Motherwit:  Child Psychology 101

Motherwit: Child Psychology 101

Dictionary photo

By Sue Sanders

Parenthood introduces us to a rich new vocabulary. To help make better sense of it all, here is a glossary of psychological terms for parenting:

abnormal – the state of a parent’s stomach before spending years helpfully polishing off a finicky toddler’s dinner.

adolescence see antisocial behavior

anal-retentive – at a bathroom stop on a long family trip, the three-year-old firmly declares that she doesn’t have to go, that she won’t go and that no one can make her. In the car, twenty minutes later she becomes anal-expulsive. And there isn’t a change of clothes.

antisocial behavior see adolescence

closure – realizing lazy Sunday mornings, filled with nothing but New York Times reading and coffee drinking are over for good.

collective unconscious – what parents fall into at night after a hard day of child wrangling and a night of companionate love.

confirmation bias – what religious grandparents accuse new parent of when told that, no, family will not have child baptized, confirmed, or attend church. (see also conversion disorder)

countertransference – what a parent needs to do when the grocery clerk puts out her light and slaps a “closed” sign on her lane after parent has taken out of the cart a week’s worth of groceries, some of which have been carefully selected by three-year-old who is beginning to show signs of divergent thinking.

denial – when parent is certain he/she will have enough money saved to send child to college in three years.

depressive realism – what life sometimes seems when parent has had little/no sleep because infant wanted to play all night and parent now has an entire day of meetings.

ego – what toddler boldly announces (usually followed by the simple, declarative demand: “Now!”) as soon as parents enter the children’s concert they’ve just spent $50 on. Parents just want child to cut id out.

explicit memory – what thirteen-year-old shows no signs of when reminded tonight was the night that her grandparents are coming over for dinner and she promised to stay and be social, but she’s already made plans with her friends. (see recovered memory, retroactive amnesia, selective attention)

gender role – delicious with cheese and mayo.

hierarchy of needs – there is no hierarchy, all needs are equal: everyone needs something at the exact same time.

hindsight bias – what a parent feel when he/she sees it in the mirror so he/she decides yet again to start running. (see denial, negative afterimage, procrastination)

inferiority complex – develops when visiting new mom friend who has written three books, has a beautiful, organized house, and clean laundry put away. For a mother with i.c. reality is vastly different. (see also depressive realism)

long-term memory – forgot about it.

libido – forgot about it.

motivated forgetting – something sixteen-year-olds excel at.

nervous system – often first located when parent gazes into infant’s eyes and realizes he/she don’t know what he/she is doing.(see night terrors, panic attack)

observer bias – when total strangers tell mother to put socks on that baby, his feet are cold, what are you? a total idiot? Often cause of defiant disorder in new mothers.

paradoxical sleep – before parenthood, one slept during the night.

psychobabble – when a shrink’s child is beginning to speak.

recall – call again and again for preschool packets; why the redial button was invented. (see reflex)

rooting reflex – the “hooray!” a mother feels when she finally sees her infant latch on for the first time.

secondary sex characteristics – unimportant when exhausted parents have forgotten what their primary ones are.

self absorption – to get psyche-d about really good diapers.

sex roles – vowed never fall into before had a child. (see short term memory)

Skinner Box – at times, it actually sounds pretty good.

stranger anxiety – what many parents feel when seeing another adult approach their child.

working memory – although it seems as if it’s often on strike, it comes roaring back when a parent looks at their sleeping child and their unconditional response is unconditional love.

Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Real Simple, Islands, Parents, the Rumpus and others. She’s the author of the parenting memoir, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore.

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Traveling With Lizzie

Traveling With Lizzie

Traveling with Lizzie ArtBy Sue Sanders

I crawled after my fifteen-year-old daughter into the back of a dilapidated van that was designed to carry eight passengers but already held almost a dozen. It was parked in a rutted lot that passed for a bus station in this tiny Sumatran village. Lizzie and I had just hiked a couple of miles from our thatched jungle hut and, although it was still early morning, my cotton shirt was soaked. Even my knees, jammed into the vinyl seat in front of me, were sweating. I fantasized about polar bears and ice floes.

“It’s a little squished,” Lizzie said, fanning herself with a packet of cookies. Then an Australian backpacker hopped in next to me just before the driver slid the door shut. “At least we’ve got a bit extra room,” I said, pointing at an empty seat as the van bumped along a potholed dirt road to the next town. A few minutes later, our driver pulled up to a corner, rolled down his window and called out our destination: “Parapat, Parapat!” A young Indonesian man got in and crawled over us to the last remaining seat.

