He Has Autism

He Has Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

1464bc2ef63c6017563caf7a7d6f5e37

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

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

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

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

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

“I will,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does he go to a special school?”

“Is Asperger’s the same as Autism?”

“How does he tell you what he wants?”

They used words like sickness, and disease.

“Will he grow out of it?”

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

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

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

“Hi Jackson.”

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS I’ll work on her spelling!

Best,

Mindy

 

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

 

Save

Can I Get a Witness?

Can I Get a Witness?

By Brett Paesel

Can I get a Witness ArtI have a three-year-old son, and I’ve come to the conclusion that raising a young child involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by flashes of terror and bursts of supernatural joy–which sounds awfully close to the definition of psychosis. And, also, I am told, combat. One would think that, knowing this, I would send my child off to boarding school and surgically ensure that I never have another child. But no. For a reason I cannot name, I am obsessed with having a second one.

For a year, I pee on all kinds of sticks. Sticks that tell me when I’m ovulating. Sticks that tell me if I’m pregnant. I get crazy about sticks. I buy them in bulk and pee on them even when I’m not ovulating or remotely close to being pregnant. I begin to live by the sticks.

I circle the best days in my date book for getting it on. I wake Pat in the middle of the night for sex. Because the stick says now. Then I lie on my back with my legs propped against the wall until they lose all feeling and fall onto the bed. I wake Pat again, pounding my paralytic legs with my fists.

I read adoption books and daydream about flying to India to pick up a little girl. I even talk to someone who has a baby connection in Nigeria. But I back out when I realize that we communicate only through his beeper and pay phones.

A year of this and no success. I am desperate–driven by a force beyond myself, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I decide to have my doctor run some tests that will tell me a little more about my chances of getting pregnant.

The day I go in for the results of the tests, I wait alone in the lobby. Pat and my son park the car while I sit on a brown leather sectional and start to finger the neatly placed magazines on the glass table in front of me. I consider reading the article on “Ten Things Men Would Like Us to Know.” But I’m not sure I want to know. I look up to see bamboo shoots in a glossy green pot on the corner of the table. Behind them is a painting of the Buddha done by my doctor, Dr. Sammy. He is a Buddhist, which is and is not a good thing in an OB. At his best, he is cool, detached, and amused. At his worst, he is cool, detached, and amused.

When I was looking for a gynecologist, I asked a couple of friends for their recommendations. The first said that she had a great doctor: thorough, no nonsense. “It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, it’s silly, really. It’s just that he has no sense of humor.”

“I don’t know that that would matter,” I said.

“Well, then, he’s your man,” she said. “It’s just that one time he was doing a Pap. I mean he was right in the middle of it. My feet are in the stirrups. And the lights go out all over the hospital. And he just . . . “

“What?”

“Well, he waited until they came on again. He didn’t say anything. Nothing to break the tension. I lay there in the dark, my legs spread, and listened to him breathing, while the greasy speculum slipped out of me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“The lights came on. And he finished the job. He just went on like nothing had happened.”

Not sure about that, I thought.

My next friend said that she had a great guy she had known for years. He was practically a friend.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, his sense of humor is a little strange. It’s okay with me. But you might not like it.”

“Like what does he say?”

“Well, the last time I was making an appointment with him he said, ‘Great, I can’t wait to see that luscious bod. I’ll be waiting, with my tongue hanging out.'”

“Ewww.”

“He was just joking.”

Not my guy, I thought.

My next friend said that she had met her gynecologist in acting class. He was a Renaissance man–doctor, painter, actor–and Buddhist.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said, weary.

“It’s just. Well, he’s handsome.”

“So what?”

“Well. Some people don’t like that in a gynecologist,” she said.

“How handsome is he?”

“Very handsome,” she said. “He played the Devil in a scene for acting class. And he was so sexy that the women couldn’t take their eyes off him.”

“Your gynecologist played the Devil?”

“He was good,” she said.

Pat and Spence join me in Dr. Sammy’s office. I look out the window and see sky clean as a blue sheet, sunlight bouncing off white squares of concrete in the street below, glinting cars maneuvering in a parking lot. I try to imagine Dr. Sammy as the Devil, and my mind skids to a short list of things I’d be willing to trade my soul for.

“So let me see here,” he says.

I hear him open a file, but I keep my attention on the sheet sky. Spence climbs into my lap.

“He’s three now?” Dr. Sammy asks.

I think, Get to it, get to it. What does the file say?

“Almost three,” says Pat.

“I’ve got some stickers,” says Dr. Sammy. He pops out of his reclining chair and sprints out of the room.

Spence squirms off my lap and on to Pat’s.

Is he stalling? I wonder. Are the stickers a delaying tactic while he gets up the nerve to say that while getting information about my fertility status, he found out that I’m riddled with cancer? It’s a brain tumor, I’m sure. I’m always sure it’s a brain tumor. Wait a minute–he didn’t go anywhere near my brain. It would have to be ovarian cancer. I see myself six months from now wearing a turban, looking thin and impossibly beautiful, being wheeled into Spence’s preschool graduation ceremony.

Dr. Sammy bounces back in with stickers and hands them to Spence.

“Stickers!” Spence says, sliding off Pat’s lap onto the carpet.

Dr. Sammy plops down in his chair, grabs the file, and leans back again.

I see Pat in my hospital room, moving the tubes aside, and carefully lying down next to my waif-like body. Hanging onto my last few breaths, I whisper, “I loved only you.”

“Your progesterone is good,” says Dr. Sammy.

Pat looks at me, smiles, and grabs my hand like we won something. It’s not cancer.

“Pat’s sperm is good.”

Pat nods like he knew that all along.

I look down to see Spence sitting in the middle of all the frog stickers he’s stuck to the carpet. He looks up at me and smiles. King Frog with his subjects.

“So what is it?” I ask.

“Well, Brett, it’s nothing really,” says Dr. Sammy. “It’s just that you’re forty-two and your eggs are old.”

“But I don’t look like I’m forty-two,” I say. “Forty is the new thirty.”

A patient smile spreads across his face. “Not biologically,” he says.

I realize at this moment that I hate him.

“Old eggs?” asks Pat.

“Mmm,” says Dr. Sammy, leaning forward, his beaky nose hanging over his weak mouth. “A woman has only a set number of eggs at birth. She loses these eggs as she gets older, and by forty, the eggs that remain are old. They’re tired.”

How old are they? I hear in my head. So old they need a walker just to get over to the uterine wall.

He goes on, “There’s a higher risk of chromosomal problems. And it’s harder to get pregnant.” I watch as he rests his talons on top of the file.

“Christie Brinkley had a baby at forty-four,” I say.

“I’m not saying you can’t get pregnant,” he says. “In fact, if I were to bet on a forty-two-year-old getting pregnant, I would bet on you.”

“You would?” I ask. My voice sounds girly and flirtatious, not my own.

“You’ve got everything going for you,” Dr. Sammy says. “You’ve got the blood pressure of a teenager.”

“I do?” I ask, giggling.

“And your uterus is in great shape. Pink and healthy.”

“Pink. Great,” I say.

Dr. Sammy is such a handsome, kind man, I think. We should have him over for dinner sometime.

Spence grabs onto my knee and pulls himself up from the frogs. Pat raises an eyebrow at me and turns to Dr. Sammy. “Well, we wanted to know what we’re dealing with because if it looks unlikely that we’ll get pregnant, we’re going to start looking into adoption,” he says.

Spence pulls on the neck of my shirt. “I want more stickers.”

“Just a minute,” I say, prying his fingers away. “Dr. Sammy’s talking to Mommy.”

Dr. Sammy laughs.

“Well, that’s a sure-fire way to get pregnant–start adoption proceedings.”

“Really?” I ask. I look at Dr. Sammy’s lovely, long fingers.

“Stickers,” says Spence, his voice insistent.

Pat reaches over and touches Spence’s hair.

“Just a minute,” I hiss. “So why would starting to adopt make me pregnant?’

“Well, it’s nothing scientific, right?” he says, winking at Pat. “It’s just the way the world works. You get what you want when you’re looking the other way.”

“STICKERS,” screams Spence.

“Spence,” I say. “This is my turn. I get to talk to the doctor now. You are not the only person in the world.”

Spence’s face drops and he sinks back to the carpet of frogs.

My heart lunges toward him. I want to take it back.

I want to say, “You are the only person in the world. That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here. I’m terrified that you will be alone some day. I can’t sleep, thinking of you alone in the world.” The truth of this hits me like a hokey God moment in a made-for-TV movie.

I hear Dr. Sammy intone more about my pink cervix and attractive follicles. I hear percentages and terms like “artificial insemination” and “donor egg.”

But most of this sounds like it’s bits and pieces from outside a door. Inside, I hold my answer. Turn it over and tuck it into my chest. My answer. The reason for this near-psychotic pining for a second child.

The reason offers itself up and I know that it’s been there since the day my brother was born. It is this: I want for my child what I have. A witness. Someone who will say, “Yes, it’s true. Yes, I was there. We were so very loved.”

Author’s Note: Dr. Sammy was right. The month we started to apply at adoption agencies, we got pregnant naturally. Having had two miscarriages, I was reticent to celebrate and I anxiously waited for blood to appear. When we hit the fifth month with no blood, I finally realized that we were actually going to have this child. We told Spence that he would soon have a brother or a sister (so longed for by me, so that he wouldn’t be alone), and he said that he’d rather have a dinosaur named Spencer.

Brain, Child (Winter 2004)

About the Author: Brett Paesel is a contributing editor to Parents and blogs at lastofthebohemians.blogspot.com. She is the author of “Mommies Who Drink.”

Illustration by Sarah Solie

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.

Save

Save

A Brother Lost

A Brother Lost

Two children, male and female standing against the sun, sunset, romance

By Laura Richards

I was five and he was three. I stared at the tiny black and white photo of a sad little boy with pleading eyes standing on a metal folding chair, a number pinned to his sweater. “This is your new brother,” my mother said as her words trailed into the distance.

Life as I knew it was about to change forever.

I remember the long drive from Boston to JFK in New York and sleeping on a row of hard, molded plastic airport chairs waiting for the baby flight to arrive from Korea. I saw him for the first time from behind sitting on someone’s suitcase as chaos enveloped him. He stared in wonder at a soda fountain and popcorn popper at the Howard Johnson’s rest stop on our way home. Transition from poverty in another country to the bright lights, flash and color of the Western world seemed too much.

He smelled of kimchi and slept on the floor even though he had a bed. He called me “Uhn-nee” the Korean word for sister and refused to remove his clothing until one day my parents had to wrestle him down in the backyard and strip them off as I watched terrified from the kitchen window. To him new clothes meant a new home. My mother said he was the only child she ever knew who had corns on his feet because his shoes were too small.

Malnourished and wandering the streets of Seoul all alone, he had been shuffled to numerous placements in his brief life and all had sent him back. A child utterly rejected by every adult he’d ever known with an understandable inability to trust, living with the constant terror of being sent away again. Bone scans had to be done of his hands to determine his approximate age. He had no known date of birth so my parents used the day he stumbled off the plane and into our lives as his birthday.

It turns out that despite his rough start in life he was very bright to the point of gifted. He and I would sign up every summer at our branch library for the children’s reading program “Hooked on Books.” The librarians made fishing poles out of long dowels with brown yarn for the lines and cut up manila folders for the hooks. For every book we read we were given a colored paper fish to add to our hooks. The ones burnished with gold and silver paper were the most coveted as it meant you had reached the five, ten or even fifteen books read mark. Every summer my brother’s fishing pole was heavy with multicolored fish and multiple silver and gold because he was their star reader. Mine was flimsy with just a few colored fish blowing about as I wasn’t a prolific child reader. I was jealous of his ability and bountiful colored catch. Sure he outsmarted me academically but socially I had him beat.

As the years passed, it became more and more evident that something was very wrong with my brother. He didn’t connect in a normal way, had issues perspective taking and eventually became paranoid and combative. My parents did everything humanly possible to help him. He had plunged from being at the top of his class at a prominent private school in Boston to the depths of delusion, barricading himself in his bedroom and complaining that poisonous gas was being piped into our house. It was heartbreaking. He blamed all of his problems on a lasagna my mother had made years before. We tried to soothe him by explaining we had all eaten the same lasagna but reason had no place at his table.

It came as a tremendous relief when he was finally diagnosed in high school with paranoid schizophrenia after a complete collapse at yet another private school, this one a boarding school on Long Island. All of his therapists felt he would be better off outside of the family unit and though my parents weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea, they were desperate to help him so complied. It took one emergency room doctor mere minutes to figure out what a dozen others couldn’t over as many years. We were devastated by the diagnosis but grateful to finally have answers. For me it crystallized the tragedy and sadness of what could have been. A brilliant mind and promising life stolen forever.

He and I had a typical sibling relationship especially when we were younger. He drove me crazy teasing, imitating and barging in on me and my friends and I would chase him around the house and do all of the mean things that much taller, older sisters do to shorter, younger brothers. I would play Randy Newman’s song “Short People” as loud as possible on the record player with unrelenting glee. We built encampments in our back yard, slid down the sand pile at the DPW lot behind our house, incurred the understandable wrath of our mother when we used an entire roll of scotch tape on her wallpaper trying to keep our fort blanket in place. Of course it didn’t work and we ruined her wall (sorry mom). We would stay outside in the dark after a snowstorm making elaborate igloos and paths until we were beckoned inside by the bell my parents had affixed to our house. He was my playmate and partner in crime.

Eventually those typical sibling experiences were replaced by atypical experiences like visiting him in psychiatric hospitals. One night, I sat as he was restrained to a hard, flat bed by leather wrist and leg straps, his paranoia at its peak. At the very worst, and most terrifying, he became homeless for a while. The police needed a recent photo to officially declare him a missing person, a photo that I had taken just weeks before at his high school graduation. I will never forget driving to my parent’s house with it on the front seat beside me, stunned at the turn of events. His smiling face in cap and gown, my parents flanked either side of him smiling too, basking in a rare, happy day in a life that had been full of difficult ones. Things seemed to be looking up for him but my tears fell. Instead of seeing him enjoy his post high school summer with hopes of what might lie ahead we were filling out police forms and fearing the worst.

He eventually turned up but things were not good. While I was starting new jobs, dating, getting married, buying a home and building a family as a wife and mother, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and group homes unable to work and struggling to get through each day. I was getting on with the business of life while he was living in self-inflicted isolation and hating people for various reasons.

As a mom, I tend to take for granted the childhood memory-making happening under my nose every day. Events and funny stories that will eventually become humored and sentimental discussions around future holiday tables. My four boys will get to enjoy this but it’s something I can’t share with my own brother even when I try to jog his cluttered mind to remember what it was like for us. Only he knew about the untuned piano key in our Great Aunt’s parlor that sounded like an old fire engine bell. He knew what it was like to sit on a warm evening on the screened porch of our other Great Aunt and Uncle and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” with the heat bugs in the background. He was there when I tried to shave my legs for the first time and badly cut my shin on my dad’s old metal razor. Things that only siblings share and reminisce about, not mourn.

He has better days but that little boy who shared and holds all of my childhood memories is lost forever within his illness. Holidays are particularly tough for him and therefore for us. He joins when he can but the voices distract and it often ends badly. Last Thanksgiving, he declared that we were all Nazis and he hated my food after eating three full plates of it. I’m grateful for the good moments when he chats with my sons or throws the ball with them in the backyard knowing it’s fleeting and he will soon be back to his stonewalling and paranoia.

When someone asks if I have any siblings it’s hard to answer and I often hesitate knowing the next question is inevitably, “What does he do for work?” or “Does he have a family?” or the truly dreaded question, “Are you close?” How do I answer or explain? I often reply, “Yes, a brother who is mentally ill and lives in a group home.” That usually abruptly ends the conversation yet saves a series of future awkward questions. Sometimes it starts a conversation that they too have an aunt, grandparent or cousin who suffers from depression or bipolar and I’m glad. Glad to know we can talk about such things and that I’m not alone and it’s not just our family struggling so deeply with mental illness.

My relationship with my brother is now limited to the occasional email always signed, “your brother” followed by his name as if he’s reminding both of us of his place. That he is a brother, my brother. I’d like more but it’s just not in the cards. He has no sense of boundaries with the phone and visiting isn’t something he’s comfortable with. I love him but it’s hard. He’s a hard person to love.

Laura Richards is a Boston-based writer and mother of four boys including identical twins. She has written for a variety of publications including Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, The Boston Globe Magazine and Scary Mommy and can be found on Twitter @ModMothering and via her website www.LauraRichards.co.

 

 

 

Save

Save

How To Cut a Lemon

How To Cut a Lemon

Vector seamless watercolor pattern withhand drawn lemons. Different type of pieces. Ideal for food packaging design

By Joelyn Suarez

In the days after I gave birth to my son, Mosley, we spent most of our time skin-to-skin. I lay on the hospital bed, surrounded by pillows, my hospital gown untied and opened so that my chest was exposed to the crisp air-conditioned room. Mosley’s mouth suckled on my breast until he tired from the motions and he dozed off in my arms. I propped him up so I could examine his face while he slept. His lids were puffy with lashes. barely visible, his nose tiny and nostrils wide, his perfect cupid’s bow and puckered lips sucked in by chubby cheeks. He was born with a full head of hair, straight and black like mine, and peach fuzz from the nape of his neck to the top of his thighs. I spent hours watching him sleep, brushing his hair back with the palm of my hand, kissing him in the sweet spot under his chin. In those moments, I thought: I could spend all my days doing just this. Three months later, I still feel that way. Sometimes I lay awake in the late hours, Mosley in his sleeper beside my bed, and I watch him in the dim light of the television. I notice his wispy lashes slightly curling at the tips, his brows thickening, and his cheeks growing more full every day. He has lost some of the baby hairs framing his face, though much of it has stayed, and lengthened past his small ears. He has Jonathan’s ears, mouth, and chin some of my favorite attributes of his. Most nights I doze off with my glasses on, so the moment that my eyes open in the morning, I can see him clearly.

***

When my sister and I were too young for school, we lived in a townhouse with my parents on the south end of San Diego. I remember the homes were crowded together. Our driveway curved around a corner, and winded down a small hill, like a maze outlining our neighbors’ outer walls. We lived next door to a couple, in their 60s, who loved to garden in their tiny front lawn. They had pots of plants lined up with various fruits and vegetables. On one of the sunny afternoons that my parents slept in, coming down hard from a high, my sister and I decided to venture out. We found our elderly neighbors tending to their mini-garden, and went over to explore the scene.

“What’re you doing?” My sister asked the wife.

“Just watering these plants here,” she responded.

My sister and I hovered over her to watch.

“Where are your parents?” The wife asked.

I wonder if the wife had noticed the swarm of people buzzing in and out of our house late into the night. I wonder if she ever bumped into a face of a fiend at our front door when she was approaching or exiting her own. I wonder if she caught Mom or Dad for neighborly conversation while they were coked out and fidgety. Or, perhaps, she was just wondering what two very young girls were doing outside alone.

“They’re asleep,” my sister, answered, “Can we have some lemons?”

“Sure.” The wife handed over two lemons.

My sister collected them with both palms and we ran back towards our house.

“Let’s cut these!” She said to me. Her face was small and round with eyes that overwhelmed her other features. Her pointy, crooked teeth hid behind an innocent smile; and her straight, tame hair was tucked neatly behind her ears.

She dragged one of the bar stools to the other end of the kitchen counter and we sat opposite of each other. I remember we didn’t bother to turn on any lights; all we had was the light of the sun creeping in from the slanted blinds. The kitchen had an L-shaped counter covered with white tile and grout in between. My sister grabbed two butter knives and handed one to me.

My parents had recently discovered I was left-handed, but I still didn’t know right from left. I knew I couldn’t cut a straight line, no matter how much I pressed my tongue to my top lip for focus. Mom and Dad decided it was because most things were made for righty’s, including the basic hand-eye coordination that I didn’t possess.

I was shaky with the butter knife. It made me nervous sitting across from my sister and having to mirror her motions. I watched as she held the lemon steady with her left hand and the knife with her right. She touched the knife to the center of the lemon and began to cut down slowly. The peel was hard, too tough for her little fingers. She brought the knife up and out a few times to repeat the motion over again. Her movements were precise and her lemon cut cleanly in half.

***

At three months old, Mosley has learned to recognize Jonathan and me. When he gets sleepy in the afternoons, I put him in his bouncer that sits close to the floor, and I rock it with my foot from the couch. Sometimes I hum him a lullaby, and other times, I just watch his eyes glaze over. I see him fighting his tired feeling by trying not to blink. He’ll keep his eyes on me for as long as he can. His lids get heavier, until he can no longer carry them, and his eyes finally surrender to sleep. Mosley does this when we are out as well; he looks for my face for focus when the scene is overstimulating. Recently we were at a birthday party with my siblings and a bunch of other unfamiliar faces. The music was blaring from an outdoor speaker and children ran laps around the backyard. I carried Mosley in his Baby Bjorn and rocked him back and forth. I kept the top clasps unhooked and held his head in my hands, so that he could see all around. My older brother hovered over my shoulder and snuck kisses from him when he could, but Mosley kept his eyes on me.

“He’s staring right at you! Does he always do that?” My brother asked.

“Yeah, when he gets tired, he just stares at me.”

“He must love you so much.”

***

I never took my eyes off of her. I held the lemon in my right hand and the knife in my left. I didn’t look down to see if my initial incision was at the center of the lemon, like my sister’s. When she brought her knife up, I followed, and when she sliced down, I did too. I watched the strain in her face and fingers when the knife hit the hard peel. I felt it too, but eventually it subsided. I moved my knife in a sawing motion. I fixated on my sister’s movements. Soon, I was no longer imitating her. I sawed back and forth without lifting the knife.

By this time my sister had cut her lemon into quarters. Her eyes met mine with a proud grin, and I returned a giddy smile. She looked down at my lemon and her smile faded into shock. I watched her eyes widen and her shoulders shoot back. I was still smiling.

“Joelyn, there’s blood! There’s blood everywhere!” She screamed. Her words didn’t register at first.

***

In the middle of the day, I remember my parents telling my sister and me that they were going to take a nap. Maybe one of us would object and plead for a few moments of playtime, but we never won. The two of them went to their room and shut the door behind them, while my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves. Maybe they napped for an hour, perhaps less, but as a child, it felt like an eternity. I brought out my stack of white printer paper and my special pen the one with the multicolored ink that changed colors when you pushed down different levers. I tried to draw the perfect girl, a mix of Princess Jasmine, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my mom. I always started with the eyes. I drew one almond-shaped eye on the left center of the page. If it wasn’t perfect, maybe too small or the lines were shaky, I started over—and over and over again. Sometimes I went through a whole stack of papers before I had an entire face drawn.

“What was wrong with this one, Joelyn?” My dad lifted one of the sheets with a single curved line near the middle of the page.

“I don’t know. It didn’t look nice.”

“My daughter, the number one paper waster.”

I made sure not to look at him or even crack a smile. You don’t even know how to do art, I thought to myself.

“I don’t care. I have a lot of paper,” I said, pointing to the stack.

“You should. You know how many trees you’re wasting?”

I rolled my eyes: What do trees have to do with it? The tip of my tongue pressed my top lip and I held the pen firmly on the page. The first eye was good, the second too, but this time it was the nose that sucked. I tossed aside the umpteenth failed attempt, and looked to another clean blank page in front of me. I swiped my hand across the sheet and could feel indents from the last drawing. I held the sheet up into the light and saw the two eyes and sucky nose engraved into the paper, and the one behind that, and behind that. I balled up these blank sheets and tossed them aside too. My dad laughed and shook his head at me. I wanted to tear up every single piece of paper I had. Go back to sleep.

***

“You’re bleeding!” My sister screamed from across the table.

I looked down and saw that the lemon had been sliced in nearly the same spot multiple times, while my middle finger lay mangled beneath it. The grout between the tiles was stained red and there was blood pooling off the edge of the counter. My breaths became short and panicked. I lifted my hand and the middle finger dangled. A sliver of bone peeked out from the open skin. I could feel my entire body tremble with fear.

“I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! I’M GONNA DIE!” My voice got louder each time.

***

Jonathan and I moved into our new apartment three months before Mosley was born. It’s a cheaply renovated two bedroom, two bathroom in an undesirable neighborhood of San Diego known as El Cajon. The complex is small with 12 units total. We get two assigned parking spots and the rent is manageable. Jonathan wasn’t entirely convinced by the place, but I pushed for it. I think he would have preferred a room in his dad’s cozy, upscale track home in Carlsbad. However, I wasn’t willing to live under anyone else’s roof when the baby arrived. Jonathan’s family was kind; I just didn’t know what to expect with motherhood, and I didn’t want anyone witnessing a meltdown. Besides, I relatively like our place. The fresh coat of paint may be peeling, but it’s a thousand square feet of our very own space. When I was pregnant, it was the best feeling to come home, take off my clothes, and blast the air conditioning. I loved getting off from an early shift and napping on the couch when the complex was quiet, because the neighbor kids were still at school or daycare. At the time, I don’t know if I felt safe or was too pregnant to care.

It wasn’t until Mosley was born that I gained a heightened cautiousness. I began to think differently about the sweet old man that lives a few doors down. I see him throughout the day, crouched by the dumpster, smoking cigarettes. He wears plaid pajama pants and a sport coat. Sometimes when I pull into the complex at night, I find him walking in the middle of the parking lot, unaware of my headlights or the sound of my car behind him. I inch forward, with each slow step he takes, to get to my assigned spot in the front. A part of me grows impatient, while the other part wants to wait for him to shut the door of his apartment before Mosley and I get out of the car.

At night before we all go to bed, I’ve picked up a new routine. I open the front door to check that the security gate is locked, then I lock and chain the front door, and stare at it for approximately five seconds. I walk to the kitchen and look at the stove and say “OFF” aloud,five times for each knob linked to the burners and oven. I touch the freezer and fridge with one hand, then shut off the lights, and go to the bedroom. Jonathan thinks it’s silly, but we’ve been safe so far.

***

I was too afraid of the sting that cleaning the wound might cause, so I hardly ever let Mom or Dad come near me. I kept it covered until the puss was putrid to any nearby nose. Nonetheless, my finger healed within a few weeks, and a thick scar took the place of the cut. Every morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to put their right hand over their heart and stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I rubbed my thumbs over the inside of my middle fingers. One side was smooth, while the other had a sliver of raised skin where my scar was—I knew this was my right hand. I finally had a way of distinguishing right from left.

The scar served other purposes as time went on. It became a trigger for my OCD as a child. I rubbed my thumb over it once, then twice, then 29 times until it felt right. If I had to overcome a fear, like walking into another classroom to deliver something from my teacher to another, I touched the scar to remind myself that I would survive. I had survived my first major injury and I would survive twenty unfamiliar fifth-grade students staring at my unfamiliar face when I entered their classroom. I worried those students might find all my faults in our twenty-second encounter; they might notice my pigeon-toed walk and whisper to each other about it through recess. I rubbed my scar and faced my fears. The worry never left, but the anxiety subsided just enough to get the task done.

Today the scar still remains on my right middle finger. It never faded or flattened. It has become less about what I thought, as a child, to be a “near-death experience by a butter knife” and more so a lesson in parenthood. A lesson about the kind of parent I do not want to be, as well as a realization that mistakes are inevitable. I used to look back on my childhood and pinpoint our parents’ faults. Although many of their mishaps were avoidable, as a new mother, I have a better understanding of the struggle to make the ‘right’ decisions. I look at my scar now and can laugh. I know that kids get hurt. If Mosley is anything like Jonathan or me, he’s going to take some tumbles. Sure, I have urges to be the overprotective mom, breathing down his neck with hand sanitizer and hugs, but that’s just not realistic or healthy. I have to blink every once in awhile. I have to look away. I have to work; and I have to show him that his mom is strong and independent. I want to teach him to be strong and independent. I want to teach him how to cut lemons.

 

Joelyn Suarez lives in San Diego, CA with her fiancé and son. She will be receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert this month. Her essay “Home” was featured in NoiseMedium magazine as a part of their premier contest. She is the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review.

A Birthday In The Park

A Birthday In The Park

A lone park bench in a botanical garden park

By Lori Wenner

The din of the birthday party seemed to fade as a cloud of primary-colored balloons drifted high above the treetops, slowly disappearing into the azure sky. We’d enjoyed birthday cake, sung “Happy Birthday” in a large circle and then released the balloons. But something was missing: the birthday girl was absent from her party. As the last balloon vanished, I heard a voice whisper, “I’m okay, Momma. I love you.”

The birthday girl was Alexa Christine, my first daughter and she had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a year before when she was eleven weeks old. My husband Rohn and I had decided to observe her first birthday with a gathering at her grave. We couldn’t bear the thought of the day passing unnoticed, as if she’d never existed. But I worried what others would think; I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Rohn had reassured me, with his typical confidence, that our loved ones would approve and attend. He was right. We marked Alexa’s birth as she deserved and received love and support that our friends and family would never have known how to give to us otherwise.

The dazzling summer sun spilled over our gathering and a breeze from the nearby Neches River granted us a reprieve from the southeast Texas heat. The mood was light with laughter, conversation and hugs. Our many guests mingled under the towering pine tree standing sentry over Alexa’s grave. The party also served as a send-off: Rohn and I would depart that afternoon for a Colorado holiday where, pregnant with our second daughter, Caitlyn, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool mountain air.

The cemetery where Alexa is buried is as green and lush as a city park. Pine and live oak trees shade the grounds, which are dotted with picturesque flower gardens. The grave markers are uniform, flush with the ground allowing an unobstructed view as the land slopes gently to the river below. Here, it’s easy to forget you are in a graveyard. When Alexa died, we chose four paired burial plots near the river, arranged head-to-foot. We buried Alexa in the middle of two plots; the other two were reserved for Rohn and me. I buried Rohn in his plot seventeen years later, when, at age forty-eight, colon cancer ended his life.

We celebrated Caitlyn’s first birthday fifteen months after Alexa’s. On that crisp, sunny October day, many of the same guests from Alexa’s party milled about our backyard, laughing and talking. The birthday girl, fashionably late after a long nap, entered the yard with her chubby hand in mine. Rohn videotaped her toddling by my side, capturing her pale pink smocked dress, her lacy socks, her white Mary Janes and the pink bow in her curly blonde hair. I presented the group with the queen of our world, my heart full to bursting.

Our family grew by two over the next six years, as Caitlyn’s sisters Jillian and Zoe were born. Big sisters and an ever-expanding cast of cousins increased the fun as we celebrated first birthdays with elaborate cakes from Beaumont’s best bakery and new dresses for the birthday girl and Mom. We chose Blue’s Clues, Jillian’s favorite Nickelodeon show, for her first birthday theme; the birthday girl wore an aqua, green and hot pink dress to match the chipper puppy and a headband that tamed her thick, black hair. At her own first birthday party, Zoe wore a vintage-inspired linen sundress, white sandals, and a white bow in her blonde hair. Rohn photographed her seated on our dining room table near her two-tiered pink cake, which she quickly devoured with both hands.

After celebrating Alexa’s first birthday with our friends, we honored the occasion each passing year with a dinner with my parents. In the early years, we also visited her grave. But, as time passed, I didn’t feel the need to visit Alexa there. I felt closer to her in our home giving her sisters the love I couldn’t give her.

Following his death, we celebrated Rohn’s birthdays at his favorite seafood restaurant, with his favorite cake: lemon with chocolate icing. Rohn had wanted these flavors for his groom’s cake, but for once, I’d said no to him. I would have been better off suffering through that cake once. When he didn’t get his requested groom’s cake, Rohn felt entitled to a lemon cake with chocolate icing for his next twenty birthdays. We continue this tradition now, reminiscing about Rohn’s other odd food combinations, like Steen’s syrup and cheddar cheese atop pancakes. In her first year away at college, Caitlyn marked her Daddy’s birthday by baking his favorite cake in her poorly stocked dorm kitchen and sharing it with her friends.

Caitlyn’s, Jillian’s and Zoe’s birthdays have always been about growth, hope and life; each represents another year that a child of mine has flourished. Since his death, Rohn’s birthdays have been about remembrance and gratitude. I often mention him to friends on his birthday. We laugh together, remembering the kind, gregarious, creative and unstoppable man we all loved. Rohn’s life was cut short, but he packed everyday of it working hard, playing hard and loving even harder. It is sad to remember Alexa on her birthdays and there isn’t laughter when I do, so I only mention her birthday to a few select friends.

Losing Alexa remains an agony, even after twenty-three years. I can easily recall the happy times in her short life, but I keep the the unvarnished fact of her death hidden away. I know that my daughter is dead, but I rarely access that reality. When I do, I say the words my baby died aloud. The intensity of my grief shocks me. Then I recall Julian Barnes’ thoughts on mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Alexa’s birthdays are not about a baby who didn’t get to grow up. They’re not about what might have been. After the initial devastation of her death, I wrestled with a heartrending question: Would conceiving and loving other children betray my love for Alexa? With time, I have come to believe that each unique child’s conception is only possible at one precise moment in time; a child conceived at any other time is a completely different person. If Alexa had lived, I would not have become pregnant so soon afterward and Caitlyn and her sisters would never have been born. In this way, I have come to believe that Alexa was meant to live for only seventy-seven days. This is a sadness I can bear; what I cannot bear is the sadness and regret of a life not lived.

A nursery RN for thirty years, I usually choose to work on Alexa’s birthday. I recall my first pregnancy, labor and delivery as I walk past room 319, the room where she was born. The babies I care for comfort me. At times, I see a whisper of Alexa’s spirit in their faces and for a moment, it’s as if she’s there with me.

