This is Adolescence: 15

This is Adolescence: 15

By Jessica Lahey

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 4.12.42 PM

Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain.


Fifteen isn’t easily impressed. The details of my teaching and writing, his father’s doctoring, his little brother’s imaginary battles for world dominance—these things rate a nod, maybe a raised eyebrow, but no more. To offer more might be interpreted as enthusiasm, and Fifteen doesn’t do emotional histrionics.

Fifteen has long been inscrutable, but he hasn’t always been an enigma. When he was little, he offered up his feelings on everything, particularly his love for me. He hugged, and cooed, and settled into my arms without reservation or reluctance. His love was available on demand, and I got a little too used to that abundance of adoration. Fifteen doesn’t do adoration anymore, but he does do opinions. He specializes in them, actually, and as he’s come of age with a cell phone in his hand, Fifteen’s lifelong verbal reticence has been supplanted by the convenience and emotional remove of the text. Texting allows Fifteen to voice his feelings and opinions everywhere, all the time, a sarcastic Greek chorus of one.

When a recent marital debate took a nasty turn into discord, my pocket began to vibrate. I suspected some sort of alert, a flood warning or approaching electrical storm, but no, it was just Fifteen, texting colorful commentary on our respective arguments from the next room:

BEN: You just crashed pretty hard

BEN: You’re spiraling

BEN: This is going well

BEN: Nice recovery

When the fight is over and peace re-stored, Fifteen rolls his eyes at our displays of affection and tolerates our need for hugs, but we are to understand that he does not, and will not, initiate that sort of sappy nonsense.

Where there was once abundance in his affections, we are now on meager rations, served up dry, with a dash of wit and superiority. And like any great chef, he metes it out in tasting portions, just enough to delight, never enough to fully satisfy.

ME: Everything go ok? Need anything?

BEN: No, I’ve started doing heroin

ME: Need clean needles?

BEN: No I’m sharing

ME: I love you, I miss you

BEN: It’s been 3 hours

When discourse sneaks over the line from affectionate into mushy during three-way text conversations, Fifteen offers subtle cues that he’s maxed out, and would like to be excused, thank you very much. He spends much of his day in his teen lair, a bedroom marked by the chaos of unfolded laundry and scattered guitar picks.

Fifteen emerges for food and hydration in regular intervals, but he can also be lured out of there by the aroma of his favorite meals. I am shameless in my use of these meals; I use them to express my love and foster conversation. The dinner table is still home to our favorite discussions, our dinnertime discussion of “High/Low/Funny,” in which we account for the best, worst, and most entertaining moments in our day.

Fifteen is protective of his space and his autonomy, but Fifteen loves me. Of that I am certain. His displays may be rare, but they are all around me, all the time. I feel it when he’s playing guitar in the kitchen, and switches from his favorite song to one he knows I adore. I hear it when he talks about his English class, and the unexpected realization that he, too, likes poetry. I hear it when he asks me about my work, my day, my worries.

And then, when I’m most hungry for it, he lets me see it as well, offering up an abundant feast right before my eyes.

BEN: I love you too.

Author’s Note: In the months since I wrote this piece, Fifteen has turned sixteen, and our relationship continues to change and grow. I like to think of adolescence as a very long pendulum in which our children swing away from us for a while as they gain confidence in their own autonomy, but I think my adolescent has recently started his return trajectory. As time passes, I’m seeing more and more evidence of his love. I figure if I’m lucky, and patient, we’ll settle into a much closer orbit.

Jessica Lahey writes the bi-weekly “Parent-Teacher Conference” advice column for the New York Times. Her forthcoming book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will be published by HarperCollins in August.

Photo: Catherine Newman

The Remnant Child

The Remnant Child

By Susanne Paola Antonetta


When our teenagers seesaw between adult and child.


My son is calling us from his upstairs bedroom, his newly deep voice urgent: Mom! Mom! Dad Dad Dad! My husband sprints up the stairs, me just behind. We zigzag around the slalom course that is a seventeen-year-old’s room—the Little Caesar’s box a friend toted in last night, glasses half full of juice, hoodies strewn across the floor. Normally we are less than welcome here, in our boy’s sanctum sanctorum. But now he needs us, and just as if he were a toddler again, he simply screams until we appear, roused and ready to fix whatever ails him.

“Hornets!” he screams. And there are hornets, three or four of them, buzzing sullenly.

Jin as a child had a desperate allergy to hornet and yellow jacket stings. He wound up in the hospital in full anaphylactic shock after his first bite from a yellow jacket, and the allergist we took him to after his hospital release warned us even EpiPens might not be able to save Jin were he stung again. He had a long slog of desensitization treatments, several shots of weakened venom every week, then every month, with the amount of venom per shot ramped up until finally, after years, he could receive the equivalent of many stings at a time with no reaction.

Jin is no longer allergic to any insects, in other words, but the sight of hornets in his bedroom set off the old panic. My husband ran for the fly swatter and dispatched the bugs into whatever afterlife hornets swarm off to, then we were both politely but firmly ushered out of the sanctum.

A day after the hornet incident, my husband and I stood in the kitchen discussing an upcoming trip to visit family in Georgia when Jin came slouching in, looking for snacks and full of attitude.

“I’m not going!” he announced about the trip. “I don’t want to give up any of my summer.”

“Of course you’re going,” Bruce said. “We have plane reservations and you have to see your family and anyway, you can’t stay home alone for two weeks.”

“Can’t stay home?” Jin glared at us both. “Dad, I’m seventeen. I’m an adult now. I don’t need you guys here.”

My husband and I looked at each other, the same thought flashing through our minds: until a hornet flies into your room. We didn’t say it.

There are things we know to expect, going into the adolescent years, about teenagers. We’ve heard about the teenage brain: undeveloped, lacking the frontal lobe growth that gives what’s called in brain science executive function, meaning the ability to use impulse control, moderate yourself, think ahead. We expect teens to be messy and impulsive, to argue and demand their independence, sometimes sneaking more of it than we’re willing to trust them with.

I think the shock in raising a teenager can be how quickly they turn into children again. Something frustrates them and they bellow, shorn of any coping skill other than shrieking your name. Then the problem’s solved and they go back to being teenagers, as if the former state hadn’t even happened. It gives me maternal whiplash. The young adult looms over you—mine, at six feet, happens to loom far above me—and all of a sudden the child’s face looks out, eyes wide and helpless. He’s lost his favorite pair of skinny jeans, or he can’t quite remember what button starts the microwave. He can’t find the computer file for the English paper he spent hours writing. He screams for your help because that’s what he’s always done. Then, jeans, found, microwave whirring, paper located, the teenager steps up again, quite certain he can negotiate the world without your help.

It can be sweet to see that childlike need for us again. I imagine there will always be those moments, even when Jin truly is an adult, when he will dissolve before my eyes into my baby again, looking for something that’s ageless and primal and ultimately comforting from me, his mother. I have never, since Jin hit adolescence, been able to hear a war story about soldiers crying for their mothers as they died in trenches or on Civil War battlefields—that story you so often hear with war—without crying myself.

It’s the turnaround that makes my head spin: the moment after you pick hornet corpses from all the other detritus on the bedroom floor and get summarily dismissed, the casual assurance: how could we possibly think, were we to leave him alone for two weeks, that he might need us?

What do we parents do with him, this remnant of the child? Sometimes, when he weeps, as my son still does occasionally—over a friend’s betrayal or a girl who doesn’t like him, or not enough—we hold him for as long as he will let us. We try to be the parent he, at that moment, needs. Maybe we hope this look at that remnant child will not be our last glimpse of him, that somehow the role as mother will be, from time to time, this comforting, this pure. And we hope against all the world teaches us that when he cries out to us from his deepest heart, we will always be able to answer. But for now, sometimes we just kill his hornets and beat our retreat.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, a memoir and study of adoption, was published by W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others. 

Move The Phone Book Closer

Move The Phone Book Closer

By Hope Gatto

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 11.18.21 AMMy son Max should have begun his religious education in the fall in preparation for his first Holy Communion, but I never called to find out what we had to do to get him started.