There’s nothing like travel to forge mother-daughter closeness. Especially when you are wedged together in the tiny backseat of a dubiously maintained van for an eleven-hour ride.

Lizzie and I started taking trips together when she was ten, though all our previous getaways had been only a night or two and a short ride from our home. We’d never done anything remotely like this—backpacking for two and a half weeks through Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. Lizzie had been volunteering in Cambodia and, after her program, I met her in Phnom Penh where we caught a budget flight to North Sumatra’s capital, Medan. She seemed excited about the idea, although the van ride dampened her enthusiasm a little. I was used to challenging road trips having spent much of my twenties and thirties traipsing around the world, going wherever my backpack and a cheap plane ticket would take me.

I’d lived in Jakarta as a kid, and I wanted to show Lizzie “my” country. I also wanted a chance to test-drive my Bahasa Indonesia, which was so rusty it had corroded to the point of uselessness. We’d stay in $6-a-night huts without running water and with electricity only a few hours a day. We’d sleep under mosquito nets, eat nasi goreng and absorb Sumatran culture. We’d trek through the jungle and see orangutans and elephants and, with luck, avoid contracting malaria and dysentery. It would be an adventure. Since there weren’t many summers left until Lizzie was off to college and into her own life, it was, I reasoned, now or never. And I much prefer now to never.

Travel is a lot like parenting: you can’t really plan what will happen. Instead, you just have to roll with it. In this case literally, on a bad wheel and lackluster suspension. We rode through the jungle and endless palm oil plantations, past small towns with silver minarets gleaming in the sun. Then we hit a massive traffic jam. We’d been warned that travel during Idul Fitri, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, is especially difficult. We watched with equal parts awe and horror as our driver swerved onto the sidewalk to inch past stalled vehicles until we were out of the worst. Driving in Sumatra can be like a game of high-speed chicken, passing other vehicles in the oncoming lane with drivers leaning on their horns, waiting until the last second to see who will lose his nerve and back off.

And just like parenting, with travel sometimes it’s better to close your eyes and desperately hope you and your child will make it to your destination—and adulthood—in one piece. But even though you’re not always sure what you’re doing on that road, you’re glad you’re on the journey together. At least I was.

At home our lives are busy. There’s work and school, track and debate, movies and meals with friends. We eat family dinners most nights, Lizzie and her dad and I chatting about our days. Life has a hectic but predictable rhythm.

But one of the great things about travel is how it shakes up that routine, even if it’s temporary. On our trip, Lizzie and I were forced to live in the moment, a compulsory Zen of sorts. We didn’t know where we would stay, what we would eat for dinner or how we would get from point A to B.

During meals in Indonesia, Lizzie and I lingered over generous portions of spicy Padang chicken and finger-sized fried bananas, veering from the usual topics of classes, friends and sports. She asked me about my childhood, curious about the time I’d spent in Indonesia as a child. She told me her tentative plans for studying psychology or English or history or library science and perhaps joining the Peace Corps or traveling after graduation. Our conversation was without boundaries and borders. Time, it seemed, temporarily slowed.

I began to see Lizzie in a new way, through the eyes of strangers. At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, a young customs agent who appeared to be in his early twenties said something to Lizzie in Bahasa Malaysia as he stamped her passport. She smiled politely, not understanding a word. Another agent looked at me and said, in English, “He thinks she is pretty. How old?” I told her and she translated. Neither Lizzie nor I had any difficulty understanding his response as he handed her the passport: smiling while backing up and calling out “Ohhhhhh!’

“He was flirting with you,” I said to Lizzie as we tucked our passports away.

“Mom! Stop it!” Lizzie said, proving teenage embarrassment of a parent can span continents. Then she looked at me and burst out laughing.

It’s an odd feeling watching your daughter get hit on. At fifty, as I become less visible to the outside world, Lizzie is becoming more so. Each year I blow out my birthday candles and it’s as if a tiny bit of me is being exhaled along with the carbon dioxide and oxygen. I watch, both amused and ready to jump in, if needed. It’s as if I glanced away for twenty seconds and Lizzie had metamorphosed into this lovely and confident young adult. I suspect this isn’t new for her, but at home it’s sometimes as if we live in separate countries, Parentlandia and Teenageopolis and only occasionally set foot across each other’s borders. While traveling, we’re outsiders, together.

Seeing Lizzie in a different way in a new place makes me realize, yet again, that she’s on adulthood’s fast track. Soon we won’t share a house or even a city, but we’ll always have our trip backpacking through Sumatra and that cramped eleven-hour van ride we thought would never end. But, like childhood, it did.