Lori Wenner is an RN/lactation consultant who lives in Beaumont, Texas with her three daughters ages 22, 18 and 15. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, Nursing for Women’s Health and MEDSURG Nursing. 

They Are Not Half Sisters

They Are Not Half Sisters

By Stephanie Sprenger

halfsisters

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Save

What Good Moms Do

What Good Moms Do

Decorating The Christmas Tree - Family Pose

By Marie Anderson

Griff and Gannon tiptoed to the sparkling Christmas tree in their dad’s family room. Behind the tree, early morning darkness pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The boys crouched in front of the tree. Ganny reached for the largest present. It was wrapped in a pattern of Santa heads. Across the heads, someone had printed in black ink: To Griffin and Gannon, Love from Dad, Francesca, and Baby Guinevere.

“You can’t open it yet,” Griff said. He shivered. The size and shape of the present reminded him of his sister’s coffin. She’d been born too early, on Christmas Day five years ago. Ganny, of course, wouldn’t remember. He’d only been two years old.

Ganny frowned. “One present for us? Where’s the stuff from Santa?”Griff shrugged. Ten years old, he knew Santa was fake. But Ganny was only seven. Their dad should’ve put Santa gifts under the tree. He wondered if their dad was even home. He’d left for work right after their mother had dropped them off early yesterday morning, and he’d still been gone when they went to bed last night.

Behind them, the floor creaked. Ganny froze. “Santa! Is it Santa? I can’t look!”

The boys turned around. But it wasn’t Santa who filled the doorway to the family room.

“You’re up early,” Francesca said.

Their stepmother shuffled into the room. Her green eyes bulged out at them over a cup the size of a softball. A big white bow, lumpy as cauliflower, sprouted from her dirt-black hair.

Griff hated cauliflower.

“Good morning,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Griffin.” Francesca looked at Ganny. “Merry Christmas, Gannon.”

“Back at ya,” Ganny said.

Griff bit his tongue – a trick his mother had taught him – so he wouldn’t laugh.

Francesca shook her head and sighed.

Griff watched her waddle to the rocking chair. She still looked fat, he thought, even though her baby had been born a long time ago, right after Halloween. He watched her sink heavily into the rocker and slurp from her cup.

Ganny laughed. “You got spit up all over your mouth!”

Griff bit his tongue again. The foam from her drink coated her fat lips, and it did look like spit up.

He let himself smile.

“Shush,” Francesca said as Ganny continued to laugh. “You’ll wake your sister. And your dad.” She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her robe and looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel.

“Thirty more minutes, and then it will be OK to wake Guinevere. Schedules are very important to babies. Not even Christmas should interfere. Your sister needs her sleep. Your dad, too.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, too quietly for Francesca to hear.

“Mmm,” Francesca said, rocking and sipping. This cappuccino is blissful, just blissful. You know, boys, it was my mommy who sent me the cappuccino machine for Christmas this year. She can’t wait to meet your baby sister.”

“You’re too old to say mommy,” Ganny said.

Francesca’s face turned red.

“Ganny!” Griff pinched his brother’s arm. They’d promised their mother that they’d be polite while they stayed at their dad’s. “She’s not too old at all!” Then, before he could stop himself, he blurted what he’d heard their mother say. “She’s closer in age to me than she is to Dad!”

The red on Francesca’s face spilled to her neck.

“Is your mommy coming today?” Griff asked. Asking questions, he knew, was a good way to distract grownups from getting mad.

“No! She’s not!” Francesca’s thick black eyebrows plunged practically to her nose. “And I said mommy because you boys are still at the mommy age. I was using a kid word because I’m talking to kids!”

She sipped her drink. Her face returned to its normal milky color. Goose bumps pricked Griff’s arms. He didn’t think she would yell again, but with grownups, it was hard to know. At least since his parents’ divorce, the yelling had mostly stopped.

And he didn’t really mind Francesca so much. He’d hated That Other One, the one his dad had almost married before Francesca. That One had been prettier than Francesca, but she’d almost killed Ganny. Ganny had been rushed to the hospital after eating the white powder he’d found in her purse.

“The little shit shouldn’t have been digging in my purse!” That One had yelled.

“You don’t bring your little shit into my house when my boys are here!” their dad had yelled back.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “volunteers with Global Samaritans, and she spends Christmas with poor families. She’s been so busy helping the poor families in Guatemala that she hasn’t had a chance to meet your sister yet.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, a little louder this time.

“Stop punching buttons, you idiot,” Griff whispered.

Francesca sighed. “However, when I was your age, boys, my mother always spent Christmas with me. Because that’s what good moms do.”

Griff had nothing to say to that. Even Ganny stayed silent. A few days ago, their parents had argued about their mom working again on Christmas. Griff had listened on the extension. It had something to do with Grace. His dad had said the f-word, and his mom had cried.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “helped me make most of those ornaments on the tree. When your sister’s older, I’ll teach her how to make ornaments like my mother taught me. And that window?” She pointed to a stained glass window over the couch. “My mother and I worked on that together when I was about your age, Griffin. We won first prize for it at our club’s art fair. Your dad had it installed last month. It’s what I wanted for Christmas, having it put up in our family room. I like looking at it when I rock your sister.”

“It’s very nice, Griff said, though he hadn’t noticed the stained glass window until now.

“Where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca stopped rocking. She cleared her throat. “You’re going to love what’s in that big present under the tree. It came all the way from Italy! I looked through a lot of catalogs and on-line sites before I found the perfect gift for you boys.”

“But where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca looked at Griff. “Your dad said you boys knew.”

Griff bit his lip. He was in fourth grade. Of course, he knew.

“Knew what?” Ganny asked.

Francesca coughed. “Well.” She looked at Griff. Red splotched her cheeks like a rash.

“Santa’s bringing stuff to our real house,” Griff said. “Not here, because that wouldn’t be fair to kids who only have one house.”

“That’s right!” Francesca smiled at Griff.

He looked away without smiling back.

“I wanna’ go home now!” Ganny shouted.

Francesca flinched and shushed.

“Mom’s not even home, you idiot,” Griff said. “She’s working a double shift at the hospital, remember?”

“You’re the idiot!” Ganny yelled.

“Boys! Stop!” Francesca pressed her hands over her palpitating heart. “No name calling! Doesn’t your mother teach you better?”

She rubbed her left eye to calm the eyelid’s twitching. Off saving the world, their mother was, big shot emergency room doctor, too busy to take care of business in her own backyard. Foisting her kids on Francesca, a new mother with a borderline colicky baby. Lily had sent nothing when Guinevere was born, not even a card. Nothing to acknowledge that her sons now had a sister. Of course it was sad that Lily’s own daughter had been born too early. But really, Lily had pushed for a third child for the wrong reason: to try to heal an ailing marriage, is how Gary had once explained it to Francesca.

Francesca knew how dumb that was. Francesca hadn’t been enough to save her parents’ marriage. They’d divorced when she was two years old.

Francesca still had the note – in her jewelry box – that her mother had tucked into the gift she’d given Francesca for her 16th birthday: Pregnancy may land a man, but a child won’t keep him. The gift was a box of birth control pills.

It was a hard truth Francesca would impart to her own daughter when the time came. Good mothers told hard truths. And a good mother would have sent a gift for her sons’ new baby sister. Francesca’s mother had sent a $500 gift card from Nordstrom. It was in Francesca’s jewelry box. She and her mother would shop Nordstrom together for baby clothes. Her mother had promised a visit in spring.

Francesca felt tears prick her eyes. Spring was so far away. She felt a surge of sympathy for her stepsons. Of course they wanted their mom.

“I wanna go home now!” Ganny yelled. He scrambled behind the tree.

“Get him out from there!” Francesca cried. The sympathy she’d been feeling exploded into irritation. “He’ll tip the tree!”

Francesca gasped as Griff went after his brother. “Boys! Careful!”

Gary padded into the room, yawning and rubbing his bald head.

“Hey, what’s all this splendid commotion?” he asked, just as the tree began to shudder. He rushed to steady it, and the boys tumbled out.

“Merry Christmas, boys!” Gary shouted.

“Shush!” Griff and Francesca warned simultaneously.

“Yeah, shush up, Dad!” Ganny shrieked.

From upstairs, baby’s cries exploded.

“Oh!” Francesca shivered. Tears welled.

Gary patted her shoulder. “Aw, Kitten,” he said. “I’ll go do the diaper and bottle business. You just relax. Get yourself another coffee.”

Francesca looked at the clock on the mantel. “OK, but she’s not due for a bottle for another fifteen minutes. So could you just change her? And be sure to use the cloth diapers, OK?”

She looked at the boys. Gannon’s nose was dripping, and his eyes were wet.

“Wipe your nose, Gannon,” she said.

He ignored her, and looked at Gary. “Can I help you, Daddy?”

“No!” Francesca said. “Just stay put, boys.”

“Wipe your nose, sport,” Gary said. “Stay put, OK?”

“Please,” Francesca said to the boys. “Wait. Until. We’re. All. Ready.”

By the time everyone was ready, the tree, though still lit, no longer sparkled. Sunlight blazed through the windows behind the tree, spotlighting dust motes which swirled like nervous bugs in the beams of light. The tree no longer looked magical, Francesca thought. Just desperate, like an old woman wearing too much makeup. Like she found herself looking every time she glanced in a mirror.

She felt worn out. Old. She was old. A quarter of a century.

Something icy filled her throat. Guinevere’s little body, blessedly still for the moment, warmed her lap, but every other part of Francesca felt cold. She shivered. Was she getting sick?

“Smile, Kitten!” Gary was pointing the camera at her. She smiled.

Ganny pulled the big package from under the tree.

“It’s heavy!” he exclaimed.

Griff tried to lift it. It was heavy! Excitement tickled his stomach.

The boys tore off the ribbons and wrapping.

They stared at the present: a black suitcase on wheels.

“Wipe off those frowns, guys, and open it up,” Gary said. “I’m sure you’ll love whatever’s inside.”

They unzipped the case, flipped back the top. Inside were two rows of shiny balls, red ones and blue ones, each about the size of a baseball, and one smaller white ball. The letters GGG were painted on each colored ball. Their last name was painted on the white ball.

Ganny tried to lift the hard clear plastic which covered the balls, but thick staples held it fast. “What the heck?” he said. The boys looked at their dad, who was scratching his head.

“It’s a bocce ball set,” Francesca said. “The three Gs on the colored balls are for Griffin, Gannon, and Guinevere. The small white ball is called the pallino.”

“Thank you,” Griff said. “It’s very nice.” He thought of Grace, his real baby sister. Even though she was dead, he decided the third G would be for Grace.

“Dad, can you get the plastic off?” Ganny asked.

“Oh, Gary,” Francesca said. “I think we should leave that for when they get back to their own home. I’d hate for any of the balls to get misplaced here.”

“But we got nothing to play with now!” Ganny shrieked.

“Well,” Gary said. “Maybe we can—.”

“Boys,” Francesca interrupted. “This is an authentic set. Hand-polished in Italy. The balls are solid cherry, so they’re not to be left out when you’re not using them. You’ll have fun playing with it in your yard this summer. Gary, maybe you can suggest to Lily that she get a little bocce court put in for them.”

“I wanna’ play with it now!” Ganny whined.

Francesca shook her head. “It’s an outside game. And you don’t know the rules yet.”

“Dad!” Ganny cried. “So what are we gonna’ do now?”

Gary shrugged. “It’s an outside game, sport.”

“And we gotta’ get ready for church anyway,” Griff said.

Francesca smiled at Griff. He looked away without smiling back.

After church, Francesca served dinner. Miraculously, Guinevere slept. The boys pushed their eggplant lasagna around on their plates and ignored the peas.

“I want tacos,” Ganny said.

Francesca frowned. “Well, in this house, we don’t eat anything with eyes.”

“Well, these peas look like your eyes.” Ganny shoved a spoonful into his mouth. “Gross!” He spat the peas back on his plate.

Griff felt his stomach twist. He watched Francesca’s hands clench into fists on either side of her plate. She looked at his dad.

“Gannon!” His dad shook his head. “That was rude, sport. Apologize to your stepmother.”

Griff could tell Ganny was biting his tongue. Please don’t stick it out, he thought.

“Sorry,” Ganny mumbled. He coughed. “Stepmother.”

Francesca’s mouth trembled.

Griff shoved a chunk of the eggplant lasagna into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it. “Tastes great!” he exclaimed.

Francesca’s wet eyes landed on him. A smile dented her face.

He looked down at his plate.

For a moment, no one spoke.

“I’ve got rounds to make pretty soon,” their dad said. “And the surgical res asked if I could cover for him because of some family emergency.”

Francesca sighed. “I should probably nap while Guinevere is down.” Again her wet green eyes landed on Griff.

“We can just watch TV ’til Mom comes to get us,” Griff said.

After their dad left for the hospital, Griff packed his and Ganny’s duffel bags and put them by the front door. Francesca wheeled the bocce set next to their bags.

“OK, guys. The TV is all yours. Just keep the door to the family room closed, so then the TV won’t wake your sister, but keep the sound low, OK?”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered.

Francesca handed a cell phone to Griff. Your dad asked your mom to call when she gets here. I don’t want her ringing the doorbell and waking me or your sister.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny said loudly, but Francesca had already left the room.

They watched a Sponge Bob cartoon for a while. They sat on the floor close to the TV. At home, they each had a bean bag chair for watching TV. Their dad had promised he’d have bean bag chairs for them here, too. But there were no bean bag chairs.

“I’m bored,” Ganny said. He went to the front door and wheeled the bocce set back into the family room. He took a fork from the dining room hutch and used it to pry off the staples, bending one of the prongs.

Griff slid the ruined fork under the couch.

For a while, they rolled the balls around the room.

“This is boring,” Ganny said.

They began pitching balls to each other.

A red ball slammed into photos on top of the piano. Wedding photos toppled into baby photos. A wild pitch just missed the TV screen.

Ganny raced to field a high pop up. He crashed into an end table. A lamp fell.

Griff zoomed for a line drive. He tripped over the rocking chair and fell into the tree. The tree shuddered and tipped. Ornaments fell. They propped the tree against the glass wall.

Griff jumped on the couch to catch a high fly ball just as the cell phone in his pocket rang. Distracted, he missed the ball. It slammed into the stained glass window over the couch. He heard a crack.

“Hi Mom,” Griff said into the phone. “We’re ready. We just have to pick up some stuff. We’ll be right out.”

The door to the family room banged open. Francesca’s eyes swept over the room. They froze on the stained glass window behind Griff’s head. “You cracked it?” Her voice shook.

Ganny ran and squeezed himself into the little space between the propped tree and the glass wall. Griff looked at the stained glass window. The crack was thin and curved like a spider’s leg. He jumped off the couch. “We’re sorry!” he said. “We’ll pick everything up.” His muscles tensed, waiting for Francesca to explode.

For a moment, all Griff could hear was his own breath and the clock ticking on the fireplace mantel.

Then, her mouth opened. But all that came out was a whisper. “My mom and I won first prize for that window.”

She hunched her shoulders and began lifting photos off the floor.

Ganny emerged from behind the tree. The brothers looked at each other. They began working in silence, righting the lamp, pillows, returning bocce balls to the case.

When Francesca tried to right the tree, the boys helped. The three of them managed to restore it back to its upright position.

Ganny stepped on an ornament on the floor, crunching it underfoot.

From Francesca came a soft sound, like a kitten’s mewl.

Outside a car horn blared.

“That’s Mom!” Griff exclaimed. “She’ll wake the baby!”

And sure enough, Guinevere began to shriek.

Francesca shuddered. She flung back her head, gripped her hair between both hands, and howled.

Griff stumbled back. Ganny covered his ears. “Stop stop stop!” he cried.

The baby’s shrieks burned through the room. Francesca screamed, “Shut up, Guinevere! Just! Shut! Up!”

She collapsed into the rocking chair. Tears spilled. “I can’t do this. I’m so tired. So cold.” She bowed her head and began to rock, violently, back and forth.

Guinevere continued to cry, piercing, shuddering sobs.

Griff whispered to Ganny and left the room, closing the door behind him.

The baby continued to cry. Francesca closed her eyes and covered her ears.

After a while, Francesca realized the baby’s cries were easing. Suddenly, as though someone had turned off a radio, the cries stopped.

Francesca opened her eyes. She watched Gannon. He was picking ornaments off the floor and putting them back on the tree. He wasn’t doing it right. He was adding too many ornaments to the same low branches.

“Gannon?”

He looked at the tree. “I didn’t mean those peas looked like your eyes. They just look like eyes is what I meant. Anyone’s eyes. Should I get you blanket?”

“What?”

“Are you still cold? Should I get you a blanket?”

The door to the family room opened. Griff stood in the doorway. His mother, Lily, stood behind him. She was cradling Guinevere like a football in one arm, and propping a bottle in the baby’s mouth with her other hand. On Guinevere’s head was knitted pink hat Francesca didn’t recognize. Francesca had knitted most of Guinevere’s hats, sweaters and socks too.

“She’s beautiful,” Lily said. “And what a marvelous set of lungs!” She stepped into the room.

Francesca stared at the hat. Nothing went on her daughter that Francesca didn’t first wash.

“Griff told me they’d made a mess in here,” Lily said. “And cracked your beautiful window. I’ll get it fixed. Anyway, I thought the least I could do now was get Guinevere changed and fed for you. I found bottles in your fridge. I warmed one.”

“She wasn’t due for a bottle yet,” Francesca said. “I’m trying to keep her on a schedule.”

Lily nodded. She eased the bottle from Guinevere’s mouth and handed it to Griff.

“She drank it all!” Griff exclaimed.

Lily lifted Guinevere to her shoulder and patted her back. A loud burp from the baby made the boys laugh. Despite her anger, Francesca smiled. Then she frowned. “That hat? Where’d it come from?”

Lily stepped closer. “I didn’t know if it would fit. But it fits perfectly. I knitted it . . .a while ago.”

Francesca felt dizzy. Had Lily knit the hat for her own baby girl?  A sudden insight, sharp and painful, clicked inside her: Guinevere only existed because Grace did not.

“The hat, I’d thought I’d never finish it. There are heart shapes knit into the hat, and you had to follow the pattern perfectly to make the hearts. I kept making mistakes and had to start over.”

“In knitting, there’s no such thing as mistakes,” Francesca heard herself say. “That’s what my mother always said when I’d drop a stitch or purl when I should have knitted. A mistake, she’d say, is just the way a knitter personalizes her work.”

Lily nodded. “That’s a good philosophy. I wish I’d applied it to my own parenting when Griff was born. I was so by the book with him, I was driving myself crazy. Then when Ganny came along, I was too tired and overwhelmed to even remember schedules and rules.”

Francesca felt blood heat her face. What was Lily implying? That Francesca was too by the book?

“But,” Lily continued, “I’ve got a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. So maybe I reaped what I sowed.”

Francesca looked at the boys who were now sitting on the floor near the TV. The rule follower. The rule breaker. Which one would her daughter be? Which one was ultimately better to be? Which one would Grace have been?

Lily lowered her face to the baby nestled in her arms. She breathed deeply. “I’d forgotten how good a baby smells.”

Francesca stood. The rocker nudged her knees, pushing her a step toward Lily. Lily looked tired. Purple stained the pouches under her eyes. Her brown hair looked dusty. But Guinevere, nestled against Lily, was gloriously quiet, content.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Francesca heard herself ask Lily. “Maybe some cappuccino?”

While Lily rocked the baby, Francesca made cappuccino. She popped a big bowl of popcorn. She led the boys to the basement and let them bring up the two bean bag chairs Gary had bought without even asking her first.

The boys sat in the bean bag chairs and watched Nickelodeon, the sound low, the popcorn between them on the floor.

Francesca lay under a comforter on the couch. From half-opened eyes, she watched Lily rock Guinevere. She watched Lily’s fingers trace the heart shapes on Guinevere’s hat. The hat was adorable. Maybe she’d ask Lily for the pattern.

Francesca felt her stomach tighten. Was it Grace’s hat? Had Grace ever worn it? Oh! The three Gs on the bocce balls. What an idiot she was. An insensitive idiot. Well, she would tell the boys that the third G was for both their sisters.

She looked at the boys cradled in the bean bag chairs. The chairs clashed with the décor, but Francesca had to admit that with the boys sitting in them, the chairs somehow looked right.

Griff suddenly turned and looked at her. She smiled, and when, this time, shockingly, he actually smiled back, she felt something bright and fierce sweep through her, swift, soft bristles scrubbing her clean.

Was it gladness? Grace?

The evening pressed darker and darker against the windows behind the tree. The lights on the tree began to pop out. Brighter and brighter they glowed, so that, even after Francesca closed her eyes, she could feel their heat warming her skin.

Marie Anderson is a mother of three in La Grange, IL. During the school year, she helps supervise (and “entertain”) 500 grade school children during their lunch recess. She is the founder/facilitator of her local library’s writing group, now in its 7th robust year. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications.

 RETURN TO THE DECEMBER ISSUE

 

The Intertidal Zone

The Intertidal Zone

Intertidal ART

By Jessica Johnson

My aquarium-going habit started when I was twenty-four during a family visit to Boston for my brother’s college graduation. His degree was in music, and I had swerved from studying science toward a graduate degree in creative writing. Questions about our obscure paths to middle-class adulthood hovered, omnipresent yet mostly unsaid.

I stood on the pier outside the New England Aquarium with my parents, my brother, and his new girlfriend, whose existence was a surprise, whose ways were surprising. My brother had not prepared us well, nor her, and so we didn’t know what to do with each other. Every new utterance seemed to require a response I didn’t know how to make. I wanted the weekend to be over.

We stepped through the aquarium’s glass doors and passed through the frenzy of admissions. An ever-echoing din filled the building.

In the Jellies exhibit, tanks arced along the wall with headlines like, In 2020, Will You Be Eating Jellyfish Sandwiches? The curved water boxes held illuminated parachutes, parachutes large and small, ghostly white or lit by colored spotlights so that they glowed pink or green. I watched the jellies ascending through the tank in breath-like motions, trailing their ribbony cords. I drifted from my family and felt myself—my self with all the craggy edges catching on the world—fading as I peered into one tank, then the next.

Maybe you have experienced it, too, the fascination of silent invertebrates behind glass. I looked and looked and still wanted to look longer, unsure of what I might be looking for. I could see their motion, their form, the traces of their inner workings. I wanted to hold them in my mind, to hold onto their form or function, to somehow have them.

It was then that I became a sucker for glass, for its promise of revelation.

****

I first desired the creatures of the intertidal when my brother and I were kids. Sprung from the station wagon after a long trip to my grandmother’s house on one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, we would run down, past the house, to a wide stretch of beach. As we stepped onto the cobblestone of rounded rocks, the ground began to sizzle: crabs no wider than a Canadian dollar coin in the cracks between the rocks. Because we could, we kneeled and pried rock after rock from its resting place; the crabs scattered trying to wedge themselves into a further crevice or go still on the edge of a shadow. Their hard backs seemed painted with deep purple, or avocado green, or, in greater numbers, speckled with the color of dried blood.

Because we could, we’d pull one from its shelter. We wanted to feel its articulated legs picking across our palms. As the crab carried its discoid body to the edge of a hand, we’d put another hand in its path, making it walk a treadmill of kid-flesh. If one of us set a crab down, the other would prevent its escape.

At six or seven, wanting to know them, wanting to keep them, we chose the most obvious way—

carrying them back to the house in a bucket. If she remembered to, our mother made us release them before bedtime; if she didn’t, we’d find them limp in the next day’s heat.

They were never as interesting in the bucket, attempting to climb out, scrambling for cover in the white plastic cylinder, as they were on the beach. But what to do with them? We couldn’t, of our own volition, let them go.

As we got older, we kept trying to hold the beach’s fauna, if not physically, then essentially. We kept trying to keep something of them. On long vacations, we made friends with local kids who spurred us to become classifiers. The crabs’ undersides were flat and white, but their armor had a pattern: a white spire in the middle, longer and narrower, supposedly indicated maleness. For days, we prowled the shore, flipping them over to determine their sex. Boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, girl…

Bored with classification, we started looking for fancier and more elusive invertebrates: the moon snail, the sea cucumber, the big and scary spider crab. We became connoisseurs. When we found our specimens, we now knew better than to collect them, and the memory of their precise existence faded soon after we returned to the house, washed our feet in the outdoor spigot, and blended ourselves into the rhythm of dinner and bed.

How old was I? Eight? Nine? At some point, I started staring at my reflection in a wide bedroom window of the house near the foot-wash station, practicing detached comparative judgment on my own body, learning to think of it as something to be manipulated, disregarded. I silently cataloged the differences between myself and the more acceptable others, the graceful and bendable girls who could run on the wide, sandy beach confident in the knowledge that they were definitely not fat. Separating me from them was a slight layer that waxed and waned. Some years I could see the faint outline of my ribs, other years I could not. In some lights my legs looked hopefully slim and long, in others heavy in the thigh. It’s just babyfat. I had it too. You’ll shoot up. I did—I was gangly. Just wait a few years. Whatever my female relatives said, my self-observation was like a time-lapse photo montage of a natural disaster, small pictures speeding toward an unwanted outcome. I separated my body from my self, rendering it available for study, taking a kind of comfort in the observer’s role.

Eventually, like our European forbears in the West, we children became extractors, using the beach as a source of material to serve our utilitarian purposes. We collected driftwood for forts and shells for glue-gun craft projects that, once made, never lived up to what we’d imagined.

Finally, in our early twenties (after a period of teenage hedonism during which the beach was something that you shook out of your hair after a night of partying) we became consumers. Growing up we’d watched our parents and grandparents pick oysters from the rocks, occasionally shucking and swallowing one right there on the beach. We too dug clams, soaked them in buckets, and, with our laptops open, concocted “saffron-infused” broths in which to steam their ribbed, mottled shells, their soft bodies.

Clams, but not oysters: while we’d turned from little naturalists to extractors to consumers, the beach changed without our noticing. Maybe because of overharvest by tourists who didn’t know to throw the shells back, or maybe for a more global reason, the oyster stocks declined, and if we had oysters, they were from a farm at Fanny Bay. Despite the fact that I could buy its species and swallow them nearly alive, the desire for some congress with the intertidal, the desire to keep and know it, the desire that later drew me to the glassy tank of jellyfish, was never fully satisfied.

***

Enter the aquarium: a larger, socially sanctioned, and (crucially) climate-controlled creature-bucket. The Boston visit turned out to be the first of many trips to sites of curated nature, which I continued to frequent as I got older, had jobs, and spent more time indoors. During vacations, during the drifting alienation of business travel, I sought refuge in aquariums, conservatories, exhibitions. Whenever it seemed like there was nothing else to do, I indulged the impulse to look at life in vitro, to collect facts and then walk out into the blue sky.

In his 2003 history of the aquarium, The Ocean at Home, Bernd Brunner relates an anecdote from mid-nineteenth century Europe, the time and place when aquariums came into vogue, both as a form of public entertainment and as home décor. A German aquarist, Gustav Jäger, described how “even educated” visitors would sometimes, in an agitated aside to the ticket taker, ask “What in heaven’s name am I supposed to see in there?”

What am I supposed to see? Aquariums are built to reveal, giving human visitors the impression that they are meant to “see” something beyond what’s physically there—they are meant to see as in have an insight. Through a glass barrier, they allow the visitor to see into realms she can’t ordinarily penetrate; I can see in, but by allowing me to do that, by existing only for the purpose of allowing me to do that, aquariums suggest that there’s something to be gained by doing so—a perspective, an understanding.

Aquariums seem to be products of the cultural assumption that we can know things best by removing ourselves from the situation and looking in a detached fashion. We treat knowledge something fixed and apart from us, locate-able: something we come to.

But something I come to is also something I walk away from, something I can’t take with me. And so, with the glassed-in creatures of the intertidal, the more I looked, the more I wanted to look. The more aquariums I visited, the more I wanted to visit. The creatures there seemed knowable, but as their images faded in my mind, not particularly known. Like the man in Jäger’s story, I saw in but had no insight.

***

Nevertheless, it was insight I was seeking when, four months pregnant, I (once again) made the quick trip from Portland to the Bonneville hatchery and sturgeon interpretive center to watch the sleepy, giant fish floating behind the glass. They drifted from the murk-like zeppelins toward my window and hovered there. I stared at their ancient, folded eyes, at the shape of their bodies, their ridged backs and shark-like tails, unsure of what they could tell me, but relieved to be looking, separated from the bodies on display.

Pregnancy plunged me into my own biology and made me long to escape by gazing, to locate the relevant biology outside a detached self. Some women crave the experience of growing a baby, but I was not one of them. My fantasies of motherhood involved helping with homework, reading books aloud, and watching soccer games. I wanted to be the parent of a first-grader, but a pregnant lady? Not so much. Although it was medically normal in every way, my pregnancy rocked me. Aside from the inconveniences and subtle indignities (the constant nausea, the inconveniently frequent need to urinate, the rapidly shrinking wardrobe) what quietly terrified me was the end of agency, the loss of my perceived control over my body and my time. I was used to beginning my day before dawn and checking through items on my ambitious list, but pregnant, it felt like I lacked the energy to carry out basic obligations, like my job. I couldn’t get myself from point A to point B: on the way home from work, desperate for the couch, I’d pull over to vomit or nap in a parking lot, unable to drive for even five more minutes. Pregnancy was happening to me, unfolding consequences that I could not walk away from. My uncomfortably full torso and I couldn’t be removed from whatever was going to happen next.

During the long months until my daughter was born, my general fear was punctuated only by ultrasound appointments, during which I could see a schematic black and white picture of the creature, of her skull, bones, brain, and spine, moments when I could see all of this outside of myself, high on the screen above my head, when the technician was measuring parts and telling me what they meant. The part of pregnancy I liked, the part in which I feel the most myself, were the rare moments when my pregnancy turned into an aquarium and I returned to the cold, gentle comfort of observation.

***

Eight months after visiting the sturgeon at Bonneville, my husband and I and our baby, on an extended family camping trip to the Oregon Coast, took a break from the campground to spend an afternoon at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Just inside the doors, school-age kids leaned over a long, man-made tidepool, poking chubby fingers into a cluster of fat, green anemones, exclaiming when the anemones’ free gelatinous wands reflexively pulled closed. In the middle of the room, a small crowd had started to gather around the tank where a keeper’s arm reached down from the surface, deus ex machina, to feed an octopus. Tentacles clutched the arm with ferocious speed as the crowd gasped at the cephalopod’s power and intention.

Outside, a bright wind was taking the sky away from itself, sweeping the smoke of last night’s campfires out over the Pacific. Inside, it smelled like a cooped up sea, the floor’s cemented pebbles slick with splashed water.

I shuffled toward inner rooms where columnar, vertical tanks revealed the native species we may never have seen in the long sand flats, the intertidal marshes, things we may have found, half-rotted, on the hard sandy beach: the razor clams and sea cucumbers, the lampreys, the salmonids, the rock fish, the skate.

Maybe you have felt this way too: the sensation of inhabiting an unfamiliar role. I was the one with the gently swaying gait, the stable shoes, the old jeans, the ten dollar sunglasses nestled in my hair, new to being a caregiver. The one with an infant harnessed to my chest. Her legs dangled from the Baby Bjorn, slightly bent in total rest. Beneath the receiving blanket that shielded her nap from the overhead lighting, her grapefruit-sized head slumped against my hoodie. Her sleepy breathing was like the gentle rasp of a tiny, subtle violin.

***

In the early days of parenthood, we were trying out activities to see what would fit our new reality the way I tried on old clothes to see what would fit my changed body. The aquarium seemed like a way to get back in touch with my pre-maternal, non-maternal self, the person who’d been dormant for eight weeks of round-the-clock newborn care.

The Center’s walls held conceptual exhibits on coastal phenomena, things like upwelling, the effect of invasive species on the intertidal zone. There was none of what my professors called charismatic macrofauna: no seals, no penguins, no dolphins, no tragic whales. This was not the aquarium of Disney-like exotica, but the visual demonstration of a college marine ecology class, the university (Oregon State) turned inside out, the models of our collective knowledge on display (even if the deductive processes that construct that knowledge remain hidden). Each important piece was precisely illuminated. A person could learn something here. Less an aquarium than a science center, it was an aquarium as I always wanted aquariums to be. I should have been riveted.

I could sense my husband’s how much longer? glance as he wandered toward the gift store. (Pity the spouse of the nerd, the obsessive, the over-focused.) The baby kept sleeping.

But instead of lingering at each module, I found myself glancing over the text and moving on with my sleeping cargo, touching nothing, trying no levers, pushing no buttons, forming no hypotheses, making no connections. Whatever the tanks offered, I didn’t really need. The itch to find something in them had vanished. In an un-self-like fashion, the old self—the removed, gazing self—was no longer there.

***

And so the aquarium’s allure ended: with my daughter shifting against my chest like a cloud on a still day.

Caregiving is treated as a low-status occupation in our culture, distinct from the academic enterprises in which we construct our knowledge of the world outside ourselves, most of which define themselves in terms that assume a mind-body dichotomy—terms that have us approaching other bodies with minds rather than with bodies. Caring for babies and children, the ill, the disabled, and the elderly is a poorly paid type of labor, and the money gets worse depending on the amount of actual time the worker spends with the patient or charge. Little training or education is required to do it; the perception is that anyone can. When a family member cares for another, as I was caring for my daughter, it’s associated with instinct rather than knowledge, and I’d been conditioned not to take pride in this flood of instinct by a culture that elevates experiences of insight over experiences of intimacy.

