over. They crawl. They sit. They grab things sometimes things we hand them and other times things we wouldn’t hand to them in a million years. They don’t sleep. They do sleep. They cut teeth. They walk and then the trouble seems exponential. They can’t talk and then they talk too much. The heavy lifting comes from how many seconds are in a day (86,400, thank you, Google) and how many hands are required to get through each 86,400-second stretch of time.

You think to yourself if only you tire them out enough they will sleep. So, you set yourself the mission to do this. On the playground, it’s not enough to be there; you want them to move around, slide, climb, run, ride; you don’t want the swings or the quiet sand play. You did not come to this playground to have them rest in any way. You came for the run-around, the tire-you-out. You cheer and cajole and incite a race. “Isn’t today almost over?” one friend said to me, her hair dripping, after she took her preschooler to a family swim yesterday afternoon when we collided in the Y’s locker room.

I hadn’t been in the pool. My friend took her girl and mine to swim; I took them to the open gymnastics session. The tag team approach helps with those 86,400 seconds. In fact, the lazy approach characterizes a certain aspect to my parenting of my youngest one. I stopped cutting her food in small bites early on. I indulge and cater plenty, but the things she asks for more often than the things I offer. If she can do something—from get the tights on to snap the seatbelt to brush the hair well enough some days—I do not offer. Given the many elaborate efforts I made to get everything  just right for the first sibs, and surrounded by parents of small children who are in so many ways more conscientious than I manage, I often feel like a slacker. I come nowhere near the high benchmark set by my less seasoned and less exhausted and less busy with other things self.

Both hard work and slackerdom have their inherent complications. With a couple kids in the preparatory launch chute of adolescence I think less about those 86,400 seconds and more about how to pay attention to them in ways that feel good to the kid and also can encourage independence and self-sufficiency.

That’s why the carton of already-made tomato soup I recently bought feels like a surprisingly good purchase. The eleven-year-old son loves this soup. Doctored up with garlic croutons, the fifteen-year-old son eats it, too. Each kid prepares his own food when the food is tomato soup. The bonus is that the eleven-year-old son is delighted I remembered he loves this soup and bought it for him. I even got an unsolicited hug.

I want to be a person in my kids’ lives who makes efforts that count. I no longer think I can accomplish that by doing everything for them. I don’t think that I’ve given up on effort, though. Mid-autumn of this school year, I remembered something I’d done like clockwork for the oldest kid for some period of time—could have been months or years or not every day but often, I really do not know any longer. I tucked a note into the kindergartner’s lunch box. Careful to make the block letters legible, the one-line message and the hearts, pretty much always some heart goes somewhere, the notes, which I try to remember to send every school day, represent what I hope she remembers in the fibers of her memory—that she was loved, that we paid attention, that we showered her with hearts and that her happiness and sense of being connected occurred even when she wasn’t physically with us. I hope a good bowl of tomato soup sends the same message, someday. It’ll take a lot longer than 86,400 seconds to find out. I can wait. It’s taken a while to feel this way, but I can wait.

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.

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

IMG_0167With the New Year now underway and the snow now falling (and falling and the temperatures plummeting, no school for the rest of this week, as originally promised), I find myself thinking about how to make the most of a couple of housebound days after so many relatively house-and-people-bound days.

Side note: the visits and parties and hanging out of kids and teenagers and a few grownups here and there besides has been lovely. We’ve really, truly hung.

However, as I imagine some more truly snowbound time, with work knocking at my door and the wish to move my body knocking at my knees or heart or abs or something, I find myself on the morning of Snow Day Number One 2014 in a cartoonish battle with my New Year’s Resolutions.

Alongside “Take care of myself” and “Set firm, clear boundaries” are “Trust the other person’s process” and “Love ’em all loads.” Does this mean I should let the kids watch endless television so I can work and clean up and work out? Does this mean I should demand some help with the ongoing clean up? What about the towels my teenager used and left on his floor? Please picture a mountain of towels, not a molehill. Who washes those?

Aptly, I read an article this morning about how long it takes to form a new habit. Numerically, it’s between twenty-one and two hundred days. The wide range has to do with how difficult the behavior is for the habit former to acquire: to drink a glass of water is easier than to do fifty sit-ups after breakfast, at least for one water drinker and one sit-up doer. I read the article with hopes that from it I’d divine answers to my pressing question, which is whether to make everyone help clean up the house today since we are housebound and since the house can use some help—and so can I—or to let them be and do my thing (which will include some house re-orderliness).

Our housebound-ness has come all too soon, long before I can grapple with the inherent juxtapositions amongst my New Year’s Resolutions. For example, I’d expected today to be a school day, during which I’d do my work and some laundry in relative peace and quiet (for the first time in nearly two weeks) and at a pace that allowed for a few breaths.

Instead, here comes a crying five-year-old child. One who isn’t at school and is upset and now … cue the mama picking up a crying five year-old child. (In real time, I picked her up, quieted her down and decided that we both needed a few minutes to ourselves).

Voila, I am back. The television is on upstairs for one twenty-minute show. Inhale. Exhale.

What I’ve realized over this suddenly elongated holiday chute is this: friendships are critical and my kids do have wonderful friendships. I count as examples the small children here and the time my small child has ended up at other people’s houses or activities. I count the many teens here for long stretches. I count the sleepover on New Year’s Eve during which my fifth grader fell asleep and my husband, myself and my tenth grader entertained the still-awake fifth grader. And on like that. We, the adults, have wonderful friendships—and it turns out that our lives are rich and full right there, full stop. We saw people at parties and gatherings and just here and there and also around kids and we are categorically in the top one percent for good friend fortune. Since we are much older than our kids, I know for a fact now that as long as they have friends, their lives will pan out—and those skills, the ones that make friends and work through playdate mini-drama and adolescent drama (melodrama or otherwise) will ensure a level of happiness that lets me breathe about my children’s wholeness and wellness and will enable me to let go to watch them sail. That’s all the most important “stuff.”

But then, there’s today. In terms of this resolution to set firm, clear boundaries, I won’t clear the dishes that taunt me on the dining room table from last night’s late night teen snack nor the brand-new Panini maker on the kitchen counter. I will insist the teens deal with those. I’ll unload the dishwasher and make sure that there is more bread, cheese and milk today (but I probably will send the hubs to get it or do so on foot; I don’t think I’ll drive). I think I’ll wash some of those towels. The article on habit formation explains that acting without thinking, which in science is called “automaticity” is the “central driver of habits.” It’s January second and I have a long way to go to set clear, firm boundaries without a second thought. At least the year is young. And at least the towels are out of my sightline.

Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

IMG_0060It’s pretty. It’s so pretty, the snow and the pink sunsets that begin as peachy blushes and then go full on rose. It’s lovely, the thought of time and hanging out and what, puzzles or board games or movies? It’s … vacation.

And I am, as is often the case, stressed about who’s coming and preparations and I don’t feel relaxed or cozy. I don’t feel “in the moment” other than the moment that is hand-gripped-tight-to-my-to-do list. I’ve added people and I want to make the stockings right and I put together calendars for the grandparents and godparents and it’s a good day of work to find and choose and order those photos and, and, and. The preparations rarely get simpler.

I wonder if I’m alone in this. There’s a way that I imagined more “quality time” and instead I feel often I plow through time (it’s dense; it’s like snow—to be cleared often not walked through when the walk through part is the most fun). I feel it maybe most around these holidays (and in summer). It might be a freelance thing (I was away three days this summer—and had an interview to do and write up during that brief window). It might be something else, like my comfort in routine. Busy as I am—I get the gifts, make the meals, entertain the people, go to the parties and performances and before that bring the teachers gifts and go to those performances and such, I feel adrift. Plus, I’m tired. All that’s required to have us “off” and in “holiday mode” is certainly not relaxing.

Tradition seems to require gifts. It requires big meals and big gatherings. My dream for one of these December breaks is not to uphold tradition, but to go to Florida. All of us could go, my peeps, and just … hang out. Or, as I said to my dear hubby during our long, late night drive to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, maybe one year he and I could each could take turns: he’d do a holiday and I’d do another holiday and I’d take one off from family duty (picture me in my house on Thanksgiving furiously throwing things away; picture me walking on a beach on Christmas morning; I think it looks nice).

This isn’t and is about love, my wish to take a break. I love this family. I love them more than my desire to upend tradition, I guess. They love the traditions we’ve accumulated (the eleven year-old: “Even if Grandma’s not coming this year, can we have bacon?”). Traditions are their own routines; they are their own memory nuggets and they are powerful lures. I play the same music every year on Christmas Eve, a compilation of local artists doing holiday-inspired songs that went out of print for years (and just got reissued). I find the stockings. I really enjoy the kids’ excitement and the house full of people and food and all that wrapping paper. I love that we can make our house a place that is warm and happy and loud and welcoming. I guess I choose tradition after all. Still, Florida… There’s circularity to my escape dream that does not lead me to escape. Like one of those chutes you get to during the Chutes and Ladders game, the long one during a round you inevitably get it five times, I do end up with my cheery-as-I-can-muster face by Christmas.