I meant to. Honest, I did. But the phone book was just so far away that I didn’t have the enthusiasm to walk into the other room to find the number. I knew it would be a series of extensions and messages until I found the right person in our church who could tell me what I had to do. I was sure I had to bring something in or sign a stack of papers and, well, it tired me out just thinking about it. So I figured it would be okay to put off signing him up for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) class for a while longer, at least until it became really important. Then I forgot about his religious education altogether.

One day, my mother went to the grocery store and ran into Lily, a mutual friend of ours whose son goes to Max’s school. Lily asked how Max liked his CCD teacher and what night he went to class. My mother said she was pretty sure that Max didn’t go to CCD.

Lily gasped. “Isn’t he going to make his First Communion?”

“Hope is too lazy to save her child’s soul,” answered my mother. (This from the same woman who didn’t get on the ball to send me to my own First Communion class until I was fourteen.)

“You saw Lily today?” I asked when my mother frantically phoned me that night.

“Yes. I did.” She sighed heavily, as if she’d run into the Pope himself who made her do penance right there next to the hot dog rolls for having a Satan-worshipping daughter. “You know, Hope, Max is really behind. But Lily said to call her. Maybe she could get him in since she’s knows Karen who runs the religious education department at the church. You don’t want Max to be left out, do you?”

I thought about Max as a hulking teenager walking down the aisle with a bunch of seven-year-olds in white suits and dresses, and I shivered. I mentally traveled back in time to St. George’s church, circa 1987. The younger kids owned the front of the line while I had been regulated to the rear with Jeanie—a loud and mentally challenged woman in her forties also receiving her first communion. After the Mass, my mother invited my grandparents over to the house and served a small cake purchased from the nearby bakery. We poked it with our forks half-heartedly—possibly because it should’ve been served seven years earlier.

While my mother continued to enlighten me on the requirements of Our Savior, I looked over at Max playing his Game Boy and eating grapes on the couch. Next to him, his younger sister, Riley, attempted to put a pair of swimming goggles on our English bulldog. Did they really need to learn about Hell, sin, and bloody wine just yet? In their current world, the Day of Reckoning only meant that report cards had arrived in the mail.

In our defense, the fact that I didn’t get to the distant phone book on time didn’t necessarily mean we were a wild pack of heathens. My husband Lou and I took the family to church on occasion, the kids said their prayers at night before bed, and we even said grace before meals. Without warning, my thoughts suddenly returned to my procession partner, Jeanie—who had yodeled the entire trip up to the altar—and the lame, late, last-minute cake.

I hung up with my mother and decided to call Lily first thing in the morning.

*   *   *

“Why didn’t he start in the fall?” Lily asked.

I actually like Lily very much. She is one of the only other moms I know who runs a chaotic two-kid household with a sense of humor. I could’ve easily told Lily that I wasn’t ready for my son to learn that decent people can be crucified no matter how perfectly they lead their lives. At the very least, I could’ve explained how difficult it is to locate a phone book in my house. But I didn’t.

“I really thought CCD started next year. Do you think there’s any way he could start now and make up the work?” I asked.

“Well, here’s the thing, Hope. I don’t think that telling Karen that you just forgot to sign him up is going to cut it. She’s kind of bitchy like that. And when I say bitchy, I mean all into Christ and goodness and people doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She might say that you would’ve known if you actually went to church and, you know, there’s that whole thing. I’ll have to give her a story. Know what I mean?” she asked slyly.

I felt Jeanie poke me in the back repeatedly as I walked toward the priest.

“Tell her we had leprosy. Tell her that locusts swarmed our house. I don’t care. Just please, Lily, help me get Max into that class.”

“Okay. As long as you don’t mind if I kind of fudge it a little.”

“Fudge away,” I told her. Max’s cake just had to be sweeter.

Lily called two days later and said that Max was the newest member of the first grade CCD class. We’d have to go to the office to sign him up, pay fifty dollars for the books and materials, and he’d have to make up the work, but he was in. Our son could still get his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child and could proudly appear as if he had parents who weren’t comatose when it came to important things like the redemption of souls and whatnot.

“Now here’s what I told Karen at the office,” Lily continued. “I said that you lost your job over the summer,” she said.

“Okay.” That was true, although it was a contracted temp job that was only meant to last six weeks anyway. Lily knew that.

“I told her that money was tight, and that you and Lou were upset over the financial situation. I also said the kids had been sick, but now things were better and you really want Max to be involved in the church.”

“Perfect,” I said. I was in awe of Lily’s ability to take the truth and manipulate it into the closest thing to a lie without actually being a lie. Money was always tight, but we were stable, and the kids did have a stomach virus that lasted almost a week.

Lily finished up by saying that we were to bring Max to the office the next night to sign some paperwork. I was overjoyed. Everything had fallen into place. I thanked God for friends in high places and felt grateful that I didn’t have to call the multitude of phone numbers and make up a sob story of my own in which I would’ve undoubtedly come up with the most creative, outright lies I’d ever told in my life. Lily had taken care of it for me.

As instructed, my husband and I went to the church office, met Karen, and signed Max and Riley up for some faith. Our son got his books, and we got our daughter into the kindergarten class that met once a month during Mass. That was the other thing. We had to start going to Mass regularly now, and not just on holidays or when my grandmother visited. Though that new responsibility kind of bummed me out, I thanked Karen profusely for squeezing Max in. My family left the office hot to trot in what I assumed to be the Lord’s good graces.

As we walked outside, I heard Karen run out of the front door onto the sidewalk behind me, calling my name. I told Lou and the kids to go ahead to the car, and I went back to see what Karen wanted. Maybe she needed to know if I’d be willing to be an officer for the Rosary Society.

“Mrs. Gatto, I am so sorry. I wasn’t even thinking. I didn’t mean to take this,” she said and held out the fifty-dollar check that we’d given her just minutes ago. “Lily told me about your … situation.” She whispered the last word as if to save me from being shamed, even though we were the only two people standing there. “I’ll gladly waive the fee.”

Oh. My. God.

I recoiled from the check in her hand as if it were a serpent. This unexpected token of good will was definitely not part of the Get-Max-Into-CCD-Late plan. There was no possible way that I could take that check back. None. It would be so completely wrong on so many levels. But just as I started to tell her that we had plenty of money and could surely afford the tuition, I panicked. I became absolutely terrified that she’d kick Max out of his CCD class before he even started because he had a giant liar for a mother.

“Things are getting better, though. Really. They are,” I stammered as I shakily took the check from Karen. The more I spoke, the more I sounded like we were living on scraps that we found in our affluent neighbor’s garbage cans. “We’re getting there. Slowly but surely. I’m working now. I’m teaching, actually. But … this will help.”

After looking around for the lightning that was sure to strike me any second, my eyes fell upon my husband who had been keeping busy in the parking lot by rubbing Riley’s arms. She had insisted on wearing her favorite pink jacket; it was definitely not warm enough for the season. Since we were only running in and out of an office located two minutes from our home, we allowed her to wear it instead of the $125 ski jacket hanging in her closet. To Karen, it was clear that my children didn’t have proper clothing.

“You have the keys!” Lou screamed over to me. “Riley’s freezing!”

Karen put her hand on my shoulder in a pure act of kindness. “Please let us know if you need anything else at all. We have a committee that helps families in need in all types of circumstances. It is very discreet. It’s there to get people back on their feet.”

“Thank you, but I’m positive we won’t be needing that. Really,” I said. I was amazed that she didn’t burn her hand when she touched me.

“I’m hungry,” my son whined to my husband. Karen looked over at him.

“I’m sorry, Max. There’s nothing I can do about that,” Lou told him.

I would have bet my four-bedroom, two-bath house that Max had asked again for the gigantic lollipop in the glove compartment that he’d begged for on the way to the church office. We’d told him repeatedly that it was way too late for that amount of sugar.

