Positive Teens: United In More Than Name

Positive Teens: United In More Than Name

BT 17 NitshellOmri Massarwe and Omri Hochfeld (last two boys on right)

This is the first in our series of Teen Voices, where we interview teens about topics they care about.

 

By Ruth Ebenstein

Stroll into the offices of Kids4Peace in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood of East Jerusalem during a youth meeting and call out the name “Omri! and two heads will turn.

“Yes?”

Both brown-haired teens, one 6 feet tall and thin with straight hair, the other with a broader build and a head spiked in thick kinky curls, will break into laughter.

“Which one do you want? Hochfeld-or Massarwe?”

You’re likely to find “Hochfeld”, a 16-year-old Jewish Israeli, and “Massarwe”, a 16-year-old Muslim Palestinian, cracking jokes or comparing the players of Hochfeld’s favorite soccer team, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, with those of Futbol Club Barcelona, Massarwe’s favorite.

“Omri”, which means life in Arabic, is the first name shared by two peace activists who have become fast friends over the last 3 years. “With the same name, how could we not,” quips Omri Massarwe. “Yeah, it was destiny,” adds Omri Hochfeld.

They met at Kids4Peace, a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem and other cities around the world. Here’s what two teens discovered through becoming friends with kids from the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Omri Hochfeld, 16, Salit, Israel

Why did you join Kids4Peace?

I’d always wanted to meet people from other places, and it was most natural to meet Palestinians. I’m an anomaly because I live near Kfar Saba, some 50 miles northwest of Jerusalem. I commute 90 minutes each way to participate in the activities whereas all of the other participants live in or around Jerusalem. We Israelis and Palestinians share this piece of land, and we need to learn to live together.

Tell us about your experience at Kids4Peace.

I joined Kids4Peace when I was eleven. Our group comprised Jewish Israelis and Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Over the years, we hung out at various activities and went to summer camp in the US. We developed strong friendships and a foundation of trust. When Kids4Peace started adding political discussions in later years, we already know each other very well. We could handle heated discussions about Hamas, hug and then jump into the pool.

Tell us about your friendship with Omri Massarwe. What it’s like to befriend young people from the “other side.”

I met Omri during my second year at Kids4Peace, when I was 13. He’s one of my dearest friends. We really clicked! Once you meet people from the other side and become friends, there is no “other side”… We’re all teenagers. There is no real difference between Palestinians and Israelis. Omri is not my “Palestinian” friend. He’s my friend-friend. We love to talk about girls, sports, food. What you learn by reaching across the divide is how very many people on the other side are good—and just like you. Ignorance and fear lead to racism and hatred.

What’s the most formative experience you’ve had at Kids4Peace?

Last July, Omri and I joined a delegation of Palestinian, Israeli and American teens that participated in the Global Institute, an advocacy and social action program in Washington, D.C. We met politicians like Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, advocated for a bill in Congress, went to the State Department, and shared our stories with public figures. I also presented at a Jewish overnight camp with Mutaz, who is Muslim, and with Adan and Zina, who are both Christian and from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem.

For many campers, this was their first encounter with a Palestinian or an Israeli, and their first time listening to an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue about the conflict. We started arguing amongst ourselves, which I think surprised them. But the tones really soared when we fought about where to buy the best humus. They said the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, but clearly, the answer is Acre in Northern Israel!

All humor aside, last summer truly changed me. David Harden, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), asked us how we are going to change the world. For the first time I thought, wow, I have the power to change things rather than just waste time on my PlayStation.

What’s your takeaway message:

Go out and meet someone from the “other side,” whatever that means for you. You will learn and grow in ways that you cannot imagine. Find a niche where you can have an impact. Remember that you are powerful! Be a link in the chain of making a difference.

Omri Massarwe, 16, of Beit Safafa, an Arab town in Jerusalem

What did you join Kids4Peace?

In 2013, my English teacher encouraged me to apply. She was a counselor there and said, you’ve got the English, go for it. I checked out the website and really liked their platform.

Tell me about your experience at Kids4Peace.

The first meeting was awkward. While I had spoken to Jews before, I did not have Jewish friends. How do you talk to the other side? We were a diverse group of Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all the same age. We played icebreaker games, and that was helpful. In time I learned how connected we are, what unites the three monotheistic religions, the ways in which we are the same. We coalesced into one family before we headed to summer camp in Atlanta.

My second summer at Kids4Peace coincided with the Israeli-Gaza conflict, a military operation also known as Operation Protective Edge, during July and August 2014. It was a very difficult time. Fearing for the safety of other people in our group, we checked in frequently across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Kids4Peace gave me a safe harbor. That’s where I felt hope and comfortable with people from different backgrounds. On the Palestinian side, we did get flak. I heard comments like, Are you ignoring our conflict?

As we got older, our counselors at Kids4Peace raised more political discussions. And that made sense. The basic ingredients of dialogue and peacemaking include talking about contentious issues like the separation barrier dividing Palestine from Israel and military checkpoints. Those are real issues. The conversations were authentic, illuminating, frustrating. But because you know the people very well, it’s easier to stay connected.

Tell us about your friendship with Omri Hochfeld. What is it like to befriend young people from the “other side”?

My friendship with Omri is very special. We can argue, but at the end of the day, we’re friends. It’s hard to explain chemistry! Being in Kids4Peace and the friendships I’ve made highlight the universality of the human experience. More than ever, Kids4Peace gives me hope that there will be peace for the next generation in Jerusalem.

What’s the most formative experience you’ve had at Kids4Peace?

Going to Washington, D.C., last summer for the Global Institute was incredible. I loved lobbying for a bipartisan bill to create an international fund that focuses on people-to-people connections, economic cooperation and grassroots efforts like ours to build coexistence. As I lobbied Democrats and Republicans, I felt privileged to represent the Palestinian voice, sharing some of the issues that we deal with back home.

What’s your takeaway message:

First, volunteer. This year I’ll be a counselor for sixth graders and participating in the Youth Action Program, where we design and implement community service projects and do leadership training. Second, carve out your thing. Mine is photography. While the media highlights the tension and animosity in Jerusalem, I spotlight points of connection via my Instagram account, Life of the Lad. Every positive voice counts! Use yours.

RUTH EBENSTEIN is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian and peace/health activist who loves to laugh a lot and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. Ruth has also penned a children’s book entitled All of this Country is Called Jerusalem. Find her online at RuthEbenstein.com, on Facebook at Laugh Through Breast Cancer – Ruth Ebenstein, and on twitter @ruthebenstein.

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The Summer of Rachel

The Summer of Rachel

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74By Barbara Solomon Josselsohn

The Beginning

It’s an ache that started a few years ago when your son left for college, and you realized that time was passing too, too fast. Your next child was approaching the very same milestone, and you decided you would no longer just sit back and watch. “Okay, that’s it!” you shouted to the universe. “I let David go, but I’m keeping Rachel! Do you hear me? I‘m keeping Rachel!

Okay, you didn’t really mean it. You knew Rachel should grow up, as should her younger sister, Alyssa. But you were upset, because after years of long, luscious child-filled days, you saw that life was changing. Because even when you complained or felt harried or unappreciated, you never stopped loving being the mom of three young kids. You loved the chill of late fall, when you’d send them out to school in the mornings and welcome them back home in the afternoons. You loved when winter approached and the streetlights came on as early as 4:30, and all three would be bathed and in pajamas before dinner. You loved the first warmish afternoons of spring, when you’d stay with them at the park until dusk, then stop at the pizza shop for a quick, late dinner. You loved the searing days of July, when you’d go to the town pool in the mornings and doze at home in the afternoons, sheltered from the heavy, humid air outdoors.

But life had a way of speeding up amid the flurry of school lunches and permission slips, Little League games and school concerts, and suddenly you found that before you even got used to one new thing, you were hurtling toward the next. And now it’s the evening after Rachel’s high school graduation, and soon she’ll be off, just like her brother. That‘s how it goes.

So you tell yourself that as of today, as of this moment, things will be different. David may have whizzed out the door, but you’re not going to let that happen again. You have two months before Rachel leaves for college, and you’re going to make the most of them. You will slow the clock, stretch out the minutes, immerse yourself completely in Rachel and this, her last summer before college. You will fill up on Rachel this summer, and not let college or time or the universe steal even one drop. You will figure out a way to own this summer, and then when Alyssa graduates, you will do it again.

It will be the long summer of Rachel. So that come the end of August, you’ll be ready to let her go.

You wonder what the universe has to say about that.

The Boyfriend

And so the summer starts, and you put all thoughts of Rachel’s impending departure out of your mind. You think about things to do together—trips to the beach, the movies, Broadway shows, lunches at your favorite spots.

You look at your calendar, start to play around with times you can spare from work. Weeks when Alyssa will be away at camp. Weekends when your husband and son are busy.

But you forgot to factor in one thing: Rachel’s boyfriend.

You don’t know when Rachel became old enough for a boyfriend. You don’t know how he became the center in her life. Sure, she’s always had plenty of friends. Weekends during high school were filled with parties and school events. But plans to hang out with her girlfriends tended to be casual, last-minute arrangements, easy to shift around if you were available to take her shopping for new spring clothes or out for lunch. There always used to be time for you.

But today when you open her door and say you’ve booked an outing to Mohonk Mountain House for facials and lunch on what you thought would be an otherwise lazy summer day, she looks up from her Facebook screen and studies you like a complicated math problem.

“When would we go?”

“Saturday morning. We leave at 9:30.”

She nods thoughtfully. “When will we be back?”

“I don’t know. We can stay as late as we want. Why?”

She bites her lip, trying to be diplomatic. Dressed in her gray college sweatpants and stretchy white tank top, with her hair piled up in a messy brown bun, she looks way too young to play the role of adult. “It’s just that Jason and I were thinking about going out to dinner…”

And then a week later you tell her you’ve finished an assignment you thought would take the whole afternoon, so you’re ready to head to the city to snap up some half-price tickets to a matinee.

She nods tentatively. “I have a lot to do. Can we make it next week?”

“What do you have to do?” you ask.

“Well, I wanted to finish choosing my classes this afternoon because Jason’s coming over tonight.”

You love Jason. Really, he’s the sweetest boy in the world. You know about the jerks out there and you’re so glad she’s picked someone wonderful for her first boyfriend. He comes over when she wants him to, stays away when she asks him to without getting defensive, he’s polite to you and your husband, what more could you ask?

You could ask for the little girl who only had time for you, the girl who was always thrilled and grateful when you asked if she’d like to see a movie or go for ice cream. You could ask for the little girl who would jump up from her dollhouse or turn away from her dress-up box, her Cinderella crown still on her head, to say, “You’re the best!”

You could ask for that little girl.

But you won’t find her. She’s gone.

So you won’t groan and you won’t fight, but you’ll learn to consult her about her dates with Jason before you make any more plans.

And you’ll appreciate the time you have together all the more.

Shopping

By mid-July the circulars show up, fast and furious—in the mail, online, tucked into the Sunday paper—so you can no longer deny that it’s time to take Rachel dorm shopping. Lots of girls opt to do this with friends, so you count yourself lucky that she agrees to include you at all.

You arrive one sunny August morning at Bed Bath and Beyond, Rachel dressed for maximum efficiency in gym shorts and sneakers, her hair pulled back in a no-frills ponytail.

It’s difficult for you to drag yourself from the car. You know that before the day is through, your trunk will be piled high with bedding and bath towels, desk accessories and storage caddies, and there will be no denying that she’s going.

Rachel’s eyes light up at the colorful array of dorm-room accessories inside the store entrance. It’s not that she’s spoiled or greedy or selfish, she’s just excited to be outfitting her new home. She wants the cushy upholstered armchair, or how about the comfy two-person love seat? “Rachel, it’s just a small dorm room,” you say. But she isn’t listening. She’s examining ottomans and multi-tiered shelving.

So you pull her over to the escalator and explain you’d like to start with basics like bedding, to which she shrugs and nods agreeably. “Charlie got a hot pink comforter,” she tells you. “Maybe I’ll get pink too, so our beds will coordinate.”

Charlie is Charlotte, her prospective roommate, whom she met at an admitted-students event last spring. They decided right away to live together, but lately you’ve been thinking it’s not a great match. Charlie says she wants their room to be a hub for friends, while Rachel tends to prefer privacy. Charlie likes to stay up late while Rachel loves a good night’s sleep. You wonder if Rachel chose this roommate too quickly, and you worry about the other decisions she’ll jump into feet first. You need another year to show her how the world works. But you don’t have another year. You barely have a month.

And that’s when you realize that she’ll have to take her lumps, make her own mistakes and learn from the consequences. You can’t stop her from getting hurt, from being disappointed, from misjudging people or situations and occasionally having to go back to square one. You can’t possibly prepare her for everything that could go wrong—and even if you could, she wouldn’t believe you. After all, when you’re on the brink of college, life is a magic carpet ride.

And there’s no room for you to ride along.

The Final Week

Her boxes are lined up against the wall in the living room. The printer sits unopened on the table. The bedding and towels have been washed, folded and packed into a vinyl storage bag. The pink fabric ottoman is close by, next to the poster frame filled with photos from high school.

There’s no escaping it anymore. She is leaving.

Her days and evenings are filled with excited goodbyes, as she meets her girlfriends for lunch or frozen yogurt. There are finals calls from Nana and Grandma, from aunts and uncles, and emails from neighbors and former teachers.

You can stand the boxes, you can tolerate the calls. But it’s her room that gets you. Just walking in at night to give her a goodnight kiss is painful. You can’t help but see the blue fabric bulletin board where she tacked the ticket stubs to her first concert, the wand she bought at Harry Potter World, her full set of Rick Riordan novels on the bookshelf, the bracelet her best friend brought her back from Israel, which she keeps on a pedestal on her night table.

And you start to see that all these years when you thought she was yours, she was actually becoming her own.

And the realization is so in your face, you almost wish that moving day was here already. Because you don’t know how many more times you can walk into this room without completely falling apart.

Last night at home. Goodnight, sweetie. Sleep tight.

Goodnight, Mommy. I love you.

The Last Goodbye

And then she’s gone.

You arrive on campus bright and early. You wave at the cheery upperclassmen in brightlycolored T-shirts who stand on a ledge holding a banner that reads “Welcome!” You follow the directions of other joyful upperclassmen who show you where to stop, where to unload, where to park. You haul suitcases and boxes up stuffy stairwells on that sweltering late August morning. You hang up clothes in an impossibly small closet and layer a puffy comforter and fluffy pillows on a thin, institutional mattress.

You walk back out to the quad to hear the college president speak.

And then you say goodbye.

You hug her and she hugs you, and you tell her you love her, you tell her to take good care of herself, you tell her she can call at any hour of the day if she has a problem, you tell her all the things you are supposed to tell her. And then you let her go.

“Goodbye, Mommy,” she says, which makes you feel you will fall to your knees, right there on the quad. But you don’t crumble. Instead, you watch as she makes her way back to her dorm, where meetings and get-acquainted parties beckon. You watch her grow tiny and then disappear.

And because you’re not the type to cry in public, you press back the tears as you realize that you’re not just saying goodbye to Rachel on this hot summer morning. You’re saying goodbye to all your children. You’ve been saying goodbye for a long time.

You’ve been saying goodbye all along to stick horses and tiny race cars and princess tiaras, to trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, to first-day-of-school outfits and trips to Staples for pencils and glue sticks. You’ve been saying goodbye to big, crazy birthday parties and sleepovers in the basement, to trips to the zoo or water park, to long evenings waiting for the snow to fall and glorious mornings when school has been cancelled. You’ve saying goodbye to snowman building in the backyard, to peeling off wet clothes in the mudroom and warming up with hot chocolate in the kitchen. You’ve been saying goodbye to evenings with everyone home.

It was supposed to be the long summer of Rachel. But now you realize that like everything in life, it went by in a flash. You didn’t slow it down at all. Of course, you’re still a family. But everything is different now. Two are out. The third one will soon go, too.

You walk back to the parking lot, noticing that all the parents look a little smaller, deflated somehow. Your walk is slower; your breathing heavier; the world is a little less bright. You’ve launched Rachel—your middle child, your oldest daughter—into the world, and now it’s hers to do with what she will. And your one consolation is that you know you’ve done your best. She’s amazing. The world is lucky to have her.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost two years since that not-so-long summer, and Rachel is now a rising college junior. David graduated from college in May, and Alyssa will be a high-school senior this fall. As for me, I’ve learned that attempting to hold back time doesn’t work. So with my wonderful husband at my side, I look forward to the adventures our kids embrace next.

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a writer whose work has appeared in range of publications including Consumers Digest, American Baby, Parents Magazine, The New York Times and Westchester Magazine. Her first novel, The Last Dreamer (Lake Union Publishing, 2015), is due out this fall. Visit her at www.BarbaraSolomonJosselsohn.com.

 Photo: Unsplash

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The Other Way Around

The Other Way Around

imagesBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I am the mother of the kid you are probably afraid of. The one that you heard other kids used to buy pot from. Yours bought from him, too, yet you refuse to admit that, and I understand why. Pretend hope is much easier than unpleasant reality. I have never been the “not my kid” mom who would rather not know because the repercussions had not yet come home to roost. For a time, that was someone else’s problem. Until it became mine.

Now you look the other way when you pass me on the street and whisper about me in the grocery checkout line. You are relieved it is not your kid who got into trouble the way mine did. You are sure it’s because you are a better mother; more involved and on top of things than me. These are the lies that mothers tell themselves right before the other shoe drops right in the middle of a perfectly manicured, freshly mowed lawn.

I didn’t ignore my son’s fall from grace or handle it privately so as to spare the community any adolescent unpleasant reality. Most moms like things neat and tidy for appearances sake; those unfortunate things happen to other people.  I, on the other hand, wanted to spare another mother my nightmare and get support for my son; a fine young man who had lost his way. My brutal divorce paired with my kids’ father’s open hatred of me was the catalyst for my son’s descent into substance abuse. Yet I stayed strong and positive for their sakes—no one else was. Isn’t that what we do as mothers—fill in life’s holes so our kids don’t trip in one and disappear?

He slept on your basement floor for years, when he was clean-cut and dressed a certain way. Now he is sporting platinum, knotty dreadlocks and prefers not to shave. He looks homeless, I tell him. He thinks he looks rad. It is a phase, like when he wore all black when he started skateboarding. We celebrated together when he asked for a pink shirt for his 11th birthday. But that phase was different. That was before. Now he’s on that list of kids you don’t want your own kids around—the ones with the reputations. You hadn’t met many of them personally, but you just knew, because you had heard things. Now you are the one saying those same things. About my child. The boy you’ve known since he was 6-years-old.

Some of the things you say are true. Most of them are not. The night my son overdosed on a combination of non-lethal drugs, your son was right alongside him doing it, too. He lied to you, I know; that you need to believe him, I understand. My son is the same boy inside that he’s always been—kind, funny, smart and gentle. And now battling severe depression, perhaps because you’re all afraid of the Hester Prynne-like A on his chest. He’s still respectful at school, has a part-time job, skateboards past your house and waves, even though you ignore him and break his heart. And mine. He’s the same kid you took with you on vacation and cheered for from the lacrosse bleachers. He’s still that kid. I am still the mom who loves him and would die for him without hesitation.

I suppose you are still that mom, too. Though, you’re the fair weathered kind, who hung around when times were just tough enough that you could be supportive, but not so tragic that it might affect your social status. You’ve taught your kids to be the same type of people. I know because they turn and walk the other way if they see me coming. I have the disease of life’s reality and it just might be catching. I understand. I do. Fear is powerful. But love even more so. Thank you for inspiring me to show my children how to love, even when those on the receiving end might not seem so deserving. This is when people need love the most—when they face their greatest hardships. Thank you modeling how not to behave towards others who are less fortunate or are struggling through the unimaginable. Appearances really are deceiving because it is not you who should be afraid of my kid; it is actually the other way around.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

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Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen

Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen

woman-hand-writing-in-an-agenda-at-home-picture-id504821680By Marsha McGregor

“Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen”  is a monthly column of wisdoms for our teens.

When To Pretend You Are Fine and When Not To

There is room for both in your life.

If you have done some excruciating, embarrassing thing, by all means cringe invisibly. Breathe through your blushing. Act natural.

If you are being bullied or mocked, give your predators no pleasure and hold your head high.

If you are on a nerve-wracking job interview, of course you are fine. Just look at you, all collected and mature, no fidgeting or twisting of hair.

If you’ve been rejected by a casual acquaintance, if someone doesn’t text you back, you can respond if you feel so called. It’s OK to pretend you are fine.

But if your heart is breaking, if you hold some terrible secret, if you are scared or sad or worried or lost, never pretend you are fine, especially with the people you love. Unlock yourself. Let yourself be reached. Someone is waiting to help you.

 

Voices From the Kitchen

When I come downstairs in the morning and you have fallen asleep on the couch the night before, I try not to clang the plates from the dishwasher as I empty it. Your father and I sit at the kitchen table with our coffee, exchanging bits of married-people conversation, moving seamlessly from how much cat food we have left in the pantry to something outrageous happening in Washington to wondering aloud if the Cavaliers play tonight. Between the bits of talk there are stitches of silence. He stands up to open the back door and yells loudly at the squirrel hanging on the bird feeder. Those squirrels are costing us a fortune this winter. They always do, and he always yells out the door at them.

I wonder then if you are still sleeping deeply, or if you are drifting in and out. Or if you are briefly awakened and grimacing in annoyance at your dad yelling at the squirrel, but smiling a little, too. I wonder if you smell the steaming coffee and hear the morning voices in the gray light and know that this is happiness.

Marsha McGregor is a contributing writer for Brain Teen, our print magazine for parents of teens.

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The Teenage Brain

The Teenage Brain

 

teenage brain artThe lights in the room are dim. An illustrated cross section of the brain floats on screen. “Parents of teenagers often act as surrogate frontal lobes,” the speaker, a bald man with wire-rimmed spectacles says, pointing to the lateral portion of the brain behind the forehead and eye.

He explains that while the amygdala, or primitive brain, is entirely grown, the frontal lobe which governs higher processing skills such as rational thought, impulse control and goal-setting is still growing and won’t fully gestate until around the age of 25.

I’d never considered being a frontal lobe part of my job description. Nor, apparently had the other parents in the packed room at our local library, eager students all, on a quest to learn more about the topic of today’s seminar, the teenage brain.

I counted my five children on my fingers. In addition to Sophia, I had Luke, Olivia, Jamie and Johnny who would one after the other hit puberty: I’d be acting as an outsourced frontal lobe on the fly, times 5, for the next decade.

I came to the lecture because of my growing anxiety over Sophia. It had become clear to me in recent weeks that parenting a teenager requires a different skill set than parenting a small child. The lecture at the least, I hoped, would help me understand why Sophia had become, in a word, difficult, or in a phrase, a completely different child than the little tutu-wearing girl I used to tuck into pink sheets.

Not long ago, I knew every single one of Sophia’s friends; she had the same six over for tea parties and trick or treat. Now, according to her Facebook page, she has 372 friends, only two of whom I recognize in the hundreds of photos Sophia displays on this website. I could spend hours tracking her online activity but I don’t. I have a husband, five children, a career, a desire to sleep more than three hours a night. Plus I trust her. Does this make me a bad mother or a crazy one?

The speaker is on slide nine, which shows brain scan results. He explains that if you watch the brains of teenagers while asking them a question such as would you try to ski down Mount Rushmore, the switches in their minds would not flick and flash as much as those of an adult being asked the same question. This is because a teenager is thinking, “Yeah, I might give it a try,”not weighing potential risks, while adults take all the data in and conclude: “It’s not a good idea.”

I broke this down in my notebook. Did this mean the same teenage boy on skis will soon be behind the wheel of a car?

The morning after my trip to the library, Sophia came downstairs for school wearing a tank top, short shorts and Ugg boots. In March. “You can’t wear that to school,” I said. “Why mom? Why?” she cried. Because you can’t,” I said and she blasted past me, right back upstairs.

Left breathless at the breakfast table, I thought “What the heck?” I followed her into the girls’ bathroom, a room I avoid at all costs. Nothing has a cap in there, toothpaste smears the sink, dirty clothes on the floor come so close to the hamper –mere millimeters really — but never in. Sophia pulled the skin under her eye to apply eyeliner. “Change your clothes first,” I said flatly.

Then I summoned my frontal lobe. “If you wear shorts to school in March you will be cold, and if you wear a top like that every boy at school will be looking down your shirt,” I said. The voice of reason. She looked at me as if she was going to spit then slammed the bathroom door, just like in a movie.

She came back downstairs in jeans, texting on her cell phone while breaking off small pieces of pop tart. “Who are you texting?”I  asked. “Are they eating breakfast, too?” I wonder if my daughter was typing out an SOS: PLEASE SAVE ME FROM MY MOTHER.

Sophia nearly missed the bus. “Where’s your sweatshirt?” I said as she raced out the screen door. I hate her going to school angry, hate going to my office wondering what I did wrong. I can lose a morning rethinking what I should have said, wondering if I was too hard on her, too easy. No seminar can help me with this.

She is, after all, the daughter who not long ago drank from a sippy cup in feety pajamas with a princess pattern, left notes for the fairies in the fireplace, and pranced about in pantyhose putting on fashion shows. Even now, there are times when she’ll let me brush her long black hair, smooth as sealskin. I yelled out the door after her again, “I love you, Peanut,” the nickname I’ve had for her since I saw her take the shape of a peanut on the ultrasound.

That afternoon she came home, tossed her backpack onto the couch, sat on top of it and started in. “Can I go to the movies tonight?” she asked. Not only did the movie start at 9:00 pm, but it was a school night. I remind myself she can’t think logically yet, her impulse is to want to go, so she simply asks me, not thinking it through.

“No, you can’t” I said.

“Cindy and Lindsey are going…”

Once again, I become a frontal lobe.”If you go to a late movie on a school night, you will be overtired for school in the morning.” I get the eye roll. I head out the front door to get the mail.

“But can I go tonight?”she asks. I take a breath. I would have to go back to my notes. Did the frontal lobe control hearing as well?

That night I call my mother. “You were the same way as a teenager” she says, her voice tired, as if she may still be weary from having raised me. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

It’s after 10:00 pm when I hang up. Sophia is sitting with her laptop on the living room floor, working on the ancient civilizations project that was assigned six weeks ago, but is due tomorrow. She has seven pages of notes, no report. I could lecture her on the necessity of planning ahead, but I don’t. I’m too tired to be the voice of reason, instead I sit down on the floor, next to this little big girl I love, pencil behind her ear, her long hair sailing down her back, and I hug her, each of us a work in progress.

About the Author: Marcelle Soviero is Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and the author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood and Stepmotherhood.

 

 

 

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This is Anorexia

This is Anorexia

art-dandelion

By Anne Lonergan

The scene is too beautiful to be the setting in which our lives veer drastically off course. The doctor’s office is orderly but inviting, the walls are painted a warm shade of white, the lighting soft and pleasing. Behind the large white desk, a wall is lined with books and periodicals and treasures from the sea. Another wall showcases framed degrees and multiple awards. Large panels of glass replace the remaining two walls, granting access to a pink sun setting over the Long Island Sound. We are high above the water, the sun is low. Through the act of bearing witness, the three of us help the huge orb nestle itself beyond the horizon. The dock that protrudes from under the office windows ends abruptly in the darkening water, the boat having long been packed away for the winter.

This is our first appointment. My husband and I are concerned that Catherine, our 15-year-old daughter, is not eating well, not eating enough. She and Dr. Homm had been together for ninety minutes. I am the newcomer, invited in to hear the results of the testing. The waiting room resembled a cozy sitting room, stuffed white slipcovered couches, nautical nuances, a nubby sisal rug under foot. I spent the time reading pages from books titled A Parents Guide to Eating Disorders and Loving Someone Who is Starving Themselves, feeling grateful we are seeking help before it gets to that.   I turn from the bucolic setting sun, about to mention the beautiful view, but the words catch in my throat.   Catherine’s small frame is perched on the edge of the chair opposite the doctor, her eyes are wide and afraid, she looks ready to run. Her fear pulls me out of the pink light reflecting off the water, to the empty chair at her side, and I take her cold hand in both of mine.

“Go ahead Catherine,” prods the voice behind the desk.

“Mom, I am underfeeding myself,” her chin jutting out as it does when she is feeling defiant.

“Use the word,” the professional tone insists.

“I am anorexic.” Catherine’s chin trembles and a single tear pools at the corner of her mouth.

My thumb—that had been stroking the back of her hand—stalls in the hollow curve between her pointer and middle finger. My eyes mirror the fear in Catherine’s, and betray the sadness that wells in my throat. But I keep them focused on hers, willing them to also portray my resolve.

“Okay.” That’s it. That’s all I say to her. A cleared throat from the other side of the desk turns my head.

For the next thirty minutes, the doctor walks us through a plan for Catherine’s recovery, a regimen of caloric intake, portion monitoring, and weekly visits. And as I hold Catherine’s hand tightly, just now warming in mine, one word is bouncing noisily in my head, reverberating off of each side of my brain: how?

“This is your daughter’s effort. You can love and support her, but only she can heal herself,” Dr. Homm informs, pushing her chair back to stand.

The traffic on I-95 is stopped. Catherine sleeps in the passenger seat next to me, exhausted by the appointment, and hunger. I lean my head against the headrest, and turn to look at her. Her forehead rests against the window, the fur on the hood of her unzipped black parka sticks to the condensation; slightly protruding vertebrae are exposed at the base of her long slender neck. Dark circles loom under softly closed eyelids. Her hands are more delicate these days, but still hers, and familiar to me. The parka swallows her, as if we bought it two sizes too big. The energy in the car begins to swirl with the rapid beat of my heart, as I realize I haven’t truly looked, or listened. I see now, inside her resting form, a mind in frantic motion. I hear now, too late, her own voice whisper to her high achieving self, “it’s not enough, you can do better, work harder.” She has been at battle with herself for some time while her parents burst with pride at all of her accomplishments, buried deep in denial.

A horn honks behind me.

“Shit!” I cry, startled.

The smell of rosemary chicken curls around the banister, and wafts up the stairs, making its way to noses behind a shower curtain, past doors cracked open a bit, because it’s homework time, and that’s the rule. My thirteen-year-old son, Matt, lays scratchy linen placemats on the worn kitchen table. Silverware for five clanks together in his tight fist, it’s easier to make one trip. Metal against metal accompanies the sound of multiple conversations bouncing off of marble counter tops, presided over by lit candles on the kitchen island.   Cabernet is splashed into two glasses lined up side by side, a set, ready for the nightly celebration that is the family dinner. Stragglers from upstairs grab plates to fill, and take to the table.

Eventually, though, the hum of activity in the kitchen becomes suffused with Catherine’s silence. Her struggle over what, and how little, to serve herself, while others grab hungrily for serving spoons piled high, overpowers the sounds of my family’s stampede. She is waging her battle silently, mixing into the group, while standing glaringly apart. Do our full plates disgust her, or tempt her, or make her feel ashamed and alone? Her long dark, thinning hair veils her face.

“Seriously?” Matt stares at the tiny portion on Catherine’s plate. “You’re so weird.” He tosses his hair off of his forehead revealing teenage acne.

“That’s enough, kiddo. How was practice?” my husband, Joe, asks him.

Catherine glowers at Matt while pushing food around her plate, spreading it out in order to create the illusion that more has been eaten. The dark cabernet slides past the lump in my throat.

“Dim the light a bit, please,” I say, looking towards the chandelier. My seventeen-year-old daughter Molly complies. She has quietly assumed an agreeability not often seen before, either to balance Catherine’s irritability, or to relish being the “good child” for a while, possibly a combination of the two.

“Thank you for dinner,” Catherine mumbles, excusing herself early from the table, plate in hand, headed for the disposal.

“She’s fine,” Joe insists, after the children excuse themselves, stories of the day exhausted. Catherine had not said much. Had we gotten too used to her being quiet, or too tired to fight it? Joe and I are face-to-face, two half finished glasses of wine on the table between us. I put my hand on top of his, holding his eyes with mine for a moment. Catherine looks so much like her dad. They have the same dark eyes and heavy eyebrows. Profoundly inquisitive, they both tend to be more serious than silly. His ability to close his eyes to personal struggle or sadness or despair is well honed from a childhood scarred by his parents’ divorce, and ensuing vicious custody battle. He is the kind of man who agreed to trade in a large, brand new house with intricate molding, for an old, broken, much smaller house, with a crooked chimney, for twice the money, so his children could see the waves from the front door. An accomplished athlete, he is also the ultimate optimist.

“No, she’s not, ” I said, squeezing his hand.

Over the last few months I have not seen much of Catherine’s face straight on. I see her face in profile, her softly rounded slightly upturned nose, and red, full lips that pucker when she is deep in thought. “Pouty lips” we’ve called them since she was a little girl. The nickname always made her eyes smile before she’d roll them in mock irritation. What was a soft jawline that ended at an ear lobe covered in tiny little blond hairs is sharper now, with shadows underneath. A brass cuff grips the cartilage on the top of her ear too tightly. I glimpse the back of her head, chestnut brown, wavy long hair falling to the middle of her back, often worn down now, no more jaunty ponytail swinging from high on the crown of her head. My sight lines of my little girl are different because she is often turning away, or fully turned and walking out of the room. We have times when words don’t work for us, so I search her eyes for hints to how she’s feeling inside, and she averts them, turning her head, before I can see. I try to pause when we pass on the staircase, just to keep her near me for a moment longer.

“Buddie escaped to the beach today. Mrs. Leahy brought her back again.” I say. Catherine loves that her dog has a bit of rebel in her, and often sneaks out of the yard. But my voice sounds too cheerful, a bit needy and desperate. Catherine wants to feel normal, to be treated like everyone else in the family, but I cannot find that normalcy, yet. My awkward words fall flat.

“She’d come back on her own, if people would just leave her alone,” she says, moving past me, towards the dog curled up at the bottom of the stair.

“I’ll pick you up after school for your doctor’s appointment.”

“Great,” she replies with stinging sarcasm.

My thoughts exactly, I think, as I continue to climb the stairs.

The rain is coming down in sheets, from dark low-hanging clouds, making my windshield wiper’s effort futile. The humidity in the car from our dampened clothes is at odds with the chill of a November day. Condensation fogs the windshield. Catherine’s appointment is at a satellite office in a different town. Her simmering silence makes the country music playing on the radio, that we used to sing to together, sound hollow, like some kind of tinny filler. Trying to find the house tucked in between so many others all in a row, narrow driveways running next to each other, in between torrents of rain drops, is adding to the tension in the car.   At last I see the office, cross two lanes of traffic, horns honk, I park.

“We’re here,” I say, hearing the strange falsetto squeak out of my throat, as if singing the phrase would make Catherine amenable to being here.

The grass beside the rutted pavement is brown, speckled with patches where nothing grows. Bay windows that speak of a past charm look more like warts broken out all over the house. I offer something about the location being more convenient. The dreary clapboard house contains multiple offices where different health professionals rent space.   The oversized sign on the front of the building explains: Life Care.

Here? The one word question is laced with judgment and disapproval of the tilting front porch and peeling white paint. And if I feel it, my daughter is surely three levels past disapproval, to contempt and disgust. The charming cottage where her first appointment had been, filled with white nubby furniture, on the water’s edge, had apparently given me the false impression that her healing process would be set against beauty and softness. The mud that splashes as we race in between raindrops, suits our matching foul moods. I press the latch and push on a heavy red door. It doesn’t budge. I use hands, one on the latch and one on the door and push again. Nothing. I rage at the absurdity that this door has become an obstacle, a barrier to get past, like a red stop sign on the path to recovery. With a third press, both hands on the worn brass latch, and a well timed bang from my right hip, the door relents, opening with a crash against the inside wall, sending a bowl of candy formerly perched on a spindly table, crashing to the floor. We watch rainbow colored balls roll all over the entranceway. I turn, place my hand on the small of Catherine’s back and gently encourage her over the threshold. Feet planted, hands dug deep into the pockets of her black parka, she looks at me wide-eyed. My mind races: Would she refuse to go in? The rain leaks through the porch roof sounding like the tick of a clock as it hits the warped floor. The corner of Catherine’s mouth turns up and then her eyes do the same. One hand tries to hold in the laughter that bubbles up and out of her, as her other hand grips my arm.

“Nice tackle, Mom!” she giggles.

Progress! Sitting next to Catherine in one of the two chairs on the other side of Dr. Homm’s desk, I will not contain the smile that threatens. I am the only one of the three of us smiling.

“Catherine has gained 6 pounds in 2 weeks,” Dr. Homm says, from the chair pushed back from her desk. Her lips are set in a straight line. My heart leaps. Catherine is staring at Dr. Homm, arms folded across her chest, hostile. The birthmark on her middle finger looks bigger than it used to. She has not taken off her black parka.

“It is unusual for a true anorexic to comply this quickly and willingly. I am wondering if this is what we call disordered eating, whether Catherine is shall we say ‘trying on a hat’, albeit a dangerous hat.”

I am confused by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice, but not surprised by the weight gain. There is a place directly under Catherine’s chin, at the top of her neck that was once taught and concave, which is now softer with a slight curve. It is not something anyone else would notice, except of course, me, and Catherine.

“I have doubts,” Dr. Homm continues. “Given the extent of the depletion sustained by her body, I am recommending she continue these sessions to monitor her weight and metabolic levels. We have a long way to go.”

Catherine turns toward the window, while I schedule the next appointment, silently telling me I’ve betrayed her. She has done what we asked, and now, feels we’ve moved the finish line. I will spend another car ride home explaining the situation to deaf ears.

“Why are you so angry, love, she said you’re doing great,” I said pulling the car down the narrow driveway.

“I hate the way she talks down to me, like I have no idea about anything”

“Her tone is a little stiff, but she’s a doctor not a friend.” I attempt.

“I don’t want to go back.”

“I know.”

“No, really Mom, I screwed up, I get it, it was stupid, but I’m putting weight on, like you all want, I know what to do, I really don’t like her, I can do it myself.”

Maybe it’s fatigue from the battle, or wanting to disrupt Catherine’s anger with my own, that makes me detour from our regular route home, and pull into a health food store.

“You still have to go. But if you think you have this all figured out, show me what you like to eat, what you’ll eat enough of!” I shout at her profile.

“You’re going to make me keep seeing her?”

“Show me you really get it, Catherine, how serious you are about getting better, and then we’ll talk about it.” I said, a bit softer, finding that familiar perch between anger, disappointment, and my desperate love for her.

She pulls her fists out of her pockets, pushes the cart over the slush, through the automatic doors. I release my grip on the idea that Catherine will join the rest of her family in eating meat and potatoes, but joining her family, and eating, are all I care about now, and I am proud of her and feel hopeful.

She wanders in and out of aisles, we read labels, she teaches me things. I joke about rabbit pellets and birdseed and she laughs a little, she tells me about quinoa and bulgar and I listen. When we get home, we clear off two shelves in the pantry for her. Catherine methodically organizes her food into groups, wheat flour, coconut shreds, chia and flax and pumpkin seeds next. As I watch her put brown rice besides bags of farrow, delicate hands busily organizing, I am reminded that I have not won the war, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve even won today’s battle. My daughter arranges everything in a perfect straight line, and then does the same to the other shelves in my pantry.

My husband Joe is almost asleep when I put my book down and turn off the light. Down the hall, Matt is brushing his teeth, undoubtedly spraying toothpaste and spit all over the bathroom mirror. I enjoy listening to the sounds of my family settling in for the night. I close my eyes and wait for the girls to come in, grateful Molly is picking up Catherine at her friend’s house. The back door opens underneath me, earlier than expected. Molly walks across the kitchen floor, I can tell its Molly because her strides are longer. I look at the ceiling, waiting to hear Catherine’s lighter tread. There is rustling in the kitchen, and then footsteps leave the house. Muffled noise comes back in the house a second time. A feeling of dread drags me from under my warm comforter. Molly meets me at the top of the stairs.

“You need to come look at Catherine,” she says with sad eyes, and a towel in her hand.

Catherine is lying on the bathroom floor, in jeans that she should have outgrown by now, and her black parka. Her knees are pulled up against the side of the toilet, her head protected from the tile by her hood, pieces of the fur lining clumped by dried spittle, stick to the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are closed and she is still. I lower myself to the floor, and stroke her hair, while Molly tells me what she knows. Vodka shots, she had already thrown up at least twice, she was talking in the car. The anger that I had imagined I might feel at a time like this never comes. Instead, intense sadness and cold fear consume me.

“Go get your father.”

I swallow hard and pull Catherine to a seated position; she opens her eyes but cannot focus, “I’m sorry,” she groans, and lurches toward the open toilet. She wretches, and wretches again, but there is nothing left in her stomach.

Joe settles Catherine’s wisp of a body into white eyelet sheets on her left side, pushing her hair gently off of her forehead, and puts the white wicker waste basket near her, on the floor. I lay in the other bed, on my right side facing our daughter. I cannot distinguish his anger from his sadness, and right now, I cannot help him to either. The lamp on the night table between the twin beds is on. It’s white with painted grey shells. No matter how many different ways the girls have decorated their room over the years, this lamp has been their reading light. It casts a bright white over Catherine’s limp body, creating shadows under her bottom lip and behind her on the backside of the bed. Joe kisses Catherine on the forehead, and then comes to me. I look at him expectantly, his big calloused hand pushes the hair back from my temple the way he does when I’m upset. He kisses me lightly on the lips.

“I’ll go check on Molly,” he says and leaves the room.

I have never felt lonelier. I have pulled the putrid smelling vomit stained shirt over Catherine’s head, rinsed the bile out of the tendrils that escaped her pony tail, faced the shock of her body lying limp on the bathroom floor. I have been driving a sad, angry and hungry girl to appointments alone. No one to show me the expression my face should be making when she says “I’m fine now,” no one to help me untangle her confusion, no one to tell me what would be the most supportive words to use on the car rides home when she’s filled with silent rage, and no one to tell me how this happened on my watch or how to fix it! Why does her father just get the kiss on the forehead? Why does he get the synopsis of each appointment, that I am too exhausted to go into with any detail, and why does he think that his cliche’s of ‘hang in there’ and ‘you’re doing a great job’ even scratch the surface of what is required here? I hear him on the other side of the door.

“Good night, kiddo,” he says to Matt.

I swipe big tears off of my cheeks, and squeeze Molly’s comforter to my chin. I implore Catherine, for the hundredth time, to let me help her. With the lamp on, listening to the sound of the heat click on and off, the periodic creaking of an old house, my breathing slows. I stay on my right side all night, and watch Catherine’s blanket rise rhythmically up and down until her eyes open in the morning.

A few days later, Matt, Catherine and I return home from running tedious errands. The prescription at the drug store wasn’t ready yet, the vet bill was too high, and the grocery store filled with food had not inspired ideas for dinner tonight. Mail and purse in one hand, I bend to pick up a UPS box left at the front door as the kids shuffle past me. Matt kicks his shoes off, leaving a scuff on the wall, bounds up the steps two at a time, hands shaking the dark mahogany banister as he goes. Catherine moves slowly in his wake, lining up her boots exactly next to each other, tips of the shoes an inch away from the moulding that meets the floor. She said little while we were out, and seemed to lack the energy to do more than pull the fur trimmed hood of her parka over her head. Her father had taken her to her appointment, but I hadn’t gotten the update yet. She looks too thin today. Trudging up the staircase, her small hand dwarfed by the banister, she eventually drops it limply by her side. I walk into the kitchen towards the island to put down the things that burden my arms, and stare blankly out the window where icy water moves rhythmically towards the shore. Cold rage washes over me. I am angry that images of a bubbly baby girl, a toddler with birthday cake smeared on her lips are being replaced by darker images of dull eyes and thinning hair. I wander through ugly fantasies of my hands grasping Catherine’s shoulders sharply, shaking her. I even see fear in her eyes at my anger, and I relish that fear because it is a reaction, it is alive, it is SOMETHING! What is wrong?! Why are you doing this to yourself?! Your Doctor asks if I understand what she’s said, and in my fantasy, I shriek frantic, out of control. No! I don’t! Not at all, I understand none of it! Blood pulses behind my eyes. The marble countertop is warming under my perspiring hands. I brush the tears away at the sound of Matt coming down the stairs.

“Ready to go, Mom?”

Three months later, I’m lying in bed, waiting for Catherine to come home. My book rests against my knees; my fingers play with the edges of pages not read yet. I washed all of our winter coats earlier in the day and packed them away in bins. Folding Catherine’s black armor with the fur trimmed hood, that had hidden her body and her face for so many months, I hoped desperately that next winter it would just be a black parka again, protecting her only from the cold winter winds, and nothing else. My thoughts drift to a setting sun, and the white office, on the water’s edge. That moment could not be counted as the beginning of her challenges. Before the first appointment there was weight loss, unrecognizable at first. And before the weight loss, her mental struggle which she endured quietly and alone. I push my glasses to the top of my head and rub the bridge of my nose with my finger. Pages flutter slightly under the blades of a slow moving ceiling fan. Joe breaths a little deeper next to me, sleep has quieted his thoughts. So, what was her trigger: the soccer tryout, the break up with what’s-his-name, a big chaotic family, a controlling mother? Or was the beginning way back at her very own beginning? Born with the predisposition to be a high achiever, rarely at rest, searching for control, she has insecurities and anxieties that take time and maturity to handle. “How she’s wired,” described one expert. There is a stack of books on the subject of eating disorders, written by doctors, and survivors, tucked in the bottom drawer of the chest next to my bed, each with a different theory on why and how. The only thing they all agree on is that there isn’t a finish line. Setbacks will have to be regarded as a normal part of moving forward. I close my eyes, and push my head back further into the pillow.

The mudroom door opens, answered by the dog’s tail thumping against the floor. Catherine peeks her head through the bedroom door.

“I’m home,” she whispers.

Before I can respond, she strides into the room, curls her leg under her and sits on the edge of my bed. I shift my book and sit up a little bit straighter. A child sitting on my bed in the middle of the night has come to represent a myriad of things over the years: bad dreams, a funny story, a revelation, a break up, a sadness. I kept a quiet expression, put a hand on her leg and listened.

“I’m so glad you’re awake! You are going to think this is so funny,” she says, trying to cover a giggle with her hand, glancing guiltily at her sleeping father.

“Tell me!” I say to her twinkling eyes, waving a dismissive hand towards her father who I am sure is wide awake and listening, under closed eyelids.

“James was walking and texting, so he wasn’t paying attention….”

Through bursts of laughter she tells me about her night. Her hands mesmerize me while she talks. She wears silver rings on multiple fingers on both hands; some are stacked together, some alone. The ring that holds her birthstone is perched above her thumb knuckle. All of them are sparkly and bright. Her hands are fuller, knuckles less pronounced, each finger a softer version of what had been. She waves her hands expressively during the story, dancing through the air in illustration, tossing her hair back as the story picks up speed.

“Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard? Can you believe he even did that?” Catherine wipes at glistening eyes, the amethyst on her thumb flashes in the light.

Anne Lonergan lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children. She is a member of the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction will  be published in two upcoming anthologies by Kind of a Hurricane Press.

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6 Halloween Books for Older Kids

6 Halloween Books for Older Kids

halloween-storytime

By Katie Rosa

Halloween is one of the best times of the year. The pumpkin patch, hay rides, spooky decorations, the excitement shining in young children’s eyes as they await trick-or-treating—a holiday that celebrates gluttony and rotten teeth (what’s not to love about that?) and of course—the smell of pumpkin everything—candles, lattes, bread…

What about those older kids though? They may be too old to show their eager anticipation… too cool for candy and dress-up?

How can we help older kids get in the mood for the creepy? Give them some awesome books to read.

1) Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. This is a great read for older kids and if yours haven’t read this series yet, they are missing one of the best series ever. The first in the series however but makes for an especially great annual Halloween read. Light and fun, full of witches, wizards, magic, pumpkins, and especially candy, this book will get those kids in the mood for sure. They may even offer to take the little ones trick-or-treating for you…

2) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This one is not for the faint of heart and boy did these stories get me going when I was a kid—heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Tell the kids to read these with a flashlight under a blanket. But, don’t be surprised if they start sleeping with a nightlight on for a while after.

3) Coraline. Author Neil Gaiman writes books that somehow blend scary and creepy with fun and exciting. Coraline is a little girl who just moved into a new apartment building. She discovers a door that leads into ‘the other world’. Once there she meets ‘the other mother’ and ‘the other father’—versions of her own parents except they have button eyes and long, knife-sharp fingernails. And that was enough to get my daughter’s eyes to grow three sizes and her fingernails to shrink three sizes. I also think she slept in my bed for a week.

4) The Graveyard Book. Another Neil Gaiman story, this one is set in a graveyard with a boy named Nobody Owens who is being raised by ghosts. It opens with a triple murder of ‘Bod’s’ family when he was just a baby. That part was the most intense, but the rest of the story is engaging, with ancient ghosts spouting historical facts and teaching a human boy ghostly tricks. Fun!

5) A Tale Dark and Grimm. A twist on the Grimm stories we knew and loved as children, Adam Gidwitz takes us on adventures through the darker side of fairy tales. With surprises along the way, but just enough of the familiar to keep us grounded, this is a fun, engaging read.

7) Goosebumps. Um, remember those? Dozens of eerie tales to get those older kids in the mood no matter what paranormal creature your kid may be into. Werewolves? Ghosts? Monsters? These books have ’em! And they’re short enough to make for a quick, easy read. You can thank me later when your older kid finally snuggles up to you, as he hasn’t in years, because these books are scaaaaryyyy!

Go on and get the marshmallows roasting. Invest in some light bulbs since your kids might regress to sleeping with every light in their bedroom on until Christmas…Thanksgiving at least. There are many more great Halloween reads for older kids. What are some of your favorites?

Katie Rosa is a writer, former probation officer, wife, and mother to two children, Jocelyn 8, and Liam 3. Jocelyn is her biggest fan and encourages her mother’s writing more than anyone else. You can find some of her work at her author website: http://www.katiegodwinrosa.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @judgemecrazy

 

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Coffee Cake and Kindness

Coffee Cake and Kindness

coffeecakeandscones038

By Reni Roxas

I suppose none of this would have happened had it not been for my two teenage boys fighting in the car.

As soon as my oldest son, Eric, a high school senior, joined us in the parking lot he said, “I’m not going. Not unless the idiot rides in the backseat, where he belongs.”

We were going on a college campus tour. The so-called “idiot” was Eric’s fourteen-year-old brother, Paolo, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, his crutches thrown in the back seat. A month before, Paolo had broken his leg during freshman basketball tryouts and  was given a pair of crutches with doctor’s orders to stretch his leg on car trips. It forced Eric to give up the coveted front passenger seat to his injured brother.

I am the Filipina mother of these two boys. When Eric and Paolo were younger I watched them tumble and tangle, a Rubix cube of locked arms, elbows, and knees that not even Henry Kissinger could disengage. As they grew older and less physical with each other, I watched their rivalry mature into a battle of wills. Now here we were, in the parking lot of an apartment complex where we lived in a three-bedroom apartment. Two years before, we had migrated to Edmonds, Washington, from the Philippines. Apart from a widowed Filipina-American who lived on the third floor, my sons and I were the only Asians in the entire apartment complex.

“I don’t have to put up with this,” Paolo muttered, climbing out of the car.

“Where are you going?” I said, alarmed.

Paolo had opened the back door and grabbed his crutches. Before I could say another word, Paolo hobbled back inside our apartment building.

“Paolo!” I hollered.

He was gone.

What was it about boys? Half the time I was talking to the back of a T-shirt.

Eric slid triumphantly into the seat next to me.

“I’ll deal with you later,” I hissed, grabbing my cell phone and dialing Paolo’s number.

Although Paolo was only a freshman, I wanted him to see a college campus. I managed to get through on the third try.

“Paolo, get back in the car, please.”

A pause.

“Okaaaayyyy,” my younger son mumbled.

The two parking spaces next to our car were empty. I decided to use the extra room to turn the car around to make it easier for Paolo to get back in the car.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a green pickup cruise by. The truck slowed down as it passed us before continuing down the driveway.

I was about to shift gears.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

It was Paolo, appearing with his crutches by my window.

How did he get here so fast?

“I was—never mind,” I sighed. “Just get in.”

By this time our car was straddling three parking spaces.

I craned my neck to see down to the bottom of the driveway. The pickup had made a U turn. Strange. The driver had the engine on idle. Was he waiting for me to back up? I stuck my hand out the window and waved him on to indicate that he had first rights to the driveway.

As soon as Paolo got in the car his brother said, “If you think I’m going to put your crutches in the trunk, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“One more word out of you, Eric,” I said, ” and I’m going to—”

SCREAM. Great. My Monday morning was falling apart and we hadn’t even left the parking lot. There was no time to argue, not when my car was occupying three parking spots. I yanked my door open, got out, grabbed the crutches from Paolo, and tossed them in the trunk. Before shutting the trunk closed, I waved again to the pickup driver to signal that he could proceed.

The truck didn’t move.

When I got back behind the wheel, the boys were in the middle of a full-blown quarrel.  “Stop it, you boneheads!” I yelled. But my words did little good. My boys had a mind of their own at this impossible age, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Suddenly we heard a rumbling. A diesel engine had fired up. The idle green pickup had roared to life. It was now thundering toward our car, screeching to a full stop next to us.

A young Caucasian man got out of the truck, yelling, “Goddamn mother——.” I thought he was going to come after us with a crowbar. Instead, he disappeared into one of the ground floor apartments, slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, God,” I whispered.

I recognized him. The truck driver was our neighbor! It was his parking space I was occupying.

For the rest of the drive the boys were quiet. It was as if our neighbor’s anger had dwarfed—and in a strange way quelled—any animosity they felt for each other.

After the campus tour, my friend Rick, the university professor who hosted the tour, took us to Chinatown for lunch.

“I feel terrible,” I told him, recounting the morning’s incident. “How can I make it up to my neighbor?”

Rick smiled, his chopsticks diving into a bowl of chow mein.

“Ah,” he said, between mouthfuls. “Just kill him with kindness.”

***

“What’s that?” asked Eric.

He was watching me tie an orange ribbon around a coffee cake I bought at the grocery for twelve bucks.

“It’s for our neighbor,” I said.

Eric frowned.

“It’s a peace offering,” I said.

“You’re wasting your time and money, Mom.”

I pretended not to hear him.

“Guess what,” I said, trying to act cheerful. “We’re going to pay him a visit. And you’re coming with me.”

Eric rolled his eyes, but I was on a mission “to do the noble thing,” and he knew better than to try and stop me.

At 5:00 that afternoon Eric and I left our second floor apartment, took the elevator to the ground level, and walked out into the parking lot. The green pickup was there, a sign that the owner was home.

I knocked on my neighbor’s door.

The door opened to reveal the same young man from the day before.

“Hi. Are you, um, the owner of the green pickup?”

I felt stupid for asking a question to which I knew the answer.

The man leaned on the door frame and gave a slight nod.

He wore a thin cotton T-shirt and torn blue jeans. His brown hair had begun to recede and a five o’clock shadow was settling on his chin. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.

After clearing my throat I said, “I’m the neighbor who accidentally used your parking space yesterday. I’m sorry. My boys were misbehaving. You know how it is with children—”

I stopped and waited for a reaction.

There wasn’t any.

My neighbor’s face was vacant.

Over his shoulder I could see inside their living room. A plump young woman was on the couch watching TV with a bowl of popcorn on her lap.

I gestured toward the gift in my hands and said, “We brought you a cake—”

“That won’t be necessary,” the young man interrupted, “I don’t eat cake.”

Again the expression on his face was vacant. It struck me that his voice was completely devoid of tone, as if he had deleted himself from our conversation.

I stared at him then had to look away.

Clearly, this man didn’t want me standing at his door. This man would not be killed with kindness. I had seen that “vacant” and indifferent look before. I have seen it when a human being is racially “profiled” and instinctively dismissed by another for being “different.”  Standing in the threshold of my neighbor’s apartment, I was cognizant of the fact that he was white and I was brown. I became painfully aware, that my hair was black; my nose was snubbed and flat, my lips were thick, and that my old life was an ocean away. I realized that a barrier had been erected long before I knocked on his door. He had seen my sons and me on the apartment grounds before. I imagined that in the courtroom of his mind we were guilty without a trial. It didn’t matter that I had to deal with two squabbling teenagers, and that my son was on crutches. We were “Asian” and we all looked alike to him. I had certainly lived up to the stereotype of the “bad Asian driver.” We were all the same to him, and we were different from him. I felt small. No, in his eyes I was less than small. I was reduced to that voiceless, weightless state to which prejudice diminishes a human being. I could not be seen. I was invisible.

Still, I made one last attempt. “Well, if it’s not something for you, perhaps your wife might enjoy it?”

The young man shifted his weight off the doorframe and leaned forward slightly, his steel-blue eyes drilling through mine.

“She won’t eat that,” he said, quietly.

And just like that, he closed the door on us.

I turned to Eric, stunned.

The coffee cake in my hands felt like a millstone.

“What did I tell you, Mom,” Eric said. “You just wasted your money.”

I looked at him and said, “If you saw this as an act of kindness, then it isn’t a waste of money to me.”

But I was talking to the back of a T-shirt again. Eric was five paces ahead of me hurrying to his video game.

Bewildered, I did not head upstairs. I walked outside, through the parking lot under the clear, starry night sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the orange ribbon on my coffee cake. I felt grateful for the fresh Pacific Northwest air, yet a trifle lost and adrift to be in this great land of plenty where a neighbor would turn down a peace offering. In the Filipino culture, his behavior would have been unthinkable; only the most grievous offense, like if I had insulted his mother, would have merited this type of rejection.

Two years before, I uprooted my children from the Philippines to give them independence, a backbone, and a better life. Even though we had separated, their American father had given our children the precious gift of birthright——to be part of what was once described as the “least imperfect society in the world,” citizenship to the United States of America—the land of milk, honey…and walls.

The parking lot was quiet; no trace of the human outburst from the day before. All the cars were parked neatly in a row, separated by thick white painted lines. Everything demarcated, as it should be, everything in its place. I recalled a greeting card I once picked up in a store. To me the words echoed the anthem of the immigrant:

We didn’t come here to fit in.

We came here to live our dreams.

I walked back to my apartment and opened the door. Both boys were on the couch with their laptops, lost in a world of their own. They weren’t fighting. I went into the kitchen, the coffee cake still in my hands.

A head popped from around the kitchen wall.

“Need help, Mom?” Eric offered. There was a new gentleness in his voice.

I set the coffee cake on the kitchen counter, feeling a burden lift inside. I hadn’t made a fool of myself. It was there in my son’s voice. His concern showed me that the kindness my neighbor refused to accept had not been wasted.

 

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Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis original hand drawn collection

By Vic Sizemore

I am playing summer tennis at Peaks View Park in the midday sun. Sweat runs inside my sunglasses, makes them slippery on my nose. My deodorant is beginning to fail and at certain swings of my racket, I catch of whiff of my stinking animal body. I take my time between volleys to get myself back to the baseline. Though I am the better player, he is several inches taller than I am, young and in better shape. He just dropped one over the net and I almost tripped trying to reach it in time. My knee and hip both ache from the jarring attempt.