Anyway, this is now, the time when there are smalls and larges and everyone lives here. It’s not forever. We lost my father-in-law, the original Christmas lover, and the Christmases directly after he died were hard and sad (so was the one before he died). I still see most vividly his rapt face and gleaming eyes, his robe wrapped round him, ready to open presents. His love for the holiday made me love it. And the kids love it the way they love it and so I choose to tolerate it and try to love it, too. I hope that one day, if they don’t want to hang onto traditions, I’ll let them go. Because someone someday is bound to lobby that we all find a beach over the winter holidays, right?

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.

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

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

coraThe photo arrived the way many photos do these days; I was tagged on Facebook in order to see it. The dress eighteen-month-old Cora wore was one my daughter, Saskia, had worn and loved and I carefully chose it for Cora, because she’s family—and because the dress had family provenance. Let me explain: Saskia’s aunt Laura made the dress. Laura is married to my husband’s brother (son from their dad’s first marriage). Cora is Saskia’s cousin, because Margery is her birth mom’s sister (from their dad’s second marriage). Following me?

In my family many relationships come without exact names. Our five-year-old-daughter is adopted—and it’s an open adoption, so there are many family members that “belong” to her, Cora and Margery as examples, and obviously her birth mom, Caroline, whom Saskia calls Auntie Cece. While adoption highlighted this truth, it was already a given in my family—and maybe in yours, too. Families tend to be complicated, rich entities. Over time, through experience, they can transform from neat and tidy to somewhat overgrown—and interesting.

My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. They remarried. While I never knew my stepparents’ families well, I knew some of them. I also got a stepsister out of the deal. During one visit to New York, where none of us lived, my stepsister’s dad came to our hotel to see his daughter. My stepfather’s dad declared to my children that as Emily’s dad he was “kind of another grandpa.” A tall, wiry, energetic and somewhat hammy guy, my kids were more than game for a fun grandparent-like addition. Had we spent more time together, this could have become more tangible, I bet. A few years after that, my stepsister’s sister (technically, her half-sister, if you want to be technical) stayed at our house the night before our shared sister’s wedding, for convenience’s sake. It felt easy, though, and natural; after all, we were both sisters of the bride. If not sisters, by then ourselves, I think it’s fair to say we felt sisterly, especially in our shared love for Em.

Whenever people used to ask me whether I felt sad that my parents divorced, I’d say I wasn’t. “Without their divorce I wouldn’t have Emily,” was my answer (still is).

Is my cousin’s wife’s sister my cousin? I adore her, so surely, in a way, she is—or can be. Is my cousin’s ex-wife my cousin still? We think so. I don’t mean this in a flip and offhanded way; I guess that I think family is complicated enough that you might as well hold those you want to love alongside those you’ve been handed without a choice. Maybe this is part of why adoption didn’t seem entirely foreign to me. Some aspect of that choice felt expansive, as if we’d only embraced a different (admittedly complex) spin on that notion that you can reach towards family, and think outside the most simple definition about who belongs and who doesn’t.

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love. And knowing so much of her family, the ones brought via her mom—even without neat words to describe all of our relationships—feels very warm. I feel like we all have Saskia’s back. So last week when she informed me I am not her mom, I asked what she meant. “Auntie Cece is my mom,” she said.

I heard a little hint of challenge. I took a deep breath. “Well, I’m your mom,” I said as directly and without revealing that she’d stolen my breath as I possibly could manage. “And Auntie Cece is your mom, too.”

“I have two moms!” she exclaimed.

“That’s right,” I agreed. More love may be more love; it’s also a lot to wrap your mind around—for her and for me. I gave her a hug and she hugged me back. I could feel her relief that she could say this and it was fine to say and that I know I’m her mom—and want her to know that, too.

“And one dad,” she added.

That’s another story for way later (we’ve never met her birth father) and so I nodded.

Family Travels, and Our Apologies to New Jersey

Family Travels, and Our Apologies to New Jersey

IMG_2906Like so many families this week, ours will hit the road. We kind of know just how many families, because we have to drive through New Jersey with about three-quarters of them. Thanksgiving in Philadelphia at my mom and stepdad’s house is not just a family tradition, it’s one of the specific reasons we bought our van.

Because, we were, most definitely van avoiders. Although we spent a dozen years in not one but two pretty big vehicles—a Volvo station wagon and a Ford Explorer, we clung to the no-vanness of our lives. The van, to us, felt like a white flag of surrender, although what, exactly we’d imagined we hadn’t already surrendered to, I’m no longer able to pinpoint. It was more a feeling, since we certainly had already ceded our vehicles to baby buckets and boosters and cracker crumbs and Playmobil figures wedged between the seats. The van felt like some final fall from the grace of how we’d started our parenting years, in those cars.

The first guy liked Alice in Wonderland and never met a vehicle he could work up even a little “vroom” for so when the second guy came, the transportation/construction phenomenon hit our family in a most unexpected tsunami of so many wheels. The best line of his little toddler life, uttered from the backseat whilst chained in five-point harnesses: “Zeez, when we grow up, you take the Volvo, I’ll have the ‘Splorer.” His big brother nodded rather dumbly. He couldn’t have told you the makes of our two green vehicles. I don’t know that he knew they were both green or practically that we had two of them.

However, four children and two parents cannot go to Philadelphia with luggage in a Volvo station wagon. I mean, I guess technically they could if they were willing to have one kid ride with just that much luggage in the third seat facing backwards for all those hours and hours. Maybe, they could get a Thule bin atop the wagon to hold the stuff, but how do those things even work? I live in Thule-land (it’s like Vermont, only it’s Western Massachusetts) and I just cannot comprehend them. The stroller alone would have been our nonstarter. And the big kids and their friends were getting way too big to fold their lengthening legs into pretzel form enough for that smaller, third seat anyway, which was a problem for carpools. This is all to say that we can blame it on the baby’s arrival and whatever—we made it to the minivan, the you-can’t-avoid-it-moment-of-truth.

I’ll be totally honest here about two things and that van. One, it’s a super fine vehicle. It drives well; it’s got precisely fourteen cup-holders, which has become my shorthand version to explain everything that’s wrong and right about our American society these days, and it’s so much better for carpools than the alternative would have been. Plus, we have heated seats and smartly opted for leather not fabric. I will get to that last bit soon. Two, it’s very much not cool and I do not for the life of me understand why anyone would willingly get one if it wasn’t a necessity. I do not love driving it alone or with one or two others. I feel wasteful, although the van gets better gas mileage than either the Explorer or the Volvo did. Our second car is now a Honda Civic, and although we didn’t spring for a hybrid, it does get good gas mileage and for all this I’m telling you about the cars we don’t drive all that much actually.

To bring all this seeming meander back to the point, which is that we’ll take a road trip to Philly, I want to say that our pinnacle of a road trip disaster occurred in this van on the way to Philadelphia with four kids in tow. It’s a story I have to remember at this time each year, because I can then tell myself the drive can’t be worse than the one we already had and thus I screw up my courage—and go. Picture two parents and four kids in a van late on a Tuesday night and picture that van hitting the standstill of the George Washington Bridge. Even before you get there, you see its majestic self ahead and you are awed—but then you are stalled and you rue it just as sure as you are amazed by all these bridges New York City’s got going around it. It’s about 11:30 PM. You have to wonder why are you stalled to a standstill on the GW Bridge at nearly midnight not the night before Thanksgiving anyway. You do wonder that, especially a minute later.

A minute later is the perfect time for your second guy, then in fifth grade, to throw up. He’s in the third row, of course. You cannot go to him. He’s stoic enough but then the next guy, the kindergartner, pees in his sleep—and wakes up. So the toddler wakes up, too, and cries because it’s the middle of the night and she’s a toddler and no one can do more than hand her a bottle, which the kindergartner—a.k.a. toddler whisperer—does. And the seventh grader, the one who hasn’t thrown up or peed or been woken up, is generally freaked out by the whole mess. In my memory, he’s the loudest of all.

Anyway, that’s that. It’s a moment. It’s the moment when the parents start to laugh that punch drunk David Bryne-channeling laugh of how (the hell) did we get here? And we do mean, here, as in on the George Washington Bridge stuck with this vomit and pee and these tears and this freak out and us. How did we become the people in the van, the parents of four, the children of more than four altogether, the sandwich generation, the whole freaking thing?

Obviously, there were no answers just then. Suffice to say that we’ve never found the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike a more welcome sight before or after that night. What ensued: a bunch of cleanup—and a (poopy) diaper change, of course. And on we went. The rest of the ride (and for days, really) we repeated to one another how glad we were to have shelled out a little more for the leather seats. Our lyric choice may not have been quite apt. Perhaps, the better way to describe family road trips in vans with debacles and New Jersey to larger family gatherings has a little more “road to nowhere” to recommend. You do need music on the road that much is for sure. And, in fact you do need to earn a few badges of honor here and there, if only to have some stories you can tell forevermore. Without those, you wouldn’t know you’d truly made yourselves into a family.