But taking care of an infant—that common, instinctive activity—launched me into the caretaker’s way of knowing, an experience and an expertise that rendered the aquarium powerless.

The way I knew her redefined for me what it means to know a living thing. Unlike the knowledge created and disseminated through our universities and textbooks, knowledge created by caretaking is not durable, not static, not share-able, could not be put behind glass, is not exhibit-able.

As I veered away from the tanks, I knew she would sleep for at least another half hour. I knew how the slight back and forth sway to my walk kept her asleep. I knew she would be hungry a few minutes after her eyes opened, leaving me just enough time to get to a place where I could change her diaper before she began her red-faced grimace, her squeaky see-saw cry. When we stepped outside the science center into the ripping wind, I knew that she would need to be shielded from light as well as air, and I would grab a blanket to wrap around her, and she would be covered and safe before I consciously realized that I had made her so. I knew the meaning of each squirm and vocalization. My body was so finely attuned to my daughter’s body that I could sense her need before there was any signal I could name, before I could even say how I knew what I knew.

In the weeks since her body left my body, we were awash in the cycle of wordless attention, the feeding, sleeping, waking, holding, and cleaning, the repeat and adjust and repeat that comprised her continued thriving. And so we floated through the aquarium, gelatinous, unprotected, and interdependent, with the mildest interest, from sea urchin to rock fish, herring to barnacle, inseparable from our ourselves: creatures caught in our own tide.

Author’s Note: Now, with two children (aged one and four), I find myself more immersed in caregiving than ever, and I continue to think through all the ways the caregiver’s role frames my perspective. On our summer trips to the coast, my daughter has begun to explore tide pools. So far we’ve managed to leave the crabs alive and well.

Read our Q&A with Jessican Johnson

Jessica Johnson’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Paris Review , Kenyon Review Online, and Harvard Review, among others. Her book of poems, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, won the DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest in 2014. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son, and daughter and teaches at Portland Community College. Find her online at www.chromeislands.com.

Riding Away

Riding Away

Boys on Bike ARTBy Elrena Evans

Giddy with anticipation, I trade a wad of cash in exchange for two secondhand bikes and load them into the trunk of the minivan. The baby snoozes peacefully in his car seat while my almost-four-year-old daughter bounces in excitement, even though neither of the bikes are for her. She has multiple cast-off bikes to choose from this season, and her big sister, age ten, somehow still fits her bike from the year before. But the boys, aged six and eight, are simultaneously too big and too small for any of the extra bikes we have lying around, so the ones in the trunk are for them.

When I pick him up from kindergarten at noon, my six-year-old reacts predictably. “A new bike? For me?” He can barely contain his glee and the three-quarter mile trip home is endless. Once there he falls out of the car, grabs the bike, and hops on.

“This new bike doesn’t have training wheels,” I caution him, as he waves aside this minor concern.

“Hold my seat and launch me!” he yells, and I do, and he wobbles for a bit as he speeds down the sidewalk before crashing with a bang. “Ow ow ow!” he yells, hopping up and down, before throwing his leg over the bike again. “Launch me one more time!”

I launch and he falls, I launch and he falls, throughout the afternoon. By the time we pick up his older siblings from school, he has left bits of himself all over the sidewalk and is covered in Band-Aids, but he can ride his bike.

“Guess what!” I say to my eight-year-old as he climbs in the car. “I got you a new bike!”

“Does it have training wheels?” he responds instantly.

I look at him in the rear view mirror, tall for his age and gangly, all skinny legs and limbs and the mop of red hair he gets from me.

“No, it doesn’t, Honey,” I say gently. “You don’t need training wheels, remember? You learned to ride a bike last summer.”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

“Why don’t we try it first, and then we can talk about it?”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

I take a deep breath and focus on the road before me.

Back at home, I buckle the baby into the stroller as the girls hop on their bikes, my six-year-old already long gone down the sidewalk. My eight-year-old eyes the training wheels on his little sister’s bike and looks at me significantly.

“You don’t need training wheels,” I tell him.

“But I could fall,” he says. “I could get hurt.”

“You will fall,” I tell him. “It’s part of learning to ride a bike. And you will probably get hurt. But you won’t get hurt very bad.”

With impeccable timing, my six-year-old comes careening into view and crashes, spectacularly, on the driveway in front of us. His knees are bright with blood and he calls out “Mom! The blood’s dripping all the way to the ground! I think I need a Band-Aid!” Then he surveys his legs, wipes away the dripping blood and smears his hands on the grass. “Never mind, I’m good,” he calls, as he takes off again on his bike.

“See?” my eight-year-old says.

“You won’t get hurt like that,” I say. “You won’t get hurt like your brother.”

“Why not?” he asks.

“Because you have a radically different personality,” I say, positioning the handlebars. “Hop on.”

“I want my scooter,” he says, and I relent. We parade to the end of the street and back, the kids and I, three of them speeding blurs on bikes while my son pushes his scooter, slowly, beside me and the baby in the stroller. I watch him methodically scootering beside me and I wonder if he will ever take off with his siblings, or if he is destined to spend the rest of life here beside me, tethered by his own anxiety.

This becomes our modus operandi over the next few days: three kids on bikes, one in a stroller, and one locked tightly in the grip of fear, fighting me every step of the way as I try to prise him out.

“Don’t let go of my seat!” he screams as I stand beside him on his bike. “Don’t let go!”

“Honey, I have to let go,” I tell him. “I can’t run as fast as you can ride, and besides—letting go is kind of the whole point.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says, dismounting.

I close my eyes and open them again. “I’m going to push you a little bit on this one,” I tell him. “Just like I did with swimming. Remember how scared you were to swim? And look how much you love it now.”

“But this is different,” he insists. “In a pool you can’t fall off and get hurt.”

In a pool you can drown, I think, but I know better than to say that. He is shifting rapidly from foot to foot, fidgeting with his hands, and looking like he’s about to puke.

“I just don’t want to take the risk,” he says, looking at the bike. His voice climbs an octave or two and starts to crack. “I just don’t want to take the risk!”

“Dysregulated,” the psychologists call it, a term I find particularly apt. It’s what happens when the fear is so overwhelming you lose the ability to regulate your own body. I see it in front of me and wonder if I’ve picked the wrong battle, if I’m fighting too hard, if I should just give up and let him spend the rest of his life on a scooter. But I have a hunch, and my hunch says that if we can get over this hurdle, what we will gain will far outweigh what it cost. It’s hard to play a hunch, though, when you’re betting the emotional stability of your son.

“Let’s just try it one more time,” I say the next day as I hold on to his bike. “Let’s go down to the cul-de-sac.”

“But I can’t start,” he says as we walk his bike. “I can’t stop. I can’t steer.”

“But you can ride,” I say. “You really can. All of those other things will come. I’ll start you, I’ll point you straight toward the grass, and you can fall off there where it’s nice and squishy. You’ll be okay. I promise.”

He positions himself at the edge of the cul-de-sac, where his three siblings are whizzing around on their bikes.

“Everybody get off the street!” he yells, his voice raising and cracking. “I don’t want to crash into you. Get off the street!” My throat catches as I watch his siblings immediately turn their bikes back to the sidewalk, making way for their brother. I hold on to his seat and he wants me to hold the handlebars. I hold the handlebars and he wants me to hold the seat. Finally, holding both, we run awkwardly toward the grass. He wobbles a few feet by himself before crashing, unhurt, on the accepting lawn.

“See? You did it, Buddy! You really did it!” I am hopping with excitement even though I know this isn’t the big a-ha moment, the moment he realizes he can ride a bike…it’s just the first hurdle in a series stretching farther than my eyes can see. But still: it’s one hurdle cleared. We celebrate.

Baby steps, bit by bit, day by day. Each day he can go a little farther, last a little longer before becoming “dysregulated.” We practice riding in the cul-de-sac, then switch to the scooter for our longer ride down the street. His siblings cheer him on. He suffers a few minor falls, but can be coaxed, eventually, back on the bike. I start to think we might make it, after all.

One day I’m inside nursing the baby when I see my six-year-old daredevil flying past the house on his bike, with another bike following in hot pursuit behind. It takes me a full minute—takes me until neither bike is still in sight—to realize the boy on the second bike was my son. And the realization makes me cry.

The next morning he is up and dressed and heading out the door a full forty-five minutes before we leave for school—”Going to ride my bike!” he calls back over his shoulder. That afternoon he takes the bike, not the scooter, on our trip to the end of our street.

“Boy, can you believe I used to ride a scooter instead of a bike?!” He catches up to his waiting siblings, incredulous. “A bike is so much better. Can we go on another street now?”

And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Here is where we realize, as my knuckles whiten around the stroller handle, that my son doesn’t arrive at his anxiety a priori, with no antecedent. Here is where we face the fact that he gets his anxiety from me. I can keep it in check, more or less—on my street, near my house—but out there? Those roads are busier. Those roads have more cars. Those roads have hills and gravely sections and construction and all sorts of danger. I have four kids on bikes and one in a stroller. I can’t protect them all, out there. Out there, they could be killed.

All the kids are clamoring to ride on. My son is looking at me expectantly. Letting go is kind of the whole point.

And we go. They are all so fast, so much faster than me with the baby in the stroller, and I am watching my eight-year-old take off on his bike, wobbling at first, and I am running so hard my heart feels like it will explode and I am praying, out loud, as my feet pound the pavement behind them, God please, please, please just don’t let him fall. Please just don’t let them get killed. Please just get us all back safely home.

And they are laughing, and I am running, and the baby is squealing with delight, and now I’m calling out to them “Slow down! Wait for me! Stop at the stop sign!” but they can’t hear me, and now I am laughing, too, because I can’t hold them back, because they are flying, I am flying, we are all flying, and we are free.

Author’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, my four-year-old daughter (in personality, a match for my six-year-old son) took a bad fall on a street a mile from our house—a fall that left her with small scars she will most likely carry into adulthood. Watching her fall, unable to protect her, I realized I had Band-Aids of all sorts of shapes and sizes, fresh water, and ice in the basket of the stroller for just such an event. My eight-year-old had packed them for me, just in case.

Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.

Awake 

Awake 

005_Zappier_5138 copy

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Will He Have My Eyes?

Will He Have My Eyes?

WO Will He Have My Eyes ART

By Kelley Clink

It’s two in the morning. My vision blurs from lack of sleep. The lamp in the corner washes the room in soft, amber light. It shimmers in my son’s wide-open eyes, which gaze up at me. His small, hot hand curls against my chest. We rock in the glider. We rock and rock. He is quiet, full and heavy, warm in my arms.

Is this real? I ask myself. It’s taken so long to get here that I still can’t quite believe it.

***

I never thought much about having children before I got married. I sort of assumed it was something I’d do, eventually, but I wasn’t one of those women who felt like I was meant to be a mother. I didn’t even particularly like kids. But I loved my husband deeply, and thought it might be kind of fun to make a person with him.

To be fair, I was 21 years old at the time.

About three years into our marriage, when I was 24 and my husband was 26, we started to consider the prospect more seriously. I’d just finished graduate school. There was plenty of time for multiple pregnancies before I turned 30 (my definition of “old” at the time). It all worked out in theory. And that’s all it was: theory. I never once tried to imagine what it would be like to hold my child in my arms. How it would feel to see him smile. It was just the next logical step in a mapped out, middle-class, American adulthood.

Then my brother hanged himself, and the map went up in flames.

***

Matt, my only sibling, was three years younger than I. When we were growing up he was alternately a responsibility, a playmate, and a pain in the ass, and I loved him as if he were a part of me. In a way, he was. He was the only other person on the planet made from the same two people. From the same past.

I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 16. Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 15. We both attempted suicide by overdose as teenagers. We both survived. We both seemed to even out afterwards, thanks to medications and therapy. We both graduated high school with honors and did well in college. Matt was three weeks away from graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers when he died. I’d spoken to him earlier in the week. He’d given no indication that anything was wrong.

The suddenness and violence of his exit gutted me. There was anger, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, sadness, fear, guilt. Usually all at the same time. I folded in on myself. Stopped working. Cut off friends. Rarely left the house. Grief was a tarpit and I was a prehistoric animal. I slowly sank, watched life go by, and waited for the tarpit to magically drain or swallow me whole.

But somehow, at the same time I felt removed from life, I was consumed by a desire to create it. The longing was so deep it was painful—an ache for gain that throbbed alongside my loss.

I wasn’t completely naïve. I knew that a child wouldn’t fill the void left by my brother. I knew that nothing would. And anyway, the desire—deep as it was—was nothing but a blip of an atom in a blackhole of fear.

I was terrified that the same pain that had plagued my brother would descend on me. At the time of Matt’s death I’d been on antidepressants for nearly a decade. They’d helped me—but for a while they’d helped him, too. Who was to say they wouldn’t stop working? What if our genes were a crooked double helix, bent on self-destruction? What if my children were like me?

What if they were like him?

Each night the “what ifs” piled up in the dark around me while I lay awake, my eyes sticky-dry, my husband’s even breathing like water torture.

This went on for years.

In the meantime, of course, friends and family members got pregnant. They had their children. They got pregnant again. Every ultrasound photo on Facebook, every card in the mail with a pair of empty baby shoes, waiting, punched all the air from my lungs.

I was stuck in the tarpit. But even though my life wasn’t moving forward in the way I’d thought it would, the way everyone else’s was, I was busy. I was doing the work of grieving. For me that work took the form of writing a book about Matt. Every day I sifted through the blog posts, emails, and stories he’d left behind. Every day I plunged back into my memory. I filled blank page after blank page, trying to make sense of what had happened to him. It was raw and painful, like digging glass splinters out of my heart with my fingers. Two years passed. Three. Four. I turned the dreaded 30 and then some. Finally I finished the book and came up for air. I was done grieving. The tarpit was gone.

But the fear remained.

What exactly was I afraid of? In the first years after Matt’s death I’d thought it was suicide. I’d worried that it was out there, waiting for me—a land mine wired by genes and grief.

It took years (and several therapists), but eventually I understood that despite our shared histories and DNA, my brother’s life had not been my life, and his death didn’t have to be my death.

Once I finished grieving Matt, and trusted my desire to live, I began to see that the fear was rooted in something else. Something deeper. I wasn’t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of love.

Here’s the thing: to open yourself to love, you have to be willing to accept loss. Gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, soul-obliterating loss. After my brother died my mom said things like, “I’d do it all over again, even if I knew how it would turn out. I wouldn’t trade a single second.” Deep in the tarpit, struggling to keep from going completely under, I hadn’t understood. If I had the choice, I’d thought, I would rather have been an only child. Even years later, after I had grieved my brother, after I had accepted his death, the mere possibility of experiencing that kind of pain again tightened my throat.

The heart, though metaphorical, is like any other muscle. Once wounded, it takes time to heal. Once healed, it takes time to rehabilitate.

My heart took her time.

It happened slowly, so slowly, each day a single grain of sand dropping from one side of an hourglass to the other: fear giving way to desire. Other things happened in the meantime. Life. I danced with my friends. I sang karaoke (badly). I saw oceans and countries that my brother would never see. But I began to realize that I carried him with me everywhere I went—knowing him, being a sister to him, had made me who I was, and his death had brought me more than grief. I cried for the years I’d lost, I cried for the uncertainty of it all, but eventually I looked back at the ashes of the map and realized that Matt had given me the gift of deliberateness. I was no longer making choices based on expectations. I was approaching life with open eyes. He’d also given me compassion: for myself and my depression, as well as for others. I was approaching life with a scarred, but open, heart. I realized I would have been a sister to him all over again, even if I knew how it was going to turn out.

Ten years, five months, and seven days after my brother died, my son was born.

***

My son’s eyelids flutter closed. Gradually I slow the glider to a stop, carry him across the room, and lay him gently in his crib.

I see my brother in his face. I see myself, too. But I also see his father, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most of the time I don’t see anyone but my son. Just him.

I don’t know who my son will be, what kind of challenges he will face. I do know that he will hear stories about his Uncle Matt’s kindness and humor, his intelligence and passion. He will know that Matt’s illness was a part of who he was, but only part. He will know that my illness is a part of who I am, too. My son will learn that life is hard and beautiful. That love and grief are two sides of the same coin.

I worried for years that my children would be like my brother and me. I want to say that I don’t anymore, but I can’t. No matter the wisdom or joy that has come from my experience, I don’t want my son to suffer. Still, whether or not it involves mental illness, I know he will. He has to. That’s life. I suppose the best thing I can do, the only thing I can do, is to let it happen. To stand by his side, hold his hand when he will let me, and trust that our hearts will heal.

Author’s Note: Next month we will celebrate my son’s first birthday. Parenthood has conjured a host of new fears in addition to the old, but each one is matched by an equal measure of joy. My husband and I hope to be lucky enough to add more children to our family in the near future.

Kelley Clink is a suicide prevention and mental health advocate, and author of the memoir A Different Kind of Same. She lives near Chicago with her husband and son. You can find out more about her at www.kelleyclink.com.

BOOKSPARKS SPEAKS OUT: Join Kelley Clink on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. For all sales made on Kelley’s book, A Different Kind of Same on September 10, Kelley will donate 30% of proceeds to the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Learn more on how to get involved here.

 

 

Sibling Resemblances

Sibling Resemblances

By Heather Cole

ColeFamily2

Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.

 

“All I want is for my children to resemble each other.”

I was having a conversation with a dear friend who, after years of secondary infertility, was embarking on the journey of egg donation to complete her family. Lisa and her husband had already selected the donor from an online database, matching the donor’s ethnicity, physical features and interests to their own. They were in the midst of the paperwork and psychological exams that were required before they could proceed.

My husband and I had also suffered years of infertility but eventually adopted two boys out of our state’s foster care system. That, too, had been a long, stressful journey which included having a child returned to his birthparents after nine months living in our home. Lisa had witnessed this and had been one of the many shoulders I had cried on over the past five years. Although initially interested in adopting their second child, our rocky journey had scared Lisa and her husband away.

“I don’t think I could survive what you’ve been through,” she said on several occasions.

I smiled, shook my head and responded to my friend who had suffered multiple miscarriages, “We all do what we have to do. Your hell just looks a little different than mine.”

Loss and grief are at the heart of the journey for those of us for whom family-building is not as simple as an unmediated romp in the sack. There is the initial grief at the loss of the ease of parenthood, followed by the loss of privacy via invasive tests and medical interventions. In many cases, there are multiple losses of pregnancies—and of all the hopes and dreams that grow exponentially faster than the cells in one’s womb.

Adoption is no easy solution, either. It took three long years of court hearings and legal paperwork before we were able to finalize the adoption of our youngest son. During that time we grappled daily with the fear that the bonds we were forming could be ripped apart with no recourse. Although we celebrated mightily once both our boys were permanent members of our family, we also know that our joy comes at a cost. Our sons have lost siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles from their biological families. They mourned the former foster parents who cared for them in their early months. We don’t yet know how these losses will affect our family in the years to come.

The matter under discussion this morning was yet another place of loss: the loss of having children who look like each other. The particular concern was the issue of dimples. Specifically, that Lisa and her biological son both have dimples but the egg donor did not.

“I just want my kids to resemble each other,” she sighed.

On this, I was able to offer Lisa some reassurance: “They will.”

People tell me all the time that my two boys, adopted from unrelated biological families, look just like each other. They are just nine months apart in age, but one is a slim, pale, blue-eyed child of French-Canadian descent and one is a stocky, hazel-eyed kid with the darker skin of his Portuguese biological grandparents. Until my eldest’s recent growth spurt, strangers would often ask me if they were twins. I shook my head and laughed as I reminded Lisa of this.

Lisa said, “Oh, but they do…” and pointed out their matching smiles in the first-day-of-school photograph on my phone.

“That’s just it—they don’t,” I said. “They look nothing like each other.”

I know this because I have a point of comparison: I have met the biological family members that my children resemble. My youngest has his birthmother’s deep-set eyes and sculpted eyebrows. It was the first thing I noticed the one time I met her: in court during the trial to terminate her parental rights. And my eldest is the spitting image of his 10-year-old biological brother. The brother I saw just once, along with my eldest’s three other biological siblings, at their birthmother’s wake.

Back when we bathed them together, it was such a wonder to discover how different their little bodies were: long fingers on one, stubby toes on the other; slender hips next to chunky thighs; tan and pink bellies against the white ceramic tub.

Despite the differences, my kids resemble each other in the ways that people notice: they do have matching smiles and in snapshots, twist their bodies together with their arms around the other’s neck. They both laugh big, open-mouthed laughs and drive their father and I crazy with their incessant nonsense chatter to each other. Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.

I reassured Lisa: her family will shape the person her baby will become.

“Your baby will learn to smile by mirroring your smile. Your son will teach his little sister to dance and laugh. Your husband will show her how to stand when she throws a baseball. Genetics or not, she will be part of your family and you will become like each other.”

Heather S. Cole is a writer and mom who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In previous lives she managed a state-wide oral history project, ran study abroad programs and produced a public access TV show. She is currently working on a memoir about being a foster parent.

Fiction: High Stakes Gaming

Fiction: High Stakes Gaming

images-1By Susan McDonough

“Get your nose out of that book and come play a game,” said her mother. “You won’t learn anything sitting there by yourself!”

Reluctantly she put down her book and followed her mother’s tugging hand into the game room.

“Play with your brother and your cousins. You need to socialize and develop your problem solving skills.” Her mother handed her a game controller and sat down next to her. “Pick an avatar. You can be anyone you want to be!”

She picked her first option: a plain-faced boy who looked as uninterested in the game as she felt.

“Don’t be so passive aggressive,” said her mother. “You’re supposed to add traits. How about antlers?” She added antlers. “And a superpower?” Mom prompted.

She gave herself the ability to jump to another realm (which came with rabbit feet).
“That’s better,” said her mother. “Now isn’t this fun? You can attack your brother and then hop away!”

Yes… she could see advantages to that. She tried to gore her brother, but she was too slow. Her younger cousin came up behind her and killed her avatar. Her cousin snorted, “You look like a rabbit with a deer head! A dead bunny!”

“You need to sharpen your prediction skills,” said her mother. “Play more often and you’ll get faster.”

Her brother guffawed. “She could play 24/7 and she’d never get faster. She doesn’t know how to do anything but turn pages.”

Her mother’s lips pursed. “Then you need to help her. She needs to take the GAE this spring.”

Her brother and her cousins nearly rolled off the couch laughing. “Sorry, Auntie,” said her older cousin. “There’s no way she’ll pass the Gamer Assessment Exam and get a real job. She’ll have to be a lawyer.”

The next morning she went to the library. She read The Dummy’s Guide to Game Controllers: “Tap A while flicking the left stick in a safe direction. Slip the side of your thumb off the stick to flick faster.” There were a lot of other techniques, and she memorized them and practiced them when her brother wasn’t home.

Then she read The Beginner’s Guide to Reprogramming: “The player known as xXBatman365Xx manipulated the game’s X coordinate table while playing.” She found a lot of information about the programming glitches of the game her brother liked best.

Finally, she read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

The next time she and her brother were home alone, she suggested, “Let’s play your game.”

“I don’t wanna play with you, duncewad. It’s boring to kill somebody in the first two minutes.”

“Let’s use the headsets.”

“YOU want to go virtual reality? You’ll be a dead bunny in ONE minute!”

“Mom says I need to practice,” she sighed.

“All right, but don’t whine when I kill you.”

He drew blood on her avatar in the first two minutes. He was laughing, barely paying attention. “You should have made a new avatar,” he chuckled. “I’ve had mine for nine months. He’s unstoppable!”

He shot an arrow which should have skewered her, but she hopped to another realm, reprogrammed her avatar (it took on the appearance of a full grown elk and gained energy), hopped back to her brother and gored him through.

Her brother staggered around the room, crashed into the end table and knocked over their mother’s favorite lamp before he managed to get his helmet off. “Duncewad!” he shrieked. “You totally destroyed my avatar! How did you do that?”

“Research.” She smiled. “I don’t plan on being a lawyer. I plan on being a librarian.”

Susan McDonough has been writing since grade school. She has tried her hand at children’s stories, short stories, romances, historicals, essays, fantasies, mysteries, science fiction, numerous letters to the editor and a blog called Renaissance Woman. Susan has been a burger tosser, customer service rep, ad taker, curriculum developer, parent, teacher, reader and gardener. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and one husband.

The Outsider

The Outsider

By Lynn Adams

theoutsider

My children have shut me out of their closed relationship, and that’s a wonderful thing.

It began during a friend’s visit, in the playroom with my newborn daughter and two-year-old son. The friend had brought a blanket for Margot and a red pinwheel for James. James wasn’t able to blow yet, and I was concerned about it, and later I’d see it as an early sign of his Autism Spectrum Disorder. So he couldn’t work the pinwheel, even after we showed him. Dread was a familiar feeling by then.

My friend and I talked about my baby. Her delicate size, her tendency to sleep angelically all day and cry all evening, her mop of hair the same color as James’. I looked over at James just in time to see him inspecting the sharp end of the pinwheel’s stick. His gaze next moved to his baby sister’s fuzzy head, then back to the pinwheel. He reached out with the pinwheel and poked her lightly. Their eyes locked, but what passed between them surprised me: a combination of thrill and interest as if they’d each just opened a surprise birthday gift and found the other inside.

This is it, I thought: the beginning of the older brother menacing the younger sister. I’d known it was coming, as that’s what I’d experienced with my own brother, four years older. My brother, now a perfectly respectable father of two, had dipped my face into a creek like a chicken nugget into mustard sauce. He’d given me “noogies” well into his thirties. He’d lure me into his room, turn off the light and close the door, and murmur, “When you least expected it… expect it.”

That evening, when I announced bath time, James shouted, “You can’t hear! Baby cry!” He reversed his pronouns, “I” for “you” and “you” for “I,” another early sign of autism that stoked my dread. But he was also using his new sister as a smokescreen. Could they be working as a team? Could James even do that if he had autism?

There are as many ways of having autism as there are people who have it, and James did eventually receive the diagnosis. Since before Margot’s birth, he had been attending developmental therapies to address his delays, and appointments with specialists to rule out other problems. His main challenges during those early years were language development and big-time tantrums. We also had to work to connect with him socially, to bring him out of his own head and into the world around him. Through the appointments and the tantrums, though, Margot tagged along.

At one, Margot started each day by standing up in her crib and yelling, “Jay! Jay Jay!”

He’d hop in with her and they’d roughhouse for awhile.

One morning I heard James saying, “That’s right, Margot. Just pick up a leg and put it right there. Now pull with your arms. I’ll catch you, don’t be scared.” He was mimicking Ms. Sharon, his occupational therapist, almost word for word.

Bump! Margot hit the floor and they both exploded in giggles. From then on, Margot was out of her crib like a super ball every morning before 6:00, bouncing into James’ room.

The next year, James took Margot’s hand, led her into the bathroom, and closed the door. “Just a minute, Mommy,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going to teach Margot how to use the potty.”

She was his little doll. Everything that was done to him, the instruction, the encouragement, he did to her.

Soon the shenanigans began. One would distract me with a lost toy or a spill, and the other would get into the forbidden fruit, whatever it was that day: my makeup, the toilet bowl, the cookie jar, the trashcan.

“I can’t bear it,” I said to my mother. “They’re the dynamic duo, working together to spread mayhem. How did you handle it when we were little?”

She paused, then said, “It was different with you two. Mostly your brother just menaced you and you tattled on him. Other than that, you didn’t interact all that much.”

Interaction. One of the main areas of impairment in autism, that’s what James and Margot did all day long. Starting with the curiosity of the pinwheel poke, moving through the brother-to-sister lessons on climbing out of the crib and using the potty, culminating now in the give-and-take of the hi-jinks, James and Margot already had a closer relationship than I’d had with my own brother. And neither of us had had autism. What was next? Empathy, that holy grail of social skills development?

Close relationships are not always harmonious ones. James and Margot do their share of fighting, physically and otherwise. They’ve left longlasting marks on one another’s bodies that other people have noticed. But no scars. I continue to complain to my mother about the fisticuffs, the potty words at the table, the madcap dashing around the house.

I’d worried that Margot would have to take care of James, that she’d visit him in the group home, her kitten heels clack-clacking on the linoleum. And that was because of James’ autism. Even before he was diagnosed, though, I worried I’d have to protect her from the menace of her older brother. Like many a worry, these were misplaced.

One day last year after school, Margot got out of the car, sat down cross-legged on the sidewalk, and refused to move. We’d parked a few houses down from ours, so James and I set off down the block, figuring she’d get up and follow. Instead, she began to scream, “Mommy! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me all alone! Mommy!”

The girl just needed to get up and walk into our house. But she wasn’t going to go quietly. This had all started when I told Margot she couldn’t have a stick of gum. Of course, that wasn’t the whole story. It had been a long day. But she wasn’t the one with autism. Why couldn’t she just do as she was told?

How did I handle it? I didn’t. Because before I could get over my internal argument about comforting my distressed child versus giving in to a brat, James came to Margot’s rescue. He walked back down the block, hoisted her up, and carried her home, her little legs flapping against his shins. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and closed her eyes. He put her down on the front steps and kissed her.

“Thanks, James,” I said.

He kissed her again, not even seeming to hear me.

Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Salon, among other publications. She is a co-author of Autism: Understanding the Disorder and Understanding Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. Read more from Lynn on her website.

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

Humming tunelessly in my kitchen, I unpacked the bag of gardening supplies we had just bought at the nursery. I smiled at the small cellophane bag teeming with fifteen hundred live ladybugs. My children had insisted I buy them instead of plant spray to control the aphids in our back yard. “Enough ladybugs to colonize an average yard,” the bag promised. Placing it on the counter, I walked across the kitchen, through the back door and onto the porch to pot our new lemon tree.

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

Kyle, five, came onto the porch and held out his hand. My stomach dropped as I saw what was crawling on his palm: one ladybug. Kyle’s dark eyes squinted with pride and delight as he admired his six-legged prize through wire-rimmed glasses.

“Look Mom! I have three!” Evan, Kyle’s twin, followed in quick pursuit with arms outstretched, his ivory cheeks turned pink with excitement as three ladybugs crawled up his forearms.

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

Kyle and Evan looked at each other and then turned toward their bedroom.

“Mom, I found this on the floor. ” My eight-year-old daughter, Martie, walked out holding the now empty cellophane bag. One straggler climbed out.

“Cute!” She coaxed it onto her index finger.

Between them, Kyle, Evan and Martie had five ladybugs. That meant one thousand, four hundred and ninety-five ladybugs were missing.

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

The floor of their room undulated with the ebb and flow of hundreds of ladybugs scurrying out of the big bowl into which, in an effort to be “careful,” Kyle and Evan had emptied the bag. Ladybugs crawled on the walls, the furniture, even into the boys’ bunk beds.

My hand flew to my mouth as I screamed. Then, I began to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a giggle, then into a deep belly laugh, because this was not supposed to happen.

My little boys were supposed to die.

Five years earlier, on a Saturday morning twenty-five weeks into an uneventful pregnancy, the contractions began. Kyle and Evan were born that night, limp and tiny, into a world of medical emergency. Two neonatal teams intubated my sons, and life support machines restarted their hearts. Kyle and Evan each weighed little more than one and a half pounds, each only one-third the size of the chicken I had roasted earlier that week for dinner.

Three hours later the neonatologist visited our hospital room and described a parade of horribles I could not imagine, but that my pediatrician husband, Ben, knew well. If they survived the first twenty-four hours… If they survived the first seventy-two hours… If they survived long enough to endure a months-long stay in the neonatal ICU… If they survived at all.

If they survived, their chances of engaged, purposeful lives were virtually nil.

If they survived, their chances of severe impairment were almost certain.

Martie, two years old, lay in the hospital bed next to me while the doctor spoke. She looked up with a smile and offered me the half-eaten chocolate Santa the nurse had given her. I took a bite, but the chocolate tasted bitter. I held her close and kissed the top of her head.

If they survived.

Kyle.  Evan. The names Ben and I had settled on just that morning were now written in magic marker on name cards that hung above translucent unfinished people attached to countless tubes, wires and monitors. Colorful paper name cards told me these foreign babies were my sons.

Ben put his strong hand on my shoulder. It had never failed to comfort me before.

If they survived.

“You may touch him with one finger, Mrs. Pecht,” the nurse told me, the first time I sat at Evan’s bedside. I cried so hard I was thirsty.

Beeeeeeeeeep. Four days after the boys were born, a monitor across the room turned black as a baby boy died in his mother’s arms. Ben and I sat with our motionless sons, who languished on life support in their incubators. Ben’s shoulders hunched. I took his hand while he stared at Kyle’s monitor and willed it to stay lit. Doctors and nurses, healers never inured to the death of a child, mourned with a family in crisis. I swallowed my own vomit, my worst fears coming true for a kindred family.

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The fly trapped in the fluorescent light banged against the glass. Kyle and Evan were three weeks old. It was almost Christmas. I sat on the faded green sofa in the hospital waiting room and pretended to read a year-old magazine. Ben sat next to me, staring at the flashing lights on the plastic tree in the corner, and chewed the cuticle of his right thumb until it bled. Behind the closed door a surgeon with grown-up hands opened our sons’ two-pound bodies, spread their ribs and clamped off leaks in their hearts.

The fly in the light fixture fought on, desperate for survival.

If they survived. 

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” the Hawaiian singer sang soulfully from the car radio on my way home from the hospital, a week after the boys’ surgeries.

It was the song we had decided to play at the funeral if they died.

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

Kyle and Evan were five weeks old when I first held them. Two nurses and a doctor managed all of their tubes and wires. My heart burst open when our skin touched.