Author’s Note: I loved traveling with Lizzie, who was an intrepid traveler and embraced new experiences like squat toilets and cold showers. Back home in Portland, we occasionally go out for lunch and relive our trip. “Remember how a tree fell across that road up the volcano? It was lucky that man on a motorbike had a chainsaw!” We’re planning another backpacking trip together.

Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Real Simple, Islands, Parents, the Rumpus and others. She’s the author of the parenting memoir, Mom, Im Not a Kid Anymore.

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

By Sue Sanders

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutI stood in my ivory silk wedding dress clutching a bouquet with my six-year-old daughter by my side. Lizzie held tightly to a basket of rose petals with one hand and to me with the other. She pulled on my arm and looked up.

“Now we’ll be an official family? And Jeff will be my official dad?” she whispered. Smiling, I nodded, squeezed her hand, and scanned the small crowd gathered on our front lawn for the occasion. Nearly everyone important to us was there: our friends and family, my new in-laws and my ex in-laws.

 *   *   *

When Jeff and I had first met, it was electric. It was also complicated: we’d both been married before and carried bits of our past into our present. I brought my young daughter; he, Louis the dog; and both of us, a subset of ex in-laws. When Jeff divorced, he had only occasional contact with his ex-family: exchanging holiday cards and email and later, becoming Facebook friends. But I remained close to my ex in-laws, chatting on the phone frequently and staying occasional weekends with them at their house in suburban New Jersey. Lizzie, their only grandchild then, helped cement our relationship as did my ex-husband’s severe bipolar disorder, which made it vividly clear that divorce was our only realistic option.

My ex-husband and I met in college and were together eighteen years. His parents, Tom and Nancy, had seen how I’d spent the final five years of my marriage, desperately trying to get my husband to take the pills that could control his illness. We were bound by the horrific experience of seeing someone we all loved deeply refuse psychiatric help and get sicker as a result. His parents knew that their son’s illness was no one’s failing; that ours was the ultimate no-fault divorce. They’d welcomed me into their lives all those years ago and their son’s illness wouldn’t change that, would it? Part of me wondered, but I tamped down the doubt, sure we’d continue to have a relationship.

From the time my husband and I had separated, my ex in-laws continued to be both emotionally and financially generous with Lizzie and me (I had quit working to stay at home with our baby). When my ex’s “episodes” became more frequent and severe, finally leading to the end of our marriage, Tom and Nancy took Lizzie and me into their home while we worked with a series of doctors and New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to have their son hospitalized. They were there for us when their son, in an angry manic phase, canceled our health insurance and had all our mail forwarded to his house. They were there when their son frightened my upstairs neighbor into giving him a key and then let himself into my Brooklyn apartment. Much later, when I finally met with a divorce lawyer and we all realized that my ex-husband was in no condition for court, his father Tom became his son’s legal guardian and represented him in the proceedings.

More than a year went by. I eventually started dating and met the man who’d become my second husband. Jeff and I met online, flirting and getting to know one another remotely. When we finally met in person, we knew it was real. As time passed and our relationship deepened, it all seemed so easy and natural something I hadn’t experienced for ages.

After dating for a year, we moved in together, to a little house in a small town in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon, a few months later, Tom and Nancy drove the two hours from their house to ours the house that they’d loaned us money to help buy—where Tom would meet Jeff for the first time and Nancy, who had joined us all for Lizzie’s fifth birthday party a few months earlier, would get to know him better. I was nervous—I felt a bit like a matchmaker arranging a blind date. Would Tom and Nancy like Jeff? Would it be awkward for them to see me with someone who wasn’t their son and to see Lizzie treat Jeff as the father he had already become to her? Would they flinch if Lizzie referred to Jeff as “my dad”? How did they fit into our lives, anyhow? I wanted them to continue to be involved, but what are the rules for ex-family? I wasn’t sure, but we were grafting new branches to our family tree.

As I wondered what would happen, I realized I was really seeking their approval—even though the logical part of me understood this was ridiculous. I was an adult. I wasn’t their child. They knew staying married to their son wasn’t an option. Still, there was a tiny portion of me that felt guilty for abandoning my mentally ill husband.

When they finally pulled into our gravel driveway, we all dashed out to greet them. Nancy struggled on an arthritic knee to extract herself from the passenger seat, then greeted Jeff with a peck on the cheek. Lizzie and I escorted her into the house, walking slowly in time with her cane, while Jeff helped Tom pull multiple bags of brightly wrapped gifts out of the trunk. I could hear them laughing and talking. Jeff let Tom know how grateful he was for their generosity and compassion toward me. Tom told Jeff he really appreciated hearing that. When Jeff repeated all this to me later that night after Tom and Nancy had left, I felt incredibly thankful—and relieved. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath and I could finally exhale.