When My Teen Needs a Ride

When My Teen Needs a Ride


My boy and Alisa, the new City Councilor

My boy (on far left) and Alisa, the new City Councilor 

Tuesday was Election Day. In our little city, voter turnout wasn’t high. It’s an off year—no races outside the municipal ones. The Mayor ran unopposed for his second term. There were, however, a couple of heated races for seats on the City Council. One was in our ward; another was across town. My fifteen-year-old cared about the latter more.

He is a political guy, a newspaper reader, conversant in current events—and a rabid fan of The West Wing (and Allison Janney). His extracurricular activities demonstrate this, like Model U.N. and Student Senate. He’s volunteered for campaigns and he’s raised money to save rainforests, starting in third grade. When he was in eighth grade, he asked me to take him—we went on foot—to an anti-death penalty vigil.

The city’s public schools were closed for Election Day, because the elementary and middle schools serve as polling places. My fifteen-year-old woke up, watched some television, ate some breakfast, took a bath—in other words, a lazy, cozy morning and then asked to go to the polls to help out. He needed a little help to push beyond the first email inquiry—and being a teenager, he needed a ride. I would like to be clear to anyone reading this with toddlers in the house: prepare yourself for the shuttling, endless shuttling, ahead. The small creatures you wrestle into clunky harnesses will sit next to you one day and demand to go places. Sometimes, the rides will be chatty and sweet and you’ll like the same music. Other times, adolescent sullenness will rub off on you. Sometimes, it’ll feel convenient or at least easy to give the ride; other times, driving duty will be taxing or completely inconvenient and you’ll wish you were elsewhere.

Personally, I am not a terribly eager driver. Long road trips feel more like injuries to be accrued than places to conquer. Achy neck or back or arm or hips bother me more than the reward of arrival at the other end or the music and the ribbon of road and adventure and the snacks along the way. My sense of direction is shockingly terrible. This past weekend I drove my little gal and her pal to a birthday party and took the wrong road in the suburban outskirts of our town. I’ve lived here decades and I couldn’t trust myself to get from the wrong road to the right one so I turned back and rerouted myself from the erroneous turn rather than risk becoming lost. It was pathetic and a tad bit embarrassing. While I have some fond memories of time spent in cars, and don’t mind the annual trek to the grandparents’ for Thanksgiving—Massachusetts to Philadelphia—or to camp, Massachusetts to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, I do not seek out the open road.

And I don’t seek out the drive to school or even karate or yoyo class (true story, yoyo class), although, obviously, I dole those rides out like so much Halloween candy on the big night.

Election morning, the ride was not a hardship, merely an inconvenience. I lost ten minutes to the drive, maybe twelve from my workday. He wasn’t grumpy and neither was I. We spent some of the drive time discussing who would pick him up from the polls (short answer: not me). My feelings changed instantly when we got to the middle school-slash-polling place, where I left my tall boy with his grey sweatshirt and big green Alisa Klein button (and sign) beside the candidate to wave at voters and drivers and walkers and bikers. I felt proud of him.

Later that evening, I went to Zumba class. This particular Tuesday night class is taught by our housemate Mim, age twenty-five, and has recently become populated with loads of younger (than me) dancers, including some high school seniors. Immediately after class, I called home for election results (class ends at 8:15 PM). Alisa had won, unseating a conservative incumbent (cheer with me, feel free; it was super exciting). I told the teens—two didn’t know who Alisa Klein was, one cheered along with me and explained to her friends how fantastic and improbable (in that ward) the victory was and mentioned instantly how delighted their friend, an eleventh grader, who’d kept track of date for the campaign, must have felt.

The thing about rides and teens (and kids) is often they are the way to help your kids become involved—in politics, in the community, sure, or whatever else. I find it very difficult to remember that when I feel reduced to taxi service provider. Tuesday, it was awfully nice to be reminded of the fact that these rides aren’t given for naught. The fifteen-year-old, he’d grabbed a ride to the candidate’s victory party, as well.

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.

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.

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.

What They’ll Talk About When They Talk about Love and Family

What They’ll Talk About When They Talk about Love and Family

IMG_8146One of the things that Saskia’s kindergarten-first grade classroom does this year is to study families. This Family Study curriculum has me nervous.

I’ve heard that it’s hard to talk about your “different” family structure sometimes and have it seem anything other than “different” in this study unit. Note: we live in a very lesbian-friendly little city and while it’s not the most diverse place in the world, it’s not the least diverse place in the world, either. It is a place that loves its own quirkiness and believes in difference. Even the radio station touts itself with this phrase: “Different is Good.”

In her class, there is at least one other adopted friend. There are at least a couple of blended families or two-household situations. Saskia’s teacher is divorced and has one child, now in college. She won’t be anomalous when she talks about her family’s structure.

Cut to last year when the preschool version of a venue for family sharing arose through the Star of the Week. Each kid is, yes, Star of the Week during the course of the school year. Special things happen, like you fill out a book about yourself and your family can come in for sharing. If you had a pet, you could bring your pet, too. You have photographs from home on a bulletin board and tell about them when your parents come in to class. Each time something like this happens—Star of the Week or the fifth grade Lifeline or the graduation slideshow—I realize I don’t have well-organized photos and now that I have a digital camera, I have hardly any printed photos at all. I had to print some for Star of the Week. And actually, then I realize I should be printing photos so much more often—for Caroline and the grandparents. It’s like a If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario, these projects that require photographs. Down the rabbit hole of what you haven’t done right you go.

Anyway, the point of the Star of the Week here isn’t my failing as a photograph provider, it’s that Saskia wasn’t all that into the book project. I didn’t worry about that since years earlier her next biggest brother Remy refused to engage much with the book part. I didn’t feel at all surprised when the big occasion of both parents coming to class with her rendered her a silent clingster on the couch between us. We don’t go to school events the three of us all that often (remember, she’s the fourth of four; we rarely carve out that kind of time, because we really can’t). Was I a little surprised that she didn’t bring up or want to bring up anything about adoption? At that moment, I wasn’t surprised since she had recently told me she wished she’d been inside my tummy. Was I surprised that we kept our talk in front of the class time brief and didn’t really bring up adoption? I was a little surprised, yes. On the photographic array, there was a picture of Saskia and her Auntie Cece, though. Saskia named her. And on we went.

So, that’s to say I felt accommodating in the moment and comfortable enough last year—in part because I knew adoption came up during other people’s Star of the Week presentations. However, this year, with families as the focus (as opposed to shower the preschooler with love and attention) I want to do our part better and I want to be sure that the class study goes better. During the initial parent-teacher night, the teacher didn’t delve into difference, except to acknowledge that he wants to study all kinds of family structures. At the parent night, he mentioned interest in videos or books.

I could write a bunch about how there are picture books about adoption and yet so far none about open adoption. Those mothers are just … invisible. It’s not our story and I wish our story splashed across some thick and colorful and happy pages. There are books about adoption, from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Tell Me Again about the Night I was Born to Chih Yuan-Chen’s Guji Guji. I haven’t actively looked for new picture books about adoption for a while, so I will do that before the family study and ask around. In anticipation (anxiety-tinged, I’ll admit it) of this unit, I’ll probably go in and ask the teacher about how he will talk about things like lesbian and gay parents and divorce and adoption. Done right, the family study unit is of course a fantastic opportunity for all.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

IMG_0519She brings stuff up at bedtime. Most five year-olds do; they don’t want to be left alone to sleep. She likes when I tell her stories in the dark. I rub her back. Who wouldn’t like all that?

Aside: bedtime can—if I let it—take forever.

Anyway, here’s one from this past week or so: “Tell me about when I was in your tummy.” As I’ve written about before, sometimes she has mentioned this idea that she was in my tummy and I’ve let it go, when I realized that not every wish has to be hit on the head with a reminder that you weren’t in my tummy. Once, this happened when we visited a former babysitter in the hospital with her one-day old baby boy, and all the grandparents. They didn’t know she is adopted, and it didn’t seem like the moment to tell the whole story. Other times, we’ve been alone and I’ve kind of let the moment slide by. Mostly, though, I say something along the lines of, “Remember that you weren’t in my tummy? Whose tummy were you in?” and she does remember and then I remind her—again and again and again—how we were waiting for her and she came into my arms and all that stuff.

This past week when she posed the question about time in my tummy, I realized what she wanted was a story about herself when she was teeny-tiny. The tummies weren’t the subject; she was the hoped-for subject. “Do you remember that you weren’t in my tummy?” I asked. “Whose tummy?” She told me Auntie Cece, her voice inflecting to a question. “Yes,” I replied, “but do you want to know about when you were just born?” She nodded.

And so I told her everything about how tiny she was, a feather in my arms, and how she was quite red—as most babies are—and it took a little while to get more pink, the way babies get. I talked about her long fingers and the way you could see light right through her fingernails, which were translucent. I described how her eyes were dark and big and round and glassy and how her lips were so pink. “You had so much dark hair, a whole headful,” I said. “Most babies don’t.” I added, “I loved you instantly so very much the very second I first held you. I’d been waiting for you and there you were, finally.”