If they survived.

Brushing my teeth one night I realized that, for the first time since their birth seven weeks earlier, I hadn’t cried that day.

“Either things are getting better or you’ve lost the ability to feel, girlfriend,” I said to the woman with the bloodshot eyes and frothy lips staring back at me in the mirror.

I sure hope its the former, I thought. I rinsed my mouth and drove back to the hospital.

When they survived.

Four months and two days after their birth, Kyle and Evan came home. They had developmental delays and required endless medications and daily therapy sessions. Some days they felt more like high-stakes science fair experiments than my children. I ached with fear for them.

When they survived.

We had been home only five months, and already Ben and I were breaking.

“Banks, I don’t even want to come home at night, and it’s not because of the kids, it’s because of you!” Ben shouted as he slammed the front door on his way to work.

I saw myself in the mirror over the fireplace: a harridan in a stained robe, a crying infant on one hip, another in a bouncy chair and a three-year-old drawing with her yogurt on the breakfast table. A woman who was once an optimist with plans and a burgeoning legal career, now angry, sad and resentful.

Ben, my husband, my lover, my closest companion, had become my punching bag.

“Please come back to me,” I whispered as his taillights receded.

When they survived.

Martie started preschool, paddled around at swim lessons, went on play dates and to ballet class. Inquisitive and engaging, she needed and deserved her parents. We were spent but pretended well, for her sake.

“You know I love you, right, babe?” I said and closed my eyes, feeling Ben’s warm hand on my hip as his thigh covered my naked belly for the first time in weeks.

“We’ll get through this, Banksie,” Ben murmured, kissing the base of my collarbone.

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

“If you want him to learn, you have to push him until he’s about to quit and let him fail and keep trying,” the physical therapist said. Kyle, two years old and struggling to walk, had fallen off the low balance beam a dozen times already that morning.

Kyle looked at me with tear-stained cheeks, his breath ragged. I yearned to jump up and help him but I sat in my chair, hands clenched.

“One more time, Kyle,” the therapist said with an encouraging pat on the beam.

Kyle squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and got back up.

“One foot in front of the other, buddy!” I choked out, my throat thick, thinking how much this advice applied to my own life.

When they survived.

Kyle and Evan graduated from therapy and started a special enriched preschool. They learned to ride tricycles and played with their seven-year-old sister. Their development was delayed and we still agonized, but Ben and I started to breathe for the first time in years.

When they survived.

“How come we never got divorced through all this?” I asked Ben on the way home from the beach earlier that ladybug summer, when the boys were five and Martie was eight.

“We were too tired,” he said with a wink. We laughed.

When they survived.

“Ben!” My voice was shrill with panic as I stared at the loveliness of ladybugs populating the boys’ room. Ben ran in from the backyard.

“What the…? Martie, grab me the broom!” he commanded.

Martie sprinted to the hall closet as I snatched the bowl, still half full of ladybugs, and carried it to the yard, dropping it on the lawn. Wiping ladybugs off my hands and arms, I hurried into the house. We swept load after load of ladybugs into dustpans and emptied them into the bushes. We shook out rugs and flicked ladybugs from toys. The boys sucked up ladybugs one by one with handheld bug vacuums they had received as gifts the Christmas before.

Ben caught my eye.

In that moment, that crazy moment that in any other story would have been a catastrophe, we realized that Kyle and Evan had survived. We realized that they had more than survived, they had thrived and were able to wreak good, old-fashioned little-boy havoc. In that moment, for the first time since the day of their birth, we were no longer afraid.

We started laughing, hard, amid a loveliness of ladybugs and the shocking ordinariness of five-year-old mischief that never should have happened.

When we survived.

Before Kyle and Evan were born, life was a series of ipso factos that suggested that the universe handed out reward and punishment like Halloween candy. Kyle and Evan’s birth destroyed any certainty Ben and I had invented for ourselves and left only questions. Are control and security nothing more than illusions, even acts of hubris? And if that’s true, how do you find the strength to keep going when you cannot keep safe the people you love, when the terror is so overwhelming you can taste it in the back of your throat? Where do you find the courage to keep loving when the very act causes unthinkable pain? Perhaps the answers to these questions lay not in the controlled order I once thought I knew, but in the gorgeous chaos, and this exquisite, relentless connection that impels us to show up, always, regardless.

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

The next morning, as Martie, Kyle and Evan watched T.V. before breakfast, I lifted the lid off the coffee maker. Out crept a ladybug.

“C’mere, little guy,” I said as it crawled onto my finger. I walked across the kitchen, opened the back door and let it fly.

Author’s Note: Kyle and Evan are now eight years old and about to finish second grade, where they pore over books about knights and pirates, concoct explosive science experiments and engage in any game involving balls, dirt, or bugs with equal enthusiasm. We are still in touch with their therapists, doctors, nurses and special ed teachers, who will forever hold permanent keys to our hearts. Ladybugs continue to play a leading role in our family story; recently, Martie, Kyle and Evan spent hours rescuing hundreds of ladybugs trapped in the ice of a frozen California mountain lake. I am grateful.

Banks Staples Pecht lives in Ventura, CA, with her family, a Swiss mountain dog named Bella, two Dumbo rats named Oreo and Ice Cream, and Ninja, the Betta fish. When not writing, working as a lawyer/consultant/executive coach, caring for her three children or staying married, she can be found singing competitive barbershop and being beaten by her children in Wii bowling. This is her first published work.

Sibling Rivalry: When Fighting Became A Good Thing In Our House

Sibling Rivalry: When Fighting Became A Good Thing In Our House

By Emily Cappo

newsletterbrothers

Their frequent fighting had become so normal in our house, I think I would have thought something was wrong if they didn’t fight each day.

 

I grew up with one sibling: a brother, who was two and a half years older. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my parents had it easy with us. Of course we fought like siblings often do, but in general we got along and if we didn’t, our brother/sister fights were usually relatively tame. And now as adults, my brother and I are the best of friends.

I always assumed I’d be a mother to a boy and a girl, because that’s what was familiar to me. I also always assumed I’d only have two kids, because that too was what defined a family for me.

I was wrong on both counts.

I have three kids—not two—and they are all boys. The five of us joke that we are just like the family in “Diary of A Wimpy Kid.” In these books/movies, the mother is a writer who has a column about parenting. The father is a businessman who loathes that his sons play too many video games. The oldest son, Roderick incessantly picks on his middle brother Greg. And, Manny who is the youngest, seemingly receives all the ‘special treatment’ because he’s the baby of the family. Yup, sounds exactly like us.

Except then one day, our family was hit with a crisis that threw us into a tailspin. Suddenly, our rambunctious and occasionally chaotic family looked nothing like the Wimpy Kid family dynamics.

My youngest son—our “Manny” of the family—was diagnosed at the age of 9 with a rare type of pediatric cancer. His treatment required 43 weeks of chemotherapy plus 6 weeks of radiation. Needless to say, it was a long, tough year, but through the entire ordeal, our son showed us what true resilience looks like. He is now back to being a regular kid, going to school, playing with friends, and participating in sports.

Before my son’s diagnosis, my boys would constantly play fight, real fight, and basically instigate any kind of physical activity that frequently ended in bloodshed. In other words, my house may as well have been converted into a boxing ring. With three sons ranging in age from 9 to 16, I was always yelling at them to stop pushing, punching, wrestling, and chasing each other. I’d sometimes wonder if I were cut out to be a mom to three boys. My anxiety would remain in overdrive, worried about whether I’d be headed to the ER with a sibling-induced concussion or broken bone.

After my son’s diagnosis and during his treatment, my two older boys knew that they had to be more gentle, both emotionally as well as physically. Thankfully, they were old enough to understand that their little brother was in a “hands-off” protective zone.

Occasionally though, my sons would forget. Someone would get mad at someone else and before anyone could remember to leave my little guy alone, the fighting would begin. Normally, I’d put on my referee hat and start screaming at them to stop, even though there was no chance of them listening to me. Eventually, someone would get hurt and then it would be over. In fact, their frequent fighting had become so normal in our house, I think I would have thought something was wrong if they didn’t fight each day.

But, when my son was in treatment, the constant fighting and waiting for the inevitable injury was not an option. One day the boys were going at it and it was particularly intense. I thought about breaking them up myself, but then I quickly thought of saying something that I knew would stop the fighting immediately and keep me out of the ring.

“His platelets are low!” I screamed. [Note: This point may have been mildly exaggerated].

The boys instantly separated, even though the two bigger dudes had no idea what a low platelet count was. All they knew was that it sounded important and they did not want to be responsible for harming their little brother, who was already dealing with a low platelet count, whatever that was. I think I caught a discrete wink and smile from my youngest son, who knew that his platelets were not in fact, too low.

Once everyone calmed down, I explained what low platelets were and how an injury, especially one that involved bleeding, could be dangerous.

From then on, and yeah I know this was a little sneaky, I decided that my son would have low platelets for the rest of his treatment. If I saw another fight brewing, all I had to say was, “Platelets!” and it was like a magical cease-fire.

His platelets WERE always on the lower side, although never low enough to need a transfusion. Even so, I justified my little white lie to keep the peace in the house.

Recently, my middle son and youngest son were play-wrestling. My instinct was to stop it, but then I realized first, that they were mostly kidding around, and second, no one had to be careful because of low platelets anymore.

I was never so happy to see my boys fight.

Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom. (http://ohboymom.com) She is a regular contributor at Huffington Post and has also appeared in a Huff Post Live segment. She has recently completed a memoir, “Hope All Is Well” which chronicles mid-life loss, re-connection, and revelation.

 

Photo: canstock.com

Are You Anyone’s Sister?

Are You Anyone’s Sister?

By Maggie Mulqueen

areyouanyonessister

Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.

 

It is because of my relationship with my two older brothers that I questioned whether I ever wanted to be a parent.

“Are you anyone’s sister?” my then four-year-old son, Taylor, asked one evening as I was making his bed, I suddenly felt tears welling up. It was a rare quiet moment between us. At the time he’d been trying to sort out family relationships—trying to comprehend how his grandpa was also his dad’s father. 

My brothers weren’t at my wedding. They weren’t at our father’s funeral. They have never met my husband or my three sons. In truth, I don’t know where my brothers are. I haven’t seen either of them for more than forty years.

So how to begin to answer this question? “Yes” was my answer and that is the truth. But of course, rather than ending the conversation, my answer led to questions that were harder. The next question was “Whose sister are you?” “Well, I have two brothers” I said. We were still on fairly familiar ground as I turned to the wall to hide my tears and tuck in the top sheet. “Where do they live?” “How old are they?” “When will I see them?” 

When my mother divorced my father, I was 12. The years preceding my parents’ divorce were filled with fighting that at times turned violent. Not long after, each of my brothers disappeared from the family. They severed connections with each of us, including each other. Their absence broke my parents’ hearts. I functioned in the world as an only child, shuttling between my parents for holidays and bringing the three of us together for major milestones in my life. I vividly remember the shocked reaction of my future in-laws when they learned I had brothers but no idea how to contact them. As a parent myself I now have more sympathy for my in-laws’ response. As a young woman I felt shame.

After tucking my son into bed, I closed his bedroom door and sat on the landing. Although my son had been satisfied with my answers that night, I knew more questions would come.

It is rare for me to be questioned directly about the topic of siblings. I have learned how to offer only enough information about my brothers to be polite. It can be especially awkward around the holidays (Who are you visiting? Who is coming to dinner? Where do your siblings live?). But that night I decided the tactic I take with the rest of the world, one of evasion, was not one I wanted to use with my children. I wanted to provide information that was age appropriate, while leaving the door open for further questions later. As much distance as I try to put between my childhood and myself, I didn’t want my children to perceive the topic of my family of origin as hidden or forbidden.

Like all parents, I wanted to foster close bonds among my children, and so I created many traditions to lay the framework for a strong sense of family among the five of us. But when my sons fought or pulled away from me, I felt myself panic. The intensity was rooted in memories of family fighting and laced with fear that my sons would leave me, as my brothers had left me. Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.

Taylor, who is now twenty-one, called home recently and said, “It’s time, Mom. I want to know more about your brothers than just their names and ages.” 

In the intervening years since that night when Taylor was four, the questions had been infrequent but I always answered them as truthfully as possible. As a young adult, however, my son has more probing questions. Taylor’s interest in family relationships became a theme in his own writing during college. This time I did not turn and hide my tears but trusted him with painful details of my childhood that few people have ever heard.

Even though he has never met his uncles, Taylor has questions—about what they look like, what they do for work. He also wonders if he has cousins. I could not answer these questions and doubt if I could even recognize my brothers after so many years. He is a nephew as I am a sister, but only in the abstract. Yet, the fact that I was a sister, the youngest in our family of five, shaped my childhood. The fact that there are two uncles my sons have never met has shaped their childhood as well.

Why is it that we have words such as “widowed,” “divorced,” and “orphaned” but no way to describe ourselves as siblings? Taylor’s recent questions led me to search the Internet. I tried to find my brothers, not necessarily to make contact with them, but to see if they were still alive and if I would recognize them. We are now all in our 60s, a far cry from the young adults we were the last time we saw one another. With some effort I found out they are still alive; both are married. There was no mention of either of them having children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any images of them.

The existence of the Internet has only compounded my ambivalence about connecting with my brothers. Now that it’s easier to find them, am I somehow obligated to do that? Some days I think I will try to contact my brothers, but other days I feel less inclined to make myself vulnerable to be hurt again. Growing up with them made me strong in many ways. We were competitive both intellectually and physically. Their presence taught me assertiveness and gave me insight into gender differences. Their absence has also made me strong, but in other ways. I place a premium value on relationships and pride myself on the depth and longevity of my connections to others. Ironically, I am probably a better mother to my sons because I had brothers.

There are also days when I find myself wondering if my brothers have ever been tempted to search for me, their sister. Has anyone ever asked either of them, “Are you anyone’s brother?”

Maggie Mulqueen, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, and mother of three sons. She lives and works in the Boston area.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.57.19 AMSibling relationships are some of the most significant ones we have. While their emotional depth and complexity provide fertile ground for fictional explorations, we actually know very little about how we might improve these relationships. In her newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, clinical psychologist Laura Markham tackles this important topic by blending her experiences as a mother, parent coach, and researcher.

Many will know Markham from her 2012 book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. In that book she details three ways parents can create a peaceful family environment: 1) regulating emotions, 2) staying warmly connected, and 3) coaching instead of controlling to foster emotional intelligence. These three principles continue to lead in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, especially as they work together to develop empathy in kids. Markham explains:Empathy helps children develop self-regulation. When a child feels understood, he feels closer to his parents, so he’s more likely to accept limits and cooperate.” The argument is that you could easily swap the word “parents” for “siblings” in the above statement.

At the core of developing this empathy between children is the idea that how parents interact with each child individually—and especially how they discipline each one—shapes the relationships between children. In Chapter 2, one of the best chapters in the book, Markham draws upon research to explain how this works and she then translates this to everyday practice in our often chaotic households. She argues that we should not punish when children mistreat brothers or sisters, but rather set firm limits. The reasoning? From Markham, “As crazy as it sounds, that means they see it as YOUR job to stop them from attacking their sibling when they get angry, rather than as THEIR job to control themselves. When we set limits so the child feels understood, she ends up internalizing our limits—and taking responsibility for herself, even in the absence of authority figures.”

Markham is reassuring that all children will sometimes fight. In fact, this fighting is a good thing because it teaches us how to work out differences with others. This is particularly acute with siblings because, unlike with peers, there is no threat of an exit. For some number of years these little individuals must share a household. This is why, as Markham explains, siblings help kids learn to manage difficult emotions and smooth off the edges of early self-centeredness. In a line I would like to print out and hang in my kitchen, “Our goal as parents isn’t to keep things peaceful by settling our children’s differences. It’s to use the many daily conflicts that arise between our children as opportunities to help them create successful resolutions to their conflicts.”

If you only have a few hours to read, in between sibling fights, I recommend Chapter 5 (along with Chapter 2), which focuses on teaching conflict resolution and the role laughter can play in breaking the tension. In particular Markham discusses ten reasons kids bicker and how to resolve them in this chapter. Also for parents with younger kids looking to nip conflicts in the bud as much as possible early on, focus on Part 3, which contains tips on preparing a sibling for a baby through to the crawling and grabbing phase.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings provides lots of concrete suggestions to improve sibling relationships—note that my husband’s favorite is the thumbs-up to roughhousing—but all of these tips are very general. You won’t find passages focused on brotherly or sisterly relationships, the dynamics between multiples, or any other thoughts on complicated birth order patterns or larger families.

This drawback in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is precisely what makes sibling research so difficult in general—there are so many different combinations and configurations and often not a very large sample size. A lot of factors come into play including biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology when we talk about siblings and it’s often hard to disentangle which factor has the most influence and hence which one to target.

In the end what Dr. Laura Markham does in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and what more parenting writers need to do, is succinctly pick out the overarching aims, takeaways, and to-dos to benefit the greatest number of families. For this reason Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is a solid addition to your parenting library. And I am looking forward to celebrating, thanks to some inspiration for Markham, our families first ever sibling celebration day this year!

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

On Siblings

On Siblings

WO On Siblings ARTBy Hilary Levey Friedman

I drove straight to the bookstore after leaving the ultrasound appointment where I learned I was having my second son. Being a book person, my first instinct is to look for a book for any new life experience, always.

I was surprised that the siblings section of the parenting nook was pretty slim pickings. At the checkout I realized I bought more children’s books about welcoming a sibling than books for me. In fact it was children’s literature that turned out to be the most helpful in fostering a good relationship between my two boys.

One of the books I bought that day was Big Brothers are the Best by Fran Manushkin. This sweetly illustrated book was perfect for us because it was about two brothers (she has another version for sisters). I found that it helped us to refer to the baby by masculine pronouns, and it was challenging when a book had a baby sister. My older son, Carston, learned this book thoroughly, though I must warn you that his favorite line, “Big brothers can yell, and kick balls,” always led to an active demonstration of both! My only complaint is that we read this book so often it actually came apart at the seams.

Another book that was very helpful is a personalized book offered by both Pottery Barn Kids and I See Me! (neither option is cheap, but the latter is slightly more affordable than the former). Offered for both brothers and sisters, The Super Incredible Big Brother by Jennifer Dowling, is great because you can put in both children’s names and sex—it is unfortunate it doesn’t accommodate names of multiple older siblings though. We used this book for the “gift” at the hospital (again, books are a central part of every family occasion) from Quenton to Big Brother Carston. I have a particular affinity for children’s books that rhyme, which this one does. Also, it comes with a medal that Carston still occasionally wears, over a year later.

I recently read When Mommy Has Our Baby by Rachel A. Cedar, which I know would have helped our family as well. While this book does have a Big Brother/Little Sister theme, it offers something the others don’t, which is a discussion question every other page to help the older child develop language to talk about new feelings and concerns. It is clearly written by a mom who has been there before. Even if an older child doesn’t want to read this story every night, the prompts will help parents know what to talk about with their kids for times when the book is not open.

I’m not the only one to think that reading books with your older child(ren) to help prepare them for the transition a new sibling will bring is one of the best ways to connect. In her new book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, which will be reviewed here this Friday, Dr. Laura Markham suggests reading books with older children, and continuing to do so in the first few months, will help get the sibling relationship off to a good start. More proof that reading really is a miraculous activity for kids, in so many ways!

What books helped ease a sibling transition for your child, either a birth or other later life event?

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

Making Peace With the Life I Didn’t Choose

By Jennifer Berney

Life_Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Carinn Jade

boats 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 For more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship purchase our Sibling Bundle.

Forgiving My Mother

Forgiving My Mother

WO Forgiving My Mother ARTBy Anne Penniston Grunsted

In a lifetime of moments, most are quickly forgotten. Only a tiny number are retained, and most of these are filed away in our mind, reminiscences that can be pulled out or put away as desired. But a few, our very most profound moments, transcend the vagaries of memory and etch themselves into our very brain. They become part of us, always present. My etchings include the moment my son emerged from my partner’s womb, the phone call telling me my father was dead, the day my mother looked away when she could have stopped me from being raped.

The day my mother didn’t protect me.

It happened when I was five or six. One of my older siblings had recently run away from home, an act of defiance that left my mother reeling. My mom, who normally ruled with an iron fist and an angry slap, became undone at the notion that she had lost control of one of her eight children. Anxiety consumed her. She literally became sick with it; for months she could not leave the house without experiencing a severe case of diarrhea. Overwhelmed, she disconnected. And we children who hadn’t yet grown up and achieved separateness from her, were stuck in the house, stagnating, afraid to disturb her.

My father was a warm and hard-working man, but completely out of his depth with respect to my mother’s issues. He kept a careful distance from the drama in the household, so careful that I never considered asking for his help in any matter concerning my mother. I knew she would fiercely retaliate against me if I dared circumvent her authority, and he would never be vigilant enough to protect me from her.

My mother had long assigned many of the tasks related to my care to my older siblings, and during this time of turmoil, she assigned my brother the job of turning on the water for my nightly shower. It was a ridiculous chore, one I was more than capable of doing. But that’s what anxiety can do; she was irrationally worried I would burn myself and so overlooked the very real problem of having an eleven-year-old boy supervise a small girl’s bath time.

Every evening he forced me to undress in front of him.

When I argued that he should turn on the water and leave before I undressed, he said that if I didn’t do what he said, he would tell our mother. And in those days, the angry attention of my mother was still the worst scenario my mind could conjure.

So I did what I was told, to keep the peace.

But it’s the things that your mind can’t imagine that become the basis for the most difficult kinds of anxiety. As I sought to avoid my mother’s negative attention, fear of my brother was exerting ever-increasing pressure inside of me, demanding release. I lived in constant dread and with the growing certainty that something terrible awaited me beyond the undressing in front of him. I was too young to understand what that something was, but my fear of it and him soon eclipsed my desire to escape my mother’s attention.

And so, after a few weeks of the undressing, I turned to her.

And thus begins the moment that changed my life forever, an instance of immeasurable harm.

I approached my mother, trying to be casual, trying not to upset her. “Can I take my shower by myself?” I asked.

“No. You’ll burn yourself.”

“But I don’t like him helping me.” And then I paused, taking a giant leap into the unknown, telling her as much as I had the words for. “He makes me undress in front of him.” My casualness gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.

My mother’s jaw clenched and her eyes hardened at my revelation. She did not misunderstand what I was telling her, but if the truth had penetrated her conscience for a moment,it was quickly, and by sheer force of will, expelled from her mind.

As if to emphasize her rejection of my plight, she physically turned away from me, denying me comfort. She said nothing to me, then or ever.

And she chose not to save me.

Instead she called to my brother who was listening from the next room and told him to “knock it off.” That was the final word, the only discussion.

Now, “knock it off” is an appropriate rebuke when your child has thrown a tennis ball against the side of the house for the hundredth time, or is laughing uncontrollably because someone has passed gas in church. It is not how you stop a pedophile. That requires engagement, and my mother had none of that for me.

She did not stop the shower ritual. She never listened outside the bathroom door to see if I was safe. I don’t know if she ever gave the moment a second thought. And because of her inaction, my abuse continued, and then worsened.

When, a few months later, the terror moved from the bathroom to my bedroom, I chose not to risk another rejection from her and instead learned to disassociate while my brother stuck his hands between my legs and fondled me. I recited the rosary obsessively, dozens of times a day, the repetition numbing my mind and the prayers acting as my penance.

A couple of years later, after my brother lay on top of me and penetrated me, I spent months pounding my stomach at night, praying that I wasn’t pregnant. And, again, I told no one. Because I had no one to tell.

It ended, finally, because after several years of abuse I made it end. One day when my brother grabbed me, I was so scared that I accidentally peed on him. He recoiled. After that, I purposely peed on him any time he touched me.

That was nearly forty years ago. My mother has been dead for seventeen of them. I never confronted her. I knew she was not resilient enough to accept responsibility; I had no desire to crush her. So I am left with the question of forgiveness for a crime that was never acknowledged.

My feelings towards my brother are easy. I barely consider him human, so nonexistent is his remorse for what he did. My mind recalls him as the smell of dirt and sweat and semen, a noxious odor, but one that dissipates soon enough. I have severed all contact with him and have no issue holding him fully culpable for his actions. If forgiveness means I need or want nothing further from him, than he is forgiven. If it means that I have understanding or compassion for him, then he is damned.

But it’s not so simple with my mother. I inherited her propensity for anxiety. I too have wilted in the face of burdens both real and imagined. And while she failed me so monumentally in this crucial moment, she was in other ways often very present in my times of need, especially in my adulthood when she no longer was burdened with the day-to-day responsibility of raising children.

She did good things. And she did terrible things. So if forgiveness means I have compassion for her, then she is forgiven. But forgiven is not forgotten. In many ways, my mother’s failure to protect me was much worse than my brother raping me. His presence in my life is an unfortunate cosmic coincidence, but he and I are not part of one another in any soul-entwining way. Damage caused by my mother, the person I loved and needed the most in my childhood, permeates my every fiber.

How has this etching impacted me? On a physical level, my abhorrence of showers and baths has at times created a physical distance from others. Emotionally, I have protected myself by (figuratively) pissing on people the moment they fail to meet my expectations. The anxiety I inherited from my mother has found full flower in the knowledge of the horrible and dark things people do to one another. I don’t believe people are inherently evil, but I do not trust them to be good to me.

A few years ago, after my mother was gone, I told my siblings what had happened, hoping they would embrace me, make me feel loved and protected thirty-five years after the fact. Hoping they would heal me. But with a couple of exceptions, they also turned away. They didn’t so much disbelieve me as want me to be quiet, to protect their lives from the crime against me.

But why should I keep quiet? Telling my story gives me back the power over my darkest moments. We expel our physical human waste, so why let horrible memories rot inside us, spreading their poison through our lives? Having compassion for my mother does not preclude me from stating her accountability as a mother who did not protect her child.

My healing comes in telling my story. It’s in laying bare the reality that the most pivotal moment of my life was too big for my mother. It’s in being the voice for that little girl who had no one to turn to. And it’s in showing other mothers the power they hold in their children’s lives—the power to protect or the power to crush a soul. To tell them to be vigilant and wholly and soulfully engaged when the etching needle is poised to leave its mark.

Author’s Note: Maybe not so coincidentally, I am married to a former child abuse investigator. We work hard at being vigilant with our own son without turning attentiveness into smothering. I am largely out of contact with my family of origin. I miss them, but I need to keep enough distance from my past to allow for a happily ever after with my partner and son.

Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on the topics of disability and parenting. Her work has been published in Role Reboot, Chicago Parent, and she won the 2014 Nonfiction Prize from Beecher’s Magazine.

At Home

At Home

By Kris Woll

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 8.42.58 PM

Our blue Ford extended van, a rental, broke down about 10 miles outside of town. We—my big brother, my three older sisters, my mom and dad, our temperamental terrier, and myself—were on the way home from our second and final vacation as a family. It was the summer of 1985. The big kids were 19, 18, 16, and 13; I was the 7-year-old baby of the family.

The van had carried several coolers, stacks of suitcases, piles of pillows, and a steady stream of Mom’s Salem Lights across South Dakota, into Wyoming, through the Rocky Mountains, and back through Nebraska and along the edge of Iowa. We’d just made it into our little corner of Minnesota when it broke down—in the dark, in the heat, the shimmering lights of our small prairie hometown visible, so close, but so far away, on that vast horizon. My father swore. My sisters complained. My mom smoked. I am pretty sure I cried. The dog whined, and my brother took her for a walk in the ditch to go pee.

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. From the vantage point of that broken-down rental van, it was somewhere in the middle of the low row of lights shining in the distance: the white two-story with brown shutters in the center of town, with crab apple trees in the yard and a basketball hoop on the garage and a blue metal swing set out back and wood paneling in the hallway and crowded upstairs filled with kids. It was the place where we all lived, together. A bum engine might delay our arrival, but we all knew where we were headed.

And thanks to a kind soul who stopped and brought Dad into town and to our garage so he could pick up our Caprice Classic station wagon and come back to get us, we got there. That night my brother and sisters and I climbed, tired and relieved and one by one and as we had for years and years, up the soft brown carpeted stairs to the second floor filled with bedrooms, four for the five of us. We all brushed our teeth crowded around the one small sink the bathroom we shared, littlest in front, five strikingly similar faces—those cheekbones, that nose!—gathered in the medicine cabinet mirror.

And then summer turned into fall and everything changed. Well, not everything. The stairs still had soft brown carpet; the second floor kept all four bedrooms; the metal swing set remained firmly cemented in Dad’s neatly mowed backyard. But the oldest two—my brother and one of my sisters – packed up their (Billy Joel) records and (Toto) posters and moved away. To college, two hours away. I was asleep in my bed—the top bunk, in the room I shared with the sister closest (at 6 years older) in age—when they left. My brother stopped into my room and kissed my cheek. I pretended to be asleep, too sad to say goodbye.

Despite vacated space just across the hall, I refused to change my sleeping arrangements. My parents tried everything—new bed linens in pastel plaid, a relocated Barbie Dream House and bookshelf for my Little House on the Prairie books—but I would not comply. My Cabbage Patch Kids rested on my undisturbed comforter each night while I wandered back into the room I had shared with my closest sibling, a sister 6 years older, since my parents set up my crib in her corner. She kindly put up with my presence. For years. For her teen years. I filled my sticker book with scratch-n-stiff stickers and snuggled my stuffed Smurf while she studied the periodic table and wrote papers on Fahrenheit 451. We listened, together, to the “Top 9 at 9” on her clock radio by the twinkling light of the reading lamp clipped up behind her bed.

Two years later, the next sister left for college, leaving behind yet another mostly-empty room.

I continued to cross the hall to share a room come bedtime.

Until one day, five years and two months after the van broke down south of town, my roommate left for college. I helped my parents move her into her dorm room, carrying in her new comforter and a mauve plastic milk crate filled with microwave popcorn and towels and apple-scented shampoo into the low brick building where she would now live. On the ride home in our four-door Buick—a downsize purchase when our Caprice Classic hit the skids—I had the whole backseat to myself. That night I slept on my own, surrounded by empty bedrooms that I would, eventually, colonize and then, six years later, leave.

My parents sold that house a few years ago. By the time they did, we all had families and houses of our own; the old house’s upstairs filled only on a couple holidays each year. Its rooms featured minimal furnishings—cast-offs from downstairs, the few items that none of us pillaged for our first apartments, the bike and treadmill Mom and Dad bought for the free time and space they had after we all left. Even that one back closet—the one that once held a vast collection of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and piles and piles of dyed satin shoes—was empty, thanks to a big donation to the high school drama department. (Now you know why every production there looks remarkably like a 1990s special occasion.)

Before my parents moved, they hosted one last family cookout. I expected it to be an emotional event. The 20-and-a-half (I was 6 months pregnant at the time) of us gathered—some from close by, others of us from a bit further away—in the big back yard on a hot, sticky June evening. We said our goodbyes to the place in a rush when a summer storm blew up quickly, as they often do in that prairie town. We didn’t have time to walk back up the soft brown-carpeted stairs together one last time. Instead we abruptly gathered our bags and our Pyrex bowls of coleslaw and our children, and ran through the wind and thunder to our own cars—vans and sedans parked in a row in the driveway. I teared up a bit as we drove away that night, as my childhood home faded into a blur of rain and night, but my sadness only lasted a few minutes …

Which was about how long it took us to drive to my brother’s house, a recently restored old gem in the center of my hometown where he now lives, and where my siblings and our partners and our children reconvened. We sat on his porch and watched the lightening and wind. We told stories, like the one about the blue rental van that broke down at the end of our second-and-final family vacation, the summer before the oldest kids left for college. And we were, on that summer night, as at home together as ever.

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

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Play With Me

Play With Me

e&d

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

 

“Mom, I need you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

 

Our Sibling Blog Series

Our Sibling Blog Series

stagesofsiblinglife

 

The Twins and the Pendulum

twinspendulum

By Andrea Lani

But they’re not wizards, just two normal boys—as normal as you can be when you share the same DNA—a pair of pendulum bobs swinging through their days, sometimes crazily out of whack, and sometimes in near-perfect alignment.

 

 

 

 

Saving My Sister

WO Saving my Sister ART

By Marcelle Soviero

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit.

 

 

 

 

They Are Not Half Sisters 

halfsisters

By Stephanie Sprenger

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

 

 

 

 

 

Play With Me

e&d

By Randi Olin

Our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Home

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 8.42.58 PM

By Kris Woll

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. 

 

 

 

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Saving My Sister

Saving My Sister

WO Saving my Sister ART

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit.

 

“Liddy, what’s going on?” I asked my older sister who sat across from me at the kitchen table, scratching her arms until they looked raw. Lydia had been home only six weeks from a three-month stay in Harbor Fields, a psychiatric hospital.

“Dr. B gave me the wrong medicine,” she said. It was obvious now that her psychiatrist had prescribed, for the second time, the wrong medication and Lydia was having an allergic reaction. Her skin itched and her eyes appeared frosted.

It was a Saturday morning in November, Lydia’s 21st birthday, a day I had planned for all week, thinking I could make everything better for her, make up for the months she lost at Harbor Fields. I was 16, anxious, and in charge, our parents away for the day picking up our brothers from college. I’d made confetti birthday cake with pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles, the kind Lyds always made for my birthday when I was little, before she got sick. “Make your wishes,” she would say, “a sister-wish too,” she’d add, which meant a wish for something for both of us.