At that point, I really wanted to cry. I’d lied to the church—worse, I’d had someone lie for me—just so I could get my son into a class that was only important to me when I thought he might be ostracized. Because of that lie, I had to steal—steal—fifty dollars from people who were actually broke and starving, just to keep my lie straight. And there was a committee that was willing to help my deceptive family through the rough times. I realized right then and there that I was destined for Hell.

Karen stared at my shivering daughter and my hungry son standing next to their father whose clothes didn’t match. (She had no idea that was completely normal for Lou.)

“Thank you,” I said one final time. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I turned from Karen and made my way over to my needy family and herded them like refugees to the car. I cringed as I thought that if he’d just gotten into the car right away with the kids, it might not have been so bad.

“It wasn’t even locked!” I screamed at my husband as I opened the door.

“You always lock it,” he yelled back as we piled in.

“We’re in a church parking lot! Who’s going to do anything to it?”

As we drove home in silence with the heat blasting, I thought of all of the liars and thieves in the world, including the biggest one in New Jersey who that night drove a brand-new red Mini Cooper with white racing stripes out of God’s parking lot.

*   *   *

The next morning, we sent an unmarked envelope to our church with a one-hundred-dollar bill tucked inside. A fifty would have covered the check we’d gotten back, but more was required to make up for the disgrace and deceit. I wondered if simply doubling the amount was enough to buy my soul back from the devil.

Later that afternoon, I came home from the grocery store to find a bag of children’s toys—some new, some used—on my front porch. They were in a plain brown bag with nary a note attached.

Toys for the poor.


“I get it!” I screamed to the heavens. I immediately walked to the mailbox and mailed more anonymous money to the church. “This will go to actual poor people,” I said aloud. At least that’s what I had to tell myself in order to put away the groceries safely and not slit my wrists with the sharp plastic edges of an ice pop wrapper.

That evening, we found out that the toys were meant for our neighbor, a second grade teacher at a local elementary school. A friend of hers thought she could use them in her classroom and got our houses mixed up. So it was not the charitable display that I imagined, and we were now out another fifty dollars. But I was calmed, thinking that the situation was now entirely over. We had paid our way out of it with both cash and humility. I assumed that we could comfortably return to our normal guilt-free lives.

The Tuesday of Max’s first class was a little more hectic than usual. I rushed home from the playwriting class I taught to take Max to the church while Lou stayed at home with Riley. I looked at my watch, saw that we were dangerously close to being late, and honked the horn as I pulled up in front of the house. Lou sent Max out with his religion book, a pencil, and a warm coat. I believed my husband had been sufficiently briefed on my fear of continuing to look poverty-stricken in the eyes of the church.

I barely looked at Max in the rear-view mirror as I drove and pulled up to the church building two minutes late. We bolted out of the car and I took my son’s hand as we jogged across the parking lot. When we finally got to the classroom, I stopped and knelt down to give him a kiss. Max’s face was covered in dried ketchup from dinner. I unzipped his coat to find a T-shirt on him about two sizes too small and a giant grass stain on his jeans.

These clear indications of pauperism made me cover my face in horror. How could I have been so stupid to think that my husband, a wonderful father whose only defect lies in his dreadful fashion sense, could ready our son properly, especially in a situation that required meticulous attention to detail? We were not to look poor, but we couldn’t appear that well off either. It was a fuzzy line we had to walk, and I was silly to think my husband could do it with his orange-goes-with-everything attitude. I found a tissue in my purse, spat on it, and then wiped as much red condiment from Max’s face as I could.

“Come on, Mom,” he winced from under my maternal grooming. “Quit it.”

I wondered if Mary ever grumbled bad things about Joseph as she wiped Jesus’ face clean before the kid went out in public. I begged Max to leave his coat on during class.

After pushing Max into the room, I walked out of the building and couldn’t catch my breath. God was still tormenting me with guilt and confusion. He’d made my husband extra backward that night on purpose just to teach me a lesson.

I walked back into the building, checkbook in hand, and found Karen sitting at her desk in the office. I confessed the whole story except the part about sending the anonymous money. I realized that any good karma points I’d get would be shot to Hades if I owned up to that.

Karen listened to me babble on as I wrote out the new check for fifty dollars. When I burst into tears as I handed it to her, she gave me a warm, long hug. She said she would never even think to pull Max out of class and he was where he was supposed to be. God works in mysterious ways, she said.

I realized then that I had actually required a helping hand, but not in the obvious form of free tuition and toys. My true poverty was much more private, and it was exclusive to my wallet of ethics, my Visa card of priorities, and my checkbook of personal sacrifice. When Karen hugged me in her office and accepted my son into the class despite my flaws as a parent, I was given a great big basket of non- perishable humility. I was grateful for the gift, and deeply appreciated the beautiful place from which it came.

I’d like to say that I now volunteer for that Helping Poor Families committee, or whatever it is, but one can move only so swiftly on the path to righteousness. What I can say—three weeks before Max makes his First Communion—is that I am extremely fortunate for a lazy mother. However, I do believe in the miracle of baby steps.

I’ve moved the phone book closer to the phone.

Author’s Note: Max made his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child. As he walked down the aisle in his tiny suit, hands folded in prayer, I knew that my family was in a special place and among special people. Next May, we’ll do it all over again with our daughter. We are, however, expecting her journey to go much more smoothly. We’ve paid her tuition in advance.

Hope Gatto’s work has been in numerous newspapers, produced on New York stages, and published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

Rocks and Rainbows

Rocks and Rainbows


Running along the bike path near our house on the way home from an ice cream outing, Liddy jumps into the air over and over again, determined to reach heights high enough to grasp a leaf off a branch. Finally, finally, she gets one.

Feels so good getting what I want,” she whispers fiercely to herself, repackaging and redefining Iggy Azalea’s omnipresent “Fancy” lyrics into something suited to the mindset of an eight-year-old.

Liddy holds onto the leaf all the way home, pleased not only with her success but with the precise shade of green the leaf holds, the smell and “crispiness” of it.

“You have to feel this, Mommy,” she says, holding the crumpled leaf out to me like a gift. “Smell it.”

At not-quite nine, there is still, for Liddy, such pleasure to be taken from ordinary things. She begs me to buy her a glittery ring as a memento when we are on vacation and I realize, following her eyes, that it is actually the tiny cardboard gift box it comes in that she’s after.

At home I offer her another jewelry box, inky blue and felt-covered. She examines it, opening and closing the hinged lid, and then asks breathlessly, “Can I just have this?” and slips out the spongey cushion inside. She runs with it to her bedroom and adds it to one of her collections of tiny, valueless (to the adult eye) treasures.

On Liddy’s bedroom floor is a large poster board—a work-in-progress she calls Crafts No One Would Think Of. She peels the outside frame from a sheet of stickers, leaving the stickers themselves behind, and uses the frame as a stencil to trace indiscernible shapes on the poster board, coloring them in with a bright pencils. Over the shapes, she tapes a curtain of fringe made from salvaged beige packing material.

“A rainbow! A rainbow!” she shrieks from the backseat of the car one day. I look in the rearview mirror and see that she is looking not at the sky but in her hand, where she is trying to catch hold of a shimmer of colors reflecting off the metal seatbelt.

Decades ago, just after graduating from college (and long before marriage and kids), my now-husband John and I served as VISTA volunteers in Austin, Texas. John worked with Tibetan refugees, and his organization’s big annual fundraising event culminated with the building of a Sand Mandala, a dramatic, traditional work of art created painstakingly by monks over several days’ time.

John was there when a group of young school kids came through to watch the monks building their masterpiece grain by colorful grain. The kids’ attention held for all of a few minutes before they began wandering the building in search of something more interesting. A few of them approached the organization’s information table with its pamphlets and newsletters.

“Free business cards?” one of the girls exclaimed, incredulous. The message was repeated across the group of kids and there was a rush on the table.

For years, the expression “free business cards” represented, for us, our nieces’ and nephews’—or really, anyone’s—inexplicable interest in the otherwise mundane things of the world. It was a funny anecdote then. Now, the chance to experience moments like it is something I savor.