The side parking lot has a steady flow of college kids here for disc golf. A boy smokes weed at his open trunk. A girl pulls up beside him. They gather their discs and head over the hillside toward the course.

I take him to deuce three times. Back at ad out, he slides a serve down the line and I swat it into the net. As we switch courts, I hold my racket out flat and he lays three Wilson balls on it.

I stuff all three balls into my right front pocket and lean my racket into the net. We both swig from our water bottles and rub the icy condensation on our faces. I take off my sunglasses and dry my face with my shirt. The man who just beat me is my son. Just through his first year of college, he is home for the summer. He takes a long swig of water and gazes out over the park.

While he is not looking, I size him up. Tall, lean but broad shouldered. Strong. In that moment, a memory hits me. I am racing my ex-wife J from West Union, Ohio to the hospital in Maysville, Kentucky, where the doctor on call, a stranger to us both, worked his rubber-gloved fingers in and out of her.

“He’s breached,” the doctor said, and he mashed and kneaded J’s stomach with such rough force, I worried he would injure the baby, who nevertheless stayed breached. They prepped J in a rush and performed an emergency C-section. I sat by her head and watched the procedure in the mirror above. The smell of singed flesh rose into the room as the hot scalpel cauterized the wound as it cut. The fatty tissue inside J’s split stomach was shockingly white.

A nurse spread the incision apart with a shiny steel tool, and the doctor pushed the fingers of both hands into the cavity of J’s torso and pulled out a red baby boy. His head was round, not squeezed into the shape of a banana by the birth canal, dark hair slimed down flat.

“You okay, dad?” a nurse said. “Do you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay,” I answered, staring at this creature.

Another nurse, on the other side, said, “You want to cut the umbilical cord, dad?”

I took the snips from her and cut the cord, purple and shiny as wet plastic.

The nurses immediately swept the boy off to the pediatrician’s table under a warming light, and the doctor immediately went to work stitching J back together.

“Dad,” a nurse said, “do you want to meet your son?”

On the table, the boy’s body folded itself back in half, as it was in the womb, heels to ears, no bigger than a bag of flour. His purple scrotum was swollen, full and tight as a new Hacky Sack. The warming light was hot on my forearm as I greeted him. He turned, squinted up at me, intense, confused.

As the memory flashes through my mind, the intervening nineteen years collapse on me,  into this impossibly brief instant. This might be his last summer home, who knows. I want to grab him in a hug but I don’t.

Instead I walk to my baseline and say, “I’m going to play for real this time.”

He chuckles, nods, and spins his racket in front of him.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Eclectica, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.

illustration © bioraven

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Losing Winnie

Losing Winnie

11024684_854780187922320_708784403179556261_oBy Robin Lentz Worgan

I pick up my 14-year-old daughter, Winnie, at school after her play rehearsal. She slides into the car crumpling empty granola bar wrappers with her foot. I begin my daily mantra of questions: “How was play rehearsal? …Did you meet with your math teacher? …Is Sarah feeling better? Win…Winnie, stop texting and answer me, please.”  With her neck bent forward and long blond hair hanging down, a natural tent is formed around her virtual world.   This is our usual routine for our 25 minute ride home every day, unless of course she has something to ask me about her upcoming social plans, and then there is an immediate conversation to make sure they happen.

After my final pleading: “Damn it, Winnie! Put down the phone so we can talk,” she looks up at me. Her lips, pursed one over the other like Lincoln logs, slowly unfold into a slight smile. “Mom, I’m going to Allen’s house on Friday, OK?” I take a deep breath knowing that Allen may be a boy she likes and that she often wants to go to different boys’ houses instead of her girlfriends’ and also knowing that I prefer her to hang out in a co-ed group. I respond, “Oh, we might go out to dinner Friday.” Out of nowhere, Winnie, usually light and dreamy by nature, glares at me with her crystal blue eyes and barks, “You always try to control my life. You would let me go if it was a group. “

We continue to talk in a strained manner. I am not ready for her instant anger and I am trying to calm her down by telling her that I know right now she does not understand all the things I do to protect her, but before I finish she bursts in and says, “You know I hate you and I have hated you since I was… about 8-years-old.” Winnie then turns her head straight as we slow to a stop light. Before I know what is happening I hear her open the car door and say “Let me out. I’m outta here.” My heart is beating fast as we are on a main road. A car slides up next to us and I convince her to close the door for a moment. I immediately lock all the doors. We are on our way to a doctor’s check- up. She turns to me and says, “I’m not going in to the doctor. I’m leaving.” Dazed, I call my husband and ask him to meet us at her appointment. As we drive along and circle the doctor’s office parking lot twice, I feel my heart dangling from my chest, her words radiating throughout my body.

My husband comes and calms her and says he will take her to the doctor. I drive home gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter needing to control something. As I walk in my older son sees I am upset. He is the one who used to say, “I hate you!” and then storm out of the house. He hugs me close and says, “You are a good mom. She’s just going through a phase.” That night I sit in the bathroom and cry. I cry because my little blonde haired, zany Winnie who used to wear a blue hat every day is growing up; I cry because I feel disconnected from her thoughts and feelings; I cry because I think about a game Winnie and I used to play every day after preschool. She had named it Danny and Tommy. We used two wooden figures and a bunch of wooden animals. We would set up all the animals within other blocks like they were in a zoo and then she would be Danny and I would be Tommy and we would visit the zoo and have adventures. We played it every day. I cry because her needs were so simple then: Lunch and a game with mom and then a nap, but now I am not so sure what she needs. I cry because I gave up my career to be home with my children. “Mom” has been my main identity yet I don’t feel like a good mom right now.

The next afternoon I invite Winnie to sit by the fire and talk with me. We sit cross-legged across from each other. I am hoping for a peaceful conversation, but she still has streaks of loathing in her voice when she says, “I just want to leave here. I am ready to be on my own and I want to travel.” I explain to her that travel is a great goal and that many people want to travel and that she will have plenty of time to travel later after school and college. I even bring up the idea of a gap year to fulfill her wanderlust, but we are just not connecting in our communication. She skips to her next argument and points out that I make her hang up her cell phone every night before bed and do her computer homework at the bar in the kitchen and that none of her friends’ parents make them do that, and, that when she does something wrong in her social life, I get too involved. She sits up straight and looks at me, no through me, and says, “I just want to make my own mistakes and make my own life choices. I don’t need you.”

Winnie repeats again that she does not like me. I can tell our conversation is not going anywhere and I want to end it. I decide to tell her the story I told her every night until she was about 10-years-old and stopped asking for it. “Win, when you were born, I had lost your older sister, Margaret; she was stillborn, and so when the doctor put you on my chest and I felt you breathing and saw your pink cheeks, I burst into tears and clasped my hands in prayer and said, ‘Thank you God ‘over and over again because I felt so, so lucky to have you. So you may hate me right now, but I will always love you because I am your mother and mothers always love their children, no matter what. “

I leave her and go in to my room to take a break from this mess. I know I will react and yell at my other children for anything they do because I feel vulnerable after my conversation with Winnie, so I shut myself up in my bedroom and open up my book, Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan and begin to read. I read to calm down. It takes me somewhere else away from my problems. As I read, tears drip onto my page, but I keep reading for a while. I know I should make dinner but I am not ready to resurface into my life. After about 45 minutes, Winnie comes in red eyed, hands me a note written on notebook paper, hugs me and leaves. She has never been one to talk about her feelings or tell me about her day at school. She did not cry at her beloved grandfather’s funeral a few months ago though all her siblings did.  I read her note, “I have so many emotions inside of me. I don’t know how to communicate them. I don’t hate you. I love my family. I don’t really want to leave. “

The next night I decide to ask Winnie for an art lesson. She has just spent several nights sketching amazing pictures of Adam Levine and Kurt Cobain. I cannot draw at all. We decide I will draw a mermaid. I expect her to give me simple directions for drawing a mermaid. I am waiting for concrete directions like “First draw this line,” instead Winnie begins by telling me about light and how the act of drawing all has to do with finding the point of light. She shows me the point of light on my page. She also says, “Mom you always draw what you think you see, but you are supposed to draw what you really see. Don’t guess what the side of the chair looks like, draw where it curves on the one side. Don’t guess the shape between your eyes and your pencil. Draw what you see.”

After the lesson, my picture is ready for the trash. I do not understand the light and I cannot see the way Winnie sees. I lie in bed that night and begin to think that maybe I see Winnie the way I want to see her instead of how she is. I put on a fresh set of lenses and drive her to Allen’s house the next night. Winnie texts the whole way there, not talking, except when she gets out to turn and say, “Thanks for the ride, mom.” (She smiles). I think I see a 14-year-old that needs lots of protection and is going to a boy’s house by herself and is impulsive because she has ADHD, but what I really see at that moment is a happy, artistic teen girl who loves her mom and is trying to figure out her path. I wave to Allen’s mom and drive away.

Robin Lentz Worgan is a second grade resource teacher and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in ADDitude Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also the author of Journaling Away Mommy’s Grief, 2010.  She blogs about loss on her book website at www.robinlentzworgan.com

Art by Linda Willis

Pink Champagne

Pink Champagne

Black and white photograph for background, tourist girl in swimsuit standing with happiness on the beach and sea at Koh Miang Island, Mu Ko Similan National Park, Phang Nga province, Thailand

By Harriet Heydemann

“Let’s send her picture to Dr. Doom and Gloom,” her father said every birthday. That’s what we called the doctor who told us she wouldn’t live past the age of five or ten, or maybe, if she was lucky, she’d make it to fifteen. The doctor’s prognosis was the worst we had heard. Most of the experts we consulted scratched their heads. Ariela never sat up, or crawled, or walked. No one knew what was wrong or why she was the way she was.

“Look how well she’s doing.” We said this every birthday past fifteen, knowing we were being smug, knowing we might be jinxing her luck. We laughed about Dr. Doom and Gloom. “She doesn’t know Ariela,” we said. “Ariela’s a trouper.” Sometimes we used the word “miracle.”

Every birthday, I relived her birth, just as my mother did with me. “What was it like the day I was born?” I’d ask my mother. She would tell me the story. How she was sedated. When she woke up, she had a baby.

“No sedation,” I said to my doctor who told me to take Lamaze classes. But the Lamaze teacher never said, “In and out of distress” and “No progress.” After hours that felt like days, I was rushed to the OR for an emergency

C-section. I couldn’t feel a thing or watch her birth.

I admit. I spoiled Ariela. After all, she was an only child. Ariela could have just about anything she wanted any day of the year. It was a challenge to make her birthday special.

At least a month before her birthday, she would decide what kind of event she wanted, who would be on her guest list, what food to serve. Whether she’d have a chocolate, white or carrot cake. But that’s where her power ended. She had little control over anything that mattered. She held court over her party from the seat of her wheelchair. She smiled and laughed with her friends and understood everything they said. But she was never able to speak. We read her facial expressions and her body language. She answered our questions with “yes” and “no” cards or a blink of an eye. By her eighth birthday, she used a computer with a digitized voice, a child’s version of Stephen Hawking’s device.

There would be more than one celebration. If her birthday fell in the middle of the week, she’d have a few close friends over for cake. On the weekend, another cake and another party for a larger group. Then, because her birthday came right before Thanksgiving, we’d celebrate when family came into town for the holiday. She liked being the center of attention, all her friends surrounding her, singing “Happy Birthday.” They filled our home with constant banter, interspersed with squeals of laughter and whispered secrets.

By the time Ariela turned sixteen, she could no longer eat the cake or anything else. Her food, a nutritional supplement, went into her stomach by way of a long, skinny tube. Sometimes I put the tiniest taste of strawberry jam in her cheek, washed down with a few drops of pink champagne, her favorite drink. We celebrated every year, like this year would be the best, like she would live forever.

I wanted all her parties to be perfect; the kind that linger in your memory for days after, where everything goes smoothly and no one wants to leave. Her friends still talk about her twenty-first birthday in a downtown nightclub. But the last one, a bowling party, was far from ideal. I chose a Sunday instead of a Saturday, and a few of her friends couldn’t come. The street was dark, and people couldn’t find the place. Almost everyone was late. The music was too loud. The bowling alley was slow serving the pizza. The strobe lights gave Ariela a headache. Her bowling ramp and lucky pink shirt, both previous birthday gifts, didn’t bring the usual show of strikes. I should have checked out the place beforehand. She looked at me with an expression that I knew too well. Roughly translated, “You really fucked up this time.”

“You’ll have a better party next year,” I promised.

As Jews, we mark the anniversary of a death, but what about a birthday? Is a birthday sacred? Or does only a mother hold that day sacred? My mother used to tell me, “You may not know the father, but you know the mother.” Sedated, anesthetized or awake, the mother was there.

My missing her is the same lonely, painful, deep hole every day. Her birthday is not different, except it is. It feels strange not to have a party, and feels even stranger to have one. We can’t have a cake with candles, and we can’t sing “Happy Birthday.” I worry that her birthday will become just another day. It’s a challenge to make the day special.

Her friends text and email, prodding me to do something. On the day of her birthday, about a dozen young women congregate in our house and reminisce.

Many of Ariela’s friends came into her life as caregivers, attendants to help with her personal needs and accompany her to medical appointments, classes, movies, concerts, bars, wherever she needed or wanted to go. For the last seven or eight years, she hired millennials, women close to her in age. Over time, their relationships evolved into friendships. Her friends went on to become physical therapists, nurses, speech pathologists, social workers, and teachers.

“I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch.

She’s grinning along with them.

This was the first birthday party she missed.

She would have been twenty-seven.”

 

“She changed my life, the way I think about disability and ability,” one friend says.

“She inspires me everyday,” says another.

“She didn’t want to be an inspiration. She made fun of people who patronized her.” They all nod at this.

“She made me laugh.”

We eat pizza and drink pink champagne. We gather around the TV and watch a video, a photomontage of Ariela’s life. Her friends point to themselves in the group shots.

“We’re at the Embarcadero in that one. We went to watch a flash mob.”

“That one’s from her trip to Israel. Dig the hottie she’s sitting with.”

Everyone laughs at Ariela dressed as a zombie, her eyes blackened, mouth smeared a bloody red, her Halloween costume two years ago.

The sounds of young women laughing, joking, teasing fill our home. I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch. She’s grinning along with them. This was the first birthday party she missed. She would have been twenty-seven. So there, Dr. Doom and Gloom. She beat your prediction by over eleven years.

Surrounded by Ariela’s friends, I understand why she said the “L” in her name stood for “lucky.” I think of the lasting impressions she made on their lives, and I know her birthday will not be forgotten.

I mark her friends’ birthdays in my calendar. I’m not crazy about pink champagne, but I raise a glass to all of them.

Harriet Heydemann’s work has been published in The Big Roundtable, Huffington Post, and A Cup Of Comfort for Parents of Children With Special Needs.

Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

teenage girl in the summer field

By Dorri Olds

Growing up, my whip-smart Jewish mother looked like Jackie O. I craved her attention but had to share it with my two older sisters. Decades later, I landed Mom’s full focus for the trauma I never wanted to talk about. I finally told her I was gang-raped at 13.

The sexual assault happened ages ago in New York suburbia. The perpetrators were classmates I trusted. My friend Willie attacked me from behind, clamping his hand over my mouth. The other four teens pounced from behind a tree and pinned me. They took turns forcing hands in my vagina and penises in my mouth while they laughed. I tried to fight but they overpowered me. There was no consent. I was too young to understand it was legally rape.

During the attack, when the weight of male bodies crushed me, I’d wanted to cry out, “Mommy!” But afterwards I couldn’t go to my mother. I was too afraid she’d be angry because I’d worn the sexy low-cut silk shirt she had forbidden me to wear. But at the same time, I was enraged because mothers are supposed to shield their children. Why hadn’t she protected me? I couldn’t tell my father, a macho World War II army captain. I was scared he’d kill the boys and go to jail. I wasn’t close enough to my older sisters to tell either one. And I was scared. If I told, I was afraid the attackers would get in trouble and I’d be labeled a rat at school — vilified, friendless, and teased mercilessly.

In a strange twist, while on Facebook recently, there was a suggestion to friend one of my rapists. I had never wanted to see their faces again. I’d tried so hard to banish the memory of that horrific night. Now I was stunned seeing him on my screen. I tried to see the slender blond boy he’d been as I stared at this jowly face. Propelled by vengeance and shaking with rage, I clicked through his profile photos and saw a boy with his nose and a pretty teen girl with long hair parted in the middle. In one image, he gripped a beer while his belly drooped over his jeans. I spotted old wedding pics with a beautiful bride. Then I searched for the other boys, now middle-aged men. I found three and sent them all messages reminding them of what they did. “I was 13, naïve, and a virgin,” I wrote. “Hope you’ve been haunted by that night. It nearly destroyed me.”

The fourth guy wasn’t on Facebook. A hometowner wrote to say he’d been brain damaged in a car crash years ago. “He was drunk,” she said. “Half his skull was ripped off.” He was the meanest of the boys so the karma felt sweet.

Through the help of a therapist, friends, and my husband, I stopped trying to suppress the memory. I wrote a piece about my assault and it was published. Right before it went to print, I had lunch with my mother. While we waited for grilled chicken I said, “There’s something I never told you. Remember that long ago fight we had over clothes?” Before she could answer, I sucked in breath for strength and the story spilled out.

First there was silence, then words caught in her throat as tears rolled down her cheeks. She said, “It breaks my heart that happened to you.” Then she reached across the table, squeezed my hand and said, “I love you and I am so proud of the woman you are.” After The New York Times published my essay I received hundreds of sympathetic comments from strangers, and what seemed like my entire Long Island town. A professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote to say, “I’m including your powerful essay, ‘Defriending My Rapist,’ as required reading for my Victimology course.” She invited me to come speak to her students. She had an M.A. in criminal justice, a Ph.D. in sociology, and had written many books. I said, “Yes.”

When the day came, my nervous energy coalesced into one inane conundrum: what to wear to the class. I walked back and forth in my Chelsea apartment, peering into closets. I wondered whether to ask my mother to come. I was surprised how much I wanted her there. This time she could be my witness, my ally.

Although now in my fifties it felt like an important chance to change the past. And I wondered, not for the first time, what might have gone differently if I had told my mother. Would I have avoided shame and self-loathing? I wanted my Mom beside me during my talk at the school when I described the assault so many years ago. I hoped it would help explain why I’d been so rebellious in my teens and twenties. Still, second thoughts reared up. I feared that if my mother listened to my story, it would stir up emotions, so it seemed selfish to ask her to come. I imagined having a conversation later where she’d say, “It’s not your job to protect me. You should have asked.” So, I thought, I will let her decide and picked up the phone. She paused on the other end to think, then said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” Later she said she’d had tickets to the theater that night.

“It was an easy choice, though,” she said. “I’d much rather be with you.”

I chose my formal black pants and a freshly ironed button-down shirt. Then I changed into jeans and a soft black cotton T-shirt so I’d feel more like me. I pulled on my hip black boots with silver spikes. I knew they were age-inappropriate but didn’t care. I added a black jacket with flashy zippers. Then realized that despite a happy marriage and thriving career I had regressed to those junior high days when I wanted so badly to look cool. I chose a sedate purse and left for the subway.

I headed uptown to meet my mother; she was always stronger than my father. If he were alive I wouldn’t have published that essay. It would have been too hard to blindside him. I couldn’t bear the thought of Dad’s face if I’d told him. He would have blamed himself for not protecting me and then would’ve been furious that I publicized something so private. He was secretive and never understood why I was so open. My confession would have humiliated him.

When my mother and I walked into the classroom, only the professor was there. Twenty-five freshmen wandered in. They plopped into chairs and slouched looking like they’d rather nap than listen to anything I had to say. A few mumbled a bored hello. None looked me in the eye. I thought back to college when I’d viewed people over fifty as relics.

The room was split down the middle, females and males in a spectrum of skin tones. The professor introduced me. Fearful I’d break down and sob, I read my essay.

At 13, I was a lonely upper-middle-class Jewish nerd living in Long Island, in search of a tougher persona. He was part of an edgy crowd that hung out in a parking lot behind the school, sprawling over the cement steps like bored cats on a sofa. It was 1973, and the boys wore black leather jackets, smoked Marlboros and stashed pints of Tango and Thunderbird in their back pockets.

When I reached the end there was only the quiet. I thought my words had been too heavy for their young minds. Then this sea of students burst into applause.

Sitting in the front row, my gray-haired Mom, with her dyed red highlights, clapped the loudest; her rainbow-colored jacket, folded neatly in her lap. Although she was smiling, there were tears.

The former slouchers were now seated upright, a few brushed fingers across their eyes. Most stared at me quizzically, as if trying to reconcile that the 53-year old successful woman they saw was the same person who had lived the frightful teen experience I’d just described.

After decades of therapy and self-help groups, I had let go of irrational rage at my mother for not being all powerful and preventing the rape. The damaged and terrified 13-year-old girl I used to be healed more each time I shared my secret publicly.

I looked around the room and wondered if my talk helped the students. I hoped so. I knew it helped me. When my mother and I said goodnight on the sidewalk, she said, “I wish you had felt you could come to me then.”

I hugged her longer than usual and said, “But I did now.”

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and The New York Times. She is currently working on her memoir.

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

What We Learned About Parenting At Starbucks

Amsterdam, Netherlands - JUNE 08, 2011: Starbucks coffee logo in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on June 08, 2011 in Netherlands. Starbucks Corporation is an American global coffee company and coffeehouse chain based in Seattle, Washington

By Kathryn Streeter

When our son was 4, he fell in love. The object of his affection was voluptuous—far too old for him. He saw her constantly. She had long flowing hair and intense eyes. He called her his “little love.” The crown she wore lent an air of power while sleek fins encircling her projected steady but enticing mystery.

The fact that our son was smitten by the Starbucks Mermaid was our fault.

One of our oldest family traditions is spending Saturday mornings at the local coffee shop. Started long before kids came along, this easy-going tradition was a sweet opening to weekends. We didn’t have a lot of money and the coffee shop fit our wallet. Wherever we lived, we targeted the local, indie or chain, just as long as we could reach it by foot. Whether sunny and blistering hot, wintry and blowing icy winds, we’d wake up and sleepily trudge towards the coffee shop hand in hand.

When we started having kids, going out for coffee each Saturday morning was a tradition we were determined to continue. We selfishly coveted this entrée into the weekend as a young couple and didn’t want kids to change this beloved routine.

Looking back, it was inevitable that our son’s first love would be the Starbucks logo. At our Washington, DC neighborhood Starbucks, we’d wolf down our weekly dark-roast coffee and cinnamon scone with our baby son and his slightly older sister in tow. It was exhausting. No longer a peaceful, relaxing way to begin the weekend, our treasured tradition had been turned upside-down. It would have been easy to let this tradition die with the arrival of kids.

Yet, we persisted, trying to roll with the times.

When the kids morphed into fidgety toddlers, we’d pull out toys. We started talking about what restaurant manners looked like because coffee shops offered a forgiving environment in which to begin these lessons

As they grew, we adapted, stashing coloring books and crayons, drawing paper for doodling, designing mazes or gradually, for hangman tournaments. We would pair up, one parent, one kid and go the distance, watching our little ones work with letters and spelling.

Once, R-E-C-Y-C-L-E was the word that stumped the boys’ team, handing them a loss. I remember this hangman tournament well because by then, we had moved to Dubai on short-term assignment, where recycling was very much a cultural afterthought. After consulting with my daughter, we decided “recycle” was apropos for the championship round.

“Dad, think harder!” our 7-year-old son pleaded.

Time passed and the kids grew. Their tastes changed, resulting in them branching out, trying new items on the menu. Previously, they had faithfully ordered chocolate chip cookies because they knew that on Saturday mornings, we lifted parental law regarding what made for an appropriate breakfast.

“It’s up to you. One thing. You decide.”

As they grew older, they took to dabbling:

 

A cinnamon roll, please.

Izze soda, please.

Pumpkin-bread, please.

A hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream, please.

A vanilla latte, please.

A yogurt parfait, please.

An egg-sausage breakfast sandwich, please.

A macchiato, please.

An Americano, please.

Time sped by and one Saturday we suddenly realized that the day we had been pining for had arrived: we were having conversations with our kids. We realized we could actually finish our sentences without meltdowns, outbreaks, or an impatient, is it time to go yet?  They answered in fully formed sentences with increasing thoughtfulness, making eye contact. In fact, we were experiencing intentional, meaningful time together regardless of the topic of conversation.

Sometimes we’d just chill and review the week. Sometimes we’d address what we needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes we’d talk current events and big ideas. Sometimes we’d have a rare moment when our blooming tweens needed to really talk, letting us into their world. Away from the distractions of the home, there was more space.

This basic tradition was mercifully adaptable, able to accommodate the various seasons of family life. As our family moved around from Dubai to London, Indianapolis to Austin, this tradition followed us, so easily transferable into new surroundings.

An old friend, this was a tradition we came to count on, a comfort during often painful adjustments.

Yet, from its infancy, the core point of this family tradition—to hang out, celebrate and support each other—remained unchanged. With amazement, I watched as we grew closer to our kids through our steady and persistent Saturday habit. We intentionally had built a routine which had serendipitously brought ease to our parent-child relationships. Additionally, our kids had grown close as siblings.

Now in high school, coffee on Saturday mornings starts much later, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all because teens need their sleep. And that is ok. There’s no question good things are happening because the kids will often text us, asking to meet up after school for coffee. Or for family happy hour where dad orders a beer, mom orders a glass of red wine and kids suck down soda, another form of caffeine. By this we know that our kids are choosing to hang out. Talk. Laugh.

There’s an element of trust. They know we’re not going to ask for deep conversation in exchange for buying them a coke. Our little inexpensive outings—whether coffee or happy hour—are going to be whatever they end up being, no strings attached. Together, just hanging out as a little family.

Could it be that this tradition is in part responsible for the young adults I now see sitting across from me at Starbucks discussing the current presidential campaign?

We all want close family relationships. We all hope for strong relationships with our teens. Yet, if not careful, we can find ourselves going from day to day, week to week, living under the same roof but in every way disconnected from one another. Is it possible that intentionally putting everything aside to walk to the coffee shop together is also a path toward stronger family relationships?

I realize now that this simple tradition of hitting the coffee shop each week started something in motion long ago. Though I’m still trying to appreciate its fullness, its richness, its direct contribution to building the relationships we have today with our young adults, I’m thankful. Starting with Starbucks, this coffee shop routine helped our kids want to be with us—their parents. And that’s no small thing.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and The Briar Cliff Review. Her essay is included in the best selling anthology “Feisty After 45.” Connect with Kathryn on her website, Twitter @streeterkathryn and Instagram @kathrynstreeter.

 

 

Thirteen, Now and Then

Thirteen, Now and Then

Art Thirteen 1

By Christine Green

Last week my daughter asked me to help her edit and revise some poems she wrote for class. The theme was a rather advanced one: the Bosnian refugee experience. She is anxious and a little sad by nature, and I sensed her nervousness. I didn’t want to upset her so I chose my words carefully. Usually, when I help her write, she becomes prickly and uneasy, quick to be offended by any suggestion I make. But not this time. She listened as I critiqued and nit-picked and corrected. She even smiled, I think.

She worked on the poems for the next couple of hours despite the fact that there was no school the next day and the rest of the family watched a movie and ate popcorn and dozed on the couch.

I read her poems the next morning. I don’t ask permission and felt a little ashamed about that. They were good but sad and dark. I was proud and confused and heart-achy. She can channel so much sadness and beauty in just a few lines of eighth grade poetry. Her melancholy and anxiety transmutes to art that is incandescent. This child, this girl-woman, is such a different animal than I was so many years ago.

***

Art thirteen 2Thirteen, 1986: I am small, much smaller than most of the girls in my class. My white uniform shirt falls limply against my chest. I don’t need a bra but wear a trainer because you can see right through the flimsy polyester. Knees, knobby and sharp, poke out from underneath my plaid skirt. I wear my hair short, which was a huge mistake. My thick, straight tresses look best when I leave them long. But a picture in some glossy magazine convinces me to cut if off. I look weird.

I am reading books I’ve taken from my father –Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and Saki. My science teacher catches a glimpse and asks if I really understand what I’m reading. I do understand and tell her so. She believes me, and I tuck the books away feeling embarrassed but not entirely sure why.

I may be smart, but I am naïve beyond words. Once I am asked to light the candles on the class Advent wreath. The idea of lighting a match terrifies me and my natural anxiety peaks to panic. When the flame ignites, I hastily drop it… right on the pine wreath surrounding the purple candles. The teacher looks at me with disbelief. It is clear that she—and the rest of the giggling class—think I am ridiculous for not knowing how to light a match. I feel ridiculous. But my soul is all air and water. My head is filled with Ideas and Notions. My heart is somber and easily bruised. I am quick to cry, and am continually scared of the world. I can’t even use the stove at my house. I rely on others for heat.

***

She got an A on those poems as I knew she would. But I worry about all that sadness. It’s a sadness tinged with anger, confusion, and anxiety. She is too young to be so somber.

This makes me think that the coming years will be hard, much harder than I am ready for. Already we can come at each other with an intensity that startles me.

I cry. She yells.

Water. Flame.

Steam.

***

Thirteen, 2014: She is fire through and through. She can light a match, of course. And she can bake bread and walk home from school alone. She wears black and doodles on her sneakers. She hates gym class and is a voracious reader. Books litter her room and I often find them tucked in her bed sheets and even in the laundry basket. No magazines, though. Fancy fashion spreads hold no interest for her. Instead she studies Shintoism and researches the ins and outs of cardiac surgery. The affairs of the heart fascinate her on every level. She thinks about heaven and death and loss and takes on the sorrows of the world. Those sorrows are tinder for a blaze of anger that glints in her hazel eyes when she tilts her head.

She talks back and mouths off and teases her little brother. She has perfected the eye roll and slams doors in such a way as to shake the whole house.

Sparks fly.

She is so hot headed at times I want to douse her in cold water. Occasionally, when she is walking in the snow, I watch the steam rise from her heart and finger tips and the tip of her nose. I watch it rise into the ether and mix with the stars.

Christine Green is a freelance writer and columnist in Western, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge,” at A Different Path Art Gallery in Brockport, NY. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.

photo credit: Courtney Webster

Mom I Need A Ride

Mom I Need A Ride

Art-Mom-I-Need-a-Ride-768x630By Francie Arenson Dickman

Back in 1998, right before we got married, my husband suggested that we trade in both our cars for a new one. And so, we did. I traded in my black two-door Honda, a tiny thing that fit nothing except for me, a death trap according to my parents, for a bigger one. A safer one. A car that could and would carry children. My husband, who loves all things auto—I assume because he’s from Detroit—was giddy with excitement. But I, who tends to love merely what’s mine, stood in my Ann Taylor suit unloading tapes of Enya and Indigo Girls from the glove compartment, maps from the side pockets and cried. I wasn’t just trading in a car, I was mourning the end of an era. I was saying goodbye to my solo passenger status and paying my respects to the concept of mine and only mine.

And with good reason. In a matter of years, the backseat was occupied with carseats and with twin backwards-facing riders. My glove compartment was filled with pacifiers. My side compartments were stuffed with toys and wipes. My CDs played Ralph, but who could hear him over the all the crying. For driving, like for mothering itself, these were tense times.

But, the reliable thing about time is that for better or worse it keeps rolling on, and with it so did we. From facing backwards to forward, from boosters to butts. From Montessori straight through middle school, I drove on. Until, suddenly, a decade and a half later, we’ve reached a marker, not a destination, but a rite of passage. As it is time, a friend just brought to my attention, to sign my passengers up for Driver’s Ed. Their classes won’t start until September. They won’t have their licenses for another year after. Nonetheless, the end of another road is in sight. A road I never imagined would end. Napping, I always knew was a phase. Just like the park, Princesses and playdates. But the carpool, like Twinkies and cockroaches, seemed like something that couldn’t possibly expire.

“When one door closes another one opens,” my mother told me that day I gave away my Honda. She tells me this often, as I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the passage of time, and she was, of course, right. Though I had no idea that when the door to the Honda shut, the next one would be opening and closing ad nauseam for the next 15 years. Had I only known that I would be blessed not only with two daughters but the job of chauffeuring them around, maybe I wouldn’t have cried so hard. Or maybe I would have cried harder.

Driving’s what I do—it’s what we all do. Working the wheel is an essential part of the parenting job. On most weekdays, I’m in and out of the car from 3:00 to 8:30 pm, and on weekends we go to dance shows out in Timbuktu. Is it tiresome? Yes. Do I complain about it? Certainly. Would I trade it in for another two-seater? Not for the world. At least not now.

Although my husband is now bugging me to do it. Once again, what is to me a momentous occasion is to him simply an opportunity to head to a dealership. “Let’s get you a new car, maybe something a little smaller,” he tells me. He wants to hand down my big old car to our daughters. The bigger, the better, he says, as far as their safety is concerned.

But I know better. As does Bessie, my first car, a Caprice Classic station wagon, the biggest car ever created. Together we crashed into fire hydrants, backed into other parents’ cars, and plowed through the dry wall of our garage. In fairness to us, Bessie didn’t give a warning beep when we got too close to objects like cars nowadays do. All I had was 3 or 4 of my backwards-facing friends to scream after the damage was done. In this regard, I suppose my kids will have technology on their side. On the flip side, I didn’t have a phone in Bessie to distract me. And so, regardless of the car they drive, I am worried. Times two.

But more than that, I’m not ready to come full circle. Although this time around, it’s not the car itself that I care about losing. I’m mourning the loss of my status as driver.

“Mom, can you give us a ride?” is the most commonly asked question in our house (next to “Mom, do you have any money?”) One would think I’d hate those words by now. Those reliable words. They ring down from upstairs. They appear as texts on my phone at random and often inconvenient times. But I say, “yes” whenever I can, not because I’m such a good sport, but because I’m selfish, as it’s now almost only the car, or more accurately, my ability to drive it, that continues to reliably bind us.

My black SUV has become the last great bastion of guaranteed togetherness—like a prison for teenagers—a place where my girls who once faced backwards and cried now sit next to me and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their days. Most of which are spent away at school or with friends. At night, of course, I lose them to their rooms. But during those afternoon hours in the car, or better yet, the weekend hour after hour going to dance shows, they are still mine and only mine.* And I love that. I always have.

*Okay, well, like 60% mine and 40% Snapchat’s.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.

Love,

Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog icescreammama.com. Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 

 

Lighting Up

Lighting Up

Art Italy

By Beverly Willett

Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.

As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.

In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.

I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.

How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.

Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.

“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.”  Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.

When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.

“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.

So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.

Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.

I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.

Should we go in? I said.

Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.

“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.

“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.

I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.

Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.

“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.

I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.

After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.

Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

By Sonya Spillmann

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When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?

 

I didn’t think it would start this early: she is only nine. My daughter is not looking at me, but through me. We’re standing in the kitchen and I have one hand on the counter and the other on my hip. I’m leaning into her as she adjusts her elbows and ankles, getting comfortable for my lecture. She is somewhere beyond me. I know her look, her stance. I perfected it with my own mom.  

As I look back on those years battling with my mother, I find myself wondering: Was I a good child with horrible moments—a typical teenager? Or had I permanently damaged my relationship with my mom? Is there a distinction? Where is the line?

I don’t know the answers. I never had the chance to find out.

My mom died when I was eighteen, at the tail end of my senior year of high school. She was diagnosed with cancer ten weeks before she took her last breath. I was busy planning for my big exciting life away at college while my mother counted out her days.

Growing up, my parents were strict, their rules covered by a heavy blanket of expectation from our church’s traditions. No makeup. No jewelry. No dancing. No dating. Modesty always, especially in church, where pants weren’t allowed and head coverings were worn by women of a certain age to show their submission to God.  

As teens do, I challenged the rules and pushed my way onto roads my parents never expected to travel. I wasn’t a bad kid—I was just hard for them. I challenged the status quo. I wore jewelry and went to prom with my boyfriend, all against their wishes. I fought with them over everything and nothing.

We had too many arguments to remember. Except for one.

My mom and I were standing in the kitchen with it’s new cream, navy, and maroon striped wallpaper. She stood on one side of the room and I was on the other. I don’t know what she wasn’t giving me or not allowing me to do, but she wouldn’t change her mind. I had lost the battle, so I went deep and picked a new prize.

Could I push her enough to slap me?

She walked out of the kitchen to the garage, with it’s yellow textured walls and shelves full of tools. I followed her, relentless.

“But you said…”

“I can’t believe…”

“Everyone else…”

From the garage, she went out onto our deck. She needed nothing in the garage or from the deck, minus an escape. Twenty years later, I realize she was running away from me, in the only way loving mothers can. Hoping diffuse a situation with a quick exit, to anywhere the other person is not—allowing physical space and stolen time to shift the dynamic just enough.

My sharp tongue lashed at her soft skin over and over and over. Until finally, I cut too deep and she slapped me squarely across the face.

Anger. Power. Guilt. Pride. Satisfaction. Limits. The pain and mix of emotions (for both her and myself) stopped my self-centered world for a moment.  

My left cheek stung. And I imagine, as she walked past me through the garage into the house and back to our kitchen, closing the door on me, her hot tears of anger, power, hurt, and guilt must have stung, too.

When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?  

Last week, I asked an acquaintance if she’d like to get our kids together for a playdate. “You pick the day. I’m free.”

“I’ll let you know,” she said, “we usually get together with my mom a few days of the week.”

When I see a woman flanked by her mother and daughter, creating a chord of generational harmony, a very hard note pounds in my heart. Unable to be that middle participant, I wonder, will I have the chance to do this with my own daughter and her child one day?

For my daughter to be a healthy adult, she and I must become autonomous. I need to accept part of her growing up involves our separation, and this is often hard work. Should the next decade be arduous—requiring me to both set limits and keep arms open while she vacillates between childlike trust and the pulling with unbridled independence away from me—am I willing to hold my ground, not knowing if we will have the chance, the time, to move past this stage of life? If I find myself in my mother’s shoes, dying young, will I regret not making these years more pleasant, though I know it would be a disservice to my daughter in the long run?  

Hope Edelman, in her book Motherless Daughters, writes of the many cycles of grief a woman experiences when she loses her mom:

“A daughter who loses a mother does pass through stages … but these responses repeat and circle back on themselves as each new developmental task reawakens her need for the parent. … At each milestone a daughter comes up against new challenges she’s frightened to face without a mother’s support, but when she reaches out for her, the mother isn’t there. The daughter’s old feelings of loss and abandonment return, and the cycle begins again.”

I grieved my mother at my high school and college graduations, at my wedding, and after each of my children’s births. As much as I could, I anticipated those griefs. But surviving them left me disarmed and vulnerable to the emotions I feel with the first strains of my daughter’s impending teenage years. I did not anticipate grieving the relationship I wish I had with my mother now.

This new grief, I call it the Unknowing, is unexpected.

I grieve not having the privilege of time; a gift which makes no guarantees, but at least offers the possibility of true reconciliation. I grieve not being able to show my mom I was deserving of the forgiveness she so graciously gave me in her last days. I grieve not being able to call her and ask her what to do with this little girl who will soon be a young woman. I grieve not knowing what the future holds, and I cannot help but fear I will be taken from my daughter before we have time to mend our relationship which will inevitably fracture throughout the process of her becoming an adult.

So here I am, feeling like a teenager while I simultaneously prepare to raise one.

After my mom’s diagnosis, she started chemotherapy. Although she only got worse, as a family, we didn’t discuss the possibility of her death. Even so, toward the end, each child was given a chance to talk with her alone. Without being told, I knew she was dying. She was in the hospital, requiring oxygen and hydration, and only days away from hospice care. She was cachectic and the chemo partially paralyzed her vocal chords, making conversations quiet and strained. My dad ushered me into the quiet room and I cautiously sat on the left side of her hospital bed.

Because this would be our last real conversation, I felt an urge to ask for her forgiveness. There are no adequate words to apologize for being a teenager when your mother dies.

As I started to speak, she shook her head. I began again, but she stopped me. She put her frail hand up, palm facing out. The same hand which set a limit on our deck years ago set another that day.

With her hand still up, she said four words I will always carry with me.

“You’re a good girl.”

Through all my self-doubt, and the grief I still experience, I am comforted knowing my mom knew my heart. She understood (more than I could have at the time) how typical, though ill-timed, my behavior was. Nothing changes a mother’s love.

Sonya Spillmann is a nurse and freelance writer who lives outside of DC with her three kids and husband. Her personal essays have been on Huffington Post, Coffee+Crumbs, and others. She was a cast member of DC’s 2015 Listen To Your Mother show and writes at spillingover.com to share stories of grief and grace. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Cities of My Body

Cities of My Body

Silouette of Woman's BodyBy Liz Rognes

With her long, perfectly manicured fingers, the checkout girl methodically lifts each item out of my shopping basket. She scans a box of almond milk, a package of pasta, then the container of prenatal vitamins.

I shift my weight from one leg to another. I’m barely showing, but if you look closely, you can already tell. I’m sixteen weeks pregnant with my first baby. This was not something I thought would come easily. My body, now generally a place of health and reliability, has in the past been the site of rampant destruction. My doctor had said subclinical infertility. My slow thyroid and elevated hormone levels worried her. She had said it could take many months, maybe years, to get pregnant. She had said she could refer me to a specialist.

But it happened faster than we had expected. Jason and I were shocked and elated when one home pregnancy test after another appeared with a plus sign, only weeks after the appointment with my doctor. I had worked so hard to prepare myself for disappointment, for the reality of subclinical infertility, that I did not believe the results. I took three, four, five, and then six pregnancy tests over the course of a few days, and all came back with the same unbelievable message.

There will be a baby.

I will be a mother.

I am short with a short torso, and there’s nowhere for this expanding uterus to go but out. I’m proud of this, and I wear my growing belly like a marker of glowing wellness and peace and love and all of that motherhood mythos, but standing there on the other side of the checkout counter, I am swept with insecurity. I do not feel like a mother. I am not glowing.

***

I know little about the woman who scans my groceries, but I know more about her than I know of the other cashiers. Only months ago, before I became pregnant, before I quit coming to the grocery store because of morning sickness, I stood behind the checkout girl, partial stranger, partial familiar face, in the garage of a house I’d never before seen, after bar close, with a slew of skinny, tattooed men circling the cold room and line after line of cocaine appearing on a workbench.

 

When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.

***

Six months earlier, Jason and I walked into a party after bar close, on the heels of a magnetic, fast-talking British musician who now lived in Spokane.

We had recognized him from his moment of fame; his band had a hit song in the eighties. He was not the kind of person we usually hung around, but something about him was alluring; Jason and I were both inexplicably swept up with him and his exaggerated manner. We joked that his arrogance was endearing. He didn’t give a fuck about what people thought, and we were nothing like him.

 

When she finishes unloading and scanning my basket, she asks, “Paper, plastic, or reusable?” She does not make eye contact. I realize that we’re pretending not to know each other.

 

We were bookish, responsible, rule-followers; Jason was a librarian, and I was an English teacher. When I did get pregnant, my own mother joked that our baby would inevitably be a nerd. “Nerd plus nerd equals nerd,” she said, smiling. She meant this lovingly; we were creative, but we went to bed early. The musician, on the other hand, was tall in stature and presence, and he commanded the attention of everyone in the room. We were seduced by his fame. And ever since we had begun talking about trying for a baby, even before my visit to the doctor, I had started to feel a little impulsive, like there was a limit to this moment in my life as I knew it. I felt myself yearning for spontaneity. So when the musician invited us to the bar for a drink that night, we went. When he invited us to the after party, we went. We were somewhat star-struck, and, despite a slew of signs indicating the opposite, were convinced that there could be something positive, or at least productive, about this friendship.

At the bar, his girlfriend leaned into me and she whispered in my ear, “It’s a hard party, if you know what I mean.”

I looked her in the eye.

I knew exactly what she meant.

***

Ten years ago, I signed in to the last of many rehab centers I had been to. I’d hallucinated my way through hospital detox a handful of times, blood pressure exploding in my ears and the sick expulsion of poisons pouring out of my mouth and pores. Then, I was a young twenty-two years old, with the face of a girl of about eighteen. I was small, with big eyes and a quiet demeanor that convinced people I wasn’t trouble. I got away with almost everything—drugs, constant drunkenness, promiscuity, hanging around with a rough crowd, finding myself in rooms with guns and coked out drug dealers—and the outside world likely pinned me for a brooding teenager, not a girl mixed up with the kind of stuff I was doing.

Even when I started accruing consequences, I managed to maintain a certain naïveté. I’d been drinking and drugging like that for only a year or two, and I was simultaneously heavily medicated on antidepressant drugs and a pharmacy of other pills that were supposed to help with my anxiety and bulimia. The cocktail of drugs, combined with the heavy drinking, took a quick, serious toll on my liver. I was confused when I started experiencing withdrawals from alcohol, telling myself that was crazy—I was only twenty-two, after all. That was the kind of thing that happened to old men who’d been drinking for decades, not to promising Midwestern farmer’s daughters who went to fancy women’s colleges like me. I kept the extent of the chemical dependency a secret.

Most of the time, I didn’t care that I was a mess. I didn’t want to take care of myself, and a future of motherhood—the possibility of one day being responsible for someone else—was not even a consideration. My body was a burden that I wanted to escape.

***

At the party, the checkout girl was drunk and high already, and she walked right over to me, announcing to the people around her that I was her grocery store customer. This was not how I wanted to be identified. Normally, in this mostly sober adult life I have crafted in the past decade or so, I think of myself as a woman who no longer takes unnecessary risks, a woman who eats kale and root vegetables, who wears a seatbelt and a sunhat, who cares about whether or not there are laureth sulfates in her shampoo or fluoride in her toothpaste. After years of therapy and hard work crafting a more or less healthy lifestyle, I am no longer the woman who shows up at after parties to do lines of cocaine with strange men on workbenches in cold garages. I have learned how to take care of this body and how to quiet my anxiety. I have learned how to reach out, how to ask for help, how to be accountable and to maintain relationships. I wanted to bring a baby into this place of steadiness, to enter motherhood with the firm footing of ten years away from the chaos of my past. But on that night, I didn’t want to be the careful, healthy woman I had worked so hard to become, I didn’t want to think about motherhood, and I did not want any reminders about who I was, now.

The truth is, I was feeling itchy, and I had been for a while. The musician’s arrogance and gestures, his constant phone calls and quick disappearances were familiar to me, and while I didn’t tell Jason about the old cravings swirling around in the back in of my mind, I intuited that hanging around this fast-talking man with a palpable residue of aging fame could eventually lead to something like this. The musician’s cues represented something I had put away, and the nearness of it was intoxicating. When I walked into the party and saw the woman who nearly always scanned my groceries, I was jolted. She made me think of the natural foods store, of my chosen lifestyle of health and sobriety and intention.

That night, I didn’t want any reminders of what my life was outside of that party.

***

“Sixty-three forty-nine,” the checkout girl says.

I pull out my credit card and run it through the swiper, even though I know it won’t work. The strip has been busted for weeks. I try again. It doesn’t work. After the third try, I have to hand my credit card to her so she can manually enter the numbers. I watch her hold my card, and I can’t help but think about her long, skinny fingers holding onto a different credit card on a different night while organizing the white powder into neat, short lines, before turning to me and saying, one hand by her nostril, head tipped back, leaving the last line for me: “All yours, sweetie.”

***

I’ve been buying groceries at this overpriced natural foods store since I moved to Spokane four years ago. Even while I was a broke grad student and then a broke adjunct instructor at a community college, I would count my quarters, trudge through the snow from a few blocks away, and buy onions and garlic and potatoes to make hearty soup that would last me for a week. The boiling potatoes curled steam across the windows of my tiny, cold second floor apartment.

Buying groceries has nearly always been a knotted task for me. As a kid, I hardly entered a grocery store because my mom would drop my siblings and me off at my grandma’s house across the street in our little farm town while she went in to shop. I had no idea where our food came from, immediately or long-term, even though we lived smack on a farm in the middle of Iowa, with hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans surrounding us. I was sensitive to the cultural messages about femininity and thinness that permeated the strange mix of culture of rural farming and mainstream media of the late eighties and nineties. And as the eldest child in a homogenous culture, I was a perfectionist. I developed an eating disorder in my pre-teen years, and my relationship to food was severely stunted. Grocery stores became terrifying and overwhelming places where the thing that I most feared and most coveted lived. I loved food, and I hated it. As a teenager and then as an early twenty-something, I cycled through bouts of severe restriction and uncontrolled devouring of food. Adding drugs and alcohol to the mix, I was completely unable to find a middle ground or to even recognize that a middle ground could be possible.

***

After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.

I had been offered the last line of cocaine at the party. I would have done more, but that’s all there was. I kept thinking of it as “only one line,” but after ten years of complete abstinence from hard drugs, one line and the guilt that sank into me nearly immediately afterward was enough to keep me awake. The late spring sun uncovered the valley below our bedroom window pine by pine, and I felt the old shame of addiction begin to crawl through the synapses of my brain.

We invited our dog onto our bed as an apology for leaving him alone all night. My head spun. Jason knew that I had done a line, but he did not see it, nor had he done any cocaine. In fact, he had never done cocaine. He had hardly smoked pot in his life, and I loved this about him. Once, I had been knitting a foot for a stuffed animal, and without the body attached, it kind of had the shape of a pipe. Jason asked why I was knitting a bong, and I burst out laughing, completely in love with him. I found his lack of expertise about drug paraphernalia extremely endearing. This man was the person I wanted to spend my life with. He was funny, smart, and sweet, and he cared deeply for people. A library member had threatened him once; the man had slammed the desk and screamed at Jason until he called the police to remove him. The library had to exclude the man for a year. Instead of being angry that he had been threatened, Jason said, “I just hope he has another safe place to go.” I could see in my partner a man who was sincerely motivated by his heart, who was patient and thoughtful and empathetic; he would be a wonderful father.

I began to cry softly, afraid that my choice to do a line of blow had jeopardized this life I had with him—this beautiful distance from the darkness of drug use, this life of books and mornings and dog walks, this life of music and love and happiness. My past and my present were polar opposites, two cities that could not be any more different or further apart, but that night they had appeared in the same room. Two versions of me had inhabited my body.

I curled into Jason’s arms and listened to him comfort me. He said it would be okay, that one line of coke didn’t mean the end of the world, that we could sleep for a few hours and wake up and go about our day. We could still start trying to get pregnant, like we had planned. Even after the party, he believed I could one day be a good mother. He was soothing and loving, and I was not sure that I believed him.

 

After the party, we didn’t get home until the sun was beginning to slowly lighten the sky behind our house. In our domestic life together, we had never stayed out until sunrise.

 

We managed to sleep for a few hours, and when Jason’s alarm went off, the sun was beating through our bedroom window and I could hear the sounds of cars climbing the hill, people going places, doing normal things, like this were any other day. Birds chattered loudly. Jason hit snooze and closed his eyes again. The dog, a happy, rowdy Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, yawned and stretched, rolling onto his back, his giant red paws extended into the air, exuding the musky sweet smell of sleeping dog. I felt my love for these two creatures surround me, thick and tangible.

The truth is that for weeks afterward, I would feel the itchiness. I would try to talk Jason in to calling the musician. I would say things like, “I only got to do one line at that party—I should have a real last hoorah.” If we were going to try to get pregnant; this could be my last chance. I would say these things with a smile on my face, as though it were no big deal. I half-joked about buying an eight ball, just for fun, but then I had to define “eight ball” to Jason, and my two worlds knocked heads. My past and the possibility of relapse loomed over us, a storm waiting to break. But it wasn’t what I really wanted; I wanted the stability that we had created, I wanted this partner who loved me, I wanted to become a mother.

***

His alarm went off again—the opening riff to one of his favorite songs, on repeat. He opened his eyes and looked over to see me watching him. He smiled a sleepy greeting. “Good morning, baby,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

I felt awful. My head was pounding, but I knew that I couldn’t just stay in bed. “I’m coming with you,” I said.

***

Jason’s job is pretty straightforward: he manages a library, helping people access information. He goes to the same place every morning, works more or less the same hours every day, and he has reliable income and responsibility. But once in a while he gets assigned something like driving the district library van in a small-town parade on a Saturday. So the morning after I sniffed my first line of blow in ten years off a dirty workbench, I climbed into the passenger seat of a loud, bumpy van with the library logo painted on the sides and rode along to a tiny town on the edge of the Washington Palouse, surrounded by wheat fields and rolling sky to hand out library pencils to the kids who lined the single street.

It was the kind of day that is not supposed to exist when you’re trying to wallow in the shame of your past. Even though it was still spring, it was stunningly summer-like, the sun filling the street and warming the backs of the horses and local equestrians who proudly showcased their riding gear in the parade. People were giddy with the weather and the atmosphere of celebration. There were craft vendors, tractors, a high school marching band, and a man with a microphone from a shoddy P.A. system in the center of the five-block parade route, his voice crackling with static and pride as he announced each float and organization as it went by. “And here’s the library. Everyone loves the library!” he said cheerfully, as we slowly drove past. I waved out the window at rows of grinning children and adults, and library staff in screen-printed T-shirts walked to the curb to hand pencils to excited kids. Everyone cheered.

I smiled, but I was holding back tears of gratitude. This is my life now, I thought. This: libraries and sunshine and happy children, not last night.

***

Once, while I was living in a halfway house, the house manager told us about a dream she had in which she had relapsed. She had been sober for many years, and the dream had disturbed her. But she said that she was grateful for the dream because it reminded her about how horrible her addiction had been. It reminded her the life she had now was her chosen life, the life she truly wanted. I have relapsed before, moments that initiated dramatic falls, landing me deeply in old habits. I worried that this time would not be any different. That one line of cocaine could be a sentence: that I would have no choice but to succumb to the old patterns.

***

My card finally goes through, and the checkout girl prints the receipt. She has bagged my groceries, and she smiles at me. “Have a nice day,” she says.

I lift the bags, one in each hand. We make eye contact. I thank her, and I take the groceries. I leave the store with my food and prenatal vitamins. I walk across the parking lot to my car parked in the crisp late fall air that smells like ponderosa pine and wood smoke and I tell myself that it’s going to be okay. This is my life now, and I am lucky. This body has surprised me; it has been through destruction and healing more times than seems reasonable or possible or fair. I am lucky to live in this chosen city, in this place where my days are filled with meaningful work and love and songs and mornings when I wake tucked into Jason’s arm.

But my body is more than a chosen city—it is many cities, all of them imperfect and strange and beautiful. Its geography is informed by the proximity and relationships between dots on the map, and I need all of these cities to appreciate the span and breadth of terrain. Doing one line of cocaine was a stupid, momentary decision, but it didn’t mean that I had to relinquish the life that I have chosen. Even the ugliest, darkest parts of a city see sunlight, and to live without acknowledging that those dark corners exist isn’t realistic or even fair. That line was not a sentence, but it did offer me a chance to reaffirm my commitment to the life I have now. The health and stability I have worked so hard for is not perfect, and it is not indestructible, but it is a place that, given the choice, I want to live.

I open the trunk to my car and set the bags inside, and then I pause, stunned.

A new landscape is forming in this imperfect, strange, beautiful city: I feel the unmistakable tiny flutter of a baby moving in my belly.

Author’s Note: The months leading up to the birth of my son were some of the most exciting and reflective months of my life. Pregnancy was this surreal occasion, where I was literally carrying pieces of my past and my future within the boundaries of my body. This essay was a way for me to grapple with that bridge between the “two cities” of my past and present/future, and especially to consider the lingering shame that I still carried. But that past, with all of its darkness and healing, is a part of who I am today. I am the mother I am partly because of that past, which has taught me about recovery and empathy. My son is now a healthy, happy, toddling, singing, and chattering 14-month old.

Liz Rognes is a writer, musician, and teacher who lives in Spokane, Washington with her rock ‘n’roll librarian and their son.

 

Warm Ink

Warm Ink

By Marie O’Brien

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“I want to get a tattoo,” says my 16-year-old daughter Marina.

Careful how you respond. Don’t talk too much, don’t be judgmental, don’t freak out, and don’t overreact. Just. Don’t. Feel. After countless conversations addressing her coming of age questions about periods, mean girls, God, sex, pregnancy and more, I have learned that listening with NO REACTION, while repeating what I’ve heard is the best route.

“A tattoo.” I drone in my best unemotional, non-committal voice. “So you want to get one?”

“A lot of kids are getting tattoos the second they turn 18,” she offers before I can tell her she’s not old enough and 18 is still too young.

Images of websites that beckon “Epic Tattoo Fails, click here!” are flashing through my mind as I struggle to repress the urge to expound upon tattoos with misplaced apostrophes and bad spelling.

Her deliberation continues. “And I wouldn’t have it in a location that’s easy to see.”

As if that would be the ticket to get me to say okay.

I start to tell her about poorly chosen tattoo locations and efforts to cover them during job interviews. I know I’m not supposed to react, but I can’t help myself.

“All of them,” I say as I curl my fingers to mimic quotations, “thought it was a great location at the time.”

Marina tilts her head in that way that says, “OK Mom, I GET IT.”

But her voice is conciliatory. “I know, I know. I’ve thought about that too. It would be somewhere that could easily be covered up—except maybe in a swimsuit of course.”

She persists. “And I don’t want anything trendy, I would think about it a lot before getting one.”

“Have you thought about it?” I ask.

She nods.

“What would your tattoo be?”

I don’t know what I’m expecting her to say, but what she says next makes my breathing stop for a moment.

She twists a ring on her finger and looks down.

“Two hearts linked together.”

And now I know where this is going.

“I want something to remember Matthew.”

The familiar lump catches in my throat.

Matthew is her twin brother that she never got to know—at least not in the way that we define getting to know someone. We gave Marina the ring the year before, engraved with two hearts linked. It reminded me of how at one time their hearts beat, side by side for 9 months, while bumping knees and elbows making space for each other.

She loved it.

Matthew and Marina came crying one-by-one into the world via C-section. We were told before the birth there was a heart problem with one of our twins, but doctors were going to do everything they could to save him. That day, excitement and innocent hope eclipsed my fear. As I lay on the operating table, I heard two hearty cries that buoyed my hopes and dreams. The nursing staff quickly placed Marina and Matthew in my husband’s arms. The four of us posed for a picture—my husband holding each baby, leaning close to my oxygen-mask covered face. Even his surgical mask could not hide the joy in his eyes. I didn’t realize at the time—that would be our only family photo. Medical staff swooped in and whisked brother and sister apart—Marina to a nurse’s arms, a warm sponge bath and swaddle in the nursery and Matthew to a lighted table, cold stethoscopes and probing tubes. He was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital to a team of specialists. The hours ticked by, doctors came and went, the news, once hopeful, took a sharp turn the next day.

Matthew died 28 hours after saying hello to his twin sister, his family and the world. These memories of their birth come to me in a rush and tears prick at the corners of my eyes but Marina is waging a debate and is at the pinnacle of her argument.

“I wouldn’t get it right away; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”

I walk over to her and hug her close.

Matthew is permanently etched on me, on my soul, through my memories, however brief. Somewhere in the far reaches of Marina’s infant memories are his touches and his birthing cry.

As we hug, I am no longer bursting to share my opinion on tattoos. All my arguments have fallen away.

Perhaps she needs a retrievable memory—her own etching.

“You still have to wait until you are older,” I gently admonish with a smile, “but that sounds beautiful.”