Lydia and I always made a big deal of each other’s birthdays. When I turned 13 Lydia bought me the eye shadow kit I had wanted from Woolworth’s. My mother wouldn’t buy it but Liddy had saved her allowance. “Check under there,” Liddy said, pointing to my pillow when I went to bed that night. I pulled out the pink plastic case. Inside were four squares of glittery powder the color of Easter eggs. Lydia showed me how to apply the eye shadow and made my eyelids look bluebird blue. I looked in the mirror and for the only time in my life felt almost as pretty as Lydia.

It was past noon now, the medication mix up ruining my birthday plan. The pills were having an impact—Lydia did not want the cake, she dumped it in the garbage, saying “not now.” She insisted on eating grapes fast, two at a time, telling me they had to keep each other company in her belly, while she paced around the perimeter of the braided rug.

I left two more messages with Dr. B, following up with calls to CVS to see if the prescription had been faxed in. By 3:00, when there was no call back and no prescription, I told Lydia to get in the car. “We’re going to Dr. B’s,” I said. I sped north on Round Swamp Road. Dark haired and dark-eyed, her eyebrows plucked into thin crescents, Lydia sat in the passenger seat, picking her cuticles.

As I drove, anger boiled inside of me. Anger at Dr. B and anger at the mental health system that had done little to help Lydia. Her stint in Harbor Fields had simply sterilized months of her life. There, she lived like an inmate, as animated as a potted plant, the drugs having diluted her once vibrant personality. During her stay she was labeled bipolar and given so much medicine that her speech slurred and her hands shook.

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit. I remembered when I was six and Lydia eleven and Lydia saved my dollhouse, which had drowned when a hurricane flooded our basement. The dollhouse floated in the murky water but Lydia waded knee deep to rescue it. Late that night, in the room we shared, I woke to the sound of her blow drying the miniature wood furniture, using a toothpick to get the mud out of the thumb-sized drawers.

Not long after the dollhouse rescue Lydia got noticeably sick, rocking wildly in the chair beside my bed late at night, whispering to the doll she kept on her lap, writing the same sentence line after line in her velvet-backed journal; something is wrong with me. The worse Lydia got, the more passive and quiet I became; an onlooker watching her wither. My role was to stay calm in the midst of her cracking psyche. I was the steady sister, the perfect child my parents would never have to worry about.

The drive to Dr. B took half an hour. I wondered what I would do when we got there, what I would say. We pulled into the parking lot. “Come on Lyds,” I said grabbing her hand. The elevator didn’t come, so she followed me up eleven flights of stairs. There was no receptionist. I tore into Dr. B’s office. He was in session with another patient, a 40-something woman sitting in a stuffed chair, stunned and staring at me while Lydia stood open-mouthed at Dr. B’s door.

“I called you twice,” I said. “It’s Lydia’s birthday for Christ sake and she’s not going to be doped up on the wrong medicine.” I shook the plastic bottle of pills like dice in front of Dr. B’s face. He was a little man, an old man with pitted skin and I wondered how the hell he could possibly relate to any of Lydia’s issues. “He’s a quack,” I said to the woman in the stuffed chair, my voice rising in the room.

“You calm down,” Dr. B said, putting his arm around my shoulder, pointing me out to the reception area. “Call the prescription in now. I want to see you do it,” I said. My heart double pumped. “I’ll have your license for this,” I shouted as I slammed the door and raced down the stairwell with Lydia, laughing now. I laughed and cried at the same time. “No doctor is going to screw up your birthday, ” I said, empowered and exhilarated for having yelled at Dr. B and for having stood up for my sister.

“Do you think he’ll call it in,” Lydia asked. “He will,” I said. We drove directly to the CVS and waited an hour for Lydia’s medicine. We went home and changed into miniskirts, then met our cousin Marybeth at Ole Moles, Lydia’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Over guacamole and bean burritos Lydia told Marybeth “the story of the break in on Dr. B” as Lydia had already begun referring to it. “She called him a quack,” Lydia went on, gesticulating wildly, happier than I had seen her in months. This time Lydia ate her cake and her hands did not shake, I brushed a stray bit of chocolate frosting from her cheek. When we left it was dark, our old blue Cadillac with the taped up glove box lit below a streetlamp. Lydia got in, looking like a kid next to me in the big bucket seat, her tie-dyed shirt loud against the black leather.

Author’s Note: This moment took place 25 years ago. My beautiful sister is my mentor and my hero. She has her MA in social work.

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

The Twins and The Pendulum

The Twins and The Pendulum

By Andrea Lani

twinspendulum

It’s Thanksgiving morning. I’m in the kitchen making pies and my nine-year-old identical twin sons are in the living room torturing and murdering each other.

I blame video games and movies.

Stupify. Protego. Protego. Protego. Expelliarmus. Imperio. Rictusempra. Crucio. Crucio. Sectumsempra. Avada kedavra!

The boys have recently discovered they can download games on an old cellphone, and whenever the house falls silent—which is far too often these days, for a household of five—I find them squeezed together on the couch, heads bent over that silly little screen. This morning, I gave them a list of things they needed to do before they could have any screen time: play outside, practice their multiplication flash cards, read for half an hour, work on writing.

They did everything but the writing—their nearly wordless comics didn’t meet the requirement—and I nixed the game time and told them to find something else to do. Go back outside and make a snowman. Build Legos. Play cribbage. Anything, anything, but stare at that screen. They’ve decided to have a wizard duel—no doubt inspired by the five-hour Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows double-feature we indulged in yesterday, in celebration of my being let out of work early due to a snowstorm—and now blast each other with spells and curses.

With these two boys, there is a fine line between playing and fighting, the main difference being how long it takes for one of them to start crying. I have grown used to their near-constant wrestling, fake fights, and general rough-housing, only noticing when something breaks or when a friend is over and, as her sibling-less child plays with my boys, I see her visibly cringe with each crash and slam. Last summer, I attended a performance of Macbeth at a local community theatre, and, as Macbeth and Macduff, dressed in modern costume, threw fake punches at each other, I laughed out loud, despite the drama. The scene was exactly what I witness every day in my own living room, only less convincing.

There is a thing called a pendulum wave—a framework with twelve or fifteen heavy balls, or bobs, suspended in a row by incrementally longer strings—that is used to demonstrate principles of physics like energy, forces, position, and velocity. When the bobs are released together, they begin swinging in time, but soon break away into “quasi-chaos,” all of the bobs swinging in what appears to be wild disarray. After a few moments, however, the bobs align themselves so that each bob swings exactly opposite the next, like children on swings, one swinging forward and the other back, reaching their point of equilibrium at the same moment. Finally, the bobs break into the “wave,” like a crowd in a sports arena, each pendulum following the next in smooth, snake-like undulations.

The first time I saw a pendulum wave demonstration, I thought, that’s the twins! Like two pendulum bobs, sometimes my boys swing wildly out of sync. They call each other names (“turd nugget” being the current favorite), pick on each other, boss each other around, and, occasionally, they tumble together in a brawl. At these times all I need to do is send them into separate parts of the house. The two of them share a bedroom, ride together on the same bus, spend the day in the same classroom, attend the same daycare, and sit at the same dinner table—sometimes they need a break from each other. After five minutes alone, the friction usually calms and the quasi-chaos settles back into something resembling equilibrium.

More often, each pendulum will swing opposite the other, as the boys take turns being the difficult one and the compliant one. It’s like the Road Runner and Coyote punching out at the end of the day, but instead of working the same shift, they’re job-sharing. One day one boy hates dinner, slides out of his chair fifteen times while working on a single math worksheet, spends half an hour avoiding getting in the shower, keeps his light on long after bedtime. Meanwhile, the other gobbles his food, races through his homework, hops in and out of the shower, and is asleep by eight o’clock. The next day, or the next week (unlike objects governed by the laws of physics, my children’s moods are completely unpredictable) they switch.

As with the pendulum wave demonstration, things around here get most fascinating when the twins synchronize, like when, from different corners of the house, and apropos of nothing, they break into song—usually something by Weird Al or a bawdy tune handed down through fourth graders from time immemorial—one boy starting just a beat behind the other; when they invent an imaginary world and move through it as if they both can see the exact same invisible walls and buildings and creatures; or like now, while they point their wands at each other and fall down, petrified.

Of course, if they were real wizards with real wands, both of them would be dead by now and my living room blown to smithereens. But they’re not wizards, just two normal boys—as normal as you can be when you share the same DNA—a pair of pendulum bobs swinging through their days, sometimes crazily out of whack, and sometimes in near-perfect alignment.

Andrea Lani is a writer, public servant, and mother of three boys. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Orion, About Place Journal, Kindred, and Northern Woodlands, she is an editor at  Literary Mama, and she blogs at at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.

Want to read more sibling-related essays? Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

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

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

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

 

I Have Children Ten Years Apart

By Julie Bristol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Have Children One Year Apart

By Debra Liese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary School Love Notes

Elementary School Love Notes

By Rachel Pieh Jones

canstockphoto21972458

A mother poses the question: how should elementary kids respond to love notes?

 

In second grade a boy gave my daughter an iridescent plastic orange ring. In the last three weeks of third grade she scored three loves notes from boys and a gift of a plastic egg with two rare marbles inside. This year, fourth grade, she has already received multiple love notes including ones surreptitiously passed in the middle of class and one accompanied by the longest loom band necklace she has ever seen.

She gleefully jumps into the car for the drive home and says, “You won’t believe what happened to me today,” and then dissolves into giggles and hands me the notes or shows me the gifts.

The notes are written in French, in the over-sized scrawl of third or fourth grade boys. They say things like:

Je t’aime. I love you.

Tu est jolie. You are pretty.

Je suis le garcon avec les lunettes rouges. I am the boy with the red glasses.

Je suis amoreux de toi. I am in love with you.

Apparently French really is the language of love, as a friend on Twitter reminded me.

The notes have instructions for where to meet during recess and pencil-sketched drawings of stick figure boys wearing red glasses or of lopsided hearts.

“Oh la la,” I say. “What do you think about these letters?”

Lucy laughs. “I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t love the boys, I don’t even know them. But I like the marbles.” She said she was ‘totally keeping the loom band necklace.’

How exactly should an elementary school kid handle receiving these kinds of love notes?

Lucy says there are two options.

  1. You say: “Oh, thank you,” in a dull voice that drops in pitch at the end. You walk away.
  2. You say: “Oh, thanks,” in a sing-song voice while swaying and shifting your weight from one foot to the other. You don’t walk away.

She performs the walk away option, which is what I want her to do for quite a few more years.

According to her older sister, now fourteen, there is a third option for how to deal with love notes from boys in elementary school.

  1. You rip them up and scatter the pieces on the ground, maybe stomp on the scraps and laugh.

This would be the more heartless option but it also sends a clear message to other would-be authors of love notes and is how she handled it when, in elementary school, an especially persistent boy peppered her with love notes.

Lucy’s brother, also fourteen, says he has no fourth option to offer as advice. He never got a love letter, never sent a love letter, and plans to keep it that way indefinitely. No time for girls, good riddance.

And I’m stuck. What do I encourage Lucy to do? Should she return the gifts? Accept them? Stomp on the letters? Ignore the boys? Our family doesn’t go for early relationships, even of the elementary school I-ignore-you-because-I-like-you variety.

The boys aren’t harassing her, she isn’t bothered by the attention. She ignores them, mostly too concentrated on winning a rare marble or running as fast as she can while paying touche-touche (tag). If a boy thinks she is pretty or smart or athletic or funny or kind or creative and wants to draw her a picture of himself with a heart over his head, she’ll take it and keep right on running or shooting her marble.

In the end, I say more power to her. I tell her: Say thank you for the compliment but there is no reciprocal obligation. Press on with doing what you love and with being who you are. No matter what the world says, no matter if boys write you love notes or don’t write you love notes, mom is here. There is a heart sketched in the sky over my head and I’m here, loving you.

This image of mom with an imaginary heart over her head might be like the worst thing ever for my older kids, but for a fourth-grader? Knowing that she is loved by mom is even better than a loom necklace a yard long. Knowing mom loves her above every other fourth grader is even better than a fancy French love note. I’d like to keep it that way for years to come. So Lucy, here’s the most important love note of all your elementary school years:

Lucy,

I am the American mom with the curly blond hair. Meet me at the yellow pole after school for your ride home. Je t’aime forever and no matter what,

Maman

 

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Sibling Rivalry, a Lament

Sibling Rivalry, a Lament

IMG_7894

 I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. 

 

I didn’t think it would be like this, that my children would fight so much. I wanted a big family to stand over, the captain of a team, not a referee endlessly blowing my whistle on the fifty-yard line of their rivalry.

I didn’t think it would be like this, when my belly started to swell only a year and half after our first son was born. I chose for them to be close in age, I believed less time between them, less air, would create intimacy, like a vacuum. What more beautiful gift to give a two year old than a baby brother?

I didn’t think it would be like this, that they would be so different. “Chalk and cheese,” as we say in Britain, “apples and oranges.” Both fruit, but the juice doesn’t run the same. Intense, focused, solitary meets quirky, frenetic, outgoing; introvert rubs against extrovert. A strange irony that the qualities I relish in one are the very thing that drives the other to distraction.

I didn’t think it would be like this, their dynamic so repetitive, so predictable it defies logic. The same scenario played over and over again, the dance they do. The younger one goads, the older one lashes out. He’s annoying me. He’s hurting me. It’s a tired record, but it keeps on spinning no matter where I put the needle.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that our third child would be two children, that the way they vied for space in the womb would become a template for all that came next. A tug of war so intense it kindles in me anger, the hotness of which I have never felt before in my life. Bicker, squabble, tussle, tangle, twins who inspire a veritable thesaurus of fighting words. This is mine. No, it’s mine. Value defined solely by another’s interest.

I didn’t think it would be like this, the little ones locking horns with the big ones. Leave each other alone! It’s my mantra in moments when they are four strong, a policy of disengagement, of splendid isolation, the ticket to getting us through the next meal, the next outing. How many times a day do I say it, do I shout it, in a voice shrill and shredded, a voice I hardly recognize as my own? Don’t. Even. Look. At. Him.

I didn’t think it would be like this, my husband and I cleaving the family in half to buy a weekend’s respite. He takes two and I take two so the siblings nearest in age get a break from the all-consuming-ness of their relationship, so we get a break from it. The animating cliche of our parenting not “safety in numbers,” not “strength through solidarity,” it is rather sadly: “divide and conquer.”

I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. That their care for one another would sprout, haphazardly, in the cracks between their impatience and resentment. That it would manifest itself in headlocks more often than in hugs. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference, true enough. But aphorisms are cold comfort when your first son is telling your second son he wishes he was never born.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that we would be so close now. She used to pin me down, knees pressing hard into the flesh of my upper arms. She used to lock me out of her room, a lonelier kind of hurt. We fought with purpose, we did: fistfuls of hair, perfectly primed insults. The last time it was physical we were in college already, too old for me to be chasing her up the stairs, ripping a shoe off her foot, because, well because it was mine.

I didn’t know it would be like this, that thirty-six years later my sister would be my best friend, the joint curator of the antiques of our past, the only other product of our idiosyncratic parents. I didn’t know it would be like this, how much I would cherish her simply for being the witness to my childhood.

 

Max’s Eyes

Max’s Eyes

Max's Eyes ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

“Does your husband have blue eyes?” the cashier at the grocery store asks, her brown eyes peering into my equally dark ones.

“Nope, his are hazel,” I say. I paw around in my coat pocket, my fingers reaching for the smooth, thin debit card within. I stifle the urge to make a joke about the milk man being the real father of my child.

“He has such beautiful blue eyes,” the cashier says.  She looks at my five-year-old son Max, who is half-hiding behind me, deciding whether to peek out and flash his ridiculously charming smile.

“Does anyone in your family have blue eyes?” she asks.

I pause for a millisecond.

“His uncle does.” Did.

“Okay,” she says, loading my goat cheese into the bag. Mystery solved.

*                                  *                                  *

When Max was born his eyes were a steely blue, as most babies’ eyes are at first. We all waited for them to turn hazel or even brown.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to turn brown,” my mom said.

“They’re going to be green—I saw a little ring of green around his pupil,” said my husband Scott.

Being an olive-skinned, dark eyed gal, I expected that the fetus who had wreaked havoc on my body for nine months would be a dark little bundle, the male version of me. When my husband handed Max to me for the first time, after three nights of false labor and one night of very real labor, I stared at my new baby. My first thought was that he looked so utterly foreign. The crown of his head was stretched into an enormous cone from all the hours he’d spent trapped in my birth canal. His pale little face and eyelids were swollen, making him cockeyed.

He looked so other, so un-mine.

A beautiful photo of my husband Scott and Max peering into each other’s eyes is perched on our mantle. Max looks like an ancient soul, and Scott looks mesmerized and delighted. “What I was really thinking was, God, all those ugly baby jokes and now I have one,” he admits later.

Swollen and ocean-eyed, coned and tiny, Max looked alien.

With time, he looked more and more familiar.

*                                 *                                  *

“Haha!” Max shouted when he was two, pointing to a picture of my little brother when he was about the same age. It was the kind of ‘standing at the window’ shout Max favored at that age, as if he was an old man railing on about the whippersnappers in the neighborhood. Kids today, he seemed to be hollering.

I followed his gaze and was once again struck by the similarities between Max and my younger brother, Will. Like Max, Will had big blue eyes that seemed to have come from a blip in the gene pool—like me and Scott, my mom has brown eyes, my dad hazel.

“Yeah, that’s your uncle,” I said, trying to keep an even voice. Max smiled at the photo. I took a deep breath. It’s a beautiful photo: my gap-toothed brother, little wisps of hair curling on his forehead as he gazed, smiling at something in his sightline. What Max doesn’t know is that his uncle Will died of a combination of heroin and alcohol at the age of 21. I kissed Max’s forehead, inhaling the earth scent of his skin. I brushed a tendril of hair—medium brown and pin straight—out of his eyes. For a second, I considered the thought that something similar could happen to him, especially given the genetic plague of alcoholism that burns through his bloodlines. I choked on the thought and pushed it aside—or at least as aside as it could go while the picture of my baby brother smiling, unaware of his future, remained visible.

*                                  *                                  *

Fifteen years ago, my phone rang and everything changed.

My mother’s words slipped through the phone: police officer, brother, heroin. Coroner. The words rumbled in my head, black and stilted, colliding into each other. My brain tried to comprehend. “No, no, no,” I said, a mantra. As if I said it enough times, my words could somehow stop what had already happened, what could not be stopped.

*                                  *                                  *

Me, almost three. An only child all this time, forever. The dark comforter of my mom and dad’s bed cool against my legs, bare beneath my nightgown. “Do you want to feel your little brother?” my mom asked. I pressed my palm to her growing stomach, tentatively. Brother. The word sounded wild, yet solid. “Brother.” I tried it on for size. And sister. “Sister” felt like a fur coat, warm and soft and sure. I pressed my palm to her stomach and I felt a small fist or a foot connect with my hand. The orb of her belly where I too had grown, shifted beneath my hand. Everything shifted, or at least it would, very, very soon.

*                                  *                                  *

After my brother’s death, I moved from Maine back to my childhood home in Alaska to live with my parents. I was 24 and blindsided. Flowers crowded our home, turning the air sickly sweet. A box arrived with my brother’s ashes. I sat on the porch and smoked. I watched clouds smudge across the sky and waited for a sign. For the first three months, I slept in bed with my parents like a scared toddler to chase away the dark thoughts that came with nighttime. It was just us three again curled in the dark, and I hated it.

I wrote letters to my dead little brother, and I went to grief groups. I watched my parents suffer and I thought not only is my brother gone, my parents are too. I mourned that the person that should’ve been with me the longest in this life wouldn’t.

“You’ll have good things in your life,” my mom said one day. “You’ll have your own family someday.” I knew she was right. But at 24, I couldn’t picture that someday family. I could only see what was gone.

*                                  *                                  *

I first noticed the resemblance between Max and my brother when Max was several weeks old. He was nursing and I studied him as his eyes darted back and forth, intense with concentration. His almond-shaped, Atlantic-blue eyes were the first part of his face to smile. He looks like Will, I thought. It unnerved me.

When we were kids, people used to bend down to my brother and ask, “Where did you get those big blue eyes?” They’d look from my mom to me, from me to my brother, trying to reconcile the dark hair, eyes and skin that my mom and I had with my brother’s butter-toned hair and big turquoise eyes.

“From God,” he once answered, elevating charming to a whole new level.

Max’s eyes are wide and luminous. A little tease of green still swirls around his pupils. When he’s observing the world, his eyes are big and as round as a quarter. When he’s sad, they crumple and go navy. When he’s happy, they glitter and take on an almost feline shape.

When Max was about six months old, I briefly considered whether he could be the reincarnated spirit of my dead brother. “Will?” I whispered first, then louder. The first months of parenthood were already so otherworldly, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Max kept playing though—he didn’t turn to me with knowing eyes and a wink.

I asked him again when he was a little older, too.

“Do you remember Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?” I’d been asking Scott for some reason.

“Yeah!” Max exclaimed. Scott and I looked at each other and our 21 month-old offspring and started laughing.

“Are you my brother reincarnated?” I asked Max.

“Yeah!” he shouted, just as excited. My eyes widened. I held my breath and thought for a moment.

“Do your toes smell like sour pickles?”

“Yeah!!!”

“Phew,” I exhaled.

And yet, I still sometimes wonder. At five, Max’s temperament resembles my brother’s teenage moodiness. He also inherited my brother’s passion for music. When Max is tossing his body around to “Party Rock Anthem” or thrashing on his guitar while singing “Back in Black,” I’m struck with the image of my brother attacking his own electric guitar, belting out a punk version of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”

And in my dreams, the two sometimes swim together. “Will!” I call out, then realize it’s Max. “Maxie!” I say, and my brother, once again, disappears.

*                                  *                                  *

One of the hardest, most simple parts of grief is the pure and utter goneness of the one who is lost. My brother was here… where is he now? I know his body was scorched and blazed into soft grey sand. We left a sprinkle at a white beach in New Jersey, and folded handfuls into the damp moss beneath the thick pine trees at our old house in Alaska. But how could he just be gone when he was so, so here before? I am speaking of his spirit, the piece of us that is more than our fumbling, fragile bodies. The piece that brings us dreamscapes that later thud into our waking life, the piece that picks up the slick, cool phone to call a friend just as they are calling us, the piece that is utterly certain we are carrying a little boy fetus long before our eyes rest upon the white glow of bones on the ultrasound, the curves and shadows blooming deep within.

Similarly, I find myself asking Max, sometimes out loud, and sometimes in a whispered string of words that brushes my throat, “Where were you?” Because just as my brother is so, so gone—Max feels so, so here. So vivid, so distinct, that I can’t imagine that the sum of him used to lie split and dormant, half within me, half within Scott, waiting quietly among billions of other possibilities. That he is all split cells and coincidence, a random card plucked from our genetic deck.

When Max was not quite five, Scott asked him why he picked us to be his parents.

“There was no one else left,” he said plainly. We laughed, not caring so much how he had gotten here – just glad that he had.

Max brings great joy to my parents. We visit often and my dad, Max’s Papa, lets Max roughhouse with him. Max runs and lunges at my dad, and they both topple over, laughing. My mom, whom Max has coined, ‘Baba,’ hands over her iPad, fresh mango and popcorn to Max, along with most anything else he asks for. When we leave to go home, their knees ache, but they say the pain is worth it. I know that Max doesn’t replace my brother—no one could. But I like to think that he eclipses the pain of their loss a little bit.

Each night when I used to nurse Max before bedtime, I’d watch his lovely eyes and wonder what he was thinking as another day wound down. Sometimes he would look up at me, a smile curving into his mouth and eyes. I held him close and silently asked for help, from the universe, from Will, from whomever would listen. Keep him safe, keep him healthy, keep him happy. I watched his eyes, near-navy in the dim room, sweet slow songs wrapping around us. Keep him here.

Though we’ve been done nursing for three years now, the prayers remain the same. I repeat them in my mind and in whispers that gather around his bedroom door. With a mother’s force and a sister’s ache, I pour my deepest wishes into small words. Let him outlive us. Let him have a long and lovely life.

Let him stay.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the elephant journal and blogs for Huffington Post. Find her on Facebook.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Minding The Gap

Minding The Gap

By Sarah Muthler

Muthler_Gap_2
My daughter pedals away from me on the bike she received for her fifth birthday. Her bulky toddler legs have stretched into the slender limbs of a child, and she pumps joyously with them. She is testing how far ahead she can go without reprimand. I have no hope of keeping up. Her baby brother bounces along in our clunky stroller as I stride faster. This wasn’t how I imagined my family — one of my babies bounding into childhood when the other had barely emerged from the womb.

I wanted my children two or three years apart. In accordance with that plan, my husband and I conceived our second baby a few months before our daughter turned 2. Every family that I knew had two or three children with this spacing, and every parenting book and article touted its logic. Endure the early hair-tugging and arm-pinching, and someday, fighting would give way to friendship.

My dream for our family evaporated when our second daughter was stillborn. My girls would not tussle over the same doll until the stitching burst. Nor would they walk hand in hand to the elder’s first day of kindergarten.

Almost as much as I mourned my daughter, I mourned the loss of a sibling for my child. With my ideal family impossible, I constantly cycled through the age-gap math in my head. Wait a year to try again after my C-section. Plus nine months of pregnancy. If everything went perfectly, I would cradle a big belly while my daughter blew out the candles at her fourth birthday party. My children still might play together someday.

At my daughter’s fourth birthday party, I wasn’t even pregnant. Her lean body and clear speech brought anguish instead of delight. She still said “gobbles” for goggles, an error so endearing that I refused to correct it, but that was all that remained of her babyhood. Any sibling would be years behind, too distant to be a playmate. I was taking fertility drugs and researching adoption, but all options seemed too slow, too late. I wondered whether we should quit. Nearly all of our daughter’s friends now had their perfectly spaced younger siblings, and seeing them together, with their matching smiles, made my fragile heart ache.

The month after my daughter’s birthday, I became pregnant. The big sister book that we had from my previous pregnancy remained on a shelf high in my daughter’s closet. Whatever fear I had about my daughter adjusting to her new sibling was dwarfed by my fear that we would lose another baby. After nearly obsessive monitoring and an early delivery, we gratefully welcomed our snuggly, rosy-cheeked son.

A friend brought our daughter to the hospital the day after I had the baby. She walked in slowly, all of her perfectionistic first-born qualities on display. Her mouth was molded into a polite grin, her hands softly cupped as she reached out to stroke her brother’s head. Her bright, nervous eyes looked to us for queues on what was expected of her. She was gentle without being told, quiet without being shushed.

When my son was a few weeks old, I left him alone with his sister for the first time while I went out to our mailbox, a half-block away. By the time I had walked to the mailbox, my skin prickled with paranoia. What if she tried to pick him up? What if she put a blanket over his face? Why had I left them alone? I sprinted — or at least loped very quickly for a post-surgery woman with a lot of baby weight — back to our house and left the door wide open as I charged through.

“What is it, Mommy?” my daughter asked, startled. I looked to the baby, sitting in his bouncer where I had left him, a pacifier now pulsing in his mouth. “He started to cry, so I got his pacifier,” my daughter said.

A few friends — with children closer in age — offered tips on helping my daughter adjust. That advice was of little use in parenting but did teach me the beauty of this awkward age gap. Too old to revert to diapers and babbling, my daughter grasped more tightly to her big-kid role. Her self-sufficiency gave me space to savor my son’s infancy. I could sit down to nuzzle peach-plump baby cheeks and grasp peanut-sized toes just as I had done the first time around. And I would have time to carefully fill my son’s baby book with my looping handwriting just as I had done for his sister.

Having children two or three years apart isn’t perfect. It’s practical. Having children five years apart is neither perfect nor practical. Yet, I find myself embracing this imperfection, looking for all the good things that those parenting books could have said but didn’t. Not least of which is the way my daughter plods into our bedroom when dawn’s pink rays have started to poke beneath the blinds. She steps onto the sideboard, swings a knee into our bed, and says in her raspy morning voice, “Can I see Henry?”

Sarah Muthler is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog and on Seleni.org. She lives in Austin and blogs at www.landofabe.com

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Do You Believe in Magic

Do You Believe in Magic

WO Believe in Magic Art(in a young girl’s heart)

By Galit Breen

I sit by the light of the moon, the lamp and the television screen, as my husband sleeps. My knees are drawn to my chest, I lean against them, pen in hand. My eyes are bleary and my alarm will sound all too soon, but this I want to do.

Swirly letters, print that I hope looks nothing like my own, fill the page. Satisfied, I roll the thin paper between my fingertips, walk down the hall in bare feet, and slip the note and one cool coin beneath my daughter’s pillow.

Chloe, my seven-year-old, just lost her first tooth. She’s waited (somewhat) patiently as her classmates have lost one tooth after another, stories of special boxes and tooth fairies and even braces filling their chapters.

My husband, Jason, and I weren’t surprised about her wait time. Chloe got her first tooth at 18 months. It’s just unheard of! Her pediatrician, who I love, kept saying throughout her well check. It’s just unheard of! I reported to my husband while Chloe gummed raspberries and peas and yogurt between us. He nodded in “appreciation” of my worries, threw a She’s fine my way, and passed her tiny, sliced pieces of his meat.

And she was fine. Of course she was. Seven years later when her smile remained whole while her friends’ tooth count dropped by the day, “we” knew how to tow the She’s fine line. But yesterday, when she came home from school, coveted treasure box in hand, gaping smile proud, she looked instantly older and heartachingly proud and I was more than ready to play my tooth fairy roll.

In the morning, she came downstairs with her trademark steps—confident in the way middle children have to be, blazing their own paths between those of their siblings, and quick because she’s used to taking the kinds of steps necessary to keep up with the longer legs she walks beside.

I knew it was her without looking up, but when my eyes met hers—that match mine in shade and intensity and fierce – I saw what I was looking for. They were absolutely lit. She grasped her tooth fairy magic between thankfully still small fingers and held it my way. An offering.

We sat together on the yellow couch, toes tucked beneath us, and read the note, palmed the coin. The sun was just rising and the sky blazed in watercolor shades of red and purple and even a tinge of green. She leaned against me in the way that I love and I breathed in the scent of her hair. Strawberries, childhood.

Her older sister Kayli came downstairs just a few minutes later and sat by my side. “Look, Kay!” Chloe said, giving her a view of the magic she held. Bookended by my two I wondered how this back and forth between sisters would work.

At nine-years-old, I get the feeling that Kayli knows more than she lets on. She keeps many of her thoughts and feelings and opinions tucked into the crevices of her heart, for her eyes only. But every once in awhile she shares a glimpse of that heart; her own offering.

“Look, Kay!” Chloe says again pushing the note and the coin toward her sister. Kayli gets up and makes her way to Chloe’s other side so now Chloe sits in the middle. This feels appropriate. They lean over the note and read it together. Knees and shoulders touching, locks and voices threading in the way that sisters do.

“You have a great tooth fairy,” Kayli announces with authority. A smile plays on my lips as I look up expecting to see their heads still nestled close. But Kayli’s eyes are on mine. They’re impossibly big and brown and where Chloe’s match mine, Kayli’s mirror Jason’s.

I still write tooth fairy notes to Kayli. Its never occurred to me not to sprinkle that kind of magic into her childhood, but for the first time I wonder if she knows, what she thinks, if she’s actually playing into my glitter instead of the other way around.

The morning needs starting, so we do. Breakfast is punctuated by folders that need packing and library books that need finding and a puggle that needs feeding.

The girls are ready and out the door in what feels like just a few minutes, and are home after a full school day in what seems like just a few minutes after that.

Chloe is in a mood. Her lift has always been as high as her fall. As a baby her laugh was always the deepest and most infectious and her cry always the loudest and most intense. Her feelings fill rooms.

So the rest of us try to maneuver around her, biding time, willing her to rest, to take a break, to give us a break. Jason is bringing home take-out and I cross my mothering fingers that she can make it long enough so we can have this treat as a family. But she just can’t—the ups and downs of the day, the late night and the early morning were just too much for her and somewhere between six and seven o’clock she has struck one too many chords and has been sent to bed.

She showers, wraps herself in lotion and fleece and slippers, the same creature comforts I would have chosen for myself. Seeing she’s on her way to okay, I head downstairs to make her a sandwich.  I wonder what my own footsteps sound like to my kids, if they know it’s me without looking up.

As I round the corner into the kitchen, Kayli sits at the counter. Legs crossed, lean body curved, pen in hand. The way that her head is tilted, her almond locks hit the counter. Her eyes are focused, her lips are set. She’s lovely.

“What are you doing?” I ask, running my fingers through her strands that glitter by this evening light.

She looks up, meets my eyes in the jolting way for the second time that day—a smile playing on her lips this time—and pushes her writing toward me.

On a small, thin piece of paper she’s written, “Here’s a sandwich, tomorrow will be a better day. Love, The Peanut Butter and Jelly Fairy” in slanted, curvy, and swirly print that looks an awful lot like my tooth fairy writing. She’s dotted each “i” with a heart. Paused, I look up and take in my girl, note this mark of her tween-ness.

I know this is a turning moment between us and I brace myself for what I think I’m about to feel—sadness, wistfulness, a need to grab onto the fleetingness of it all. But that’s not what happens.

I realize with an inhale that she’s already taken the first steps away from childhood that I’ve been holding my breath for. And with an exhale, I see how beautiful this stage looks on her.

Knowing so much more than she’s let on. Maneuvering between the one being taken care of to the one doing the caring. Using what she knows to show love, to create magic, to be graceful.

“Oh, Kay,” I say, “That was really nice of you.” And not really knowing what else to add, I step aside. Kayli makes her sister a sandwich, calls her downstairs, and, once again, my two share magic while I watch.