I know—because I also have a ten-year-old—that Liddy’s admiration for small, ordinary things will evaporate without notice someday soon, and will be replaced by a desire for things like Beats headphones or her own bathroom. But for the moment, at least, it is alive and in full force.

Lately, Liddy has been collecting rocks. Not dramatic, surf-worn stones from the coast, but ordinary silt-colored rocks plucked from driveways and the crevices of our neighborhood’s concrete sidewalks.

She rinses them in the sink and polishes them with a paper towel, then arranges them by color on surfaces all over the house.

“I think I’m going to have a rock sale,” she announces one morning, studying her finds.

I stifle a laugh and aim for diplomacy. “Okay, so…who are you expecting will want to buy these rocks?”

And then, her eyes go wide with disbelief as she asks the all-important question:

Who wouldn’t?”

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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



A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

By Julie Burton

IMG_6396I had recently begun to mother my 17-year-old daughter Sophie with a suffocating intensity. I’d hover over her shoulder while she checked Facebook, and ask prodding questions. I’d interrogate her when she returned home from social outings, craving every detail.

“Why are you like this?” she asked one evening, her voice, already filled with irritation as she interrupted my line of questioning. “It’s not normal. You…are…smothering… me!” The volume and intensity of her voice escalated, “What happened to you that makes you act like this?”

All of my breath exited my body. My stomach had tied itself into a knot and a goiter-sized lump had developed in my throat. I looked back into her keenly perceptive eyes that darted into me with intense scrutiny.

How could I possibly tell her the truth?

Almost immediately after giving birth to my daughter, I felt the need to protect her from the awfulness buried within me. If I safeguarded her from my secret, she would not follow in my path of self-destruction, and my scars would not become hers. She would have no reason to be ashamed of me, or to view me with pity and disgust. She could think of me as good and pure, worthy of her love and respect.

I promised myself her path would not resemble mine—that I would dedicate every ounce of my being to mothering her in way that would help her become the self-assured person I so desperately had wanted to be and have spent much of my adult life trying to reclaim.

As we sat on the floor of her room, the silence lingering between us, I felt trapped within myself. My daughter must not know the real me…she couldn’t know. Because within the real me was a secret box, and within the box was shame—the shame that accompanied a four-year, life-threatening battle with anorexia, that began 13 years before she was born.

How could I serve as a source of strength and inspiration for my daughter if she knew I had starved myself for nearly two years, was hospitalized twice, thought about killing myself, ran away from home? How could she respect me when, at her age, my self-worth was almost non-existent?

A daughter should not know these things about her mother.

Yet, as Sophie inched closer to turning 17, the memories of my 17-year-old emaciated self became more prevalent and my anxiety sky-rocketed, propelling me to become so overly involved in her life that I literally started to feel her feelings. The boundaries between us became blurred and I could not get enough of her life.

I tried to avert her suspicious gaze by searching for a sign in the Aspen tree standing unwittingly outside her bedroom window. I felt in my core she knew I was damaged goods. And that I had a secret that was intricately linked to my almost obsessive need to be close to her.

Our eyes locked and connected us—mother to daughter, daughter to mother—and at that moment I knew it was time to open the secret box.

My whole body ached as the memories mixed with shame were released from that locked place within. As I closed my eyes, I could hear the distinct click of the automatic lock that triggered every time the door to the adolescent mental health unit closed. The door that kept us “crazies” locked up—purposely removed from the outside world because some of us were “dangerous” to ourselves, or to others. I could smell the too familiar antiseptic hospital aroma that filled my nose for nearly two months; I could feel the scratchy, cold bed sheets on my skin, which perpetuated the continual feelings of loneliness and loss that burned inside my heart. I could hear the steady breathing of my sleeping roommate, whose stories of abuse and abandonment still haunt me to this day.

As I peeled my eyes open again, there she was, my beautiful daughter, her head tilted to the side and her piercing love-filled eyes pulling me out of that sad and lonely place, as she had done, unbeknownst to her, since I first held her in my arms.

Yet in this moment, she was demanding to understand more about that far-away place to which she had determined was a scary place for me.

“Mom, will you please tell me what happened to you?”

Was she ready to hear my story? What would our relationship look and feel like when she learned about my scary, unstable “crazy” past? Would she think differently of me, of herself?

“It’s okay, Mom. I can handle it. Whatever it is.”

I shook my head to dislodge the destructive, shameful demons, the ones that still appear as pop-ups in my brain during times of uncertainty. Her eyes didn’t leave mine as I took a deep breath and began, despite the shakiness in my voice, to painstakingly walk her through my 17-year-old world of anorexia nervosa.

For the next several hours we held each other tight, and through many tears, I tried to provide her with answers to her multitude of questions. I knew I couldn’t make her understand the how’s and why’s of my path toward, through and away from this perplexingly brutal disease. But we could, with the power of our love and trust in each other, examine my hurt, fear, sadness, blame, forgiveness, and journey to healing with honesty and tenderness.

As she nodded her head and opened her eyes even wider, I could see her slowly begin to grasp my answer to her initial question, “Why are you like this?” She now understood how my obsessive hovering, protectiveness and the unclear boundaries between us were directly linked to me bumping up with my past­—that looking at her at 17 prompted a cascade of memories of my 17-year-old withered self, and that I felt an overwhelming, fear-based need to protect her so that she would be safe from the demons that kidnapped my spirit at her age. Together, we came to the realization that in raising my daughter, I was healing myself—nurturing not only her, but the child within me, and that in some ways I was trying to re-live my tortured years through her.

Sharing my secret with Sophie did not make me less of a mother to her. It made me human. And the shame that held my secret locked in place for nearly 17 years slowly began to loosen its grip on me.

As I watched the look in her eyes slowly transform from frustration and confusion to empathy and compassion, I knew that my daughter now knew me—The true version of me. The flawed and imperfect me. The broken me.

And yet, she loved me just the same.

Maybe even more.

Julie Burton is a freelance writer and blogger (, a mother of four and a yoga instructor. She lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband of 21 years and her children, and is working on a book on self-care for mothers. 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Subscribe to Brain, Child

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.”


“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.”

Subscribe to Brain, Child

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.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Of Bangles and Boobs

Of Bangles and Boobs

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Francie1_BMWhen I walk into my parent’s apartment, my mother is in her bedroom, hunched on hands and knees.

Half an hour earlier, I’d gotten a call. “You need to get here quick,” my mother said. Her voice was a weak, worried whisper. “I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.”

A day earlier, my mother returned from the hospital following routine back surgery which, due to a bad reaction to anesthesia, spiraled into a four day stay. Her doctor let her go after she proved she could handle solids—solids defined as a cup of Jello, not the Big Mac that my father got her on the way home from the hospital on the archaic premise that a little grease would absorb the excess drugs in her system. My parents decided to call the Big Mac their little secret, until the next morning when I got the phone call from my mother, who spoke to me from her toilet, blocked up and bowled over in pain.

She directed me to bring Miralax and Ducolax, as suggested by the doctor. She didn’t tell him about the Big Mac, but she did tell me.

“Get here fast,” she pleaded. “I’m gonna to die and the cleaning people are going to be here in thirty minutes.”

I arrived in twenty, having called off the cleaning crew and having cleaned the Walgreen’s shelves of any digestive product ending in “ax” to find her hunched on her hands and knees. It’s at this point that I drop the drugs and rush towards her, my mind going towards worse case scenarios, my fingers on my phone towards 911.

I am my parent’s only daughter. My father is 81. He had heart surgery last year, prostate cancer the year before that. He can’t see or stand up straight. He doesn’t hear, and he won’t listen, wear a seat belt or carry a cell phone so we never know, when he’s disappeared for hours, whether he’s at the Lexis dealership or dead. My mother has a bad back, bad reflux and a bad habit of denying reality, so it’s hard for me to tell when it’s “nothing” and when it’s not. All I can do is hold my breath with regard to my parents and their accumulating ailments no different than with my daughters and their imminent adolescence. I’m in that precious and precarious middle place, where being a mother and being mothered meet. Signs of everyone’s impending age appear daily. But I’m often unsure what to make of them—when do I call the doctor and when do I pray to God?