She loved every detail. My a-ha moment was so obvious I couldn’t believe how long it took me to really “get” it: sometimes, when she asks about those in your tummy memories what she’s looking for isn’t a big explanation about whose tummy and whose arms, she’s really looking for details like you fit in my arms and you had ten little toesies. Of course she wants to know about when she was a baby. That’s fascinating. She wants to know about when she was a goopy, messy toddler learning to eat pasta with tomato sauce, too—and how she figured out fashionable ways to wear all that redness.

In the midst of a tummy and baby conversation a few weeks ago (another aside: they really don’t happen all the time), she asked why she didn’t go to Auntie Cece since she’d been in her tummy. I felt a swift kick to stomach sensation. Rather than responding from that feeling, I remembered that however loaded this might feel for me; I feared her feeling rejected, there was always a possibility that one day the question would elicit a wish she’d gone there not here. My job wasn’t to race ahead, though. I kept it very simple. I decided in that moment it wasn’t a big existential query. It was just why? “Auntie Cece felt like she wasn’t really able to raise a baby the way she wanted for you to grow up, with another parent and some brothers,” I said. “She thought this was your family and plus you get Auntie Cece and your grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, too.”

“I want to be here, with my mommy,” she declared and hugged me very tightly.

“I want you to be here. I love being your mommy,” I replied and met her hug with an equally big squeeze.

Together, we seem to discover the story. We note the details. As we bumble through, I see two important components to my narrative: she was the cutest little thing and she’s as loved as she could possibly be loved. Less is more, but more love is more love and there we have it. Will it get more complicated? Sure. But not all at once—by the time she delves into harder questions—if she does—she will feel secure about her own preciousness and about how loved she is, by us all.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Does Grey Hair Matter?

Does Grey Hair Matter?

IMG_0020There are all kinds of stereotypes about women who opt for adoption. The main two are likely that they’re very young and that they’re poor. There are similarly stereotypes about adoptive parents (read, mothers) like they’ve grappled with infertility and they are rich. Of course, none of these things are across the board true. Amongst the random things I learned about first or birth mothers is that the “average” age is twenties, not teens.

Amongst the things I worried about during the process of seeking a “match” with a birth mother was this: if I let my hair turn grey, would I appear too old to a birth mother? Would I be as old or older than a birth mother’s mother? That was absolutely a possibility.

The back-story on my hair: I had a few silver strands before I turned thirty. I colored it, first just a little over the glittering hairs and then my whole head of mottled dark and grey. As the area I had to cover grew so did the strength of the dye. By my early forties, I felt trapped: to color my hair was expensive, chemical-heavy, time consuming and an environmental faux pas. By my early forties, Al Gore lived on my shoulder, the economy was on a precipice, and I had three children, soon, I hoped, four. And I’m not much into primping or preening. I had no idea how I’d ended up in a salon on such a regular basis. I didn’t like the fact that I no longer really knew what my hair color actually was, mine, the one that wasn’t bottled up and squirted on my already colored hair.

Call this a moment of emotional and practical dissonance, which, I guess you could also make into a larger statement, since to have three children and want a fourth represents a meeting place of heart’s desire and practicality creating nothing short of a cacophony. Add to this the fact that when the hairdresser told me the smart idea was to create highlights to wean me from the color, think, fake salt and pepper, I balked; I thought it was a ploy to keep me in fake salt and pepper forevermore. Anyway, reason—and the colorist—lost that bid and off I went to spend many, many months in an awkward slide down of a silver line from the top of my scalp to the ends of my soon to be unprofessionally cut (by friends and babysitters and myself and now my husband) hair.

Take into consideration that the matching process is, by nature, stressful for everyone. Adoption, however positive it tends to be for the adoptive family, exists because there’s a crisis—a woman is pregnant and about to have a baby that for whatever reason or reasons, she will not raise. You can’t ignore that and you can’t, therefore, turn adoption into a stress-free experience. Every situation is just too loaded for absolute certainty or joy.

The decision about which family a birth mother chooses I’ve been told tends to be made in the gut. One friend told me that the birth mother to her first son said what cinched her wanting them was a photo of my friend and her husband taken in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. The birth mom had been to San Francisco and had fond feelings about the trip. She imagined her baby getting to go there, too.

I wondered what would click about us for “our” birth mother. The grey hair was a perfect flash point for all my anxieties about the process. So I worried about hints of grey or lots of grey, along with all the other stuff, like what if I were old enough to be my baby’s mother’s mother and what if no one wanted us?

The social worker in our agency met a birth mother she liked—for us. The social worker liked us—for her. It was kind of an arranged marriage scenario. Her instincts were right. In the end, the birth mother who chose us turned out to be in her forties. She wasn’t young enough to be my daughter nor was she unfamiliar with the process of accumulating grey hair. So, filed under unexpected good fortune, I add this: we are fortunate to be able to talk hair color and hot flashes and to kvell over our daughter.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

IMG_8955This week we marked a big first—the first day of kindergarten for the small gal. She set off ready, with her brand-new lunchbox—just like two of her preschool pals had—and her ladybug backpack and her pigtails. I said no to flip-flops; she insisted upon wearing them. Like the seasoned parent I am, I consented, because I knew the teachers would let her know the rules—no flip-flops—and then we’d return to the sensible summery appropriate-for-school footwear. She wore a headband and her hair was sprayed with the rosemary lice repellent.

Many people said things to me along the lines of this being our last first day of kindergarten. That’s true. I certainly thought about how much easier this fourth first day of kindergarten drop-off was than the first one, as I left her amongst nervous peers and a more nervous thicket of camera-wielding parents in the midst of first-time kindergarten starts. She was fortunate that her first grade partner, Max, was so easygoing and warm and directive. They took off from the sign-in board to the rug. Just before she left me after signing in and before she walked to the rug, she grabbed an extra hug, one she made super-strong. Fortified with enough mama love, she was on her way.

After I said goodbye, I went from drop-off to meeting to another meeting. It wasn’t until later that I had a chance to look at the photographs I’d snapped at school. There she was, signing in with all the seriousness a starting-kindergartner musters for this most big-kid event. I sent out an email of those initial moments—to all the grandparents and to her birth mama, and a few others. As I hit send, I had a tug I sometimes feel when I share these milestones. I felt guilty that I got to be the one to experience this prideful, somewhat shaky, completely exciting moment firsthand.

The photograph allowed me both to feel this and to share the milestone. It’s funny how it did two things. Certainly, in the ragtag mess of kids and parents and teachers eager for the extraneous adults to leave, I didn’t think about her birth mama, my dear husband or anyone else. I was focused upon one thing above all others and that was to make as hasty and uncomplicated a retreat from the classroom as possible. I left the tears to other kids and other parents. The fact that I’d documented the moment allowed for reflection.

When I did stare at her serious little hand grasping that marker to circle her name on the sign-in board, I was able to feel my sense of amazing fortune. I’ve spoken to enough adoptive parents about this to know that I’m not alone in feeling fortunate this way, not just during babyhood. I know others have told me this goes on for years and years. It’s one of the things about adoptive parenthood I hadn’t really anticipated, the strong and ongoing waves of gratitude. I hadn’t anticipated that when you talk about the sensation with other adoptive parents, it’s as if you’ve joined a club, a little subset of the parents’ club. I don’t expect to stop feeling grateful.

I also allowed myself to acknowledge that I felt a momentary wave of guilt wash over me. I felt it right alongside the sense of fortune, and I don’t feel it nearly so often as I feel grateful. But, that morning I did. Maybe, along with the gratitude and the guilt was vulnerability, the not-knowing what the best move would be just then. I wondered whether the secondhand moment I’d just sent along would be a happy gift or whether it would be melancholy, in the way big markers or holidays might be more fraught than regular ones.

This is not mine to know, necessarily. There might not be one single answer for her mama. These seem the way birthdays do, like moments to share. If we can share the picture, maybe the moment becomes all of ours? I wanted to share the moment, and the pride. I didn’t want to intrude. Not all of the extended family—birth family and my own—are on Facebook, where I could simply post the photos and leave to chance whether they see them. I didn’t want to do that, anyway. I did want to reach out, intentionally. I do that routinely enough for lesser reasons. The bigger-ticket ones I capture on the camera, I do like to share, even if sometimes, I have these flashes of insecurity around them. I imagine these images and feelings to fall into the muddled and confused and generously loving pile that we could characterize as what makes open adoption open.

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.

She’s Lucky

She’s Lucky

IMG_8861Most well meaning lines that don’t come across the way people wish they would, have to do with an innate misunderstanding of what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. So many times, we want to help or mean to flatter, but our attempts are clunky or just wrong or only partially on the mark. Note: I believe the attempt counts.

These days the thing people say that doesn’t come across correctly is this: “Your daughter is so lucky you adopted her,” or some iteration of that sentiment. Although it’s happened many times in the last five years, there’s always a beat of silence before I respond, as if I have to recover from the surprise and perhaps tame my own complicated response. After that split second, I say what’s true: “I’m the lucky one.”

I’m lucky because she’s awesome. I’m lucky because she’s adorable and feisty and sincere and sassy and smart and silly. I’m lucky because she’s got more energy than nearly any five year-old I’ve ever met. I’m lucky because she has brought verve into our family. I’m lucky because she’s made all the brothers into bigger brothers and brothers of a sister. I’m lucky because there are two girls in the family, now.