So this is the wonder of her tweenness—of being just one step away from the magic of childhood that she still gets and loves and feels the fun and the whimsy and is just looking for her own way to be a part of it.

And as long as I can keep finding these moments to step aside and let her in, neither one of us have lost childhood, instead we’re both tiptoeing into a newfound relationship that is magical in its own right.

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer. Galit is a contributing writer to Soleil Moon Frye’s Moonfrye, the Huffington Post, SheKnows’s, allParenting, EverydayFamily, and Mamalode Magazine. Galit blogs at These Little Waves and may or may not work for dark chocolate.

See more of Galit Breen’s work in This is Childhood: Book & Journal  – Available Now.

Photo credit: Nicole Spangler Photogrpahy www.nicolespanglerphotography.com

Good Twin/Bad Twin

Good Twin/Bad Twin

GoodTwinBadTwinGood twin/bad twin. It’s just the dichotomy we’re meant to avoid, all the books say so. One child who puts her coat on and goes to bed when she’s supposed to, and wears a halo for it. The other with a forked tail between his legs, because he doesn’t do either of those things without a drop-down fight. Praise the positive behavior, discipline the negative, it sounds simple enough. But what happens when the breakdown of behavior between twins, between any siblings really, is continually reinforcing an angel/devil dynamic? Do you let things slide for the “bad” kid so as to not make him feel oppressed or less loved? Do you hold back compliments from the “good” kid for the very same reason?

I know, I know, let’s not call them “good” and “bad.” Before I became a mother, I frowned upon the linear use of those words. Surely, I thought, parents could do better than bandying about such morally generic expressions to describe their offspring. We’re talking about children, after all, not cantaloupes. Never label the kid, only label the specific behavior, that’s the golden rule, right? Oh how the mighty fall. If I had a dollar for every “Such a good girl!” or “What a good boy!” that escapes my lips, well, I’d have many more dollars than I do now. For bad behavior, I concede, I change the word. I’ll ask my three year olds to stop being “difficult,” I’ll scold them for being “naughty.” Once upon a time, “naughty” sounded so prissy to me, so British. And now, here I am, a schoolmarm in the making.

The reason I embrace this language, I’ve come to see, is because toddlers don’t get nuance. They get “good.” “Good” is clear, “good” is desirable, “good” is a blanket term for sitting down at the table the first time you’re asked, for spontaneously saying please, for eating your food, you know, with a utensil. They get “naughty” too. “Naughty” is “No!”, “naughty” is not what Mommy wants, “naughty” is pouring your milk into your spaghetti and using the mixture as a medium for wall art.

All toddlers are crazy, but each is crazy in his or her own special way (to paraphrase Tolstoy). Watching twins navigate the terrible, trying, testing—whatever T word you care to ascribe to that period of time between 23 months and four years old (if you are lucky), when life feel likes one giant game of tug-of-war—has underscored this for me in an unprecedented way. And some kinds of crazy, truth be told, are easier to deal with than others. Which takes us back to the good/bad dichotomy.

My daughter is dramatic and obsessive and a little aloof, but she is conciliatory by nature. She thrives on order. She follows instructions and accepts convention. She recognizes the link between cause and effect, the fact that certain behavior will ineluctably land you in your room and that it is therefore best not to engage in said behavior. My son, on the other hand, is funny and outgoing. But he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He balks at routine. When all three of my other children are dressed and buckled into the car, there he stands, framed by the doorway, naked as the day he was born. No matter how many times he has been punished for it, he will still throw the remnants of his snack bag across the living room, like confetti at a wedding, just to see the pieces fly.

You might have had a toddler like my daughter. You might have had a toddler like my son. But have you had them at the exact same time?

Siblings are fixated on what they perceive the other one is getting or what they perceive they themselves are missing out on. This is true in general, but it is particularly so, agonizingly so, for twins. If singletons are born with an ultra-sensitive fairness barometer built into their psyches, activated the minute their parents give birth to another child, twins are born with it already dialed to HIGH. Praise one, you’ll get a pleading “But what about me, Mommy?” Speak sternly to the other, you’ll get a “But I’m great at waiting my turn, Mommy!” Fairness is important. Equality is impossible. As confused as these two properties can get in the realm of parenting, they are not the same thing.

I make every attempt to treat my twins fairly, but I don’t treat them equally, if they are not behaving equally well. It might seem obvious in theory, but it’s damn hard work in practice. It means you don’t get dessert if you don’t finish your dinner, despite the fact that your sister is slurping ice cream right next to you. I have no solution to the good twin/bad twin dynamic currently playing out in my house, only the observation that childhood is a series of unequal phases, for the parents as much as the children. Different ages suit different children and different children suit their parents’ personalities at different ages. The hope is that the phases pan out in a roughly equal way over the duration.

My older children have taken it in turns, so far. My “angry” baby transformed into a toddler who was surrounded by an aura of sunshine. My dream baby, the one who was so placid there were moments I would wonder if anybody was even in there, is now filled full of tween sass, calling his brother a dickhead every chance he gets. My twins? They too are bound to flip flop. I see in my daughter’s histrionics, which are containable at three, flashes of the diva she will most likely be at thirteen. I see in my son, once he is old enough to set the pace of his own life, the potential for a boy whose obsession with the mechanics of the world will be a credit to him and not a thorn in my side. I suspect it won’t be long before I’ll be writing another post in which their roles are reversed: good twin/bad twin part two (or three or four). Stay tuned.

This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

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.

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

By Michele Turk

Santa Art“Santa!” my brothers and I screamed, racing to answer the door on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus stepped into our foyer and handed us each a red mesh stocking filled with sweets. But it wasn’t the presents that we awaited eagerly year after year; it was his presence; Santa right in our home in a small farming town in New Jersey. Santa knew us by name and sometimes even our ages, give or take a couple of years. It made us feel special.

He looked as authentic as any mall Santa with a perfectly rotund belly, except he had the shoulders and gait of a linebacker. It did strike us as odd, even as children, that after he emptied his meager bag of candy, Santa would sit down at the kitchen table with my father and drink Scotch. Their banter seemed familiar. We didn’t question their intimacy or the visits, or how Santa could take time out of his busy flight after dark on Christmas Eve. We believed.

Until the year I was 9-years-old, and poor Santa had so many glasses of Dewar’s he passed out on the floor of the family room in front of the fireplace. When my parents’ were in another room, my 6-year-old brother, Mickey, poked Santa’s stomach. Then Mickey climbed atop the protruding belly and began to surf. Santa didn’t budge. My oldest brother PJ, age 10, and I stared at Mickey jumping up and down on Santa’s belly; our eyes as wide as Cindy Lou Who. Then we all took turns jumping off of Santa’s belly and diving onto the brown shag carpet. We giggled, then howled with laughter. Then, in a daring act of defiance, PJ removed the white beard, revealing what we had long suspected; our annual visitor was my father’s older brother, Frank.

*  *  *

Uncle Frank lived in a trailer park in Vineland, about a half hour from our home, and on the few occasions we did visit him, usually on a Sunday drive, it was uncomfortable and awkward for everyone. His tiny mobile home was a fraction of the size of our three-bedroom ranch house, which seemed like a mansion in comparison. I didn’t understand how he could live like that, while we lived in such comfort just a car ride away.

Every Christmas Day, we joined my mother’s sister and her family for dinner at my grandparents’ house a block away. My grandmother set a formal table and even the children drank from Waterford crystal glasses.

My father was the son of a farmer whose mother died of breast cancer when my father was 6 and Uncle Frank was 8.  My father married the richest girl in town, my mother, and her mother did not approve of Uncle Frank or his lifestyle so Uncle Frank was never once invited to Christmas dinner or any holiday at her house.

“What a shame, what happened to him,” was all I ever heard my grandmother say, shaking her head as she passed bread around the dining room table packed with thirteen of us.

I remember feeling sorry for my dad because he spent every holiday with my mother’s family, but I never dared ask why we couldn’t squeeze one more around the table. I learned later that my father gave Santa a little gift every Christmas, and he “loaned” him plenty of other money over the years. I’m still not sure that made up for allowing him to spend Christmas alone.

When relatives looked at pictures of my uncle, without fail they shook their heads, and said the same thing:  “He was so handsome, what a shame, what happened to him.”

Even now, when I look at pictures taken at my parents’ wedding in 1961, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same man smiling back. It’s still a bit shocking to see the photograph of my parents seated in their car, with Uncle Frank, the best man, on the outside, leaning in. His movie star good looks and seemingly translucent blue eyes, vivid even in the black and white pictures, are what those older folks remember, not the aging alcoholic with a Kris Kringle belly that he’d become.

In my later years, I wondered, how Uncle Frank had turned into that drunken Santa impostor passed out on our floor. My father didn’t speak about Uncle Frank much, and they grew apart, but I think he loved him for the boy and young man he once was—an all-state football player whose college career was somehow derailed. He ended up working construction, never married and didn’t have any children.

I was a senior in college when Uncle Frank died of liver failure at age 55.. My mother always blamed “the bar,” a local watering hole my father and his brother owned in the 1950s. I think it had more to do with growing up without a mother. My father had been rescued by my mother, or more accurately, my mother’s father, who gave him a job at his insurance and real estate company. My parents created a family, one whose children believed in Santa Claus, but knew he’s a mere mortal who enjoys Dewar’s on chilly December nights.

*  *  *

After Mickey removed the beard, Uncle Frank woke up, and began to cry.

“They know who I am,” he said, over and over.

My brothers and I had no idea what to do. We looked at my parents, who were also speechless.

I felt immediate remorse, knowing we had ruined Christmas for Santa.

Michele Turk is a writer and writing instructor in Connecticut. She is co-editor of the new book, Ink Stained: Essays by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992.

 

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.

My Biggest Parenting Critic Right Now Is My Eight-Year-Old Son

My Biggest Parenting Critic Right Now Is My Eight-Year-Old Son

0-2“Epic fail,” Oliver says and he’s not talking about a video game. He’s talking about his mother, who has just deposited his screaming brother into the next room with a plop and a slam of the door, harder than she meant. He’s talking about the woman, muttering to herself, as the disappointment steams off of her in waves. This almost-eight-year-old is talking about me and what he is referring to is how I parent two of his younger siblings.

“They’re just babies, Mom!” he lingers on the word “babies” as if this will make me see them for the vulnerable species he is sure they are. The “babies” in question are 29-month-old twins and fully-carded members of the terrible two club. Their bodies are still dimpled. Their sentences still disjointed. But oh do they know how to get into trouble. They occupy the no man’s land between innocent impishness and full-fledged misdemeanor, a space that is classically difficult for the rules of discipline to bridge.

They are also my third and fourth children, which has come to mean they are not given a lot of leeway in terms of misbehavior. They are certainly not given as much leeway as he was. Does he remember that, I wonder? Is there some part of his brain that is flashing a warning alert of inequity: it wasn’t like this when you were two. Because, lord knows, it wasn’t.

Back then, I thought “no” was a dirty word. The dirtiest. I was the first time mother of a blameless baby who turned, at some point, into a less than blameless toddler but my sense of discipline never turned with him. When Oliver was around 14 months old, there were only two things he used to do that merited a “no,” only two: crawl behind the TV to play with the wires or pull the glasses down from my face. The fact that I can enumerate them is telling. So is the fact that I recall being pleased with myself: I must have read that sustained positive interaction is the key to raising the perfect child.

He didn’t turn out so perfect, though. “Sustained positive interaction” warped somehow into the absence of any meaningful limits and he became, as a result, a two year old with a hefty sense of entitlement. Followed by a three-year-old who would dispatch orders like a tiny tyrant. I made that bed and I lay in it for a while, but I wasn’t going to lay in it again. My second son was different by nature, which was luck. By the time my twins started down the road of toddlerhood, with all of the pitfalls it entails, my view of the route had changed.

When you have four kids under eight, two of whom are two year old twins, things don’t look as “cute” or as “character building” as they used to. It’s harder to see the 20-month-old who won’t stop pitching food from his high chair as an adorable baseball-player-to-be. The 23-month-old who snatches each toy her brother touches as an avid little investigator, locating the mile-markers on the trail of social interaction. The 26-month-old who starts every other sentence with “I want”—and ends it with “now”—as an early master of pronouns and sense of self.

I have less patience, there is definitely that. But I have more of something too: a long view. I have seen children bleed from one phase of toddlerhood into the next and I have watched how problematic behavior condoned because they are “too young” can stay with them like a bad tattoo. And how it only gets harder to address it effectively. This time, I decided to start setting the limits as soon as I felt they were being pushed upon. This time, I am not making the same allowances for the cultivation of “individuality,” because I no longer hold it in the same reverence.

This is one of the trickiest lines to walk in the current climate of parenting. We encourage our kids, almost constantly, to express themselves, to “become” themselves. But we often do so, unwittingly, at the expense of the needs of people other than themselves. At the tender age of two, I regularly tell my twins, in response to a whole host of their demands: “Mommy is a person, too.” Not only I am sure I never uttered these words to my first child, I am fairly certain I didn’t believe them to be true. Or, at any rate, relevant.

Oliver knows I am person now, I have made sure of that. If anything, he is overly sensitive to me, in way that has stemmed, perhaps ironically, from our history of blurred boundaries. And I am overly sensitive to him. I still feel the need to explain myself at every turn, always to explain myself to him, because this is our dynamic and old habits die hard. So in the midst of the crying and the closed doors, there I am explaining it to him. Explaining how I want these babies to learn to respect me, and each other, and to understand that they are part of a family of six, a family in which every single member deserves kindness and also a degree of attention that will sometimes come to the detriment of somebody else.

And in saying this, I see the paradox he sees. How the goal of kindness and respect is overtly incongruous with the reality of firmness and limits and tears. I see in his discomfort a reflection of the mother I used to be, the mother who equated love with the outward, immediate happiness of the child. I kept Oliver happy when he was two because it felt better to me. But what I realize now is that it wasn’t necessarily better for him. My idea of parental love has become thornier over time and I can’t expect him, at eight, to understand what it has taken me years to come to terms with. That loving your kid and indulging him are not the same thing.

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.

Our Two Babies

Our Two Babies

By Dana Huebler

SU 13 Two Babies Quilt Art 1My parents announced the news one night after supper, a few weeks after I’d started first grade.

“We have a surprise for you,” my father began in his deep, professorial voice, a smile tugging at his lips.

“Something new is coming to our house,” my mother added coyly.

“What?” I demanded.

“You have to guess,” my father answered, smiling fully now.

“We’re getting a new car?” my brother, Dorne, guessed. At 11, a replacement for our old Rambler was about the only surprise that could generate any excitement in him.

My parents shook their heads.

“A pony?” my nine-year-old sister, Darcy, offered, giving voice to the dying hope that one day she’d wake up to find a pony grazing in our backyard.

“No,” my father said, with a dry chuckle.

“A monkey!” I shouted. If my sister could reach for the impossible, so could I. But the fantasy evaporated with the laughter that erupted around me. “A monkey?” Darcy sneered.

I looked at our reflections in the kitchen window, where the black night pressed against the glass. I could almost taste the bracing chill of autumn. That year, caught up in the excitement of starting first grade, I was falling in love with fall: the abrupt shift in weather, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the crisp, deep blue of the October sky. On a clear autumn day, I could pretend I was living in a picture-perfect New England village instead of a drab, dying mill town on the Merrimack River.

As I gazed at our images on the glass, the answer came to me with a flash of certainty so clear I hardly raised my voice. “A baby,” I said, looking to my parents for confirmation. They smiled, then nodded, and a sweet light flooded through me. Even though the baby wouldn’t be born until spring, I shivered with the sense of change electrifying my world. I felt as though I’d been given a precious gift, one that I’d have to wait months to receive.

*   *   *

Forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, I start a similar guessing game with my children.

“Something new is coming into our lives,” I tell them, in the same playful voice. “Can you guess what it is?”

“Let’s see,” Lila murmurs, gazing thoughtfully at nothing.

“A Nintendo!” she guesses, her eyes lighting up. She insists she’s the only kid in her 2nd-grade class who doesn’t have one. Marko, her 5-year-old brother, likes the idea of a Nintendo so much he guesses it again, even after we’ve assured them this is not the surprise.

The guessing continues along electronic lines before moving on to cars and pets. A baby seems to be the last thing on their minds, and when they finally do guess, with some strong hints from me and my husband, it has none of the Aha! Eureka! feeling I had as a child.

But I’m not surprised. We’ve never talked about having a third child, and the fact that both children were born in America, not Germany, where we live now, seems to have solidified us as a completed family. Besides, I’m in my mid-forties—I was certain my baby days were behind me.

So certain, that when my period didn’t come, I waited weeks to take a pregnancy test. And though my first reaction was shock—horror, really—I quickly became swept up in the excitement and wonder of this unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy.

*   *   *

At my first prenatal appointment, I see the baby for the first time. Just a vague form on the sonogram, a white blob of light in a sea of murky gray, it is still an embryo in the fishlike stage, with no hands or limbs, just a visibly beating heart.

The doctor uses a pregnancy wheel to calculate the due date: April 22nd. But later, when the embryo is big enough to measure, the date changes to April 12th. Already something of a miracle, this baby I conceived at 46 will be a spring baby, born almost exactly between my two older children’s birthdays.

But April 12th—that’s the day my mother gave birth to my little brother, the baby I couldn’t wait to meet and help take care of. The coincidence seems amazing to me, and I find myself thinking often of that baby, my brother, and that time so long ago.

I notice other coincidences, too, in those early weeks; shining synchronicities that make me pause, and wonder. For starters, both Marko and my mother- in-law seem to sense the pregnancy on some level before we’ve told anyone the news. A few days after my first prenatal appointment, Marko asks me: “Mommy, can someone get three babies?”

“Of course,” I say, trying to hide my surprise.

“Could you get a third baby?” he persists. He’s never brought up the idea of a sibling before, but now, when I ask him if he’d like to have a little brother or sister, he answers yes without hesitation.

A day or two later, over coffee and cake, my mother-in-law mentions how wonderful it would be to have another grandchild—another Enkelkind for her to cuddle and love. My husband, Kai, and I laugh at the idea—the news is still too fresh for us to share—but I’m stunned she would consider this in light of my age. Even the miniature baby boom in Kai’s work group seems like a good omen to me: among 15 coworkers, three babies had been born that summer.

But it’s the dream I had just before conception that transports simple coincidence into the realm of magic, divination. In the dream, I am stepping off a train on a warm spring day. My friend Joy is waiting for me, with a little girl of about six years old. Together, we go to Joy’s house and I sit under a cover of lush, green trees, with patches of blue sky and brilliant sunlight sparkling through the leaves. Joy gives me an exuberant hug. “You’re still young,” she says. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”

These coincidences, especially the dream and the matching due dates, help bolster my confidence about this unexpected pregnancy, considered high-risk because of my age. I hold onto them as an assurance that everything will be okay.

*   *   *

I wonder how my mother felt when she discovered she was pregnant with my brother. She certainly had the glow that pregnant women have, and both she and my father seemed happy about the pregnancy, even though this baby, like my baby, had been a surprise, and her pregnancy, like mine, was high- risk. Her risk came not from age—she was only 34—but from the Rh factor, a blood incompatibility between mother and fetus that can harm a developing baby. If, as a child, I was aware of this risk, I did my best to ignore it. I felt as though a giant light was shining on me and my world, and I woke up each morning filled with excitement about the baby coming into our lives. I couldn’t wait to be a big sister, and I was hoping for a boy.

The last vivid memory I have before my brother’s birth was in March, when my mother was in her seventh month. My father and his colleagues staged a “Happening” at the college where he taught art, an all-day event of performance art with stations set up around the school. The memory plays like a movie reel in my mind—a home movie on grainy film, with the whites blurred and overly bright, the grass a dull brown, and the sky a washed-out blue. But even in the fading color, the promise of spring is apparent. The snow is gone, the sky is bright with rolling clouds, and my mother looks radiant: smiling, happy, and very pregnant under her winter coat. I stood with her and a crowd of students watching a helicopter swoop onto the campus parking lot, looping loudly and wildly, drowning out all sound. After it touched down, my father, wearing a gorilla suit and mask, appeared in the doorway. An explosion of laughter erupted from the crowd as the students watched one of their favorite teachers lumber down the stairs, his arms flailing clumsily.

After the splashdown in the parking lot, everyone walked over to the college swimming pool, a dark, dank enclosure with milky, gridded windows, smelling of decades of splashed chlorine. The spectators packed themselves around the pool’s narrow circumference, press- ing against the sweating concrete walls as my father, the gorilla, sat in a row- boat giving rides. I was crowded so close to my mother’s large belly that I could feel the coarse, knobby material of her tweed coat scratching against my face. Sometimes, I could even feel the baby kicking near my ear.

I watched my father rowing the boat, his expression, a rubber mask, unchanging. No matter how many times I told myself that was my father in there, I didn’t quite believe it. I was struck by the strangeness of it all, the wildness even, of the rowboat in the swimming pool, captained by a gorilla, with most of the onlookers wearing high heels and long coats. I felt sure I was witnessing something important, something meaningful, though I had no idea why.

*   *   *

A certain wildness swirls through me in the early days of my pregnancy. Fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm my feelings of hope and confidence. Am I crazy to be going through with this? When I tell my mother I’m pregnant, she reminds me that I am her third child, and “look how that turned out.” Like me, she considers the matching due date a positive omen.

I cling to this optimism. In those first weeks, with the onslaught of pregnancy hormones mixing with the shock of the pregnancy, I am a mess of conflicting emotions: questions about the health and viability of the fetus dampen the euphoria I feel about having been able to produce a life at an age when statistics say it is close to impossible.

My greatest fear is what I perceive to be my greatest risk—a chromosomal defect—even though statistically the risk for a miscarriage is considerably higher. My odds for carrying a baby with any kind of chromosomal problem are roughly 1 in 10, and for miscarriage, a frightening 1 in 2. Intuitively, I feel sure that everything will be okay, but I can’t help but be worried by such grim statistics.

In my 15th week, I go in for an amniocentesis, doing my best to lie still through the unbearably icky feeling of having a needle stuck into the most sacred of places, my womb. The doctor, normally friendly and relaxed, is now extremely serious, speaking in quiet, gentle tones as he performs the procedure, reminding us that even though the baby, a girl, looks perfect on the monitor, the results of the amnio could prove otherwise. Still, that voice inside me insists she is healthy.

Later that night, Kai and I wait together in a heavy, dreadful silence.

Our children sleep upstairs, oblivious to our anxiety. When the phone finally rings, I cannot answer it; the call is too important to risk a misunderstanding due to language. I watch my husband’s face closely as he listens to the doctor, and relief floods through me even before the smile has finished spreading across his face. The blood work, the doctor reports, has shown no chromosomal defects. Our baby is genetically perfect.

*   *   *

There were no tests to reassure us during my mother’s pregnancy— all we could do was hope and wait. And as her due date loomed closer, I worried more and more that it was all too good to be true. That this beautiful dream of having a baby brother to nurture and love would turn out to be only that. A dream.

Maybe I was tuning into the undercurrent of worry and fear running between my parents, who were certainly aware of the risks of this pregnancy: If, like me, the baby had the same blood type as my mother, he would most likely be born healthy; but if, like my brother and sister, he had a positive blood type, his health would be compromised. My sister needed a blood transfusion at birth and spent her first weeks in an incubator; for a third child with the incompatibility, the problems could be far more severe.

I don’t remember my parents making any physical preparations for the baby. Did my father bring up an old cradle or bassinet from the basement? Was a room prepared for the baby to sleep in? All I remember was the blanket that a friend of my mother’s wove for the baby. Weaving was her passion, and the blanket was a work of art. She used soft lamb’s wool to weave a pattern of large squares in vibrant colors: bright orange, deep red, vivid purple. I would sit in the rocking chair in my parents’ room, arranging the blanket over my lap or covering my dolls with it, all the while fantasizing about holding a tiny newborn in my arms, singing to it, feeding it, and loving it.

I held onto my wish for a baby brother as strongly as I could through the final weeks of my mother’s pregnancy, assuring myself that everything would be fine and the baby would be born healthy.

But then it all happened too fast. Suddenly my mother was in the hospital and the baby was born, more than a month early.

“There are problems,” my father said. That’s all he told us.

A hush fell over our house. My father spent most of his time at the hospital, and when he came home to eat or sleep, his reports were vague, hardly reassuring. The baby’s weak, but he’s fighting, he would tell us. The doctors and nurses are doing everything they can.

Two days after the baby was born, I was getting ready for school, pretending it was a day like any other, when my sister rushed into the room, breathless with excitement.

“The baby’s dead,” Darcy whispered.

“No. He’s not.” I refused to believe her.

“It’s true. I heard Dad talking to a nurse at the hospital. I listened in on the upstairs phone.”

“I don’t believe you,” I insisted, even though the truth was already taking hold. “They said he was dead?”

“Well, no, they didn’t actually use those words, but I could tell by the way they were talking. Dad said, ‘Well, you did the best you could…'” She shrugged. “What else could that mean?”

Darcy seemed proud of her discovery, thinking more in that moment of her clever detective work than the reality of the news she’d delivered. The baby was dead.

I knew it was true, but I refused to believe it until I heard my father say it. When we went downstairs to breakfast, I waited for him to speak. But the only sound at the breakfast table came from the crunch of our cereal and the clatter of spoons and bowls. My father was the quietest of all, reading the Boston Globe as he did every day. I watched him closely, or rather, I watched the paper he was hiding behind, waiting for him to put it down and say something.

But all he did was send us off to school with a kiss good-bye. By the time I stepped into my classroom, I’d almost

convinced myself that my sister was wrong. She must have been mistaken, misunderstood the phone call some- how. My father would certainly have said something if the baby had died.

Sometime that morning, my teacher called me up to her desk to pick up a quiz. Like most of the kids in my class, I was afraid of her. Snide and condescending to everyone but her favorites, she looked like a witch, with a beehive of black hair and stone-black eyes magnified by cat’s-eye glasses.

But now, as she handed me my quiz, she told me how sorry she was about the baby. Hearing kindness in her voice for the first time that year, I nodded stupidly and mumbled something in response, but inside I was reeling. How could she know anything about the baby, my brother? How could she be talking about him as though he was already dead?

I reminded myself she hadn’t actually used the word died or dead, she had just said she was sorry. I kept telling myself the baby must still be alive—I would feel it inside of me if he had died. I would know it in my heart. My father never would have sent us to school if something so serious had happened.

Walking home, I allowed myself to fantasize once more about holding the baby in my arms, giving him a bottle and taking care of him. I stopped under a tree and leaned against the trunk, cradling the lunchbox my father had painted for me at the beginning of the school year: a wild brown Mustang running in a cloud of dust. As I remembered how proud I’d felt on the first day of school, all the excitement of autumn and the news of my mother’s pregnancy came back to me. I spotted some lily of the valleys growing under the tree—my mother’s favorite flower—and scooped up a bunch. I breathed in the sweet fragrance and, feeling a small infusion of hope, started walking again.

By the time I got home, I’d nearly convinced myself that things might actually be normal. But when I opened the front door to a silent house, I knew they were not normal at all. I let the flowers fall from my hand as I stepped inside.

“Dana? Is that you?” my father called, his voice even deeper than usual. “Can you come in here, please?”

I set down my lunchbox and hung up my coat. My legs felt heavy, filled with a thick liquid, as I walked to the living room and joined my brother and sister on the couch. My father didn’t say anything for a minute or two, he just looked from one to the other of us with his piercing brown eyes.

“The baby didn’t make it,” he finally said, his voice grave and emotionless. “He died early this morning.” He presented the news as if it had been inevitable, something we simply needed to accept.

“He just wasn’t strong enough. They did everything they could to save him, but…” He let the words trail away and lifted his chin, as though he was trying to put a distance between his head and his heart. We waited for him to say more, but he was silent. And so were we. None of us cried. We did not ask questions. The baby was dead. That was that, and now we needed to move on as a family.

My mother stayed in the hospital for a week. One day soon after she came home, I followed her into the bathroom and asked to see the scar from the Cesarean. Maybe I thought it would make the baby seem more real to me, that I would somehow feel closer to him, or maybe I needed evidence that there had actually been a baby in there, that this hadn’t all been a dream. Whatever my reason, I didn’t expect my mother to comply.

But she did. She stood up from the toilet and lifted her nightgown, showing me her naked pelvis. Her pubic hair had been shaved off, and stubble was already growing in. A black-scabbed scar ran horizontally above the stubble, a row of stitches sewn crosswise through the wound. It was an ugly sight, and I was horrified.

*   *   *

Near the end of my pregnancy, my doctor tells me if the baby isn’t born by April 12th, he wants to induce labor on the following Monday, April 14th. In spite of having a normal, healthy pregnancy, I’m still high-risk, and he doesn’t want to wait too long.

When I relay this news to my mother, she reminds me that April 14th was the day the baby died. Until then I had not even considered this date— his death date. At first, I worry that it might be inviting bad luck to schedule an inducement on that date, but in these final days, I feel pregnant with hope and optimism, with the expectation and excitement one feels when a new child is about to arrive into a family.

Also, by now, the coincidence of dates seems not to matter anymore; everything pales next to the weight of my growing belly and the emotional pull of the impending birth. April 12th passes without incident, and I decide I’m not ready to induce on the 14th, not because my brother died on that day, but because I want to allow my baby to be born in her own time.

But after another week passes with no signs of labor, the doctor refuses to wait any longer. And by now, I’m ready. I go into the hospital to start the induction process, taking a pill every few hours to bring on contractions. Sometime after midnight, labor begins, and early the next morning, I’m wheeled into the delivery room.

Later, when I look back on these final moments, I see myself on all fours, crawling around the room and howling like an animal. In fact, I am lying on a bed, on my side, with one leg bent and lifted high in the air—a strange, anti-gravity position that the midwife has settled on because she seems afraid to ask me to move. But the howling and screaming are entirely real. The pain is worse than it was for my first two children, and when the midwife announces that I am only six centimeters dilated, I feel I might lose my will. But then my husband reminds me of my son’s birth, how fast things went after exactly this point, and it gives me the strength I need to keep going.

I also find power in my voice. As waves of pain rip through me, I let myself scream with abandon, loudly and deeply—a different sound coming out with each contraction. I yelp rhythmically, blow out through my lips, letting them vibrate loudly, and open my entire throat to push out low, long bellows. Each time, I focus on the sound, traveling with it to its endpoint as though it exists somewhere on the ceiling, on the other side of the room, somewhere far away from the source of the pain—my throbbing, contracting uterus—until the wave recedes and the pain subsides.

Finally, the midwife tells me I can start pushing, even though I am in this awkward sideways position. Through three or four contractions, I push with all my might, until the baby’s head is almost out. Almost, but not quite.

“Ich sehe dunkel haar,” the midwife exclaims. In the midst of my agony, this gives me a thrill of hope. With two fair-haired children, I’ve been hoping for a baby with my dark hair.

“Einz weiter!” the midwife commands. One more push. And finally, the release. A spiraling rush of energy shooting through me and out of my body. I open my eyes and watch the midwife pulling my baby out. Her body is wet and bluish, her eyes are closed, and the umbilical cord is still reaching into me.

I never saw my other children coming out—not with a mirror, not on video—but this time, in this odd position, I see my daughter being pulled from my womb and her still form coming to life. The midwife lays the baby on the bed next to me, and she and I look at each other for the first time. She has blue eyes, is my first thought, and she is looking right at me, her gaze intelligent and intense. As if she has known me forever and as if she, too, has been waiting to see what I look like. Then she does something that takes my breath away: She lifts her hand and reaches out to me, grabbing my index finger with her tiny fingers and holding tight for several seconds.

The doctor makes his notes, the mid-wife starts her cleanup, and I lay back and bring the baby to my breast. Now that the birth has been accomplished, and all risks and questions are behind us, the midwife tells us that today is her own birthday. This, I decide, is just one more coincidence honoring this new life, this miracle.

My daughter Zoe was born on April 22nd—the original due date the doctor gave me at my first prenatal visit. Her middle name, Joy, is in honor of a dear family friend who came into my life the year my mother was pregnant with my brother. Thirty years later, it was Joy who played matchmaker to bring me and my husband together. And it was Joy who came to me in the dream I had just before conceiving. “You’re still young,” she told me. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”

Two weeks after this dream, Zoe was conceived, and five weeks after that, my life transformed with the knowledge of the secret that had been growing inside of me. In April, as flowers and trees burst into bloom and the weather finally settled on spring, she came into the world, reaching out her tiny hand and taking a firm grip on life.

*   *   *

Four months later, at a well-baby checkup, I wait in the pediatrician’s office worrying over questions to ask. A blanket lies across my chair, and it takes me a moment to notice that, with its large squares of orange, purple, and red, it looks like the baby blanket woven for my brother so many years ago.

Another coincidence. What does it mean? What have they all meant?

I stroke the soft fleece and study the blanket’s colors, and I am back again, in that time of hope and sadness. I wish so much that my brother had lived. That all my hope, joy, and anticipation had been enough to make him come into the world healthy and strong. I wish I knew what he’d looked like, that I’d gotten a chance to see him at least once. Who would I be now if I’d had a little brother to nurture and grow up with? Who would he be, my brother?

I look down at my little girl lying in my arms, and she stares up at me, her eyes watchful and intent, a pacifier moving steadily in her mouth. I press my cheek to hers and breathe in her milky scent. My baby, this baby, alive and healthy, solid and warm in my embrace.