The other night, my 11-year-old daughter came into my room with a boob. Just one. A tiny mound, barely perceptible except to me and perhaps to her, though I didn’t ask. Instead, I shot up in bed and asked her to come closer.

She gave me an annoyed, “What’s the matter?”

I said, “Nothing.”

But I posed that very question to the pediatrician the next morning after my daughter woke up with both the attitude and the boob gone, and I stood in the kitchen wondering if my sighting, like a UFO, had been a figment of my imagination. The doctor assured me that I had indeed seen a breast bud. “Puberty is gradual” she told me, “its signs come and go but it can seem to sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.

And even if you are, I thought, because I didn’t see a boob coming and as both a daughter and a mother, I’ve been paying attention for the better part of my life. So sure I was, when I was ten and my father in his late forties, that he was going to have a heart attack playing football with the other, much younger fathers, that I watched the game clinging to the chain link fence, praying to God and holding my breath. Figuratively, I’ve been holding my breath for decades waiting for the other shoe to drop and now literally, as I race to my mother’s bedroom, convinced that it actually had.

“Are you okay?” I sputter.

“That was quick, I hope you didn’t speed,” she says casually, as if she’d invited me for tea. “C’mon in.” She holds her hand out for me to help her to a standing position.

“What’s going on?” I ask, as if I’d wandered into the wrong apartment.

She directs me to look down the back of her bathrobe. “Can you see that?”

I peak down her neck. Her backside is angry and bruised, blood vessels broken from mid spine down.

“That doesn’t look good,” I tell her. “I think we should call the doctor.”

She waves off the suggestion. “I called you instead.” As she settles back onto her hands and knees she says she’d thought about calling the paramedics from the toilet, but decided she’d rather die than have strange men looking at her bottom. “Luckily, I was able to relieve myself,” she explains as she directs my eye to an array of jewelry buried within the pile carpet. “But next time, who knows? So,” she continues, “you need to be able to tell what’s real, what’s sort of real and what’s not.”

My mother collects jewelry of all kinds. Her collection is organized meticulously into categories by color, type and quality. She stores it in a dresser, though in between her death-defying bowel experience and my arrival, she managed to move the entire stash to the floor.

I sit and she begins. “The best stuff is in the top drawer.”

I nod, though this is not news. I’ve gotten the jewelry talk before, after every narrow dodging of death—from the actual, like a clean biopsy of a tumor, to the perceived, like an unduly turbulent air flight. I know the ambers, the turquoises, the rose golds, the brushed golds, the strands of beads, the bulbous rings, and her beloved bangles. I can picture the pieces before I look at them, but even after all these years, I cannot tell you what’s real and what’s fake. On some deeper level, I assume I don’t want to know. As if to absorb the lesson will put my mother in a position to depart.  And the truth is, it’s all my mother’s and, genuine or not, that is all that matters.

As she speaks and goes through the piles, she doles out some of it to me. The stuff she never wears, the mistakes, the very fake amber to which she believes she is allergic, the pieces that are now too small and that might fit my daughters.”

With the larger, more recently acquired bangles, she is more thorough. “It takes a fine eye to tell the gems from the junk,” she repeats. Her greatest fear is that her daughter-in-law (who shares my mother’s fine eye as well as her wide wrists) will one day wind up with the good stuff. All because her real daughter wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m listening,” I promise (though I’m not), and I put on a piece of allergic amber. “How does it look?”

“Better on you than on me,” she says. We laugh, we reload her dresser and we do, in fact, have tea.

When I leave her apartment, after my father rolls in from the Lexis dealership, I am bedecked in jewelry and armed with instructions to wear it now, while she is still alive.

I promise her I will (though I won’t). I ask her if she’s feeling better.

She says she is (thought she isn’t). She thanks me for coming. I thank her for a lovely morning and head to my car, where I take a breathe of relief and thank God for the bangles, the boobs and the gift of another day.

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.

Now We Are Ten

Now We Are Ten

lbdelDSC_4746web“I wasn’t born yesterday,” you say when we offer you the smallest bit of advice. We know that. In fact, we remember the exact moment you were born, even though it was, unbelievably, ten years ago.

Ten. It’s the most frustrating and exhilarating mish-mash of little-boy-big-kid. We never know which one of you to expect. And, probably, neither do you.

You might be the kid who insists, furiously, on walking the mile to your after-school program alone, with two dollars to spend at the convenience store on the way.

Or the one who panics when you think your sister’s kidnapped the love-worn stuffed tiger that kept you company every night for years. (Guess what I stole? she taunts. It’s Scratchy, isn’t it? you whisper.)

You go snowboarding, listen to Eminem and quote The Breakfast Club.

Then you beg us to squeeze the mustard on your burger for you. Or carry you, all knees and elbows, to your bed because you’re too tired to walk.

At Thanksgiving, you tower over your sister and younger cousins. In the class picture, you are the smallest and skinniest of the lot.

You walk the dog, pick up after him and train him to sit, and stay. You ask me if I think that, just maybe, you can communicate with squirrels through hand gestures.

You are pissed that you weren’t allowed to use the diving board at swim class. You cry when I say you have to wash your hair in the tub.

You teach your sister to hold a pool cue. You ask her to show you how to use her rainbow bracelet loom.

You worry about the homeless woman with the sign that said, “9 month old baby.”

You wonder if puppies have belly buttons.

You get mad that we won’t let you see The Hunger Games. You watch Scooby Doo.

You stalk into your bedroom because I took away your iPod. You clamor onto my lap for the first time in months, or maybe a year.

Life is about contradictions. For us, it’s unimaginable that we’ve already had you an entire decade, and that our lives existed before you at all.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

Read more essays on ages 1 – 10 in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 


Reflections on Raising a Frog-Donkey: Adolescence

Reflections on Raising a Frog-Donkey: Adolescence

2346661035_8ffd3c5703As my 15-year-old son clumsily navigates his way through these treacherous middle zones where childhood and adulthood are smudged out in a smeared blur of identities—most aptly represented by some zany creature in mythology with, say, the body of a frog and a donkey’s head, which is to say utterly perplexing—I often find myself confused and angry and frightfully overjoyed, which is to say utterly perplexed. I mean, seriously. Who the hell is this frog-donkey?

So much of parenting young children mimics the careful maintenance of something you merely care a whole lot about. I don’t mean to completely diminish small children to the status of mere “things” in an absolute way but, let’s face it, they don’t exactly hold up their end of deep fulfilling interpersonal relationships. You just love them like crazy and take care of them. You carry them around, you strap them in car seats, you get them juice when they chime juice! and, generally, make sure they don’t die. But you don’t discuss whether or not Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism invalidates the profundity of his insight with them; you don’t ponder the insidious presence of misogyny in culture and film with them; and you don’t process your complicated feelings of respect and resentment for your boss with them either. You just try to get them to eat something because, for crying out loud, the only reason they’re so cranky is their glucose is crashing. What I’m driving at here is that, consumed by the practical tasks of meeting his needs, I’m afraid that I never got around to conceiving of my son as, like, a real person or something. Who had the time?

But during the last couple years, as he began to develop some higher level rational functioning, engaging in prolonged reflections that evolved into opinions (above and beyond some strong feelings about this or that Pokémon), it has slowly dawned on me that what I was caring for, what I was cultivating with all that concern and grape juice, would one day be a wholly autonomous human being, just like me.

Hold up now. Just like me?

This insight, though it of course carries the potential, on the surface, to fill a parent with chest swelling pride, does not strike me as an intrinsically fantastic thing. For starters, I’m on my way to being out of a job—a job that, in spite of its numerous tragedies of wailing and vomit, fills me with a great sense of purpose. Being a dad, taking care of and protecting a child, is pretty damn cool. And then he grows up a little and suddenly gets it in his head that he’s going to become his own man? I’m calling a foul. Go to your room.