Marie O’Brien is a freelance writer and recently started a blog (runnermomma.com) to share stories about her experiences as a recreational runner and full time mom of three teenagers. Her essays have been heard on Milwaukee’s Radio Show Lake Effect (WUWM-Milwaukee).

Photo: gettyimages.com

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top

Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top

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Dear Teenaged Girl in the Crop Top,

I saw you walking down the street this morning with your friend — carefree kids out of school for the summer, with the sun blazing and the whole day ahead of you.

Maybe you were headed to the park or the swimming pool or the bookstore. When you passed me you were laughing — peals of laughter. A giggle so genuine that just the sound of it made me smile.

Then I saw something you didn’t: the man leering at you from the corner. He was more than twice your age and the expression on his face as he stared at your bare midriff sucked the air out of my lungs.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about young girls and their clothing choices. People — maybe even people who know you and love you — say things like, “See what happens when girls dress like that?” “Respect yourself.” “Cover up.”

Here is what I’d like to say: It’s not the crop top.

On another beautiful morning, many years ago, I went for a run in the city I’d just moved to, feeling happy and alive and suddenly so grown up. Then a guy in a truck made a U-turn and slowed down beside me, screaming something awful. I instantly felt sick, even though I knew he was the problem, not me. I was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Not that it should matter.

There will always be people who see you as an object, a thing, instead of the complicated, trusting, brilliant human being I have no doubt you are. They’re going to see you that way no matter what you do or wear. You’re not responsible for someone else’s stunted view of the world. I hope people who say they mean well as they tell young girls to cover up don’t make you believe you are.

Today, at least, you missed the look from the creepy guy. I hope you and your friend went on to have the kind of day you deserve — filled with more of that amazing laugh. I hope you wake up tomorrow and throw on whatever clothes make you feel happy and strong in your body, and that you’ll help your friends feel that way too, whatever their shape or size.

These are the same wishes I have for my own daughter, who will be your age in a few short years. And here’s one last thing I hope you will both eventually understand: There are plenty of people in the world who want to truly see you, to know you, for the beautiful person you are. It could take some effort to find them. But you are worth it.

 

Photo: Megan Dempsey

Miles to Go

Miles to Go

Version 3By Priscilla Whitley

It was a late July morning as we drove up Route 22 on our way to Great Barrington Massachusetts. In the front seat next to me my sixteen-year-old daughter, her shoulders slumped as usual, was characteristically silent. The summer sun made the black car hot and I reached over to turn up the air conditioning. We’d made this trip many times each year, in every season, though this time it was different.

“Too cold for you now? Let me know, we just may have to keep turning it up and down until we get there. Want to be in charge of that?” I knew my chatting wouldn’t make a difference but I had to try.

“I’m fine.” She turned slightly toward the window, her long blond hair falling softly down her back. It was all I could do not to reach over to give her a gentle stroke. But my touch seemed to be unwanted these days.

For me the trip to visit this college seemed a waste of time. She hadn’t entered her senior year and her interest in school had vanished. I’d already made up my mind she wasn’t going here, but these days I grabbed any opportunity to be in proximity to her. And so I agreed to make the trip.

It was only the two of us at home, she being my long awaited one and only. Her father and I had separated three years previously. I thought we could settle into a new routine, even envisioning the coming years would make us a true team. Though with her father rarely coming around she didn’t trust him and it was easier to blame me for his leaving. School wasn’t a place she wanted to be for it didn’t hold the answers as to why her life had gone through such painful changes, and only a few friends understood the losses which came quickly these past three years.

We continued our drive in silence. Up by Thunder Ridge where she first learned how to ski, zipping down the hill in an exaggerated snowplow, her little arms outstretched, “Look at me, look at me.” Through Pawling where the boarded up dirty red brick buildings used to house a school for delinquent youths. As a little girl she’d stare at the overgrown grounds, her pretty hazel eyes serious, “Mommy, I promise I’ll never do anything bad to be sent to a place like that.” Then past the intersection where we pulled off on another hot summer day while she threw up on the side of the road and I stroked her back as she cried. After that we’d always point and laugh as we drove by. Now nothing.

The Berkshires, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox were special to us.  When we were all together we spent one glorious summer at a small cottage on Stockbridge Bowl. A place of my own childhood. I’d take her out in the rowboat to the island, filling her imagination with stories of pirate treasure, her little hands splashing in the wake. As she became more confident of herself in the water we’d swim to the dock where I taught her how to dive, chin tightly to her neck, arms pointed neatly down.

On the lush lawns of Tanglewood Music Center she perfected her cartwheels eventually falling asleep on my chest as the music played on into the night. Everywhere I went she also wanted to be. To the library for books, lemonade on the porch of The Red Lion Inn and lazy afternoons together in the hammock.

Like most mothers I’d read the countless articles on the volatile teenage years and heard the endless discussions of the vanishing self-worth of girls, though I still hadn’t expected it would be this way now. I tried hard to look back to when I was a teen, but those seemingly long, confusing years were so wrapped up in all about me I couldn’t find any perspective. My sweet little girl, the one who used to twirl around the house, sit on my knee, take my hand, now sat gazing silently out the window.

“Horses, look horses!” I said, breaking the silence and slowing the car. Our silly joke since she was little, shouting it out as if we’d never seen one before. After making the turn through Millerton we’d see them in the rolling pastures, their graceful necks reaching down for some grass. Horses were a love we always shared. I think I saw her eyes move slightly to take them in, then withdraw again.

Two summers ago after a night of thunderstorms a fire destroyed the barn where she’d ridden since she was seven. All 31 horses were lost. The pony she’d begun her lessons on, the stunning dark chestnut who’d taken her over her first jump and the horse her father had recently bought her after he and I divorced.

Donner, with his white blaze and dark eyes followed her every move, giving the unconditional love she must have felt she lost with the breakup of our home. At fourteen the barn was her anchor, her community, the one place she felt safe and truly loved. By morning nothing was left but memories and a sad little girl who now had no footing in a swiftly lost childhood. The fire had taken these beautiful animals and her innocence along with it. And neither one of us knew where to begin again. It was as if I stood on one small deserted island desperately trying to keep her in sight as she, on another in the distance, sat weeping by herself in the sand.

I’d thought I could protect my child. As I put on the fake merry smile, not having any idea really how to make this better, she through those past years slipped into the quiet of her own thoughts. I wasn’t allowed in.

We made the turn at Lakeville gliding down the hill into Salisbury where in the past we’d always stop at the White Hart Inn.

“Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.” Her little girl voice would say it over and over again knowing how it made me laugh. Back then we’d sit on the high stools at the dark wooden bar while she sipped a ginger ale topped with a bright red maraschino cherry, her little legs swaying back and forth.

To my surprise the Inn was shuttered.

“Oh, no, what a shame, our favorite place. Shall we stop at the deli? Thirsty, thirsty?” Another silly phrase we never seemed able to give up.

“No thank you.” Her back still to me. “I just want to get there.” So we started up Under Mountain Road towards South Egermont.

Cleaning up her room one morning the previous year I’d come across some books she’d tucked under her pillow. Books about loss. At first this worried me thinking it would only reinforce her own losses. Quietly though within her own time she had been processing, like we all must do, how to integrate her past with her future. Now last week, as she headed towards her senior year in high school, she wandered out on our deck one evening and unexpectedly said she had something she wanted to discuss.

She looked so tall standing over my lounge chair, startling me as I stared out to our lake, the water smooth, the swans gliding in the dusk. “I made a call,” she said quietly. “And made an appointment for an interview at Simon’s Rock. It’s next week. Please, please don’t be mad, I want to go and see it.”

Bard College at Simon’s Rocks in Great Barrington is a college for those who haven’t finished high school. A neighbor’s child attended though at this point I knew nothing more.

“No,” I got up and started for the house surprised with the harshness of my voice. “You’re not going there.”

“Please go with me and see.” She reached out softly for my arm and I turned to see she wasn’t a little child anymore begging for what she wanted.

“I have to think about it.” The idea scared me and her courage stunned me. How could I say no when for the first time in so long she wanted to try? I pulled her close not able to say anything. Or did I not want her to see me cry?

We turned onto Route 7 into Great Barrington passing Searles Castle then up the steep Alford Road coming out of the thick forest to a view of a plush valley below. For the first time in our two hour trip she looked over to me. “Here it is.”

We’d arrived at this small college campus, an inviting New England red barn on our left, then a turn onto a meandering drive over a small creek. Up the hill we found the Tudor style administrative office. I parked and without me asking she combed her hair, smoothed her dress and together we went in. I walked behind her amazed at how my child, so filled with sadness, now confidently put out her hand to introduce herself.

This small liberal arts college accepts students who have finished the 10th or 11th grade.  A place for those who are ready for college now. But she wasn’t ready. At home she stubbornly turned away from school and could barely get herself to class. I could only see this as an escape from me, her father and her memories?

I waited for an hour, maybe more, wandering outside then back again only to go out into the bright sunlight once more. This was her idea, not mine, and I wasn’t about to let her leave home yet. Now I wished we had never come here today. Finally the door opened and she reappeared with a bright smile I’d almost forgotten was possible.

“Mommy, let’s walk around…please.”

Together we toured the campus, saw the dorms, the classrooms and went into the library.

“This is where everyone ends up, our idea of a student union,” our guide pointed out.  Though there were the stacks of books, there were also sofas, cozy floor pillows and long windows allowing in the bright sunlight. For a moment I could see her here among the books, eager for exciting new experiences again like the girl she used to be. But, oh, was she ready?

We drove back into Great Barrington settling ourselves in a tapestry laden tea room. I still couldn’t imagine any words she could say which would allow me to let her leave high school, to leave our home and take on this challenge. What would I do without her? I didn’t think she’d noticed, but these past few years had also shrouded me in my own fears, sadness and self-doubt.

She took a sip of tea then placed her graceful hands on the table. How long had it been since she’d looked directly at me like this?

“This is my chance,” she said, her voice even and in control. “I know it is. Here I can start over again. I can’t go back to that high school. Then it’s all the same. Every day a reminder of what was. I don’t know how to make it better back there. But here I get to begin all over again. Here is a place where someone will ask me what I think. Please try and trust me. I want to be happy again… and I want you to be happy again too.”

We finished our tea and started back down that familiar drive home, the summer sun dipping gently behind the mountains. Unlike our drive up, unlike these past few years, we now spoke. She didn’t beg or try to convince me, but calmly explained her reasons. And I thought back to another July evening many years earlier. On the day my mother had suddenly passed away, my father had taken me outside on that warm, balmy night. He’d put his strong arms around me. “Everything is going to be all right,” he assured me, “It will be different, but it will be all right.”

By the time we arrived home I’d reflected on my own life and how I learned through experience there are many positives in our world and one, two or even three or more negatives can’t change that. There are so many things we can’t control. But what we can control is what matters. I decide if I win and my daughter decides if she wins. And I decided right there, as I pulled into our driveway, I needed to take that leap into the unknown or no one wins.

August ended and we made the same drive back up to her new school. For the past six weeks it had been like watching a delicate shell splinter and crack beginning to reveal the young woman I would eventually get to know. I had listened to her and decided I needed to let her go. We’d lost our way for a while, but never the love. Now we hugged tightly as she whispered, “Thank you for giving me this.”  And then we were waving goodbye, the sunlight catching her hair as she stood on the top of the same hill where one summer day a choice was made that offered each of us a new start.

Author’s Note: One of the most wonderful surprises I discovered after having a child was how I immediately gave up the all about me. Such a relief to bid that farewell. My life would have been so narrow without my daughter. She’s taught me, inspired me, and introduced me to ideas I would never have encountered, all done with her courage, her determination and now her commitment to those less fortunate. My father was correct, no matter the unexpected changes which occur we do eventually work them out. Different really is all right.

Priscilla is a freelance writer focusing on personal essays. She’s recently been published on Scary Mommy, in Chicken Soup for the Soul and within The Weston Magazine Group. She is also a feature writer for The Record Review in Bedford, NY. Priscilla is the facilitator of The Candlewood Writers Workshop in Fairfield County, CT.

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

The Unfine Art of Raising Twins

By Francie Arenson Dickman

unfinearttwins

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike.

 

The last weekend of every May, I stock up on tickets and Exederin and brace myself for the two-day storm of overlapping dance recitals. We bounce between auditoriums in different cities to see shows that are worlds apart. From the beautiful world of Russian ballet, with numbers called Waltz of the Hours and music by Tchaikovsky to the underworld of hip hop, a dark and dirty counter-culture where they do dances called Haters to music by Wiz Khalifa.

“You can’t call this dancing,” says my father, my 84-year-old tap-dancing, Vaudeville performing, Gershwin loving father. He convulses in his seat as my daughter convulses on stage.

But dancing it is. I am used to it by now, not just the gyrations but the dancing between extremes, the whiplash of raising twin girls, the parenting of equals who occupy separate spaces. It’s not what I expected but after 13 years I have my dance down as much as they have theirs’. My father, not so much.

“Can’t you get her to go to dance class with her sister?” my father hollers as Lady Gaga belts out Born this Way—a concept he obviously doesn’t buy.

Like I do every year, I shake my head. “No.”

They started out going together, my daughters did. Back when they were both dancing in my belly while I was consuming sausages and books with deceptive titles, titles akin to the numbers in the ballet recital, like The Joy of Twins. I can tell you now that any book on raising twins worth its baby weight in gold would have been called something more hip-hop, like Load Up on Your Lorazapam, Ladies, and Hunker Down for the Ride. Because there is no ballet in raising twins. It’s an art that’s imprecise and anything but pretty.

According to the books, I was to make a concerted effort to help my twins develop their own identities. At the time, this made sense. Who wouldn’t want her own identity? So, instead of buying two stuffed bunnies, I bought one stuffed bunny and one stuffed pig. One pink onsie, another purple—coordinated combinations, similar enough to mark them as a duo, but distinct enough to allow people tell them apart.

Then they were born. One with blond hair and blue eyes. The other with brown hair and brown eyes. Different enough in appearance to suspect confusion in the fertility lab. Different enough in being to suspect that different colored onsies wouldn’t be needed to establish my daughters’ separate identities.

Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike. As infants, twins meant one baby with colic, another with a constant smile. One who loved the stuffed pig, the other who wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals at all. In preschool, twins meant one who jumped out of the car without looking back, the other who had to be pried out of her seat in hysterics. In grade school it meant one who loved to read, another who wouldn’t. And now, twins means one who headsprings in high tops, the other who echappe’s in this white long gown, the kind of costume, my father told me during the ballet portion on the day, both of his granddaughters should be wearing.

“Not according to the books,” I might have told him but again, I didn’t need to go by the book because the hip-hop daughter did it herself. “Not on your life,” she told my father. “I’d never wear that. It’s not me.”

The question I would have liked to have asked her but didn’t because I’m sure no one—neither my daughter nor the books—has the answer is: why not? Is the dress not her because it’s just not her or is the dress not her because it is her sister? To the extent that Twin A is influenced by Twin B (and vice versa), how far will my girls go to seek out their own identities? And why did the books instruct me to go out of my way to make sure it happens when, at least in my house, it seemed to happen on its own? I never organized separate playdates or outings with grandparents like I was instructed to do. I was too busy running in opposite directions, first at the park and now to the recitals, to organize anything. For my sanity, I had to ditch the script and move to the beat of my children’s respective and very different drums.

My father would benefit from doing the same. “You can’t compare what the two of them are doing,” he continues to grumble.

“No, you can’t,” I tell him. And, according to conventional wisdom—which went out the window at my daughters’ one-week weigh-ins—you shouldn’t. Comparing twins is a Cardinal sin. But c’mon, who among us mothers of multiples has not, at the annual doctors visit, analyzed (at least to ourselves) one child’s height against the other’s? Certain traits are begging for it. The oldest. The tallest. The bigger foot. The thicker hair. Or, dare I admit, the better grades. That’s called keepin’ it real, the book might say if it was written by Wiz Khalifa, with the added footnote to compare and contrast all you want, mamas, but know it won’t mean anything because, from the physical to the personal, traits of twins, especially teen-aged ones, are constantly in motion.

For a time, the ballet dancer loved to talk, the hip hopper was quiet. Now, it’s the other way around. Just as I was ready to award the neatest room prize to the hip hopper, I found a rotten pizza beneath her nightstand. They are, like all people, too fluid to peg down. In fact, the only constant I’ve observed (one which the books should have mentioned because it is a bright spot in an otherwise muddled world) is that my kids rarely occupy the same space in emotion or opinion, at the same time. We have few five alarm fires because they figured out long ago, maybe even in utero, that when one is in the dog house, it’s the other’s time to shine.

The book of all books, the Oxford English Dictionary, assigns several definitions to the word twin. The first definition reads: One of two children or animals born at the same birth. The second definition is: A person or a thing exactly like another. In many ways, it seems my girls fall under the first definition—children who simply share a birth date. Yet, they also share recital dates. And clothes, friends, teachers, and the grandfather from whom they got their dancing genes. So maybe my twins sit somewhere in the middle on the twinness scale. A scale which slides from day to day. Up and down, back and forth, and I move too, as they do.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Chicken Little

Chicken Little

By M. M. De Voe

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My son turns thirteen in two weeks. Over the last year, I have been watching him develop; watched him outgrow me (no small feat: I’m 5’7″), watched his tastes mature from cartoons to anime. I have been congratulating myself for raising such a fine example of humanity—the kid shows manners towards adults, he offers to help at school when there’s need, he is sincerely pleased when his little sister presents him with a glittery sticker she thinks he will like. Oh, I’ve done well, I tell myself over a cup of chamomile tea. He’s going to be a great teen.

Mothers like me are the reason the phrase “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” remains in the lexicon.

Last night, an hour past his bedtime, almost-13 looks me blankly in the eye and lets me know he has a huge project due tomorrow which is 90% of his math grade.

“But it’s nothing,” he shrugs. “I only have to get a 45 to pass the class. “

Pass the class? What about maintaining a B+ average?

“Don’t need to anymore. Just need to pass. The planning and stuff on this is 25 points and then there’s the design, that’s another 25 so that’s enough. I don’t have to do any math.”

“You just did more math in your head than it would take to finish the project! You can’t sabotage yourself like this.”

“Mom, relax. Why are you trying to stress me out?”

What?

I cemented him in front of a laptop until the project was done. With the math.

He laughed when he saw the clock. It was well after midnight.

“Guess I really did pull an all-nighter.”

Why is this funny?

I sent him to bed, with the caution that it would be hard for him to wake up in the morning but school was short and he could nap in the afternoon.

“Whatever, Mom. You worry too much.”

This may be true.

In the morning, I went to wake him, expecting a struggle. What I did not expect was the complete immobility of a hairy man-leg. I spoke gently, bracing for the typical grousing, and was surprised when the leg kicked out with the full force developed during a semester running track.

“Get away from me unless you want to die. I’m not kidding.”

Uh. What?

I let the kid snooze three minutes then tickled the leg with a (long) feather. The feather was kicked out of my hand.

“I said, get away!”

Teenager. There was a teenager in my son’s bed. I tried rapping on the wood bed frame in a very annoying manner.
“Hey. School.”

“I don’t care. It’s my life! Leave me alone!”

What was going on? Where was the eye-rolling, groaning tween who eventually did what had to be done? Who was this vicious teenager in my son’s bed?

I visited the monster a few more times, each time expressing more urgency. My insistence only made him angrier. He threw a pillow, hard. It missed me and hit a lamp. He didn’t care. Finally, it was time to go. Not time to get up, but time to leave the house if he wanted to make it to school by the first bell.

I sprayed him with a fine mist of water. It was like waking a dragon.

“What?! Get out! I told you to go away! I will hurt you!”

“You have school,” I interrupted. “Get up. Get ready. Get going. Do not be late. It’s on you. I’m leaving to take your sister to school.”

I stalked away but froze just past the doorway. “Uh. And also: Have a good day.”

Never has a conquering knight felt less potent.

That evening I got the robo-call informing me that my son had been late for school. A note was required to explain his tardiness. My pen hovered over paper. What could I say? My son became a teen overnight and I can’t control him? That would be the truth. Three cups of chamomile and no calm was forthcoming.

Then I got an email reminding us of the dress code for his induction into the National Junior Honor Society, and the tea kicked in. Things will go as they go. We dress up for the good times and keep the spray bottle around for the rest. It’s not easy to get to adulthood, just as it’s not easy to be the adult.

But we will do it.

M.M. Devoe is a NYC-based author whose fiction has won or been shortlisted for 23 literary prizes. She is anthologized alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis and is a Columbia University Writing Fellow and MFA. Find her at www.mmdevoe.com and Twitter @mmdevoe.

Stealing Dirt

Stealing Dirt

WO Stealing Dirt ARTBy Lydia Kann

Let’s say the phone rings in the middle of the night and you are shocked out of a sound sleep, that just-fell-asleep sleep, pre-dream, pre-restless, pre-subconscious insight, and your hand reaches to find the cordless, somewhere, it’s somewhere on the nightstand, and maybe you knock over the cute little lamp with the blue and green painting of a beach scene, and finally you find the phone, lift it to your ear and go, huh? And it’s the police.

“Huh?”

“Hello. Is this Lydia Kann? This is the Hadley police calling about your son. We have him here…”

“Huh?”

“Ma’am, we have your son, Mickey, at the police station and would like you to come pick him up.”

Now you, or more to the point, I am up. Woken. Awake. “What?”

“Your son has been involved in an incident…”

“What happened? Is he okay?”

“Yes, ma’am, he’s fine. We are impounding the car…” The policeman must be covering the mouthpiece because all I hear is a muffled, “What is it?” And then he comes back on, all cheery like, “and the wheelbarrow, as evidence.”

“Evidence of what? What happened?” I am hyper alert by now, heart bumping, breath short.

“Ma’am, can you come in to the station, and we’ll explain it then?”

Great. I had been sleeping the sleep of the innocent, assuming my son was safely in bed after an evening out with a friend. Isn’t that what all the parents say after… after horrible crimes are committed by or against their children – I thought he was asleep in bed?

Let’s say you get in the other car, the small sporty vehicle you bought to replace the huge minivan when the boys got their licenses – you get in the vanity car, let’s be honest here, and hustle yourself down to that police station, a place you have never had the occasion or necessity to notice.

And as I drive my sweet little car down the dark abandoned streets – it’s only 1:30 in the morning, but these are small New England towns I am traversing and most folks are happily tucked into their warm beds. As I drive, I scan the possibilities, and know that whatever Mickey has gotten himself into, I am to blame.

I am the mother. Have been for almost nineteen years, since the arrival of my first son. So much has been said about mothers, and yet not enough. Or is it that more could be said about mothering, a godlike state, the wonder, the innocence. There you are, left with a tiny body so fragile that any movement, any decision – shall I carry him in this arm or on my shoulder, shall I go when he cries or wait, shall I let him sleep in my bed or draw a line – each lifted eyebrow of reaction leaving a residue of consequence that will live on until your death. A snake of responsibility lying coiled in the corner, not visible until it attacks, venom, toxic serum infusing your blood, your head, your heart. There is no return from this land, galaxy. And all of it, the whole experience – the anxiety, the decisions, the guilt – is so damn normal. Common. Who isn’t a mother, after all?

The police station is cold and bright on this dark late spring night. Fluorescent lights ricochet off the white cinder block walls. The officer behind the glass window – they’re not taking any chances in this tiny harmless town – stands up when I announce myself and says he will get my son.

My son. Taller than me by a head. Gangly. Is that a smirk on his face or embarrassment? Or are those the same thing? The obstetrician predicted a girl when I was pregnant with Mickey seventeen years ago. The way I was carrying. He put his stamp on it. “A girl for sure.” I already had a boy, my firstborn, his pulsing male nature overridden by a golden temperament – most likely a result of a Leboyer birth – a technique, trendy at the time, of placing the newborn in a warm bath and promising a gentle transition from the womb to the outside world. And therefore, a calmer child.

I had been raised alone by a woman, my mother, and there were no men to be found. Sameness permeated my days. No collision of strange body parts, of voice tone, of scent, no testosterone-fueled exuberance or aggression. Women reflected off mirrors as far as the eye could see.

When Mickey arrived into the cold January light of that hospital room, the most noticeable characteristic visible from my vantage point was the blood red balloon sized sack between his legs.

A second boy. A boy so different and yet familiar. A boy designed by a Dennis the Menace screenwriter to ask of me a kind of forbearance uncalled for previously. A challenge, as they say. Clearly the choice to forego the Leboyer birth here – a decision based on the predictable exhaustion of a second delivery in less than eighteen months – had its projected outcome.

“What happened?” I now ask, for the third or fourth time. The police officer, who has entered the room with Mickey, looks quite serious. He is also young enough to be my son, but he expands himself into the stern demeanor required of his profession.

“Mickey was apprehended at the Garden Center on Route 9, trespassing. An officer patrolling nearby noticed the minivan in the parking lot. Your son was found inside the premises, having scaled the fence, it appeared. He had taken three forty-pound bags of soil.”

Okay. An answer, but not really. I am confused. “I don’t understand. The Garden Center. Huh?”

I sound and feel inarticulate. What is expected under these circumstances? Anger, compassion? What would I be angry at? What did he in fact do? And most obviously, what the hell was he doing breaking into the Garden Center? Dirt?

The officer reiterates that they will need to hold on to the car and the wheelbarrow ‘as evidence’ until the hearing, but we are free to go. He gives us some papers about the legal process and returns to his desk.

We leave in my car, Mickey silent in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry, Ma.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Sorry you had to come get me.”

“What happened? Why did you want dirt?” I am moving toward a slight hysteria, wanting to either yell or laugh.

“I can’t tell you.” He is staring out the front window and speaks with no inflection.

“Why not?”

And that interchange becomes the template for the many future conversations about the incident. After we found a lawyer to represent him at the hearing and he was acquitted, thanks to his spotless ‘good kid’ record. After months of silence about the issue, then years of refusal to come clean.

I am a mother. I have theories I comb through. Was he stealing dirt with someone else and protecting him or her? Was he planning to grow some pot and read somewhere that he needed clean dirt? But then why wouldn’t he just buy it?

The whole event was symbol of what can’t be found, or understood. A manifestation of the mystery of where I end and he begins. My son.

Years after, many years, my son, now in his thirties, and I stand at the grave of my mother. A raw fall day, rain drenching our flimsy jackets, hands icy from holding umbrellas aloft. It is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and I suggest we do a little ritual, Tashlich, which traditionally is practiced on Rosh Hashana, ten days earlier, but I had looked it up and it’s acceptable until Sukkot, a holiday a week after today.

None of this matters, in fact, since we are atheists, but we are on a search for something together, a way to make contact perhaps. It is a quick visit for my son, the first in months, and this will be our one chance.

Mickey agrees. According to local custom, one throws bread or food into a body of water to symbolize casting off the sins of the year before. Our version is that we each name three sins of the year before and three intentions for the coming months. We then each take a noodle from a Thai noodle take-out we happen to have in the car, place the noodle on my mother’s headstone and then pour water from a water bottle on the noodle and say a baruch atah adonai facsimile. Cute but functional.

And it’s in this primitive ritual that it happens. A kind of touching. The final sin we each speak is in relation to the other.

“I always thought that I didn’t give you enough credit, Ma, for what you did right. For all the ways you are so able. And that I couldn’t get past your weaknesses, the way you…” He went on to tell me what drove him crazy about me. No big surprises there. But then he said, “I think about what I will tell my children when you’re dead, about the kind of person you are. And I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t give enough credit – I always gave you so much credit for being strong that I couldn’t forgive you for the times you didn’t hold it together. I couldn’t let you be human.”

If I say I was blown away, if I say I was moved, if I say I wept and then spoke my piece and then we hugged, if I say all that, it wouldn’t be the whole truth.

To be seen – as in vision, as in heart, as in soul – for one moment, by another, to be recognized as worthwhile, as having substance. Is it that there is too little time, or too little language, or too much distraction? Let’s say it’s all of the above and more. Three bags of dirt and the search for an answer.   In the end, it turns out that my son, too, must be human. And the dirt is the ground in which he grew.

Author’s Note: Having adult sons offers a surprising mix of distance and closeness.  One minute they seem like strangers, these grown men with beards and massive shoulders, working, partnering, and so thoroughly independent, but then the next moment something splits open and there we are, as close as when they were tots, and for those brief interludes all the mystery evaporates, and it’s pure honey love.

Lydia writes fiction and creative nonfiction and has been published in literary journals such as Threepenny Review, Nimrod International Journal, and the American Literary Review. Lydia is also a psychotherapist and visual artist.

 

 

 

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.

Join Brain, Child’s Great Debate

Join Brain, Child’s Great Debate

silhouette 1B w wordssilhouette 2B w wordsShould you be friends with your teen?

Please join us on Thursday, 6/4, at 1:00 p.m. EST at a Twitter party, to discuss the different approaches parents take when a young child doesn’t sleep through the night. Did you let your baby “cry it out” or did you “wait it out’? Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate. We would love to hear your views.Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate.

We would love to hear your views.

Be a winner: One random attendee will win a free Brain, Child Great Debate Bundle.

Book Review: The Cost of an Elite Education

Book Review: The Cost of an Elite Education

41d3rYC6eoLBy Debra Liese

Mitchell L. Stevens, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

Lacy Crawford, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy

William  Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

If your teenager is granted entry to a prestigious university this spring, a few recent books on the expanding class gap in elite education can assure you of three things:  1) By the time your seventeen-year-old starts fretting about admission essays, it’s already too late (Creating a Class). 2) The final lap can be grueling, and often a mirror of modern parenting missteps (Early Decision). 3) Not winning the race may be a victory (Excellent Sheep).

Americans are partial to romantic notions about education and equal chances. Yet according to Mitchell Stevens, the author of Creating a Class, who worked for a year and a half in the admissions office of an unnamed, prestigious New England college, the appearance of class neutrality is created by exceptions and not the rule. Stevens observes that we have become a society where “terms of college admission are also the goals of ideal child rearing,” a situation that favors the affluent. As if that isn’t enough, he disabuses us of any hopeful fantasies about whether or not some prestigious schools prioritize students who can pay full tuition. Spoiler alert: they totally do.

But isn’t complicity in the perpetuation of inequality the trade-off that must be made to win at life? Not according to former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book, Excellent Sheep, is quick to remind parents that “screwing other people’s kids” isn’t actually all that advantageous to their own. Elite students, he argues, lack the moral imagination of their public-educated counterparts; they are great at jumping through hoops, but terrible at taking real chances. He doesn’t blame the kids but a system that excels at “retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position.” It’s an intelligent and bracing critique.

Of the journalists who gave Deresiewicz’s argument sympathetic consideration, many hailed from the Ivies themselves. Will these now-enlightened folks be the last generation in their lineage to do so? Not likely. The quest for more status is culturally ingrained, even though, as he points out, “Status doesn’t get you anything except the knowledge that you have it.”

Stevens concurs explaining that “degrees from highly selective private schools have proven to offer only modest [financial] net benefits over the life course.” But this reality does little to diminish the allure. He reports that “attraction of the campus” ranks highly as a deciding factor for students, calling the “sensual aspects of class” one of the more ignored facets of educational sociology. As a society, we place extraordinary value on a mystique that remains poorly studied, while madly ranking our centers of higher learning to justify our attraction.

Deresiewicz does much to demystify the world he hails from, and he clearly means to rattle cages. “How about doing something that you can’t put on your resume (or brag about on Facebook)?” he challenges. Confusions, genuine time off, and detours from their path help kids find new directions, he insists, whereas the “approved” ways in which elite students tend to attempt self-discovery (think language programs abroad, resume-conscious service projects) fall short, because they “ultimately feed back into the achievement game.” He describes something real and pervasive: a compulsive quest for prestige for its own sake. “There is no top,” he writes, with some grimness. It is hard to argue with his logic: “Nobody needs eleven extracurriculars…unless the other guy has ten.”

For those of us whose own college years were not spent accruing prestigious internships, so much as getting our hearts broken or “wandering, literally or metaphorically” (Deresiewicz is all about the benefits of this type of thing), there is something satisfying in reading these affirmations about one’s misspent youth. And yet, there’s also the sense of not being the target audience. At some point in nodding along with his indictment of Amy Chua’s parenting methods, which he calls an “extreme version of [American] upper middle class practices,” and reminiscing about my own apparently edifying “lousy apartment with friends,” I wondered if this book is more useful as self-help for the already-entitled. “If you grow up with less, you are better able to deal with having less. That in itself is a kind of freedom,” he writes.

If that’s true enough, it’s easy for him to say, seems to be the response of his critics. New York Magazine calls Deresiewicz out for “the new privilege [of] loudly denouncing privilege”. Yet a public university grad would easily risk the appearance of sour grapes. As Stevens writes, “The moral worth of our own biographies is so deeply implicated in the system that is hard for us to appraise it with critical detachment.”

For parents, too, of course, the problem of detachment is considerable. Lacy Crawford’s philosophical and engaging novel, Early Decision offers a fictionalized take on the toxicity of parental influence in the upper class college admissions race in the winner-take-all society Deresiewicz decries. The narrator, Anne Arlington, independent “college whisperer,” is hired by parents to assist their pedigreed, but hopelessly vanilla offspring with college essays. By her account, the typical applicant is, “A tanked guppy with some nice streaks of color, but nothing different from the zillions swimming alongside of him.”

According to Stevens, “affluent families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children.” To Crawford, therein lies the problem. Like Deresiewicz, she draws attention to an obsession with conditioning a kind of appearance over real growth. “To confess to a problem”, she says of one of her characters, a reluctant legacy destined for Duke, “was to risk her mother life-coaching the very blood out of her own heart.”

In Crawford’s book, parents want to give their children everything, and mostly end up endowing them with a kind of cultivated sterility. Crawford’s careful exploration of the paradoxes of class is admirable; her characters are spoiled and uncertain, but not unsympathetic. Their stories are set in contrast to those of a few exceptional kids who attend the overcrowded high school where Anne volunteers, whose hesitation is “the result of years of being ignored.” When Anne dreams of showing these students’ files to the parents of the rich clients, just to “demonstrate what it looked like when a student was exceptional,” she wonders, “Would disillusionment help them to admire their own children for who they really were?”

Taken together the books’ biggest upshot for parents of today’s teenagers is that the prevailing higher educational system isn’t the best at letting anyone—from Deresiewicz’s “thoroughbreds” to Crawford’s fetishized lower-income applicants—be seen for who they really are. Another is, if we are to become more attuned to those truths ourselves, we also must let go of our desire to control our children’s educational futures. If it’s easy for parents to agree that college should prepare young adults for the Real World, the harder question to answer is, which kind of experience offers a version of it that is most moral, most practical, or even most real?  Is it the “long shot,” the school inevitably tied to privilege and class, or is it the public “safety” school, egalitarian, but lacking the assurance of status? These books are short on practical tips for parents, but big on philosophical questions. In a just society, what’s best for our kids, surely, is what’s democratic for everyone else’s as well.

If only that weren’t so hard to remember when the fat envelope arrives, or doesn’t.

Debra Liese is a writer and a book publicist. She lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three children.

 

The Gap Year

The Gap Year

BT 15 Gap Year ArtSam Rich has all good things to say about the ten months he spent living and studying in Patagonia—even about the time he was chased by a pack of Chilean street dogs.

Sponsored by Rotary International, which places some 8,000 students in similar situations worldwide every year, Rich, now 20, took a year off after he graduated high school, deferring his acceptance at a competitive Massachusetts university.

“My junior year in high school, I began to feel like I was being forced into this system—graduate high school, go to college, get a job,” Rich recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘When am I going to get to travel and get outside of this bubble they call the United States?'”

He got his wish, living with a family and attending school in a remote region of Patagonia, which is where he met up with the dog pack during a pre-dawn run, as one and then another stray joined in, nipping at his heels as he was trying to make his way over unfamiliar streets.

Rich not only survived the encounter, he went on to write an essay about it, which he used midyear to apply from abroad to a fresh round of colleges. Whether the essay, or his gap year in general, helped get him into Tulane University, where he’s now a sophomore, Rich can’t say. But he feels certain his experience changed him in fundamental ways.

“Before my gap year, I would not have applied to a school so far away from home,” says Rich, who grew up near Boston. “It’s easier now for me to connect with people. Before, I really stuck to what I thought was ‘my group.’ Now I’ll talk to anyone.”

That kind of maturity and perspective is exactly what’s sought by an increasing number of U.S. high school graduates—supported by their sometimes more-reluctant parents—who choose to take time off before or during college. Nobody keeps definitive numbers, but colleges, universities, high school guidance counselors, and college admissions reps all report anecdotally that interest in gap years among American students is sharply on the rise.

Choices abound and are growing more plentiful every day, from private organizations that plan every moment of your child’s experience (and charge you for it accordingly), through middle-tier options that place young adults in home-stay or au pair situations abroad, to U.S.-based service organizations like AmeriCorps that pay participants a small stipend and try to find them affordable housing options during a year of service. Some young adults go completely independent and fashion a do-it-yourself gap that may include work, an internship, an apprenticeship, service, travel, or all of the above.

Whatever route a gapper chooses, there are challenges. Gap year programs can be expensive, straining the bank accounts of parents who had counted on four, not five, years of young adult dependency. Students who apply or reapply to college during their gap year find that tracking deadlines and filling out the Common App, FAFSA, and other required documents can be more difficult from an Internet café with spotty service thousands of miles from home. All gap students must reapply for financial aid, and not all colleges and universities will offer deferring students the same merit aid package from year to year. Some don’t allow gappers to defer at all; they must reapply for the following academic year.

Navigating those hurdles is simply part of what makes a gap year so valuable for students, proponents say.

“We love the notion of students taking control of their lives and navigating adult-like situations,” says Charles Nolan, vice president and dean of admission at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., a small, elite college that competes with MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for students. “We believe that any student who takes a year off to do something different, rather than just follow the pack, comes to college with a different perspective on their education.”

Why Gap? Let Us Count The Ways

The American Gap Association (yes, there is such a thing—it’s an accreditation, standards-setting, and advocacy organization) defines a gap year this way:

“A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of their higher degree.”

Others are less exacting in their definitions. No less august an institution than Harvard College, which maintains a web page extolling the virtues of a gap year, defines it more loosely as “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”

Either way, proponents from Harvard on down say students who take a year off from their studies are more mature, better focused, more curious, better community members with a more refined idea of what they’d like to study and how they plan to contribute to the world.

Olin College has an unusually proactive attitude towards gap years. The school guarantees that any student put on its wait list will eventually gain admission—though that often means waiting a year. A surprising number of students take Olin up on the offer every acceptance cycle, even though the school offers no guidance as to what students should do with their unexpected time off.

“Part of the creative process is letting them figure out what they want to do,” says Nolan, who says students in the most recent incoming class used their gap year to work in Korea, travel with an aid group, write a rough draft of a novel, work in TV production, and mentor girls in STEM education, among other pursuits.

Whatever their choice, students come to campus “a year older, a year wiser and ready to work,” Nolan says. “Age 18, 19 and 20 is a critical developmental time for young adults. That year can make a world of difference in how students approach their studies.”

There is a small but growing body of research that backs up Nolan’s perceptions, according to Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association.

A gapper himself (Knight took time between his freshman and sophomore years of college to travel in India, Nepal, and Tibet) who later worked as a gap year consultant, Knight started the AGA in part to collaborate on gap year research and serve as a resource for university admissions personnel and educational counselors.

On its website, the AGA quotes studies that show:

  • * A majority of students report a gap year had an impact on their course of studies (either confirming their initial interest or setting them on a new course)
  • * Students return to school with higher levels of motivation, which translate into a measurable boost in performance during their first semesters at college, and
  • * Later on in life, students who had taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.

The AGA itself collaborated on a study with Bob Clagett, the former head of admissions at Middlebury College, that found that students who took a gap year performed better during their first year of college than they were expected to do without the time off. Clagett developed a methodology to track gap students’ actual GPA performance against an academic rating that looks at everything from high school grades, national test scores, and teacher recommendations to the intensity of an applicant’s essay to predict how they would perform if they’d entered college directly from high school. In almost all instances, Clagett found gappers outperformed their predicted rating. Even better, that boost lasted for all four years of college.

The AGA’s Knight firmly believes gap year students excel in college because they’ve had time to think about their priorities, a precious commodity in modern American life. “We spend a majority of our lives chasing a definition of success without taking time to figure out ‘What’s my individual definition of success?'” says Knight. “A gap year lets you explore your definition of success. If you have a particular passion for music or engineering, you want to work or get an internship or explore a possible career, this is that moment.”

Students exploring the possibility of a gap year approach it from many different vantage points. Within the industry, Knight says, counselors, gap year program directors, admissions directors, and others connected to the industry informally categorized students into five general groups:

“Meaning seekers” typically have high SAT scores, decent or midrange GPAs, and are looking for context for the learning they’ve been exposed to. Knight says a majority of gap year students fits into this first category.

“Overachievers” not surprisingly, have high SATs, high GPAs, and have been gunning for the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive schools for much of their educational lives. Typically, these students are burned-out from their high-pressure high school experience and are looking for a break before beginning an equally rigorous secondary education.

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure.

“Pragmatists” are very much aware of how much college costs and typically don’t want to commit to four years of tuition without a better sense of their higher education goals. These students often use a gap year to intern, apprentice, or work at an entry-level job as an entry point to potential career decisions that will be made in college.

“Strugglers” are students who might not have found academic success in high school, sometimes due to a learning disability or learning difference. A gap year can give such students a needed boost in perspective, self-awareness, and self-confidence as they participate in non-traditional learning activities and are able to experience success, often for the first time.

Finally, “The disengaged,” a small sliver of gappers, are typically students who feel no burning desire to continue on immediately to college. This sub-group uses a gap year to refine their focus and—their parents hope, anyway—gain some fire-in-the-belly for their next moves in life.

What Colleges Think of Gap Years

A study conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of 2009’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, found that the top two reasons cited by high school students taking a gap year were a desire to find out more about themselves (“meaning seekers”) and burnout from the competitive pressures of high school (“overachievers”).

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most gap-friendly universities in the United States—including Princeton, Tufts, Elon, and the University of North Carolina—are among the most elite. After all, they have the highest rate of accepting overachievers who are burned out by the process of getting into college in the first place.

In a heartfelt essay on its gap year web page, Harvard College laments the cradle-to-college obsession of getting into the right college, which it says can produce “some students [who] are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie Schoenthaler might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure. All he knows is that, midway through his junior year at a large, well-ranked public high school in Massachusetts, he just wasn’t feeling the love as his fellow students threw themselves into the college-search process.

“Near the end of sophomore year, I was getting a tiny bit burned out, and it crossed my mind that the possibility existed that I might not have to go straight to college,” Schoenthaler recalls. “Once junior year hit, and I didn’t know which college I wanted to go to, I just found myself thinking, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to bike across the United States. Now when I’m eighteen or later when I’m sixty-five.'”

None of this was lost on his mom, Robin Schoenthaler, who had long been concerned about how boys in general, and her two sons in particular, were faring in a school system being pushed, on both state and national levels, to emphasize testing, more testing, and a general interest in having children color within the lines. “From about third or fourth grade on, I was very distressed at what I consider the schools’ absolutely relentless demand on boys,” she relates. “Neurological science is conclusive that many of these demands are not developmentally appropriate.”

What’s more, Schoenthaler was a gapper herself who took several years before she found her way onto a college track that eventually lead to an M.D. And then she had the honor of serving for many years on the admissions committee for the Harvard Medical School. “Harvard had a completely generous deferment policy for people who wanted to take a gap year after acceptance,” Schoenthaler says. “Their reasoning was, everybody wins. Either a student comes back a year later more mature, dedicated and ready to work. Or they don’t, and that’s great, too, be- cause medical school isn’t for everyone.”

So when she saw her son Kenzie’s growing disinterest in the college-application process, she floated the idea of a gap year, which he eagerly took up. By his estimation, he couldn’t be happier with his do-it-yourself plan. He has a part-time job at the afterschool program he’d attended as a child, which he loves; and another part-time job at a national grocery chain that’s teaching him about second shifts, corporate values, and punching the clock alongside people of all ages and ethnicities. He earned an EMT certification this past spring and is planning on earning a second Wilderness EMT certification after taking a class this spring in San Francisco—to which he plans to bike 3,000 miles across the United States.

Like many gap parents, Dr. Schoenthaler was worried about whether the school at which Kenzie was accepted, Lesley University, would let him defer, whether his merit aid would transfer from year to year, and what his reentry into academic life would be like after a year out of the trenches.

As it turns out, American colleges and universities are all over the map in terms of awareness of, and support for, gap years, according to AGA’s Knight. “Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools tend to be extremely excited about gap years; some allow you to put right on your application that you’re taking a gap year,” Knight says.

Tufts University made news last March by going one step further—the school announced a program, to debut in fall of 2015, that helps some would-be gap year students pay for airfare, lodging, and other costs, provided they are enrolled in a structured full-year program of national or international service. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer similar programs.

But they’re among the minority—for now anyway, says Knight. “Tier 3 schools, the larger schools, the state schools…lots of times they don’t have the staffing to accommodate some- thing different, so you wind up having to reapply.”

Lesley University didn’t offer any information on gap years or deferrals on its website or in its admissions materials, which meant Schoenthaler, with a little coaching from his mom, had to take matters into his own hands. After a face-to-face meeting with the admissions office, some paperwork, and a few phone calls, Kenzie’s deferral was approved and his merit money earmarked for next year. “It was a maximum of three days of work, and I gained 365 days,” he says. “So overall on a time- benefit scale, that ratio seems pretty good to me.”

Parents Worry

Deferrals aren’t the only thing that keeps parents up at night. No. 1 among parental concerns, admissions officers and gap year experts concede, is the worry that their child will never go to or return to college.

While statistics show that’s only rarely the case—research by authors Haigler and Rae found that 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year—that doesn’t keep parents from worrying.

“Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once.”

After hearing tales of local gap kids who wound up working in entry-level retail jobs rather than heading to college, Dr. Schoenthaler told her son emphatically that his plan was to last for one year and one year only. “I’ve made it 100% clear that he’s going to school in September. Getting that degree is the end goal.”

Kenzie says he’s received that message, loud and clear. “This is a pretty awesome life—I’m fairly independent, making money—but people warned me not to let it get too awesome or I’ll wind up just staying home and living in my mom’s basement. A gap year is great, but you can’t let it become gap years.”

“Alexandra” is a Connecticut mother who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy during a time of delicate negotiations with her daughter, a high school senior graduating this June, who is lobbying to take a year off before college. That proposal that fills Alexandra with apprehension, especially coming at the end of what has been a long college-application process. “To me, a gap year means never going back to school,” she says, conceding that her concerns might stem from her own upbringing. “I was bred on the predictable, expected steps: high school, college, then you work your butt off in a field that you care about.”

She worries that a gap year signals a lack of motivation on her daughter’s part, and wonders if she has the maturity to organize a productive year off—a particular concern since her daughter has not—yet, anyway—articulated any clear plans. “What if she never winds up going to college? What if she lives at home for the next ten years? And, most important, how can we finance a five-year plan?”

(See “Who Gets To Gap?” for details on how some parents pay for that extra year.)

Parents tend to focus their worries on the “before” and “after” parts of the experience, but every now and again, the gap year itself goes seriously wrong. Promised internships or apprentice opportunities disappear or disappoint; the gapper goes adrift and never enrolls or returns to college; or, in the case of one young woman we’ll call “Aubrey,” an immersion year abroad starts out badly and gets worse.

Aubrey enrolled in a well-known and well-vetted study-abroad program with high hopes and eyes wide open. At the time, she was fine with not getting her first or second or even third choice of country; in retrospect, she now thinks some of her difficulties might be endemic to the culture of her host country, a former communist state.

Her first host family had a mother who was cold and monosyllabic and a father who, she came to realize, was an alcoholic. The second couple she was placed with was kind, but they had no children and knew no teenagers in town, and their largely unheated home was a 90-minute bus ride away from the school Aubrey was expected to attend every day. When she made it there, the schoolteachers, rather than engaging or encouraging her, flatly ignored her. When she asked her local program director to be placed with a family in town that had teenagers—and had already agreed to host her—she was told she was “lazy and complaining” and that she couldn’t move. Finally, overcome by loneliness and disappointment, Aubrey went AWOL—with her parents’ distant blessing—striking out for the airport without permission but with the help of other exchange students in the area who knew of and understood her predicament.

Back stateside, Aubrey’s mother was equal parts proud of her daughter for surviving in a negative situation for so long, heartbroken she hadn’t had a better experience, and frustrated that her stateside liaison for the international program seemed to have little sway over the situation on the ground overseas.

“The moral of this story is negative things can happen on these trips. My daughter wasn’t physically harmed, but she is heading home five months early with a lot of mending and healing in her immediate future,” Aubrey’s mother says. If she could tell other gap parents one thing, she says, it’s to be mindful that you and your child are at the mercy of an organization that may not always function as promised. “These systems are only as productive as the people in them.”

Welcome Back

Whether their landing is bumpy like Aubrey’s or smoother, at some point gap year students need to reintegrate themselves back into academic life, which can be a challenge. Kenzie and his mom both are mindful that his reentry may be ticklish.

“You’ve matured a year, you’re a year more experienced, and you may have had some very out-of-the-box experiences,” Dr. Schoenthaler says. “Kenzie hangs out with firemen; one of his co-workers used to be a Hell’s Angel. He’s having non-college, non-middle-class experiences, so he may feel some lack of identifying with some of the other students” when he enrolls in college next fall.

Erin Jensen, a domestic and international admissions counselor at PSU in Portland, OR, has become something of a specialist in gap year transitions. PSU awards college credit to students who participate in certain programs offered by Carpe Diem, a Portland-based travel-abroad program; upon completion of their gap year program, students then transfer those PSU credits to whatever college they plan to attend.

In helping students ensure that their credits transfer properly, Jensen discovered that gappers transitioning to college faced other hurdles as well. In her experience, it’s not common for gap year students, particularly those who have been on yearlong international experiences, to develop a kind of “reverse culture shock,” she says, with their maturity level and global outlook out of sync with incoming freshmen arriving straight from high school. “Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once,” she says.

While some schools, including PSU, allow gap year students to apply for sophomore housing, most don’t do any more to help ease re-entry into an academic setting. Jensen has heard that Whitman College hosts a luncheon for gap year students at the beginning of the year to allow them to bond and share experiences. If more schools did that—or offered gappers the opportunity of rooming with other students returning from travel—that could ease the transition, Jensen suggests.

For his part, Sam Rich says he did feel ahead of his peers when he arrived on campus as a college freshman. “I definitely felt like the dad at first. Everyone seemed overly excited and a little immature, and here I was coming from living in a foreign country for a year.” By intention, he chose a roommate who had spent a few months in Bolivia, “just because he’d had experience in a different culture.” As the term progressed and the freshmen settled down, Rich says, his feeling of differentness gradually faded.

And then there’s Aubrey, home early and dealing with a double set of re-entry issues. Not only must she reintegrate into academic life come fall, she first must figure out how best to fill five unexpected months.

When we spoke by telephone, she had to hang up early because she was due at a job interview for an office assistant position and was feeling hopeful something would materialize. As for the public university she’s accepted at in the fall, likewise she feels optimistic things will work out okay.

Which leaves her only with the challenge of processing her feelings about her truncated year abroad.

When asked how she was feeling so soon after returning home, Aubrey paused for a moment and then said the message she’d sent to friends as she was leaving her host country still best summed up her emotions: “Sometimes in life we must expect the unexpected. Though my exchange did not work out as I hoped it would, I continue to have no regrets. Living [abroad] for the past five months has taught me about myself, the world, how to deal with others and how to accept the fact that sometimes situations are simply not fair.”

Hard-learned lessons, to be sure, but ones that will likely last a lifetime—which, gap year proponents would say, is really the goal in the end.

Tracy Mayor is a long-time Brain,Child contributor. Her essays and longform journalism have also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, and online on Salon, The Rumpus and the New York TimesMotherlode blog. She is the author of the parenting humor book Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

Illustration by Rick Brown

If We Had Not Heard

If We Had Not Heard

top-40-songs-that-will-make-you-cry-1469

By Mary DeVries

If we had not heard the thud of her body falling on the floor, she would be dead. If she had locked the door and we had had to spend precious time breaking it down, she would be dead. If her meltdown an hour earlier hadn’t spurred me to move from the living room to the office to email the head of special education at her high school, we would not have heard the thud of my 16-year-old daughter’s body hitting the floor. But we did.

When her Dad heard the thud, he asked me in a slightly alarmed voice, “Was that you?” I said no, and we ran up the five stairs to her bedroom. It was dark, but when we turned on the light we saw her lying in a fetal position on the floor. Her face was turning blue. She was barely breathing and not responsive. I started to scream her name, “Mariah! Mariah!” I touched her unconscious face and brushed my hand over her forehead, but I quickly recoiled as she was starting to turn blue. I was afraid that it might already be too late.

We didn’t know if she had taken drugs or if she had had a seizure or even a stroke. I watched her face getting bluer, and every second she seemed less alive. I screamed at my husband to call the police. He ran to get the phone but came back with his voice frantic. “I can’t find the damned phone!” I ran to find it, and when I reached the police they kept asking me inane questions like, “Does she have a history of drug use? Could she be pregnant?” I kept screaming, “She’s turning blue! She’s barely breathing! We need help!”

By then had it been sixty seconds? Ninety seconds? The blue around her mouth was turning so dark it looked almost black. I didn’t know what to do other than scream into the phone as though the urgency of my voice would bring the paramedics sooner. I screamed at my husband to start CPR and ran to the front door to wave down the paramedics when they arrived.

As my husband pushed with both hands against Mariah’s chest, one of her hands rose up slightly towards her neck. He pushed aside the high neck of her red flannel pajamas, the ones with the reindeer that we had given her two Christmases earlier when we thought that love was enough. Only then did he see the two bright multi-colored extra-wide shoe laces pulled so tightly around her neck that she seemed minutes away from death. He released the hold of the shoelaces and within seconds she was breathing again. A minute later the police arrived followed by the paramedics. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This was not a drug reaction. This was not a seizure. My daughter had come very close to killing herself.

Her small bedroom was crowded now with six paramedics and police officers, and a few of them asked to speak with me in the kitchen. They asked me questions in a calm tone of voice—as though I was sane—as though a mother could find her daughter almost dead and realize that she tried to kill herself and still have a coherent conversation. I could only stammer. I could hear the paramedics in the background talking loudly as if their gruff voices could rouse Mariah from the trauma. Why weren’t they rushing her to the hospital?

My mind was locked in protest. How was it possible that my daughter hated her life enough to want to end it? How did we get here? It had been almost seventeen years since her birth mother had handed her to my husband and me in the delivery room. My ten-year-old stepdaughter had witnessed the birth, and the doctor had let her cut the cord. What had gone so terribly wrong in the time since the cord to her birth mother’s body had been severed that she would use another cord to try to end her life?

In the week that Mariah was hospitalized after her suicide attempt, I found myself imagining the pain she must have felt to be able to pull those shoelaces that tight. How could all that had gone on in our family—all the singing and musicals and dance and drama and dogs and puppies and birds and nature trips and basketball and kayaking and traveling and adoption support and having a church and a godmother and a big sister and eating together at almost every meal—how could all of that have ended up like this? Even weighing the frustration and anger that too often came her way because of her troubles in school, it should not have come to this.

Mariah’s junior year had begun with hope, but by the second week of school she was starting to skip classes. After doing poorly in a general education school in ninth grade, we had moved her to a special education program in a larger school for her sophomore year. That year, she began to skip classes and hang out with a group of homeless kids who inhabited the park across from the high school. They were called Juggalos, a cultish group with an affinity for the rap group Insane Clown Posse. I never figured it out. I never wanted to. All I knew was that my daughter, a student with learning disabilities and ADD, who was impulsive, volatile and emotionally immature was hitting the skids. The high school campus was too porous and the pull towards the homeless gypsies too strong to keep her in class. Her special education case manager tried, her therapist tried, her psychiatrist tried, we all tried.

My anxiety grew so high and her hostility hit me with such brute force that sometimes I couldn’t stop myself from fighting back. After one fight, she ran away and stayed out all night with the Juggalos in an abandoned building. When she returned to school the next day, her case manager called me. “She looks so bad. I can’t let her go to class. She needs a shower and a change of clothes.” The previous night had been hell for me, not knowing if she was shooting up or being raped. After having begged her not to do this to herself or to us, I was not ready to greet her with anything but resentment. I choked on my tears and told the case manager, “She can’t come home. Make her shower at school.”

We were desperately looking forward to summer. We knew that when we got her away from school and back into nature she could find her soul again, and she did. We went on a camping trip and she made friends in the lusciously warm swimming hole. That was followed by a role in a summer theater production and an internship where she watched dogs give birth and helped take care of newborn puppies. She was in heaven and all was right with the world.

But then came September and school and she started skipping classes again. We never thought that she was so fragile, so injured by her past school failures, so wounded by the brew of adoption and identity issues, so frayed by our continuing attempts to keep her in school, that she would ever consider suicide as a way out.

When I arrived home on the night of the suicide attempt, I could see from my husband’s face that there had been a problem. After two weeks trying to keep her in class, he came home to a message from a teacher saying she had walked out of class again. My husband never raised his voice with her, but he had sternly let her know that he didn’t want to come home to a new problem every day.

My husband and I went together to her room and found her crying. “School sucks, I suck, I hate my life!” We tried to help her to look at the good things in her life and told her that school was something she just had to get through in order to get to the next place. After an hour of trying to soothe her and her calming down some, we left the room having no thought that this meltdown was different than any of the others. But it was different. She wasn’t acting hateful toward us, she was directing her hate toward herself. Perhaps I should have said, “You’re too upset to sleep, let’s have some warm milk and toast and watch TV together. Maybe you don’t have to go to school tomorrow.” I should have, but I didn’t.

I don’t remember the paramedics leaving the house with her on the stretcher. I just remember my husband and I following right behind the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the same hospital where she was born. We could see her body in the ambulance, and she looked like a wounded animal. I kept trying to convince myself that this was not just a bad movie by repeating, “I am driving behind this ambulance because my daughter just tried to kill herself.”

We stood close around her in the emergency room. Her face was marked with little black dots that had something to do with the trauma. The circle around her neck was swollen and red. She was dazed and shocked and had no idea what had happened. In the middle of the night, I went home to sleep. My husband stayed with her until the ambulance took her to a locked psychiatric unit where she stayed for two weeks followed by three weeks in a day treatment program.

My grief and shock was so strong it felt as though there had been a death. At times when she was in the hospital, I felt like I was talking to someone who had tried to murder my daughter. The problem was that she was one and the same person. I was agitated, anxious and terrorized about our future. The voices in my head were screaming, “How could you have pulled those shoelaces so tight? Your body didn’t want to stop breathing! Why couldn’t you remember any of the thousands of good moments in your life?”

But no matter how painful it gets, life has a way of moving on. We have turned a thousand corners since that night. After dozens of meetings with her therapist, a new family therapist, a psychiatrist, the school, the county mental health team, new home-schooling tutors and talks with legal advocates, we are now in the aftermath of a serious suicide attempt.