Author’s Note: After my daughter’s birth, the memories of my brother quickly receded back to whatever place in the heart or mind such memories reside. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to relive and remember that very charged and traumatic time: the joy I felt about my mother’s pregnancy, the happy anticipation I floated on in the months leading up to his birth, and the profound sadness and loss I felt after he died.

Dana Huebler worked for years as a professional writer and editor before devoting her creative energies to writing fiction and memoir and raising a family. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Watershed, and Venice magazines. She was co-author of the book The Colorblind Career. She recently finished a Young Adult novel, The House on Pilgrim’s Way, and is currently working on a collection of personal essays. Dana lives in Bremen, Germany, with her husband and three children.

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

The Gift Of Our Girls

The Gift Of Our Girls

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-3“You love Gabriel better than me.” My daughter’s eyes are twin moons of accusation, trying hard to eclipse a bright hurt that nevertheless flares out at the edges.

“That’s ridiculous.” I hold her gaze, concentrating on the anger that brought me here—to the doorway of her room—after driving her inside by the tone of my voice. She is ten years old, her brother five; they’d been battling over a toy and she’d wrenched it away hard enough to cause injury, screaming that she’d had it first. Of course I’d scolded her. She’s older, stronger. She should know better. In truth, my anger has faded; Gabriel’s fine. But I keep my expression stern because underneath the solid mask of righteousness is a creeping fissure of doubt.

Abigail has accused me for so long of preferring her brother that I’m beginning to believe it. I do feel differently about my children. One is a preteen girl, the other a kindergarten boy. One challenges me on a regular basis: slamming doors, stamping feet, talking back, and throwing fits. And it’s not the kindergartner.

Gabriel’s at a golden age. When I was pregnant, my friend—who’s the mother of two sons—told me, “You’re lucky; boys adore their mamas.” I see now what she meant. In my son’s eyes, I can do no wrong. Every day, he showers me with kisses and compliments like, “You are the prettiest mommy in the whole wide world,” and, “I love you more than my whole life.” What’s a heart to do but melt?

Physically, my relationships with my children are worlds apart. Gabriel snuggles with me on the couch, strokes my hair when I read his bedtime story, and holds my hand in the grocery store. Abigail is five feet tall; she requires the whole couch to sprawl out. She’s done holding hands. Sometimes I catch her staring at me when Gabriel’s securely folded in my lap or when I wake him with a trill of butterfly kisses. I feel guilty, wondering when I last held her beyond a quick hug or let a kiss linger on her cheek. But Abigail’s body is so firmly her own; the girl that used to pee with the door open now locks it to brush her teeth, and once when I walked into her bedroom as she was changing clothes, she pinned her arms across her chest and ordered me to leave. Gabriel’s body still seems mine to claim: always angled toward me, always receptive to affection. He makes it easy.

Abigail’s hands curl into fists. “You DO love him better,” she snaps, and I sense the tremor in her voice is not a preteen’s anger but a child’s fear. As a parent, there are times to respect boundaries and times to cross them. I cross the room and take her in my arms.

“Leave me alone!” she twists and shoves but I hold her anyway, closer than I have in too long. Her slim frame thrums like a live wire, but the fall of hair against my cheek is as soft as when she was a newborn. I remember how I was so in love with that baby, I couldn’t sleep. How those early years we lived—just the two of us—on the brink of poverty in tiny apartments, but I felt I would never need anything more than my gorgeous dark-haired girl. How the first time Abbey’s father took her for a week-long vacation, when she was three, I called my friend and said, “I need to stay with you for a week. Because I can’t be here without her.”

As a mother, it’s easy to lose confidence. Oh, but how can I cater to such lazy indulgence, when what my child needs right now is for me to show strength and total conviction? I tell myself, I am absolutely certain that I’ve never loved anyone more than this child in my arms. This child. My daughter. And it’s true. That’s the gift of our girls: they bring us to the center of ourselves, demanding we examine our hearts and face every flaw, making us better mothers. While our sons thrust us on pedestals, it’s our daughters who force us to balance.

Abbey’s resistance falls away and she wraps her arms around me. “Abigail,” I say, “you know how much I love you, and—” I can’t tell her I love her more than Gabriel, and it isn’t enough to say I love her just as much. So I whisper what’s hers that he can never have. “—remember that I loved you first.”

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website  http://www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com/

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Tandem Breastfeeding

Tandem Breastfeeding

By Christine Gilbert

0-3I have a secret. I’m still breastfeeding my three-year-old son, along with his three-month-old sister. They call it tandem breastfeeding, but they might as well call it shameful-secret-of-mommies-who-are-doing-it-wrong because that’s exactly what it feels like.

My husband and I have become adept at maneuvering around the major obstacles, hiding the fact from my Ob-Gyn while I was pregnant, since our first doctor said we had to stop immediately because our toddler was stealing nutrients from the unborn baby (not everyone agrees with that and she was fine). Not telling our son’s dentist because when he was six-months-old he said we had to wean from our night feedings or risk cavities, which we didn’t do, never mind his other advice of wiping down his teeth with a wet cloth after each session. Whispering to my son when he mimes for my breast in public, “not now sweetie, when we get home.”

In the hospital, the day after my daughter was born, I covertly breastfed my son while the nurses were away. I didn’t know what their policy was, but I couldn’t face finding out. I sat in the reclining rocker with my newborn on my lap and my son stood next to me and suckled from the breast I held at his mouth. It was a quick furtive gesture to let him know he was still mine and I was still his.

My attempts to keep a low profile have slowly become futile, as my son, the late-talker, has overnight gone from giving me dreamy moon eyes when he wants to feed, to shouting at me from his car seat, “Mama! Boobie! Booooooobie! BOOBIE!”

At a recent beach picnic, I had to out myself to my childless friends and pre-empt what I knew would come after my son went swimming. “So, we’re still breastfeeding. Both of them. Both.”

I didn’t wait for a reaction, I lobbed it at them like a warning, a simple instruction: Please do not freak out about what you’re about to see today. We know. Trust us, we know.

You see, I’m not a lactation-nut. I’m aware that breastfeeding isn’t a magical improvement over formula nutrition-wise and I have plenty of friends who chose formula for medical or convenience sake. I get it. For me, I liked breastfeeding because it seemed especially loving and tender, something that was missing from my own childhood, something I wanted so desperately to give my son. From my pre-baby perspective, two years sounded about right, but as two rolled around, my son was still so little, and barely talking, so I let it continue. Three months later I was pregnant with my second, but for the first two months I didn’t know, so when my breasts started to change, I thought there was something wrong with my body. It became painful to breastfeed, just a gnawing discomfort I couldn’t pinpoint. Fed up with it, I decided to wean my son.

For a week, I tried everything to get him to feed less: distractions, hiding from him, saying no, letting him cry a little, putting him off until later. None of it seemed to work; instead, he would wrap his legs around me, trying to hold me in place to try to catch up on all the feedings I had put off. Still as the pregnancy continued, my breast discomfort grew more intense, and I began to feel desperate. I put lemon juice on my nipples for three days in a row. He kept feeding. I switched to vinegar. He winced but suckled anyway. I gagged so hard at the smell that I finally realized perhaps I was pregnant, confirming it the next day with an over-the-counter test.

Once I knew I was pregnant, it was clear what was going on. Like many women, my milk supply was drying up from the pregnancy hormones. I had new hope. Perhaps this entire weaning thing would now resolve itself. My milk would go away and my son would just lose interest. I removed all restrictions on breastfeeding and just let him feed on request, knowing that at any point he could self-wean. I tried to relax and enjoy these last few sessions we had together.

My milk dried up completely at the four-month mark of my pregnancy, yet he persisted. It became increasingly uncomfortable, but something in me shifted: this was our last time together before the new baby came. He would lay with me so peacefully, the only time he wasn’t running around the house, and he would look into my eyes. He would curl around the swell of my baby bump, and his little sister would gently kick him while he fed. I would talk to him about the baby, while he melted into the bed next to me, and I would push back his hair from his sweaty forehead.

“There’s a baby coming. She’s in my belly. Can you feel her moving?”

He would nod. He wouldn’t let go. He wasn’t getting any milk, but this ritual, this habit of ours was still important.

Two days after the baby was born, my milk came. Milk glorious milk, where there had been none now my cup overrunneth. My son was in heaven. His face got fuller in the first month, and he slept more deeply. There were moments when both children wanted the breast at the same time, and while I tried to defer to the youngest member of our family, sometimes I’d feed both of them at the same time, breastfeeding my newborn on my side in the primary position, with my toddler draped over my back and hanging on to me as he fed up-side down. Whatever works.

Three months out and things have settled down to a manageable routine. I’m beginning to feel twinges of wanting to stop again, wishing he would just outgrow this stage, that he’d let me off the hook from what I know will be stand-off. I could just go to a hotel with my newborn, I think. A week away would solve it. It wouldn’t even register in the long-term-damage-I’ve-likely-done-to-my-son. And then he comes home from the park with his father, crying. I rush out to the gate to see what’s wrong.

“I’m crying,” he says to me as I scoop him up.

“I see that, why are you crying? Are you sad?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you sad?”

“The boy… “

And he breaks into sobs again.

“That’s okay, I’ll make you feel better.”

“Boobie?”

“Yes, boobie.”

And I think to myself, maybe at four, maybe four is a good age to wean.

Christine Gilbert is the writer behind almostfearless.com and is currently working on her first book for Gotham/Penguin about learning languages (Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish) with her kids. Her writing and photography has appeared in the BBC, Esquire, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.

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.

Fighting Words

Fighting Words

By Elissa Wald
summer2010_waldMy daughter’s trouble began with the word Mommy. One day I noticed that her name for me had become prolonged, so that it sounded like “Ma-ah-my.” And I guess it was wishful thinking, but at first it seemed as if she were nursing the word, drawing it out on purpose, perhaps out of pleasure.

This special rendering of Mommy went on for a few days before another development surfaced. Charlotte began to repeat the first syllable of whatever she had to say: “I-yi-yi want to go outside.” I thought nothing of this either. Every excitable child sounded like that sometimes.

Then the repetitions became more frequent, sprinkled throughout her sentences. Two or three echoes each time, with not much notice on her part. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my husband. “This speech pattern?” He didn’t, and then he did. We consulted What To Expect: The Toddler Years, and right in the section corresponding with her age, there was a paragraph or two about stuttering. It was very common, the book reassured us, for children her age to experience a period of some disfluency. I told myself not to let my family history distort what was going on here. Her repetitions were few and brief; she was in no apparent distress; it was just a little hitch that she would surely outgrow.

And then came the moment during story hour, just before Charlotte’s bedtime. She was asking for one of her Frog and Toad books when I finally understood exactly where we were. “Fr … fr … fr …” she said. “Fr … fr …  fr …”

She stared at me as she tried to talk. She was wide-eyed, as if something had her by the throat.

“Fr … fr … fr … fr …”

I held her gaze without flinching, even as I waited to be able to breathe.

*   *   *

Stuttering is a mysterious affliction that even the most informed experts don’t understand. The disorder affects more than three million Americans, about one percent of the population. Long thought to be a manifestation of psychological and emotional issues, it is now recognized as a neurological phenomenon with a genetic component (about two-thirds of people who stutter have at least one other relative with the impediment). Stutterers are usually fluent when they whisper, or sing, or impersonate another voice, or speak in unison with other people. They rarely stutter when they talk to animals or to themselves.

In my mother’s family, stuttering has surfaced in every generation as far back as we can trace, affecting her great-uncle, one of her maternal uncles, her cousin, her son (and my brother) Eric, and now her first grandchild. Because of my brother’s lifelong struggle with his speech—which is still with him at the age of thirty-nine—I grew up as a witness to what stuttering can do to a life. I know about the fear of introducing oneself, ordering in a restaurant, picking up the phone, or being called on in class. I know about the weeks or even months of dread that may be inspired by having to deliver a spoken presentation.

While growing up, Eric was resourceful in the ways that stutterers usually are. When his fourth-grade class put on a pageant portraying the history of Pittsburgh—our hometown—Eric imitated the speaking style of sportscaster Howard Cosell while reciting his part about the Steelers. Whenever we went out to eat, he would avoid attempting a hard “c” by asking for a Pepsi.

“We don’t have Pepsi,” was the usual response. “Is Coke okay?”

“Yeah.”

He never went so far—as so many stutterers have—as to order something he didn’t like, or to incur major inconveniences, for the sake of word substitution. In his memoir Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, Marty Jezer describes buying train tickets to Hartsdale rather than his true destination of White Plains, because the letter “w” was his nemesis: “There were no buses or taxis from the Hartsdale train station, but walking four miles home was preferable to stuttering in front of the ticket seller.” Jaik Campbell, a stutterer who does stand-up comedy, once joked that he was performing for the British Stammering Association when a would-be heckler yelled out: “You’re sh … you’re sh … you’re quite good.”

Eric also never went to the lengths that other stutterers have described in order to avoid speaking. “Often I would make myself physically sick so that I wouldn’t have to talk to or be around people,” prominent zoologist and wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has confessed. “Once I stabbed a pencil through my hand and had to be taken to the hospital so that I wouldn’t have to read in front of the class.”

Still, there was the time Eric was trying to order in a diner, unable to get the words out, when the waitress sighed with impatience and stalked away. There were the phone calls he made, in which he couldn’t respond to someone’s hello and the person who’d answered would hang up, thinking no one was on the line. There were the taunts on the playground: “W-w-what’s wrong w-w-with you? W-w-why can’t you t-t-talk?” There was the time that even a friend—angry after losing to Eric in a basketball game—called him a stuttering monkey.

And there is also one of my worst memories:

My brother and I were with our grandmother at a McDonald’s in Florida. I was eleven and Eric was nine. We had brought our trays to a table when my brother asked me to get him one of the little packets of salt that they kept behind the counter.

“Why can’t you get it yourself?” I asked.

“You go and get it,” my grandmother told me.

“Me?” I said. “He’s the one who wants it. Why do I have to get it for him?”

“You go,” she said again.

I turned to Eric. “Why can’t you get it yourself?”

“Forget it,” he said.

“No, tell me. Why can’t you?”

“Why are you being this way?” my grandmother asked.

“Being what way?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“How am I being mean? If he wants salt, why doesn’t he get it for himself?”

“You know why,” she said.

“No, I don’t.”

“You know he doesn’t want to ask them for it. Because of his speech.”

I looked at my brother in surprise. (I don’t know how to explain, even to myself, the fact that I was startled at that moment. How could I have failed to understand what his reluctance was about?) He was glaring at me and his eyes had filled with tears. He had to take off his glasses to swipe them away. His little paw was grubby and left faint smears of dirt on his face.

*   *   *

After my daughter started to stutter, nearly everyone I knew felt compelled to tell me, “Well, it didn’t hold your brother back.” And certainly that’s true. Eric is now married to a lovely and accomplished woman with whom he has a beautiful son. He is respected and successful, a pediatrician and intensive care specialist, and I believe he brings a special integrity and compassion to his work. Though he puts in long hours and is often exhausted, I have never heard him speak to a child without empathy or warmth. No one would have guessed the words that came to him in response to a young patient’s recent remark.

“You talk funny,” the boy told him.

Yeah, well, my brother refrained from saying, that’s not as bad as having Crohn’s disease, you little bastard.

*   *   *

Because of Charlotte’s physical agility, her intrepid nature, and her ready joy, I had assumed a certain social ease would always be hers. That notion has since deserted me, along with certain traits I’d thought inherent to her character. Within days of beginning to stutter, my little chatterbox seemed to go silent. She no longer prattled in the car, no longer supplied the words she knew in familiar books, no longer tried out every new word she heard me say. Suddenly the most commonplace parental request—”Can you say please?”—was laden with danger. (“P-” she began gamely, the last time I tried that. “P-p-p-…”)

What had been the most empowering part of her life—her ever-increasing speech skills—has become something that frustrates and inhibits her. It’s as if her small body has already betrayed her.

Soon after her speech became affected, I picked Charlotte up from preschool and found a bright orange envelope in her file folder. Inside was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. Charlotte had been invited to plenty of parties in the past, but never before had it occurred to me to do what I did then, which was to glance through all the other children’s folders—twelve in all. There were only two other orange envelopes among them. And suddenly I found myself in the midst of an anxious little analysis: Okay … it’s not that they invited every kid in the class. Not even close. And we’re not friends with his parents either. So he chose her; he must have. And standing there, I was overcome by a rush of love for this child. A rush of gratitude, even—gratitude to a three-year-old. Of course this was not only pathetic but far from rational: These kids were too young to discern anything amiss in one another’s speech. But somehow it felt like reassurance that Charlotte would continue to be invited, to be included. I went shopping for the birthday boy the very next morning and spent too much on his present.

*   *   *

Most websites devoted to stuttering post a list of famous people who have struggled with the disorder. When Charlotte joined their ranks, I looked these people up and read about how stuttering had affected their lives. A fairly reliable pattern emerged: early on, stuttering was a source of pain, humiliation and inhibition. The famous person was teased, bullied, silenced, estranged. Then an art form or other calling presented itself—usually as an antidote to, or reprieve from, stuttering—and transcendence was achieved. Stuttering is usually cited as the most essential part of this alchemy.

“I was in a play and when I got onstage I stopped stuttering—I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the reason the stutter stopped was because I was acting.” (Bruce Willis)

“The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is a sanctuary.” (James Earl Jones)

“Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

“I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering.” (Carly Simon)

“It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of my stutter. [It] ended up being a godsend for me … the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life and my career.” (Joe Biden)

“Scatman” John Larkin, a jazz musician and poet who stuttered, referred to his creative shift into scat singing (a vocal art form comprised of random syllables, nonsense words, or no words at all) as a process of “turning my biggest problem into my biggest asset.”

It would seem that as a culture, we are deeply invested in this particular narrative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason; that every problem is an opportunity. Those in whom I confided about Charlotte responded much in the same way.

“Maybe she’s meant to do something really introspective, like writing, and this is the experience that will draw her inward,” one of my closest friends suggested. (If an axe had been handy, I might have split open her skull. Writing? A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Inward? This is my boisterous little spirit, who loves to make noise.)

“I’ll just say—without trying to downplay the difficulties stuttering will create for her—that our troubles and strengths are usually interlinked,” another wrote in an e-mail. This insistence—that the affliction and the gift are inextricable—is reflected even in songs about stuttering, even in jokes:

Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters,

But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings.

But what you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you right now:

That the stutter and the scat is the same thing.

(“Scatman” by John Larkin.)

A man asks his doctor, “C-c-can you c-c-cure my s-s-stutter?” After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I’ve discovered the problem: your penis is too big. If you’ll consent to have half of it removed, your stutter should disappear.” The desperate man agrees to the surgery, the operation is a success, but a few weeks later the guy’s back in the doctor’s office. “I can talk with no trouble now,” he reports, “but my wife and my mistress have both left me. I want you to reattach what you cut off.” The doctor replies: “F-f-fuck y-y-you.”

*   *   *

A scene from the week that Charlotte started to stutter:

It is the middle of the night, and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m in bed beside my sleeping husband, staring at the ceiling. It has been a terrible day. Charlotte had trouble with almost every word she said. I’m picturing her in some future schoolyard, surrounded by jackals. Tears are sliding down my face and into my ears.

This isn’t the worst thing; I know there are far worse things. But I’m heartsick and afraid. I can’t bear the thought of other kids making fun of her, the idea of her singled out and set apart. I feel as if I can’t draw a deep breath and can’t get warm. I’m trembling beneath every extra blanket in the house.

When people attest to having received a divine message, they usually describe it as happening during moments like this. I’m not a believer, but in the deep of this night I find myself overwhelmed by a desire to pray. The only way I can ease into the endeavor is to think of it as an exercise: If I were a person who prayed, what would I say? For that matter, what kind of God would I seek to address? Not some omnipotent magician who might lift the curse—that’s so far afield for me that prayers of this nature would feel worse than useless. But what about just … some source of otherworldly sustenance … some current of gentleness and love, to be accessed on Charlotte’s behalf? I lie there trying to visualize this presence and the closest I can come are the faces—some living, some dead—of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known. I try to hold their images in my mind, but they blur and fade and burn out. Before long, I’m left with only a sense of their collective essence, but it occurs to me that I’m not cold anymore. And then toward four a.m., a message does in fact present itself, like a lone hold high on a rock wall, and I close around it and cling for all I’m worth.

The whole world is hurting.

It would be hard to explain the comfort I took from this idea. It went beyond misery’s love of company, beyond an inventory of the ways that others have it bad or worse. It was more like a sudden and visceral conviction that stuttering did not truly place Charlotte outside of anything. In his song “Scatman,” John Larkin says, Everybody stutters one way or the other. It’s not an insight that adversity and suffering are inevitable, no matter who you are; this is something we all know. But like the fact that one day you’re going to die, it’s one thing to know it in the abstract, another to wake alone in the middle of night and know it in your bones.

My parents used to tell my brother that everyone had problems and struggles and pain, whether it was apparent or not. This seemed like just another lie that adults not only told but appeared to believe. Well, I recall thinking, maybe a few other kids do, but most don’t.

It occurs to me that I know better now; that in fact, the reverse is true. There might be a few kids who are truly (and temporarily) untroubled, but most aren’t—and undreamed-of grief can lodge beneath a faultless surface.

I think of the seven-year-old son of my former boss: The boy might have been a poster child for Aryan supremacy. Once I overheard his father talking to him on the phone. You’re a pussy, he told the kid. You’ll never do the right thing.

And there’s the situation related by my friend Amy, who has chosen to maintain an open adoption policy for her two grade-school-aged sons, Samuel and Matthew. Samuel’s family of origin is eager for regular involvement in his life, but Matthew’s biological mother refuses contact with him. Matthew is tall and good-looking and plays several sports. His birth mother’s ongoing rejection of him is a deep and secret sorrow, of which his classmates have no clue. In fact, he looks so much like Amy that no one would even guess that he’s adopted.

I remember a classmate of my own, from middle school: a talented actress even then, with a flair for comic roles. I didn’t find out until well into adulthood that her father committed suicide when she was in the third grade. He hanged himself in the basement, and she was the one who found him.

Then there are the children whose parents are divorcing, or fighting every day, or just mired in separate miseries. Kids with parents who are gone, or sick, or just terminally preoccupied. Children of alcoholics and drug addicts, kids who are abused and neglected. Driving around, listening to the country music that dominates the airwaves where I live, I hear songs about orphans, unwashed and unwanted children, dirt-poor and hungry children, cowards of the county, boys named Sue.

The whole world is hurting.

*   *   *

My husband and I spend a lot of time reading the current stuttering literature, which tells us there are things we can do to help Charlotte. We can slow our own speech as much as possible, pause often, take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. We should try to do all this not only in conversation with Charlotte, but even with each other when she is present.

These changes, it must be said, do not come naturally to me. I talk too fast; everyone has always said so. I cut in when other people are speaking. I ramble and rant.

We consult a speech therapist, who confirms that these changes are difficult, and that they won’t happen all at once. She suggests that we start by trying to implement them for just five minutes a day.

There are other efforts we can make as well:

Hold her gaze while she’s talking, even when she’s having trouble, despite any temptation to avert your eyes.

Resist the urge to supply a word for her, or finish her sentences.

Listen to what she says, not how she’s saying it.

This last directive is startling, and I wonder what would happen if I tried to heed it in every interpersonal exchange. What if, say, I could listen to a friend’s relentless stream of self-promotion and instead of hearing him say that he’s the greatest, I could hear that he needs affirmation more than he does his next meal?

With the therapist’s advice in mind, I decide to try this for just five minutes a day. The effect is immediate and profound. Right away it’s less manifest that people are power-hungry and greedy and obnoxious and hostile, and more apparent that the whole world is hurting.

*   *   *

On that list of famous people trotted out by the stuttering community, there is one man without a whiff of gratitude about him, and that is John Melendez of The Tonight Show (formerly known as Stuttering John during his time with The Howard Stern Show). In a wildly ironic inversion of the usual scenario, Melendez was one of Stern’s many interns when he was chosen—sight unseen—by the master provocateur to conduct celebrity interviews. (“He stutters?” Stern said. “Hire him.”) Stern was delighted by the possibilities posed by a stuttering interviewer: the tension inherent in every exchange; the idea that celebrities would be afraid to look heartless by snubbing him; its consistency with the “freak factor” that is the show’s trademark.

“Stuttering’s a great defect for radio,” Stern mused on the air to Melendez the day the latter joined the team, “because obviously, we have a guy with no arms or something, no one can see it and … only we enjoy it here in the studio, but stuttering … we always wanted a stutterer. I mean … you’re priceless!”

And Melendez did not disappoint. While on camera, he peppered dozens of celebrities with insulting questions, asking Oliver North if he’d ever had a nightmare where his penis got caught in a paper shredder, Gennifer Flowers whether she would be sleeping with any other presidential candidates. To Imelda Marcos: “If you pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?” And to supermodel Claudia Schiffer: “Who’s smarter, Christie Brinkley or Forrest Gump?”

I’m not sure why, among the dozens of other famous people on these lists, Melendez was the one who mesmerized me. Maybe it’s that my brother’s experience of stuttering is the only one I’ve witnessed intimately, and his main response to it seemed to be anger, and John’s chosen line of work was arguably an angry thing to be doing. Or it could be the fact that Melendez is one of the only celebrities who has stuttered mightily in the public eye. Those who identify stuttering as a gift tend to do so in fluent voices; they are usually the ones who have “conquered” the disorder, at least to the extent of controlling it on camera.

On Melendez’s website, along with his bio and blog and event calendar, is a list of tips for stutterers. Over the past several months, I’ve seen many such lists, without much variation among them. But Melendez offers tips that I haven’t read before:

“Know in your heart that whomever you are talking to is no better than you.”

“Laugh at it, let people make fun of it … don’t let it define you, it’s something you do, it’s not who you are.”

And perhaps the one that is most interesting to me: “Get angry in your mind when speaking.”

Late one night, researching Melendez online, I stumble across an interview he did for a radio program called Stuttertalk. Has every parent of a child with a “challenge” flashed on their own version of this fantasy? Let’s find a place where everyone stutters; let’s move there immediately. This channel creates an illusion that there is such a place: Let’s call it The Isle of Stuttering. Everyone on it stutters: the moderators, the guests, the voices on the promotional clips. As on any other radio station, there’s a little riff where a succession of guest stars introduce themselves, saying some version of: This is J-j-joe Blow, and you’re l-l-listening to Stuttertalk. Most dramatically, one woman says, “This is…” and more than ten tortured seconds elapse before she is able to say her name. In this interview, the show’s two stuttering hosts talk at length with Melendez. Listening in the dark to three stuttering voices feels a little surreal, even a little eerie, as if I’m standing in the shadows beside some house on the Isle of Stuttering, eavesdropping beneath the kitchen window.

Toward the end of the interview, Melendez is asked whether he has ever used his stutter to help him pick up women. He seems truly bewildered by the question and says no, if anything it has been a hindrance to picking up women.

The next query, by now, seems inevitable to me.

“John, do you think of your stuttering as a gift? H-h-has it been a gift in your life?”

“A gift?” John repeats. His tone is half incredulous and half uncertain, as if he suspects he has heard wrong, or maybe the host is putting him on.

“Yeah,” his interviewer persists. “A gift.”

No,” he says. “I think it’s a handicap. The truth is, if I could trade in and say, you know, let’s start again, and I’ll be twenty-three again and … here’s my choice: I could be Stuttering John, or I could just speak fluently and go on in my life the way that I would want to—I would choose speaking fluently.”

Ah, I think. Finally.

*   *   *

Having said all this, let me say as well that I wouldn’t choose John Melendez as a role model for Charlotte. And I’m glad that so many inspiring people have wrested something redemptive from their struggles with stuttering.

But I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe every problem is an opportunity, or at least, an opportunity worth the price. And I think that stuttering is unmitigated misery for the majority of those with the disorder. The truth is that if I could choose either happiness or greatness for Charlotte—not that they’re mutually exclusive, and not that the choice is mine—but if it were up to me, and it could only be one or the other, I would want her to be happy. I don’t have any reason to doubt that she’ll eventually be all right. But I want her to be happy now; I want her to have a happy childhood.

Of course, this isn’t up to me either, at least not past a certain point.

Whenever I’m asked whether I see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full, I like to say—truthfully—that I see it as half empty and half full. And so I take a certain satisfaction in this same equivocation from the collective stuttering community. I’m glad that Joe Biden and his ilk are there, and I’m glad that John Melendez is there. And I can even concede that stuttering has already offered me some benefits as a mother: a different way of speaking and hearing; a deeper apprehension of the fellowship of suffering; the understanding, finally, that the point of parenting is not to forever keep adversity at bay for one’s children. The point, I believe—one of the most important points, anyway—is to help one’s children feel at home in the human family.

Not long ago, my husband said something that—in its very simplicity and self-evidence—seemed to me as lovely and wise as anything I’d ever heard. “We will do everything we possibly can to make this go away,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, then we’ll live with it.”

If Charlotte ultimately feels that there’s no silver lining to stuttering, if it offers her not a shred of transcendence, I want her to know that’s all right. And if, on the other hand, she comes to regard it as a gift—one that was given to her for a reason—I devoutly hope I’ll have the grace to stay out of her way.

Someday, in any case, she’ll have made her own way with it. She’ll tell me how it is. And I’ll be listening.

Author’s Note: Although my brother’s struggle with stuttering was a part of everyday life within our childhood home, he and I didn’t talk about it very often. Writing this essay gave me a chance to ask him intimate questions about this very formative experience. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to revisit some of the territory we covered, and I am deeply grateful for his thoughtful and candid answers.

Brain, Child (Summer, 2010)

Elissa Wald is the author of three books: Meeting The Master, Holding Fire: A Love Story, and The Secret Lives Of Married Women. Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Beacon Best of 2001, Creative Nonfiction, The Barcelona Review, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Rumpus, Poets and Writers Magazine, and The Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames. She lives with her husband, daughter and son in Portland, Oregon, where she freelances as a writer and editor. Readers and new friends are welcome to connect with her on Facebook.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

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.

Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?

Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?

 

ScanAs my teenage daughter likes to remind me, sharing a bathroom with her brother, well, sucks. I get it. Growing up, my older brother and I shared a bathroom. Luckily though, our bathroom had two sinks, which meant we had own our space for occasional side by side nighttime teeth brushing or last minute before school glances in our matching oval mirrors. It was nice looking for a 1970s kids’ bathroom, with speckled apricot colored countertops, a terra cotta ceramic tiled floor and floral wallpaper with a contrasting ebony background. Assuming I set my alarm early enough and raced to the bathroom to get first dibs for a hot shower, I enjoyed my morning time in there, the potpourri in the mini glass bowls giving an added fresh scent to the room. But, if for some reason, I had over slept, even for a minute or two, I would race to find a closed door, the sound of the shower the exclamation point that not only would I be waiting a while to get in there, but the combination of fog, humidity and inevitable older brother bathroom smelliness would be a terrible start to my adolescent day.

My daughter is 15 and my son is 13. Like my brother and me, they share a bathroom.

“When will you be out of the bathroom?” my 13-year-old son Daniel yells to his older sister. He had already knocked on the closed door. Twice. Then a third time, not just a tap but a more forceful attempt, using his balled up fist rather than the palm of his hand. I’m not too far away if needed, downstairs in my office typing away at my computer.

Emily’s Taylor Swift music blares from behind the closed door, now a decibel or two louder, a direct response I am sure to her brother’s request. Then, a moment or two passes, as if she’s given his question some thought or perhaps she is simply done with whatever it is she’s been doing in there. Taylor Swift’s voice lowers to a whisper her lyrics now barely audible. The sound of the knob turning as Emily opens the door is an introduction to the final act of this familiar scene. She gives a dramatic flip of her wavy chestnut hair as she breezes by Daniel, and then, as an unexpected twist to the contentious plot, she gives him a quick tickle under his armpit, setting off laughter from both. “I’m still pissed,” Daniel says, still giggling as he walks into the bathroom shutting the door closed which he then quickly re-opens to throw his sister’s wet towel down the hallway.

I stop tapping at the keyboard, sit back in my desk chair and smile. Or is it a smirk? I survived the bathroom battles and banter with my brother years ago; now it’s my kids’ turn to do the same.

“You know what I will miss the most about my house?” a good friend recently asked in anticipation of her upcoming move to a new and bigger home in our community – one with bathrooms connected to each child’s room. Before I even had the chance to guess or give the obligatory “What?” she continued. “My kids’ forced time together … sharing a bathroom.” She paused, composing herself, as if she was about to grab a tissue from her bag. I knew exactly what she meant. “The fighting, the talking, everything. I’ve even heard them giggling in there. Many times … especially after an argument.” I sighed alongside her, thinking about my two teenagers, how as they’ve become older, time together needs to be somewhat forced upon them. Not just at the dinner table or on family car rides. Long gone are the days they sat in the gritty sand at Compo Beach, digging with their shovels and pails, taking turns to run to the water to fill their buckets.

Having my teenage kids share a bathroom is more than just sharing sink space and toothpaste with each other, more than yelling “I need to get in there” or “when will you be done?” Maybe they’ll learn to respect one another simply by flushing the toilet for the next person’s use or removing the inside out dirty clothes and wet towels before leaving the room. In this stage of adolescent life when one is glued to her phone or her laptop and the other is either focused on the X-box or the outside basketball hoop, sharing a bathroom forces them to stop what they’re doing and be in the moment. With each other. Together. And if that moment is a negotiation, an argument, a realization how to accommodate or understand each other’s needs and feelings for their shared space, or just a passing by shove or tickle, I’ll take it.