I’m lucky because she’s brought lots more family into our family. I remember a friend who adopted a baby from China telling me that she felt the world got smaller once she met her daughter halfway across the world and they became a family. Their family of two spanned the world—and therefore their family included the world and they were part of the world. It seemed to make her perception of family fall into a larger context. I concur. I’m lucky because she’s our family and we’re hers.

What trips me up about the she’s lucky idea is really not the ways we’re lucky. It’s the notion that adoption is altruistic. It’s not, not like that. I didn’t think to myself (and I’d be curious if anyone out there did), “Wow, I’d like to help others. I think I’ll have children.” I wanted to become a parent. That was, ultimately, selfish. Once they’re here, a great deal of what feels like altruism is required, sure. The ones I gave birth to made me throw up countless times between them, expand to near-bursting, and experience all sorts of other discomforts and emotions even before they arrived as tiny, completely helpless humans. And then of course, they were all tiny, helpless humans.

Sacrifice is required to raise children. Loss of control occurs, regardless of how much you can’t imagine this before you are in the position of losing it so profoundly. The fifteen-second thing the flight attendant says before the plane takes off about how you need to put your oxygen mask on first suddenly becomes a philosophical quandary, one that like a Möbius strip can seem one thing then another and then another still, unendingly so. “Parenting is relentless,” my dear and very patient husband says sometimes late at night or early in the morning or when one calls us upset about dinner during the one overnight away we took this summer.

But if it were completely cut-and-dried I probably wouldn’t feel so churned up by this notion of my daughter’s good fortune. I love her first mother. I understand now that I’ve been more intimate with the process of adoption the kind of obvious truth that any woman contemplating an adoption decision is in crisis. Whether it’s acute or not, and every single story is different; every woman, every family, has a unique situation, so while that sounds like a blanket statement, it’s more like a very broad statement. So, then the lucky question becomes different again. Yes, I guess, she is. Lucky is a complicated term when such huge loss is mixed up in the fate that she is where she is, right? Lucky feels like a breezy term, like winning a raffle is lucky. It feels too breezy. What word would work better? Is there an idea to convey the complicated roil of circumstances and emotions that do make a certain sense, if what we’re trying to say is that given the fates, which made this girl “ours,” we’re collectively fortunate? I can’t go, as some do, to some notion of karma. Rather than nodding when someone says this was meant to be, I settle more upon this is. Without any over-thinking, I’m comfortable with the notion that this is our family and we’re so lucky to be a family.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

IMG_8466A few days ago, I stood outside a friend’s house, hand-me-down leotards from the friend in hand. My friend’s daughter is a couple of years older than mine. Her girl is wiry, fierce, rarely tuckered out without a great deal of physical activity—and into gymnastics. Her girl, when frustrated, sometimes growls. Mine is the same. Both moms imagine the discipline and physicality of gymnastics to be, for these particular girls, a very good, possibly necessary thing.

Both girls are very small. Neither mom is tall.

“Well, she’ll never be big. I mean, I’m not so that makes sense,” I remarked and almost instantly, clapped hand to mouth. My daughter is adopted. My being short has nothing to do with her stature. In that moment, though, I simply forgot. We share everything—practically everything—except a gene pool. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this at times.

I’ve slipped in similar ways about her love of chocolate or the soundtrack to Nashville. My daughter; she’s just like me? More often, it’s less a slip than that I don’t consider why she is the way she is, likes what she likes, or acts how she acts. Another mom with three boys (no girls) at a wedding yesterday mused about how nice it would have been to have tea parties. Her reasoning went like this: if you have a girl, she’d like to have a tea party, because, obviously, all girls like tea parties. My girl’s yet to suggest a tea party—and in a way, I can’t see her doing so. One of my boys had a Mad Hatter’s Tea birthday party years ago. The analogy: girls don’t mean automatic tea parties; adoption doesn’t mean automatic difference.

There are times though when my girl flashes a particular expression—usually it’s a half-smile that involves a tiny crumple of her mouth and is meant to be somewhat sarcastically silly—and I see her birth mom right in front of me. Other times, still, my little girl’s frustration pops like a firecracker with a series of slaps or kicks. Although I know I sometimes hit or kicked (or pulled hair or pulled on arms) as a child, the intensity of her bottled-up fury popping out feels… unfamiliar. Her brothers certainly hit, pinched, kicked or bit. My expectations aren’t for extraordinary calm or peaceful pacifism at all times. However, the sum total of the boys’ small child aggressions didn’t put them nearly in her league. I can’t really say exactly why. Theories: she’s youngest by far. She’s fiery. She’s a girl. She’s adopted. I’ll admit that sometimes as I try to find the calm, firm, safe patience to hold her through a tantrum (very most often in the evening when she’s overtired and her last sparks of energy blow every which way like some wayward robot toy in a cartoon before the final sputter), my mind flashes to this question: might her roiling response to frustration be somehow genetically wired?

A friend with an adopted daughter said to me recently that to raise a child she’s not genetically connected to causes her to think about biology anew. She envisions it as more important as she imagined before raising her daughter. Her remark made me think of something another friend of mine said. This friend is an adult adoptee, who once described to me how she’d always been fascinated by rocks and when, as an adult, she learned that her birth father had been a geologist, it was as if she’d put a puzzle piece into place.

Obviously, in the day-to-day, my momentary lapse that has her short just like me differs not at all from my questions about whether her anger is somehow about hardwiring. When we live so closely in relation to others—as do parents and children—we are deeply connected. And sometimes we’re deeply confused by those connections. I remain somewhat stunned that I gave birth to three boy children, for example. I’m only half-joking to say I find it unfathomable that a penis was created inside of female me. The whole thing is somewhat surreal. More importantly, families challenge assumptions. We learn when we are so close it’s hard sometimes to grasp that we aren’t the exact same person and we are so close it’s obvious that we cannot possibly be the exact same person. This push and pull—sometimes broken into the notion of nature and nurture—it’s ultimately, every family’s to experience.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Visit the Brain Child Shop and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.



The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day

The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day


grandparents' dog -- on a surprise visit to preschool

 Grandparents’ dog — on a surprise visit to preschool

Recently, we decided to switch pediatricians.  Predictably, this meant I was bequeathed a ream of paperwork to fill out. This included family medical history forms, one for each of my four children. I pretty much know about our parents’ health histories; to fill out the histories for the three I gave birth to required only memory. This isn’t true for my daughter, though. During the flurry of those early days of my daughter’s infancy, I don’t think our old pediatrician pressed for complete medical history. We were focused upon the present—and the quite small baby and her health and the rest of it, the three bigger children. It might have been difficult or felt difficult to ask, had the pediatrician pushed, as everything was so new and felt so fragile. Whatever the set of reasons, I didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of my daughter’s health history. Five years later I stared somewhat blankly at the paper that I must have filled out once before.

This time, though, I scanned the list for the most pressing heritable conditions, such as heart disease or cancers, arthritis and on, and I emailed both grandmothers: my daughter’s mother’s mother and her mother’s stepmother. I asked the stepmother about my daughter’s grandfather and the mother about herself and her daughters. Within hours, I had all the information I needed.

I found myself teary as I read the emails. It wasn’t because there was shocking information—much of it I already knew. I got teary because a small gift open adoption gives was made real right then. To know one’s family medical history is one of the things people put squarely on the plus side of open adoption: that questions like the ones on the family medical history form are answerable. Rather than wonder in adulthood whether the condition you have ran in your family, you could know that answer. I’ve heard people describe medical histories as puzzle pieces. I guess I got to have it on my daughter’s behalf that day. I got to know she’d have this information. I almost felt a little “a-ha” about open adoption just then.

But it was more than the history and more than some theoretical positive about adoption or wholeness or anything that made me teary—I felt the willingness and love from the grandmothers in those emails just to be her grandmothers.

Unlike my mother or stepmother or mother-in-law—yes, keep count, there are five grandmothers all told—I didn’t meet these two grandmothers until our daughter, their granddaughter, was born. Those are two of the many brand-new relationships formed around this little girl, which were intimate—family—and entirely unfamiliar at the very same time.

I am sure I could have asked for information from the grandmothers five years ago or at any time in between then and now. It might have felt much more loaded, even a little scary to ask right away. I felt comfortable when I asked. By now, we really do feel like family.

The family we gained on our daughter’s mother’s side includes four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To our daughter, it’s a wash of people she knows but doesn’t entirely always know. Somewhere inside her, the way the medical history answers meant a lot to me, my daughter responds similarly: she loves, for example, the toy horse her birth mom gave her and calls the horse Taco, the name of her birth mom’s horse. She sleeps with a blanket her aunt made for her when she was an infant. It’s as if there’s conscious knowledge and knowledge that isn’t conscious. Both have to work to try to wrap a heart around what adoption means, and what it feels like. Both are required to integrate something this huge, and this full of specifics.