But what really throws me is what the revelation that he is “just like me” reveals. The revelation points to obfuscation. It reveals a necessary concealing. Just like me in relation to my dad, my son—in order to endure and conquer that smeared blur between child and man—must create a shroud of secrecy in which to experience himself as a self as opposed to merely the object of my care. It’s absolutely essential that he defy me and lie to me. And good for him but he better not. My job, it appears, is to be torn in half.

It’s an urgent need, I think, for a lot of parents to, in relation to these ideas, think not my kid, so I’ll just talk about my own blossoming liar. The little guy needs his own world. And, in spite of the fact that I just wrote a sentence—just now! the sentence before this one!—that declared my son’s need for his own world, it’s still my sovereign duty as “the dad” to define and enforce (with his mother) the limits of his world—the boundaries we define as necessary to keep him healthy and whole and free of harm. Do your homework. Don’t drink. Never give out your personal information to strangers on the internet. And the frog body part of him craves that direction and loves it; my God he loves to make us proud.

But I also remember my crazy ass donkey head, too. Don’t you? My dad just doesn’t get it. Who does he think he is? Pshaw. And then? All those supposedly dumb ass thoughts led me to the most delicious realization I’ve ever had before or since: I can do whatever… I… want. From there I was just one step away from Faust’s untrodden, untreadable regions, crossing the line, transgression, on my way to who I would become. And to know that my son is right there, ready to explode into the shelter of himself makes me giddy with terror. I need to keep him warm and safe; he needs to play with fire. And there is room in this perplexity for joy.

Photo by Anders Sandberg

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

My Bunny Slippers

My Bunny Slippers

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

BUNNYSLIPPERSThere are days, I tell you, many, many days, when all I want to do is come home and put on my bunny slippers.

Now, if you were to ask my teenaged daughter, she’d tell you that they aren’t my bunny slippers at all. They’re hers, poached from under the Christmas tree one year we can’t quite remember, a year in which “her” ornament (yes, we do that thing where each member of the family gets an ornament to represent that year’s passion) was a NASA astronaut in full moon landing gear.  They’re hers, except that she never wears slippers.  I mean, maybe she would, but she never has hard days that must end in slipper heaven.  OK, she has hard days.  But bunny slippers just don’t do it for her.  Not that I’ve ever given her a chance to find out.

Because the bunny slippers—they’re mine.  And as a lawyer, I know that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

I’m a cliché, I think, because I’m that forty-something working mother of two who presses snooze instead of hitting the gym, eats lunch in front of her computer, and constantly rummages through the laundry room to find clean socks.  Sometimes, the socks are even my own.  Sometimes, small tween socks or giant husband socks will work.

But nothing does the job like bunny slippers.  After three or four years, one bunny has no tail.  The other bunny has a hole where his nose once sniffed.  Neither bunny is particularly white where the white parts should be or pink where the pink parts should be.

Yes, both bunnies are perfectly molded to my feet, padded in just the right spots when I scrunch up my toes.

They sit patiently on the coffee table, propped up while I type on the computer on the couch.  They walk out to the driveway to find the permission slip that got left on the floor of the backseat or the dog’s leash that got dumped in front of the garage.  They narrowly avoid the spitting spaghetti sauce that drops from the stove burner all the way to the floor.

They nuzzle.  They cuddle.  They hug.

Now, naturally, my bunny slippers (not my daughter’s, mine) come with a large helping of grief.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Well, you try opening the door to the UPS delivery man wearing a business suit and bunny slippers.  You dress up in jeans and bunny slippers to welcome in the mortgage broker who’s there to work on your refi.  You drive the kids to French horn practice in yoga pants, a day-old sweatshirt, and  . . .  bunny slippers.

You try being a mom to two teenagers who are embarrassed when you let your hair go au natural, for goodness sake.  Then tell me how much you hear about humiliation, and boys who will never look at them, and moms who should get a life.

And moms who should just put on some shoes, IMHO (in my humble opinion).  That’s teen speak for “as the whole world except my totally embarrassing mom knows.” And lose the bunny slippers.

So why the aggravation? Why make the traumatic memories for my teens?  Why take the daily ridicule?

Because the bunny slippers have oddly (OK, I know how weird this is going to sound) become a part of our daily life, our family, even.

Because if the kids get all worked up about my bunny slippers, the bunny slippers become the source of teenage angst, and the AP World History test sort of loses its power.

Because if my husband needs a reminder that I need some TLC, all I have to do is lift up one bunny-shod foot and look at him meaningfully.  (Yes, bunny slippers can be sexy.  Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)

Because when students and editors and deans and husbands and teens and dachshunds and goldfish have each wanted something from me today—something different, mind you, something that has sent me in seven different directions—the bunny slippers ask for nothing.  Nothing except that B1 belongs on the left foot, and B2 fits on the right.

Nothing except that I attach myself to them firmly and acknowledge the better-than-fabulous way they make me feel.

Speaking of feelings, and speaking of fabulous  . . .

Yesterday, while I worked on the couch and propped my bunny feet on the coffee table, right next to my third or fourth cup of the day, my husband and daughters hit the post-holiday sales at the mall.  I looked around the quiet house, tucked my toes in tight, and sighed with a mother’s delight.

Yep, just me and my bunny slippers.  The way it should be.

The door opened.  The teens came in shrieking.  The husband followed, hollering that I just wouldn’t believe their shopping success.

An Abercrombie shirt on clearance?  I asked.  A sale at the Pandora store?  Two for one day at Auntie Anne’s?

Nope.  Whatever it was was wrapped in tissue paper.

“Be careful!” the younger one shouted.  “Don’t let it fall!” the older one warned.

More giggles.  “Come on, Mom, unwrap it!”

I was pretty sure this was some kind of bad joke.  And I was going to be the laughingstock.

Sometimes, it’s just beyond awesome to be wrong.

Peeking out of the tissue was a pink spot.

I looked at the girls and started to smile.  “Is it . . .”

“Yes!” they shouted.   The big one fell over the little one to pull the tissue off.

There.  In my hand.  Made of glass.  White, with pink whiskers and, yes, two tiny pink noses.

This year, my ornament was my very own pair of bunny slippers.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is a freelance writer and law professor.  She writes for outlets like Redbook, AARP, Huffington Post, Slate, and the New York Times’ Motherlode.  She is the mother of two teen girls.

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

The Power of Speech and Texts

The Power of Speech and Texts

lola iphoneBefore you could talk I used to stare at you a lot and wonder where you lived. In what kind of world? I confess to being somewhat addicted to the Linguistic Turn in Western philosophy—the counterintuitive notion that it is language itself that constitutes the things around us as opposed to words merely being labels we stick on pre-existing things.


Okay. Either a chair is just, um, there—as the thing people sit on—and then, eventually, we learn the word for it: “chair.” Simple enough. OR… it’s the word itself—chair—that gives rise to the thing upon which people sit. Calls it into being, so to speak, so the world we live in is only as large as our vocabulary.

I like modern art and poetry and destructive philosophy that teases the logic of common sense so it’s probably no surprise to you that the latter relationship between language and thinghood appeals to my taste.

Which brings me back to the curiosity that got this essay rolling. In what kind of world were you before you could speak? A sloppy swirly soup of color and form, I imagined, like a trippy Jackson Pollock movie. No wonder you cried all the time, swimming around in such chaotic flux. But sometimes you stared right back into my eyes, seemingly unafraid and perhaps even defiant, which was weird. And then you’d smile all gums as if mocking my world among reified things.

I waited and waited for your first word—that first thing upon which your world would stand and against which everything else would contrast, not being that, being something else until the whole wide world would snap into place. Chairs. Owls. Snowmobiles.

It was cracker. Out of chaos you called forth a cracker, which was actually a Cheerio, but I think you really just meant food, an expansive word that of course embraces crackers, cheerios, and Peking duck. By what monstrous act of mentation do we cull our first signifier in isolation from all others? It’s impossible. It resists explanation. But after your first great leap, you soon distinguished kitty from cracker and, from there, you never shut your flapping yappus. You were one of us. It was amazing.