Their visit crystalized something that had been bothering me since my ex-husband and I separated: there needs to be better vocabulary to describe changing family relationships. Lizzie seems to be aware of this deficiency, and flips back and forth in an almost bilingual manner depending on her audience, referring to Jeff by his name when she ad- dresses him, and calling him “my dad” when she talks about him to friends and family. I find the lack of accurate words challenging, as well. What label is there for ex in-laws who are still in a person’s life? I’ve tried to refer to them in other ways, though nothing seems right. Using just first names when I introduce them to friends somehow doesn’t convey our bond. And introducing them as “my ex-mother-in-law, Nancy, and ex-father-in-law, Tom” maybe accurate, but it’s an awkward mouthful. I play around with possibilities, but none seem right: my mother-out-law; my father-ex-law; my parents. I can’t think of any short, pithy label to explain how our relationship, though changed, is still a close one.

*   *   *

A few months after that visit, when Jeff and I decided to marry, we didn’t hesitate to add my ex in-laws to our small wedding’s guest list. It felt right.

So there we all were: friends, family, ex-family. That June afternoon was a clichéd ideal of Hudson Valley wedding weather—sun peeking through wispy white clouds that kept the day from getting too hot. Though our row of peonies had already died back, dropping their petals all over the ground as Lizzie soon would hers as flower girl, the potted foxglove and geraniums on the deck overlooking the distant mountains were in full bloom. A scrum of kids played freeze tag and softball in the yard before settling into chairs with their parents. Then I said that I did and Jeff said that he did too, and we kissed. I grinned at my family and ex-family, so glad they were there for the very beginning of this newest phase of our life.

Jeff’s friends seemed surprised that we’d invited my ex in-laws to the wedding, after they’d been introduced during the reception with that awkward mouthful of words. Later, I poured a glass of merlot and brought it to Tom as he sat on a folding lawn chair in the backyard. He stood and hugged me, a genuine hug from someplace deep inside. I thought about how conflicted he must have felt to see his ex-daughter in-law so happy with a man who wasn’t his son, and to see his granddaughter bond so firmly with a “new” dad in a way that she never would with his son. I hugged Tom back.

“I’m so glad you came,” I said, as we sat back down.

Tom reached for his merlot and took a sip. He seemed at a loss for words.

“You’re part of our family,” I said, tearing a little for all that we’d been through together with his son—and for all that was ahead of us.

“And you’re part of ours,” Tom said softly, eyes moist.

I feel so lucky to have had even that brief conversation. Three weeks after our wedding, Tom died in his sleep.

*   *   *

Now, years later, we’re still writing our own rules about what family is. We visit Nancy in her Manhattan apartment every summer. She’s stayed with us as well. But we still grapple with explaining our relationship to others and what, exactly, to call one another. Lizzie has it easy: “grandma” is grandma no matter what. But I still don’t have a convenient word and perhaps I never will.

Our new nuclear family is celebrating its ninth anniversary this summer and we’ve each celebrated nine birthdays together. Lizzie’s homemade birthday cards to Jeff have progressed from squiggles and backward letters, with stick figures with curly gray hair crayoned on the front, to tiny, careful cursive with anime-like drawings. Some have said “To Dad;” others, “To Jeff.” But however she chooses to address them, he’s very much her “official” parent.

Author’s Note: I’m still wrestling with what “family” means and searching for a word that can describe ours to others less awkwardly—there aren’t any nice, concise expressions that easily explain ex-family still in someone’s life. I also sometimes wonder if these bonds will remain as strong over time as with “regular” family. I hope they do.

Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others. She is the author of the book Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore.

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The Boulangerie

The Boulangerie

By Sue Sanders

Art The BoulangerieI pulled open the door to the boulangerie and it hit me at once — a yeasty aroma mixed with the tang of burnt sugar that tickled my nose. I held the heavy glass door for my 4-year old daughter and as she entered, she inhaled deeply, a smile slowly spreading across her face. We stood in line and waited, oblivious to the conversations around us in French, studying the display case in front of us. When it was our turn, we chose two almond croissants, still warm and dense and dusted with powdered sugar. I remembered the last time I’d bought these pastries in Paris.

In the late 1980s, my first husband and I paused during a trip around the world to settle in Paris for a year. He wasn’t yet my husband — we’d met in college and had only been out a few years. Convinced marriage didn’t apply to us, we playacted bohemians in our tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a timbered eighteenth century building. I found a job teaching 4 and 5-year olds English and he wrote, filling spiral notebooks with stories and poems. We made friends — other expats and Parisians — and stayed up late, drinking bottles of red wine and eating meals we’d painstakingly prepared with friends in their small kitchens. We walked home late at night on cobbled streets, the Eiffel Tower lit up in the distance like a Christmas tree.