Meantime, we’ve never met the one other grandmother we know about, the birth dad’s mom. We haven’t met him or seen a photograph. So as I scribbled all over the medical history form with asterisks to explain why the daughter’s family medical history is different than the brothers’ histories, I wrote that we don’t know anything about the dad’s family. I have an appointment set up to meet the new pediatrician without my kids in order to discuss concerns. I want to have a chance to feel the doctor out about adoption and make sure I’ve answered any questions before he meets my daughter. I can file this under a thing I hadn’t considered before becoming an adoptive parent: how to talk to the pediatrician about adoption and family medical history.

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.




My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

IMG_1037My five-year-old-daughter has a bottle of milk every night. Should I say my five-year-old-daughter still has a bottle of milk every night? Many people would add the modifier—and I can’t fault them for this. I haven’t made even one attempt to wean her from that ritual. No surprise, our shared attachment to her bottle stems back to her babyhood.

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make as a fourth-time mom but first-time adoptive mom was to become comfortable with the bottle’s primacy.

I’d breastfed the three children I gave birth to and while I hoped to encourage some comfort nursing that didn’t work out. I had considered the possibility of a concerted attempt to breastfeed the fourth child. Yet, I decided against that effort. It was unlikely I’d ever produce enough milk to sustain and I didn’t want to take hormones to feed a baby I might not take home. I pumped in anticipation of her arrival a handful of times, but with three older children to care for–ages five, nine and 12–I couldn’t put the effort in that would be required to maybe just maybe encourage the milk along for real.

My firstborn had a tight frenulum—that’s the little flap of skin under the tongue—and so his suck action didn’t bring the milk in very well, which meant I had to pump in order to keep production up. I’d pumped eight times a day for ten months. I knew from pumping. A fourth child isn’t a first child and I understood what that sacrifice looked like and felt like and how little room it would leave for the other children. Even a lesser commitment would take from all the rest that needed to happen to adjust to our family of six, so within a few days of our daughter’s homecoming when she was just two days old, I let go of the Supplemental Nursing System and the pump. With some ambivalence, I sought to embrace the bottle.

The bottle offered unexpected gifts. My husband and the big brothers could feed daughter and sister. I found emancipation from the minute-to-minute responsibility that a breastfeeding mother of a newborn has, which allowed me to remain much more present to the active, older kids than would have been the case. Adoption presents a more sudden and jarring adjustment to parenting a newborn than parenting a newborn post-pregnancy. Not only was my body unprepared to feed her, my sleep wasn’t interrupted beforehand in the same way—although anxiety performed that sleepless duty quite well. Without the belly, there aren’t kicks. Without the belly, there aren’t a million and one conversations with strangers about what’s to come. Without the belly, the mom is not pulled by gravity to a slower mode. Without the belly, there isn’t a sense of getting to know one another. And so, the baby is a shock. The bottle cushioned that transition in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, especially for the five year-old unseated from baby status; he’d hold her and feed her and reckon with all that had just shifted. He was tender and ponderous and loving.

This was all well and good until she turned one. Then, the pediatrician encouraged a cup. I refused her suggestion. “The brothers nursed at least two years,” I told her. “She had a huge disruption right after her birth. I like the snuggling with a bottle and so does she.” The pediatrician demurred. Over time, I’m sure she assumed we’d stopped and I certainly didn’t bring up the fact that while the many bottles have dwindled to one at night, except sometimes she has an extra when she requests one, that nightly ritual ensues, albeit not in our arms.

In so many ways, she’s mature beyond her five years. Her three big brothers’ influence mean all kinds of bigger kid and teen ways waft into her consciousness and result in nuggets like “people wear bras to kiss,” as seen on television or “Beyoncé starts with ‘B.'” At the same time, she’s small, our baby. Although she doesn’t remember her birth and although adoption seems to remain a little fuzzy and confused and even fleeting in her consciousness, I know it’s all there, the confusion, the loss, the sense of wanting to feel anchored—and comforted. For all the time I may have wondered whether bottle was somehow less than breast, I’ve come around to view comfort as comfort. Comfort doesn’t have to come in one specific way to count. I’m glad she can have a bottle at five to help her unwind from the day. I don’t think I have to fix or change that. In fact, I’m reassured by it, too, not the milk, but the appreciation for her ease.

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.

Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms

Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms


Biracial ArtBy the time our daughter was ready for preschool (well, the toddler room), I’d had three kids in school for a good long time. So, all those applications and the thick ream of required school forms were nothing new. Checking the box that delineates our daughter as “Biracial” rather than the “Caucasian” box I’m accustomed to marking with my pen—that was strange.

Strange because while I don’t forget she’s adopted, in another way, I do. She’s a family member, ours, mine, whatever you will—and I don’t think about how adoption might distinguish her from her siblings or us as we go about our lives. That fact doesn’t really matter in our daily lives, but then of course, on the page, in that little box, there it is, the reminder of this complicated difference.

I say complicated because I don’t know quite what it all means—or will mean to her. Her birth father, a man we’ve never met and aren’t all that likely to meet is Jamaican. He’s the reason I check the box. As she gets older you can “see” her ethnicity a little more, but you can also “see” her as a white girl with a somewhat darker complexion. In this way, her status as an adopted child is less obvious than some of her friends, the ones who are African American with blue-eyed white mom or Vietnamese with blond white moms. But at whatever remove the Jamaican family members are, she still has rights to this heritage.

And what do I know about Jamaican culture? The short answer is not all that much. It has to be more than what I have at the ready: some Jamaican friends and some reggae CD’s.

I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce all of this to her. She knows her birth mom and family; they are her white family. And at five, the notion of birth or first mom remains pretty emotionally confusing. She grapples with it by intermittently remembering that she came from another tummy and thinking (hoping?) she came from mine. This is complicated by the fact that I grew up mistaken as Mexican, Eskimo, Asian and even Italian. She’s grown up with many people certain she resembles me more than the sons to whom I gave birth. It would all be confusing no matter what, but the particular way we blend together takes away one obvious reason to discuss how we landed together. In any case, we have a steep learning and feeling curve ahead. I don’t exactly know how we ensure that adoption and ethnicity are concepts she really “gets.” I am confident we’ve already laid the groundwork on the adoption front at least and on the basic notion that all skin colors are good (the basic preschool lines). I trust we will be able to help her have room and support to feel her feelings about all of it and explore as she wants and needs to do.

Identity will be an issue in all kinds of ways over time. For example, the role of race in college admissions is not static (and thus, with a going-into-kindergartner I have no idea where it’ll be 13 years from now). I read somewhere I can’t find (I’ve Googled, unsuccessfully, a bunch) an article that said some colleges measure race in different ways and an adopted person of color with white parents might not be considered the same way someone else’s minority status might be. There are articles that mention how Asian can be a disadvantage at some schools and some applicants choose to leave that off their college applications if they are biracial, just as some biracial people will mark black versus biracial or Caucasian. All that lies far ahead, though.

The thing about the forms right now is that my response has more to do with me than with her. To check the minority status box—the one that put her higher on the preschool’s priority list—again speaks to our privilege, collectively, the adoptive parents’ privilege. As white people (if the adoptive parents are, as is mostly the case in our preschool) we have enough advantages—economic and social—to place ourselves into the position to adopt—and so it’s from privilege that we adopt children of color. That could complicate how you see yourself, right?

Certainly, at our preschool, where minority status does give you an advantage in terms of admission, it feels like a double-dip (at least) of privilege to receive that nudge closer to admission. Our preschool is, it turns out, quite diverse (just about 50%). Its admission policies support the diversity it enjoys. I guess that when I step back from any hint of guilt I might harbor about this I can see another truth, which is the school’s diversity is good for the school. It’s good for the children of color, sure; it’s good for the white children; it’s good for the families, too. We are not the only ones: not the only ones with a biracial child; not the only ones with children via adoption or a combination of routes how our children joined the family; we’re not even the only ones with a child in high school. So, when I check that form, what I have to remember is the simple mark is really just one line; the story is much more interesting and complex. And that’s okay.

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.


Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity

Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity


IMG_7339_3When you adopt a baby, do you take on responsibility for fostering the child’s connection to the culture or cultures of origin your baby leaves behind to join your family? That’s often an issue upon which people take an emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance. On the ‘yes’ side you may see white parents at Saturday Chinese schools (or in our case, the local public charter Chinese immersion school). On the ‘no’ side you have parents who plead colorblindness in their households.

In a thoughtful article written by an Asian adoptee is this analysis: “Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child’s right to love, safety, and security.”

In other words, to make race and adoption either/or is to oversimplify (and place burden on the child). How to foster those ties is, arguably, a better question.

It’s one I’ve been asking myself recently.

In this article, the adoptee—photo of her and her white mother circa 1983 is included—looks different than her parent. She begins the piece describing a moment when an Asian child stared at her in a restaurant and how she remembered that exact experience: the intensity identification brought, because she was isolated as a lone Asian in a very white community.

If you read about transracial adoption, how to cope with this kind of isolation is an issue that extends far past 1983. The author mentions a parent of a six-year-old wondering whether the switch from a more white to a more diverse school in Louisville, Kentucky is adaption enough for her daughter or whether a move to a more diverse town is necessary. The mother, Amy Cubbage, describes her daughter’s response to a trip to China: “We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself … we underestimated her need to see where she’s from and see a place where everyone looks like her.”