I think I might call my brother today.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

All My Children

All My Children

18883895975_2a16b01868_bBy Katherine Ozment

Our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jessie, is curled in my lap—as much as any five-and-a-half-year-old child can curl in her mother’s lap. Her long, gangly legs don’t quite fit anymore. She’s got one thumb in her mouth, the other hand pulled tight to her chest, and her face is resting against my breastbone—the fetal position, kindergarten-style.

Across the room, Annie, our eighteen-month-old, sees Jessie in her favorite spot and blows a gasket. Her brow furrows and she waddles toward us like a mad duck, her round belly clearing her path as she steps on strewn toys and bangs into the table, then a few chairs, en route. She’s making a noise I can only describe as keening, and I’m reminded once again of the wild intensity—and sheer absurdity—of this thing called sibling rivalry. A keening, waddling, pissed-off duck is coming at me as a delicate, too-tall flower lies limp and sad in my arms. This can’t end well.

Annie reaches us, and with one meaty-armed shove—surprising in force for someone who weighs as much as a holiday turkey—pushes Jessie, who falls from my lap in a long, drawn-out tumble, like an origami swan coming unfolded. Writhing on the floor, Jessie yells, “I hate her!”

Annie smiles, climbs into my lap, tilts her sweet face up to me, and chirps, “Book?”

William, our nine-year-old son, saunters by on his way to the fridge for a snack, notices Jessie crying, and says off-handedly, “She just wants you—like we all do.”

And, with that, our big, bookish boy sums up the whole mess. A natural historian peering in through our kitchen window might call the episode a clear case of the survival of the fittest. An economist might deem ours an obvious example of competition for scarce resources. And a writer might wax poetic on the positive outcome of all that sisterly competition, as Simone de Beauvoir once did: “She helped me to assert myself … I believe I should count the fact of having had a sister, younger than myself but close to me in age, as one of my pieces of good luck.”

Brother-brother, sister-sister, and brother-sister relationships have been mucking up the works ever since Cain fell out with Abel. But, as a field of study, sibling relationships are relatively new. While Freud probed parent-child and husband-wife bonds, the study of siblings has long existed in a kind of academic backwater. But, with a rise in new ways of looking at these age-old relationships in fields as various as evolutionary psychology, sociology, biology, anthropology, and even zoology, siblings have taken their rightful spot amid the forefront of the study of families. What has emerged can be as thorny as it is fascinating. But at their best, such studies shed new light on these fundamental relationships, which, perhaps more than any other, shape who we ultimately become.

This fall, a new book was published that condenses much of this research in one volume. In The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us, published in September, Jeffrey Kluger, a Time magazine writer, gathers the latest sibling research and intersperses what he learns with his own memories of growing up with three brothers, and later, a half-sister and half-brother. The result is a rich, thought-provoking mix of social science and memoir.

Looking back on his childhood with three brothers, Kluger often waxes nostalgic. “The four of us, we came to know at a very deep level, were a unit,” he writes, “a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much, much stronger that way than we did as individuals. And whenever the need arose, we knew we’d be able to call on that strength. Even now, several decades on, we still can.” But the point of his book goes much deeper: Those who don’t feel such warmth toward their siblings have also been shaped in fundamental and inescapable ways by them, whether they like it or not. We may believe that once we leave home and the daily company of our brothers, sisters, step-sibs, and halfs that we’re free of their influence. But the new research suggests that that is far from the case.

Eighty percent of Americans grow up with at least one brother or sister, and our bonds with our siblings are often the longest lasting and the most intense of our lives. In contrast to parents, whose relationship with us is more authoritarian in nature, our siblings swim alongside us in the family pool. We take baths with them, share bunk beds, kick each other under the dining room table, and wrestle across the back seats of station wagons through the crucial years of our young lives. From such intense, abiding bonds grows a family tree so tangled, so beautiful, and sometimes so bruised that those of us with siblings see traces of them, like a fine dust, on everything we do—even, or perhaps especially, when we become parents to siblings ourselves. In my case, I am particularly attuned to how my kids play—and fight—with one another, because I lost a brother when I was nineteen, and it wasn’t until long after he was gone that I realized how much his life had influenced my own. Will it take a lifetime—and a tragedy—for my own children to reach similar conclusions?

Turning to Kluger’s book not just as a sister but also as a mother, I was sometimes left with more questions than answers. Like: What power, if any, do I have in shaping my children’s relationships with one another? Should my husband and I try to promote loving bonds among our three kids, or is the degree and type of connection they share pre-ordained by birth order, age spacing, and temperament? Does the way they act toward one another now affect how they’ll interact later in life? And, most importantly for me these days, when all hell breaks loose, should I step in and referee, or can I let them pummel one another in the other room as I drink my coffee, serene in the knowledge that their relationships are their own and have nothing to do with me? For answers, I dug more deeply into the history of siblings, and the research itself.

For decades, sibling research lagged behind other kinds of psychological and sociological family study. In large part, that’s because it is so hard to do. Unlike probing a simple two-person relationship—say, a mother and child—the study of siblings is rife with variables. Researchers have to take into account such elements as age, background, gender, and overall family size and structure. And, not only is each family different from one another, each one changes, itself, in multiple ways over time. Added to that, the increase in divorce and remarriage in modern times have blurred family boundaries. So now, for the purposes of research, who do we call a sibling? For those of us in blended families, how do we explain which branch we occupy on the family tree? In my case, for instance, my parents divorced and my father remarried, so I grew up with two full brothers who were nine and seven years older than me, and, later, two half-sisters, twelve and eighteen years younger. At various times in my life, I have thus been the youngest child, only child, oldest child, and middle child. What can any researcher really say about that?

SALE copy

Nor have sibling relationships been the same throughout history. Over time, the imprint of culture has shaped the way families behave. From the countless sibling stories in the Old Testament and classical mythology, it’s clear that Western civilization has long acknowledged the importance, reward, and difficulty of sibling bonds.

Sibling relationships evolved dramatically through the modern era. By the eighteenth century, historians note, sibling relationships had grown strained by the practice of primogeniture and the rules determining which daughter could marry when. The resulting sibling conflicts began to subside as those laws and customs fell away. The nineteenth-century saw middle-class families embracing the importance of loving relationships within the family, especially between mothers and children. With family money no longer handed down strictly according to sibling birth order, parents began to emphasize loyalty among their offspring instead.

At the turn of the twentieth century, sibling rivalry among the middle class heated back up as families had fewer children and an even stronger focus on maternal-child love developed. No longer steeped in messages of cooperation or required to pitch in to raise the youngest of the brood, children started competing for their parents’ love and affection. Sibling relationships continued to evolve in the twentieth century, as closer age spacing and longer time spent in high school meant older siblings were even less able to care for the younger ones. Instead, they were more likely to turn on each other in jealousy. By the late 1900s, the prevailing parenting philosophy led parents to foster a strong sense of individuality in their children via such things as private bedrooms and separate toys.

Interestingly, it was around that time—the 1980s and 1990s—that the modern science of sibling research took off. In 1996, Frank Sulloway, a psychology professor now at the University of California at Berkeley, published Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, which quickly gained acclaim; Harvard’s E.O. Wilson described the book as “one of the most important treatises in the history of the social sciences.” It begins with this startling fact: “Siblings raised together are almost as different in their personalities as people from different families.” Sulloway wanted to know how this could be. He was particularly interested in creative, revolutionary types, wondering why some people through history are able to reject the status quo to upend societal thinking. Did they owe this capability to age, Oedipal rivalry, gender, random influences—or something else altogether?

Sulloway argued that birth order was the greatest driver of lifelong achievement. Using Darwin’s theories of evolution, particularly the survival of the fittest and competition for limited resources, he attempted to show how birth order determines personality, achievement, and adaptability throughout one’s life:

In nature, any recurring cause of conflict tends to promote adaptations that increase the odds of coming out on top. In their effort to gain a competitive edge, siblings use physical advantages in size and strength … Over time, the strategies perfected by firstborns have spawned counter strategies in later-borns. The result has been an evolutionary arms race played out within the family.

In other words, once struggling for survival, and now vying for love and attention, siblings compete by developing unique character traits. As in nature, according to Sulloway, children are constantly adapting to get what they need from their parents. This is why the oldest, with assured resources, often cherishes authority, he proposes; the middle child, who can’t possibly gain firstborn status, often disengages; and the youngest, nearly lost in the shuffle, seeks the most creative ploys for attention and ends up the family risk-taker. And though other scholars have pushed back against Sulloway’s theory (most famously, Judith Rich Harris, in her 1998 opus The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do), such a scenario gives me some sense of solace; maybe my kids’ fighting isn’t because of something we’ve done—it’s in their genes. Surveying the chaos on our dining room floor, I start to see my kids less as ill-behaved rapscallions than as a band of Galápagos finches clawing for territory in the family nest.

After our son, William, was born, he, my husband, Michael, and I were a simple triad. As first-time parents, we had lush reserves of time, energy, and resources. Sure, we were slightly panicky in our new roles—William made more first-year trips to the ER than the other two kids have, combined, in their lifetimes—but he seemed to bask in our undiluted attention.

Could we ever love another child this much? According to Jeffrey Kluger, though every parent denies it, “Firstborn favoritism is a very real thing.” That’s because all the resources we ladle onto our firsts are, in corporate-speak, “sunk costs.” Like a business creating its original, flagship product, first-time parents pour so much time and energy into their first child that he will never lose his top spot. We really want him to make it worth our while, and we’ll do whatever we can to bolster him so our investment pays off. Then, as the brood grows and we don’t have the same reserves of time and energy to dole out, we become less invested, consigning ourselves to being happy with the younger ones for simply breaking even.

The decision to have more than one child—when it is a decision, of course—is personal. In our case, it was born in part from Michael’s experience with parents who were both only children. When first his father and later his mother died, Michael and his brother were thrust into caretaker roles for their aging grandmothers. They vowed then that they would each have more than one child. My own family fractured early, and there are wide age gaps among me and my siblings—and a brother who died. I knew I wanted William to have what I never did—a companion of sorts, or at least a sibling who wasn’t leaving for college as he was going into fourth grade or being born when he was graduating from high school.

I remember a friend whose family I admired saying, “You have your first child for yourself and your second child as a gift for your first child.” I took those words, along with my and Michael’s past experiences, to heart. We had that next baby, and then another. And, while our family of five now feels full and complete, I imagine our kids sometimes wish they could return their “gifts.” But they can’t, and I’m increasingly determined to figure out what, if anything, I can do to make their sibling experience a good one.

“You never say anything when she mimics me,” William complains to me one night. “You turn a blind eye, and I can’t take it any more.”

He’s talking about Jessie, who, be it known, cried in my arms that very night because she’ll “never be first in our family” then, in the next breath, howled: “I wish I was still a baby but that I didn’t fall off the bed or the table.” (Because, I suppose, falling off the bed or the table is inherent to the experience of being a baby in our house.) She does have a way of sneaking in her attacks, but they’re small and slight—at least to me. To him, they seem to cut like knives.

It wasn’t always this way. When Jessie was born, William went through the age-appropriate regression: crying more, sleeping fitfully, and being generally more needy. And then she started to babble and scoot and do outrageous things like slather herself in melted Fudgsicle and make her hilarious “old lady face,” and he loved her and it was good. For several sweet years, he tugged her around like a beloved puppy dog. Once, as I pushed them through the aisles of the grocery store in one of those giant blue whale carts, he sang a made-up song: “Jessie is a good little baby, and she will never die!” She followed him, laughing and joining whatever game he devised. She would even try to comfort him when he was upset, toddling over with a stuffed animal or a gentle pat on the back.

But, while she played along when he introduced a game he dubbed “Tackle Jessie,” you could see that she was just learning his tricks and biding her time. And then, one day, it was her turn to make a few decisions. The roughhousing and teasing that he’d taught her, she demonstrated with ease. Suddenly, she wasn’t such a cute, innocent baby anymore. She was her own person. “Tackle Jessie” became “Tackle William.”

And so, for the past year, he has grown increasingly angry, muttering beneath his breath—and worse—when I don’t choose to punish her for a perceived (and, in my mind, microscopic) infraction, and taunting her with his big-boy privileges of sleepovers and a later bedtime. (Of course, it could be worse. If I were, say, a black eagle mother with two eggs in my nest, my first chick would have already pecked the other one to death, days after its hatching. Or, take spotted hyenas, wherein a quarter of pups are mauled to death by their siblings. The sad thing is, in our house, chicks used to play lovingly with chicks, and hyena pups once laughed and frolicked.)

My attempts to quell the rising hostility around the dinner table often take dramatic twists, like a series of Hail Mary passes I keep making as my desperation increases. I’ll start by trying to channel the How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk technique. Turning to William, I’d say, “So, you’re feeling like Jessie making a weird face at you was unkind?”

When that tactic doesn’t work, Michael and I will go old-school on them, pulling privileges like computer time, TV, and dessert. By the end of it all, everyone is usually in a time-out in his or her bedroom. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.

I picked up the Kluger book for insight. I could recognize that something was going a bit haywire in my own family dynamic, but I could also recognize that I was one player in the middle of our unfolding story. The researchers, I hoped, could offer a broader view—one that could help me gain some perspective so I could find a happy ending. Or at least one with less bickering.

It turns out that the influence of birth order is just one corner of sibling research. Researchers have moved beyond how your rung on the family ladder shapes your personal trajectory to explore more complex issues among a variety of sibling configurations. The range of findings is broad, and sometimes leaves me with cognitive whiplash. For instance, according to a study by psychologists Holly Recchia and Nina Howe at Concordia University in Montreal, when parents get involved in sibling conflicts, it takes kids twice as long to resolve the problem, but, with their parents present, they reach compromise slightly more often. (Is “slightly more often” enough of an incentive for me to buckle down and intercede?) I also read that intense sibling rivalry in childhood can lead to difficult relationships later in life, according to Deborah Gold, a psychologist at Duke. (So maybe I should step in and try to squelch it before I miss my chance?) An “unfavored” child is more likely to suffer anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, according to Clare Stocker, a research professor of developmental psychology at the University of Denver. (So, don’t have favorites. Got it.) Having an age spread of four or more years eliminates the issue of competition, says Shirley McGuire, associate professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. (Really? Cause I’m not really feeling that one.)

Of course, I realize no single study can encapsulate the whole ball of wax. I call Susan McHale, a professor of family studies at Pennsylvania State University, for an in-depth discussion of why my kids may be acting up and if they’ll ever get along. She explains families are “comparison machines” that exaggerate children’s differences to prevent head-on competition (as, for instance, you might see with those fratricidal hyenas.)

She brings up the idea that launched Sulloway’s book—that, in terms of personality, siblings are no more similar to one another than they are to strangers. How can that be?

“Parents think that they’re treating their kids the same,” McHale says. “And yet, you get these findings. So what is it about the non-shared part of their environment that causes this?” By “non-shared environment,” she means anything that multiple kids in the same house experience as being different.

“One of those differences is in the sibling relationship,” she goes on. “One has a sister and one has a brother, or one is a first born and one is a later born. And then there’s the differential treatment of siblings by the parents.”

And that’s where we come in. As McHale explains, some in the field believe that the differential treatment of siblings is the most powerful shaper of personality. In other words, you are who you are not just because of how your parents treated you but because of how your parents treated you as compared to how they treated your siblings. Is this why William is getting so upset with Jessie—because he’s constantly comparing the way I treat him to the way I treat her? I’ve long known that I do it, but not in a bad way. It’s just that they are such distinct individuals, I can’t imagine treating them each in an identical way.

Yeah, McHale goes on, it doesn’t help matters. “In order to reduce competition,” she says, “siblings de-identify with one another—they consciously or subconsciously pick the niche that’s different. So, if you have a smart older sibling, you become the jock, and if your family already has the student and the jock, you become the social butterfly. And if there are no positions left in the family, you become the black sheep.”

The kids do this themselves, but—and here’s the rub—the parents egg them on. “Parents can be very good at managing this,” she says. “We studied sisters who played soccer and we asked them how different they were, and they said, ‘Oh, completely different, totally different,’ and, ‘Well, how are they different?’ And the answer was, ‘Well, she’s on the offensive and I’m on the defensive, and so we’re totally different.’ So we can see how parents orchestrate this so that their daughters can’t compete on how many goals they made that day because one girl’s job was to make the goal and the other girl’s job was to keep the other team from scoring.”      

What ends up happening, McHale argues, is that the family acts as a powerful, too-bright hothouse, based alongside a nuclear power plant. We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along.      

Put this way, it makes sense. But what other counter-intuitive insights are out there?

I call Judy Dunn, developmental psychologist at King’s College in London, and co-author, with her husband, Robert Plomin, of Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different (1992). She and Plomin found that young siblings are profoundly affected by their mother’s interactions with their siblings, and that the little ones notice these interactions from a surprisingly young age.

That little fifteen-month-old or seventeen-month-old, she says, “is watching like a hawk” what goes on between her mother and the older sibling. In one study of this behavior, Dunn noticed that “if either the mother or the sibling showed irritation or anger, the younger child did not ignore it. And the way in which they responded differed, depending on the sort of relationship they had with their siblings. So, if the older child had ticked off the mother by breaking a rule, the younger child would come in and repeat the broken rule and so join the older child in antagonizing the mother.” Alternatively, the child might show support for the mother. But, whatever the situation, it’s clear—the kids are watching from the get-go. “And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention,” she argues in her book, “the more hostility and conflict between the siblings.”

Starting with the birth of the second child, Dunn and Plomin write, parents can set the tone by minimizing the differences in their relationship with each kid. This, Dunn says, goes against the conventional wisdom doled out in parenting magazines. “A line you see sometimes is, ‘Think how you’d feel if your husband said, “It’s been so lovely having you, I’m going to have another wife too.” ‘ The implicit advice is not to dominate this first child’s life with the baby.” But she found the opposite tactic was more effective. In a study of fifty mothers, she found half of them were “those who went out of their way to draw the first child into looking after the baby. So, if he’s crying, they’d say, ‘Oh why is he crying? Do you think he needs his bottle? I wish we could cheer him up’.” The other half took the commonly held advice of keeping the kids separate so they could have full-on parental attention. Guess who fared better.

“On the whole,” Dunn says, “the ones who brought the child into the baby’s life and vice versa, talked to the first child about the baby as a person with needs and feelings—in those families, the relationship with the siblings did develop more positively.”

I like to think I did all that, but as with so much else in those early months with a new baby, I can’t precisely recall.

However it all started, I’d like to know how to make it stop. I call Laurie Kramer, a professor of Applied Family Studies and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was the among the first to quantify sibling conflicts (typically, eight an hour).

Kramer works with parents who want to stop the incessant fighting but don’t know how. For her research, she wires kids up with recording devices and leaves them with alternating parents on two separate occasions. The results show that, while parents believe they should intervene in sibling battles, they rarely do so.

“Parents often chose not to respond, and when we looked at the questionnaires we’d asked them to fill out, we found that their confidence was low,” she says. “They didn’t feel skilled.”

I nod so hard in agreement into the phone that my neck starts to hurt. When I describe my own struggles, Kramer replies in a soft, soothing voice.

She explains some of what the Family Resiliency does in teaching siblings to interact with each other. “Maybe your older child needs to get in your middle child’s head and vice versa.”

This approach sounds good in theory, but I sigh inwardly, imagining another failure.

“Couldn’t I just leave them to their own devices?” I ask.

“What we found,” she says, “is that when parents do nothing, kids fight more. Especially for kids under age eight, they just don’t have the social and emotional competence to work it out themselves.”

So, turning a blind eye, as William claims I always do, will not solve this problem.

Armed with the fruits of all this new sibling research, I’ve started to view our family interactions in a fresh way. I spend thirty minutes rubbing Jessie’s back at night, then, exhausted, give William a pat and race off to bed. (Differential treatment.) As I tend to Jessie’s tangled hair before school, Annie climbs onto the Thomas table and dances like a wild chicken. (Not Enough Resources, Risk-Seeking Behavior). When we try to get Jessie to take up basketball, she turns up her nose, saying that’s an activity for her big, athletic brother (De-identification.)

I also start trying to put the practices that may well work into use. When, for example, a recent dinner was about to implode, I asked the two big kids to try understanding what the other was feeling. It wasn’t pretty (I believe the word “nincompoop” was tossed around), and I was glad Laurie Kramer hadn’t wired us all up for close examination and Judy Dunn wasn’t lurking in the corner with her notepad in hand. But, staying firmly rooted at the dining room table as I attempted to guide them, instead of throwing up my arms in surrender, felt like a small step toward my goal of family peace. The two of them even shared an exaggerated eye-roll afterward at my expense, and our little one made us all laugh by making her own version of “old lady face.” It was a rare instant of family harmony—the sort of thing we might one day remember, not in stark detail, but in the warm feeling of belonging that washed over us in that moment and remained, in some intangible way, as night fell around us.

Siblings matter. I’ve always known that, but I guess I hadn’t appreciated just how much and in how many ways. But now, as I watch the unfolding tableaux of my own children’s relationships with one another, I think of how all the moments they spend together and all the feelings that crop up, are collecting into the fine dust they will carry with them, whether they like it or not, for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes, at night, I watch William and Annie as they play on our bed. He likes to “babysit” her while I read to Jessie. He carries her up the stairs and bounces her on his lap. Later, when I come up, I see her laughing and squealing as he tickles her. He sometimes tells me she is the only person in the family who understands him. I catch my breath. I fight back tears. I think: What will they give each other in their lifetimes, and how will they break each other’s hearts?

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until after my second daughter, Annie, was born that I realized she and my son, William, share the same seven-year age difference that separated me and my brother, Matt, who died. So, watching them now, I see something I can no longer touch—him and me, growing up. Sometimes I stare, falling out of myself and into the deep chasm of my life’s great, unanswered question—not so much “Who am I?” as “Who have I been?” I know the root of the answer lies in our childhood home, with my brothers, one of whom I so rarely see and the other of whom is gone.

I have but one photograph of my brothers and me when I was a baby—we are sitting in a circle, holding hands. My back is to the camera, but I can see their faces, angled toward me and smiling. Other than that small, glossy, black-and-white photo with the thin white border, I don’t exist to myself before I began having my own memories. And, once I start to exist, I do so most immediately in the context of my brothers. My parents, dwelling across some invisible bridge in their grown-up world of work and relationships, moved to the periphery of my days and the edges of my consciousness. But there, in the center—in the backseat of the car, in the neighbor’s pool, in the garage filled with their motorcycles and my toys—are the three of us doing the complex, fitful, sometimes tender dance of figuring out who we are.

Brain, Child (Winter 2012)

Katherine Ozment is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Boston Magazine, where she also writes a weekly parenting blog. The baby boy she was pregnant with when she wrote this essay is now ten years old, stands up to her shoulder, and has two younger sisters, ages six and two. More of her writing can be found at katherineozment.com

Two Hearts Beat as One

Two Hearts Beat as One

fall2009_newmanI am thinking soulfully of the U2 song, but what my kids are thinking of is poop. This is not atypical; poop is, in fact, the paradigm for much of their philosophical reflection. “Gosh, I don’t know,” Birdy is saying. “You’d have to sit and sit and wait and wait and just be so bored while the other person was pooping.” I picture us in the gas station bathroom just yesterday, me leaning against the wall of the stall, breathing through my mouth, eager to get back on the road, while Birdy grunted and groaned and wound toilet paper around and around her hand and hummed a little bit of “Rainbow Connection” and then exclaimed, laughing, “Gosh, I forgot for a second what I was even trying to do in here!”

“You’re right,” I say now. “I bet it can be pretty boring.”

“But you’d never be lonely,” Ben sighs—Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old who still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart. “Though it could be kind of hard to learn to swim.”

My children are somewhat obsessed with conjoined twins, their awe and fascination marinated in the brine of a salty something that tastes a lot like existential angst. I get this, and not only because I, too—at their age and still—have felt the tug of curiosity in this exact direction, but also because conjoined twins offer a kind of de facto case study of personhood. Would you still be you if you were your own self in a shared body? Your independent will in a dependent package? As Patty Hensel, the mother of conjoined twins Abby and Brittany, puts it so beautifully, “They’re two girls wrapped in the same blanket.” This particular pair of sisters each has a head and a heart, but share their other limbs and organs: one liver, one uterus, two arms, two legs. Ask them if they have two heads and they roll their eyes, say, “No.” Because, duh, they each have one head.

And I know this because up late in a motel room, Michael and I watched the Discovery Channel special about them turning sixteen and learning to drive. These happy, fearless Minnesotan kids with their shiny ponytails and spunk, bickering over when to signal and turn. My God, can you imagine your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy. You can’t help admiring the parents with their Midwestern absence of nonsense: These are kids with household chores and sturdy egos. You can’t help wishing for that kind of confidence and character for your own. In fact, we almost woke ours to watch with us—they would have loved these girls—but then we didn’t know how to feel. It was such a guilty pleasure, this sating of our own voyeuristic curiosity. There they are, so sassy, so teen-glossy, in their cute Aeropostale tank top; there they are, e-mailing their friends, doing each other’s hair, playing softball, stopping at school lockers to gossip and giggle. When Brittany says that they plan to be moms, but then snaps that when and who they date “is none of the world’s business,” you feel slapped, as if she knew that you were just then wondering about that very thing.

Which is how I always felt as a kid reading Very Special People: The Phenomenal Bestseller That Reveals the Real Lives of Human Oddities—Their Loves and Triumphs. This is a book that I rummaged from a bookshop bargain bin, and then spent countless summer afternoons poring over while all my little ten-year-old friends were braiding lanyard key chains and swimming in each other’s pools. Given my own personality, the attraction to human oddities was really no great mystery. But then here was a book that, like pornography, invited you to stare at the very things from which you knew you were supposed to look away: extra and missing limbs, beards on ladies, folks who were microscopically tiny or wildly humongous; The Mule-Faced Woman; The Dog-Faced Boy; The Elastic-Skin Man.

There were photographic plates of all of them, all uncomfortably riveting, but only the conjoined twins opened up a can of existential worms. You’d still be you with three legs or no legs, after all; you’d be you even if you were the limbless “Caterpillar Man,” rolling cigarettes with your lips, or if you were featured hirsutely in the chapter, “Hairy, Hairy People” (as I doubtless will be soon). But what if your body were not yours alone? What about the saxophone-playing Hilton sisters, joined at the spine? What about Radica and Doodica Orissa, connected at the chest? “When one took medicine, the other felt its effect” was a claim that struck—and stuck with—me. Even then it felt like a metaphor, though I wasn’t sure for what. Compassion, maybe? It was a sibling trait I sorely lacked. Somewhere deep down, I worried that my own brother could have lain writhing on the floor, and I would have hopped over him to yoink the last Fudgsicle from the freezer.

But, like that of my own kids now, my curiosity was often scatological in nature. The same way I wondered where Laura and Mary pooped when they were snowed in for shockingly cheerful months on end, I wondered about the Tocci brothers, who, the book pointed out, shared a rectum. (I can’t help picturing my kids in a whining argument about whose turn it is to wipe). Or Chang and Eng Bunker who, married to a pair of sisters, fathered twenty-one children between them. And there’s just no getting around the twenty-one certain instances of conjoined doing it required by that count of offspring. This latter is so preoccupying a subject that it actually seems to have generated a whole entire novel, Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss. Oh, sure, it’s about other stuff, too: nineteenth-century Thailand and American slavery, for instance. But when you get to the procreation half of the book, you realize that the whole thing has been written in response to the question: How on earth did they have sex? Like the punch line to the joke about porcupines: very carefully. And the imaginary plot twist of one of the twins cheating with the other’s wife is almost too ecstatically strange to bear.

For my own kids, though, it’s not sex they’re curious about, not just yet. It’s the umbrella category privacy—someone else snatching a peek at your nethers, say—that gets them. “For me?” Birdy says suddenly over a plate of spaghetti. “The worst thing if you were a joined twin? You couldn’t get privacy to go to the bathroom.” Really? That’s the worst thing? I scroll through the six years of her life and wonder how many times out of a hundred she has yelled from the bathroom for company, wonder how many times out of a hundred I have actually finished my own wiping and flushed before she barged in.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Ben is saying now. “What if you pulled down your pants, and you were, like, Hey everyone, look at my penis! Then you’d be showing everyone your brother’s penis, too!” Ben thinks for a moment, absentmindedly drinking out of his sister’s water glass. “But I guess you wouldn’t really do that. You just couldn’t. Being a conjoined twin would be good that way—I mean, it would make you a better person, a kinder person. You wouldn’t always get what you wanted.” Another moment of quiet drinking follows. “Not that you do anyways,” he adds, which seems somehow to be the point exactly.

Maybe Ben is wrestling with a fantasy of unfettered independence—a fantasy that keeps getting disrupted by his identification with conjoined twins; he keeps realizing that his own independence is, in fact, fettered. He is not, after all, like my free-bird ex-boyfriend, tripping off to Santa Fe to play ultimate Frisbee and drop acid every other day without a shred of concern for anybody else’s pesky feelings, not that I remember or care. For better or worse, Ben’s life is conjoined with ours. “Or what if you’re on a road trip,” he’s saying now, “and one of you has to use the bathroom, but it’s not actually the best time to stop and find a bathroom?”

“Um, honey?” I say, picturing our various national tours of fast-food restaurant toilets. “That’s basically every road trip our family has ever taken.”

He laughs but can’t stop with his conjoined case studies. “Or, like, at fairs, if one person wanted to go on the roller coaster and the other didn’t? That would be kind of hard.” Yes, that would be kind of hard: I know this, given that my kids insist on each other’s company on the merry-go-round or Tilt-A-Whirl, but rarely agree on which rides to try. “Or on a trip? If one person wanted to go to a clam shack but the other wanted, like, barbecue?”

“Isn’t that kind of what it’s like anyways?” I ask gently, and Ben laughs again.

“Oh yeah, right! It’s not like I’m just eating alone in a clam shack because that’s what I wanted!” I think about the Hensel twins saying, so beautifully simply, “We take turns a lot.” Exactly.

Birdy can’t help taking her visions of conjoinedness to accidentally absurd endpoints. “What if you just had one brain and one face and one body?” Her eyes are wide with the shock of imagination.

“Um, Birdy?” Ben says. “Then you’d just be a regular single person.”

“Oh, right!” Birdy laughs, while Michael whispers to me, “A regular single schizophrenic person.”

But I understand. She’s testing out her difference from us: After years of behaving transparently, kids learn at a certain point that the movie screens of their minds play for them and them alone. Privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread. Birdy is different from us—connected, but apart—and after an umbilical fetus-hood and a nursling babyhood, this seems to be hard to grasp. I explain to her about the way Chang and Eng mixed first-person singular and plural in utterances like, “We am Chang-Eng.” It actually reminds me of Birdy herself as a comically pronoun-challenged toddler, never knowing if, as a speaker, she was “I” or “you.” “Are you hungry?” you’d ask her, and she’d reply, heartbreakingly, “You am.”

Thinking about conjoined twins is somehow making concrete for us the family condition of connection and compromise, the childhood condition of separation and dependence, the parental condition of empathy and encumberedness. And it’s not that conjoined twins exist as a metaphor, of course; they’re not here for us; they’re not simply a screen onto which we get to project our curiosity and philosophical questions. One egg split into two consciousnesses, that’s why they’re here, and you only have to watch Abby and Brittany for one minute to grasp their fundamentally unabstract humanness. In fact, I’m thinking now of this one still photo of them as little girls—a black and white picture of them in a swimsuit by the pool, with their frightened faces, their arms wrapped protectively around each other while a little boy gapes at them from the water. And what I feel, looking at that photo, is what it’s like to be their parents. To be any parent. The way you ache when they ache, the way you experience their stomachaches or heartaches or fear in your very self. It’s as if, having once been placentally connected to your beating heart, having once inhabited your actual body, your children continue to live there with you. For better and worse, you are never alone again. Sex might test your apartness from another person, but parental love defies it utterly. With a pair of small, beloved feet pressed hot against my belly, I have burned with a fever not my own; and as Tylenol cooled that body, I have known relief. When one took medicine, the other felt its effect. This love is an affliction, a true human oddity. I have never been so conjoined in all my life.

“We am Birdy-Mama,” my daughter teases from my lap.

But then Ben is saying suddenly, “Oh gosh. Another thing? If one of them dies?” Then the other will die, too. I hear it before he even says it—think of Chang’s dying hours after he felt Eng’s fatal coldness, his heart broken literally and figuratively by the broken heart of his brother. He refused to be separated, even then, even if it meant saving his own life. I think of parents everywhere—the feeling you have that you’d die if your child died, though you wouldn’t. You’d grieve and live and perhaps even thrive in your truncated self, though the ache of the missing part would never leave you. This is an individual feeling, yes, but one that exceeds the beating of a single heart. My eyes fill with tears. Only then what Ben actually says is, “I mean, you’d have to, like, drag around a—yuck—dead body everywhere you went.” He shudders, adds, “Gross,” and I am reminded for the umpteenth time that we have shared a body, this child and I, I have imagined him almost as a second self, but then, like Chang and Eng, like Abby and Brittany, we are two different people after all.

Author’s Note: I’m worried that it sounds here like all we do as a family is sit around chatting merrily about other people’s physical challenges—Wow, if you were blind, you’d sure trip over everything!—especially given the ugly, terrorizing history of the “normal,” which has always felt fully entitled, it seems, to marshal gigantic armies of alleged oddity to define itself against. Which is what I want my children to grasp: that every time you point to another person and think, “That,” you might imagine a filament casting off the rod of your finger to catch that person and reel them in close; you might consider pointing back at yourself, and thinking, “Me, too.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

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.