We were so very young. Years later, after the marriage and the baby, after his mental illness and the hospitalizations and my hope that he’d stay on his meds and get better had evaporated — I left, a newly single mom with a just-turned three-year old. Somehow, Lizzie and I got through that first year, surrounding ourselves with friends and extended family. I kept us busy so I wouldn’t have to think too deeply about anything as scary as the future.

When Lizzie turned four the following February, I wanted to do something special, determined to make her first birthday in our new, smaller family an unforgettable one. She was fascinated by Japan and France. It was a lot less expensive to fly to Paris than Japan. Besides, I wanted to make the city mine again — to make new memories with my daughter to build upon the older ones. In a way, ghosts brought us to Paris — I wanted one of my favorite cities to be filled with living recollections, and to exorcise phantom memories of the past. We’d create new memories, but with almond croissants instead of madeleines I scraped up money for airfare and found an inexpensive pension near my old neighborhood. Lizzie spoke “French” to her doll as I packed.

Our first morning in Paris, we woke on the sagging double bed, still jet-lagged but excited. Although it was winter, it wasn’t the Parisian weather I remembered — gray and drizzly, with a dampness that crept into my bones and lodged in my marrow — instead, the sun shone brilliantly. Lizzie grabbed her Madeline doll, and we went downstairs for coffee and hot chocolate. She carefully placed Madeline on the chair next to her, which screeched across the hardwood floor as she pushed it in. She broke off bits of baguette to feed to her doll, wiping its mouth with the white cloth napkin after she’d eaten her fill. Petit déjeuner finished, we were ready to explore. Holding her hand, stroller strung over my shoulder like a shotgun, we meandered through the streets, no destination in mind. We flitted in and out of small museums and cafes, stopping to frolic whenever we saw a playground. Lizzie hopped into her stroller when she got tired, and it bumped along the cobblestones.

Some sort of automatic pilot brought us to my old neighborhood. Although it had been more than fifteen years since I’d lived in Paris, some part of me seemed to know just how to find it. My old street appeared smaller than I remembered — it was actually an alley, Cité Dupetit-Thouars. I wondered which of my other memories were also smaller in reality. The apartment building looked scruffier and less well-kept than my mental snapshot. Seeing it helped bring my remembrances of life back then into focus, unlocking thoughts I’d carefully sealed away after our marriage sickened and died. Lizzie seemed uninterested in my old apartment and my life before her, and started to fuss that she was hungry. I turned around and found the boulangerie — our old boulangerie.

So there we were, in my old bakery, inhaling new memories. The shopkeeper carefully placed our almond croissants in a crisp white paper bag that he handed to us in exchange for some Euros. We left, wandering to the park across the street and settling onto a wooden bench. My daughter’s legs were too short to hang over the edge, but she kicked them in anticipation of her treat as I opened the bag and let her pull out a pastry. Powdered sugar rained from it. I took the other out and we clicked them together — a sort of “Cheers.” I watched Lizzie’s face as she tentatively took her first bite. She slowly chewed, looked delighted, and quickly took another bite, rapidly finishing her pastry. I took my time, savoring mine, remembering all those years ago when my ex and I used to eat almond croissants as part of our Saturday morning ritual. I’d gather up francs and head to our boulangerie while he would make the strong black coffee we loved, heating milk that transformed it into café au lait. I’d pick up the International Herald Tribune, a splurge, and two croissants and walk home. We’d sit, cross-legged, on the floor pillows we’d sewn from fabric we’d found discarded in the garment district, breakfast and newspaper spread out on the low Moroccan table, the smell of freshly brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the sugary pastries. We had all the time in the world. It was perfect.

That February afternoon, after my daughter ran off to play with French preschoolers on the jungle gym, I finished the last bite of my croissant. It tasted exactly the same as I remembered, even though everything else was different. I smiled, as I watched Lizzie chasing a new friend. Paris was mine again — and now it was Lizzie’s, too. And it was perfect.

Author’s Note: I wrote this essay to show how revisiting Paris helped me reclaim a place and an experience I thought I’d lost forever. Traveling with Lizzie made the city new again — and I loved seeing it through her eyes. She’s thirteen now and, although she’s outgrown playgrounds and carousels, still loves almond croissants.

About the Author: Sue Sanders’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Parents, Babble and other local and national magazines. Her first book, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore, a collection of essays about parenting her preteen/young teens, will be published in May 2013.