And as you spoke and continued to speak, naming and constituting a world of things, something equally—perhaps even more—mysterious evolved in conjunction with this eruption of external reality. An inner life. The thing we call you. It grew and grew and grew in rooms of thought and memory and I have never stopped wondering who you are. Did your acquisition of language bring us closer together or cleave us apart? Hard to say. And isn’t that—what is hard to say being hard to say—precisely the problem?

Who are you? Where did you go? What’s on your mind as you gaze out the window?

*   *   *

You turned 10 a few days ago and got an iPhone. I wasn’t thrilled by the plan but, more important than the fact all your friends have them, your activities and travels around town are beginning to expand and you’re finding yourself in more and more situations where a phone is just practical.

It’s easy to get swept away by the negative critique of “you damn kids today,” your mobile devices, social media, the end of grammar, the death of spelling, and the corrosion of the ability to form deep and meaningful relationships. Narcissists! Sociopaths! Brain Cancer!

But I have to confess that, in spite of the end of the world as we know it, I have been delightfully surprised and charmed by the way you’ve so intuitively embraced and used the text message.

“BOO! I love you daddy :)”

You will probably never know how often I think about you, imagine you, wonder about you, and hope for you. And this device, this supposed blemish on our crumbling civilization, has granted us access into each other’s lives whenever we want from wherever we are.

Tell me something good,” I type and hit send.

“I made 2 new friends :)”

And then, late, I’m reading in bed and drifting in and out of sleep when my phone beep beeps.

“Im supposed to be asleep, daddy hee hee. I love you goodnight :)”

*   *   *

Tonight, you’re flying to Washington, DC, and we’ve promised to stay in touch. I’ve assigned you the mission of finding a statue of Abraham Lincoln and sending me a picture. I will sneak attack you with declarations of love and flowers and butterflies and cupcakes. And in this minimal amount of time, exploring these new ways that a father and daughter can appear to one another in language, I can’t help but wonder about the power of the text message. In what way—how—can it utilize and possibly extend those original magic powers of the word to call forth crackers and kitties? The text message spans the distance and closes the gap. Speaks love and so it is. In new ways? In ways that alter the reach and shape of love? Perhaps. Hard to say.

“Fly home soon, Lola Blue. I miss you. You are the cool breeze blowing through the window. xo”

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.

Steering Clear

Steering Clear

By Andrea Jarrell

UntitledWhen my daughter gets her driver’s permit, I am surprised she trusts me enough to teach her.

Whether strapped into her toddler seat or later riding shotgun beside me, she has witnessed my transgressions behind the wheel. I drive too fast. I swear at other drivers. I’ve run red lights and gotten stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning. And I get lost. Horribly, utterly lost. Getting lost makes me do crazy things like jump medians.

She doesn’t know how lucky we’ve been.

“Can I drive?” she asks each time we head out to the car. Not trusting myself, I say, “No.” I heave this parental duty onto my husband’s shoulders, wanting him to bestow upon her his cool-headed driving gene and the internal confidence to always at least think she knows where she is going.

So why do I finally agree to let her drive on that Friday in late November? Perhaps it is my buoyancy, thinking of the weekend ahead. Or simple guilt after months of bagging out while my husband helps her practice.

As she reaches for the keys and turns toward the car, I feel my tether to her lengthen. I change my mind I want to say, like a child. But it’s too late. I’m the mother. I stick to my word.

She steps off the curb and around to the driver’s side, clicking the familiar singsong beep on the key fob to let me in. Bunchy in our winter jackets, we reach for our seatbelts. She pulls her long brown hair into a high ponytail, ready to get down to business. As she turns the key, the car comes alive with David Bowie singing “Golden Years.”

“Oh, such a good song.” She bobs her head to the music and I catch the edge of her smile in profile.

“Turn that off,” I say, officious.

“You’re just like Daddy,” she says. But rather than my husband, it is my own mother’s voice in my head that I hear. Whereas other women might imagine their mothers hovering over them in the kitchen, mine is always there with me in the car’s rearview mirror. Driving was one of her great survival skills. A quick downshift. A rev of the engine. All she needed, she always said as we sped away from possessive men and to a better life for us, was a good, fast car.

My daughter steers us from the curb. My plan is for her to avoid streets heavy with going-home traffic as we head to the post office and a thrift store she wants to visit. We cut through our suburban neighborhood, heading three blocks east and two blocks south. As dusk turns to evening, the car’s headlights automatically illuminate. Rather than pulling into the main post office lot—a turn that will force us across two thick lanes of traffic—I suggest the nearly empty side lot on the right.

She makes the turn into the extra lot just fine. With plenty of parking spaces, she is gliding neatly in between two yellow lines when, rather than braking, she steps on the gas. We shoot forward. Our Mazda CX- 9 plows through a rusty chain link fence and keeps going.

We dip down over a narrow grassy slope between the fence and the pavement. That’s when I see her—a woman scrambling to get out of our way as we head toward the sidewalk and the packed lanes of traffic I’d been trying to avoid.

At the exact moment the woman darts past our fender, my daughter finds the brakes. We lurch to a stop the way a rollercoaster car does at the end of the ride, leaving you breathing hard and unsure if you can find your feet to stagger away as the attendant lifts the safety bar.

We haven’t hit the woman. We haven’t hit any other cars. We are both okay.

When I turn to my daughter, her face crumples in tears. I manage not to say, “Oh my god we almost killed someone.”

I can’t remember if I hugged her, comforted her. Certainly I should have. That would have been the right thing to do. What I do remember is the intimacy of the car, our breathing heavy, and the now-dark sky closing in tighter around us as if we are in a space capsule. What I do remember is that within that intimacy I also want distance. I want what has happened not to be my fault. But as I look into my daughter’s frightened face, I don’t want it to be her fault, either. In that instant I want to swallow, to absorb, to make my own whatever she has done and the consequences.

I get out of the car, reflexively looking around to see who’s seen us. The woman we nearly hit approaches me tentatively, the way the Munchkins draw nearer to Dorothy’s house when it falls on the witch.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

Beneath wispy, dark bangs she blinks at me as she comes closer trying to see what kind of person I am. Crazy? Reckless? Unfeeling? I can’t tell how old she is. Fiftyish, like me? Is a heart attack a possibility? She is plain with full cheeks and no makeup, clutching her thin, shapeless coat close at the neck, as if it will shield her. She points first to our car and then to the bus stop a little further down the sidewalk.

“Are you okay?” I say again.

Her eyes go wild with the terror, the disbelief she felt as our car sped toward her. I realize she doesn’t speak English well. She’s come from work or the Asian market across the street or maybe the post office. She was on her way to the bus stop when she almost lost her life because of two women in an SUV who didn’t care enough to watch out for people who have to take the bus.

I want to put an arm around her but I know that’s not what you do in these situations. We are not friends. I expect her to pull pen and paper from the canvas bag over her shoulder—to take down our license plate the way another driver would—but she just lingers there as the traffic from the main road streams by. She glances at my purse.

She is waiting for me to do the right thing. I take out my phone and say, “I’ll call and report the accident.” But when I tell her I’m calling the police, she looks past me to my daughter, whose ashen face stares through the window at us. For a moment, I feel the woman and I are on the same side, protectors. Is she a mother herself? I have the fleeting thought to motion my daughter to move to the passenger seat. The woman exhales loudly, air hissing between us. Then I notice her looking at my purse again. It dawns on me then that she has been hoping I will pay her for what she’s suffered. We stare at each other a moment longer. Then she turns to go.

As I watch her move off through the parking lot, I call “Wait,” to her hunched-up shoulders. But the truth is I want her to go. As our victim, our witness, slips into the shadows, I know that we can drive away now. Other than the mowed-down old fence in this no man’s land of a lot, there is no real damage. No one else seems to have seen us. We are free to slink off without even reporting what we’ve done.