And where am I now? Sometimes depleted, occasionally overwhelmed, frequently anxious, but picking up the pieces. Should we have done things differently? Of course! We should never have accepted the school district’s limitations and paid to have her in a special education school. We should have been less frustrated with her and understood much more about how ADD affected her behavior. If we knew then what we know now, I would have moved to a much smaller community away from our sometimes harsh urban environment, but…..

In my heart of hearts, which is not always easy to find, I can see the daughter who I prayed for, the daughter who has such enthusiasm for life, the one who makes friends easily, who loves singing and acting and animals, as well as the daughter who is willful and resilient and beautiful. At those times I know that we will get through this. I try not to entertain too many thoughts about what it all means for the future. For now, I mostly put one foot in front of the other and only occasionally pull over on the side of the road to cry.

Author’s Note: This essay was written shortly after my daughter’s suicide attempt more than three years ago. The intervening years have been a roller coaster of additional psychiatric hospitalizations, many medication trials, involvement with the criminal justice system and a year of residential treatment where she was able to complete high school. She returned home after treatment to a supportive therapist, a job and our full support, but within months she was back on the streets. Years of anxiety and grief has taken its toll, but we always find our way back to our love for each other and our daughter. After many gains and losses, Mariah is now 20 years old and has a part-time job that she loves.

Mary DeVries is an author and social justice activist who lives in California.

 

 

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Shannon Duffy

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Shannon Duffy

 Headshot Shannon DuffyWhat is it about mothering a 17-year-old that you liked the most? The least?

I suppose what I like most and least about age seventeen are one in the same. I love my daughter’s growing independence and the endless possibilities that she has in front of her. But that growing independence is going to lead her away from me and those endless opportunities, wonderful as they may be, are lined with risk and worry. It is as it should be, and I recognize with gratitude that I have the privilege of watching my child grow up and away, but that doesn’t take the heartache out of letting go.

When did you know your child was a teenager?

My children became teenagers at about the same time I became their chauffeur, dropping them off at the door and then driving away until it was time to pick them up again. Those early teen years were the beginning of the great push into independence. Suddenly, going to the movies with friends no longer included parental supervision. I remember how bizarre and scary it felt to just drive away.

What do you wish you knew before you had a teen?

Three things:

  1. There will come a time when you will be the target for all that is wrong in your teen’s world. Don’t take it personally.
  2. The teenage years are not near as bad as you expected them to be.
  3. Buy stock in a cereal company.

What advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering a 17-year-old?

I wish I could have told myself “Breathe deep. It will all be okay.” There is a lot happening in the lives of 17-year-olds. They are making decisions about who they want to be and where they go from here. As a parent, I want it all to work out just right for her and that leads to a lot of “Did you do this?” and “You better do that.” The advice I would give myself is “Be quiet. Be calm. Take it all in.”

What about motherhood inspires you?

I can’t believe how far we have come. It is mind boggling for me to look at this beautiful young woman about to take on the world and at the very same time remember so vividly the little girl she once was. I listen to her ideas, her opinions, her aspirations and I can’t believe my fortune. I watched her learn to walk, to talk, to read. I saw her grow into this magnificent person. I was given the gift of bearing witness to it all. There is no greater inspiration than that.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?

I hope the negative connotation we often attach to the word “teenager” will be slightly lessened by reading my piece and all of the essays in this series. Adolescence is tough for kids and parents alike, but there is magic there hiding in the corners of those years. Sometimes it is hard to find. My hope is that we don’t forget to look.

BT 15 Cover web copy low resPurchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, which includes the This is Adolescence Series – Eight essays from America’s leading writers on ages 11 – 18.

Read an excerpt: This is Adolescence: 12

Be Instead of Brag

Be Instead of Brag

Family Stick Figures ARTBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I was stopped at a red light recently and pondered the stick figure family affixed to the back window of the minivan in front of me: one soccer player, a lacrosse player and a couple of cheerleaders. I have one sticker on the back of my car—round, decorated with sherbet-colored flowers, it looks like something that would be on the side of a VW bus heading to Woodstock—that says “Pay it Forward.” The abundance of familial advertising on the back of that minivan got me wondering whether I should have stickers promoting my three-person family. If I advertised the realities of raising my teenaged son, they might look something like this: Future pot farmer on board! Bedroom smells like a gym locker! Suspended for having cigarettes in backpack! F in English = summer school! I don’t recall seeing any of these on the racks at my local Target, though.

Raising children, particularly teenagers, is a tricky business. Parenting is tough enough without the added pressure of competing with those who publicly proclaim to be doing it better than we are. I wonder when our children’s accomplishments became the source of our own self-esteem. And what message does advertising only the positive send to typical kids who miss curfew, roll their eyes and talk back? Public promotion of our kids’ accolades not only creates a false reality for other parents but teaches our children to conceal the reality of life: that it is messy and imperfect, just like they are.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents did not contact our extended family or friends each time I did something boast-worthy, nor did they send a holly-trimmed newsletter each December bragging about my successes of the past eleven months. They did not have bumper stickers of any kind of the backs of their cars, certainly not ones advertising my identity as a tennis star or piano player. From them, I learned that the accomplishments themselves made me feel good, not the praise I received from others for achieving them. I was a typical teenager, much like the one that I am raising, an average student who participated in extra-curricular activities largely against my wishes; left to my own devices, I would have raced home every day after school to watch Little House on the Prairie while eating spray cheese straight out of the can. I did participate in many sticker-worthy activities, yet virtually no one outside my immediate family knew about it. There was no social media, and parental competition was something passed from ear to ear, not trumpeted from the top of the Internet mountaintop.

With Facebook came the public platform for showboating (Ate oatmeal for breakfast! Ran 5.5 miles! Twenty years ago, married the love of my life!). Twitter brought the capability to do so in 140-characters or less. When I was a pimply-faced, awkward adolescent, information moved at the turtle-slow pace of a note passed in the school hallway. My parents never thought to brag about my piano concert or number of tennis match wins. But today, with one click of a button or the slap of a sticker, the world is in the know about our business.

Why should we, as parents, care about public recognition for our kids’ accomplishments, and when did it become popular for parents to take credit for their children’s successes? I don’t recall ever seeing stickers advertising parental successes on the backs of any minivans (Employee of the month! Won preferred parking space at the gym! Voted most popular in book club!), so why do we put this pressure on our kids? Are we so desperate, as parents, for recognition of our kids’ achievements that we are willing to sacrifice the powerful lesson of gaining esteem from accomplishment to get it?
Listening in to conversations at high school sporting events, I hear mothers bragging about kids’ grades, sports wins, extra-curricular successes and those college applications! My son will be attending community college and while I am proud of his choice, mention it and people back away slowly, as though it might be catching. Community college is not sexy or prestigious, despite it being the best choice for my son. He doesn’t know what he wants to be for the rest of his life and has enough common sense to find out before investing a small fortune in an education he feels would be for show.

It is the accomplishments themselves, not the public trumpeting, that should generate self-esteem and self-worth. Teaching our children, particularly our vulnerable teenagers, to base their value on acceptance and third-party praise is one of the most damaging things we can do as parents. Instilling the value that being the best we can be, without recognition or judgment by others, is far more meaningful than advertising it. Life is about balance—with every accomplishment comes equal failure—so advertising only the good promotes a reality that is unattainable and puts pressure on our kids to be something that doesn’t exist: perfect.

My son learned a hard lesson when he lost his circle of friends because he was publicly honest about smoking pot. He admitted an imperfect choice, one that many of his friends also made regularly, and became an outcast overnight. The mothers of these boys, one of whom was my closest friend, led the social exodus and my children and I became prey to the realities of false advertising: it must look perfect in order to be accepted or worthy. Parenting teenagers is rarely pretty, but attractive lies are apparently far more appealing than ugly truths. Interestingly, the void left room for other families who were more interested in what we were on the inside as opposed to what we presented on the outside. Our social circle is smaller, yet more authentic as a result.

With drug use, suicides and mental health struggles in the adolescent population at epidemic levels, we must ask ourselves, as parents, if we should be advertising our kids differently, if at all. Teaching children to value themselves for their successes and be real about their struggles might be healthier than advertising partial truths. Perhaps the time has come to place value where it should really be: who we are as human beings instead of what we are achieving. Isn’t being—not bragging—the foundation of good self-esteem?

Be instead of brag. Maybe we can make that into a bumper sticker.

Author’s note: I continue to emphasize internal authenticity with my kids despite the challenges of doing so in a social media-obsessed world. We are regular practitioners of paying it forward and strive to “be instead of brag.”

Elizabeth Richardson Rau received her B.A. in journalism from Simmons College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist and lives in central Connecticut with her two children.

photo: Gannet

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Bethany Meyer

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Bethany Meyer

Headshot Bethany MeyerWhat is it about mothering a 13-year-old that you liked the most?

I love to laugh, and so does my teenager. By age 13, my son’s sense of humor had matured enough that he and I could share an abundance of movies, books, and television shows. We talked more, texted our favorite lines, and emailed clips we each knew would make the other laugh. It bonded us in a new way. It was unexpected and fantastic.

The least?

Once my son turned 13, he engaged less and less frequently with his younger brothers. He shares a room with his brother who is 19 months younger, and my 13 year old’s silence changed the dynamic of their relationship. My second son felt that loss keenly. While this withdrawal was developmentally appropriate, the effect of it on his siblings was still difficult to witness.

When did you know your child was a teenager?

When he began surfacing for breakfast at 11:00 a.m., four hours after the rest of the family had finished eating.

What do you wish you knew before you had a teen?

I had no idea how much a single person could eat between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. every night. I have never witnessed anything like the teenage appetite.

What advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering a 13-year-old?

Hug him every day. He may act like he doesn’t need or appreciate the show of affection, but don’t let that stop you. Embrace him every day.

What about motherhood inspires you?

Knowing my children are connecting with people outside our immediate family inspires me. From their first acquaintances in pre-school to their newest teammates on the soccer field, every time one of my children makes a friend I smile.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece? 

Once you have a teenager, life changes for everyone in the house—parents, teenager, and siblings. Some of those changes feel like a kick in the gut. But there is still space to connect. It’s worth identifying that space. It helps you, as a parent, feel bonded to your child and able to celebrate his growing independence.

cover art quarkPurchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, which includes the This is Adolescence Series – Eight essays from America’s leading writers on ages 11 – 18.

Read an excerpt: This is Adolescence: 12

Do You Let Your Teenager Wear Clothing You Consider Inappropriate?

Do You Let Your Teenager Wear Clothing You Consider Inappropriate?

Does your teenager wear clothing that you consider inappropriate? Melissa Thomas is a sixteen-year-old girl, who feels strongly about wearing what she likes, because she is comfortable in her own skin. Yvonne Spence is Melissa’s mother. She thinks her daughter still needs guidance in this arena and worries for her safety. 

I’ll Wear What I Like

By Melissa Thomas

teenage-girls-shopping-006When I was about fifteen, I decided that I liked how I look. I don’t entirely know how I did it, considering I’ve grown up in a society that bombards girls with reasons to feel that their bodies are inadequate. But I did. Which isn’t to say I don’t have moments when I look in the mirror and see imperfections, but on the whole…I feel pretty good about my appearance.

I wear what makes me feel comfortable, and I know I look good in the clothes I wear, whether it is skinny jeans and a chunky sweater or a short, tight skirt with a sleeveless top. I also know that feeling good about myself on the outside has had an impact on how I view myself as a person. Wearing clothes that allow me not to worry about how I look takes off a huge pressure, and it’s sad to know that there are people who don’t wear what they want out of fear.

Wearing what feels good breeds confidence. Confidence helps me to feel good about what I’m wearing. It’s a cycle that can be difficult to break into, but once you do? Honestly, it’s the best thing, and we need to be doing more to help young people feel good about themselves.

I don’t want to oversimplify the issue by saying it is okay for young people to wear whatever they want, whenever they want. I do get that clothes have connotations, have consequences. That clothes can be seen as sexualizing and slutty. It’s important that girls grow up knowing the dangers they might encounter because they are girls.

I like to think I understand the dangers that I face. I do feel scared, walking on my own at night. I know to avoid quiet streets, and to hold my keys between my fingers. I had to walk through the middle of town on my own, on a recent Saturday night, and my mind was filled with hypotheticals. Maybe it’s silly that it’s at night I worry most, because the handful of times I’ve been catcalled have been during the day.

I’m not going to change the way I dress to “protect myself.” Maybe I would be safer if I wore more modest clothes—I doubt it, but I could never say for sure—but it feels like I’d be giving in. If I change the way I dress to avoid harassment, if I stop wearing tiny skirts or shorts or little tops, I’d be letting the part of society that oppresses women win.

In a smaller context, my school is one of the few in the UK that doesn’t require a uniform. one. The freedom to choose what I wear is part of the reason my clothing is so important to me. Every now and then, our school talks about introducing a uniform and for a week the students go into a frenzy of angry discussion about why it’s a stupid, stupid idea.

Usually, the arguments we come up with are simple. To force us to wear a uniform would take away our freedom, our individuality. We’ve cultivated an identity from our ability to choose. We can express ourselves through what we wear, and very few teenagers where we live are given the same chance.

I consider this a metaphor for wider society. I want to see a world where young people—or anyone, in fact—can wear what they want without the burden of prejudgments and meanings and dangers. I like little, cute dresses. I don’t intend for that to say anything about me other than “I thought this dress was cute.” Style shouldn’t be a measure of class. Style shouldn’t be a measure of who you are as a person or how you can be treated.

It is, though. I am judged by what I’m wearing, and while that needs to change, there’s no way to find clothes that someone doesn’t find problematic. It’s not about the clothes themselves. It’s about changing our culture’s mentality.

I know I’m an idealist when I say “we need to change” and that societal change can’t happen overnight. But I think the best way forward is to teach the younger generations to wear what they want, and not to judge others for what they choose to wear.

My clothing choices may put me in danger. But it doesn’t put me in more danger than I’d be in, so I’m going to keep wearing what I’m wearing—from the short skirts to the Doctor Who shirts—because that’s what makes me feel good. I just hope at some point in the near future everyone else will feel free to do the same.

Melissa Thomas is a school student, and plans to study History at university. She has been writing since she was 11, and last year won a Young Scottish Writer’s Award. She has had poetry published in Writer’s Forum Magazine. She is currently working on a novel. She loves cats. 

 

She Still Needs Guidance

By Yvonne Spence
670px-Dress-Modestly-(for-Teenage-Girls)-Step-4“You are not going out dressed like that!”

The clichéd words parents say to their teenagers, and words that I was never, ever going to use. Except that I just had.

When our daughters were small, I took up a couple of mindful practices that changed my outlook on life—I realized it is not what happens that causes stress, but what we think about what happens. As a result, I am mostly able to see both sides of any argument. Moreover, as a long-time feminist, I agree that a teenage girl should be able to dress however she wants without fear of insult, without any man using her appearance as an excuse to attack her. When that teenage girl is my daughter, though, maternal instinct triumphs over logic. In its grip, more than I want to allow my daughter the freedom to make mistakes, I want to keep her safe.

Skimpy tops and short shorts might keep her cool on a hot summer’s day, but they ignite that protective flame in me. I see grubby middle-aged men and stocky youths lumbering towards her, shouting obscenities. I feel fear, fear that I imagine she will experience, but that really is fuelled by memories from my own teens and early twenties.

I was followed three times by strangers, and attacked once by a man I vaguely knew. The irony is that on none of those occasions was I wearing a revealing outfit. Three times, I was wrapped in an overcoat and scarf. The fourth time I wore a sleeveless top and a calf-length skirt. In my experience, if a man is minded to insult, follow or attack a girl, he doesn’t care what she is wearing. That should make it easier for me to allow my daughter to wear whatever she wants. If anything, it makes it harder.

I have always believed in giving my children choices. When Melissa was six months old, we decorated her first bedroom. In the DIY store, I held up a few wallpapers and watched her reaction. She smiled at mice, boats elicited no response, and for the elephants she clapped her hands and beamed. Decision made. If I had gestured around the entire store and said, “Pick what you like,” she would have looked at me in confusion.

Children, even teenagers, need guidance to make decisions. While my daughter is able to do math equations I’ve long forgotten, her brain isn’t fully developed yet and won’t be until around age 24. She needs my help when it comes to understanding consequences. The brain also develops by practice, so it makes sense to gradually let her make her own decisions. Indeed, Melissa has been choosing what to wear since she was 18 months old—but in those days, like with the wallpaper, I held up three choices and she picked one.

Recently, British newspapers reported a survey that indicated over a quarter of people hold women who were drunk or flirting heavily partially to blame if they were raped. I read the comments below one article, and a large number said that girls wearing skimpy clothing in public were also partly to blame. It made for disturbing reading.

I remember, in my twenties, walking past a building site on a baking hot day and feeling furious at the semi-naked men who whistled and yelled. I decided we’d know we’d truly achieved equality when women could walk around with naked chests and nobody would bat an eyelid. However, in the intervening years, I’ve realized that I would rather men also kept their tops on in public. Like many, I have concerns about the sexualization of clothing—or lack of clothing—in general. According to the American Psychological Association Task Force (APATF), sexualization occurs when a “person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics” and when physical attractiveness is equated with “being sexy.”

It bothers me that in our culture, “being sexy” seems to have become the norm when defining attractiveness for women and girls. It bothers me that my daughter has absorbed this definition of attractiveness, though it doesn’t surprise me. Five-year-old girls wear bikinis and female children’s television presenters and teachers wear cleavage-revealing tops. I’ve seen girls as young as seven redo their make-up at parties. When my daughter, in an extremely short skirt or tight leggings, says, “Everyone wears it,” she is correct. She has grown up surrounded by the sexualization of attractiveness, so of course she sees it as normal.

That something is seen as normal doesn’t mean it is healthy or that we should conform to that norm. A third aspect of the APATF’s definition of sexualization is that “a person is objectified, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” I don’t want that for my daughter, which is why I think her clothing choices matter.

Back when I held out a few outfits from which my daughter could choose, she sometimes reached the wardrobe before me. There was one dress she particularly liked, and she’d tug it from its hanger. In those days she dressed in clothing she loved, not to fit in with her friends or to rebel against society’s prejudices.

I do recognize the irony in wanting my daughter to make her own choices, and then sometimes complaining about the choices she makes. We can’t go back to the days when I limited her choices, so it’s an irony I’m prepared to live with as we negotiate her path to adulthood. Now, instead of shrieking, “You can’t go out like that,” I try to help her to see that the opposite of conforming is not rebelling, but in finding choices that are truly our own.

Yvonne Spence is mum to Melissa and her sister. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and magazines. She has published a novel, Drawings in Sand, and a short story collection, Looking For America, as Kindle ebooks. She has an MA in Creative Writing, and blogs at yvonnespence.com.

 

The Demons of Time Management

The Demons of Time Management

By M.M. Devoe

Messy BoyI know I’m not the only mom out there with a boy who can’t remember to bring his homework home, but sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can’t figure out what to do about it.

I have tried everything: begging, rewards, threats, charts, teacher intervention…everything. My son still regularly comes home, tells me he has reading homework, and then discovers he has left the book at school. Or at piano lessons. Or worse: he has no idea where. He always looks overwhelmed and surprised.

At least three times a week.

So I attended a two-day, ludicrously expensive organizational skills workshop for middle-school kids. It was lousy. They gave no practical advice at all, but they did make up some really long, pointless, and impossible-to-recall names for “creatures”—the voices in your head that keep you from being organized. I had to rephrase everything I learned in a coherent way before I could even understand it. And now I understand it. We are possessed by demons.

So let me save you all $700.

There are four ways kids get in trouble over homework:

The Memory Demon says, “You can remember this; don’t bother writing it down.”

The Clutter Demon says, “You don’t have time for filing and organizing right now; do it later.”

The Gamer Demon says, “You have plenty of time to do both; so do the fun thing first.”

The Time Demon says, “You don’t need to plan; you’ll just do it.”

Apparently, kids like my son have real issues with organization because the voices in their heads are so confident. Demons! Demons! Constantly telling them those lines. So the Memory Demon whispers and my son doesn’t use his planner, doesn’t write down assignments because he’s positive he can remember the first assignment, maybe he’s even excited about it; then the second one comes, and when the third is assigned, there just doesn’t seem time to write it all down, but that’s ok, he knows he’s got three assignments….

“I’ve got three assignments,” he brightly announces after school, slamming an empty backpack on the floor.

“What are they?”

“Uh…” His eyes dart wildly, “History, I think?”

Then the Clutter Demon speaks and he won’t store or transfer papers to the proper place because he figures he’ll do it just a bit later, same reason he doesn’t organize or put away important items in their proper places.

“Hey, Mom,” he shouts across the house, “You have to sign this permission slip!”

“Stop shouting across the house. Just bring it to me.”

“I didn’t want it to get crushed, so I didn’t put it in my backpack. There’s a smushed banana in there.”

“So where’s the slip?”

“What? It’s … I don’t know. Somewhere. I might have left it in the gym.”

Next, the Gamer Demon takes charge: “I don’t have much homework, I’m going to play Minecraft for a while.”

Four hours later …”Are you still up? It’s 10:00!”

“But I’m doing homework!”

Kids do not know anything about time estimation, have no concept of how long something might take, and can’t stop in the middle of a fun activity to take on a really dreary one.

The Time Demon runs it all: kids have no idea how to break down tasks into steps and plan what they need for each step. To them, an assignment to read a book is going to take the same amount of time as a science fair project or a math worksheet. Actually, the worksheet is probably shorter, so they can play a video game first.

See how the demons work?

All of this is normal. These are skills that need to be taught … it’s not instinctive. Some people never learn it for themselves—how many adults stay up late reading a good book and are surprised when it’s suddenly four in the morning? (Guilty!) Who knows a good guy who swears he will take on the short job list … as soon as he watches the game? How many of us run out to the store without a list because it’s just three items—and come back without one of them? Sound familiar? It’s just demons.

I’ll leave you with one piece of practical advice that another mom told me: replace the standard three-ring binder with a tabbed accordion folder with an attached cover flap. Active kids like my son tend to tear papers and then they get lost because what normal mom has those little hole reinforcers on hand, or time to put them on? Our kids want to get it right—and sometimes it’s just about handing them the right tools.

But how do I conquer the Clutter Demon? The workshop said I must teach my son to organize better.

Oh, gee. Thanks.

M.M. Devoe is a NYC-based author whose fiction has won or been shortlisted for 23 literary prizes. She is anthologized alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis and is a Columbia University Writing Fellow and MFA. Find her at www.mmdevoe.com and Twitter @mmdevoe.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Should You Let Your Teen Have Sex In Your Home?

NO!

By Patricia Stacey

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMShe was balm wounds, soul of sweet comfort foods, backrubber, and confessor. Yet, one day in fourth grade, as my class marched into the auditorium to see our first sex-ed film, everything in my being shrieked: “No No No! It can’t be!” What was my mother doing there?

I wonder why as a kid I was so excruciatingly embarrassed to expose my own sexuality to my parents. The answer, I think, lies in the mysteries of nature and instinct itself: Sex and parents simply don’t mix well. They aren’t meant to.

When we talk about teens having sex in the family house, we’re talking about two distinct messages. The first is that sex, adult sex, full blown going-all-the-way-with-a-cigarette-and-a-shower kind of sex is a healthy choice for a teen. I disagree. The second message is pushing it even further—that it’s okay to have it around your parents. Double disagree. For one thing, we are not supposed to be hotelier to our kid’s sexual fantasies. To do so is to overstep the boundaries of the parent/child relationship.

Yes, it is our job to educate our kids about sex, to both arm and grace them with truths about sexuality, to discuss the joy of loving, committed communion and the importance of birth control, but beyond that I believe it’s important to provide our children with a boundary around their sexuality that we don’t often cross. The sexual boundary between children and their parents is a sacred one; crossing it, we intrude in a place we have no business being.

One day when I was about six years old, during a visit to my cousin’s house, I overheard my aunt and mother talking in my aunt’s bedroom. “I’m bored by sex,” said my aunt. “It was so much more fun when we did it secretly in our folks’ basement.” And she swept her hand around her room in a dismissive way to indicate that her queen-sized bed was a total downer.

My aunt’s confession reveals an important fact about sex, identity, and individuality. Sex is about privacy. If you offer your kids a place to do it you are co-opting their sexuality, taming it, and implicating yourself into it. That is a huge disservice to your teen. Let’s face it: Sex is our first exploration of who we are as a budding individual separate from our family. Sexuality, if it’s really going to be good, isn’t something your mother offers you as a mid-day snack: It’s strange and beautiful, mysterious and deeply personal. Whatever else it is, it is something that you steal for yourself, you take for yourself, and you do by yourself. We need to give our kids direction, a strong sense of self, a thorough knowledge of the emotional and physical dangers of sex, but then we need to stay away. By staying away from our kid’s sex life (and not unwittingly pushing them into anything), we protect their privacy.

Sex in the home blurs boundaries. Psychologists say that it’s important to let our teens argue with us; they want and need to dispute. Teens are unwittingly longing for something to push against. It’s the parents’ job to stay firm—not rigid, not inflexible, not unwilling to negotiate—but standing strong as, say, an old tree. As teens push to get away from us, they hone their personalities, their egos, their sense of independence. But teens also live in emotional flood zones; they need a solid, standing structure to swim to when things get too turbulent. In offering a boundary we paradoxically offer a safe haven. The home should be a place where teens can retreat from the world, including the world of boyfriends or girlfriends. By normalizing sex, we are not providing the boundary that teens need. Instead, we could be pushing them into high water by effectively telling them that they are ready to handle more than they may be able to.

If adults let teens have sex in their homes, they are ignoring perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sex: its potential to do emotional damage. Sex can be fire. Given the proper amount of oxygen, it can and will consume everything in its path. Most young couples—even if they think they want that—are not ready for it. I would argue that most teens are way too immature to handle a full sexual relationship and all the emotional hazards implied.

When I was in high school, my good friend Anne’s mom was a rebel. She had a messy apartment with a poster hanging near the kitchen that said “Fuck Housework.” She took Anne to the OB/GYN, procured her the pill, and encouraged Anne’s boyfriend Jake to come over any time he wanted, whether she was at work or home. For weeks, every day after school, Jake and Anne walked the block from school to Anne’s apartment, and had intercourse. So why weren’t they ecstatically happy? They had everything that we all wanted. Still, they walked around the quad together at lunchtime and seemed to me to be diminished, haunted, miserable. I had the sense that their sex had reached a bored complacency even only after a few weeks. It was almost as if suddenly sex wasn’t theirs anymore, as if Anne’s mother had somehow taken sexuality away from them rather than offering a safe place for it.

But worse, I also saw how tortured Jake was when Anne went to India for a year with her father on his sabbatical. Endocrinologists explain that orgasm creates vast amounts of oxytocin, a hormone that, like a mythical love potion, can fiercely bond us to the individuals we are with when we experience them. In fact Jake was so devastated by Anne’s leaving—and her distancing herself in other ways—that he still talks about his hurt every time I see him. And he and Anne broke up thirty-five years ago.

Do we want our teens to bond so completely? Should this part of our lives be about lightness, experimentation, getting our feet wet? Or about jumping into the deep end?

I can well imagine parents deciding that letting a teen have sex at home will keep their teen’s sex safe. Doing so might be necessary for a small handful of wild kids, but not for the garden-variety teen. We need to arm them with important information about pregnancy and STDs, meaningful dialogues about the ways that they can be hurt emotionally, and then stand back and give a decently wide berth.

I would go so far as to argue that the American spirit requires a frontier—that for teens that frontier may be sex. But I mean small sex, slowly building—kissing and petting in a car—not hot and heaving sex on a luxury Posturepedic. That’s adult sexuality, with all its delicious gifts and thorny penalties. There’s plenty of time for that in coming years.

Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows.

 

YES!

By C.J. Snow

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMMy daughter Kate is sixteen, a high school junior. She’s active on the school newspaper, a member of the band, an avid skier and mountain biker. She makes good grades, she’s nice to her parents and her little brother, and she wants to become a professional photographer one day.

She also has a boyfriend, Nate, who she’s been going out with for more than two years. Nate is seventeen, a senior at a prep school in a neighboring state, about three and a half hours from our home. Though he grew up in our town, his parents moved away two years ago, so this fall, my husband and I have started to invite him to stay with us when he comes to visit. When he’s here, he sleeps in Kate’s room. With Kate.

And we’re okay with that.

It helps that we thoroughly like Nate, who is smart and funny and sweet, the kind of kid who talks earnestly about politics at the dinner table, and then gets up to wash the dishes as a matter of habit. It helps that my husband and I don’t have any religious or moral objection to premarital sex. It helps that we’ve seen Kate and Nate interact for so long now that we’re confident they respect each other and that they are thoroughly in love. We know it’s way too early to consider it, but we’d be delighted if they got married one day.

I have friends who think it’s wrong to let Nate and Kate sleep together under our roof. (Not that we advertise it, of course, but our closest friends know the score.) They talk a lot about how it seems wrong for parents to “condone” their teen’s sex life. Many of my friends talk this way, even the one who has very carefully provided her daughter with birth control, as if providing the Pill weren’t also a pretty explicit sanction of the sex that’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that there’s a fairly hefty “ick factor” here. About the only thing more uncomfortable than imagining your own parents’ sex lives has to be imagining your children’s. I get that. And believe me, my husband and I are not trying to co-opt Kate’s blossoming sexuality or insert ourselves in her relationship in some creepy, voyeuristic way. We don’t ask for details about what transpires between them (though it’s true that Kate offers a lot more to me than I ever would have to my own mother). For the most part, the two of them are very discreet. There’s not a whole lot of PDA when they’re around us. Maybe it’s because we’ve made it possible for them to have a time and place for the more intimate parts of their relationship, so they don’t have to let it spill over when they’re not alone.

I sometimes want to ask those of my friends who know their kids are having sex but who don’t want it to happen in their house what kind of message they believe they’re sending their teen. That sex is okay—but only in parked cars? Or in someone else’s den, at whoever’s house has no adult at the moment? That it’s okay, but only if you do it on the sly, in stolen moments padded by lies? Do they really think it’s wise or helpful to add the burden of furtiveness and guilt to something that might be emotionally complex enough as it is?

If you know your kids are having sex but you’re ignoring the reality that they must be having it somewhere, in my mind that’s akin to knowing they’re having sex but not making sure they have the means to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Both involve a level of negligence, a stick-your-head-in-the-sand attitude, that strikes me as pretty irresponsible.

In our town, there are a number of parents who host parties for their high school-aged kids where alcohol is served. “They’re going to drink anyway, so I’d rather they did it safely at our house where we can keep an eye on them,” is their thinking. Is letting kids have sex in your home an analogous situation? I think it isn’t. In our state, for one thing, it’s illegal to serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one. The age of sexual consent, on the other hand, is sixteen. Letting your own child drink alcohol in your house is one thing, but letting someone else’s kid break a law on your watch and on your premises is another.

Of course, there is one way in which the drinking and sex scenarios are similar: Both involve other people’s kids taking part in activities that are pretty controversial for adolescents. My husband and I know Nate’s parents only a little. We’ve spoken to them once or twice about Nate’s weekend trips to our home, but we’ve never talked directly about the sleeping arrangements. We’ve left Nate to broach that subject with them.

When your children embark on mature activities, I think you have to treat them in a mature way. Part of growing to a healthy adulthood is learning how to negotiate other people’s boundaries and comfort zones. Sometimes those other people are your parents. We want Kate to know that we support and respect the good choices she makes—and to learn how to offer us the same respect. So if, say, she were to bring home a guy she just met at a party to spend the night with her, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that that wasn’t okay, and why: because it wouldn’t be respectful to us (not to mention to herself).

What we want, ultimately, is to raise a child who knows that love and respect go hand in hand—and that sneaking and lying aren’t part of any good relation- ship. Where better to learn that than at home?

C.J. Snow is the pseudonym for a writer living in Michigan.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

All The World’s A Stage?

All The World’s A Stage?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 11.12.32 AM

My husband and I had been played. I didn’t catch on right away, not until we were in the middle of our descent from the Bump N’ Grind, a hiking trail in the mountains of Palm Desert, California. We go to Palm Desert every Winter Break to visit my parents, and every Winter Break, my husband asks: “Does anyone want to climb the Bump N’ Grind?” He’s a nature lover, an explorer, an outdoorsman. My twin daughters and I are not. We always decline the offer—as well as his other one to visit Joshua Tree National Park—as during our stay in the desert, we like to sit. Sit and read. Sit and watch HGTV. Sit and play mahjong with my mother. So I was surprised when my daughter, now 13, an age at which I’d assumed sitting and sunning would be top priority, suggested we make the climb.

Before I could question, we were on our way to Sports Authority for gear (my daughters had only packed flip-flops), and then we were off. My husband was excited. He was delighted. “Their time spent at overnight camp is finally paying dividends,” he mused, as he loaded us up with water bottles and energy bars like we were doing the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d just seen Wild.

And our trek would have been exactly like Cheryl Strayed’s if Cheryl had selfie’d her journey instead of written about it. At first, I didn’t think much of the picture snapping. The day was beautiful, the scenery breathtaking. But midway down, in the midst of a tricky patch of rock (my husband had decided we should descend “off road”), while I struggled for footing, one daughter called to me, “Can you take my picture now?” Her sister echoed, “Mine, too.” From the edge of a boulder, they gave red carpet poses. Hair back, breezy smiles. As I watched this through the lens of my iPhone camera, the situation became clear.

I considered calling down to my husband that the hike was a hoax, we’d been had. No one but him was interested in the Bump N’ Grind for the Bump N’Grind’s sake. But I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I didn’t want to start a family feud while on the side of a cliff. So I kept quiet.

Until a few days later when we were half way up the mountain road to our next photo-op, Joshua Tree. My forehead rested against the passenger seat window. My daughters’ heads were down, their thumbs twitching repeatedly upwards, in motion as constant as the car, as they looked online at postings of their “friends” feeding lambs in Patagonia, floating in the Dead Sea, parasailing over Mexican beaches. I’d never seen a Joshua Tree before. I wondered aloud how it would measure up.

“The Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree,” my husband told me, “since it doesn’t produce a trunk with rings.”

“Our trip to Joshua Tree isn’t really to see Joshua Trees,” I informed him. “It’s to take pictures of them.”

My girls’ relationships with their iPhones are, I would guess, typical. The phones are affixed to their bodies unless I tell them to put them away, which I often do since I despise them. I’d actually been looking forward to Winter Break this year, figuring phone activity would naturally die down away from home. But, I’d miscalculated. The scrolling had reached epic proportions. Instagram and Snapchat went wild as kids across the country spent their vacations looking at everyone else’s. “And in doing so, missing their own,” I said to my husband as he navigated our way into Yucca Valley.

“Who cares,” my husband said. “At least they are off the couch.”

I suppose this was one way, the positive way, to spin the effects of social media on my children. But I’m not a positive person, or maybe I’m more private. Or less secure. Or more old-fashioned. After all, I still miss the busy signal. And, I’ve never had the constitution to keep up with Joneses. When I was in middle school, I would duck my head down from the car window when my mother and I would drive by a group of my peers. True, I didn’t want them to see me with my mother but also, I didn’t want to see them. Knowing you are not doing the cool thing and seeing it are two different things. “Hold your head high,” my mother would tell me. I liked to look the other way.

Not so with my kids. As I marveled at the size of the tumbleweeds, my daughter wondered why her ears were popping.

“Look out your window,” I told her. She did, long enough to appreciate how high we were into the mountains, and of course to snap a picture of them.

Later that night, I used my own phone to take what I considered to be a somewhat “artsy”—and therefore post-worthy—picture of our mahjong tiles. “If you must post a picture, why don’t you use this?” I said, showing them a touched-up version of the tiles. “It’s a more authentic representation of our vacation than a Joshua Tree.”

They both looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. My suggestion to post pictures of our game was nothing more than a modern day version of my own mother’s command to hold my head high. Mothers across the ages have been trying to help their daughters find peace of mind and comfort in their skin. Except now we’re up against the evil of the smartphone. The intrusive device that’s turned family vacations into photo ops, and the concept of a break into an anomaly, and an impossibility—as where can anyone go these days to get a break from anything?

It turns out, Joshua Tree. About thirty minutes up the mountain, we lost cell service. The phones went down. Heads went up. We rode. We watched. We talked. We climbed. At the top of one of the other-worldly rock formations, we stopped and took in the panoramic view of the mountains and the valley, from the wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass all the way to the Sultan Sea. It was a site that even my girls couldn’t help but appreciate.

And you can, too. On Instagram.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

 

What Is A Teenage Boy?

What Is A Teenage Boy?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

teenage boy2

A teenage boy is a mystery hiding behind a shag of unkempt (he wants it that way) hair. To solve the mystery, or to at least gather a few hints on the way to solving it, sneak into his room while he sleeps and gently swipe that hair to the side. Surprise! He is still your baby.

A teenage boy is a ravenous beast capable of devouring an entire chocolate pudding pie in one sitting. And then he will ask for ‘seconds.’ Mothers of these hungry creatures might spend an inordinate amount of time at the grocery store or in the kitchen cooking and teaching him how to cook. The sustaining delight is that to this young man, Mom’s food is always the best food. Own it, Mom, even when he finishes that chocolate pudding pie before you’ve had a bite.

A teenage boy is a bearer of that peculiar and distinctive boy-smell that every locker room, dorm room, and bedroom share across the world. Stale and moldy food, dirty socks, sweat, deodorant. There are scary things in these boy spaces. Just like you wouldn’t stick your bare hand into an elementary school boy’s backpack on the last day of a long school year, I recommend entering a boy’s living space with caution. Or gloves and a gas mask.

A teenage boy is the sweetest-thing-ever when he plays punching bag with his younger sister and lets her knock him down and tickles her until she squeals. And at night when he constructs complicated railroad loops with Thomas the Tank Engine tracks and pretends he’s doing it for the younger kids but can’t quite conceal his pleasure. He is still a playful kid at heart and the best men, in my opinion, remain that way throughout their lives. Let him play hard and play hard with him.

A teenage boy is a zombie when forced out of bed before eleven a.m. This zombie is best greeted with cereal or a big glass of milk or a banana or some other edible item. Don’t try to engage in meaningful conversation for a while. Good luck to all his pre-lunch period teachers.

A teenage boy is a teller of actually funny jokes. All those years of laughing at nonsensical knock-knock jokes have ended, welcome to the really funny stage when you will wonder where that fantastic sense of humor came from.

A teenage boy is a bundle of contradictions. He has muscles now, real ones and not the ones you pinched and praised when he flexed in front of the bathroom mirror at age five. He is faster than you, stronger than you, maybe taller than you or will be soon. He can use that speed and strength to avoid his annoying mother and he can use it to serve you—carrying groceries or airplane luggage, mowing the lawn, fixing the car.

A teenage boy is an almost-man’s body with an almost-but-not-quite man’s voice. This is precious because in that voice Moms hear our toddlers begging for Cheerios or snuggling in before naptime. And in it we also hear the future, our own dreams and his. And we hear hope, we’re giving this young man ourselves and we’re giving him to the world in a few short years.

A teenage boy is the terrifying and beautiful next generation, filled with potential and balanced on the razor-edge of disaster. Capable of rocking our world to the core and capable of changing it for the better.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Fits and Flairs

Fits and Flairs

By Francie Arenson Dickman

fitsandflairs

I was, apparently, in peri-menopause—that dreaded, never-ending land between in one’s prime and out to pasture. “It’s not them,” he said, “it’s you.”

 

“I don’t like the way this one looks, either,” my daughter hollers from her dressing room. She is locked inside of it but her attitude spills over.

From a couch, I holler back, “What don’t you like?”

She hollers again. “I’m just not comfortable in it.” She yanks another dress from atop the door.

At first I consider the couch as a nice place to plant myself while my daughter tries on dresses. Thirty minutes and as many dresses later, I see it as strategic, a mental health tool similar to the soothing music played at airports or the drugs my gynecologist suggested I start taking after I complained to him of bouts of anxiety and depression. I’d hypothesized that the cause was my two newly minted teenage girls, and asked if he, the same man who delivered the daughters, could now please put them back. He said that would be a waste of time since they were not to blame. I was, apparently, in peri-menopause—that dreaded, never-ending land between in one’s prime and out to pasture. “It’s not them,” he said, “it’s you.”

Or better yet, I think now from the couch. “It’s us.”

At least the couch is turned away from the faces of the more congenial mother-daughter duos shopping at the younger, less hormonal end of the store. The ones still laughing and talking, unaware of the side effect of having daughters later in life: the simultaneous onset of both Puberty and Peri-menopause, the by-product of leaning in; the home wrecker of the modern age.

Take our home, for example. My husband is the only happy one in it, and that’s because he’s usually gone. He travels weekly for work, leaving the three of us recklessly floating between life’s stages, the emotionally blind leading the emotionally blind, all waiting to see where our bodies and ourselves will go from here. Yes, now and then, estrogen levels align and we, like Alzheimer’s patients, enjoy a flash of our affable former selves. But by and large, my girls have disappeared into adolescence, and ironically, so have I. Once the reliable cornerstone of operations, I’m now just another loony in the bin, and as awkward in my role as a Mother of Teens as my daughter is in the dresses.

“This one looks hideous on me,” she says, and beneath the dressing room door another dress plops onto the pile.

Luckily, the store is one we frequent. We are on a first name basis with the manager, a woman I shall call P. When it comes to clothing, her word is gospel. Her voice also has an advantage simply by virtue of not being mine.

So I assume my daughter will listen when P explains that she is trying on the latest style. “I just got back from a buying trip in LA,” P yells over the door. “All of the dresses are fit and flair.” She says that F and F is tight on the top and swingy on the bottom. A hybrid, I think, like the part anti-depressant, part anti-anxiety Lexapro the gynecologist offered me.

I nod to show my understanding of the acronym, but I am unclear on how all this hard sell is needed for a kid who has $9.47 to her name. When I was a kid, we lived by one fashion rule and one fashion rule only, This or That. I’d come home from school and my mother would say, ‘There are two dresses on your bed, a light blue and an imperceptibly lighter blue, take a look and pick one.’

I now grumble to P, “You know, I didn’t see the inside of a dressing room until I went shopping for my prom dress, and that was only because my mother was recovering from surgery and couldn’t stand up. I bought the first dress I saw—this purple thing, tight on the top, wide at the bottom. A fit and flair if there ever was one.” I pop a complimentary Hershey’s Kiss into my mouth and add, “Perhaps the first of the fit and flairs.”

P assures me I’m helping my daughter “find her identity.” She sets out to collect more inventory leaving me to hunker down and hope that having a better sense of style somehow translates into having a better sense of self, so that when my daughter grows up she won’t hem and haw over whether she’s making a mistake giving her thirteen year old this much latitude in the local clothing store.

A few weeks ago, back when my girls were still girls and my ovaries were still operating, I would have told her to pick this Fit and Flair or that and out we’d go. She’d cry but I’d be confident. The old me didn’t care about being liked. My kids could say they hated me, but they’d be clinging to my leg as they spoke, and we all know that actions speak louder than words. Only now, they don’t cling and worse, they don’t speak. The separation anxiety is suddenly on my own peri-menopausal foot.

Technology doesn’t help my confidence, either. Judging from my friends’ Facebook posts, I’m only one bad call away from having a heroin addict. Or a cutter. The Today Show recently talked about a new teen trend called Dirty Sprite, a deadly concoction of soda, candy and prescription drugs. Reason enough to decline the Lexapro.

On top of this, I have hot flashes.

“I found one,” my daughter announces from behind the door. Maybe P was right, with this daughter I need to be a little more loosey goosy, less fit and more flair.

I pop to the end of the couch as the door opens and out she comes. Her adorable self, still more pre than teen, plastic-wrapped into a polyester number, a myriad of primary colors swirled together and stuck to every lick of her body, breasts to booty, until it stops just below her crotch. With it, she’s paired 4-inch platform heels that she found in the dressing room.

My mouth drops. “All fit, no flair,” I say.

“But it looks good.”

On impulse I escort us into the dressing room where I fire up a lecture on sexuality, the type I imagine mothers of teen girls have at the ready, the one my mother never had to give me because she never gave me a choice. “You only get one reputation,” I tell her. “Let’s not blow ours the first time out of the gate.”

She looks at me cross-eyed through the mirror. “So does that mean I can’t get the dress?”

I tell her it’s not why she can’t, it’s why she shouldn’t want to.

“But either way, I can’t get it.” Her bird legs start to wobble in the heels.

“Right,” I concede.

She starts to cry in confusion. I, however, have a moment of clarity. Fear and frustration turn to compassion. Nothing, I well know, is worse than being tween anything, and here she is, almost a woman, but still a child. In limbo, a hybrid. Part little girl, part lady of the night.

I give her a hug.

She asks me if she has to wear a dress at all.

“What else do you have in mind?”

She points to a jumpsuit, a silky thing with sunflowers on it. Loose on top, baggy on the bottom.

“Perfect,” I say.

Then she asks if she can wear it with the 4-inch heels. I waver, but then, in the name of helping my daughter find her identity and helping me save my sanity, I cave.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Purchase our 2015 special issue devoted to parents of tweens/teens

When Friends Matter More

When Friends Matter More

whenfriendsmattermoreMy ex-wife and son were busy, so the plan was for me to pick up my 10-year-old daughter at 2:00 and drop her off at 8:00. There would be cupcakes, a hike to the summit of Lone Mountain, probably some more cupcakes, Penang curry & pad thai, and the charming way that only your daughter can cull meaning from the various stories she shapes with narrative to bestow upon their splintered totality the thing she calls her life. Of all the things she could possibly say, there’s nothing quite like what she ultimately says. I love her so constantly from the edge of my seat. She’s always on the ready to make new sense, dismantle it, and make some more. Her thoughts dart from place to place with the jacked up frenzy of a frantic hummingbird.

But then the call came. She was invited to an exciting day down on the fabulous Las Vegas Strip with the two girls who have, over the past year, formed 2/3 of their rock solid triangle of BFF friendship. The next part. How can I say it? I told her to have a super great time and meant it. I smiled as I said so and the smile was somehow, at the same time, genuine and propped up with the willpower that wants a coin toss to come up both heads and tails.

My little girl and her best friends remind me of my childhood friendships with Danny Parker and Chris Delaney. There’s something about a trio, a triangle, that feels more substantial than the two person line. What comes to mind is long, long (long) bicycle treks to each other’s houses, sleepovers, maniacal laughter, and the unconscious sense that we were the first people in the history of the world to discover this new form of human relations. This was not even close to being a son or a brother. This was a heroic leap outside that circle, the familiarity of family, into the great big unknown world of everything else. And the feeling I shared with my fellow explorers? It was an entirely new species of love, this friendship, and it was enlivened by the bold sense that the future was a boundless thing as big as forever. In other words, we would never die and this, things as they were, would never end. In still other words, we were down for life.

A concern of mine has been that social media, and the fact that my kids don’t ride bikes, would somehow degrade the magical powers of young friendship for my kids. This is probably just indicative of my advancing age and the tendency of the old to critique young people’s unique approach to the same old archetypes (of my stepdad shaking his head when the Beastie Boys appeared on the Grammy stage in 1986). But my daughter and her friends have proven to me that friendship is alive and well and that Facebook and Instagram can serve as instruments that replace landlines and loud shouts across the playground about meeting after school. Anyway, to watch my family dependent girl leap the gap to a tight-knit group of friends has been a thrill. It’s a common cliché to dwell on the perils of growing up, but it’s not without its share of giddy pleasures and delights.

However, I am an imperfect and messy man who, in addition to being happy for her, is also subject to thinking things like But what about the damn cupcakes and the mountain hike and me, you know, daddy? How many times, I wondered, had I felt tethered to her, trapped? And now, as she begins to construct a world to call her own, by what logic do I experience my freedom as a form of abandonment? Damn it. Is the grass always greener? To what end green grass? Can the fence itself hold up to a thorough line of questioning? She didn’t know when she’d be back or even if she’d be back before 8:00; she would call and let me know. I would read with half my heart, write with half my heart, and wait for her call so we could begin our day.

And I know you’re waiting, here, at the end of the essay, for a resolution of a kind, some valuable lesson learned. Perhaps my conflict rests as I bask in complete acceptance or balance is achieved when my daughter has a great time with both her friends and her daddy. Me too. I’m waiting too. I’m still waiting for my daughter to call.

Driver’s Training

Driver’s Training

yield

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“I don’t know.”

*   *   *

When your mother and I brought you home from the safety of the hospital we set you on the bed, looked at you, looked at each other, and then looked at you some more. You were wrapped up in a blanket the size of a hand towel in what the nurses called a “baby burrito.” I remember thinking you ought to look a lot more stunned than you did because, after all, you were just born—very recently nothing. Wasn’t being so newly alive a shocker? Not really. You emitted a steady vibe of unimpressed composure. All you did for the moment was blink and sometimes yawn. Parenting, I thought, was going to be easy.

“What do we do with him?” your mother asked, smiling.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

So we took you to a Mexican restaurant and, bored, you watched us eat tacos.

 *   *   *

Blink.

Now you have a learner’s permit and I’m in the passenger seat while you, behind the wheel, start the engine (of a car). You need to complete 10 hours of driving at night so here we are, in the car, in this thick atmosphere of metaphorical resonance. Take the wheel, son. My life is in your hands. I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and fasten your seatbelt.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“I don’t know.”

 *   *   *

We could go anywhere. Take a right here. Take a left there. Let’s not know where we’re going. Let’s get lost. Lost, it seems to me, is the truest way to be. Aren’t we always ever lost? Think about it. Where are we going? Slow down. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is no nihilist driver’s training manifesto, depressed and meaningless, looking for a café in which to brood and read postmodern poetry. Not at all. This is about the heightened consciousness that accompanies being lost, the careful attention to the nuance of path, and the joy after joy of discovery. Take a left. What’s more of a bore than knowing where we are and where we’re going? Let’s be existentially honest. Look back over the last 10 years. How apt were your maps? Could you have ever, in your wildest imaginings, dreamed up the journey to here? I mean, really. Is there anything more off the mark than the promise of your plans? Of course there’s not. So where are we going? Who knows? Accelerate out of the turn. There you go. Don’t let that wheel in your hands fool you into a false sense of control. Oh sure, you can turn it left or right—you can speed up and slow down, too—but what you can’t do is know what’s coming down the road, where you are, or where you’re going, especially at night and it’s always, more or less, dark on either side of where you are. Slow down. Pull off, here. Easy! Easy on the brakes.

 *   *   *

 “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Why are we parked here?”

“I don’t know. I wanted to see that mountain. Check it out. Isn’t it spooky?”

“I guess.”

Here, we sat in the dark silence for 4 or 5 minutes, looking at the mountain. I watched my thoughts wandering around and they wondered what you were thinking. Then, they wandered around wondering about when and how we would die. The dark silence always reminds me of death. Spooky mountains, too. I wondered if you were also thinking about death, but I doubted it because you were probably still wondering about why we were there and where we were going, which, come to think of it, is probably a metaphor for death. And then I suddenly loved you. I remembered your smug nonchalance as an infant and how crookedly we arrived to here and I loved you so much that I thought I might explode from love. There was the moon and the mountain and you have grown up into such a beautiful young man. I wanted to tell you. I should have—but the silence, it seemed, was the mother of this love, and the dark. So I waited until now to write it all down and tell you.

 *   *   *

“Hey, Dad. Which way do I go to get home?”

“I don’t know, Jay. Just pick a way and start driving.”

 

Photo credit: Scott Akerman

This is Adolescence: 16

This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

This is 16 art
Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.

 

Stunning in her complexity, 16 balances in the gray area—in my moment of hesitation after she asks if she can stay out later tonight. Before I can answer she says, “Great, thanks Mom,” and I wonder if she’s heard me or if this is sarcasm. I don’t know if she’s going out with the older boyfriend I don’t like and don’t trust. “Not with HIM,” I shout as she hops in a friend’s car parked in front of the house, because some of 16’s friends drive now. And some of 16’s friends have sex and drink and smoke pot.

Sixteen is my peanut, the nickname I gave her when she appeared on the ultrasound in that shape. She is still my small-framed, green-eyed wild child. She is experimentation, pushing every button I have, and hugging me in between.

Sixteen loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is different than the early years, when milestones were more predictable—first steps, first days of school. Sixteen is unique, sometimes volatile, and I’m more alone and insecure in my parenting than ever before.

My sixteen is ripped jeans, eyes stenciled with black eyeliner and the Bob Dylan station on Pandora. She is love and peace; she is hate and war. She is the girl in the back of the class, not trying too hard. She is nothing I expected and everything I wanted.

She loves me. She loves me not.

She is the one who set her own path in kindergarten, dressing herself in her snowsuit and leaving the classroom to play outside, alone. She did not need cohorts to mastermind ideas, if others came along, they came along, if not, then not. She is still that way.

Unlike many of the 6-year-olds at that small non-conforming but still impossible-for-my-daughter Montessori school, she hated flower arranging and helping the teacher. My 6 loved to collect rocks on the playground, stash them in her pockets, and empty them when she got home. “See,” she would say displaying what was really gravel in her hands, and I’d ask her what she liked about those rocks. “They’re mine.” And I wonder now if those rocks made her feel grounded.

Sixteen is flunking Algebra Two, getting her driving permit in spite of my efforts to hold her back from the wheel of a car, you can always start next year, I say casually. Sixteen needs to prepare for SATs. “I’m not going to college,” she says when I sign her up for a test prep course. “I’m taking a gap year.” She is not, I say. Not a chance. She leaves the room and I am panicking, the prospect of 16 living at home for another year, it is not a warm vision, and I am glazed in guilt. Then she comes back. “What day is the test?” I don’t realize now that some day in the near future she will apply to far away schools, and I will wonder why so far, and wonder if it’s me. And I will miss her until my heart cracks sideways.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is my first child, the first grandchild, the only person my mother—her grandmother—remembers now after five years of dementia. When we walk into the nursing home my mother looks at me and says “Sophia?” “No Mom,” I say, “she’s coming.” When 16 arrives my mother kisses her and 16 hugs back, and I remember “the hug” when 16 was six. When I told her her father and I were getting divorced, “and never getting back together,” so she wouldn’t get her hopes up. She scootched her way out of the big upholstered chair where she had been reading her Lola book and came to me, her shoulders narrow under her ladybug sundress. She took my hand and we walked out to the swingset and sat side by side. “Watch me kick the clouds,” she said. “Mommy kick the clouds!”

The clouds are not kickable these days and they are often lined with black. No silver. No blue. Really, I can’t tell. The storm changes by the day. No hour. No minute. She is suspended for buying alcohol but she is also first violin in the county orchestra. She is a girl in a tattooed halo, my girl. Regardless.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next. Yet she has no fear and no sense of consequence; she makes the same mistakes more than once, if the boyfriend asks her to ride on his motorcycle—to do almost anything—she’ll do it, then tell me, “it’s no big deal, Mom.” And I will have my words with her, and she will dismiss those words before they even have a chance to dissolve in the air.

Sixteen quit the volleyball team, and instead got a job as a counselor in an after school program she once attended, the program where she lost her first tooth during the square dance in the gym. When I pick her up at work she is the only adult in the room, with a dozen 1st graders, and I am astonished. Little girl, I want to say, where did you go?

And she loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen breaks up with her boyfriend, “to be the breaker is harder than to be the breakee sometimes, Peanut,” I say. She tells me too much about the relationship (I get all or nothing) and I note to call the gynecologist in the morning. We sit on her bed, legs Indian style, cans of cranberry lime seltzer on the bedside table. She is crying and her pale face against the orange walls that were once wall-papered with baby barn animals, looks older. Instead of the froggy sheets with matching comforter, the one we sit on is tie dye, and she has written I hate her, in ink across the top edge of the blanket, and I wonder if it’s me she is writing about.

She loves me. She loves me not.

Sixteen stays home from school sick, we snuggle on the couch both stuffy-nosed and sleepy. “I caught it from you,” she says laughing. “No you,” I say. And I am reminded of the day she saw the first psychologist and told me after the session that she caught my depression, that I passed it to her, as if I passed the mashed potatoes. I blamed myself. I blame myself for all of it. Always. I look at her on the couch next to me, spent and sniffling. “Peanut let’s go get ice cream,” I say and we drive to Stop n’ Shop in our sweatpants and slippers and buy three flavors of Haagan Dazs. It is 10:00 in the morning. “You are so much fun Mom,” Sixteen says as we check out. And I think, I am fun.

And she loves me, and I stop here.

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, and the author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood.

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This is the sixth episode of This is Adolescence, an essay series conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate. The series will be published in full in Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens, coming in Spring 2015. To order our previous special issues for Parents of Teens click here.

Slouching Toward the Sex Talk

Slouching Toward the Sex Talk

By Vincent O’KeefeWO Slouching Toward teh Sex Talk ARt

Like most parents, panic set in when my children started to ask about the mysteries of human sexuality. My slouch toward the sex talk began in an unlikely place: the grocery store check-out line. As a stay-at-home father of two daughters for over a decade, I have made many blushing journeys past those magazine headlines: “Orgasm Guaranteed,” “5 Sex Tricks Every Guy Craves,” or “Sex Right Now! Right Here!” (this last one’s exaggerated, but only slightly).

When Lauren and Lindsay were younger I didn’t notice the titles much, but once they started reading, the dark side of literacy reared its head. (“Daddy, what is an orgasm?”) Lindsay nearly narrated a sex trick scenario during a trip through the check-out line when she was six years old. While a mother in front of us unloaded groceries, her baby followed Lindsay’s movements with delighted eyes. Thrilled to command his attention, Lindsay said, “Dad, look at that baby. He likes me! He’s saying to himself, ‘Hot Girl’!”

While I was happy Lindsay liked her physical appearance, I was unsettled by her too-media-savvy language. I wondered if maybe she was reading those magazine covers more astutely than I thought. Then it got even weirder. Lindsay started waving a little toy around in her hand for the baby to enjoy and narrated his thoughts this way: “Now he’s thinking ‘Hot Girl with Toy’!” Behind my poker face I was cringing at the semi-pornographic comments coming out of Lindsay’s mouth, all the while hoping that the nice mother in front of me could not hear Lindsay’s comments.

Soon after the grocery store incident, Lindsay and I were at a playground. After racing down a series of enclosed slides, she came over to the bench where I was sitting and asked with utter innocence: “Dad, what does ‘s-e-x’ mean?”

I froze. Then I asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s written on the slide over there.”

My first reaction was “That damn graffiti!” My second was to explain the general wrongness of writing on public property, as well as the impropriety of such an “adult word” in a children’s playground. It was not my best parenting performance, but I managed to distract Lindsay enough to put the matter behind us and assured her we would talk about it later. Before running off for more play, she said matter-of-factly: “Oh, well it says if you want more sex, call Candy.”

My older daughter, Lauren, had started asking my wife, Michele, and me pointed questions about body changes and sex when she was only seven. Until then, we had not talked about sex much as a family, though as a gynecologist my wife had always insisted the girls use the correct terminology for their body parts. She believes (and I agree) that the earlier a parent models a healthy attitude toward sexuality, the easier and more natural learning about it becomes. Such age-appropriate disclosure, however, often resulted in Lauren correcting adult euphemisms for female private parts that almost always ended in “oochie.” “The right word is VAGINA,” she would announce in a loud, clear voice.