Not everyone can respond by moving a family (nor would every family argue that a necessity). And not every family can travel to Asia or Africa or wherever else for a “roots” trip. And not every child wants that. What interests me about that mother’s observation of her daughter’s travels is that she (the mom) not only made the effort to expose her daughter to her cultural roots but that she noted her child’s response to that experience. Whatever the family does next happens because the parents believe they are supporting their particular child. Racial identity or exposure to diversity isn’t theoretically motivated in this case.

To move from theory into action isn’t easy. To maintain openness rather than an either/or stance, now that seems to me a delicate and complex endeavor. For my white family, the biracial daughter in our midst has her own list of particulars (and obviously, one reason either/or doesn’t work is that adoption is an entire category of particulars).

Her particulars include that she’s light (light enough to manage to look in some ways more like me than the children I gave birth to, although that, too, is a complicated notion). Her particulars include an open adoption—with her mother’s side of the family (which is to say, the white side). Her particulars include a community that’s predominantly white, but a friend cohort that is diverse and does include adopted children (African American, African, biracial, Vietnamese and Caucasian in her class or various other activities). And while we have some Jamaican friends, they are not in our daily lives. She’s never met her Jamaican family and there’s little chance she will anytime in the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to err on the “colorblind” end of the spectrum. I don’t want to hurdle into “culture” for the sake of exposure in a way that’s intrusive. The detail I return to in my mind is this one: I’ve known many families with daughters adopted from Asian countries. Of those families that offered trips or language classes and cultural immersion of some sort or another, some of the girls liked those experiences and others protested. Regardless of their responses, I’m struck by the fact that some of those girls took their Asian names. I don’t think you can erase identity. More so, I don’t think you should try. That’s my working principle. How we translate that idea into action is the interesting part.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Wedding Guests


fall2011_buttenwieserThe wedding was about to begin. My not-quite-two-year-old daughter, Saskia, wriggled on my lap and I glanced again toward the doorway in the back of the room.

Caroline was late. We’d been invited to this wedding—my husband, daughter, and sons—essentially as Caroline’s “plus five.” I held Saskia’s warm hands and she clenched my fingers. She knew me as her mama. I was her mama, and I was waiting for her other mama to arrive.

Caroline, who’d asked Saskia call to her Auntie Cece, was the one who gave birth to her, and Caroline was the bride’s sister. There were no formal terms, exactly, for the rest of us.

The room quieted and I glanced over to my husband. We smiled at each other, sharing one of those here-we-are looks that couples in unlikely places exchange. We’d met the bride only twice. The processional music started up. Saskia got still watching the tiny parade in front of her. The flower girl and ring bearer—both Saskia’s cousins—walked through the doorway. Just behind them the bride held onto her father’s arm.

The afternoon was strangely balmy for late October. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day, and everything felt filmy, a little opaque. Throughout the ceremony, I kept turning toward the back of the New England barn-turned-reception-hall—still no Caroline. I didn’t want to worry—or even care—that she was late. And yet, I did care; I wanted her to show up. I wanted our smaller grouping within her larger family constellation to be complete. I wanted to feel she was comfortable with our being there—and I wasn’t sure.

Caroline finally showed up at the reception, dressed in dark pants, a button-down shirt, a chunky necklace, and lots of make-up. In one long tumble of excuses she explained that she’d had to work early, she was tired, she took a nap, she overslept, and then she got lost. “I need a glass of wine,” she announced. She set off toward the bar.

“I’m always late,” she said a few minutes later, wine in one hand, the other hand fiddling with her long, auburn hair. “I don’t mean to be.” At the family gatherings we’d attended before, Caroline had always arrived late or left early. She always walked out in the middle of visits to smoke cigarettes. It was understood that she couldn’t tolerate an event start to finish. I felt disappointed for her. And maybe, reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that I felt a little disappointed in her, too.

“Well, you’re here now,” said Margaret, another of Caroline’s sisters. Although her tone was half-hearted, the affirmation brought huge relief across Caroline’s face.

“I’m here now,” Caroline echoed.

Caroline gave Saskia a big hello and made a silly face. “Hi Saskia!” She called out. “Do you remember your Auntie Cece?” Saskia buried her face in my husband’s shoulder. Although Saskia remembered Caroline, she wouldn’t go to her. Saskia tended to be shy and clingy around people she didn’t know well, and for a toddler, the word “auntie” mattered little. However open our adoption was, we couldn’t force Saskia to do more than view her family members from our arms until she was ready to engage.

I said, “She gets shy.” Caroline looked a little disappointed. But she smiled broadly, almost forcibly. I tried to imagine only seeing Saskia occasionally. I tried to imagine wanting to be known, to be loved.

Watching Caroline try to engage Saskia, I remembered again that the adoption was harder on Caroline than anyone else. Sometimes, when she and I spoke on the phone, she brought it up: I know it was the right thing to do and she’s in the best place and still at times I wonder…Then she’d trail off. Those conversations tended to take place around certain holidays, like Christmas or Mother’s Day, when she went back over the decision, like fingering a scar. It was as if she could feel each change in the skin even when what’s apparent to the eye has become so faint as to be barely visible any longer.

More than once, I’d wished that this was a loss a person got over or past or through, that there would be an eventual sense of completion. As time went on, I appreciated it wasn’t like that: You could let go, you could feel you made the right decision, yet you couldn’t help but wonder. You couldn’t help but mourn. Even if you were happy about how things turned out, that scar remained, however it might fade.

Although I’d always, from childhood, wanted to adopt, that dream came into focus after having three boys, and three nauseated pregnancies. Adoption was my route to a girl. Nothing about the process resembled the simplistic stuff of a girlhood fantasy. A shared social worker put Caroline together with us; she believed we’d all “click,” and she trusted that we’d keep the door to the adoption open—to Caroline and her family, all of whom wanted in. That’s how we wanted it, too.

During our first conversation, over the phone, Caroline declared, “I prefer animals, especially horses, to people. I’m just not that comfortable with people.” She sounded apologetic about this admission. She worked in her mother’s horse barn and herself had two horses, two cats, and a dog. She’d added, “I really don’t want to put a totally dependent baby first.”

When we met, Caroline explained to us why open adoption appealed to her: “I like the idea that I can see her growing up, that she can know me.”

I’d replied, “That’s what we hope, too, that she never feels there’s a big secret, and that her family is just…very big.”

Throughout the pregnancy and the first months of Saskia’s life, we saw Caroline with regularity and spoke on the phone even more often. She was, because of the baby, becoming part of our family, too. It wasn’t exactly a sisterly relationship, although perhaps that was the closest approximation. In some way, we were adopting—and being adopted by—her.

Before we met Caroline, one social worker explained that any pregnant woman considering adoption was in crisis by definition. “No one would choose adoption if she felt she didn’t have another, better choice,” the social worker said. That seemed true for Caroline. She was in her early forties without much money; she lacked any help from the ex-boyfriend (although he was very demanding), and the hours she worked weren’t compatible with traditional daycare. While her family was helpful, she knew they couldn’t serve as her sole support.

Unintended pregnancy aside, Caroline sometimes reminded me of a cat with some yarn, quick to wind up all entangled. She’d had more trouble with cars than anyone I’d ever met, from speeding tickets to failed inspections. I thought of this as I watched Margaret shepherd Caroline over to make peace with their father. Even from across the room, I could see that he was annoyed by Caroline’s late appearance. His arms were crossed and he didn’t smile immediately.

I wanted things to be easier for Caroline, to go more smoothly. I wanted her to be happier than she seemed. Because her little girl was, in some way, a gift—she’d been entrusted to us—I found that I felt a little bit responsible for Caroline. It wasn’t like mother responsible. It was not even sister responsible. But I couldn’t help feeling that our great fortune—raising Saskia—came with the price tag of being a contributing factor in Caroline’s sadness, another tenacious knot in her challenging life. And to make things that much more convoluted, I believed that Caroline’s happiness, if it eventually took hold, stood to benefit Saskia as she grew more aware of this first mother of hers. I imagined that to see Caroline thrive would make the decisions surrounding Saskia’s birth easier for Saskia to understand if she was grappling with feeling her own sense of loss or displacement.

Outside, while a passel of kids ran around the misty, dusky evening, we chatted with their grownups. We were amazed that extended family we’d never heard of and family friends immediately accepted how we fit into the larger assemblage gathered around bride and groom. More than once, Caroline’s stepmother pulled us inside to meet someone. When she introduced me, she said, “This is Caroline’s daughter, Saskia and Saskia’s mother, Sarah.” She made the whole thing seem easy and I loved her for her gracious, enveloping heart. This relatively new definition of family felt almost comfortable and slightly awkward at once. These people I’d known for a relatively short period managed to be family, for real, and almost but not quite family. The air was cooling off.