Because Lindsay did not talk nearly as early as Lauren did, we sometimes forgot to model as much language for her. Michele was appalled one day when Lindsay publicly referred to her private area as her “front butt.” The gynecologist in Michele nearly fainted; the writer in me roared.

Michele believes a key reason she became a gynecologist was to make up for her lack of sex education as a child. She still gets agitated when describing her introduction to the need for personal hygiene. After a high-energy roller skating party when she was nine, her traditional Italian-American father hollered to his wife, “This kid needs deodorant!” Around the same time, her Grandma Marie would reach for her chest and say, “Let me feel your nannies,” followed by the baffling statement: “Your friend’s going to visit you soon.” When Michele got her period, her mother hugged her and declared: “Now you have to stay away from boys.” Then she ran to tell her neighbor friends about this mysterious “period,” which Michele vowed to look up in the dictionary later. I guess you could say she has been looking stuff up ever since. Such initiative for self-education makes even more sense when you consider that once Michele became a teenager, her mom told her that if she wore a bathing suit next to a boy she could get pregnant.

For me, figuring out the best way to talk about sexuality with my children began with self-analysis. I tried to think back to the ways in which I learned about my body and sex, in the hopes of repeating the healthy and avoiding the unhealthy. Because it was a different, less open time (at least in my repressed, Irish-American home), no scenes emerged in my mind. Like Michele, I don’t remember ever talking with my parents about the ways of the nether regions (sorry for the euphemism). That seems unfathomable today, which is a good thing.

My first memories of wanting to know more about sex feature “tween me” begging one of my older brothers and his friend to give me some details. They probably did not know much either, but they wielded their apparent wealth of knowledge over me like warlords, taunting me with words whose meanings I did not know. One particularly memorable word rhymed with the name of our neighbor’s dog, who was named after the main character from The Hobbit. I got so angry that I chased them down the street with a monkey wrench, all the while screaming for them to define the mysterious word that rhymed with Bilbo.

Hoping to answer our daughters’ questions in a more enlightened way, Michele and I decided on a two-step strategy. First, we would search for age-appropriate books so they could feel comfortable learning from a neutral source (as a former professor, I’m a big fan of solutions via research). Then, we would follow up and answer any questions they might have

As we began looking for appropriate books, it was not hard to find several candidates. But there was one book in particular that grabbed our attention:“Where Did I Come From?” by Peter Mayle. It is a humorous book that uses cartoon people to convey the information about sex in an accurate but comfortable way. It even has an endorsement from Dr. Spock on the back cover. As Michele and I started reading it together, we liked how potentially embarrassing information was handled in a funny way.

Gradually, however, a disturbing realization crept over us. As we looked closer at the nude cartoon man and woman, we could not deny that they looked rather like us! The man’s starkly receding hairline and the woman’s short curly hairdo certainly bore a resemblance. Granted, the characters are much more rounded and exaggerated than my wife and me, but that did not stop us from doubling over in laughter right there in the store. Many parents might have shut the book and put it back on the shelf; we bought it right away for our own amusement, though we did not end up using it for Lauren’s education. I suppose the taboo against picturing one’s own parents having sex applies to their having sex in a book as well. Perhaps the funniest irony of all is that there is actually a line early in the book that reads: “Don’t worry if the pictures don’t look too much like your mother and father.” In our case, no worries. On the other hand, it was not exactly comforting to read that over two million copies have been sold.

Ultimately, the range of books we discovered taught us that we could address the topic of body changes first, and discuss actual sex at a later date. We settled on the popular American Girl book titled The Care and Keeping of You, since it covers body issues but stops short of addressing sex. There are many other books that do the job nicely as well, and parents should certainly do research to see which ones fit their values best. Later, we found additional titles that discussed sex more directly in age-appropriate ways. (Examples include Growing Up by Susan Meredith and Its Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris.)

After Lauren started reading these books, Michele decided to take the advice of a male colleague and “Go for a drive.” In the car, neither person has to make eye contact, which may lessen discomfort or embarrassment. We had decided that Michele would be the better parent to address these topics (much to my relief), and she reported that because of the books’ helpful groundwork, most of her conversations with Lauren went quite smoothly. One of the only snags was when Michele had to correct the pronunciation of the word “condom,” which Lauren kept mispronouncing as “cone dome.”

I suspect sex will always be challenging to talk about. Michele and I often laugh about a night long before we had kids when we were driving around town with Grandma Marie in the back seat. As we passed a house in the area known for the rowdy teens inside, she surprised us by saying, “There’s the house where they have those screwing parties.”

Together we turned around and said, “What?!”

With a smile on her face, Marie said simply, “You heard it.”

Many parents probably wish they could talk about sex just one important time, and then simply repeat “you heard it” for the rest of their years. But we know that the healthiest process is an ongoing dialogue that changes over time. Now that my daughters are fourteen and eleven, they pronounce things more accurately, and we have all become more comfortable addressing new questions. Overall, if parents are honest, resourceful and open to constant communication with kids, sex education can be a very positive experience—no slouching necessary.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a humorous memoir about gender and parenting. He has been featured on CNN Parents and his writing has appeared at Time Ideas and The New York Times “Motherlode,” among others. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com.

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

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

By Candy Schulman

YES!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

NO!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Curve

Blind Curve

BT 14 Blind Curve Art 2By Debbie Hagan

I pause at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the teenage residents hall in this psychiatric hospital where my thirteen-year-old son has spent the last few weeks. Though I’m in a hurry, with an only an hour to have dinner with Connor, I stare at the fortress-like balustrade. For the first time it occurs to me, from the bottom I can’t see to the top. The stairs go up, curve at the landing, then disappear.

Then I realize these stairs were boxed in to keep mental patients from hurling themselves off the top. A cold bead of perspiration runs down my spine as I edge up the stairs, turning blindly around each corner—almost as if I’m in a funhouse where the floors are slanted and the water runs uphill. When I reach the top, a curious eye peers through the wire-mesh. The latch releases, then the steel door groans open.

Inside the air is thick and moist like a locker room smelling like dirty dishes and teenage sweat. I turn left, past the common kitchen, hurry through the boys’ living room and down a dark, narrow hall.

Connor’s room is the last one on the left. Inside, he’s sitting on his bed, perched on a pile of rumpled sheets, his ash-blonde hair gelled straight up held by something he calls “glue.” He wears tan cargo pants and a white T-shirt hand-lettered with the words: Counter Clockwise, the punk band he formed last summer. Now he stares into space, his eyelids between open and closed.

The room looks more like a college dorm than a hospital: two twin beds, a wooden desk, and an armoire with the door hanging cock-eyed from one hinge. In the corner, a mouse has chewed a half-circle hole that looks like a sketch from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I notice something on the floor. When I edge closer, I see chunks of the homemade brownies I’d baked a few days ago.

“I can’t stay long,” I tell Connor, setting the Taco Bell bag on his desk. “I’m teaching a class at eight.”

Connor moves sloth-like, an obvious side effect from the new drug. The psychiatrist says it will take the edge off of his explosive moods. My son picks through the paper bag, pushing aside the napkins and sauce as if he’s not really hungry.

I look down to Connor’s desktop. Someone etched into the wood, with a pen, a chubby marijuana joint with smoke curling from the tip. It reminds me of a 1960s Robert Crumb cartoon—a bit too sophisticated to be Connor’s.

“What’s four-twenty?” I ask, pointing to the numbers above the joint.

“It’s the international pot smoking time,” Connor says in a tone that says, Stupid, everyone knows that.

I laugh. “So everyone’s supposed to light-up at 4:20?”

He shrugs, “I guess.”

Maybe he has smoked a joint, but I doubt it. He’s just thirteen. He looks older, being six feet tall with a youthful fuzz of beard. On his arms, he writes punk lyrics, such as, “I have a heart full of napalm, babe.” With his spiked hair, black leather trench coat, eyeliner, and “Fuck off” attitude, he gives the impression that he’s a tough street kid.

I look into his face, and I’m reminded of what the middle school counselor once told me: “He’s so thin-skinned. He has no armor to protect himself.” Now it’s as if I see it—faint lines of blue crisscrossing beneath an ivory scrim.

I stare at the marijuana drawing, and I wish he were in a more nurturing environment. Connor is the youngest of the twenty or so boys on this hall; all seem to have a history of drugs and petty crimes.

While McLean Hospital has the reputation for being the world’s leading psychiatric research hospital, I’m not sure this is a good fit for him. His stories about this place scare me. First there were the boys who stole a spray bottle of cleanser from the janitor’s closet and huffed it. A counselor found them delirious, sprawled over a bed. Two other boys bragged about having sex in the bathroom. This week, a boy became violent and beat another patient.

The atmosphere here is a little prison-like and makes me wonder how Connor can get well. I’d bring him home, but I worry, would he just go back to running away, cutting, and trying to kill himself? I don’t think I can live through that again.

“Are you sleeping okay?” I ask.

He raises and lowers a shoulder, biting his burrito. He chews a little and looks as if he needs to pick through the cotton in his brain to find the answer.

“Last night the strangest thing happened,” he says. “There was this blue streak of light that came into the room. It was right about here.” He gets up and stands in the middle of the room.

“I was asleep,” he points to the spot where I’d first seen him. “And I saw it…there was something here.”

“Was it a ghost?” I ask.

“Hmmm. I don’t know, but it was something.”

He’s staring into space, curling into himself, pale and nervous.

“So what did you do?” I ask. “I prayed to God that it would go away and leave me alone.”

I watch my child, standing in the middle of his room talking about ghosts, and I feel more alone than ever. No one can help me, not even my husband who’s angry with Connor for acting out. I try to tell him, it’s not Connor’s fault. Even the doctors don’t seem to get it. They tell me he’s obstinate and defiant. I argue, this isn’t my son. It’s as if someone stole my son and replaced him with someone who looks like him. They stare at me as if maybe I’m the one with the problem.

I look at Connor, searching his room for ghosts, and I’m feeling alone and scared, and I don’t know what to say. I change the subject.

“So how was the Fall Fling?”

All week he had practiced his cello for the patient variety show. He had chosen William Squires’s “Tarantella”—a strangely hypnotic tune about a woman bitten by a tarantula who falls into a zombie-like trance, which seemed apropos for here.

Connor raises and lowers a shoulder. “Ehn.”

“Wasn’t it fun?” My voice sounds insistent, practically begging Connor to say, yes.  His lips quiver. He can no longer wrap them around his burrito, so he sets it aside. The back of his hand wipes away a tear. Dear God, please give my child one moment of joy.

Connor is crying. I close the door and sit next to him. I place my arms around him and squeeze his shoulders. I’m amazed when he doesn’t brush me away.

“It’s okay,” I murmur. “Just tell me what happened.”

He gives me bullet points. The patients on the third floor—boys and girls—gathered under the trees, on the terrace behind East House, for a picnic. All of the kids sat with their friends. They laughed. They talked. They ate. They played games, like the three-legged race, but no one wanted to talk to him. No one wanted to be his friend.

“Surely there was someone,” I say.

Connor shakes his head and tells me that one of the boys on his hall said something mean.

“What?”

He shakes his head. His face twists into a painful grimace. He cries, “I can’t even get along with people in a mental institution.” He bats away tears.

There’s a thickness in the room, making it difficult to hear or speak or feel anything—as if I’m bound motionless in my chair. I try my best to keep a poker face, because I don’t want Connor to suspect that I’m confused and frightened.

“Let’s face it, Connor, a mental institution isn’t a great place to make friends. Everyone here has issues and trouble interacting with people.”

Frankly, I don’t know a lot about mental illness. Over the past few weeks, ever since Connor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve read a stack of books. I’ve learned one thing: mental illness strains all relationships. It makes those with the illness behave unpredictably, and those who love them afraid, frustrated, and sometimes angry.

As for kids, this has to be the cruelest part. Kids with mental illness stand out profoundly, and, thus, become bullying targets. That’s why Connor is a victim no matter where he goes—even here.

“I know what people think,” Connor tells me. “I can look at them and tell what they’re thinking.”

“Oh, Connor,” I say.

“No, it’s a gift and a curse!”

I stare at the broken dresser, the mouse hole, and my son who now believes he can read minds. I zip up my jacket but it doesn’t stop my shaking.

I’ve forgotten about time. When I look at my watch, I see it’s already past seven. I have to cancel my class. When I call the school, the administrator warns me, canceling a class at the last minute violates my teaching agreement. I apologize and say, “It’s a family emergency.” Still, I know how these things work. I’ll be taken off the roster next semester.

My whole life is derailed—my teaching, my graduate studies, even my relationships with my husband and other son.

I dig through my purse and find a pen and a small notebook.

You’re going to take notes?”  Connor asks.

“This will help me remember,” I say.

I notice Connor is now sitting forward, almost leaning into me, rather than slinking back into the folds his hoodie.

 “You should be a psychiatrist,” Connor says.

I’m a little surprised by the way he has perked up and wants to talk. I decide to seize this opportunity, but I remind myself: Play this cool. Be calm.

 Right away, Connor tells me, “One of my friends cut himself today.

“Hmmm,” I respond and write it down.

“What do you think will happen?” Connor asks.

“Well, he won’t be going home.”

Silence.

It lingers too long, and when I look up, I see Connor’s lips are chalky, his gaze far away. My heart sinks.

“I cut myself.”

“When?”

“Just before you got here.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“I didn’t know your number.”

He had it, but he likely acted first, then thought.

For about thirty seconds, we stare into the void, searching for how to move on.

I go back to playing psychiatrist, writing random words in my notebook.

Connor tells me that after the boy said something mean to him, he grabbed a plastic knife and ran to the bathroom.

“I stood staring in the mirror, and I couldn’t even control it,” he says. “It was my choice.  I could stop, but I didn’t want to. Sometimes the dark side takes over, and I’m not at all me. I lie to people to make them think I’m in a good mood, but I’m not.”

I write, and I wonder if this is new or has he always been this way? Could I have misunderstood my son…all these years?

“Where did you cut yourself?” I ask.

Connor points to his thigh.

“Can I see it?”

“No!”

I’m acting like a mom again. That won’t work—not tonight. As long as I’m playing psychiatrist—open and emotionless—he will talk.

Still the mom in me worries about the cut. I look at his pants. I don’t see blood. I decide he’s not going to bleed to death.

I push on, because there’s one subject I really want him to talk about. It’s the seventh grade school trip. That’s when Connor’s behavior changed. He had told me that he was bullied. I’d mentioned this to his psychiatrist, but Connor refused to talk about it.

I scribble as I gather my bearings. Then I take a deep breath, “Can you tell me what happened on that trip to Washington D.C.?”

Connor squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. I expect him to explode, order me out of the room, and then bury himself under his covers.

Instead, he’s silent for a long drawn-out minute. Then, to my shock, he begins telling the story. He picks up from what I already knew, how his roommates made him sleep on the floor, so they could have the beds. Then they refused to share their sheets and blankets. They made fun of his deodorant, calling it “women’s deodorant.” In fact, it was a unisex deodorant, which I had bought, thinking it was more fitting for a thirteen-year-old—better than Old Spice or Axe. I couldn’t imagine it could be turned into a joke.

Now he begins talking about the second day of the trip, when all of the seventh grade buses pulled up to the U.S. Mint, and the kids gathered in groups. Suddenly Connor’s roommate, a boy named Mark, shouted to the entire group: “Connor wears women’s deodorant.”

As Connor tells me this, his voice rises in pitch, exaggerated and sing-songy. I stare at him as he clenches his fists and bares his teeth. I’m frightened, because, in this second, I don’t even recognize him.

As if he’s reliving the moment, he shouts out, “Shut the fuck up, man! I don’t use that stuff.”

The fury in his voice makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

Connor composes himself a little, telling me that everyone laughed at him. They looked at him and pointed. Then Mark repeated the phrase he’d read on the side of Connor’s deodorant: “strong and beautiful.” The boy said it mockingly, girly, and the crowd laughed even harder.

Connor told Mark to stop, but he wouldn’t. He kept shouting and laughing, spurring the crowd on. So Connor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. Joe tried to pry his hands off, but Connor said he wasn’t about to stop.

“I wanted to kill him.”

“So what happened?”

“One of the teachers pulled me off and told me to take some space.”

“That was it?”

“No one ever does anything,” Connor says. “The teachers saw what had happened, but they don’t care.”

I am stunned. How could this have happened in front of teachers—chaperones who are supposed to keep kids safe on these trips? And no one said a word to me or even tried to find out from Connor why he acted this way?

“Did you really want to kill Mark?”

“He’s a sadist. He deserves a spot in eternal damnation!”

I fall back in my chair. To think my son could have killed this boy—over deodorant. Connor’s a big, strong kid and given his level of anger, he might have done it. This scares and confuses me. How could this be the same boy who gives brownies to mice, who sleeps with a rainbow-striped dolphin?

Connor continues, “I heard it everywhere I went. I heard it in my hotel room, at dinner, on the bus all the way home. Twelve hours I listened to it in my ear: strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful. I thought I was going to explode.”

By Monday, all the kids in school knew about the deodorant. They ran up to him in the hallways and yelled, “Strong and beautiful.” They shouted it during homeroom, and at lunch. Two of the popular girls handed him a present tied it up with a bow. Excited, he tore off the wrappings only to find a stick of girl’s deodorant and a Cosmopolitan magazine. They roared in laughter. He ran to the bathroom and cut himself with a paperclip.

“I don’t like to talk to people anymore,” Connor tells me. “I can’t make friends without thinking how they hate me. I can’t trust anyone.”

For the first time ever, I understand how this chain of events unfolded and how my son ended up here.

Connor grabs me and hugs me hard. When I start to let go, he grabs me again, tighter, his breath moistening my hair.

“I want to go home,” he whispers, “but I’m not ready.”

I realize, he’s afraid too. He’s afraid of being hurt again.

I bury my head in his T-shirt, soaking up his warm, musky scent.

“It’s okay. You’ll come home when you’re ready. It will be soon.”

On my way out, I’m not so sure. I look back down the stairs, dark and boxed in. A few hours ago I couldn’t see my way to the top. Now I can’t see my way to the bottom.

Author’s Note:  The notes taken that night enabled me to recall our conversations just as they occurred, in addition to the other small details. Connor spent about a month in the hospital, followed by four years of working with therapists and psychiatrists who helped him deal with the pain caused by school bullying. Today Connor is 22 years old, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and enjoying his life—without medication.

Reflections of My Son at the Rock-N-Roll Show

Reflections of My Son at the Rock-N-Roll Show

BHJ:Son B&W

My son will be 16 later this month and, man, it’s tough to avoid clichés about the passage of time. One minute I’m wiping his ass and then, the next, I’m standing next to him on a sidewalk in Grand Rapids, Michigan, waiting in line to see a rock concert. You never see it coming, you don’t think, “Eh, this’ll pass and soon we’ll go see shows together and speak in awed tones about how hard the drummer for Listener hits his drums.” But perhaps this is best. This not knowing. Grabbing the next diaper is not, in itself and always, without joy. Stay true to the ebb or the flow with no eye to their opposites. Just wipe.

And then one day he’ll be 16, wearing an orange hoodie and a t-shirt depicting a comic book character you’ve never heard of, and his hair will be in his eyes; you’ll catch yourself muttering boy needs a haircut, kids, bah. He’ll be sarcastic and witty and he’ll make you laugh, no longer merely because he’s cute, but because he’s really, really funny. He’ll shave the whiskers off his face, wipe himself, and, because the sun will hit him just right and create a perspective much more broad and encompassing than that of your immediate concerns, you’ll think My God I have loved participating in the process of your becoming a man. Who are you? Where did you go, Little Boy? If I… could put time… in a bottle…

But these lofty bird’s eye reflections will soon give way to your entry into the small concert venue and the dissonance of being at a rock concert with your son. Dissonance, because you go to concerts with your outlaw friends where the music is loud, the message is defiant, and the atmosphere fosters chaos—the delightfully scary knowledge that anything goes and everything is permitted. But your son? You chase him as he runs toward the street. You tell him to say no to drugs and to use condoms—that is, only, of course, IF he’s having sex. (Is he having sex?!?) You make him eat vegetables and do homework and listen to his mother. But music—loud good music, no matter what it says, always says “WAHHHHHHHH, YEAHHH BAYBAYYYYY. KICK KICK snare drum drum DRUM—CRASH!!! YOUR DAD IS… DUMBBBBBBBBB. He’s an ASS ASS ASS.” Or what have you. And it is here, at the crossroads of this contradiction, where the essence of my conflict as a father finds its expression.

I despise authority. I am the authority. To hell with me! Better listen to me! And on and on until I just kind of cancel myself out and either the ebb ebbs or the flow flows and all I do is notice my son tapping his foot and nodding his head. And he’s smiling, but not in a simple happy kind of way. It’s more akin to a deeply satisfied smile that has just now stumbled into the realm of a very old and precious secret. A drummer himself, he’s watching the drummer and nodding his head with every thump and crash. The drummer—he’s hitting the drums so hard that I wonder if he’s up to something more than making music. Somewhere, way beyond the song, he’s fighting an old fight inside himself, breaking down the walls of a jail that can’t hold him, and, like the rest of us, always, becoming someone else.

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On the Cutting Edge

On the Cutting Edge

By Laura Amann

cuttingedgeFrom a photograph on my desk, my daughter’s face peers out at me. Her eyes are crinkled; her chicklets-perfect teeth are held by a wide grin. Her dark hair curls in fat, sausage ringlets. She is wearing a princess gown. She is five.

Periodically, I look at that photo and close my eyes. I do the same thing when I come across her papers from grade school, with the hearts on top of the i’s and the puppy dogs doodled in the corners.

Today her long, glossy hair has alternately sported thick dreadlocks, been chopped short and bleached an unnatural blond, and been dyed with streaks of blue, green, or pink. Her brown eyes are now muted by a ring of heavy, thick, black eyeliner. Her ear- lobes are stretched and weighted down with huge earrings.

She is still stunningly beautiful and this makes me sad.

It breaks my heart because I know all of her attempts to be different are really a cry of pain. She has struggled with mighty demons as she has wrested her way through adolescence.

Depression runs through the women in my family like a thick, pulsing vein. It strangles our self-confidence, saps our energy, and leaves us limp and lonely. I have watched my sister and mother struggle with it. I have fought my own conflict. I have listened to stories of my grandmother and great-grandmother taking to their beds.

But when I learn that she is cutting, my stomach recoils and I am physically sick—nauseous and clammy as if the flu has suddenly possessed my body. Soon, she starts wearing long sleeves all the time or a thick crowd of bracelets to hide her scars. I learn she has a secret blog and through a concerned friend of hers, I log on. It is so dark and disturbing that I lay awake at night thinking of what I’ve seen.

She had already been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for a year when the cutting starts. Now we up the ante. Intense, twice-weekly dialectical therapy, coupled with weekly visits to the psychiatrist and regular group therapy sessions take up much of her time. She visits the school social worker almost daily.

I suspect that she began cutting as a way to cultivate an image she wanted to convey: that of a hipster with a dark and daring soul. But the allure of the cuts quickly spiraled out of control, becoming its own form of addiction and destruction.

When she first came to me three years ago, crying and scared about her mood swings, I was concerned but not shocked. “I know I should be great right now,” she said. “But I just want to be by myself and be sad.”

But who as a teenager hasn’t felt some depths of despair? I remember those teenage feelings of angst and anxiety only too well, which is why in the beginning I was eager to direct her to a nutritionist or a new exercise group. Good food! Brisk air! Let’s just drum those bad feelings right out! For months I optimistically bucked her up, nauseating myself in my own faux cheeriness. I clung to her smallest request, as if an order of Kung Pao chicken could make her unhappiness disappear. But I also had a friend commit suicide in high school and I know the edge of the cliff can spring up quicker than expected.

Soon I learn that I can’t leave her by herself. I scrutinize every outfit. Grab her wrists. Take the sharp objects and prescription medications with me when I leave the house.

In the midst of her chaos, we transfer our home movies from videotape to DVD. The process requires it to be done in real time with the machine playing back what it is recording. I’m mesmerized. There she is as a baby, our first child, and her dad and I are completely in love with her. Her every move is recorded, nothing seemingly unworthy of the camera’s attention. As a toddler and a little girl, she is captivating. Her clear eyes gaze at the camera, lovingly looking at us. She is the ring leader, the head of family plays and sing-a-longs.

She orchestrates her siblings’ moves with confidence and assurance. I can’t stop watching, looking for some sign of the sullen girl who lives with us now.

Her clothing styles change as rapidly as her moods. First, she shed the trendy shirts and skinny jeans for men’s over-size clothing. That look gave way to black rock concert T-shirts which gave way to ’60s style bell bottoms and fringe vests. Each personality adjustment comes with a slew of other refinements. In addition to the new style of clothes, she adapts a new makeup look and a new personality design for her bedroom.

She draws all over her walls. Beautiful swirls, elaborate scrolls of flowers, inspirational quotes, and images. It’s stunning. She takes one wall and creates a vision board, filled with images she finds inspiring—yoga poses, New York City, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and plenty of other tortured souls who killed or nearly killed themselves with their creativity.

She silently glides out of the house. She has a new group of friends. Earlier, when she didn’t have friends and spent hours and days alone in her room, I worried. Now when she’s out with these new friends all the time, I worry. She tells me to relax, assures me she’s fine, her friends are what she needs right now.

I don’t trust this new group of friends, but without proof (and I desperately search for proof), I feel powerless as she slowly slips further away. Later I will learn that my suspicions were correct; she was engaging in high-risk behaviors on many levels. But I want to believe her. Desperately. Even though the line of pills I need to dole out to her every night is a constant reminder that she is anything but okay.

Eventually, I get a call from the social worker at high school, her voice belying her news. She tells me that there was “a setback” last night. I speak the language and know what that means. The social worker sent her to the nurse and when I go to pick up my daughter, I hug her and tell her I love her. She gently lifts her sleeve and I am stunned and heartbroken at the large hospital-like bandage covering the length of her arm. I am scared to see what lies underneath. Scared to see what she did to herself while I slept, oblivious, in the next room. My mind cannot go in the direction of the darkness she clung to last night. But I will fight for her.

*   *   *

A few hours later, we are on our way to check her into a psychiatric hospital; we stop for coffee and bagels—black for me and a coffee/hot chocolate/whipped cream concoction for her. We order bagels as well because, well, we’re hungry. And I’m not sure of the protocol for checking your daughter into the psych ward. Etiquette books don’t cover such topics.

I look over at my daughter, my first-born, my amazing girl, and try to imagine how we got to this point where she needs to spend time in what is euphemistically dubbed a behavioral health center. What words can I say right now that will make this okay? Do I optimistically give a pep talk about new beginnings? Do I break down crying like I want to? I’m hoping she recognizes the symbolism and love represented by the Dunkaccino. I sip coffee and chew my bagel despite the curious lack of salvia in my mouth. It’s almost painful to swallow.

She seems oddly calm, almost relieved. I fall squarely in the devastated and terrified category. I want to prolong the time I’m with her and perhaps commemorate the moment. I come up with a soppy, heartfelt, caffeine-laden toast to the future.

*   *   *

The adolescent psych ward is both everything I imagined and nothing I expected. The waiting room is full of people just like me, parents wearing the same expression of exhaustion, worry, and a tinge of relief. We don’t make eye contact; there is no need—it’s all too unbearable and we know it. And we are the lucky ones. In the hallway outside the waiting room, patients are being wheeled in, strapped to gurneys followed by familiar-looking parents. By familiar, I mean normal. Someone I would see at the grocery store. I don’t know why I find this surprising.

The kids getting checked in all wear a haunted, blank expression. The girls have the same black-rimmed, heavy eye-lined eyes and nails covered in black, chipped polish. Their clothes are grungy and baggy. The surprise is that my daughter fits right in. She looks just like them.

How had I not seen that before? In my quest to keep her out of the hospital, had I waited too long? How could a hospital stay possibly undo years of dark, deep depression? Where had my little girl gone who was on the soccer team and swim team, and loved going to church and hanging with her family?

We pass through three sets of locked doors before checking her in on the self-harm/eating disorder unit, where skeleton-like bodies with haunted eyes peer at her above their jutted collar bones. Quickly, these become familiar faces. A cross between a hospital ward and a bland dorm hall, the unit has both a nurse’s station and traditional dorm furniture (albeit, bolted to the wall). We have to relinquish everything from underwire bras to spiral notebooks and anything with staples.

This isn’t a retreat. There are no colorful posters or inspirational bulletin boards, encouraging residents to “hang in there, baby.” The nurses and clinical staff are professional but not sympathetic. I want them to smile or reassure me I am doing the right thing. But they don’t. They hand me forms to sign and packages of information, none of which are stapled.

The following days are a blur of phone calls to relatives, the school, teachers, doctors, therapists, insurance, and a few close friends. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining and every conversation seems to take an hour. I have three other kids who are scared and concerned. The younger two had no idea of the extent of their sister’s depression. We take a mental health day.

I spend the next week narrating my life, one step removed: I am folding the laundry while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am answering work email while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am driving a carpool while my daughter is in the psych unit.

I feng shui her entire room, cleaning, scrubbing, and airing everything out. I wash and refold her clothes, dust her shelves, take down the dark tapestries which cover the windows and buy a plant.

My feelings slide on a scale ranging from anger to relief to hope. I’m angry that it’s come to this—angry I didn’t do more sooner, even as I recognize that there was nothing more I could have done.

But there is also relief. Relief that she is in someone else’s care. That for a short while I won’t have to check on her constantly. That my heart won’t race going up to her room when she is the only one home. That I won’t need to look out the window waiting for her to come home.

That I can briefly stop questioning the medicine, the therapy, her psychiatrist, her school load, me, her father, our family—always wondering where we went wrong. Someone else can do all of that now. It is out of my hands for now.

And of course, there is hope. Hope that she is finally getting the help she needs. Hope that perhaps her future will be returned to her, a future where the possibility of college and a life outside of home exists.

We are periodically allowed one-and-a-half hour visits where we sit on uncomfortable chairs in a hallway near other patients and nurses. She is lonely and scared at first (which is hard) then excited and almost happy to have met so many people like her (which is maybe even more difficult) and finally desperate and anxious to get home.

We also meet for family meetings with other parents whose stories are just as awful as ours. And like my daughter, I feel an excitement and kinship with these people. Finally, someone else who understands the true struggle of watching a child battle demons.

Because the reality of mental illness is that it’s still extremely difficult to discuss. Those of us navigating the dark pathways are often too emotionally fraught to fight against other people’s assumptions or battle the stigma as we should. Many of us are too busy blaming ourselves as it is. And so the veil of silence continues. Who are we, the parents of children who suffer, who cut, who starve? Who among us shares this heartache?

When she is finally released, we walk slowly to the car and sit together for a while. She begins to weep. I hug her and cry with her. Then I ease the car into the road and begin the drive home.

*   *   *

The second time she is hospitalized it is less traumatic, but not easier.

She only made it a year before relapsing. After her first hospitalization, she participated in an outpatient program for an additional two months. She managed to keep up her coursework and return to her job. And to my relief, she moved away from her group of friends.

But if there is anything I’ve learned from this journey, it’s to expect the unexpected. Studies show that self-injury can be as addicting as alcohol and drugs.

The second time around, we are even more careful who we tell. My daughter’s illness is chronic and at times it can be life-threatening. And yet, her battles are fought internally, and sadly, we’ve learned that some people find it easier not to inquire.

My daughter, my husband, and I have each lost friends or distanced ourselves from people since the first round. Although we had told only a few people, we learned that the same folks who organize a chemotherapy support brigade don’t phone to check in. And the people who volunteer with the disabled don’t necessarily understand a psychiatric hospital.

But our family sticks together, at times straining at the seams. Before being hospitalized the first time, my daughter made me a CD (a mixed tape of love) and the haunting song “Beautiful Girl” by William Fitzsimmons swims through my brain in gentle laps.

Beautiful girl

Let the sunrise come again

Beautiful girl

May the weight of world resign

You will get better

Her doctors told us that the adolescent brain doesn’t completely stabilize until around age twenty-three. There is a good chance that she will age out of the cycle of self-injury and depression. There is also a chance that she will be fighting this battle the rest of her life. And so it’s up to me in the brief time she has left living at home and in our care, to make sure that she has the tools and knowledge to monitor her disease and keep herself safe.

For now that means supervising her medications, checking in with her daily, staying in communication with her school social worker and her therapist. And yes, ensuring that she is eating healthy food, drinking water, and getting exercise.

And sometimes it means simply ordering Kung Pao chicken on a bad night.

Author’s Note: Since this story isn’t mine alone, I showed it to my daughter before sending it into the world. Any hesitancy I had evaporated when she read it and encouraged me to put it out there. We’re hopeful we can assure someone who is experiencing a similar struggle that they’re not alone. Our journey continues, and although the path we’re taking remains murky, we’re both a lot stronger than we were when we started out.

Laura Amann is a writer and editor who mothers a brood of four in the Chicago area. Her award-winning essays have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Brain, Child, Salon, and Chicago Parent. Her reported pieces have appeared in Your Teen, Scholastic Parent, among others.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

 

 

The First Tour

The First Tour

By Christi Clancy

firsttourI never thought that a college tour with my seventeen-year-old daughter would be an emotionally fraught experience. I’m a professor, so I’m used to the campus environment. Our friends who have gone through this process marvel at the ways colleges have changed since we went to school, but I’m not surprised by mindfulness classes and meditation rooms, dining halls with vegan and gluten-free options and gender-neutral dorms and bathrooms.

But there I was on my first campus tour, not a professor, just another mom in a traveling pod of parents, siblings and high school juniors following our guide’s bouncing ponytail. She was a pretty, self-assured co-ed in Cleopatra sandals and Raybans. She pointed out the student artwork in the library, the international studies office and the common room in the dorm where a lonely looking kid in a t-shirt that said WEED banged on a piano. She’d pause occasionally and put her hand on her hip. “Any questions?”

I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t even focus. I was thinking about how old all the mothers and fathers looked, and I was roughly their same age. I’d tripped on one of those age touchstones that launch you into existential angst. Where had all the years gone? Wasn’t I just in college myself? Why didn’t I think about schools in California? Why didn’t I look at small, private colleges? Why didn’t I major in geology? Why hadn’t I traveled abroad? What would it be like to start over again, forging a whole different chain of life decisions, starting with this one?

I looked over at Olivia. I could still picture her in her car seat even though she’s half a foot taller than I am. She was walking with her arms across her chest, the sun glinting in her golden hair. She was far enough away to be mistaken for a student, which was probably her goal. I wanted to shout out that she was mine. I had a vision of her walking happily across the quad to class while I was two thousand miles away … two thousand miles! Going to a college far away sounded fine before, adventuresome. Now I could measure that distance by the inch.

Suddenly I wanted to duck into a bathroom to cry. What was my problem? Olivia had already taken the ACT twice. We’d talked about college, poured over the US News and World Report rankings and researched student to faculty ratios and acceptance rates.

I thought of a story I’d heard from a woman whose child had been born premature but survived. She said that even years later, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her child had been ripped out of her, ripped away. The late high school years are like the final trimester of a second, different kind of gestation. I must have gotten it into my head that we were both developing, approaching a point of ripeness, like an egg timer would ding and she’d be mature enough to leave me and survive, and I’d be ready to turn her bedroom into an office.

Letting go might be easy for some people, but on that college tour I started to think that it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be emotionally prepared for her to leave home than I’d thought. She’d been a horrible, colicky baby, comforted only by the hum of a vacuum cleaner. But over the years she turned into my favorite person to spend time with. We read People Magazine while we get pedicures, have long conversations about politics and religion, watch dumb reality TV shows and do her crazy workouts standing side by side in front of the mirrors at the gym.

It’s not that we have a perfect relationship. I resent the piles of clothes, crumbs on the countertops, the loud blender she uses to make her kale and chia seed smoothies in the morning. I worry when she’s out late, and we go to battle over too-tight, too-low outfits.  But her habits, her days, are braided into my own, and the process of unbraiding will be a challenge— one that seemed unimaginable, or that I really just didn’t understand until we started looking at colleges.

Some of my friends have confessed that they experienced trauma when their kids left home, but I insisted to myself that they were the exception instead of the rule, and that the trauma was short-lived. One friend said she didn’t know how to fill her time anymore, while another friend said she would fold laundry on her daughter’s bed and cry and cry. My friend Susie said it’s not just your kid going to college that makes you sad, but the way your family changes, and you can’t ever go back. “Oh, honey. It’s like jumping off a bridge.”

Maybe the good news is that the jump happens in slow motion, one college tour, ACT test and college application at a time, slow enough that you understand what’s happening even if you can’t quite absorb it. Who knows, in another year I might be ready. But ever since the tours started, I go to sleep at night, thankful that my family is all under the same roof. Our daily drive to the high school seems more poignant. I feel a little rip in my gut every time she gets out of my car and I watch her walk towards the double-doors, one day closer to leaving.

Christi Clancy teaches English at Beloit College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Literary Mama and Wisconsin Public Radio. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two kids, Olivia and Tim.

Showing Lola Brain, Child

Showing Lola Brain, Child

showinglola“Come upstairs, Lola Blue. I have something for you.”

“WHAT?!?”

“Well no don’t um—get all excited about it. I mean, it’s for you and all, but it’s the kind of something that you just sort of keep and put away and maybe look at from time to time like your purple volcano stones from Maui.”

“Cool! Let’s see!”

Upstairs, Lola sat on my bed and I handed her a copy of Brain, Child, Volume 16, Issue 2, a literary magazine for thinking mothers. On the cover was an animated image of two young people from behind, holding hands, and they both have cell phones in their pockets. (If, by chance, you wanted to ORDER this magazine, you could click here and we could definitely make that happen.) Lola did her best to feign interest in the magazine but it was a far cry from purple volcano stones from Maui.

“Just—uh—you know, flip through the pages a little bit,” I instructed. “Figured there might be something in there you might find interesting.”

She leafed through the pages, humming, skimming titles and checking out the art work (was that what she was supposed to find interesting? who knows? dad’s not being especially direct with this particular “something special”) until page 54 stopped her cold in stunned recognition. What the hell? It was her.

“It’s me!” she exclaimed on the border of a question, looking at me, amazed, and then back again at the full page black and white image of herself in a magazine. “The Poetry of Math?” she read the title, wondering what it meant, “And it’s by you! You, Daddy, in a magazine! And me!”

“Yeah,” I said and sat next to her. “I write about you and your brother on the Internet all the time, but this is different, hey? Here we are, out in the world, in print. Is that pretty cool or is that pretty cool?”

“It’s way pretty cool!” She smiled, turned the page, and read “{OUR KIDS} + (the FUTURE) = Anything. You write so crazy, Daddy. What’s that even supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know, little girl. I just scribble things down about you kids and hope that maybe one day you’ll check them out—like when you’re 20 or something—and maybe they’ll mean something to you. And then, maybe when you’re 30 or 40, they might mean something else. Hell, I’m not even sure half the time if I know what they mean and I’m the guy who writes it. But I do know this much for sure. Sometimes, you kids mean more to me than anything I could ever tell you. I could never explain. So I just try to write it down and see what happens.”

“Like how?”

“Like how what?”

“Like how do me and Jay-Jay mean things you can’t explain?”

“Sweetheart. I just explained to you that I can’t explain and that’s why I write—”

“But, Daddy, this IS writing. It’s not like we’re having a real conversation. This is an essay on the Internet.”

I felt weird. Dizzy. Like drugs, or colors. “Whoa,” I said, “this conversation just went all meta-essay. Do you know what that means?”

“That the writing no longer seeks to deceive the reader by representing a transparent reality but, rather, becomes conscious of itself as writing while exploring and articulating its limitations.”

“Yeah. You’re pretty bright for a 10-year-old girl.”

“I have a really strange dad. So, anyway, how? How do me and Jay-Jay mean things you can’t explain?”

“Okay, it’s like this. Sometimes you and your brother will just… DO something. Like, anything. And I can’t just say ‘Wow, Lola, that was really awesome the way you brushed your hair,’ because, even though that’s what you did, that’s not what it meant. See? What it meant is what I can’t explain.”

“Well, what did it mean?”

“Are you even listening to me? I don’t know. Nothing, maybe? It’s like there’s this world, you know, and it’s spinning in a circle and whirling around the sun, in circles, going nowhere, and there’s all this war and sex and reality television and people—it’s the people, I think—the way we’re trapped inside the narratives of our own stories as if they’re, like, realer than they really are and I’m the same way, just living my life, oblivious, consumed, selfish, and then all of a sudden­—WHAM—you’re brushing your hair or Jaydn opens a window and I can’t believe there’s such a thing as any of this or you and I get—like—stunned without a tongue so I write things like ‘Lola brushed her hair free of tangles and rubies as Jaydn opened the window to get some fresh dreams. My children are made of tulips and stardust. Nothing in the world is what anything seems.’ Do you see? I can’t explain. I can’t—”

“Shhhh,” she spared my lips. “Hey, Daddy? Can I keep this? The magazine?”

“Of course you can—yes. I wrote it for you.”

“You will always be the candles on my eyes’ windowsills.”

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Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac

By Lorri Mcdole

FA 06 Cul de Sac ArtWe’d eaten all the salads and burgers and cookies—alone deviled egg sat quivering in a puddle of melted ice—and had run out of things to say to the people who live just around the corner. The annual block party finally over, we smiled and waved as our stranger-neighbors dragged their lawn chairs out of the middle of our cul-de-sac and down to their own.

Then the rest of us pulled our chairs up on the grass, got out the portable fire pit and frozen Margarita buckets, and left our children—three-year-old Haley, five-year-olds Ryan, Alex, and Tanner, and eight-year-olds Alaina and Shayna—to play in the street.

Which isn’t as bad it sounds. One of the reasons we live on a cul-de-sac is to give our kids a relatively safe place to play. Cars don’t speed by on their way to somewhere else because they really can’t get there from here.

But just because our neighborhood is a mecca for little kids doesn’t mean that our kids stay little forever. Once upon a time they cuddled close—for stories, songs, the sound of our voices—but now our children run around wild, tempting fate as if they’re as lucky as cats. They have the knack, mostly, for avoiding bicycle headers and slipping through tight spaces in the nick of time, but they’re also still small enough to be misplaced, run over, grabbed under the arm like a sack of potatoes and made off with.

And the mothers, what of us? We call on God—we pray, cajole, would seduce Him, if we could—but mostly we sit empty-lapped, older by the minute, wives telling tales around the fire.

But some families live on these circular blocks long enough for their kids to grow up and get driver’s licenses. And sometimes—like when the teenaged neighbor is driving home from his job at Safeway and his gaze is diverted by a friendly fire—the illusion of safety is the real danger.

I was playing a board game with my kids on a dark winter night when there was an insistent knock at the door and then a long stuttering ring of the bell. Our cul-de-sac is more like a commune than a collection of single-resident houses, with kids flowing freely through open doors in summer and pounding on doors and bells in winter.

But this time it wasn’t a kid, it was Darcy, the mom next door.

“You haven’t seen three little kids, have you? A third grader— Elizabeth?—and two younger brothers, maybe four and five years old? They went out to the mailbox and never came back.”

I knew which family she was talking about, but they were new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t met them yet.

“When their mom went to check, they were just …gone,” she ended lamely. And then she threw her arm out like an amateur actor, pointing to the top of our cul-de-sac ‘T’.

I ran out to the sidewalk and saw two police cars, the mailbox, and a woman sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth with her head in her hands. One of the police officers walked over to peer in the mailbox, as if one or all of the kids might be hiding in there. I felt like I was watching the Amber Alert play out somewhere far away on the 10 o’clock News.

But here was Darcy, whom I knew too well to ignore, asking me to help her stop the lava-like dread that threatened to wash away our world. Our fingers in the dike, we stood silent, trying to disown the same thought: we’d gotten lucky. Our own children were safe and sound, this time.

We found out what happened the next day. Tired of waiting for their mom to get off the phone and take them to Bingo Night at Sierra Heights Elementary, the three kids had gone out to get the mail just as their dad pulled into the driveway. They were so excited to see him and so upset about missing Bingo Night that he decided to pack them into the car and take off. He called and left a message, the story goes, which his wife somehow didn’t get.

What we, the other mothers, are still dying to ask (but can’t because we still don’t know the family well enough; can’t because the question is stuck in our throats like in a bad dream) is this: Is there life after your children are swept from the face of the earth, even if, by miracle or just everyday magic, they reappear?

When my daughter was three months old, I gushed to my mother about the Diaper Genie, a contraption that seals off disposable diapers in a smell-free container. I’ll never forget the shock on her face, the hurt in her voice.

“You’re using disposable diapers? It used to be my favorite thing, washing and drying and folding all those little white diapers for you!”

Mom smoked during each of her three pregnancies; raised us on starch, sugar, and fat; and allowed us to go to the corner store for candy as soon as we turned six. Every summer morning she sent us out to play with the neighbor kids and counted herself lucky if we didn’t come back till dinnertime.

This was during the 60’s and 70’s, long before anyone worried about spending time (quantity or quality) with their children; before they knew to worry about nutrition or safety. Like my daughter, who’s perplexed by Ms. Hannigan in the movie, Annie (“But she’s an adult, she has to love kids,” Alaina says), everyone assumed that to have children was to love them, and to love them was to do for them. They took it for granted that nothing bad would happen to us when we were “out there,” and mostly they were right.

Today, no matter where we live, our kids seem targeted for terrible things, like they really are accidents waiting to happen. And we, the adults, the used-to-be-young? Shocked at getting older, we skate at the frozen edges of our children’s innocence and often end by falling into the soupy middle.

Like me, reading the mail on my front porch one day and trying not to register how fast and close together all of our kids were riding their scooters and bikes. I make mine wear helmets, but how can I get them, in concert with the other kids, to appreciate a speed-to-proximity ratio that would at least lessen the chance of bloody knees or elbows or worse?

The thud, when it came, was quiet, and I only registered it because of my daughter’s yell: “Mom, Tanner got hit by a car!”

Trailing cell phone, bills, and magazines, I ran down to where our street opens up on the rest of the neighbor- hood and saw a man getting out of a blue pickup, surrounded by our swarming children. Tanner was picking himself up off the street.

Over the next few minutes the man and I, both shaking now that the tragedy had officially morphed into a near miss, reconstructed the scene for each other: he’d been backing out of the driveway that leads to the house behind our neighbor’s, had stopped to look for cars and kids, and then heard the terrible sound once he looked away. Swiveling around, he saw the horrified faces of a bunch of kids and me running wildly at them all. For a brief moment, he forced himself to face the worst—that a child was under his truck.

But luckily he’d been stopped when Tanner, who hadn’t been looking where he was going, barreled into him. Luckily the thud wasn’t something he rolled over.When people ask whether we plan to have more children, I joke that the only person I’d add to our family of four would be someone named Watch This!, whose sole job would be to obey this command from my children each of the 5,000 times it’s uttered in a day. Or a person called Find This!, who would spend all day looking for the one tiny plastic toy needed for some game.

But in the middle of the night, when my real fears and desires loop endlessly through my mind, what I really crave is a guardian angel. Not the garden-variety, God-sent angels of my childhood (whom I credited for keeping me safe even as the Fire and Brimstone Church I grew up in taught me that it was up for grabs whether I would, actually, be saved), but a cut-and-dried 21st century secular angel. A mercenary who’ll keep my kids safe, no matter what God or anyone else has in mind.

Someone who could be there, say, on that late August evening, just past dusk, when five-year-old neighbors Ryan and Alex were thrilled to have the run of the cul-de-sac. It was their favorite thing, doing something nearly “under the law,” as they called playing in the street in the almost-dark.

Their parents, talking around the fire pit to the other moms and dads, were like the soft-focus pictures of Jesus at church: they promised safety, but from a distance.

Their backs to the wind and their ears filled with their own screaming laughter, neither boy knew a car was bearing down on them. But we knew. Tuned as mothers are to these things, we rose halfway off our seats at the just-discernible hum of the car and then sank back down, relieved to see it was just Nick, the responsible, Safeway-employed teenager from next door, who was rounding the corner.

By the time we realized that Nick’s eyes were glued to our fire at the side of the road and that he was nervously stepping on the gas instead of the brake, it was too late for anyone but God, or some kind of angel, to do anything.

What He or She did is this: had us yell, in terrified symphony, “No, No, No!” Had Ryan and Alex suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be under the law or under the ground. Had the boys want, more than anything else, to be ensnared by the flailing arms of their mothers, to be engulfed by the fire-lit ovals of their mouths. Had the boys cross the street hell-bent for leather in an irreproducible sort of geometry, one of them just in front of the car, and the other just behind.

Author’s Note: “Ryan’s on the cliff of the stairs!” my daughter, Alaina, used to yell when she was four and her brother was one. Too many times I’d round the corner just in time to see him rolling, end over end, to the landing. But kids are resilient—he left teeth marks but no teeth in the wall—and most of their scars won’t show until later.

Lorri Mcdole lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, Greg, and their children, Alaina and Ryan. She worked as a technical and marketing writer before having children and has published in Pacific Northwest and Common Ground. This is her first publication since becoming a mother.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

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Irony—and a List

Irony—and a List

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puberty (mostly, with my kids)

Sex (mostly with my husband)

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

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

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

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

Money

Jealousy

Success

Self-doubt

Boundaries

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

Privilege

*   *   *

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

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

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

What are some things you hope to address more?

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Ann Hood: Exclusive Essay

Ann Hood: Exclusive Essay

How to Smoke Salmon

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutMy son Sam and I stand side by side in our tiny backyard in Providence, shivering. It’s late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, the sky a battleship gray and snowflakes falling furiously around us. I have to squint up all six feet five inches of Sam when I talk to him. At seventeen, although he is man-sized, he still has a round baby face and the final hurrah of blond in his darkening hair.

“Do we just stand here?” I ask Sam.

“We have to tend it,” he says.

It is the smoker I got for Christmas, and Sam and I are smoking all kinds of pork—loin, ribs, chops—for a New Year’s Eve supper. When I watched him start to put the smoker together, the instructions still in the box, I couldn’t help but remember all the Transformers and Leggos he used to construct without ever referring to the directions. Some things never change, I think as he adjusts air vents and reads the temperature dials. And other things, I think with a pang in my heart, change a lot. Like: the piles of college applications on the desk upstairs, the SAT study guide beside Sam’s bed, the schedule of auditions hanging on the kitchen bulletin board.

Soon, theater programs around the country will be sending Sam their decisions. Which means in the not so distant future, Sam will go away to college in Pittsburgh or Chicago or Ithaca. I swear, yesterday he had to stand on a stool to layer the sliced apples in the pan for apple crisp. I used to lift him into the grocery cart with one swoop, and teach him how to choose a ripe avocado.

Now he regularly makes polenta for dinner, bakes bouche de noels, feeds my husband and me almost daily.

“Needs more water,” Sam announces. He is blurry in the snow, moving back inside to refill the jug.

Eleven hours. That’s how long it took for that meat to smoke perfectly. At a certain point, I went back into the house, to the warmth of the fire in the kitchen fireplace. But Sam stayed out there, the snow becoming an official blizzard, the wind increasing. He learned how to use that smoker that night, and for months afterward he smoked clams and oysters, tomatoes and garlic for salsa, briskets and more ribs.

Spring came, and with it those college acceptances. I watched Sam’s face light up whenever an email dropped in his box with good news. He had wanted to be an actor since he was eight, and now he was on his way to a BFA program six hours from our home in Providence. For his own going away party, Sam smoked pork tenderloins. I looked out the kitchen window at him tending that thing. It was a mystery to me how it worked; I just let Sam be the smoke master. Around me, his half packed duffel bags lay on the floor. A box of books. Linens for his dorm room bed. The next day, our bellies full, we drove him to college.

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real. In an instant, family dinner changes, shrinks, quiets considerably. The smoker sits, alone and untended, amid the falling leaves. Then another winter, another snowstorm. But this time the smoker remains unused, half-hidden in snow.

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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

How Our Kids Become Who They Are

How Our Kids Become Who They Are

jonMy 15-year-old son, up until very recently, dreamt of pursuing a career developing video games, a dream no doubt created in part by the delusion that his job would consist mostly of playing video games and eating potato chips as opposed to laboring day in and day out over frustratingly buggy code. But far be it from me to trample on what appears to be a silly dream. I am, after all, a writer and, when I’m alone, an indy rock god with an acoustic guitar performing for small crowds of 300 or so because only a select few really, really understand me.

But the other day, in the same Italian restaurant where we always eat penne with pesto at a very stable table, me the father, he the son, relaxed and comfortable in all this steady self-sameness, he did that thing the world will often do when—in a blink—everything is revealed for what it always really is: constantly maybe not what it is on the way to being something else that it, too, might not be.

From nowhere (indeed, from where else?), he just up and says, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to UCLA to become a chemist.” And just like that, in a blink, the video game developer gave way to a chemist.

Anything could happen all the time. Like, right now! Or… now! Or… Right now too! You never know, do you? Blink. Someone stole your car. Blink. You lost your leg in a carnival accident. Blink. You’re dead. It’s really not conducive to the ongoing production of anxiety-free ordinary days to dwell overmuch on what might happen when you blink. I mean, any number of horrible things could go down. Blink. Check your wallet.

Oh sure, of course, it’s in the realm of possibility, too, that good things might happen in the blink of an eye, but such sudden—blink—change tends to evoke a sense of dread in this worry wart because it seems to me that stability itself is the good thing I’m crossing my fingers for from blink to blink to blink. Blink—still here. Blink—still here. Blink—is my car gone? My leg? What about my wallet? Still in my pocket? Nice! And so on.

How interesting it is to think that—in spite of this craving for stability and fear of sudden death—a big long history of silver tongued mystics and goofy quantum physicists generally agree that the world possesses absolutely no substance, no abiding this-this-this that remains that-that-that. As Brahma creates the world—blink—Shiva destroys it—blink—and on and on and on, and Hakuun Yasutani once preached that our bodies undergo a sophisticated process of creative emergence and destruction 6,400,099,980 times a day! And what’s the deal with quantum physics and the notion of substance as a kind of dense energy that tends to repeatedly explode in patterns that vibrate on the same frequency for awhile until they don’t? It’s like a thing—or you and me—are puddles of water that constantly freeze and melt in all kinds of ways until everything evaporates. Or maybe not. It’s no easy task to articulate adequate metaphors that serve to illuminate the weirdness of all this unstable thingliness.

Now, with the backing of such esoteric authority, the basic terrifying fact of our (not) lives takes on a whole new aura of magic, wonder, and possibility. We are not the reified entities we tend to represent to ourselves as the solidified what of who we think we are and, at the end of the day, or on the other side of this moment, we could maybe possibly might be anything. Sometimes I’ll just stare at something—a pitcher of water, a tree, a bus, whatever—and wonder how in the world it can possibly just sit there, remaining what it is as opposed to just vanishing into nothing or morphing into a bowl of fruit or a green mamba or whatever thing an anything might be.

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to UCLA to become a chemist,” he said and—blinking again—I saw the future erupt around him as if it was merely the words themselves that made things so: glass beakers, Bunsen burners, a white lab coat. And me in reverie about mystics, physics, and the enduring substance of tables and pasta from blink to blink and the mysterious who of who we are and are and are some more.

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Family Portrait

Family Portrait

WO Family Portrait ArtBy Anne Spollen

I am a recent refugee from the life I planned since I was twelve. For the last twenty years, I have been a mostly stay-at-home mom.  I was the kind of mom who read to my kids pre-natally, breastfed, pureed baby food made from organically grown community supported agriculture, and dreaded their inevitable discovery of soda. I carried not only Band-Aids in my purse, but Neosporin and dry socks.

My kids had music lessons and birthday parties, religious instruction, family connections, parents who loved them. They had a community they were part of; they had success at school. They had safety and health and friends in abundance.

My dream had been delivered; here they were: bright eyed and bright, creative and thriving. For some people, life never gets this good and I knew it. I thanked Providence every day for my luck and love with these kids.

And then it all changed.

One spring day in the eighth grade, my middle son began drinking with a group of new friends. There was no warning: the kids arrived on bicycles at my front stoop in the same way a summer storm arrives. They had squeaky voices and acne. The boys seemed harmless. They told me they were going on the bike paths and I watched my son leave with them. When he came home, I smelled the alcohol on his breath.

By late summer, the scent of weed drifted from his room. Pills arrived as the leaves changed. Then he changed. He grew agitated and violent. He struck me when he didn’t get what he wanted.

I would think back to the days before the boys on bicycles arrived. How had this happened? And how had it happened so quickly?

We hired counselors and had him hospitalized. Sometimes the calm reigned for a few weeks, then the cycle would begin again. The drugs created strange behaviors, which led to multiple diagnoses. Some doctors said he had major depressive disorder; others pronounced him bipolar. They gave him pills. I had never heard of pill-chasing behavior, but I quickly came to see that my son could manipulate psychiatrists into giving him drugs. He knew the names of the pills he wanted and the symptoms he would feign to get them. Ultimately, he had no psychiatric illness aside from addiction.

A former honor student, my son began failing subjects. His intellectual energy was utilized in creating ways to obtain drugs. He was good at it. Money disappeared. Jewelry. Then trust and communication. He hid his phone and his thoughts. I would look at my son, only fifteen years old, and his eyes would glint in a way I had never before seen.

Then came the bombshell: his older brother told me that their father, an alcoholic supposedly in recovery for years, had participated in the first drinks with him back in the eighth grade. On that spring afternoon, they bonded over their mutual addictive behaviors.

My twenty three years of marriage ended as his father sheltered our son’s behavior. He allowed him to leave school at fifteen and take online high school. I fled to a New York apartment with my fourteen-year-old daughter. It was a refuge. From there, I would try to find a way to help my son.

One night after the divorce, I was cancelling email accounts in both names, my ex-husband’s email account accidentally opened. That’s when I saw the summons for my son’s arrest.

Arrest? I had not been told.  Addiction thrives in secrecy.

This boy, a former National Honor student who had played in a Philharmonic band at the age of thirteen, had three felony counts against him.

They each involved heroin.

I used to think of heroin along with an image of poverty, of disenfranchised individuals who slept through rainstorms on city sidewalks. But of course, like any economic system, drug dealers need clients – and theirs tend to die young. Affluent teens of suburbia have stepped in to fill that vacancy. My son was one of them.

My son. I shut the computer off and sat there for a very long time after the reading the words of the arrest. I wished for someone to come into that living room and make everything better: I wanted Mary Poppins with a pocketbook full of songs and suboxen.

I spent that night looking through my son’s baby pictures, through his drawings and cards that he had given to me over the years. I Googled what type of person becomes a heroin addict until I realized I was looking for a reason so I could stop blaming myself. But there was no Neosporin for a heroine addiction, no amount of Band-Aids or dry socks.

I called his father. “What arrest?” he asked in a happy sing-song voice, despite the fact that the arrest summons was in his email. That is the voice of denial: it’s like living in a margin somewhere between surrealism and Dr. Seuss. Addicts and alcoholics live in that space where nothing is real; if it’s not real, it doesn’t have to be addressed.

My son, still a teen, is a heroin addict. I write that sentence and it is dream-like to me. Some nights I still Google heroin addiction. The experts state over and over that addiction is genetic. Still, I know this only intellectually; my emotions haven’t learned that yet.

I study addiction statistics. I go to open meetings for any kind of addiction. I want to know why doctors dispense scripts for hydrocodone as if it’s Tylenol when it is routinely listed as one of the three most addictive substances on earth. My son has told me that he first became addicted to hydrocodone, or Vicodin. “It was love,” he said. “It was all I ever wanted to feel.”

These pills change brain function. The drug makes itself the number one priority to the brain; life is second. Its use stops the creation of positive feelings. The user needs more and more of the drug. Tolerance builds. Then hydrocodone turns nastier. It no longer brings any type of euphoria; it only relieves the unbearable symptoms of withdrawal.

But pills are expensive, between twenty and thirty dollars a pill. Heroin runs about four dollars a fold now and does the trick. And it’s running through American high schools with the strength and speed of a rumor.

I got my son into a rehabilitation facility several states away. I cried as the plane lifted off because I knew he was on heroin even as he sat in his seat. But he was safe. I could breathe. Until the director of the facility called to let me know that my son’s  father had sent a plane ticket back two weeks into the program. The director had wanted him to stay there for ninety days, then go to a halfway house. But my son was eighteen by now, there was nothing I could do.

At least after rehab, we could talk, my son and I. It was guarded conversation, but we could connect on some level. My son is trying to stay clean now. Involved in a program and meetings, I call him each day to make sure he has not relapsed, that his heart is still beating. I have to will myself not to think about him all the time or I wouldn’t be able to function. I have moments now where I do not think about him. I can’t afford to.

Two days ago, my young teen daughter went to visit her father and brother. When she came home, she was clearly under the influence of opiates. She refused a drug test.

Anne Spollen is the mother of three children. She has published numerous essays, poems and stories, in addition to two young adult novels: The Shape of Water and Light Beneath Ferns. She currently lives in Staten Island where she teaches college and is working on a book of essays exploring the effect addiction has had on her family. She can be reached at her website: annespollen.org

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The Right Time for The Talk

The Right Time for The Talk

By Ellyn Gelman

Women Driving no 6I sat next to my mother at the kitchen table, our eyes glued to the bulky television on the Formica countertop. It was the summer of ’78 and the lead story that morning was the birth of the world’s first test tube baby. My mind could not shake the image of a little baby trapped in a test tube waiting to be born. I turned to my mother and with all the confidence of a sixteen-year old, proclaimed, “I would NEVER do that.”

It’s funny that word ‘never.’

In July 1992, I gave birth to the first of my three “test tube” babies. I was blessed with a son (now 21) and four years later, twins, a daughter and son (now 17). They were all conceived through the miraculous science of In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF).  The ordeal of conception that had consumed my life for ten years was over; the memories stored away in the attic of my mind like the box of high school keepsakes stored in the attic of my home. My focus now was ‘full on’ motherhood. I rarely gave IVF a thought until the first time I was asked, “Mommy, where do babies come from?”

At first I kept it simple.

“Well there’s a mommy and a daddy and they love each other and then they have a baby.”

When they were older I told them about sperm and eggs and which body parts needed to connect to make it all happen.  Their wide-eyed surprise about these simple facts stopped me from adding; “and sometimes the baby maker parts are broken and you need a Petri dish (aka ‘test tube’).”

It became more complicated as my children’s minds and bodies morphed into teenagers. No one, including me, wanted to talk about sex and reproduction any more than was absolutely necessary. So I stuck to the minimum “what teens need to know” script. The problem with this action plan was that everyone in my family knew the story of my children’s conception, everyone that is except my children. It had never been a secret, but it started to feel like one. Visions of them learning about their in vitro beginnings from an innocent remark or a tongue loosed by libation began to consume me. I realized my children needed to hear their story from me, to know the love and the longing and yes, the hard work that it took to bring them into this world.

How to tell them became a single grain of worry in my mind, just like an oyster worries a single grain of sand. Eventually, an oyster produces a pearl; I was producing an ulcer. How would my kids react to the news of their embryonic beginnings? Would they feel like I did at sixteen? In the early hours of the morning, I would lie awake and fabricate irrational fear-based scenarios.

Scene 1:  Alone in their room, my oldest son, or my twins, would search IVF on their computers and IVF mix-ups (incredibly rare, but easily found on Google) would be the first pop-up on the screen. Would they question whether I was their “real” mother?

Scene 2: I imagined them feeling lost and confused, like that famous little baby bird that sized up a bulldozer and said, “Are you my mother?” My insides felt like a jellyroll; creamy insecurity wrapped in a layer of vulnerability.

I planned a lunch date with my oldest son after a routine dentist appointment. He was home from college for the summer.  My plan was to tell him his conception story during lunch. I had rehearsed the words and knew it was time.

“I hate going to the dentist,” he said as he slipped his nineteen-year old lean, muscular man self into the passenger seat.

“Everyone hates going to the dentist,” I said.

We were barely out of the driveway when I just blurted out his story, so much for my original plan.

“You know,”‘ I said, “One of the happiest days of my life was the day you were born.”

He smiled and touched my shoulder.

“Aw,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said. “Dad and I had some infertility issues. It actually took us five years to finally conceive you with the help of a lot of Doctors and shots and stuff, IVF stuff.” IVF stuff came out garbled, a bit drunken, like “ivyfshtuff.”  Silence, our eyes focused forward as if the road ahead demanded it. Great job! Now he’s going to think his conception was like the creeping plant that grows up the side of our house I thought.

“So, um, they took out some of my eggs and then took dad’s sperm and injected one sperm into each egg. Lucky us, one little embryo formed in a Petri dish and was put back into my uterus and that was you, our miracle.”

I could have been reciting the recipe for pretzel chicken.

“That’s why Grammy always calls me her miracle baby,” he said as if it was all starting to make sense somehow.

“So what was the problem?” he said.

“We both had problems,” I said. “But the biggest problem was that dad’s sperm just didn’t move, low motility they call it.”

“Oh my God, do I have that?” He recoiled against the car door, both hands protecting his genitals.

“No, you don’t have that”

“Are you sure I’m never gonna have that?”

I thought about my answer.

“Pretty sure,” I said. I am no longer comfortable with the word ‘never’.

We pulled into the parking lot.

“So, um do you have any questions?” I said.

“Nope, I’m good, it’s kind of cool to be a miracle. Love ya mom,” he said as he opened the car door and headed into the dentist.

God I love that kid.  One down.  Two more to go… someday.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut. She is a frequent contributor to brainchildmag.com.

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

By Rachel Pieh Jones

WO Teens Leave Behind ArtMy teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”

A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.

I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.

I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.

Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.

They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.

Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.

The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.

The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.

Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.

Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.

My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.

As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.

They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.

No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.

The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.

Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.

But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.

I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.

Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”

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.

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My Son and Five Strangers

My Son and Five Strangers

By Jamie Johnson

ShadowOne beautiful fall day, when my son Joey was seventeen, we drove through town headed to an appointment we couldn’t miss. As we neared the highway, Joey hesitantly broke the silence. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I knew that tone of voice: it meant he had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. “Is it going to upset me?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, tilting his head to the side, looking right at me.

This didn’t sound like a quick-fix thing. I answered distractedly, “Well, let’s wait until after our appointment. We’re barely on schedule here.”

Joey accepted that for a whole sixty seconds. Then, with a strange, uncomfortable, almost panicky look, he blurted, “No, I don’t think I can wait. I really need to tell you something.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, and waited impatiently.

He tilted his head down, almost as if he was trying to hide from me.

I am sure the look on my face said Okay, if you need to tell me, then out with it. But the moment he said it, I wished he hadn’t.

In a quiet, sort of shy voice he said, “You keep calling me Joey. People have been doing that all afternoon. I take it he is your son? I don’t know who this Joey is, but my name is not Joey.” His face was dead serious.

As I looked at him, my hand came up to my face. My palm rested on my chin, my fingers covered my mouth and nose. “Well…well, who are you then?”

His eyes dropped to his lap and he shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”

My son had been battling depression for months. The withdrawal from our family, the sleeping all the time, the mood swings—had worried me more than I can express. But this…this was like nothing I’d ever heard of before. Had his mental condition become too much to bear and his mind was somehow taking a break? I was grateful he had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression so we had someone to turn to for help.

As it turned out that day in the car was the beginning of the most challenging year of my life. My son spent those months sharing his body with five alternate personalities. It was during those crazy, exhausting days that I learned about DID. Most people know Dissociative Identity Disorder by its former name —Multiple Personality Disorder. What most people don’t know is that it is a defense mechanism used by the brain to protect an individual from trauma. When it appears out of the blue in a teen, it is usually caused by a stressful event that brings back old buried alternate personalities. Those old “alters” come back from the teen’s childhood, where they were formed, usually as a way of mentally surviving repetitive abuse.

They are a coping mechanism and resurface when the teen is faced with anxiety he or she can’t handle—a trigger. I wondered if Joey’s trigger had been a day earlier that summer when he’d come home from school to find our dog, apparently dying, lying in a pool of urine and vomit. He had sat there alone with her, waiting for her to die. That had probably been his trigger. It was awful to think that my son may have suffered something horrifying in his youth and I hadn’t been there for him. Not only had he suffered some type of abuse, but it most likely would have been repetitive for this condition to develop. The personalities form so that the child can escape from the abusive situation.

For months my mind ran through terrible scenarios. What type of abuse had he suffered? Had it been at school, while he was with a babysitter, at a sleep-over, in the playground? God, I wished my brain had an off button.

I learned that there is no medication for DID. The key to his full recovery, without risk of his alternate personalities popping up again some year, unexpectedly, was to find that buried trauma and deal with it. I wanted so badly to help my son. I vowed to do whatever was necessary to find the solution. I would walk away from his hospital room for two full months, (yes he was hospitalized for it) the whole while desperately wanting to bring him home, to get him away from the stress of the other patient’s attempted suicides and assorted mental illnesses. I would give our family history to doctor after doctor. When he was released, I drove him to appointment after appointment. I would put aside the fear of what the ominous “hidden memories” were in order to find them and work past them. I wouldn’t give up.

That is…unless I was forced to.

Giving up had not even crossed my mind.  But after a little over a year of therapy, Joey’s DID specialist cut him loose. She hadn’t found the original cause of his condition—the buried memories of abuse. She said Joey had better control over his other personalities since they were beginning to come together. She had done all she could do for him by coaching him on stress management, he would be fine while she left for a six-month trip abroad.

I was in so much shock I didn’t even think to ask for a referral.

We had been deserted. I thought about looking for a new specialized psychiatrist. But Joey was sick of prying appointments. And really, it wasn’t up to me. Joey was eighteen by then, and it was his life.

I tried to convince myself that not seeing a psychiatrist was for the better. Once uncovered, his memories might be horrendous enough to plague him for the rest of his life. Would that be better than learning to deal with stress to prevent a re-occurrence? Definitely not.

My son never did see another psychiatrist, but today he has only one personality, Joey, and he is studying to become a support worker. I no longer have to worry about what to do with a strange boy that looks like my son, but doesn’t call me Mom. My only worry these days is how many bags of laundry he will be hauling behind him when he heads home from college for the weekend. He has learned to deal with stress and anxiety better. He is a compassionate young man that understands how complicated life can get. His goal—to help people. What more could a mom ask for?

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When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

By Allison Slater Tate

907397_10151321959836493_473111420_n“Have a good day,” I said as my firstborn stumbled out of the minivan door, significantly encumbered by a giant Jansport backpack loaded with textbooks and a lunchbox packed with my own hands. “I love you.”

“I don’t love you,” he answered confidently, each word measured and punctuated by his eyes piercing mine. He slammed my passenger door and stalked off toward his friend awaiting him at the end of the sidewalk at our carpool drop-off, his exit less dramatic than he wished due to the way he had to shift his own 90 pounds of body weight to hoist his ridiculous backpack.

I watched his back for a few moments. I saw his friend glance furtively in my direction as he exchanged a few words with my angry son. Finally, I set the car in motion and drove away, down the street, so that we could both start our days without each other. The subject of our disagreement was nothing special; the problem is that these small, tedious disagreements happen almost daily, and they wear on both of us.

This is how our story goes these days. When he was little—when all of them were little—I found myself frustrated and sad because being The Mommy was not very fun most of the time. Once we left their infancies and entered their toddlerhoods and beyond, I felt even less like I was on the same team as my children. I was the bummer, the fun sponge—the one who had to enforce the bedtime, end whatever dangerous activity was occurring that moment, or announce the next transition that would frustrate them. I tried hard to provide discipline and guide them without being their adversary, but in the end, it’s too often Them vs. Me. I am their primary caregiver and the parent most often on duty. And, frankly, it can suck. It makes me feel hard to love.

But it sucks in a whole new way with my tween. I’ve been told these middle school years can be harder than the high school years in some ways, and I am hanging on to that thought—that if I can just eke through these next few seasons of not-awesomeness, it might get better, or at least smoother, afterward. Then I get to do it all over again. (And again. Oh, and again, because I thought once that four kids would be a grand adventure. Woo-hoo! Adventure!)

In the meantime, I have the privilege of being the one to drag my firstborn out of bed in the morning, all the while struggling to remember days when he woke me up way too early almost as if for sport. I have to usher him, however reluctantly, through the morning routine and make sure he gets to school on time. I have to receive him in the late afternoon when he is tired and cranky after a long day in the jungle of middle school. Then the real fun begins: the constant dance of do-your-homework/is-your-homework-finished/I-told-you-to-do-your-homework, with him pulling and resisting the entire time, desperate for just a little more time to play, to decompress, to resist thinking. The truth is, I don’t really blame him. That makes it even less fun to be The Mom, the Enforcer, Buzzkill-in-Chief. I’m on his side, and I can’t even tell him so, because I’m not ready to take on the whole school system and the way it doles out homework.

We still have our moments, and I hang onto them with both hands: when a new book arrives that I ordered without telling him, and he eagerly scoops it up and begins reading it immediately with a genuine, “Thanks, Mom!”; when he comes back to my room a second time before bed because he “forgot to give me a hug,” even on the days that started out with a door slamming and icy words; when my husband is away on business and I let him stay up with me, his nose deep in a book while I finish working on my laptop in my big white bed. He’s fun to be with when our internal agendas align, and I want so desperately to be able to enjoy him more and nag him less. We’re just not always there yet.

He is my firstborn. There is no one in the world that holds his unique place in my life. He is the boy who made me a mother, the boy who has challenged me unlike anyone else. He knows exactly which buttons to push; he knows the nuances and personalities of our little family better than I do. He is still my heart every bit as much as he was the first day we brought him home from the hospital. But sometimes, in hormone-filled (me), puberty-rich (him) moments, when his assertions of independence and will meet my obligatory parental push-back, he doesn’t love me. I have to be okay with that, and I will be, as long as I have hope he will always come home at the end of the day loving me again.

So far, he has.

Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook and Twitter. She hopes her writing will make up for a lack of completed baby books when her kids grow up. 

Visiting My Teenage Daughter in the Psychiatric Ward

Visiting My Teenage Daughter in the Psychiatric Ward

By Susan Dickman

CorridorThe door clicks open, and I begin the familiar drill: sign in, deposit coat and bag in a room which the attendant will lock behind me. I follow the small herd of parents shuffling down the hallway to the common room, where the residents will enter from a separate door. Within moments we meet in all our awkward embraces and hellos.

A smile plays on my daughter’s face when she spots me, but I know better than to hug her. She allows me to deliver a brief kiss to the forehead, and then we settle into chairs, trying to knit together a conversation from stray and tangled comments. What she ate for lunch. The winter storm that is brewing. The latest antics the cat has been up to. All normal conversation for the adolescent psych ward, where we are all in collusion, pretending that to be there is to be utterly normal.

My daughter’s hair is greasy, and she has been wearing the same black corduroys for days. Yet she still can, at this point, pass for your average fifteen-year-old teenager. Or are they all this much at-risk, ready to drop off the edges of their fragile little worlds?

After a few minutes of conversation that dribbles off into nowhere, I suggest a game. Scrabble is something solid to land on, with its wooden alphabet letters perched on wooden benches, with its highly detailed rules and mathematically designed board.

It is her third stay in the ward, not counting the out-patient program at another hospital last year, when everything came to a crisis point in February. She has the idea she is in because she became suicidal; her father and I thought it was because she refused to go to school, and then threatened suicide when he took away the television remotes. Our daughter sincerely believes her own story. This is not the first time the phrase “distorted thinking” has appeared in my head. It will take her father and me a few days to realize that, to her way of thinking, there was a real connection between no television and suicide, that even getting to this psychic place of what could have remained a teenage tantrum spelled death for her, because her mind works like lightning and moves from thought to thought without weighing any of them. Suddenly, without knowing how or why, she is in fight or flight, cannot evaluate clearly what is a threat and what is not, and then all is lost. Or she believes it is. And because she has been in this place—the hospital, this way of thinking and reacting—she assumes she will be there again. And she does, and she is.

 

***

The other families are playing Scrabble or cards, fooseball or talking in soft voices over meals they have brought in and have had a staff member check. For what? I’m never quite certain. The room hums with the steady sound of people trying to relate to one another. Once in a while during a visit a resident will suddenly raise a voice in anger or pain, and a staff member will intervene with a gentle directive for the resident to leave the common room. It is jarring when a visit ends abruptly—a raised voice, a threatening tone, pathologies playing out in the genteel atmosphere of the visitors’ hours.

Sometimes I look around me and spot my wish-list mother-daughter duo. They’re playing Boggle and laughing, whispering jokes and secrets to one another. The mother rubs the daughter’s back and embraces her in a long, loving hug. Hugs don’t come naturally to my daughter; she does not like being touched. Sometimes I can administer one gently, as long as I ask, but they are rarely, if ever, exchanged. When she was a very young child she must have parroted back the “I love you” of a toddler, but I don’t remember.

The day after she arrived, the weekend psychiatrist asked a battery of questions. “Diagnosis?” “Take your pick,” I tell her. “Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Mood Dysregulation, Bipolar II.” I save that one for last; no one really wants to say that label, even the softer II designation. “Perhaps with a touch of Asperger’s,” I continue, repeating the words of the weekday shrink who has worked with us during the other visits, though I am not certain whether I believe these last two.  “And an as-yet undiagnosed Processing Disorder thrown in as well.” The professionals, and we are ensconced in a team of good ones, are not necessarily eager to diagnose. The teenage brain is plastic, they tell me: growing, fluid, highly at-risk and yet able to bounce back, morph and change. Still, when pressed, the outside-the-hospital shrink will admit to characterizing my daughter as bipolar, even while cautioning against labels, which she says can change. Me, I love labels by this point: they inform, guide, direct. It’s just hard to utter them for fear of people’s reactions.

“She’s bipolar,” I want to tell the people in our lives. “And she is also her own beautiful self: bright, artistic, talented, funny, and fun to be around when not raging.”

Still, I want to know this: Where is she? She was a stunningly gorgeous and artistic child with the ability to walk into a room and suss out every minor social nuance occurring. She drew whimsical pictures of creatures pulled from her vivid imagination. Intensely musical, she arrived in this world with perfect pitch and the ability to play, by ear and with two hands on piano, anything she heard. She still plays, sings, composes, writes screenplays, stories, film treatments, and graphic novels, though completes nothing.  Always a bookworm, she has barely read anything in two years. There is static in her head; her emotional life takes up most of the grey matter. Where did she go?

We thought we were guiding her. We enrolled her in art classes, music classes; she played soccer and joined an area choir. The house was littered with her sketchbooks and drawings, her stories and comics. She went from violin to guitar and began composing her own songs.

The academic side of school never impressed her much, though she is bright, the kind of student who drove teachers crazy because they knew she could do better work if she tried. With a high-achieving older brother, we didn’t want to pressure her, and figured she would find her own path in school. But something held her up, and her mind began to appear less and less organized. Differently organized. Something began to seem wrong.

How did this happen? I want to know. My daughter was a planned pregnancy, a hoped-for child. I ate well prenatally, was happily married, and gave birth to her at home after a rather brief and normal labor. I breastfed and stayed home with all three children, working part-time for years. The house was filled with books and music. I fed them organic food and baked my own bread. We sat down to dinner as a family every night and didn’t watch television or spend much time at the computer.

Of course, her father and I hadn’t planned on divorce. And so I think about what might have been red flags way back when. At age five, upset by something minor, she explained away her extreme behavior by claiming she was an artist. I remember her anxiety at day camp, and the time she threw a block so hard it broke a window. I think about the blank fuck-you stare she gave the camera in so many photographs, the subversive humor, and the strangely quirky drawings she did even as a young child. I think about my parents’ decades of depression and my father’s inexplicable rages, my brother’s drug use and brother-in-law’s behavior problems at school. I consider my own struggles with depression and mood swings, wonder if I might have been diagnosed bipolar at some point. Except that I wasn’t, and instead, although it took me well into my forties, joke about being a poster-child for therapy and anti-depressants used at the right time. As a child I did not rage publicly or refuse school. I didn’t push boundaries and move into the realm of special education. I was too afraid to assert myself to that degree. I was an unhappy and anxious child, but apparently not to the extent that my daughter is.  But now I am talking about myself, not her. And this is her path, her story, her life, and her illness is not my doing. And still I am defensive.

***

I had taken the highway up to the hospital, and Green Bay Road, which meanders through Wisconsin, back down. The snowy roads pull me past picturesque streets along winding ravines. The last time she was in the hospital, in summer, a statuesque buck suddenly bounded out of the surrounding scrim of woods at dusk, standing for a moment in the crosswalk of the quiet moneyed suburbs of the north shore. Now, crows wind in circles toward the frozen lake. Houses are dusted with new snow, and arctic temperatures are expected by nightfall. The winds have picked up to 40 miles an hour. But my daughter is safe and warm inside the adolescent psych ward.

And the truth of the matter is, my daughter is journeying into another landscape. We can only skirt the edges of the territory she has begun to traverse; we cannot go there with her. We can love and support and do our best to guide her, take her to appointments, try to keep her healthy, and continue working on being the parents she needs and not the ones she simply got. But we have to watch her walk out into this strange and troubled land without us, until she is ready—one day we hope she will be—to walk back to us, whole.

The evening she returns home she picks up her guitar and begins singing a tune she wrote with another repeat resident. Her sweet voice is full of light and mirth as she sings lyrics about the foibles of her sojourn in the psych ward. Like she did the last time she ended up there, she steadfastly refuses to cut-off her hospital bracelets. She is certain they will act as a charm against another stay.

Susan Dickman has most recently published work in Best of the Best American Poetry, Lilith, and Intellectual Refuge, and is the recipient of three Illinois Arts Council awards, as well as a Pushcart nomination.

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When My Teen Needs a Ride

When My Teen Needs a Ride

 

My boy and Alisa, the new City Councilor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birch Whisperer

Birch Whisperer

By Debbie Hagan

iStock_000027977692SmallAbove the black pines, above the rock crags, above the frozen streams I soar.  Eyes shut, I am armless, legless, bodiless, weightless—a spirit cut loose, suspended over treetops. My nostrils fill with the sparkles of mountain air, and miraculously this lifts me so I’m floating higher and higher to a sunnier, more joyful place.

A sharp jerk and I awaken to realize I’m in a chairlift scaling the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain—ascending 1,400 feet. From a small cable, I dangle with my fifteen-year-old son who wonders why we’ve stopped. A pile-up on the off-ramp? A ski patroller loading a gurney? A mechanical failure? I look to the tiny cable that holds our enormous weight, and I think it’ll start in a minute. It always does.

I look to my son. Icicles dangle from his blonde chin hairs. He’s strangely stiff, his ski gloves iced to the restraining bar. I consider poking him just to be sure he’s okay. Then fog rises behind his goggles, and I know at least he’s breathing.

“Are you having a good time?” I ask.

I listen for that Mickey Mouse-high, ever-chipper voice that used to beg me for one more ryn.

He grunts, and his frozen face expresses what his lips can’t seem to say, Yeah right, Mom, I’m lovin’ this—freezing my ass off, sitting in a God-damn metal chair blown about by a Nor’easter.

Two more runs, I tell myself. Then I’ll let him go back to the condo, play his video games—whatever makes him happy. I just want this to be fun.

Then my heart sinks. I see poking out of his left ski glove, his hospital wristband, the one he wore four days ago in the psych ward.  I try to think of something happy, like the time we raced down the slope to see who would end up in the lodge first. We’d hockey-stopped almost simultaneously, defrosted over mugs of chocolate, and then laughed at our whipped cream mustaches. It was fun, wasn’t it?

Now I take my fingers from my gloves, roll them into fists, and think, Oh God, when will this chair ever start?  I can’t stand this endlessly waiting. Finally, I explode, “I see you’re still wearing your hospital bracelet.”

Instantly I want to take this back.

Connor stares at me.

I expect a snide remark, but he just lifts his shoulder. “I don’t know why I wear it. My name’s worn off.”

“Oh.”

Minutes drag by. More silence, more waiting. We dangle as I stare at the ground—at least 100 feet below. So close, but so far.

“How long are we going to be stopped?” Connor asks as if he thinks I have a hotline to the lift tower: Let’s see, one minute, thirty-two seconds.

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, or even within the next thirty seconds. I hope. I wait. I guess. But nothing is certain. There’s nothing to do, but sit here in the cold and wait.

Suddenly the chair lurches, and we’re moving—skimming above trails cut by skiers and rabbits whose prints crisscross as if they can’t decide where to run.

Another minute passes, and I see the off-ramp—and I feel confident, just fifteen seconds and we’ll be free. I push up the restraining bar, which groans as it hits the back of the chair and gives us a good shake. I organize my poles, straighten my skis, and imagine us turning around the bend, sailing down the ridge, flying in the face of all our worries, letting them blow right over us.

But the chair stops again. We bob up and down. I grab the side. There’s fifty-foot drop in front of us.

My eyes shoot to my son.

He doesn’t appear scared in the least. In fact, he looks as if he’s caught up in a dream, staring down at the gnarled birch branches. I follow his gaze. The dark, wind-twisted limbs look like devil fingers curling towards us, coaxing us down.

Connor leans slightly forward, and then cocks his head as if he’s trying to hear them whisper.

He asks, “Do you think I’d be hurt if I jumped?”

Debbie Hagan is a freelance writer with more than 500 published articles and columns, she is also a Manuscript Consultant at Grub Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

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My Adolescent Life

My Adolescent Life

By Candy Schulman

Adolescent Life ArtThis is how it feels to be the mother of a thirteen-year-old: every time we share a special moment together, I worry it’s the last one.  I’ve read Reviving Ophelia and commiserated with friends who have already endured tumultuous times with their teenage daughters. I can still vividly remember my own adolescence. The lies I kept from my mother…the make-up I bought with money stolen from her purse…the fury I felt toward her old-fashioned, restrictive ways…the acute embarrassment she could cause merely by just showing up in front of my friends…the fights we had—over everything: hemlines, homework, household chores, curfews, career aspirations.  I had my own secret life, albeit tame by today’s standards.  I told my mother almost nothing.  We were strangers by the time I was thirteen.

Today’s parents escort their children everywhere until almost driving age, it seems.  I was a latchkey kid making my own lunch at the age of eight. At thirteen, my daughter still has difficulty “unzipping” a banana. Our generation of parents will undoubtedly be analyzed, maybe even criticized, for micromanaging our children’s lives.  Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere meaning “to grow up,” no longer ends in late teens. New terms like “boomerang kids” and “emerging adulthood” have been created to define twentysomethings. Our kids move back home.  The cell phone, some claim, is the longest umbilical cord ever invented.

I began to let go of my daughter when she was three weeks old, nursing her and quickly handing her over to a babysitter, running out to teach my class and be home before her next feeding time. I let go of her when she was twelve, reluctantly allowing her to walk eight blocks to school with friends.  I have never punished or hit her, and sometimes remind her, when she’s sassy, that I had my mouth washed out with soap for far less offensive behavior.  Her greatest restriction is that I don’t allow TV on school nights and I limit her access to the Internet.  She has been allowed to make many decisions for such a young girl, whereas I was always told what to do (and more often, what not to do).  When I came home from school the day we selected instruments for seventh grade orchestra, my mother was horrified that I’d picked drums.  “We have a clarinet and a saxophone in this house, and you’ll choose one of those,” she commanded.  I hated clarinet and gave it up after a year.  Today if a child wants to play the drums, her parents would not only rush out to buy a set and welcome the noisy practice, but likely to take her for lessons at a specialty African drumming school.

We want to be our children’s “friend,” yet we can’t really be.  We have to say “no” and let our children separate from us—even rebel.  I “shadowed” Amy on the first day she walked to school, watching her from across the street.  One year later I still worry whenever she forges somewhere new on her own.  My mother used to say, “Come back for dinner” when we left to go who-knows-where?

It’s a different world today, but from the moment I learned from amniocentesis results that Amy was a girl, I tried to prepare myself for the time when she would reject me, even momentarily hate me.  Some of her peers have already started.  Every time I think Amy’s going to shut me out (there’s a DO NOT DISTURB sign on her door but she still leaves the door open), she lets me visit a little while longer.  I cherish the reprieve, knowing it’s temporary, believing I may have just a tiny bit of time left.

And I try to avoid tears when I call her on a Friday at school dismissal time, suggesting she meet me at a store where I’ve found a pair of jeans she’s been yearning for, and she brusquely barks into the cell phone I bought her: “I’m with my friends! Can’t talk to you now. We’re going for ice cream together.”  I stroll home through the park on a lovely spring afternoon, alone, the way I once enjoyed my private time before I had a daughter.  This is my new life, but I’m already grieving for the mother/daughter life I’ve left behind.  I sit in the park and listen to a folk singer’s free concert.  Who am I?  Where am I?  Where is Amy?

We go to Florida a few months after Amy’s thirteenth birthday, just the two of us.  My 89-year-old mother is ailing, and I take Amy to see her.  We used to stay in my mom’s apartment but now her live-in caretaker sleeps in the den where we used to camp out on vacations.  I book a hotel on the beach, and Amy thinks it’s cool to have beachfront breakfasts watching a line of lifeguards swim a half mile straight out into the ocean and back before taking their posts for the day.  We spend mornings visiting with Grandma, and have some time for ourselves on the beach as well.

We rent bicycles built for two, giggling as we try to steer straight on the boardwalk.  Become lost in long books under umbrellas staked in the sand.  We take nightly walks in the moonlight, avoiding the kissing couples we pass on the beach.  Amy shows off her seventh grade earth science knowledge, identifying the phase of the moon while she savors a chocolate ice cream cone.  We sit in the sand close to the shore and watch the waves break.

“You know,” Amy says, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, like you, because I look up to you.”

“You do?” I say, surprised at my surprise.  I know she admires me, but lately she expresses embarrassment or distaste for my clothing, my fears, my singing, my mere presence.

“Of course I look up to you,” she says.  “You’re amazing.”

“In what way?”

“You’re kind to people.  The way you take care of Grandma.  The way you help your students.  Even strangers on the street.”

“That’s so nice to hear.”

She looks me straight in the eye.  “Mom,” she says, “when you take a sip of water, I take a sip.”

Joyously I try to hold onto her words as long as possible.  She bites into her chocolate sugar cone.  If this is our last tranquil moment together, then it is a great one.  We stroll back to our hotel, holding hands in the dark.  Amy takes the ice bucket down the hall to fill it up. We’re both very thirsty.

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

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A Ride of Our Own

A Ride of Our Own

By Aaron E. Black

BT Art  A ride of One's Own“But you promised!” I stare up at the huge twisted sculpture of engineering ingenuity, vaguely wishing my son Adam was talking to somebody else. He loves roller coasters. I mean, LOVES them. He spouts off roller coaster statistics like Phil Rizzuto talked baseball.

This one goes so fast, is so tall, has so many loops, and won this or that award. Adam is 13-years-old today. For his birthday present, we drove several hundred miles to this large, Midwestern amusement park. And now here we are, just the two of us with hot asphalt, bird shit, sunscreen, adolescent screams, steamy thick air, damp money, the smell of fried food, and metal. Lots and lots of metal.

Yes, I promised.

I understand the roller coaster’s appeal, intellectually at least. It creates an illusion of risk taking, with a curious blend of fear and excitement. While I see the attraction, I’ve never really appreciated the roller coaster as a metaphor. It’s true that, like a roller coaster, life has its “ups” and “downs” (though Buddhists have something cautionary to say about that) but this is a superficial likeness at best. The roller coaster, unlike life, is controlled and predict- able; it delivers to the rider a sense of unearned bravery. Once strapped into the seat, the machine takes over. There are no choices to be made. No ambiguities to interpret. What could be less lifelike? Some people try to live this way, I suppose. Passively. For me, passivity is irritating and boring. I guess I prefer a personally determined narrative.

“Okay,” I reply, and immediately Adam makes for the entrance, with its long, creeping line of anxious, overheated riders.

As my body moves to follow, I have thoughts about the potential physical effects of the ride. I wonder if I will feel sick to my stomach. Could I pass out? Did I remember to take my blood pressure medication? How pathetic is it that I am even wondering about such things? Will Adam think less of me if I’m physically unable to handle the ride? He seems totally fine with the ride, trusting the adults who built it. But I know better. Is this a turning point in our relationship, where my age starts to yield to the growing strength of his youth?

As we wait, a unique, frustrating monotony sets in. The whooshing sounds of the car on the tracks, coupled with the rider’s screams, the pulsating heat rising from the asphalt, and the chronic desire for water, all give me the feeling of participating in some strange athletic event where the only victory is endurance itself. We are just standing, after all. Yet anxious anticipation in this sort of hyper-organized way leaves me depleted, craving shade, and fantasizing about soap and water. And air conditioning. Periodically, Adam and I compete for my cell phone. I’m looking for email, news, weather, pretty much anything to distract me from my worries. He plays games. I suspect he is doing the same thing.

“Can you believe we are going to do this?” he asks.

“No, I can’t believe it. Are you sure you still want to?” I respond, hoping that this is not a rhetorical question.

“Daaaaaaaaad,” he replies with a roll of his eyes.

When he was a few years younger, I could count on him to profess interest in a roller coaster only to bail out at the last minute when confronted with the reality of actually riding it. That was perfect. I could provide an emphatic, unambiguous “YES!” to his request, knowing a reprieve would soon follow. I’d even help him find a face-saving way to back outthe wait was too long, it was time to go home, we should go eat something. Not anymore. His desires have gathered weight and direction, a trajectory, located in time and space, not just in his mind. Whereas in the past, I heard his expressions of want almost as questions more than statements, now there was clarity and certainty. Confidence even. He seems to have a firmer grip on what he wants because he is starting to know more about who, exactly, is doing the wanting. His self-possession highlights what I have always known, and sought to deny: He belongs to himself. Not to me. He never really belonged to me.

Maybe being his father is just a step in a long process of custodial relation- ships he will experience. First, parent. Then, babysitter. Grandparent. Teacher. Coach. Academic advisor. Professor. Girlfriend. Mentor. Boss. Parole officer (God forbid). Spouse. Therapist. Perhaps another spouse. In each instance, a person will have a kind of responsibility for and to him, and like me, will never possess him. If it is true that I am no more “molding” him than one “wills” the sun to rise, then is it my duty simply to teach him how to be a pliable, if not gratifying, ward of these future custodians? To help him learn how to cooperate with people who have something valuable to offer, who can help him along the way, and to teach him how to reciprocateso that one day, when he himself is the custodian, he will know what to do?

I see that the line is closing in on the area where passengers board.

“Dad, do ya want to wait longer so we can get into the front row?” he says, his excitement palpable.

“Sure,” I respond. “We’ve waited this long, right? What are a few more minutes to get the front row?”

We are now finally in the shade near the track itself. I watch people shifting back and forth, some sitting on the railing, as they wait their turn.

“Are you nervous?” he whispers. “Yes,” I reply.

“Me too,” he says, and adds, “But I bet it is going to be awesome!”

I smile. “I’m sure you are right.” I wrap my sweaty arm around his neck.

We used to joke, when he was younger, that whatever occupied his mind would soon be coming out of his mouth. It was as if he had no private emotional world. Remarkably, he didn’t start talking until just after his second birthday. Well, that’s not exactly true. From about 16 months to his second birthday, he invariably responded the same way to the following question: “Adam, what’s your name?” “Elmo,” he would reply. It wasn’t clear if he was joking. No amount of cajoling could get him to say his real name. Elmo was his only response, his only word, for a long time. Soon after he turned two, the words started coming faster and faster, until he was about the most talkative child I had ever met. He would tell me absolutely everything. What he did on the bus. Who said what to whom at school. Which professional football team he was planning to play for someday. He offered opinions about movies, dinner, and the book he was reading. Not so anymore.

Without my even knowing it, a barrier had been erected, some psychological curtain had been drawn. In the last year, Adam’s internal life had become more difficult to know, as if he was claiming himself for himself. Now, there are mysterious, unfamiliar rules about how I gain access to this private place. Simply asking questions doesn’t work anymore. I remember once, when he was little, like three or four, he climbed into bed with us at 3:00 a.m. during a thunderstorm. As always, despite the hour, he was interested in talking. He told me he was scared of thunder and lightning, but that he wasn’t frightened anymore, being in our bed, head resting on my shoulder. I asked why he wasn’t afraid, and he said, “cause you make the thunder go away, Daddy.” That was the kind of access and influence I used to have. I could make thunder go away, even as it boomed all around us. Back then, I had magical powers. Now, I ask about what happened in school, and he says, “You know, nothing special.” No, I don’t know. In helping me “not know,” he creates a space apart from me. Sometimes our separateness feels like sitting outside a medieval castle with 100 foot high stone walls and a moat. I am his magician no longer.

Finally, more than an hour after we entered the queue, we’re up. I watch him in front of me, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet in anticipation. He cracks his knuckles.

As the tram pulls in, he turns and says, “Dad, you really might want to hold onto your sunglasses . . . .”

“It will be okay,” I say, as we step into the front of a series of connected cars, each containing four riders.

We will be in the front two seats. At his request, I go in first. The seat fits a human body exactly, like a perfectly tailored suit. A metal bar with an attached seat belt has to be pulled over my lap. As I attach the bar, I notice that I have to insert the seat belt into a locking mechanism. I panic momentarily as I struggle to get the belt to click into place. It seems too short. Or am I too big? Either way, visibly struggling is not the sort of attention I am seeking at the moment. After applying extra pres- sure, the belt snaps into place. Now, free to look around, I see the woman in the control booth. She determines when each tram begins to ascend the first, very high mountain of steel. What is she, like 18 years old at best? The other attendants appear even younger than that. I am literally placing my life into the hands of a bunch of teenagers. Excellent. Just what I was hoping for.

There is a pause of a minute or so as the attendants check and re-check to see that the riders are secured in place. “Riders ready? Okay, then. Have a great ride!” the woman in the control booth shouts into the sound system. I love that she says this. The ride is exactly the same every time, of course, but she invites the rider to consider that he might have something to do with whether or not the ride is “great” or something less than great. Right now, I’m thinking my ride will be less than great, given the sweat breaking through my T-shirt, the tension in my stomach, and my recollections of an article on the effects of terminal velocity on the human brain. Whatever I am feeling, we are now clearly going to go. The deliberations are over. We are here.

Then Adam looks over at me, his enormous brown eyes opened wide, as if inviting my mind to be more open too. He slips his left hand into mine. I notice that his hand is nearly as large as my own. Thirteen years ago, I remember holding him, wrapped in that blue and white blanket hospitals favor. His mother required extra medical attention after his birth. There was blood on the floor. The nurses let me hold him first. He was so attentive. No crying. He just stared at me, directly and purposely. I slipped my pinky into his hand, this same hand, and his fingers barely curled all the way around. His grip was strong. I talked to him about how happy I was to meet him and how I thought that the University of Michigan would make an excellent college choice. That made the nurses laugh. I wonder if the anxiety I felt then was anything like the anxiety I feel now. As I recall standing, holding him in the delivery room, I think about my initial worries about becoming a father. By the time the nurse took him and handed him to his exhausted mother, I felt this sort of inner calm settle in. “I got this,” some part of me seemed to say. And when it comes to him, that feeling never really left. I am by no means a flawless parent. But in the most important ways, that feeling of long ago was right: I got this.

We’re moving now, slowly at first. Directly ahead is the moving chain that will drag our car up to a peak, he tells me, of 390 feet. Then we will travel, literally, straight down, reaching 90 mph, and into the first loop. That is taller than a foot- ball field is long. I feel his hand grip mine with greater force. I squeeze back. The ride sits alongside a beautiful, large lake to my left. A short distance from us, I see what appears to be a father and son fishing, their boat bobbing gently on the greenish water. Maybe I should have encouraged Boy Scouts? Then, he and I could be fishing and talking and fishing some more. A quiet lunch floating on the water doing manly things with my son. That sounds MUCH better than this. As we ascend, the most soothing thought I have is – there’s nothing to do now – just go with it. As the car reaches the arch, Adam pulls away his hand suddenly, knowing that it is better to grasp the safety bar in front of him than it is to hold onto me.

When we let go of each other I realize that we won’t really have this ride together. The woman in the control booth was right. He will have his ride, and I will have mine, sitting side-by-side. Everything technically will be the same for both of us, certainly, but we will each have the ride that we have. No matter how much I love him. No matter that I would give my life for his. There is nothing I can do to help him, to alter or change him, to “fix it” if he has a problem. If his seat belt fails. If the car leaves the track. There is nothing I can do. At all. I am completely helpless in this moment when it comes to him. When it comes to nearly everything actually. I can hold onto my sunglasses. That I can do. And I can grab the safety bar. My ride will be my ride. His ride will be his ride.

The whole thing takes about 120 seconds. It’s remarkable. The initial drop hurtles completely straight down at the ground below. Being in the first car gives us a particularly intense feeling that we are about to kiss concrete at a very high rate of speed. But we don’t. The feeling of falling, of being suspended like an astronaut in zero gravity, is exhilarating. After the first loop, I get those black dots in front of my eyes, but it lasts only a few seconds and then they disappear like the sea gulls circling the track overhead. The rest of the ride is brilliant. It ends with a long, sideways loop to the right, before settling down on magnetic brakes just before the passenger loading area.

I hear his laughter before I see his face.

“THAT! WAS! AWESOME!!!” he keeps shouting.

He is giggling and rocking back and forth, just like the toddler that I would lift and pretend to drop, only to slow his fall almost immediately. Uncontrolled, unselfconscious, piercing joy. Over and over again we would do this, until my arms hurt. I turn and take in his radiant, flushed face. I see that the bangs of his hair have been blown skyward by the rushing air, like some kind, powerful hand was caressing his forehead for the last two minutes.

As we climb out of the tram, I rethink my criticism of the roller coaster metaphor. I was wrong. It’s perfect actually. The ride with Adam represents what is unpredictable; it captures the joy, fear, and helplessness of being his father. Riding next to this boy whom I love so much, reminds me that the only thing I can do is be by his side. That’s it. Everything else is merely wishful thinking. I can just be with him. I hope he feels that I am.

As we make our way down the long, meandering exit ramp, he says over his shoulder, “Dad, can we please do that again? The line looks a lot shorter now.”

I stare skeptically at the completely filled maze in which we were just standing for what seemed like for- ever. The line starts at least 30 yards beyond where we entered the last time. Incredibly, the day has become even hotter and muggier.

“Absolutely,” I say. “Absolutely.”

Author’s Note: Being an attentive parent sometimes means engaging in a noxious activity just to be with your child. But to really “be” with your child, you have to find a way to enjoy it with them. This story evolved from my attempt to find the beauty in the relation- ship with my son, while doing something that I find anything but beautiful.

Aaron Black, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice. His work as a psychotherapist is rooted in the attachment theory, which holds that emotional contact with others is the building block for all human development. He has published numerous professional articles; however, this is his first published essay. He lives in Pittsford, New York with his wife Lara, and sons Adam and Noah.

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The Day He Flew Away

The Day He Flew Away

By Frances C. Hansen

He Flew away artI drove endless miles down the New York State Thruway that Tuesday. Gray concrete roads and overcast skies created the perfect backdrop for my melancholy mood. The honking geese going south resounded loudly. In steady formation they left their places behind the swampy reeds and took flight, leaving me behind on the chilly fall afternoon.

That day, Election Day 2002, my baby was flying south in the same sky with the geese. He was headed for recruit training for the U.S. Marine Corps. I was going home to my empty house, feeling like I was headed to a massive black hole.

The day actually had begun eight months prior when my son announced his desire to join the Marines. After interrogating the recruiters for four hours at my dining room table, I consented to my 17-year-old son choosing this path for his life. Through the following months I pleaded with him not to go and offered alternatives to try and change his mind. I pleaded with God too. No use. My son’s mind was made up.  I told him things his dad never got the chance to tell him. My husband had passed away three years prior. He was an Army medic in Vietnam.

Days arrogantly flew by. My youngest child would soon disappear to a place called Parris Island. I would not see him for his 18th birthday or any special holidays. I couldn’t send him cookies. I was told that sending a birthday card would lead to a “celebration” requiring at least one extra round of push-ups and humiliation from the drill instructor. Prior to his leaving, I became a fanatic camerawoman taping my son coming and going.

On the night of November 4th the moment came. I hugged him quickly. He kissed me on the cheek, picked up his bag, and walked off into a new world.  A half hour later I regained my composure, locked the doors and shuffled off to Buffalo where I would see him get sworn in the next day.

The swearing in was on the 10th floor of the federal building. Blue chairs, lined up like soldiers, faced the television as it blasted the news: “War with Iraq.”  During the ceremony they called my son’s name and I followed with my camera into a red-carpeted room with flags of all services lined up on the podium.

After the swearing in, I tailed my son’s taxi to the airport and cursed the day the terrorists prevented moms from escorting their sons to the gate. I hugged him tight and watched until he was out of sight. Then I ran into the ladies’ room and cried.

Driving back home from the airport, I anticipated the childless house. Feeling like a lost little girl in a forty-eight year old woman’s body, I made several trips into my children’s rooms then fell into a lump on the couch.

Hours later, leaving the hall light on, I retreated to my room and closed my eyes. My son was not there to tell him to lower the TV volume so I could sleep. There was no pile of dirty dishes to complain about and no one to complain to.

In the years to follow, my son was deployed four times. He called me about a week after he got to Camp Pendleton and told me he was getting deployed to Iraq. Three more deployments followed. The first three were to Iraq and the last to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. While deployed, he was meritoriously promoted to Sergeant and received the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal. How proud I am. And how glad that I transformed into a supportive mother instead of the one who originally fought to change his path in life.

Frances C. Hansen has been a freelance writer for fifteen years. She also has experience in the art of digital storytelling. She holds a BS degree in Nursing and an AOS degree in Graphic Design. Her writings appear in several print and online sites. She also has contributed a chapter of her fiction work, “Coronado,” in the anthology, “New Voices.” Some of her articles can be seen at pagekeeper1.com.

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Square Pride

Square Pride

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

Square Pride ArtMy neighbors’ teenage daughter thinks I am square just because I have never heard of her favorite TV show, The O.C. And, okay, I may have said something about her beautiful, backless prom dress. Something like, “I never could have worn a dress that revealing in 1982.” (We were wearing floral print dresses that looked as if they came off the set of Little House on the Prairie.) She just smiled politely, but I knew what she was thinking.

All right, all right, so I’m square! Big deal. I grew up square; to deny my squareness would be to deny my cultural heritage. In my twenties, I’ll admit, I drove some big, fun circles around my squareness, in my second-hand Nissan Sentra wagon. Now I’m married with two children, and not only am I nouveau-square, but lately I’ve begun to feel Square Pride.

I realize this may be hard to believe, especially for all those who remember the annoying, stupid, or downright humiliating things their own square parents did to them. Like having to wear a snowsuit until you were in fifth grade that went swish-swish-swish when you walked and plastic bread bags in your boots to help them slip on and off more easily.

My parents did that stuff, and more. They have four certifiable ninety-degree angles apiece. My father, for example, sings show tunes in the car, and not just when he’s alone. A favorite game of my brothers and mine in our adolescence was to tell my father the title of a current song—for example, “Our House” by Madness—and let him butcher the lyrics for us. Our house / in the middle of our street became, Our house / in the middle of the road / where cars and trucks will hit it. / Our house is in the street / not the sidewalk, not the lawn. My father also has the squarest occupation in the world. He’s a Protestant minister, which made me hopelessly and irreparably square by association. My mother, a retired elementary reading teacher (note the second-squarest profession), didn’t teach me how to apply makeup because she hardly wears it herself. She sewed matching outfits for us when we were kids. I distinctly remember her wearing a swimming cap with a chin strap and big, floppy rubber flowers glued to it.

My parents, because they were square, never let me go to PG-rated movies, wouldn’t buy me the Grease album (too risqué, and Barry Manilow wasn’t much better, singing about “making love”), wouldn’t indulge my passionate desire for designer jeans because fashion is pretty much meaningless, and made me go to bed halfway through The Waltons because bedtime was bedtime. My parents drive at or below the speed limit, barely know the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay, never swear in front of us (even though we’re all in our thirties now), and, although they were only in their twenties when the Beatles showed up, were among those who thought they needed haircuts.

My parents have also been married for forty-three years, and every full-blown argument I call recall happening in our house was between us kids and them, never between the two of them. They can hold an intelligent and interesting conversation on a wide range of subjects—politics, religion, history, literature, education. They live in Woodstock, New York, which is about the least square place you can live in this country. They both distinguished themselves in their careers as people whom others came to respect and admire for their intelligence, courage, patience, and selflessness. And they raised three children who look forward to visiting them.

All this is not to say that growing up with square parents was easy. Despite the little annoyances, life was great in elementary school, but throughout junior high and high school I found myself in an often unbearable position. I was mortified by my parents’ squareness, yet, at the same time, appalled by the ridiculous things my classmates did simply because everyone else was doing them—a reaction which, of course, came from having been raised square. So it’s no surprise that going away to college felt like being launched into the beautiful, wide-open sky, where no one knew a thing about me.

The fun began when I landed in a freshman dorm that, in a moment of what must have been administrative insanity, had been plunked down in the middle of the hard-partying fraternity quad. Sophomore year I lived in the Arts House, and from there I set off on the road trip of my twenties, which took me through Europe, New York City, and the undiscovered back streets of my home territory. It may have been a wilder ride for my parents than it was for me. I’m sure they feared I had broken through the guard rail and plunged into the abyss when I moved in with my boyfriend three hundred miles from home and stayed for a year and a half, but I survived that fall to ride a few more hairpin turns, some of them more fun than others.

The proverbial road trip ended with a real one. I married a guy with a ponytail and a pickup truck, and a couple of years later we drove west to spend a few years in Denver and the Rocky Mountains. While there, we became parents ourselves, but squareness didn’t re-enter my home right away. When it did, it came not through my parents two thousand miles away, but through a beloved day care provider and my new job teaching high school. Donna, who cared for our older daughter, insisted: “If you don’t teach her to be respectful now, when she’s sixteen she’ll grab your car keys and take off.” I was teaching sixteen-year-olds for a living, so I heard this loud and clear. I had already taken a position of authority at school, wasting no time becoming The Teacher after my first day, when my sophomore boys stood on their desks and screamed and pounded their chests. Now, apparently, I was going to have to take a position of authority at home, too. I was going to have to become The Parent.

I was probably destined to be a square parent in the end. After all, how many of us, whether we admire our parents or not, have managed to sever all ties and create brand new parenting styles of our own? But I don’t think I could have been a proud square parent without my twenties. I imagine I would have been always craning my neck, wondering whether I might have missed something. My parents and I still disagree on a few of the finer points (snowsuits, bread bags, driving big circles around one’s squareness), but there’s no doubt that we were drawn with the same ruler, though I’d like to think of myself as more of a parallelogram.

Eventually, my husband and I came back East to settle down and raise our children within driving, rather than flying, distance of family. It’s no accident that my husband was behind all this. The longer we are married—eleven years now—the more he reminds me of my father and my brothers. Today we uphold square rules similar to those of my parents. For example: You can’t wear flip-flops (or, as our three-year-old calls them, “thlip-thlops”) out of the house until you’re five years old. Before that age you’re likely to trip all over yourself, and, at any rate, you shouldn’t wear a fashionable item of clothing if you can’t pronounce it. And it’s sneakers only on the playground, or you’ll fall and crack your head open. You can’t go to PG movies at the age of seven even if Hollywood is marketing them to you. And you can’t have a later bedtime because, if you do, you’ll be cranky tomorrow, and anyway, we need a couple of hours to ourselves, thank you. Nail polish? You’re three years old! Oh, all right, but not until you can keep your fingers out of your mouth.

A few years ago, I even found myself objecting to a production of Grease at the high school where I was teaching. Why would you want to immerse those young actresses in a story in which the happy ending is the result of a girl’s allowing her friends to turn her into something she isn’t in order to get the boy she likes, who’s already interested in her for who she really is? That’s supposed to be a triumph? I like “You’re the One that I Want” as much as the next person (I’ve even been known to sing it in the car), but please!

It seems to me that what being square is really about is having your own compass, one that isn’t drawn to popular opinion, so that you don’t become Sandy letting her friends mess with her looks and her love life. What’s hot and what’s not is constantly changing, but if you’re square, you prefer stability. When you do make a change, you’ve usually thought it through carefully. You expect it to stick. And whether you’re conservative or liberal, you’re likely firm in your principles—which is why, once in awhile, you might actually find yourself on the leading edge of social change instead of resisting it. My father, for example, repeatedly preached against the war in Vietnam to a mostly hawkish congregation long before public opinion began to sway in an anti-war direction.

This kind of fortitude plays itself out as steady, predictable parenting, probably the greatest gift my parents gave me. Their seemingly boring constancy gave me the confidence that I had solid ground under my feet so I could eventually go out and see the world without fear that the ground would shift beneath me.

The hardest part of being square is dealing with the fact that many of my current friends and acquaintances have only known me as square. One day not long ago I wore a funky old pair of cowboy boots to work. “I love your boots,” a colleague said to me. It was clear that she was surprised to see them on me. When she heard I’d bought them while living in Manhattan, she was downright shocked, and my heart sank. Do I really seem that square?

Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m committed to being the same steady, predictable base for my girls that my parents were for me. It’s not so hard; I never cared much about the whims of the world anyway, and once in a while, when our convictions tell us to, we square parents even get to be risk-takers.

My parents were. In 1982 (year of the prairie prom dress), I was sixteen years old, and they figured it would be the last summer for a big family trip before I abandoned them. They had always wanted to take us cross-country, but money was very tight. Still, carpe diem! My parents spent their entire life savings on a used motor home, and we embarked on a six-week cross-country adventure to places chosen by each member of family.

After we got home, there were several tense weeks. The market of people in our small town looking to buy a used motor home at the end of the summer was tiny. But in the end, a buyer came through, and my parents nearly replenished their savings. I was old enough to realize how close they had cut it, how seriously they took that vacation—and, by, extension, how seriously they valued our time together. It wasn’t their most practical move, but it was one of their greatest.

As adults, my daughters will no doubt remember the cool stuff I wouldn’t let them have and the dumb rules I stood by. But, just as I have, I think they’ll come to understand why. Maybe someday they’ll even find themselves doing some trapezoidal parenting of their own.

Author’s Note: I didn’t ask my parents to read this piece until it was accepted for publication. I sent the essay to them via e-mail, and then I waited with some anxiety. I wasn’t sure whether they’d be offended or flattered or both. They replied the following day. My mother admitted her swimming cap was “pretty silly” and wrote, “My square parents drilled it into my head that no hair was to be left in the pool. Why didn’t I question that it was okay for the men not to wear caps?” This made me wonder how far back through the generations our squareness goes. My father wrote, “What is the difference between cabernet and chardonnay?” He also pointed out that he does speed if he’s late for a meeting, and he’s done eighty-five in the California desert (where that’s the speed limit). Then they started forwarding this essay to other family members. That is such a square thing to do.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere. Czepiel teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at her website, http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.

 

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I Looked Away and She Was Gone

I Looked Away and She Was Gone

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only When I looked Back ArtMy daughter, she’s eleven. She’ll be twelve in November. She grew up one day a couple months ago.

We were going to a town about an hour away, in California’s Napa Valley, to hear my friend’s sister sing in a rock-n-roll band. We were going to have dinner first.

My daughter put on a dress, boots, hat, elbow-length gloves, and five years.

She wore them like a loose veil across cheek bones I never noticed, on the poise of squared shoulders, soft over eyes that knew something, something more than me, something adults know, or almost know, if they could remember.

She nearly stopped my heart when I saw her in that get-up, so beautiful she snatched my breath and words. I looked at her and looked harder and harder to see it clearly.

A woman?

The second I saw it, it vanished, and there stood again my little one, my first one, who played in the sand and still does sometimes.

My Ava. She was born when I was 22-years-old. I thought having her would be a cool new thing to do. Like going to Mexico or backpacking around Europe.  We got her name from a magazine article about Ava Gardner. It wasn’t popular then. I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.

“Mama, I hate you!” She screams and runs off.

I stir the meat in the pan and heat like the cast iron before me. I think “How dare she speak to me that way.” I AM THE MOTHER. I think about storming down the hall and demanding better treatment. HOW DARE YOU. Who do you think you are?

Well I’m a girl, growing up, and it sucks sometimes.A victim of biology.

Screw biology, hormones, and nature.

For taking my girl from me, even if it’s only in moments still, so young. A victim of a uterus and ovaries a decade or two before she even needs them. I have no idea how to stand near this child. I have no idea what to say or where to reach as I watch her slip away, only in moments still, of beauty or rage.

So damn young.

But always moving away, or so it seems, until she tells me that she wants to hear my voice to feel better, and I want to cling to today for dear life. I want to weave her back into my skin and hold her there like it was and it’s always been.

Except that it isn’t. Not anymore.

And I cannot.

Except sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, when we went camping in Mendocino, along the heaven coastline of California, where the cold and redwoods meet. The fog sits soft on jagged black rocks, waves crash against them in bursts beautiful and deadly, and it’s clear. Clear that you’ve got nothing here and never will. Against this ocean, the relentless pull of time, moons and earth and water, a speck of sand on misty beach. You put on your sweatshirt and enjoy your nothingness. Breathe the gray serenity of something you know or knew once.

On the day we arrived it was sunny.

And through our campsite ran a little creek. It was my friend, pregnant, and her toddler daughter, and my own three kids. Our husbands not here yet.

I guess something about the place made my oldest one feel like the littlest one, or one of the little ones. Maybe it was having her own mama and another mama and just little kids around. Maybe it was the sun filling up our spot among the ferns and trees or the fog that rolled in, or the ocean cove across the street.

Whatever it was, I looked over and she was 8 again or 7 or 6 or 3.

She wore a bathing suit bottom and a t-shirt and she was gathering materials to build a fairy house, proudly running over to show me the couch, the walls, the shell vase.

She stomped around the little brook, building a dam, of course. She got filthy, put a banana slug across her nose.

She spent hours rigging up a chipmunk trap, sure the damn thing would come any moment now.

I watched her like the best movie in the world, one that plays only once, each scene sacred: each time she squatted down without a lick of self-consciousness, acted a little too young for a girl her size, each time she wanted my appraisal of the effectiveness of the trap, or how to make the couch stay together, weave together the leaves. Look at the moss she found. “Won’t it make a great bed?”