Just before dark, burnished leaves stood out against the grey skies, the colors mirroring us. Because for all that was beautiful and amazing about open adoption—including our being part of a wonderful wedding celebration with Saskia’s beaming aunt—it wasn’t bright and shiny, not golden yellow or triumphant orange. It was a little more somber, a deeper hue. Along with all that joyfulness, something had been lost, not today, but there was still a sense of loss. That’s why the afternoon’s rain and then the rain having stopped just before the ceremony—the clouds’ overlay curtain pulling the sky up, leaving their viscosity in plain view—felt so right.

Saskia, unlike Caroline, hadn’t arrived late. She was, in her sturdy toddlerhood, so very much here, a tiny dark-haired girl racing around in orange clogs, grinning wildly. She had arrived into this world to be part of two families, and while she was growing up in one family primarily, she wasn’t marginal.

Back at our table, Saskia took the “chocolate ice cream” that was actually vanilla frosting and put a little onto Caroline’s lips. Caroline tasted the icing. “Mmm,” she said. “Thank you, Saskia.” Saskia did it again and again, a little game. Caroline loved being fed by Saskia. I took photographs, keepsakes from these moments, these small affirmations of the open part of open adoption.

Driving along dark, winding roads toward the highway, we felt happy that Saskia had been welcomed with such open arms and hearts, and relieved and grateful. Exhausted, too, because in order to bring all that love in, with all its intricacy, a softening of boundaries was required, a willingness to root for each person, not just your child. You had to love them all.

You had to love them, but love could be disappointing. I couldn’t help but imagine the school plays missed, the visit canceled very last minute, or the graduation skipped. I could feel how hard it would be to remain both of their champions. I imagined myself in the middle of this scenario while at the same time trying to steer clear and let them work out whatever disappointments might ensue. I felt the impossibility of my role. And I understood that even if it were excruciating, it was nowhere near as hard as being Caroline or Saskia might be.

There was, at least, all that family—those aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents—to love Saskia with more ease. Even with all those people to call hers, though, I imagined she might feel overwhelmed sometimes by how many of them there were, how she might have them all—but not entirely. I hope that with our help—and this extended family’s—a time may come when she’s the one embracing what seems so complicated now. I hope she also will be able to feel comfortable saying to her Auntie Cece mama, “Well, you’re here now.”

Author’s Note: There’s no question that my fantasy of adoption and the reality are really different. To write honestly and fairly about open adoption—something filled with love and loss—has required me to fight for the truest words. In the end, I can only really chronicle my own experience. This essay took eleven drafts, nearly two years, and numerous eyes to reach actual conclusion. At the moment, Saskia is “getting” (kind of?) that she was in this other tummy and has categorized Caroline as a “grandmother.” I’m pretty sure “grandmother” means “a loving adult who is not immediate family.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.


The Doll

The Doll


Art The DollI wrested the Cabbage Patch doll from the insistent packaging before the pizza came. Saskia’s birth mother—grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins—sat around the table. We see each other a few times a year. It was just after Christmas and we met at a restaurant midway between her birth mother’s house and ours.

Saskia’s a preschooler, a bundle of pure wonderfulness, a sassy gal with crazy-long dark hair tangling all the way down her back and so many words and an abundance of energy and joy. That Saskia’s birth mother entrusted her to us means that raising her is an enormous, sacred responsibility. I feel grateful every single day.

Cabbage Patch dolls are soft and scented and have dimpled, somewhat troll-like faces and sewed-on bonnets. They are curious looking, as if human but not quite. Once I pulled her up by her pink bonnet, I discovered the adoption papers. What? I hadn’t recalled that Cabbage Patch dolls come complete with adoption “papers.” I must have known this, though, because in that one moment I felt both reminded and as if my breath had been taken away from me. As I freed the doll from the box, I ignored the papers. The small, brown plastic face stared at me. Seemingly unfazed by my inner turmoil, the doll was wide-eyed, seemingly neither happy nor sad.

I handed the doll to Saskia and set the box under the table. I took a large sip of water with ice cubes to keep my mouth busy for a moment. I crunched the ice in my mouth.


Holding those faux adoption papers in the restaurant—doll as Rorschach blot—I knew the doll had nothing to do with my reaction. Maybe Saskia’s cousin—now a doll-shunning tween—had herself loved a Cabbage Patch doll way back when she was small… Regardless of whether Saskia’s aunt forgot about the adoption shtick or whether she remembered and saw it as normalizing and positive, what I saw in the doll—the ink across my psyche’s page—had everything to do with how unresolved the gift of adoption feels to me. That this daughter, who brings such happiness to my life simultaneous to other people’s loss, especially her mom’s, that is indelible sadness. I wish, as time goes on, that the bittersweet could change to all sweet and it doesn’t necessarily. Because of it, I worry sometimes that for my daughter adoption will, inevitably, be a source of sadness almost without regard to how happy her life is.

It’s been a year now. Each time I glimpse the doll I remember that moment when Saskia received the soft baby with papers, and I feel queasy all over again. The suggestion that she—like the doll—might have been plucked from a field of cabbages, like a character in a fairy tale continues to make me feel sad and mad and knotted inside.

Other things inspire this same discomfort: those ads to take in an older child in Saturday’s newspaper or the pairing of these words, adoption and pet or the question about where her “real” mother is. I stumbled the first time I read her the picture book Are You My Mother? At any suggestion that she was at some point close to having been discarded, I become a bristled and fierce mama bear; I will put myself between her and any inkling of not being absolutely cherished.

Earlier this week, a girl I was driving home from school—she’s just nine—was asking how old Saskia was when we adopted her. I told her, “Saskia came home with us from the hospital.”

As I said this, I could conjure the sensation of Saskia in my arms at two days old, weighing next to nothing. She was so tiny that when we put her in the bucket carseat in the hospital’s parking garage, we had to wedge blankets all around her. We lay more blankets on top of her. The seat seemed enormous. It was terribly cold and our breath clouded up the car windows and my husband blasted the heat and the defroster to no immediate avail. We sat inside the cold, steamy car, at once suspended and desperate to drive away.

Sitting beside her in the back, I remember being dizzied by the maze of ramps in the large parking garage. Once we started moving, we had to weave around the semi-lit ramps to reach the exit. When we finally pulled onto the road, we laughed shakily. The car seemed a getaway vehicle, like we’d pulled off a heist. We said aloud that we felt like thieves. We could not believe we were leaving the hospital with the hotel décor and the petulant nurses and the nearly-bury-us-in-red=tape-hospital-social-worker with the baby in tow.

The little girl I was driving home interrupted my remembering: “That’s good that she was so small,” the girl reasoned. “Even now, my brother’s two and he’s nursing and he’d miss our mom and dad if someone put him in another home. She’s lucky.” I couldn’t decide whether she was worried about her brother being taken away or wanted him to go sometimes or pitied my daughter or was simply trying to make sense of something so dramatic as not keeping a child.

My response—to feel bruised, defensive—had absolutely nothing to do with her questions. I told myself to remain gentle, to be patient, that questions like these were going to be commonplace from kids for years to come. Her questions functioned as another Rorschach blot, revealing more about me than her. I worried the story would evoke pity or that my daughter would interpret the questions that way. I worried that she’d be sad or incredulous about not being wanted. I worried that she’d see adoption as being about her—worthiness.


I haven’t done so often but in the past when my kids have received gifts that I couldn’t abide by, I simply ditched them, yet I wouldn’t dump anything given to Saskia by her birth family. Once she’s learned which things her aunt gave her, like the pink bunny and soft pink blankets blankets, the Angelina Ballerina book and now the Cabbage Patch doll, she remembers. There’s the photo book of cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents and birth mama her “grandmother” (aunt, actually) put together for her, which she pores over. I wouldn’t want to take any of those physical objects from her. I wouldn’t want to take any (more) connection to her birth mother’s family from her than the immoveable one we took up front on that frigid February afternoon as we drove from the middle of the state West feeling like fugitives while they traveled East.

For now, for Saskia’s birth family, there’s definite relief that Saskia’s a happy girl—and that’s she’s safe and loved and cherished, and thriving. They tell me this. There’s also longing and sadness and regret. They tell me this, too. Even though the longing and sadness and regret are not mine—I’m the exhausted, besotted, ragged, ever present mom—I do believe my task is to hold open the space that connects Saskia’s birth mother and family with her and her with them and to do this I have to honor both their relief and their regret. I have to grasp their sadness.

The gift of the doll stirs up how much feels unresolved and possibly irresolvable. Sometimes, I wish all complexity could vanish. Sometimes, it’s hard to share being family with people I hadn’t met before the birth of the child who connects us. It’s awkward. It’s complicated. It’s a learning process and there aren’t many handbooks for open adoption. We did not sign a formal agreement about how we’d proceed.

But without the wash of it—complexity and love—there’d be no Saskia. I can’t wish any of it away. Instead, I remind myself that these relationships need time to unfold. They aren’t to be determined instantly. Tread gingerly. I cling to the idea that Saskia’s got more—family, love—not less. I hope abundance prevails over what’s bittersweet or sad or twisty. In some idealized version of things, I want this family to be all about her. It’s not; family never is about just one person. It’s about all of us figuring out how our ways towards each another. When I find the doll tossed on the floor by her bed, I set her back on the shelf with the other soft things.

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.