“Isn’t this great, Mama?” And I almost couldn’t contain it all, being that person again to her, the one to praise her childish constructions. I was her for so many years. I only get moments now.

And she wasn’t the girl yelling “I hate you,” then. She wasn’t the kid losing her mind about something, irrational, full of rage, hormonal. She wasn’t the kid flipping out about whatever drama is happening at school.

And she wasn’t in that dress that made her like the waves. So utterly beautiful and terrifying I can’t figure out if I’m in love or want to run away, from the power of it all. It’s almost too much…

“I HATE YOU!” the words sting my core because they’re true, for a moment, and maybe I hate her too. Because how can I do anything different with this pain taunting me, dangling in my face? I know it’s coming. It’s right there.

I’m losing her.

Nah, I don’t hate her, not even for a moment, but I dislike her sometimes in a way that’s shocking and new, like I dislike adults on occasion. It hurts my stomach to have that feeling toward my child.

They say she’ll come back, after the teenage years. That she’ll just seem gone.

They say it’s so wonderful again, after those years.

They say supportive things.

But what I see is that my daughter is growing up, and it’s all exactly as it should be, except that this is not a change a human can stomach. How can I take it? How can I accept it?

TELL ME WORLD, how can I let go? When all I want is one more day and one more after that of our little family and the oldest child still a child and she’s going.

She’s going.

I can only let go, and yet I cannot.

Once again, here I am. A mother. The Mother.

With nothing.

I stir the meat a little longer and remember eleven and twelve and sixteen and how I couldn’t see myself in myself sometimes, and I didn’t know either. “Who do you think you are?”

I have no clue, mom.

So I walk down the hall a few minutes later and open her door. She’s weeping into her pillow. I sit by her and say nothing, look at the trinkets and the papers and stuffed animals. I look at the jewelry and the books and treasures. I touch her arm. The clutter, the mess, the thousands of things on the walls. The notes from friends and things from second, third, fourth grade.

The little girl beneath a towering world.

Her little haven in an untouchable world begging her to join it, her place in my home, her home, all I can offer beyond what I am in all my broken form:  a mother, her mother, a new mother I guess, to a new form of child.

I see again it’s all just a series of being reborn. It’s all just a series of recreation, of being tweaked and carved into something new, as I kick and scream and weep for the old.

Just when I was sure it would never end.

Just when I thought I knew what tomorrow would hold.

Janelle Hanchett is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (www.renegademothering.com).

Disappearing Act

Disappearing Act

 

Art Disappearing Act 2The cruelest truth of parenting: If you do it right, they leave.

I’d done my reading. I knew that from the moment I got that baby in my arms, my job was to prepare her to go. I understood. I’d done it myself, to my own mother. So I concocted a foolproof evasion.

As our eldest approached adolescence, I created an adventure so adventurey that it would foil the designed entropy of human development.

When our kids were five, nine, and twelve, we moved from the center of Seattle to a tiny mountain town in Costa Rica. For the obvious reasons—slow down, step outside consumer culture, blah, blah, blah. I wanted to live a life a little less obsessive Type A, and for our family to spend less time at practices, more time together.

The plan was clearly brilliant. In our new world, our kids were more a team than they’d ever been back home.

“You guys will not believe how milk works here!” Hannah, Harry, and five-year-old Ivy burst in from a mission to the grocery store, where they had discovered giant, metal silos. Strictly local and straight from the town’s dairy, the silo milk could be dispensed into a vessel of our own choosing. We’d never experienced milk that had been, so recently, encowed.

The early weeks were filled with such marvels, shared among ourselves. We were all we had.

In no way did I intend “I want us to be closer as a family” to translate to “Let’s take our adolescent daughter to a place where she can’t speak the language and knows no one; then she’ll have to stick with us.” But the fact remains: Speaking no Spanish, we moved to Central America, and to a house so isolated you had to walk ten minutes to find another person. Hannah was almost 13—time to fly, little bird— but I had her now.

And then, without warning, she vanished.

My own teenage disappearing act had been strictly by the book: into friends and football games and anyone- is-more-exciting-than-my-parents. As an adult, I thus assumed that adolescent separation required a destination—a world to separate to.

But we were strangers in a strange land and Hannah had no not-us destination. She disappeared in place.

Our rented mountaintop house was built by people who liked each other, who wanted to be able to chat no matter what else they were doing. Kitchen, living, and dining rooms were all one inviting space. Sliding doors to the wraparound deck opened wide, erasing the distinction between inside and out. It was a little like living in a sidewalk café. Everything about our house was about being together within it.

Hannah’s loft bedroom was the sole exception, its own little world. Her space came complete with tiny bathroom and its very own picture windows from which to gaze at the sweeping view. She claimed her loft with wonder. “How can I know this is what I always wanted, when I’d never seen it until now?”

The space was a perfect match for the other thing Hannah had always wanted.

“I have so much time here…I can read anything…”

Hannah made her bedroom, this lovely top-floor viewpoint from which you could see the world, into an escape from it. In this house that was designed around being together, Hannah found a way to be apart. She turned 13 up there, moving into solitude as if it were some kind of destiny; it didn’t have the feel of a phase.

She ducked away from us, spent her time instead with Salinger or Austen or Allende. We missed her.

“Hannah, do you want to play…” Harry or Ivy would begin. Their big sister was polite, always.

“No thanks,” she said over and over, as she slipped upstairs after school, after dinner, after anything, just when we thought we might keep her for a while. “You guys go ahead without me.”

Hannah vanished in October. She was never mean, but we could tell she was being patient with us.

Our family at its best is jolly and jokey, with lots of flopping over each other. Hannah stopped flopping. I could feel her counting the minutes at dinner, and imagined her internal monologue. Will Mom be annoyed if I leave now? What about now? I’ll finish eating, then count to 100.

Ivy missed her the most. “Hannie, do you want to do my nails?”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

Harry was perplexed. His bookish sister hadn’t always quite made sense to him, but she had always, at least, been present. “Mom, doesn’t Hannah even like us anymore?”

Since Hannah’s first day of kindergarten I’d been steeling myself for my own separation heartache. Narcissist that I am, I’d never quite put together that our younger kids would hurt, too. How do you explain to a five-year-old that her sister’s brushoff is developmentally appropriate?

The mists that rose up our hill from the lowlands provided the ultimate now you see it/now you don’t. The view from our windows started at the guava tree and went down down down—past cows, pasture, forest, foothills, and finally to the thin, sparkling band of the Gulf of Nicoya. Several days a week, the mists climbed up from the gulf. In reverse our view would narrow, until even the guava tree disappeared and our house stood alone inside a white cloud.

I imagined the mists enveloping my daughter. I didn’t know how to keep them from coming and, once they were here, I didn’t know how I would find her again. I worried that one day, as they retreated down the mountain, the mists would take Hannah, too.

Eventually we got used to her being gone. The littler kids stopped asking. Months passed.

One April afternoon, our hillside sparkled impossibly green. The sun had burned away the mists and shone now on a world so bright and new you almost didn’t want to look directly at it. Hummingbirds hovered, and all manner of background wildlife had set to chattering and chirping. The soundtrack of our life would not have been out of place at a Seattle day spa.

I was in the kitchen, making chayote soup in a non-obsessive manner. I had told Ivy I’d be happy to stop cooking and play with her—all she had to do was stop saying my ideas were stupid. But Ivy was stuck in the groove of her own irritability and showed no signs of exhaustion. Harry and Daddy were out, Hannah was reading as usual, and there wasn’t anything to do up here, ever. Mom was boring and all of her ideas were…

Hannah was up in her loft, deep in One Hundred Years of Solitude. After the slow start and the revelation that this book was going to be way weirder than anything she’d ever encountered, Hannah was hooked. We’d barely seen her for two days.

Ivy finally got to the heart of her problem: “It is SO STUPID that Hannah never wants to play anymore!” By now, I was annoyed, too. What the hell? We’d brought Hannah halfway across the world, and she couldn’t be bothered to come out of her bedroom?

Then, from behind the foreground pulsing of Ivy’s frustration, I heard a tiny arrhythmia. A sad little sigh, the snapping of the book closed, the standing up out of the window seat and facing the world. The barely perceptible background sounds of resignation.

After a pulling-it-together pause, Hannah appeared at the top of the stairs. Ivy and I watched her descend. Hannah’s jaw was set firmly and her ponytail did not bounce.

Finally, she stood in front of Ivy, hands on hips. Ivy glowered up with her storm face on. Hannah looked down. Steely blue eyes met flashing brown. Hannah cocked her head to the left and added a brisk tapping of her right foot.

Any moderately attentive adult could see that Ivy had a full-on tantrum lined up; all she needed was someone to pull the pin.

“Ivy,” started Hannah. I cringed. Should I step in? Divert? Had Hannah, after all these months of adolescing quietly, finally turned the corner to the explosive part? Had I been worrying about the wrong pin?

“Ivy. What you need…no, actually, never mind you…”

Pause.

“What this house needs…”

Ivy glared.

“Is some strawberries. I have totally had it with the lack of strawberry pie in this house. It’s insane. I’m going outside.”

Patches of wild strawberries dotted our hillside. We’d eaten a few, but as a concept they’d failed to take hold. It might have been a girl-next-door thing: the berries were always there. Why bother with them, what with all the sexed-up mangoes and papayas constantly throwing themselves at us?

Hannah marched to the kitchen and grabbed all the plastic storage containers we owned—four.

“I am going to need all of these because the berry deficiency we are dealing with here is acute.” She shoved her feet into her flip-flops.

And then, as afterthought, “Ivy, you can help if you like.” Hannah held out her hand for a millisecond but did not coax. She dropped a container as she left, closing the door behind her and not looking back.

Ivy stood her ground, eyes narrow. Then she walked over, grabbed her faded ladybug boots, and snatched up the Tupperware. “Yeah,” she threw back at me on her way out. “It’s insane.

I watched them out the window. After a while, Hannah flopped to the ground and lifted her face to the sun. When Ivy wandered near, Hannah opened her eyes, peered into her container and picked out a perfect berry. She pulled her little sister into her lap, and fed her like a baby bird.

Was she back? Was she toying with us? Would a tiny lecture along the lines of “It’s about time” be out of place?

When my girls finally came inside, I said this: “Yum!”

I’d known the basics about the leaving. But I hadn’t known it would hurt quite so much, or that it would affect our whole family. That no clever gimmick could forestall the inevitable.

I know now that I couldn’t have hoped for a lovelier departure. Hannah had simply slipped away, wanting none of our delightful, familial hilarity. There was no yelling, and no doors slammed. It was our starter goodbye, and over the next years Hannah would vanish again and again—into friendships, boyfriends, politics—sometimes gracefully, often not. Rules would be broken, curfews missed.

I think about my own youthful goings-away. I went far, stayed away long, and, like my own daughter, was not always kind. And yet.

Three summers ago, back in Seattle, I caught a cold that got worse instead of better. I got the pneumonia diagnosis two days before Ivy’s birthday and with a work deadline looming. I didn’t have time for pneumonia. Desperate, I called my mother’s house. When my stepdad heard the tears in my voice, he said, “I’m coming to get you.”

I stayed for a week. My mother and her husband fed me soup and made me sleep. They called my house and told my family to deal. I curled up. My mommy drew me baths. I was 44 years old.

If you do it right, they leave.

The cruelest truth, the truth we cannot trick away, is that it’s our job to let them go. But my firstborn’s adolescence taught me the most beautiful corollary. How had I missed it in the reading? Or maybe no one told me because no one wants to jinx it. They come back.

And when they do, being there—not judging, not furious that they left in the first place—is part of the job, too.

At thirteen, Hannah sighed, put down her book, and rejoined our family while I watched through a window. Being there doesn’t always look like the proactive parenting of the early years. When, after long silences, she wants to chat about a boyfriend or cry over the phone with the sheer exhaustion of being responsible for her own life, I listen. If she’s home, I get to tuck her hair behind her ear in the old way. And I’ll provide whatever haven she needs, 30 years from now, if she has to flee that life for a while. I will draw her a bath.

Almost four years ago, Ivy and I dropped Hannah off at her freshman dorm. Before flying back to our own coast, the two of us drove, weeping, around rolling countryside that looked surprisingly like the green hilltop where Hannah had first disappeared. But she was gone for good this time, two airplanes away from home.

Now approaching adolescence herself, Ivy doubled over in the rental car, hugging her sides for maximum drama. As she did so, her eye caught a small, wrapped package that hadn’t been there before.

“For Ivy. If you need me, I’m right over here. Always.”

Ivy put the CD in the rental car’s player. Songs Hannah had picked out just for us filled the car and our chests and our lumpy throats. Hannah would never be gone for good.

Author’s Note: If you parent your children with love but not hovering; if you give them roots and wings; if you share yourself (but not too much); if, in addition, the stars align or God smiles or pixie dust falls, whatever it is, that secret blessing outside our control … you’ve created the perfect friend. And the healthiest thing for that creature to do is … leave? I’m working with it, but honestly: That’s just bad design.

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Shield

Shield

By Beth Malone

Shield Art 2The first thing the baby does is split in two.

One half—through some miracle from beyond the fringes of the cosmos—will multiply, cells popping out of nowhere, until there are tiny fingers, shoulder joints, hammers beating in her ears, blood pummeling through her veins, the doors of her heart opening, closing, opening again. This half will write itself into a bent toward music, an aversion to crowds, a hunger for the wild things of stream and sky. She will emerge from the womb hundreds of days later to shock you with her matchlessness, the way you cannot predict or control her, the way she reflects you and then doesn’t, her being so intricate and exact, a whole person written from the code folded and tucked into that first tiny cell.

The other half will become a shield against her mother.

The baby never attaches to the mother; the shield, which is the placenta, does that. This is the barrier meant to separate the body of a baby from her mother. The blood of baby and mother never mingle. The mother shall not oppress the baby with a policy of territorialism, assaulting the alien body; and the baby shall not announce herself a foreigner in a land not her own. The shield is crucial; without it, the baby dies. This is how the system is designed.

For hundreds of days, the shield grows, red as the strength and fury of mother-love, bursting with blood. It sends out fingers to grip the mother’s veins, sucking and drawing on them, devouring her nutrients and her oxygen along with things more subtle: her anxieties, her chemical transgressions. The shield is not impervious. It is not iron erected between mother and daughter. And so the shield lets these things pass, and they transmute a baby’s brain, molding it for survival. It whispers how safe the world outside might be. Or not.

In time, the shield will grow old. Parts of it will whiten, harden, grow fibrous and tough. It is not meant to support the child forever. The way a mother passes her food and breath to baby, the way the baby presses her feet against her mother—it is not intended to be permanent.

Listen, my darling, so be sure to understand. It is not intended to be permanent.

In time, the shield grows old; it cannot sustain its position. The baby becomes impatient, cramped; there’s no more room to grow. Hell, there’s no room to turn around. Something or someone sends out a signal. Like the voice in the crowd that begins a riot, the origin is uncertain.

Right before it happens, there’s a whistling in the air, like the sound of a missile, the sound it leaves in its wake, the sound of a space no longer occupied.

And then the shells hit. The mother’s body explodes in civil war.

She will understand what is happening. She will grip her hand in the hard vice of her teeth, drawing blood. She will gasp and cringe, the shelling toppling her constructs: Now she does not feel strong. She does not feel able. She wishes to abdicate, abandon her body in exchange for peace. She begs for a bullet to the head.

The baby is malleable; she will arrange her skull into a torpedo. The mother, though, is feral with pain, unquenchable; she will tear herself to pieces to build her baby a tunnel out of that country. The baby—slicked with mother’s blood, her hands balled in fists—punches her way into the world.

She drags the shield out after her, ripping her mother open as she goes.

Some mothers eat the shield afterward. They press its pieces against their cheeks and suck. They chew and swallow. Or they package it into something sterilized, a casing of plastic, and eat it without connecting to its nature. Other mothers bury the shield, plant trees by its disintegrating body. A tree is a more permanent fixture than a child.

Me, I felt my daughter’s shield fall, pulsing, out of my body, while I held my baby girl, warm and wet, in my arms. The shield was hideous. I had expected something like a pancake and instead found myself confronted with something like the skinned body of a rabbit. I remember being truly amazed with how large it had grown. So large my baby couldn’t live there, with me, anymore.

I did not want to touch that shield. I only wanted my daughter, her body wet with my blood, streaked with vernix, warm as the sun on my breast. That night, I couldn’t sleep without her beside me.

I don’t know what happened to her shield. I assume someone threw it away.

Here is one other thing about the shield though: It does not do its job perfectly. Migrant pieces of the baby slip out of the barrier, passing silently as spies into her mother. The baby’s cells circulate the mother’s system, passing the landmarks of bone, teeth, heart. And somehow, somehow, the mother’s body does not attack them. They survive—for months, years, decades.

Maybe they swarm to the places of pain—a burgeoning tumor, a damaged heart—and there transform themselves. Their future is full of opportunity, for like stem cells, they retain the ability to choose whatever destiny they wish. They might heal a mother’s broken places. They might be her cure. Those cells that survive.

So goes one theory.

Maybe instead, those cells chafe against a mother’s bones, inflaming joints and calling for a mother’s defenses to send soldiers to the scene. The mother’s army flares up, roaring. But even though the cells of her baby are fundamentally different, written with alien DNA, the mother cannot kill them off. Instead, she fights her own body. It translates as arthritis, lupus, inexplicable autoimmune disruptions that blow her body up into a warzone. And yet, the baby’s cells survive.

There are many hypotheses. Maybe the mother keeps those cells around on purpose, because she sees potential and she has hope they might help her. Maybe she fights them but her heart isn’t really in it; there’s pain but never extermination.

Or maybe the mother’s body simply doesn’t notice them.

Scientists just don’t know. But I do.

Of course the mother notices. She only pretends not to. This is how she keeps from breaking in half.

I know this because I have held my baby girl in our rocking chair, patting her back and humming long after she fell asleep, long after she could have gone peacefully to her bed. I know this because I have nursed her just as we almost finished the terrible process of weaning, because she asked and I wanted to experience her as a baby again. I know, because one day she will pack her things in boxes, jump in a car, smile at a future stretched before her, and leave my home forever. And her room will not be her room anymore, and I know I’ll go in there and pick up the pieces she’s left behind, pieces I’ll never be able to sell at garage sales, pieces I won’t call her to come pick up. I will hug her old favorite stuffed dog to my chest, and cry into its fur the way she did when she was a baby.

Nature gave me no shield to cushion the blows of my love for her. These left-behind pieces: They are all I have.

Beth Malone is a working writer with a background in journalism. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Literary Mama, Salon.com, Drunken Boat, U.S. Catholic, Wanderlust and Lipstick.

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Indecent Exposure

Indecent Exposure

Indecent Exposure Art“I’m afraid to let you go in there,” I tell my 15-year-old daughter Sophia as I pull into the parking lot of the Amity Teen Center. Three tattooed boys in their early 20s laden with chains, studded leather pants, and black lipstick linger at the door.

“Stay here,” I say, directing Sophia and her two friends to sit in the car.

“We came all the way here, Mom,” Sophia says. “It’s a teen center. It’s the battle of the bands.”

Heavy metal bands, I know now, seeing the crowd. This is typical of Sophia, my oldest daughter, setting me up for something I did not expect. I had promised last Thursday that I would take her to the concert. She had been grounded for sneaking out of the house and had not been out. She wore me down, somehow making me the bad one for having grounded her. Only Sophia can twist me up like this. But we’re here now and I could turn this into the umpteenth argument of the day or I could tell myself I’m trying to understand my daughter and her love of thrashing music and black hair dye.

I’m scared for Sophia; how little control I have in protecting her. She is my child who blows apart boundaries and takes unmitigated risks. Should I let her go in and mingle with these older boys? Will she come out tattooed and pierced?

I reason with myself. I’ll be in the teen center parking lot outside for the next three hours, able to go in at any moment if she needs me. I let her go.

“Come back if you need me, honey,” I say. “I’ll be right here.” The girls get out. “Text me when you get in, just so I know,” I shout. “Do you need money?” Not even the mention of cash slows Sophia down. She and her girlfriends speed walk away from me and towards the entrance. They are dressed in black, but no tattoos or pierced eyebrows in the trio. The tallest of the three boys at the entrance gives Sophia a high-five when she passes them to go in.

I wait five minutes then walk over to the boys. “You in the band?” I ask and they stop talking to stare at me. I am in white jeans and a blue button-up blouse. The boy with the ring in his nose and spider web tattoo on the corner of his eye looks at me. “We are,” he says, and he smiles, his voice normal like my son’s voice. I don’t know what I expected. “Meet the members of Indecent Exposure,” he says. “I’m Tack, this is Freeze, and that’s Jebs.” I reach out my hand for a handshake, notice the skull ring on Tack’s middle finger. I wonder how I would feel if Sophia brought one of these boys home for dinner.

“When do you go on?” I ask.

“Around 9:00 p.m. Right after Maniax, they’re awesome,” Tack says. I imagine myself in this parking lot for the next three hours. Then imagine myself going inside to see the band, which is way worse.

“Do you know if there is a place I can get a bite to eat while my daughter’s in there?”

“Subway, four shops down,” Freeze says, his tall grasshopper-thin legs straight and endless.

“You brought your daughter,” Tack, says. “Where from?”

“About an hour from here” I say.

“That’s cool.”

“Can I take your photo?” I ask.

Sophia would kill me. “Sure,” Tack says. I snap a photo with my phone and wonder what Tack’s mother said about the eye tattoo. What was she thinking, letting him do that to his great face? I laugh at myself and the way I fantasize that a mother has that much control over her teenage kid.

“Good luck tonight,” I say, “I’ll pop my head in at 9:00 p.m. to watch.”

“Hey thanks,” Freeze says, turning to go inside.

In the car, I feel a little reassured after talking with the band. They were nice boys, kind of regular. Still, I wonder how Sophia, my 96-pound metal head, got into this crowd. The way she ventures as far from me as possible, and the way I still think I have some control over her.

“All good?” I text Sophia. No response from my rebellious little black sheep, who is no doubt inside projecting her tough image, despite her small figure, beautiful green eyes, and long dark hair that shines like seal skin.

The music is so loud it vibrates my car, quickens my heart rate. I eat my 6-inch turkey sandwich and text the photo of Tack, Freeze and Jebs to my brother Tom. “Here is what I’m up to” I text. Ironically he is at the One Direction concert in Chicago, a bubble-gum pop band, with my niece, who’s the same age as Sophia. “You’re a better person than me, LOL” Tom texts back. He knows I have struggled with Sophia ever since she was born over a 38-hour time frame. Ever since she became my self-declared vegetarian at age seven, and later my budding Buddhist, then my ball of rebellion once she hit high school this year.

And because of the choices she’s made, and the boulders we’ve hit head on, I toggle through the guilt that falls somewhere between my feeling like the worst mother ever and feeling that she is a difficult teenager. Even when she was a toddler, she danced her own way (in spirals), ate her own way (chopsticks), and talked her own way (“I prefer not to”). But the truth is I loved her early show of independence when she was little, as much as it frustrated me, and I often admire her ability now to jump into situations, unthinking, yet confident.

It’s after 9:00 p.m. Sophia has not replied to my texts. I have to go in. Sophia sits on a ripped leather couch to the side of the stage, rocking gently, smiling, happy in her little spot, a girl with a shaved head sitting next to her. Perhaps she has been looking for a place to fit in and she has found it, in the midst of loud music and other kids who orbit differently – though not necessarily in a bad way.

She sees me as I move toward the five or so other parents who have braved the onslaught of sound and are standing against the wall by the foosball tables. Sophia seems unmoved by my presence. She doesn’t care that I am here and I admire that, knowing if my mother showed up at a concert when I was 15 I would have been mortified. Sophia accepts me, and I need to do the same for her I think.

In the center of the room, dozens of kids let their long hair fly, or their spiked hair redirect, drumming their heads against imaginary posts. Tangible teenage angst, the same as I felt as a teen when I rocked to The Who’s Teenage Wasteland. In that moment, I see myself at all those rock concerts in my past, not quite fitting in until the music started and we were all bound together by sound and lyrics.

On stage, Tack, Freeze, and Jebs have summoned movie star personas. They’re more than a little scary under the black and blue stage lights screaming violent lyrics over the sound of amped guitars.

Two songs in and I’m caught on the periphery of a mosh pit. Something Sophia mentioned once. A dozen boys and a few bold girls form a square on the perimeter of the stage floor then start to run toward each other, meeting in the middle, slamming their bodies into each other with some force, picking each other up if one falls. Please God don’t let Sophia get off that couch I think. Tack has jumped off the stage and fallen. But a mob of people help him up.

Sophia walks over to me. “Moshing, Mom?” she screams in my ear as the crowd disperses back into a stance facing the band, the moshing seamlessly ended. This scene has put some fear in me now; my stomach is trembling. I’ve had enough.

“We have to go,” I say. “This is nuts.” She tells me she is having fun, then pleads, “Just one more band, Mom. Oath of Insanity is next. It’s all good.” She turns toward the restroom. I don’t follow her in. I decide she can stay, or did she make the decision by walking away?

“Come out when it’s over. Immediately when it’s over,” I say, giving her my stern look and voice, which I know mean nothing.

I return to my spot by the wall and she eventually comes out of the bathroom and begins to dance, by herself in the crowd, her friends off playing ping pong now. A boy with a blue-haired crew cut and gauged ears dances in time with her. I sense the future, all the potential dangers as I let her go on being herself. As she dances, her long hair sails. She is raw and unadorned. She is my daughter, though not the daughter I expected.

She is way better.

Author’s Note:  Some months after this concert, I took Sophia to see The Who. “They’re really old,” she said.

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To Greet Goodbye

To Greet Goodbye

By Susan Kushner Resnick

EPSON scanner image1)    The summer before my daughter went to college, I lost a pair of prescription sunglasses, my wallet, three sets of iPod headphones (or one pair three times), a plastic bag containing all of my jewelry, the house keys over and over again, the car keys more often than that.

During one six-minute bike ride to a bakery, I lost a twenty-dollar bill and my cell phone, both of which I’d tucked into a pouch that I then forgot to zipper. I heard the phone slide onto the street as I rode out of the driveway and even wondered about the sound before pedaling on, indicating that I had also lost the ability to recognize losing something.

Some of the items reappeared, some never will. And I’ll certainly never recover a certain slice of my identity. Before this string of misplacement, I was known as the finder in my family. Whenever I heard panicked cries of “I can’t find my sneakers/cell phone/notebook,” I responded with the calm and swift discovery of said item under couch pillows, in baskets of ski hats, right there on the kitchen counter. It was always so obvious.

2)    My mother never said goodbye to me when I left for college. Not properly, at least. We’d had an extremely close relationship while I was growing up, one of those in which I thought of her as my best friend and she depended on me to cure the loneliness of her frail marriage. An unhealthily enmeshed relationship, I would learn later in a therapist’s armchair.

She and my father escorted me to campus, which was the right thing to do, and she sat on my dorm bed with tears in her eyes while I unpacked. But as soon as my rainbow-striped comforter was laid upon the bed, they left. And I never saw her the same way again. She refused to visit for Parents Weekend or to pick me up at the end of freshman year. The official reasons for these abandonments were physical: acute anxiety, a bad back. But really, as soon as I stopped filling her world, she dumped me.

3)   We start to lose our children the moment they’re born. You think that dramatic cutting of the cord is just for show? No, it’s a psychological necessity, a vital statement: this person is separate, that connection was purely biological, you do not own this being. The threat and reality of that loss-to-be builds throughout their lives. They will go, they will go, this won’t last, a sadistic poem whispers from the back stairs of our hearts.

Senior year of high school is the worst, particularly if a child is moving away for school after graduation. Besides going through all the tension and fighting inherent in the college application and waiting process, all parties are preparing to separate. It causes the kid to lash out, a psychological defense termed If I Hate You, I Can’t Miss You. The parents go gooey at every occasion: the last Halloween at home, the last birthday, the last teacher’s night at school, bittersweet even if you always loathed those nights. An 18-year-long chapter is about to end.

4)    My mother and I never fought when I was growing up. Then we always fought. Why are you so angry, she would ask me. What did I do? In the movie version of this conversation, I would wail, You left me! Forgiveness and repair could begin. We would again become best friends. In real life, I didn’t figure out why I was so angry until she’d left me for good. Where’s the peace in forgiving a dead person?

My daughter and I didn’t fight horribly, but we fought. I was always saying the wrong thing. She always knew better. The usual stuff. It seemed healthy. I was the mother and she was the daughter. We were not best friends.

5)    Some of the items reappeared. Some never will.

6)    After all that senior year melodrama, I thought I was ready. It was time. I’d done my job. They say the time spent raising a child flies by. I say only if you’re doing it wrong. To me, those 18 years felt like 18 years: joyful and rich and full of the greatest love I’d ever felt, but also tedious and arduous and full of sacrifice.

And I was ready for her to grow up but not for the relationship to end. Because I was certain that was about to happen. In the experience that was my life, this juncture was where the mother-daughter relationship dead-ended.

7)    My daughter was ready, too. I don’t even remember seeing her much that summer. She had a boyfriend, a gang, a job at a candy store. She was setting her own buoys. I was steering around them. Did I mention that I was spending a lot of time near the ocean? We rented a beach house, which is where I kept losing all that stuff.

She came to the beach mostly under duress. It wasn’t her thing. It was my thing. It took her away from her friends and whatever they were doing to commemorate the final summer of childhood. I had taken the bold step of doing something that made me happier than it made her. I felt guilty about that all the time. Another charm of motherhood.

8)    We went to New York when my daughter was five. Just the two of us. We stayed in The Plaza back when it was almost affordable for regular people to do that. Our tiny room had tall ceilings and free robes. She ate her first raspberry in the Palm Court and posed for a photo in front of Eloise’s portrait. We marched to the top of the Empire State Building. A princess at a Fifth Avenue toy store painted her nails the color of cherry blossoms. We saw The Sound of Music in a Broadway theatre, then took a cab back to the hotel. My dazzled companion left her Playbill on the seat of the cab and even now, years after the princesses left Fifth Avenue, she’s still mad at herself for losing it.

9)    Are you sad she’s leaving? Someone asked.

I don’t feel sad, I said. I think I’m OK.

The part I left out was that I wasn’t feeling anything.

10)    You know how you say to teenagers all the time that if they’re ever too wasted to drive – or their designated driver is – that they should call and you’ll come pick them up, no questions asked? It actually happens sometimes, but I thought such a call wasn’t to be part of our story. Until it was.

Days before she was set to leave, a stereo speaker fell on my daughter’s foot during a party. Her toe was bleeding. She couldn’t drive home.

“Can’t you have a friend drive your car?” I asked.

“No,” she said. And I knew: this was the call.

I raced to the house. Her wasted friends carried her down the porch stairs, helped her into my car and spoke to me about the EMT training they’d tried to employ. She was bloody and shaking and on her way to the emergency room.

11)    I knew I could take the blow of losing her. I’d been tightening my abdominals like Houdini since her birth. But how would I fare after? Houdini died, they say, because he’d been ruined inside by one of those punches.

12)    She doesn’t like blood, especially her own. Or needles, which sometimes make her black out. Crisis is my forté. I was “on” in that ER. I did my best to keep the patient calm and warm, to bully the medical staff into speeding things up. They numbed and drilled and drained that toe, then sent her home on crutches. “How can I start college on crutches?” she cried. I reminded her that she started preschool with a cast on her tiny arm. My parents had been babysitting while my husband and I were on a date. She tumbled gently off the swing set and cracked her bone. My parents didn’t realize the seriousness of the injury so they tended to it mostly with kisses. My mother thought that wrapping the limb in a security blanket was enough.

13)    I have two children so my daughter’s departure to college would only mean a lopsided nest, not an empty one. My son had slept at a friend’s house an hour away on the night of the toe smash. He was supposed to be dropped off by another mother at the end of a day of mini-golf. After returning from the ER at 4:30 a.m., I was looking forward to a day on the couch.

When your kids become teenagers, when they stop crawling into your bed at night and start getting their own cups of water, you can finally sleep through the night again. The drawback is that you get soft. When my son called midday and said he nneeded me to pick him up right away because he’d thrown up, I drove with the reflexes of a zombie. We may forget the pain of childbirth, but I doubt any of us forgets the agony of sleep deprivation. The thickness of head, the numbness of mind – it all returned, only worse because I was so unaccustomed to functioning without sleep. I felt like a rookie again.

14)    I believe the universe gives us what we need. Or is it our mothers? Maybe from the place where the dead go mine was offering a gift. I expected memories during the week before I sent my daughter out into the world. Instead, I got a few days of time reversal. The chance to go back. The luxury of seeing what I was about to lose.

The toe turned out to be badly infected. My husband and I took turns getting up at night to give her pain medicine, just as we had taken turns Ferberizing her eighteen years earlier. We reminded her how to butt-scoot up the stairs. I helped with grooming.

She couldn’t stand in the shower to wash her hair.

“Bend back,” I said, as I knelt in the bathtub and she sat on the tile floor, an arrangement that allowed me to scrub her head without seeing her naked. She leaned toward me instead of away for the first time in many years. Then she closed her eyes, smiled tranquilly, and thanked me. She said she didn’t think I’d ever washed her hair before. A mother can’t count the number of times she rinses the suds out of her little girl’s hair, but kids don’t remember the mundane events of their child- hoods. For my daughter, this was a first.

15)    We drove down to college with the 18-year-old packed tightly in the back seat between tall piles of suitcases that made her look smaller than she is. She slept most of the way. We peeked back periodically to make sure she was still breathing. It was like the drive home from the hospital the day after she was born. It was as if we were returning her.

16)    I did the dorm scene farewell right, waiting until she told us to leave, watching from the parking lot while she hobbled away to start her life. At home, I was bereft. Her room was so empty, all its surfaces flat and hard without her mess adding texture. The house was too quiet, too big, too full of testosterone now that I was outnumbered by a three to one penis/vagina ratio: boy child, boy husband, boy dog.

Even my body made sure I felt the loss. My ear hurt when I breathed, as if something sharp was rolling through an empty tunnel. I had trouble sleeping, so I stayed up alone and worked, as if I were taking her place doing late night homework. Or waiting for her to come home by curfew.

I lay on my bed and remembered her as a little girl dashing into our room, her wispy hair barely clearing the bed frame. That’s when I cried.

17)    I wish I could ask my mother about her first weeks without me. Did she cry? Did she try to say goodbye? Or were those backaches and psychic pains her body’s way of telling her to feel the loss, their continuation a symptom of her refusal to do so?

Had she said goodbye, would we have eventually gotten to hello?

18)    I found the jewelry, not the sunglasses. I retrieved the phone, but never the money. I learned to keep my headphones in one place.

My daughter and I settled into a long-distance relationship. During her second winter break at home, we went for an entire month without a fight. I laugh with her more than with any other woman in my life, but we are not best friends. Nor are we lost to each other.

Author’s Note: I started writing this piece the summer I began losing things, but after taking a few notes, I saved it in the “to be finished” file along with many other essays in progress. I often find, with essays and with books, that I know there’s a story there even if I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve learned to be patient with myself, a new skill that may be the result of 19 years of parenting or just a happy symptom of aging. A year and a half after taking the first notes, as I was bragging about the fight-free month with my daughter, I figured out the story. After all that brewing, it only took three days of writing and revision to complete.

Susan Kushner Resnick is the author of YOU SAVED ME, TOO: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting, and Swearing in Yiddish, a memoir published by Globe Pequot Press in October 2012. Her work has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Parents, and Utne Reader, among other publications. She teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University and lives in Massachusetts.

illustration by Kristen Solecki

Telling Addy

Telling Addy

By Joseph Freitas
Portrait of a girl. She is beautiful in its anger. Almost a witch.Every family has an agitator, a provocateur who is always ready to call attention to the embarrassing moment, the underlying motive, or the simple fact that things are not as wonderful as everyone would like to believe.

Addy was that dissident voice in our family. Peering through her teenage insolence, she seemed to understand that things were not okay. Despite the fact that I moved as carefully as possible between the big house and the pool house where I had been sleeping separately from my wife for several months, tiptoeing across the yard after all the lights were out, and despite the fact that Jamie and I had been working on the words we would use to describe our situation to the kids, Addy found a way to preempt any and all our timelines. Like that August three years before – when she stole the car and brought Jamie and me to our life-changing conversation – she was now a constant reminder that we could no longer wait to take action.

During our last few months of life together as a family, Addy took advantage of our preoccupation. And why wouldn’t she? Jamie and I were so engrossed in our impending separation that we barely monitored her schoolwork; we asked her very few questions; and we accepted implausible explanations for her whereabouts. When we actually stopped to focus, she was always well armed.

One night in early October she asked if I would drive her new boyfriend Nick home. He was 17, two years older than Addy, and had dropped out of high school the year before.

Nick sat in the backseat looking dully out the side window while Addy sat in the front punching music out of the radio, barely letting a single note register before shifting again to the next station. I didn’t even try to make conversation.

“That’s it,” Addy said. She pointed to a small bungalow up on the left.

I pulled over and Nick got out with a quick, “Thanks.”

Addy opened her door and approached him. I could see their hips through the passenger window as she walked up close. I turned and looked straight ahead like a dignified chauffeur. A few moments later she climbed back into the car.

We were quiet for a while and then I asked: “Is Nick going back to school?”

She began fiddling with the radio again. “I don’t know,” she said.

“What does he do all day?”

Her sigh was audible even over the music. She settled on a song and sat back.

“What’s going on with you and Mom?” she asked.

The counterattack was perfectly planned. It was a square hit. With a single question she managed to switch our roles. I moved from protective father figure to guilt-ridden teenager. What did she know about Jamie and me? Had she caught me sneaking in and out of the pool house? Was she aware of my life on the Internet? For an instant I felt afraid – afraid that I would have to reveal everything at that very moment. I looked over; she was staring straight ahead. Both of her hands were held up close to her mouth, and she was biting the nail of her left index finger. I regrouped and spoke.

“I ask you what Nick does during the day and that’s your answer?”

She ran her fingers through her hair with dramatic exasperation. “He’s looking for work. I’ve told you that a million times. What do you do all day?”

Good question. Even I had to admit that. What did I do all day?

There was a time when I could answer that question without even thinking. I took the train to work. I went to meetings. I reviewed big budgets. I got things done. And now, well, I wrote. I floated in the pool. I talked to men online. I worried about the future. I worried that Addy might actually know what I did all day.

One of my contract goals was to tell the kids about our separation, but I didn’t have the language down yet. And even though I had nearly completed my so-called screenplay, it was clear that I had been working on the wrong script.

I ignored her last question and focused instead on the first: What was going on with Jamie and me? Should I give Addy some information, warn her of what was to come? And more important: Was this the time to have the talk?

I looked over; she had turned her head away from me. As I made the final turn on to our street, the lamplight trapped both of our reflections on her window. Our eyes inadvertently met. And suddenly a memory – the one of the Caribbean – came rushing back again.

This time I remembered that the kids were in the back seat when Jamie said, “We’re lost.”

“How can we be lost on five square miles?” I asked.

Evan, who must have been eight years old, began to jump up and down with excitement.

“We’re lost!” he shouted into Addy’s face. “I love being lost!”

Addy pushed him away from her. “No we’re not! Daddy, are we lost?” Peering into the rear view mirror I could see her beginning to panic. The painted beads at the end of each of her braids rattled around her head.

I gave Jamie a look. “No, Addy, we are not lost.”

“But where’s the hotel?”

Our eyes locked in the rear view mirror again, but this time I tried to hold her attention as if my reflection could cup her small, tanned face. “It’s very close, honey,” I said.

She kept an eye on me in the mirror. And then I smiled. “Yup,” I said. “Here we are. There’s the little market.”

“Shoot!” Evan sat back and looked out the window, dejected, like the air had been unplugged from the source of his excitement.

“See?” Addy said to her brother. “I told you we weren’t lost!”

I pulled into our driveway and stopped the car. I wanted to be that father again. The one who reassured her, the one who set her mind and heart at ease. But I no longer had that power. Besides, I had no idea where that little girl in the braids had gone – the one afraid to be lost. Where was she?

I pulled the keys out and turned my whole body toward her. Out of reflex more than anything, she looked at me. She twisted a strand of hair in her hand; I could see the chipped blue nail polish on her fingertips. And though her jaw was set and her eyes were filled with an angry determination, she seemed more lost than she had ever been before. I wanted so much to make it better.

“Your mom and I are having some problems,” I said. It was a lousy open- ing and I regretted it as soon as I uttered the words.

“No shit,” she said. “It’s so obvious that you don’t want to be together.”

She looked at me in the darkness. It had become rare for us to share any pro- longed eye contact. The outside light dropped an uneven shadow on her face but her eyes stayed fixed, ready for my response. I could feel her breathing, waiting, her underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction almost palpable. Would these new revelations make her situation worse? Would the eventual knowledge of my homosexuality make her even more rebellious, more difficult to deal with, more disappointed with the sorry lot she called her parents?

I sat there trying to imagine the impact our separation would have on her – and Evan. But she and her brother were both so different that it seemed as if the discussions – though filled with the same content – were a diametrically opposed set of problems that I had yet to overcome.

I looked at her and felt so deeply sad that our relationship had become more like an unpleasant truce. And though there had been a time when she stood at the doorway waving goodbye as I headed to work, left her drawings on the pillow for me, and wept when I left on yet another business trip, I knew that our bond had been damaged.

Still, despite the armor she had constructed around herself, I knew I had to continue trying to reach her, to bring her along as best I could.

“Addy,” I said finally. “Your mom and I aren’t sure what we’re going to do.”

“Just get a divorce.”

She said it as if she were tired of the whole thing. She started to open the door but then turned back, waiting for my response.

I looked into her eyes, trying to transmit all of my feelings to her – as if there were some sort of telepathy that could intervene and help me communicate.

“Whatever we do,” I said, “we love each other and we love you.”

“Whatever,” she said and got out of the car.

I watched as she rushed up the porch steps and into the house, and I wondered whether our problems were as clear to everyone else as they seemed to be to Addy.

Author’s Note: “Addy” is a chapter from my forthcoming memoir, An American Dad, which tells the story of coming out: to my wife of 20 years, our children, family, and closest friends. Despite its challenges and heartbreak, being a father continues to be my greatest joy.

Joseph Freitas is the father of two children. He taught memoir writing at the Westport Writers’ Workshop in Westport, Connecticut. He and his partner own and run 141 Bedford Natural Market in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they have lived for the past two years. Joe is currently completing work on his memoir, An American Dad.

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In Defense of the Nap Year

In Defense of the Nap Year

By Rebecca Lanning
JordanLysenko_BrainChildNapYearEverywhere I go, people ask about my son Liam. They know he graduated from high school and want to know what he’s doing now. Smiling politely, I say that Liam was accepted to his first choice college. And then, just in case someone spots him around town, I mention that Liam deferred enrollment and is taking a gap year.

“How cool!” everyone says, but I sense by their placating tone that cool is a euphemism for crazy or scary or just plain dumb. I suppose their reaction goes with the territory, in one of the most educated metropolitan areas in the country where almost everybody’s name is followed by its own alphabet, and competitive parents raise go-getter kids.

The other day a woman in my lunch-time yoga class told me she’d never let her daughter, a high school sophomore, take a gap year. After all, the woman said, her daughter would be going to grad school, launching her career, and starting a family. She didn’t have time to goof off.

I wish I’d just moved my sticky mat to the other side of the room. Instead, I tried to convince this woman that taking a break from formal education was not a waste of time. “Many top colleges actually encourage students to take a gap year,” I said. “It gives kids a chance to figure out who they are and what they want out of their college experience.”

“So what’s your son doing with his windfall of free time?” she said, baring tiger-mom teeth. “Is he traveling abroad? Doing research?”

My cheeks burned as I played along, offering sound bites. A startup venture. A film project. Independent study. What I failed to mention was that my handsome, broad shouldered son was, at that very moment, home in bed with the shutters drawn, covers pulled over his head.

Officially, Liam is taking a gap year. But after 13 years of school, what he needs, what he’s earned, is a nap year.

“He’s not where the other children are,” Liam’s kindergarten teacher whispered to me one morning. I knew what she meant. Clumsy and slow to read, Liam rested his head on his desk a lot. His written work, smudgy from excessive erasing, looked like bits of crumpled trash. Still, her remark stung. I couldn’t shake the image of 20 kids on the playground, climbing on the monkey bars, and Liam alone on the soccer field picking dandelions. Not where the other children are.

Had I been the sassy sort, armed then with the knowledge I would later accrue, I might have joked with that teacher, told her that Liam had greater aspirations than being normal. But I wasn’t there yet. Confused and fearful, I had no idea how to stand up for my son or find the help he needed.

School was torture for Liam. He couldn’t take notes, failed to turn in homework, forgot when tests were coming up. It was as if he attended school in a country where he didn’t understand the language. Except he did understand the language. On standardized tests his verbal scores consistently exceeded the 99th percentile.

“Just get him through school,” his first grade teacher advised. Neither of us had any inkling what a long and painful road lay ahead. But her advice became my mantra: Just get him through.

Over the next several years, Liam was evaluated for learning disabilities (LD). While he had a superior IQ, an excellent memory, and a solid grasp of complex linguistic cues, he fatigued easily and suffered from weak sensorimotor, visual perceptual, and language output skills. And because he exhibited all nine symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD-inattentive type, he was slapped with that label too.

While these evaluations provided useful information, they never answered our more pressing questions. What type of school would serve Liam best? Is there a way to determine reasonable academic expectations? How do we know when to push, when to back off?

By the time Liam hit sixth grade, I’d reduced my work hours and my husband increased his so I could be home in the afternoons to help Liam with homework – an often overwhelming effort. Even with a master’s degree and years of teaching experience, I still struggled to re-teach Liam everything he should have learned at school.

“You can do this,” I would say as Liam sat slumped beside me at the kitchen table, eyes red and glassy from working overtime, having to learn everything twice. We’d go over math facts, science terms, and spelling words until they stuck, and then review them again. It was like doing taxes or cramming for exams. Every. Single. Night. We were Lucy and Ethel in the factory trying to wrap candy as it sped ever faster down the conveyor belt. My heart broke watching my son struggle to assimilate all the information flying at him and then to organize his work on the page. Some nights, my own head spinning, I sent Liam to bed and completed his homework for him, that old refrain riding me, taunting me: Just get him through.

Occasionally, I could detach long enough to recognize the insanity of our situation. I kept thinking of that Einstein quote. “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe its whole life that it is stupid.” I knew Liam could swim with the fishes. But how did we get him out of the damn tree?

Late at night, I lay awake, heart pounding, waiting for my husband to get home from long work days, and imagined child protective services showing up at our door. Not to claim Liam, but demanding I give some long-over-due attention to his younger brother, Thomas, forced to fend for himself during those agonizing afternoons while I drilled Liam with facts. Sometimes I had trouble taking a deep breath, the weight of Liam’s education so heavy on my chest. Worried too about other children who were suffering in school with no support at home, I started subbing in the classroom and teaching literacy skills to low-income students. I’d glimpsed the need for monumental reform in education, and yet could barely keep Liam afloat. Some nights I’d soothe myself to sleep with twisted fantasies of his middle school vanishing in a cloud of chalk dust.

Because Liam stayed up so late doing homework, he was having trouble waking up the next morning. He often dressed and ate breakfast in the car. Every morning he asked the same question: Why does school have to start so early?

One morning I made the mistake of telling Liam about a story I’d heard on NPR. In response to research findings regarding the circadian rhythms of teenagers, a secondary school in England had shifted its schedule to start later in the morning and end later in the afternoon.

“Why can’t we live in England?” Liam asked. He couldn’t understand why he had to change to fit a system when the system itself needed changing.

“I’m sorry, honey,” I said as I dropped him off at school. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I noticed Liam’s shoes were untied, his hair unbrushed. The flap of his backpack hung open like the tongue of a broken down dog.

Every morning I felt as if I was sending Liam into battle, and every afternoon that I was retrieving a soldier with massive invisible wounds. I’d ask about his day, and then, dread rising like acid in my throat, ask what he had for homework. Instead of being whisked off to sports practice or piano lessons, I drove Liam to occupational therapy. Then we went home, unloaded the backpack, and dove in.

Eventually, we resorted to what doctors and teachers had been recommending for years: medication. I’d read enough books and talked to enough parents to know that, for some children, medication is salvation. Maybe it would help Liam. “It can take a while to find the right medication at the right dose,” his doctor warned us. Liam tried various meds at various doses. Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Strateera, Focalin. When Liam exhibited signs of agitation, the doctor added Zoloft to the mix.

We were patient, but the meds offered no benefit to Liam whatsoever. In fact, they caused horrible side effects like insomnia, weight loss, and finally, tics. Liam started licking his lips so much that the skin around them grew red and raw. He blinked his eyes forcefully, his whole face contorting into a kooky jack o’ lantern. Then he would open his mouth as if he was going to yawn but he never yawned. His mouth just stayed open, sometimes for several seconds. When the tics continued for weeks after we stopped the medication, I took Liam to a pediatric neurologist two hours away.

“When will the tics will go away?” I asked, but she couldn’t say.

That was the moment I knew something had to change. And it wasn’t Liam.

For years I’d been lurking on the website of a small Quaker school in a town two and a half hours away, not far from where my husband and I had grown up and where our extended families still lived. When we finally toured the school, set on 126 wooded acres with streams and nature trails, we instantly felt it was where Liam belonged. While we knew the school couldn’t cure Liam’s problems, its philosophy of tolerance and inclusivity gave us hope that, at the very least, Liam’s problems would not be compounded. Our friends thought we were crazy to leave the town where we’d lived for 14 years, but it felt riskier to stay and push Liam through a system that could not, by design, accommodate his needs or celebrate his strengths. As sad as we were to leave our small-town community, we felt fortunate to have jobs that allowed us to relocate in order to give Liam a chance.

Away from the assembly-line approach to education with its tyranny of grades, Liam flourished. For a while.

The school offered discussion-based classes, and students sat on couches in wood paneled rooms that looked more like cabins than classrooms. Here Liam learned the power of silence and the power of his own convictions. His subtle wit found a warm reception. While differential equations and the nuances of French grammar eluded him, he excelled in the analytical digging required of history, philosophy and literature.

Because he was gaining confidence in his intellect and inspiration from his teachers, he quickly weaned himself from my assistance. A request for extra time to complete a test or a paper was granted without a tangle of red tape. And when Liam was re-evaluated by a new psychologist during his sophomore year, we learned he did not have ADHD after all. He had not grown out of it. This new school had not masked it. He simply never had the disorder.

Liam, the psychologist explained, exhibited a lack of attention when he was in distress. And he was in distress often because he was twice exceptional intellectually gifted, with slow cognitive tempo. The magnitude of discrepancy between Liam’s intelligence and his processing speed was so rare, the doctor said he only saw it in about one kid per year. “If you were a car,” the doctor told Liam, “you’d be a Maserati with two blown tires.” There was no name for this particular disorder, simply called Learning Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), and sadly no cure. The only way to deal with Liam’s problem was to give him extra time to get his work done, to show what he knows. The psychologist added that, with the right support, Liam would shine in college. But first he had to get through high school. Get through.

Liam performed well until junior year when he registered for eight academic classes, a difficult load even for neurotypical students. The extended time his teachers had so generously granted now merely extended his misery. Liam believed that when given more time to do his work, that work had to be worthy of the extension. No one could convince him to focus his effort in a few classes, and just meet the basic requirements in others. He tried to produce extraordinary work in every class, and the effort nearly destroyed him.

Liam liked to study on the couch in our home office, and the more home- work he was assigned, the farther down on that couch he slid until one day he was completely supine, a posture he maintained for weeks. He could not muster energy to study, and eventually couldn’t get himself off the couch to go to school. Sometimes, when I approached, he growled. Other times I’d find him sound asleep listening to his iPod.

When Liam was younger, I could coax him to forge ahead. But at 16, he was taller than I and 30 pounds heavier. None of the tools in my arsenal worked anymore. Not the proverbial whip. Not the cheerleading pom poms. Not the promise of pizza or Pokémon cards. I’d run out of strategies and incentives just as he’d run out of steam. Liam wanted to drop out of school.

I’d been trapped in an elevator once, and was now overcome by that same desperate, claustrophobic sensation. I retraced our steps, berating myself for doing too much, for doing too little. Making too many sacrifices or sacrificing the wrong things. I felt a raw, aching regret for all the mistakes I made. All the times that I looked at Liam and saw only a problem to solve.

As I found myself swallowed up by regrets, I clung to memories of Liam before he entered school, a happy go lucky kid who once tried to crawl inside our television so he could hug Barney.

During Liam’s graveyard spiral, I was enrolled in a class on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, learning to detach myself from the turbulence around me, to rest in the eye of the storm. I began to realize that no matter how deeply I longed for Liam to find the strength to finish high school, the decision was his. I could not undo whatever had caused his learning disability, and I could not take away his suffering. I could only remain supportive, and so I talked to him, matter-of-factly, about his career options. We discussed the GED.

And then I let him go.

It was as if, after having been tied together by a rope, sinking in a river, my weight dragging him down, his weight dragging me – my cutting the rope released him, and we each were then free to rise to the surface.

Rather than dropping out, Liam enrolled in a charter school that specialized in helping kids who, for a variety of reasons, struggled in a traditional school setting. He completed his junior year there, attending classes from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Finally he was at a school that catered to his LD. But by spring, he realized something: Just getting through wasn’t satisfying. Though he was honored for his GPA and passed the state end-of-course tests, he didn’t feel he’d really learned anything. He did learn that he’d rather wrestle with open-ended questions than take multiple choice tests, and missed being engaged with purposeful coursework.

Liam made an appointment with Mike, the Head of his old Quaker school. On a dazzling May day, they walked along a forest trail, and my son—who must’ve felt he had nothing left to lose—told Mike his story. I wish I could’ve been a horse fly on that trail because by the time the walk was over, Liam had not only decided to return there for his senior year but committed himself to being a voice for other LD students who carried the burden of an invisible challenge.

Liam had a successful senior year, not without bumps but smooth as glass compared to junior year. He cobbled together a support system, including a math tutor with a special education degree, and a wise academic coach who kept him from getting stuck. He took the SAT and applied to colleges, but it was clear he was going through the motions of that final, high-stakes push, uncertain of his goals and weary.

When Liam walked across the stage to receive his diploma, so striking in his new suit, I did not feel that swell of pride I imagine other parents do. I felt, instead, tremendous relief and gratitude to that school for taking my son in, brushing him off and ushering him to this day. But I also felt something strange and unexpected, a gnawing fatigue, the kind you feel after a long trip hindered by detours and delays. I was as exhausted as Liam.

Now, while I try to resurrect my career, Liam volunteers at the food bank and is creating a website with a friend. A paid internship starts next month. In the meantime, he’s working on the three R’s: recovering, reflecting, recharging. His first choice college is holding his spot for next fall, and through their disability resource office, he’s been granted accommodations. But lately he’s talking about attending college closer to home, maybe part-time. His dad and I tell him that, whatever he decides, he has our full support.

Still, when confronted by people who ask what he is up to, it’s hard for me to explain Liam’s gap year, his nap year. They don’t understand a thing about what I call Post Traumatic School Disorder. All I see are raised eyebrows, and I have to shake off a twinge of shame that Liam’s not off at college, not where the other kids are.

But where he is right now, at home with us, resting, re-setting, feels right. I haven’t seen Liam this happy since he was four years old. For the first time in years, he’s not weighed down by the stress of homework and deadlines, and I’m not a wreck worrying if he’s keeping up.

I don’t know what his future holds. Sometimes I imagine Liam as a teacher, helping LD students find their way. He’s been encouraged to pursue advocacy in social policy. Two of his teachers marked him for a movie critic.

I get that. The other day, with his dad out of town and his brother at sports practice, Liam and I went to the movies. I loved sharing a bag of popcorn, looking over at him during the funny scenes. The light from the screen shone on his face. He was smiling, and I felt deliriously lucky to have this time with him. Time to enjoy the moment, to enjoy each other. Time to be his mom, not his teacher. Later, on our way home, we laughed, recalling lines from the film, and I marveled at my son’s ability to grasp references, to explain, patiently and eloquently, everything that I’d missed.

Author’s Note: As a writer, I’ve always gravitated toward fiction. Heartbreak, homesickness, even a mad crush on Joaquin Phoenix. It was easier and way more fun to project these feelings onto a protagonist and see how she managed. And yet when I finally felt ready to write about this journey with my son, I found that crafting it as fiction kept me from fully confronting the experience. In this essay, my first, I shed fiction’s protective cloak to expose the challenges of raising a learning disabled child. It’s a plea for education reform as much as it is a tribute to my square-pegged son who, as I write this, is heading out the door to catch the late-night premiere of Zero Dark Thirty.

Rebecca Lanning lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. As a former editor and advice columnist at Teen magazine, she admits that writing for teenagers in no way prepared her for the humbling experience of raising two of her own. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Sunday Reader, Southern Magazine, Haven and Woman’s Own.

Related Link: Flying With No Helicopter in Sight

Brain Doping

Brain Doping

By Valerie Seiling Jacobs

This feature story is from Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teenagers, to order the full magazine, click here.

Kid_brain_300dpiIt’s 7:00 a.m. on a chilly Saturday in March—the SAT is due to start in less than an hour. Sam (not his real name), a junior at a New England boarding school, sits alone in his dorm room. Across campus, a few students are already filing into the test center. Sam is almost ready. He’s been studying for months.

There’s just one more thing he needs to do. He reaches into his backpack and retrieves the pill—a single capsule of Adderall. It only cost five bucks. A real bargain.

Mention the word “Adderall,” a drug often prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and you are likely to elicit strong opinions. Add the words “cognitive enhancement” or “adolescent” and you are liable to start a brawl. As soon as I announced that I had taken on this project—that I was trying to figure what parents and teenagers think about these drugs—people began clamoring to stake out their positions.

Take the mother of the 16-year-old boy who was recently diagnosed with ADHD, a condition characterized by impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity. To her, Adderall is a godsend, a magic pill that enables her son to sit still for hours and stay focused. “His grades have improved and we’re not fighting about his homework anymore,” she said, before insisting on anonymity to protect her son’s privacy.

Or take Adam (also not his real name), the college student at an Ivy League university who uses it—without a prescription—to cram for exams. To him, Adderall is a great study aid that allows him to “power through” tests and assignments. “It’s like No-Doz,” he said, “only better.” (“Walk through the library during finals and everybody’s got it,” his girlfriend added.) He doesn’t under- stand why it isn’t sold over-the-counter. [Because these stimulants are Schedule II Controlled Substances—possession without a prescription is a felony in most states—no one wanted his or her name in print.]

One law school student estimated that half his peers are using it. A third-year medical student told me that he thinks he’s the only one in his class who’s not using it. One graduate student described how she and her friends use it to party. “We call it taking ‘wings,'” she said.

And then there were the professionals: high-powered Wall Street types (traders were mentioned a lot) who are buying it on the street or quietly asking (read demanding) that their internists write prescriptions. A fiftysomething female banker admitted that she had “borrowed” her son’s medication and used it as an appetite suppressant. I heard of one 70-year-old woman who is using it, with her physician’s encouragement, for the “lift” it gives her.

Most surprising, however, were the high school students—kids like “Sam” who told me how they had used it to take the SATs—again, without a prescription. (Sam estimated that 25% of his boarding school class had used it.) “It definitely helped on the math and reading,” he said. “Not so much on the writing.”

Another teenager described how her classmates would borrow, trade, and sell their ADHD medication (experts call this “diversion”) at her public high school, the going rate ranging from a dollar to twenty dollars a pill, depending on the number of milligrams, the type (regular or extended-release), and the demand. High stress events, like midterms and AP exams, apparently send the price skyrocketing.

To all of these people, Adderall and the other drugs in the ADHD arsenal, including Ritalin, Vyvanse, Concerta, and Focalin, are great drugs that increase focus and boost productivity and performance. Indeed, the axiom that the drugs would not work for those without ADHD has proven to be untrue—though some ADHD experts still cling to the idea that people who experience benefits must have a subclinical case of ADHD.

In fact, current research suggests that people who take the drugs not only feel better, but perform better, though improvement may not be as dramatic in non-ADHD individuals. As Dr. Stephen Donovan, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, explains: “The drugs certainly increase vigilance and focus and allow you to plow ahead where there is no immediate reward. So if you just have to get through something, they can help a ‘normal’ person.” Whether these drugs can actually make you more intelligent, however, is “very doubtful,” says Donovan.

But to some doctors and mental health experts, the widespread use of these drugs, with or without a prescription, is problematic—and especially so for teenagers and young adults. Indeed, recent data suggest that the number of people who are experiencing problems with these drugs is growing. According to a report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in January 2013, the number of emergency room visits involving ADHD stimulants more than doubled in the five years ending in 2010, with the largest rate of increase (282%) among 18- to 25-year-olds. Of those visits, half involved “nonmedical use” of the drugs, almost three times the comparable rate in 2005.

Evan Flamenbaum, an ADHD specialist and private therapist who works with teens at an intensive outpatient clinic in New York City, has seen first- hand how adolescents can get into trouble with these drugs. These stimulants have been so “integrated into study styles” and so “normalized,” he says, that people don’t appreciate that they are psychoactive drugs.

And this is particularly true of teens, Flamenbaum says, who often have no fear: “They think it’s like taking aspirin, but wind up abusing it: they take too much, or grind it into a powder and take it intra-nasally to get a bigger hit, or mix it with other drugs to make a cocktail.” Thus, while Flamenbaum believes that these stimulants can be extremely beneficial for people with ADHD, he thinks that we need to be really concerned about the potential for abuse, especially when it comes to high school and college students.

Flamenbaum is hardly alone in his worry. One segment of the medical community has been sounding the alarm about these stimulants for years, repeatedly citing the health risks, including addiction. There’s a reason, those folks say, that these drugs are classified with cocaine. The website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, warns that these stimulants have a high potential for abuse, which can lead to a host of problems, including hostility, paranoia, and psychosis. Even without misuse, NIDA’s website cautions that high doses can lead to irregular heartbeats, dangerously high body temperatures, seizures, and heart failure.

In fact, it was the risk of addiction and cardiac complications that finally prompted the Food and Drug Administration to recommend “black box” warnings on these stimulants in 2006. The label on Vyvanse and Adderall, for example, now underscores the risk of abuse, dependence, and sudden death—and specifically states that the drug should be “prescribed or dispensed sparingly.” The warning on Ritalin is slightly less threatening, though still severe, warning of dependence and noting that people with a family history of drug or alcohol abuse should tell their doctors.

The warnings, however, have done little to dampen enthusiasm for the drugs. The sale of ADHD drugs is now a $7.9 billion a year business. An estimated 32 million prescriptions for ADHD drugs are written in the U.S. every year and the number appears to be increasing, especially among older teens. The number of prescriptions for ADHD medication for 10- to 19-year-olds has risen 26% since 2007. And a significant number of adolescents and young adults continue to use ADHD drugs without any medical supervision.

Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, but the prevalence of non-prescription use among college students and young adults, a group that some have dubbed “Generation Rx,” appears to be significant—and growing. A 2005 study reported that of the 11,000 college students polled, 6.9% admitted to illicit use of the drugs. A 2007 survey conducted by Duke University found that approximately 9% of 3,407 students admitted that they had used ADHD drugs without a prescription while in college. A 2008 informal poll by Nature found that 25% of the 1,400 responders under the age of 25 admitted to using Ritalin for nonmedical reasons. And a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that 34% of the almost 2,000 college students who had been surveyed admitted to having used ADHD meds without a prescription. Other factors, including the presence of sororities or fraternities on campus or the geographic location (e.g., being in the Northeast), can push the percentages even higher.

Moreover, the research shows that the practice has trickled down to high school students. In December 2012, the University of Michigan released the results of its annual “Monitoring the Future Study,” an anonymous survey of 45,000 to 50,000 teens sponsored by NIDA and the National Institutes for Health. The study found that while the use of tobacco, alcohol, and ecstasy was down in 2012, the illicit use of Adderall among twelfth graders was on the rise. According to the study, 7.6% of twelfth graders reported using Adderall without a prescription during the previous year, up from 6.5% in 2011 and 5.4% in 2009. NIDA has labeled this finding an “Area of Concern.”

In addition, while the number of even younger users appears to be holding steady or declining slightly, they are worth noting: 4.5% of tenth graders and 1.7% of eighth graders reported using Adderall without a prescription in the last twelve months. In any event, these statistics make ADHD medication the third most popular illegal substance among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders—right behind marijuana and narcotics.

What is fueling this increase in prescriptions and illicit use? For those who obtain the drug legally, the increase may be the result of more publicity about ADHD, combined with better detection and diagnosis—though under the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), unless the symptoms appeared before the age of seven, the diagnosis may be considered suspect (there is a proposal to push that age limit to twelve in the new DSM-V, which is due out later this year).

But many believe the huge demand is simply the result of a growing desire among adolescents to enhance academic performance, a conclusion supported by the research and my unofficial survey. It’s no secret that the world has become a more competitive place, where getting good grades and doing well on standardized tests can provide a huge advantage in the cutthroat college admissions game. And for those already in college, boosting one’s GPA can help improve the odds of nabbing a much-coveted internship or getting into graduate school. It’s easy to see why students are drawn to these “good-grade” drugs.

Moreover, the demand for these ADHD stimulants—what some call “academic steroids”—is facilitated by the drugs’ easy availability. For those willing to brave arrest (many teenagers seem to be unaware of the potential legal consequences— I spoke to one high school sophomore who was shocked when she was arrested and charged with a felony after being caught with Vyvanse), it does not appear to be difficult to find someone to pro- vide a few pills. And the internet has made things easier: a number of websites now advertise ADHD drugs pursuant to “cyber-prescriptions,” a matter of increasing concern to the Drug Enforcement Agency and federal prosecutors.

For those who decide to go the legal route and obtain a “real” prescription, the process can also be relatively easy. Some doctors rely on a simple checklist or a patient’s self-reported description of symptoms— even though the DSM-IV requires historical and other evidence from a constellation of sources and even though the better practice is to conduct rigorous testing to rule out other mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disease, and oppositional-defiant disorder, which have high co-morbidity rates. All of this, according to Flamenbaum, can take eight or more hours and cost thousands of dollars.

Moreover, the official DSM-IV diagnostic criteria, which include subjective symptoms such as “the patient is often easily distracted” and “the patient is often forgetful in daily activities,” are easy enough for a savvy teenager to fake. One study found that test givers could not distinguish between those who were faking and those who were “real” ADHD patients. As Flamenbaum observes, “It is really not hard to go to a one-hour meeting with a psychiatrist and say all the right things to get the medication—especially if mom and dad are pushing for it.”

Which raises another point. Although people are loath to talk on the record, there is anecdotal evidence that some parents may be pressuring therapists and/or coaching their children to get the diagnosis—and the drugs—as a way to gain a competitive advantage and gain entry into the country’s most elite colleges and universities. (The diagnosis alone may, if properly documented, entitle a student to extra time and other accommodations on the SAT, which are not flagged for admissions officers—a whole other debate.)

With or without parental help, the use of ADHD drugs solely to enhance cognitive functioning, what is sometimes called “brain doping,” is the source of huge controversy. To naysayers, the risks of these drugs outweigh their benefits, at least in people with- out ADHD. In other words, they say, while the side effects of these stimulants might be acceptable for people whose lives are truly impaired by ADHD, the ratio of risk to benefit cannot justify non-medical use in healthy individuals. And this is especially true, they argue, when it comes to adolescent brains, which are still developing. Moreover, opponents argue, the use of these drugs raise “fairness” and ethical questions.

Last year, a commentator in the Journal of Law and Education called for mandatory drug testing in schools to “eliminate the unfairness that currently exists” due to the “super-enhanced focus” and “academic advantage” that the drugs provide. A number of legal journals have noted that the illegitimate use of these drugs may violate basic principles of equality and justice. In 2011, Duke University officially declared that the unauthorized use of prescription medication—and in particular ADHD drugs—would hence- forth constitute “cheating” under its academic honesty policy (possession without a prescription was already a violation of its drug policy). Wesleyan University also considers the use of the drugs (without a prescription) a violation of its honor code and other schools are considering whether to follow suit.

Proponents of these stimulants, on the other hand, argue that the risks have been sensationalized. People have been safely using these amphetamines for decades, they say. And besides, they argue, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to increase one’s academic performance. After all, the argument goes, this isn’t like professional sports, where there are rules that prohibit steroids, blood doping, or other artificial means of enhancement. Unlike in the Olympics, society does not place a value on “natural” academic ability. Who cares if a student took a pill before her SATs? — It’s the end result that matters. And by the way, they ask, don’t we want to maximize everyone’s cognitive capabilities?

So who’s right?

According to most doctors and experts, the three most serious risks associated with ADHD medication are cardiovascular events, psychosis, and addiction. But how many patients actually experience those side effects?

When it comes to cardiac complications, the answer appears to be not many. According to two retrospective studies published in JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine in 2011, researchers found no increase in the number of heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, or stroke among children or young adults who used ADHD drugs as compared with a matched control group of nonusers. (The researchers did note that due to certain statistical limitations, a doubling of the risk could not be ruled out among the youngest population, but nevertheless concluded that the “absolute magnitude of any increased risk would be low.”)

What these and other studies suggest is that the likelihood of cardiac complications from ADHD drugs has indeed been exaggerated. Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University who specializes in the study of the impact of drugs on human behavior and the brain, agrees. In his opinion, the risk of cardiac complications from ADHD drugs is over-blown. “We overstress these risks,” he says, “when the fact is, in young people, it’s not an issue—the likelihood of cardiac risks is quite low.”

Dr. Wilson Compton, a physician and the Director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at NIDA, has a similar view. “These drugs are not going to result in major cardiac complications, except in persons with other risk factors,” he says. (And since children, teenagers, and young adults generally have healthy hearts, what researchers sometimes call “healthy-user bias,” those other risk factors are not a big problem when it comes to cardiac complications.)

But Compton’s caveat about other risk factors is worth remembering when it comes to psychosis, another potentially serious side effect. Certain patients, including those with a personal or family history of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, or bipolar disease, are known to be particularly vulnerable to drug-induced psychosis. For that reason, doctors are advised not to prescribe the drugs for those people or to proceed cautiously. Thus, although the official risk of psychosis may be relatively low (less than 10%), the numbers may not tell the whole story. The statistics may be artificially depressed as a result of the exclusion of susceptible individuals from the patient population. (In fact, in one 2009 study, more than 90% of the patients who experienced psychosis had no relevant history of disease.) The point is that for people who are not properly screened by a physician, the risk of psychosis may be higher than the official numbers indicate.

In addition, the risk of psychosis is known to increase with larger doses and long-term usage. Why this happens is not clear. It could be the pharmacology of the drugs, or it could be the insomnia that often results, one of the most predictable precipitators of psychosis. In Hart’s view, the sleep issue may be the most important public health message when it comes to ADHD drugs. Even for those who only use the drugs sporadically, large doses can disrupt sleep. “I can’t state it any stronger,” he says. “You need to attend to your sleep—and this is especially true for adolescents.”

In sum, the risk of psychosis appears to be low, though assessing one’s true chances of experiencing this side effect may depend on family or personal history, the size of the dose, and the length of the treatment.

And finally, the risk of abuse and addiction.

What makes these drugs so susceptible to abuse? Researchers believe that the answer lies in the drugs’ repeated stimulation of pleasure pathways and their effect on dopamine levels in the brain’s reward centers. Recent studies by Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of NIDA, and other researchers suggest that the drugs may also impair one’s “inhibition reaction” and disrupt “executive functioning,” which can interfere with a person’s ability to recognize dependence and need for treatment.

But here again, personal and family history can make a difference and the likelihood of experiencing this side effect is difficult to predict. Researchers do not have reliable data on rates of addiction. What researchers do know, however, is that some subset of users will wind up abusing or becoming addicted to these drugs and that a family or personal history of abuse makes addiction more likely.

In addition, the method of delivery of the drug can make a difference. As Compton explains, “All other things being equal, getting it into your brain more quickly makes it more of a ‘rush’ and more addictive.” Thus, snorting or injecting Adderall is more likely to produce an intense high than swallowing a pill. Cocaine abusers report that injecting ADHD drugs can produce the same kind of high as cocaine.

So, assuming that patients are pre-screened and assuming that the drugs are used as prescribed, these drugs probably do not carry a terribly high addictive risk, though withdrawal is always a consideration. The problem, however, is that adolescents don’t always take the drugs as directed. As Compton says: “Sometimes they take more than prescribed, or what’s prescribed for somebody else, so the dosage might be quite high, or they crush them and take them intra-nasally, or even inject them sometimes.”

And for those teens who are using the drugs illicitly, no one is screening for risk factors—or monitoring the dose. According to Compton, this is one of the prime problems with non-medical use: “There’s no one looking over your shoulder.” As he says, “There’s a great propensity to minimize and ignore the symptoms because these drugs feel good—that’s part of the problem around becoming addicted—the surreptitious nature of the onset.”

In addition, the effects of the drugs can be exaggerated by the presence of other substances, including alcohol. There is little data on this subject, but the results of one 2011 study indicate that the combination of alcohol and certain amphetamines can elevate heart rates and boost the “good drug effects” of both drugs (compared to either drug alone). As Hart, who participated in the study, explains, “Mixing amphetamines with alcohol can decrease the disrupting effects of alcohol and allow people to drink longer, while at the same time enhance the euphoria.”

The potential interaction of these drugs with other substances makes their use as a “party drug” (or “wings”) worrisome. Indeed, of the 31,244 ADHD drug-related emergency room visits described in the recent SAMHSA report, 25% involved one other drug (19% involved alcohol), and 38% involved two or more other drugs, suggesting that this is a valid concern.

Another troublesome question when it comes to ADHD drugs and addiction is whether they are a “gateway” to the abuse of other drugs. The answer seems to depend on where you sit.

To those like John Schureman, a therapist who has been treating ADHD patients for three decades and who is active in CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), a support group that bills itself as “the nation’s leading nonprofit organization serving individuals with ADHD and their families,” the answer is a resounding “no.” In Shureman’s view, the drugs actually help patients avoid drug abuse because they increase “competent agency.” In other words, they increase a child’s ability to control impulsivity and other symptoms of the disorder, which are linked to poor school performance and risky behaviors—including drug use.

Addiction specialists, however, are less sanguine.

Compton and his colleagues at NIDA, for example, believe that the jury is still out as to whether the medications are a risk factor for the onset of drug abuse later in life. While Compton acknowledges that “we’re not seeing an epidemic of drug abuse in the children who were treated with these agents,” he doesn’t think “the protective benefits are as clearcut either.”

Part of the problem may be the data itself. For instance, while the use of ADHD drugs has been correlated with the use of other illicit substances, no one has isolated or proven causation. In other words, did the ADHD medication or the disorder itself cause the addiction? Moreover, when the ADHD drugs are acquired illegally to begin with, there may be additional factors at work. As Hart notes, “Kids who do these things—who are willing to buy Adderall on the street—may be more likely to experiment or break the law anyway.”

So where does that leave us? What do we do when it comes to these drugs and teenagers? The prudent response is to exert caution—and avoid jumping on the ADHD medication bandwagon too quickly. Thus, in milder cases of ADHD, it might be wise to give behavioral therapies a chance first—a strategy that Hart and Compton endorse. But once the decision is made to medicate, the data suggest that even the more serious risks can be managed with proper diagnosis, screening, and monitoring. (Make no mistake: it’s not that these drugs are not dangerous—some subset of the population is likely to get into trouble with them no matter what—but for those whose lives are impaired by ADHD, the benefits appear to outweigh the risks.) Of course, this means that physicians will need to do a better job. But it also means that parents will need to educate themselves about these substances and get more involved. Simple steps like taking control of the medicine bottle and checking that your teenager actually swallows a pill could go a long way.

But what about for people without ADHD, those who want to use these drugs simply to enhance cognitive performance? Given the risks of unsupervised use, it’s almost impossible to argue that the drugs should be sold over-the-counter, though whether they should be classified with cocaine or whether possession should give rise to a felony is open to debate. But should people be permitted to use the drugs as long as they are screened and monitored by a doctor? After all, if the drugs are safe enough for people with ADHD, then why aren’t they safe enough for “normal” folks?

Bioethicists generally have two answers. First, if we allow non-medical use, we will wind up with a two-tiered system: those who can afford the drug and those who can’t. As a number of commentators have noted, however, this is not a terribly compelling argument. We already live in a world that’s pretty unfair—the cost of living in a capitalistic society. Is this really any different from hiring a tutor or paying for an SAT prep course—two things that our system already permits?

To many, the more persuasive argument is the bioethicists’ second claim: that allowing non-medical use will result in coercion. In other words, even people who don’t want to take the drugs will eventually feel that they must take them in order to compete. (One might legitimately ask whether we are already at that point.) The recent debacle in professional cycling is a case in point: How many of Lance Armstrong’s teammates have said that they felt that they had to use blood doping just to level the playing field? It’s not difficult to imagine a world where employers require workers to take the drugs or where students feel compelled to take the drugs in order to compete. And that is a brave new world that should frighten every parent.

Valerie Seiling Jacobs teaches writing at Columbia University where she is also working on an MFA. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other publications. Before turning to writing, she practiced law for over two decades. She lives with her husband in Westport, Connecticut. You can find her on the web at www.valerieseilingjacobs.com.

This feature story comes from Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, now in its second printing.

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spring2008_mayorI took my son on a bus ride. Boston, Massachusetts, to Ithaca, New York.

In a car, the trip from Boston to Ithaca takes six and a half hours with a pee break; eight if you add a second pit stop with lunch; twelve if you give yourself the quintessential summertime gift of detouring through Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In a Greyhound bus, that same journey inexplicably routes you first through New York City, then New Jersey, then Pennsylvania, then upstate New York till you arrive, like weary Odysseus lo those many centuries before, in Ithaca. Total time, station to station: nine hours, fifty-four minutes.

“It’s an adventure,” I told Connor as we stood waiting for the driver to take our tickets at 7:30 on a July morning already warm enough to heat up and distribute exhaust fumes to every corner of the bus station. In lieu of summer camp, I was taking him to spend a week with my college roommate and her family, his first time far from home without us. “If we hate it, it’s just one day lost out of our lives, and we’ll never do it again.”

Connor banged his forehead against my shoulder in a mock is-this-really-my-life gesture. The impact was enough to send me jumping back to keep my takeout coffee from sloshing on our feet. All spring we’d been dealing with these bodily mishaps–the playful punches that wound up bruising, the hip checks that sent us sprawling across the kitchen.

He was twelve and a half, suddenly just three inches shorter than me, on the edge of something and edgy at home. He’d finished kayak camp in June, already knocked back half a dozen Star Wars novelizations, and seemed committed to spending the rest of the summer idly provoking his brother and interrupting the dog’s nap. It was time, his father and I thought, to get Connor out of his comfort zone.

If discomfort is what we sought, discomfort was what we got. It was freezing inside the bus. Not chilly cold, but meat-locker cold. In my straw bag we’d packed the typical modern array of digital amusements (one laptop, one game system, one cell phone, two iPods) plus a few analog backup devices (two novels, three magazines, a deck of cards) and a pound of M&M Plains that was already hovering on the edge of my radar. But my summer-weight cotton sweater and his requisite ‘tween hoodie were stowed in Connor’s bag underneath the bus, tantalizingly close but irretrievable.

When the bus pulled off the highway a half hour into our trip to pick up more passengers, I popped up the aisle and out into the sunshine to take care of the problem, all jaunty, can-do momitude in my city walking shorts and red leather clogs.

The driver was loading the last of the new luggage into the bay. “My son is cold,” I said to him, smiling, rubbing my hands together to show him what I meant, hoping that when he heard the word “son” he pictured a shivering infant rather than a strapping twelve-year-old. “I thought I’d just grab our sweaters real quick.”

He turned his face slightly in my direction, not meeting my eye, then turned silently back to the bay. It was completely packed. Leaning in, I couldn’t see even a corner of our duffle in the back.

I got back on the bus. Connor had retracted his arms inside his T-shirt like a turtle. “How many hours to New York?” he asked, aghast. “Four,” I told him, which wasn’t true; it was four and a half. “Take my clogs. They’re warmer.” He unstrapped his river sandals.

For what would be the only time in our lives, we were wearing the exact same shoe size. We swapped footwear, wrapped ourselves around each other like puppies and looked out the cold window at the sun-warmed world outside, the wildflowers on the side of the highway waving in the hot breeze as we blasted by.

“Why are you taking the bus?” people had asked in the week before our departure, in tones that suggested urine-soaked seatmates, dirty terminals, and probable criminal behavior against one’s person and possessions. “Gas isn’t that high.”

Gas was indeed that high, but not yet as high as two Greyhound tickets. Moreover, we had two perfectly good working vehicles in our driveway, and I’d made the run to Ithaca dozens of times before. I adore road trips. One summer, a friend and I drove nine thousand miles in a big loop around the country in a tiny car the color of a pencil with no air-conditioning, and often we logged five hundred miles in a day no problem.

But I was twenty-four then, not forty-four. Now in a typical week I drive the same roads over and over at the same time of day, and many afternoons I find myself staring through the windshield with all the mental acuity of a goldfish in its bowl. Much as I hate to admit it, a tiny part of me wasn’t sure I could trust myself to pay attention for that long anymore.

Plus, I was sick of being in charge. On the highway, you feel duty-bound as a driver to judge your fellow travelers as you maneuver in and around one another, pulling ahead to pass them or switching lanes to let them blow by you doing eighty-five. You feel obligated to at least consider calling the cops about the way that mattress is hanging off the back end of the pickup ahead of you.

And if you’re a twelve-year-old boy and your mother is at the wheel and the journey is long, it’s simply impossible not to see her as an eminently lobbyable person, someone who might at any moment agree to exit the highway and head for that Quiznos over there, or stop for the laser tag or putt-putt golf advertised on that billboard, or buy a Big Bag of Skittles at the Stop ‘n’ Go, or detour to Howe Caverns, if only she’s asked frequently enough at sufficiently random intervals.

In the bus, we are driven. The driver is in charge, and because it’s clear from the outset he’s not going to stop for Skittles, we don’t ask. We sit next to one another as equals, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, riding companionably with our fellow travelers, each of us on our own journey but together for now in the same bus hurtling communally down the highway.

As we got closer to New York, we did the things done by New Englanders who don’t get down there much. We hissed out the window, as dutiful Red Sox fans should, at Shea Stadium in the distance; pressed our foreheads against the glass to watch the foreign world of the Bronx whisk past; said things like, “there’s the Triborough Bridge,” but not too loudly in case we were all turned around and that was in fact the Whitestone Bridge we were looking at; passed landmarks even Northern rubes like us couldn’t miss–the Museum of Natural History, Central Park–and then suddenly we were sucked from the daylight into the dark maw of Port Authority.

Connor unfurled our yard-long ribbon of fan-folded tickets to figure out our timetable. “Great news,” he reported. It seemed we had almost two hours before our next bus–to Binghamton–pulled out. Plenty of time, he figured, to bop up to the Nintendo World megastore at Rockefeller Center.

As it turned out, we had just enough time to navigate through three levels of the building, utterly lost, before finding the departure gate to Binghamton, where the only bus of the afternoon was leaving immediately, our tickets’ printed departure time be damned.

This bus was warmer, better. The seats were higher, the windows bigger, the clientele different enough (old couples rather than young students) to make us feel we’d been somewhere, traveled somehow. We lurched out of the terminal, dropped into the shabby cavern of the Lincoln Tunnel, and then we were done–out of New York just as quickly as we’d gone in.

As the day wore on, Connor listened to his music, eyes open but unseeing, staring absently at the houndstooth check of the upholstery in front of him. I looked at my boy, his face so close to mine, with his high cheekbones and thick brown hair standing on end in places and his caramel-colored eyes, the lip that may or may not have the faintest beginning of fuzz on it, his smooth skin with the tiniest hints of pores to come. Short, thick eyelashes. Almond-shaped eyes, straight nose. He is a dead ringer for his father, only purer. More intense.

Connor turned, pulling out an ear bud. “What are you looking at?” he said.

“Nothing,” I told him.

Loving an adolescent is a lot like being an adolescent—you have to hide the intensity of your feelings, the sheer volume and volubility of your emotions, lest you scare off the people around you. “Break out those M&Ms,” I said.

For lunch, we ate orange peanut-butter-crackers, a little box each of raisins, and as much candy as we could handle at one time without feeling sick. In between, Connor described in exhaustive detail how to win when playing “Age of Empires.” (Hint: Destroy the other armies one at a time.) Then we played Crazy 8s, one of the few card games that lends itself to the tight confines of a bus seat, followed by, when we got bored with the 8s, Crazy 7s, Crazy 2s and Crazy Aces. Connor laughed out loud at how easy it was to fool me by playing the wild card from the previous game.

In Binghamton, it dawned on us that the two-something hours we’d managed to pick up along the journey were to be squandered in a bus station that overlooked another bus station in one direction and three crumbling parking lots in the others. There were no earlier buses to Ithaca, now a frustratingly close fifty minutes away.

We walked once around the outside of the building, just to be outdoors, but a hot wind was blowing dirt through the air and our luggage, which we didn’t dare to leave unattended inside, was heavy. We were the only two people out of doors who weren’t there to smoke. This, I said to myself as we retreated back inside, is what people were imagining when they had said, “You’re taking the bus?”

Connor checked my cell phone for messages (there were none), then compensated by leaving a long mournful message for his father and brother on our home answering machine that made our entire journey sound simultaneously disastrous and boring, while I talked over him in the background, saying things like “That’s not true,” and “It’s not so bad.”

On the bus to Ithaca, our last and shortest hop, I tried to think what I should say to Connor about his upcoming week away that wouldn’t sound like micromanaging–advice about how to handle his laundry, how to politely eat around food he didn’t like, how to share a single bathroom with five people, how it was possible at the same time to feel horribly homesick and be having a wonderful time.

In the end, it all seemed like too much yap, so I said none of it, settling instead on an all-purpose maxim. “Try to be more polite with them than you are with us,” I said. We both laughed.

“I’m going to miss you, pup,” I told him, fluffing his hair.

He shrugged. “I’ll IM you.”

We arrived in Ithaca on time to the minute, 5:24 p.m. Our friends took us straight from the bus station to their boat, and as the warm summer evening spread like glass over Cayuga Lake, our trip began already to feel like something we did once, as a lark, a long time ago.

Going home alone the next day was a different kind of journey. The bus headed straight north to Syracuse, mounting the long, slow hill that climbs for miles high above the lake, then back across the New York State Thruway and the Mass Pike, as direct a trip as you could want.

I sat by myself in a window seat and did something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager myself: read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one summer day. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a book so pitch-perfect that every once in a while I had to put it down for a moment, out of respect for its flawlessness. During those pauses I stared out the window and let my thoughts swim around the edges of my boy, stopping here and there on practical things. Had he remembered to bring an extra pair of sneakers, as I had asked him to? Did I give him enough money for the movies, and, if I did, had he put it somewhere where he’d be able to find it again?

But my thoughts kept sliding closer to the essence of our trip. He hadn’t asked for any of this; I had been the one to set it all in motion. But he hadn’t said no, either. We might miss each other terribly, or we might both be perfectly fine. Either way, there was nothing to do now but let the hours unfold until the week was up and I was back again.

I felt hollow under the breastbone and tight at the base of my throat. Missing someone fiercely feels a little like anxiety and a little like grief, but it’s lighter, more buoyant. It’s just plain love, only stretched out long.

As the bus headed east toward Boston, the afternoon slant of the summer sun on the wide window created a hovering double reflection, with an image of the interior of the bus superimposed against the picture of the world outside. I looked out and watched the country flying past and, at the same moment, my own self hurtling forward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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The Difference a Mother Makes

The Difference a Mother Makes

By Anne-Christine Strugnell

WO Difference a mom makes art v2I’ve always been interested in brain development, but having two teenagers has driven me to learn more. Like any mom, I want to provide them what they need—and figure out how to make them into the people I want them to be.

So at 5:30 a.m. every school day I’ve been getting up to exercise on the elliptical trainer in my living room and watch the latest DVD installment of a 36-part Teaching Company series on neuroscience. At 6:15 I finish the lecture and start my mom day: knock on my son’s door and my daughter’s, make her a cup of sugar-free non-fat hot cocoa, and put it on the bathroom counter so she will unknowingly build critical bone mass while applying thick black eyeliner. I make lunch for the kids—sandwiches and organic apples—and watch the clock to keep our carpooling commitments. And in the midst of all this nurturing, I think about neuroscience.

I got off to a good start with this course. In one early episode, the lecturer, neuroscientist Sam Wang, talked about the Mozart effect, a concept that infants who listened to Mozart became more intelligent, creative, and focused than those whose neglectful mothers—like me—played mostly rock. The Mozart effect was all the rage when my kids were babies, and some women in my newborn’s play group looked at me like I belonged in mommy prison when I turned down the chance to buy the CD, the book, and the video. Dr. Wang dismissed the Mozart effect as sense- less hype. From then on, he had total credibility with me.

There were other reasons to listen to him: he’s an associate professor at Princeton, coauthor of a bestselling book about brain function, and the winner of some major awards in his field. I had to remind myself of his credentials just a few episodes later, when I felt tempted to write him off after his teachings put me in the maternal doghouse. Turns out, I should have taught my kids to speak a foreign language before they turned three. I should have played specific games designed in the clinic to build their intellectual and social abilities. But now it was too late. I had doomed them to being outpaced and humiliated by all those kids whose parents had trained them properly. I crept off the elliptical at the end of that lecture, chastened. Why had I not carried out extensive research and acted on the latest findings when they were infants? What could possibly have been more important?

I returned the next morning grimly determined to hear the worst. Dr. Wang was going to talk about personality, heredity, and environment. I thought for sure that this lecture would unleash a withering internal blamestorm. But I was wrong.

Dr. Wang informed me that heredity determines between 30 to 50% of personality and intellectual potential. No blame here: I got my genes without choosing, and passed them on the same way. And since their dad contributed the other half, I’ve decided only to claim the qualities that I like. When they show artistic gifts, I remind them about the artists in my family. If they later develop any tendencies toward addiction or depression—well, those could have come from anywhere.

Environment shapes the remaining 50 to 70% of personality. I perked up. Though I’d have to take the blame for everything they do wrong, I could also claim credit for some of their accomplishments. Good grades—well, who reviewed all those flash cards with them? Self-confidence and poise—who sent them to drama camp? Who always encouraged their dreams, praised effort but not accomplishment, and linked actions with logical consequences to help build strong characters? That would be me.

But Dr. Wang wasn’t dishing out either blame or praise. He said that though parents love to think they can make a difference, children have innate tendencies that are very hard to influence—which I have to admit I had already noticed. In fact, he said, parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.

As with all the most important teaching points in the lecture, the words appeared on screen. “Parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.”

The most influential factors are pre-natal health, environment, the presence of siblings, peer groups, and chance events. Parents, not so much.

At first this seemed like bad news. Bad, as in, “I’ve wasted the past 16 years.”

The lecture ended and I automatically went about my cocoa-making, door-knocking, and sandwich-stacking, mulling it all over. If parenting has “relatively little” influence, let’s say that’s about 10 percent of environment. Environment is the shaping force for only 50 percent of personality, which would mean parenting style has about a five percent influence on my children’s personalities. And since my children spend half their time with their father—who raises them with near-total disregard for my input—that cuts my influence on them in half, to a mere 2.5 percent. The smallness of that number, its ridiculous insignificance, might have tipped a more conscientious mom into an existential tailspin. But in my shock I saw the upside of buying into that number: If my children drop out of college, fall in with a bad crowd and become criminals, or never master the basics of personal hygiene, I’ll be able to say it’s really not my fault.

For the first few days after this revelation, knowing that I just wasn’t that important was freeing. So what if my kids turned projects in late, did sloppy work, or wore wrinkled clothing? Their victories and failures were their own, nothing to do with me. And just to make sure my fellow moms knew that I was not to be judged by my kids’ actions, I spread the word about the 2.5 percent. Every time, it was like instant Botox on furrowed maternal brows.

But before I took this point to its logical conclusion—buying a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to wait out the rest of their adolescence in peace—I looked again at the categories and realized something key.

News flash for those statisticians out there: “environment” doesn’t just hap- pen. Baked into that bland term is all the work that parents do every single day to raise their children well. It takes me and all the moms and dads on my street hours of work each day, both inside and outside the home. It takes our silent competitiveness, our parental arms race of checking what the other parents are doing, what scores the other kids are getting, and how our kid comes off in a group. Those “environment” numbers submerge my nutritional nagging and card-flashing into the bigger pool of my fellow camp-sending and homework- policing parents, but my individual contribution counts for my kids—way beyond 2.5 percent.

So instead of waking to the sound of monkeys and jungle birds, I still start each morning with my alarm clock. I make cocoa, nudge my teens to eat right and exercise, check in about homework, set boundaries, and ask whose house they’ll be at that afternoon. It’s what they need me to do. Still, I find myself longing to make a difference to my children, in my own particular, individual, slightly off-beat way. Two point five percent suggests that would they be pretty much just the same if one of the other moms in the carpool raised them.

I told my friend Varda about the 2.5 percent. Varda has always seemed supremely confident and happy about her four “fantastic!” grown children and her three grandchildren. She smiled and brushed past the surface topic, getting right to the heart of what was troubling me.

“You know the moment when I knew I was a good mom?” she asked me.

I shook my head. I couldn’t imagine her ever questioning whether she was a good mother.

“It was when my kids were very young—between four and eight—and the doctors told me I had cancer and would be dead in two years,” said Varda. “That’s when I knew that nobody—nobody!— could raise my children like I could.”

I understood what she meant. Maybe my unique contribution is only 2.5 five percent different from all the things any mom in my socioeconomically homog- enous neighborhood would do. But look at any recipe: 2.5 percent could be the vanilla that makes a sugar cookie not just sweet but delicious, the yeast that lifts the loaf, or the chilies that transform, define, and even rename an otherwise bland bean stew. It can make all the difference.

Author’s Note: Several times a week, at least, I remind myself—with gratitude and relief— that I have only so much power to shape the direction of my children’s lives. Freed from the crushing sense of complete responsibility, I can focus more on that elusive 2.5 percent. I ask myself, What do I value about myself that I want to show my children in this moment? And the beauty of it is, it’s usually the fun- loving, whimsical part of me that emerges in response to this question. I think we’re all richer as a result.

Anne-Christine Strugnell is a mother of two teens and a self-employed professional writer whose personal essays have appeared in MORE, SELF, Christian Science Monitor, and three volumes of the Cup of Comfort anthology series. Although learning about brain science didn’t help her to transform her teens, she still enjoys starting her mornings with scientific, philosophical, and historical lecture series from The Teaching Company.

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There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

By Christine Ritenis

Waffle ArtIt begins, as usual, with a frozen waffle. It isn’t toasted properly; it is too crisp, too soggy, not hot enough, or burned, according to my high school sophomore (let’s call her Nicole). Today, a Friday, the waffle is insufficiently warm.

My face reddens and I sense the upward surge of a normally low blood pressure when the complaint registers. I always prepare it the same way: first toasting it on “light,” and then, when I hear Nicole padding down the upstairs hall to the bathroom, heating it a second time, carefully spinning the gauge to the machine’s “perfect” mark. The toaster lies. There is no such thing as perfect.

“I did what I do every day,” I snap at the disgruntled teen, whose blue eyes have barely opened enough at 6:00 a.m. to see the thing.

“It’s not hot at all,” she responds, fidgeting with sleep-mussed hair.

My voice pitches high. “Eat your waffle.”

“Stop! Just sto-o-o-o-o-p,” Nicole then says, stretching the “o” sound to infinity.

On cue, I start to cry. “I love it when you tell me to ‘stop!’ every morning,” I retort, whining like a two-year old. “It’s a great way to begin the day.” I think, but don’t say, that I’ve raised a spoiled brat. The sobbing comes next (mine, not hers). “Just because you stay up too late doesn’t mean you have to take it out on me.”

“Overreacting,” the only child mutters, lowering her eyes.

I blubber something argumentative, but unintelligible.

“Overreacting,” she repeats, as she cuts the crusts off the waffle and nibbles calmly on the lukewarm center.

She’s right. I am overreacting, but months of near constant physical pain in the neck, head, and foot have taken their toll, and having a fit is my normal response to stress these days. The word “stop” from Nicole has become a trigger that sets off rampages I can’t control. Embarrassing tantrums from a middle-aged mother who remained unruffled through all of her daughter’s previous crises—injuries to the dog, squabbles with friends, failed acting auditions— even undercooked waffles.

“You’ll make your own breakfast starting next week!” I scream, unaware that a hurricane will ravage the area on Monday, that there will be bigger worries than waffles. I’d likely have forgotten by then anyway. In fact, the entire incident will be relegated to the past by noon, except for the self-reproach. That will remain, strapped to my back like a too-heavy pack, further aggravating the already sensitive spine.

My psychiatrist told me that unwarranted violent outbursts are signs of a deep depressive disorder. We were talking about my 86-year-old father—he’s been raging without end at the staff of his senior citizen residence—but I recognized the symptom in myself as well. My father has been overly needy since he left his house several months ago, forced to relocate by my mother and me out of concern for his safety. He calls daily, often before dawn, and generally in a state of frenzy. He demands numerous visits, including weekly rides to have his nails cut, multiple trips to the bank (he’s unaccustomed to using the telephone for business matters), and endless grocery runs, especially for chocolate, cookies, and Diet 7-Up. He claims that the cleaning staff interrupts him on the toilet and accuses the aides of stealing his blankets. He is exhausting, his life a perpetual string of crises, emergencies, and absurdity, a tragicomedy starring a hunched-over old man with his crazed daughter in a critical supporting role.

When hysteria washes over me, tsunami-like, and cannot be contained, I worry that I’ve inherited his predilection for drama. A family member (it might have been Nicole) recently pointed out a sliver of spinach that had caught between my teeth at dinner. Ordinarily I would have plucked the offending strand from my mouth. Done. On this evening, I spun into a childlike frenzy. That casual comment felt as hurtful to me as hearing “no” can be to a youngster, and I morphed into that bawling stomping toddler in the mall, the one that insists on ice cream—the parents apologizing with horrified looks—that drives other patrons away. When the vocal tempest ended, I stormed upstairs, slipped into bed, and wept great pools of salty tears. About spinach.

Nicole knows that I’m seeing a doctor for feelings of sadness. We haven’t dis- cussed depression, but she witnesses the constant crying and fits of temper. The observant 15-year-old has undoubtedly reduced it all to one easy-to-understand word: overreaction. Our quarrels, however, are normal. “I’m a teenager. This is the time we’re supposed to be fighting,” she insists. She often rewards me with hugs and declarations of love after- wards, but they don’t compensate for my humiliation. I wish that depression were a life stage, a sort of midlife crisis, and could be ended by simply climbing a mountain or buying a shiny red convertible. I wish I didn’t feel responsibility for symptoms I can’t rein in.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the bizarre blow-ups and typical parent-teen bickering. Would a non-depressed mother erupt when a daughter rolls her eyes or refuses to start her homework or help around the house? In calm moments, I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Every parent must be tempted to yell, maybe shout at a youngster on occasion, but my tirades are grossly out of proportion with Nicole’s offenses. Think waffle.

Parents avoid certain actions in front of their children: cursing, drinking to excess, speaking ill of others, and losing control. We’re supposed to be adults, after all. I’ve been successful at refraining from swearing, unless you count calling the occasional bad driver an idiot, and Nicole hasn’t seen me abuse alcohol. I try not to gripe about my father, even when he’s acting foolish, which happens often. It’s the sniveling and wailing, the roaring, the storming about, and the general instability, much like Monday’s hurricane that felled hundred-year-old trees, pulling them out at the roots, some lifting the ground on which they stood, that’s scary.

I despise it, this illness. I want to rid myself of a disease I don’t discuss openly, the disorder that threatens to crack the foundation of our family life. I wasn’t always an unbalanced terror. Until recently, I could restrain unnatural emotional responses. The culprit is obvious. The unrelenting pain started the witch-like behavior, pain that first aggravated and annoyed and eventually became unbearable. Pain that continues, despite foot surgery each of the last three years, and a cervical spine fusion in January.

Pre-pain, I relieved stress through marathon running and an entire identity was tied to the sport. The vanity license plate on my car says IRUNALOT, but I refuse to replace it, a small act of defiance that will never recover what is lost. Now I can barely walk three miles and I shriek at my teen and become overly frustrated with my father and rely on my husband to keep it all together. Not one of us is happy.

It would require a simple keyboard click to unsubscribe, but I still receive Runner’s World magazine online Quotes of the Day, inspirational sayings that once motivated, but now irritate me, like this morning’s from Ben Logsdon: “There is no time to think about how much I hurt; there is only time to run.” I’m sure he’s talking about pain that a marathoner experiences, the type I was accustomed to, like racing 26.2 miles in freezing rain with a sprained ankle. He’s right. It’s possible to ignore almost any discomfort if the end is in sight, even 20 miles away. But when—despite the efforts of a medical team that recommends new sneakers, more supportive orthotics, a variety of pain meds, multiple steroid injections to the foot and spine, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, surgery, and more physical therapy—there is no visible conclusion, and each day and week and month is a dizzying migraine of pounding, stabbing, and throbbing agony, whether of the foot or neck or head, there is little time to think about anything else. It is all consuming. Work, household chores, and errands play a distant secondary role and parenting the way I’d like has become impossible. That is the pain that causes insanity.

To most people, I look normal, and behave as I always did. Doing my job. Getting by with minimum effort and an abundance of take-out. My family suffers the misery, mostly in the evening when we’re all grumpy, and the affliction is at its worst. By day’s end I bawl if that rare home-cooked dinner is a failure or Nicole casts me a disapproving glance. When I imagine myself in full tantrum, I see a 52-year-old graying-blond toddler, face scrunched and crimson, as if I’m looking into a fun- house mirror where mother inexplicably becomes child.

Medication regulates my mood. Usually I function in neutral, not unduly joyful, but not particularly sad either. (It’s a good place to be, the physician assured me.) The pills haven’t been effective at reducing the number or force of the outbursts and I fear the impact of such volatility on my teen. Will she, too, flare up for no rea- son, like her mother and grandfather before her? She’s remarked that we’re alike, and that’s why we argue. I’ve also noted a new testiness and wonder if, inadvertently, she’s mimicking my behavior. Instead of sympathizing if I complain that a headache is particularly bad, she’ll mouth off, “NOW you’ll be cranky.” The temptation to lash out is overwhelming, until I realize that she’s probably acting like a typical teenager. Or maybe not. In my delicate state, it’s challenging to differentiate regular teen sass from bad behavior.

At the coffee shop where I write after the recent hurricane, the patrons share tables, power cords, and conversation, and the manager puts me in charge of answering the phone during an early rush. “May I help you? Yes, we’re open,” I repeat to each caller. “Yes, we have WiFi.” When an affable young man in a costume walks in, I remember that it’s Halloween, a holiday I’d nearly forgotten. Suddenly I notice the calm community that has developed in this customarily frenetic place. With schools closed, Nicole is asleep in our dark and unheated home. I wish she could wit- ness the friendliness of people pulling together under duress. She should see me as relaxed as I am now, telephone receiver and decaf coffee in hand. I want her to experience the old me, an energetic and spontaneous mom who doesn’t fall apart for random reasons. The mom who takes her and three friends to an amusement park and rides with them on Down Time, where we scream happily through the entire 185-foot drop. The mom who drives into a blizzard to visit the Crayola Factory so that we can avoid crowds. Not the mom who is angry, unmotivated, and requires afternoon naps. Does she remember that better person?

Earlier this week, when the misery became intolerable, a specialist again injected my spine with steroids. The doctor said that if this treatment worked, there could be residual discomfort for up to two weeks. I’ve done this all before and wasn’t optimistic, but the neck and head torment have begun to diminish. Naturally I’m now more conscious of how much my foot still hurts. It’s unclear whether this partial fix will lessen the depression, but there are positive signs.

Nicole complained about her waffle this morning, the one she would have toasted herself, had I recalled my pre- storm threat.

“Sorry,” I replied evenly.

She continued to eat. “There must be something wrong with the toaster.”

There isn’t, but I didn’t argue, and the meal remained peaceful. It was that easy. A normal mother and her teenager survive the morning routine without incident. (Some days from now I will learn how to toast the waffle to my daughter’s satisfaction, a skill that, unfortunately, will not last.)

By 7:00 a.m. Nicole is on the bus, and I decide to try a short jog. My father calls as I’m getting ready, leaving a message on my cell phone, but I disregard the interruption, lace my sneakers, and set off. It’s my kind of running weather, an early bright sky with a chill in the air. Without thinking, I begin what used to be a regular route. I start slowly, measuring my body’s response, observing the surroundings. Despite the massive pines that were felled by the storm, it didn’t tear all the leaves off the deciduous trees, as if to remind me that fall hasn’t yet ended. My toes cramp a bit, but not badly, so I speed up in the second mile, avoiding downed wires and tree limbs at the sides of suburban streets. Even with workday noise, it’s peaceful. The rhythm, the pounding. I smile as I break into a sweat, remembering other miles when layers were shed and turtlenecks felt too snug. Breathing rapidly, I take a quarter mile walk break and then run again, walking and running at intervals until I complete the loop, 4.2 miles. A feeling I had missed returns, barely recognizable. This, I believe, is contentment.

Still glowing, I listen to my father’s pre-sunup message. He called to say “hello,” nothing more.

After school, Nicole and I share news over a snack. She says that her day was fine; I tell her about my run. Nicole looks hopeful and asks if I’m feeling better, perhaps pitching for a trip to buy jeans at the mall. Although the question is simple, I sense its importance and think before answering. “Yes,” I finally respond, “I am feeling better.” Later I inform my husband that Nicole was in a good mood. “For a change,” he replies with a grin, having tolerated the months of drama with steadfast grace. On the edge of sleep that night it comes to me. I had a good day too, not quite, but almost perfect.

Author’s Note: When I began to craft this essay, I feared revealing weakness, worried that I’d be expelled from carpool duties. Yet as I chatted with friends, I learned that some of them too suffer from depression. “I’ve been taking Prozac for years,” one said, laughing. That alone freed me to write openly. In recent weeks, while storm cleanup continues, my doctor and I have cobbled together a more effective mix of medication. At the same time, Nicole has decided that difficult-to-botch breakfast sausages are vastly preferable to waffles.

When not shuttling her teenager or father around the suburbs, CHRISTINE RITENIS writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared in Still CrazyThe Fiddleback, and The Writing Disorder. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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Mothering from Afar

By Katy Read

Kim Voichescu was running into conflicts with the staff at her sons’ school. Sometimes she was kept from seeing her kids’ records or picking up her boys after school. She suspected that people there might secretly doubt her qualifications as a parent. One day, a school secretary came right out and said it to her face:

“Well, you’re not a real mother.”

Voichescu is a real mother, but she doesn’t live with her children. She doesn’t have physical custody of her two boys, now ten and thirteen, but she does share joint legal custody with their father, and that entitles her to access their educational records and to other parental rights.

For Voichescu, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars and years in court fighting to get physical custody, the secretary’s comment was a pin against a big balloon of pent-up frustration. Now, a year later, Voichescu can’t remember exactly what she said to the woman, but clearly recalls it left the secretary gaping wordlessly.

“I wish I could relive it and put it on the Internet where it would live as one of those speeches for all eternity,” recalls Voichescu, thirty-four, of Diamond, Illinois, a project manager for a civil engineering and land surveying firm. “It was one of those occasions when you walk out of a place and you feel like a shining light is upon you. [The unspoken prejudice] had been undulating under the surface for so long that I couldn’t pinpoint it. But she actually said it.”

The suspicion that people secretly doubt their fitness as parents haunts most noncustodial mothers—even loving, caring, law-abiding mothers who’ve always acted in their children’s best interests.

Their worries are not unfounded. As a society, we don’t quite know what to make of mothers who don’t live with their kids. Whether it’s expressed openly or not, society still tends to assume that the mother is the parent mainly in charge of caring for children, and the one best equipped to do it well, the one to whom most of the responsibility rightly falls. A father pushing his child in a stroller draws charmed smiles—Wow, what a great dad, helping out!—from people who wouldn’t look twice at a woman behind the stroller, just doing her job.

When parents are separated or divorced, it’s often assumed that the kids live with her. If the father lives in a different household or is out of the picture entirely, it may not be ideal, but it’s not unusual. Sure, we’re no longer surprised that some children of divorce pack their bags and shuttle between parents every other week. But when the roles are completely reversed—when Dad has the kids and does all the domestic duties and Mom lives somewhere else—the old gender stereotypes come rushing back into play. People wonder what went wrong. They assume the noncustodial mother must have deserted her children or had them taken away. Did she hit them? Leave them home alone while she went bar-hopping? Leave them in order to “go find herself”?

If those thoughts actually don’t go through your mind when you meet a noncustodial mother, you can bet that the fear of what you’re thinking probably is going through her mind. Rather than face odd looks, intrusive questions, or rude remarks, some noncustodial moms say they keep their kids’ photos off their desks at work, avoid mentioning their children, and wonder when to break the news to new acquaintances that they are, in fact, real mothers. They often suffer guilt, confusion, sadness, and depression.

“You can’t believe the discrimination and bias that people have toward you,” says Voichescu, who now carries around laminated copies of her custody papers wherever she goes. “It’s like you are an alien.”

Noncustodial mothers like Voichescu might feel like cultural oddities, but they are actually far from alone. There are about 2.2 million noncustodial mothers in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census records. The reasons women live apart from their children are many, of course, including a move, a job, family preference, a prison sentence, or a court order. Some noncustodial mothers live near their children; some live in different cities or states or countries (the last group includes women who come to the United States from other countries to work as nannies or maids in order to support children they’ve had to leave back home).

Some women retain the right to share physical custody of their children, even if they choose to live elsewhere and not exercise it. Some share legal custody—that is, they retain the right to make decisions on behalf of their children, even if they don’t live together. And some have neither.

Some see their kids frequently; others rarely. Some have good relationships with their children and their children’s fathers, “other mothers,” or legal guardians; others find that hostile former partners have turned their children against them. And, yes, some actually have behaved in ways that caused the court to deem them inadequate parents: committed a crime, abused drugs, abused or neglected their kids.

The number of noncustodial mothers is increasing, in part because family courts have moved from always assigning custody to mothers toward deciding what works best for a particular child’s situation, whether it’s having the parents share custody or assigning it to one parent or the other. But many noncustodial mothers live apart from their children willingly, because of a job or school situation, because of individual relationships or preferences within the family, or for other personal reasons.

Even among these ostensibly voluntary arrangements, made privately or informally within families, some situations are actually “a little more gray,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who conducted a pioneering study of noncustodial mothers in the 1980s. For example, he says, a woman might say, “I divorced my husband and I need to earn more money and I can’t do that if I have [to pay for] child care. My husband happened to start his career ten years sooner, while I was home taking care of the children. He has more job flexibility; he can pay for a babysitter.” In cases like that, the mothers gave up custody willingly, Greif says, meaning they didn’t fight in court. “But it’s sort of unwilling, based on the roles of men and women in society,” he says. “Men make more than women. He gets to reap the benefit of that.”

As for women unwillingly separated from their children by court order, there, too, is a lot of gray. Their status may mean that they willingly signed over their rights for various reasons, or it may mean they lost the legal battle with their children’s father. When there is a dispute over custody, parents don’t always enter a courtroom on equal footing, financially or otherwise. Some women—especially former stay-at-home mothers who did not have a career or separate finances—can’t afford lawyers and lengthy court fights. Ginna Babcock, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Idaho, who has studied noncustodial parents of both sexes, says many women lose custody “essentially by default.”

Even women who can afford the legal costs may face disadvantages in court, Babcock explains. If the father has a new wife at home, some judges reason that if a mother works full time, her child would have to go into daycare, while the father’s new wife could provide a presumably more stable home environment, she says. “In other words, many of the women in my study ‘couldn’t win.’ “

Janet, thirty, would recognize that feeling. She says her ex, who physically abused her, comes from a prominent family and has friends in the court system in their small Midwestern community. He forced her to hand over custody when their daughter was just two months old, grabbing Janet by the neck and brandishing papers for her to sign, threatening that if she didn’t, she and the baby “will never leave this house.” She has spent six thousand dollars trying to regain custody of her now six-year-old girl. Recently, her new husband was laid off, her own hours are being cut, and she’s running out of options.

“It’s a game, and if you don’t have the money, you’re going to lose,” says Janet, who asked that her identity be concealed in order to protect her daughter. “When mothers don’t have custody of their children, it doesn’t mean they were negligent or that they didn’t care about their kids or that they didn’t want their kids all the time. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who’s got the better attorney, who’s got the better connections.”

The history of child-custody policy is one of flip-flops. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to contribute to the family’s income and thus were seen as a form of property, says Diana Gustafson, author of the 2005 book Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence. Fathers, who generally provided their financial support, were assumed to have the right to their custody. After the Industrial Revolution, the outlook started to change. Children’s rights were given more attention, and mothers came to be seen as “naturally more able to nurture,” she says. That gave rise to the “Tender Years Doctrine,” a legal concept from the late nineteenth century that presumes that during a child’s “tender” years (generally, up to age thirteen), children belong with their mothers.

“There were exceptions where the mothers were judged to be so unfit that they weren’t able to care for the children,” Gustafson says. “That’s where a lot of the stigma of not having care of your children comes from. Because it was seen as natural for mothers to take care of their children, there’s something unnatural about you if you can’t.”

In recent decades, the overriding concept in child-custody cases has shifted from the Tender Years Doctrine to the “Best Interests of the Children” doctrine, a newer legal concept in which decisions about living arrangements are based on children’s individual situations, theoretically without regard to the parents’ gender. Family courts still have tended to favor mothers as the primary caregivers, says Jill Miller Zimon of Cleveland, a lawyer and social worker who has worked on behalf of families and providers involved in the court and social service systems. That attitude is changing, however, as a result of evolving gender roles, employment patterns, pressure from fathers’ rights groups, and other social developments.

But society hasn’t fully caught onto the fact that the term “noncustodial mother” no longer suggests, as it once might have, that the child was forcibly removed because of the mother’s inadequacy.

“Clearly that’s not the case anymore,” Miller Zimon says, “but there’s not been an effort to really change the image of that.”

If mothers who lose their legal rights to their children discomfit us, what emotions do we reserve for intelligent, loving, competent mothers who voluntarily choose to live apart from their children?

“Society expects a mom who basically ‘abandons’ her children to sort of slink off guiltily, and the hero single dad to come in and save the day,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, twenty-nine, an articulate, affable New York media manager at a nonprofit media-advocacy organization who happens to not live with her son, eleven.

When Spicuglia, who writes the NonCustodial Parent Community blog (ncp-community.blogspot.com), relinquished physical custody of her son about nine years ago, it wasn’t against her will, and she is not fighting to have him live with her.

Though she may face less overt prejudice than noncustodial mothers who have “misbehaved,” her situation confounds society’s collective assumptions even more deeply. “When you’re a mom and your kids don’t live with you, there’s a look in someone’s eyes that you can see a mile away,” Spicuglia says. “They’re wondering why. Were you on drugs? What did you do? The imagination goes crazy.”

When Spicuglia meets new people, she has learned not to mention her son, not right away at least. At twenty-nine, she has spent much of the past decade living and working among students and young professionals, where the subject of children doesn’t often come up. Spicuglia waits to mention it only when she has time for The Explanation: the tale of how her son lives in California with her ex-husband because of a series of decisions Spicuglia made as she progressed in her education and career. She seems to feel obligated to clarify: “There were never any issues of me being a bad mom or anything like that.”

“Once you tell someone you’re a mom, they want to know what school your child goes to and they want to ask all the kid questions,” she says. “I believe that in general, people are very understanding. But I think that because this is something most people don’t think of or haven’t heard of, it’s just something that needs to be explained. For a long time, I didn’t have the energy to explain it to people. It took me a long time to really own it.”

As with most such stories, hers is not particularly short or simple. Spicuglia, who lived with her own divorced dad when she was a kid, got pregnant at seventeen. She married her son’s father, a co-worker in a restaurant in Santa Maria, California. He lived among his large Mexican family, which she describes as “so incredible in all its beautiful traditions, people everywhere, relatives just loving each other and lots of great food.”

When their son was about a year old, Spicuglia’s husband returned to Mexico to deal with some immigration red tape, and their son accompanied him. Spicuglia had been taking community college film classes; while they were gone, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant.

When her husband returned, the couple moved back in together, but soon realized they “wanted different things” from life, she says, and decided to split up. Spicuglia was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. She left her son with his dad’s family while she waited for family-student housing. At that stage, both parents assumed the boy would live with his mother.

Unexpectedly, a year and a half went by, during which time Spicuglia worked, attended classes, and visited her son as often as possible. When her name reached the top of the family housing list, she called her ex-husband to tell him. He announced that he had changed his mind: He now felt the boy would be better off living with him and his extended family, rather than be placed in daycare while Spicuglia attended school.

“It was a huge shock for me,” she says. “This was not what I’d wanted, not what I had ever expected to happen. But I was faced with a decision to either challenge this in the courts or I could reexamine the situation from a more objective and loving standpoint and try and see if what his father was saying was true. Maybe that is a better place for him to be. When I looked at that, I realized that his dad had so much more to offer than I did.”

Spicuglia retained shared legal custody, got her degree, and moved to New York, where she remarried a couple of years ago. She does her best to keep up with her son’s activities long distance, although, like Voichescu, she has run into problems. School officials have left her off of her son’s emergency-contact information, neglected to send copies of the report cards, and have made her get authorization from his father to release records although legally she isn’t required to provide it.

“The school system is not set up to include noncustodial parents in any way, even though legally noncustodial parents have the right to equal access to educational records, to make decisions for their children,” she says. It’s ironic, she adds, that although educators know that parental involvement is important for students’ academic success, “I’m out there begging to be part of my son’s education, and I’ve hit roadblocks and apathy at every turn.”

The worst moment was when she discovered inadvertently that her son had been seeing a school counselor for a year, visiting once a week