I walk back to our car and open the driver’s door. My daughter looks up at me, her green eyes searching my face for what will come next. Whether it is true or not, I believe that she will carry what we do right now, at this moment, with her forever.

I dial 911. “It’s not an emergency,” I say, when the operator answers. “But there’s been an accident.”

I imagine saying these words to my husband, my mother. He will understand but she won’t. She will think our near miss in this parking lot could have been avoided entirely if only I’d been more careful, more in control of fate. But as I stand there waiting for the cops, I feel just how far the tether between my mother and I has stretched. I trust that I have done everything right. I will never be able to explain this to her but I know it’s true. I know that sometimes you’re just lucky or you’re not.

When the officer arrives, I tell my daughter to get out of the car and take her place beside me. He listens as she explains about confusing the gas for the brake. About the woman she almost hit. We walk to the post office. We talk to the man in charge. We point to the flattened fence. The officer and the post office clerk take down our names and number.

In the months that follow, I expect a call, a bill, an insurance claim, a request to appear in court. Nothing. It’s as if our mistake hasn’t mattered. But it has mattered.

Every once in a while, my daughter and I still drive by the scene of the accident to see if they’ve repaired the fence. Each time we do, I see that woman’s face rising in our headlights. The fence, now just a wave of woven metal, lies there still: our transgression out in the open. We move on by, my daughter driving while I ride shotgun, music playing, shuddering again at our good luck, praying that it holds.

Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, The Washington Post, Narrative Magazine, Literary Mama, Memoir, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir. 

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.

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
A young American mom in Djibouti said her husband recently asked what she wanted and she looked at him, all crazy.

“What do I want? I don’t know what I want. I only know what the baby wants. Do I have wants? Do I get to have wants?”

Maybe not now, I thought. But one day, you will.

I didn’t say it out loud, though. The words, the sentiment, the experiential knowledge would age me, make me appear condescending and unsympathetic to this mom’s current loss of autonomy.

I wanted to talk about how when that day came she still wouldn’t know what she wanted and that it would take her months of floundering through guilt, feeling selfish, and being daunted by the sheer number of options to settle into what she wanted, who she might be, when she no longer had a baby or toddler.

That conversation didn’t belong in this conversation because I was talking with three women who still had babies and would most likely have more babies in the future. That was a conversation they weren’t going to have for another decade, give or take. By that point, I would be ready to talk about colleges and careers.

Next the conversation turned to stories of post-delivery mishaps (bladder control issues and emotional roller coasters, anyone?), questions of learning to navigate Djibouti Town with babies in tow, mutually-exchanged offers of hosting play dates, and about how taking photos on a monthly basis of children holding numbers or stuffed animals seemed far too overwhelming at this stage in life, how they were lucky to get their teeth brushed by the end of the day.

My own birth stories have dust on them, the photos (print, not digital) from the day I delivered the twins are practically yellowed and curling around the edges. Pulling them out from thirteen and eight years ago in an attempt to relate felt like dredging through history books. Thirteen years ago? That was before digital cameras were in every home, or phone. Eight years ago when my youngest (and last) was born was before Pinterest.

I am no longer woken by crying babies at ungodly hours. Instead I do it to myself, setting the alarm for 5:45 so I can squeeze in a six-mile run before my third-grader rolls out of bed to fix herself breakfast. I leave the house without diapers, snacks, or rattling toys. I no longer lock the bathroom door for five seconds of privacy.

I didn’t have much to offer these moms and listened with the fully alert brain and stain-free shirt of a woman no longer claiming Goodnight Moon is literature, no longer leaking fluid at nipple level. Their stories were delightful and hilarious, their loneliness and love for their families palatable.

I wasn’t that much older than these moms, two years older than the other mother of twins. I simply started having babies young. So young that when my youngest graduates from high school I could, in theory, still get pregnant.

On the other side of the room in which this conversation took place were more parents, of the gray-haired variety. They weren’t talking about kids or parenting, they were watching a recent home video someone brought back from Mogadishu, the streets calm and peaceful as life flowed back into the Somali capital after decades of violence.

I could cross the room to join the conversation surrounding the video but somehow crossing the room felt too monumental. It would communicate that I was moving over, away from the babies and nap schedules and Fisher Price toys, stepping aside to let a new generation of moms fill in that space with their exhaustion and the exhilarating first steps that marked their days.

But these moms were my age peers, or as close as peers come in the small expatriate circle in Djibouti. These are the women who know how to use Twitter (though they lack the time) and who would listen to Mumford and Sons if the toddlers weren’t blasting The Wiggles. Or whatever toddlers listen to now.

Among parents the age-gap is often more related to the ages of our children than to our own biological age so if I want to be with women my own age and not sound like an old, boring been-there, done-that, know-it-all, I need to embrace the newness of their stories and not drag my ancient ones down from the attic.

If my husband asked me in that moment what I wanted, I would have said, “This. I want to listen to a new generation of moms.”

I know what I want now and it is to have brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and adult conversation while guarding the treasure these moms will learn. The baby stage was hard and beautiful. The elementary school stage is hard and beautiful. I’m assuming the teenage stage will be hard and beautiful.

I would have said, “What I want is to be the adult human face a mom looks at and doesn’t need to wipe and to be the empathetic ears a mom speaks to without using a sing-song voice.”

I earned my dusty stories, years ago. And I told them. Now is my turn to listen.

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.

Love Regardless

Love Regardless

By Roberta F. King

noah scans-118I tried to pluck it from him because I thought it was one of my stray curly hairs. I seem to lose a lot of them and they appear on my dark clothing, on our black car seats, between book pages and occasionally in food I’ve cooked.

Just after a shower, Mike carried our fifteen-year-old son, Noah, who was swaddled in a big blue towel, from the shower chair in our bathroom to his bed, where I was waiting to put pajamas on him. I instinctively pulled on the hair down there. It was stuck.

“Ouch!” Noah said. The little blonde curly hair was his own, his first pube.

“Mike, come in here,” I called out to my husband. “You need to see this—Noah has a hair, several hairs, down there.”

Noah winced and blushed. “Mom, don’t…”

“I noticed it a while back,” Mike said as he entered the room.

“And you didn’t mention it, why?”

“I thought you already saw it. Saw them,” he said as he tried not to laugh. “Before too long he’ll have a pencil-thin moustache and a wife.”

“I’m cold,” Noah said, as he lay naked and still wet on the towel as we discussed facial hair and upcoming weddings.

When you dress and undress your child for years, you notice all sorts of things. Noah had a dark mole on his left butt cheek and for fun, we called him moldy butt. Sometimes when Mike carried him over his shoulder, like a bag of charcoal briquettes, from shower to bedroom, he’d stop, unveil Noah’s moldy butt, and I’d give it a gentle slap. Laughing, Noah would warn us, “Butt splash!” as if his butt was so wet it would splash water on our faces.

Most parents don’t have to bathe their kids or see them naked after they’re done with elementary school. But, kids with severe disabilities, especially those with mobility issues, rely on their parents or other people for personal care throughout their lives. Noah, because of his cerebral palsy was no different in the care he needed at three, ten or seventeen years old. Despite his disability, we never thought of him as helpless. He told us what he wanted and what he was thinking. He had opinions and ideas, but, without our help, he couldn’t execute his physical intentions. As his parents and caregivers, we were part of his private moments, as well as the everyday tasks that most people don’t think about.

Parents understand the organization needed to venture out with a baby. With a disabled child, the organization grows and becomes more complicated as the years pass. Kids become teens, get bigger, heavier and longer and often need help just as they did when younger. We became expert life planners. I’d always imagined that Mike and I were hippie-like people, free and easy-going, but the reality is, we might have been at one time, but by the time Noah was five, we were not. Our skill in being structured crept up on us, almost like the severity of Noah’s disability.

For normal sorts of activities, like going to Mass, we needed to structure in small, amounts of additional time. Noah needed to get into his jacket, settled into his wheelchair, out of the house, down the ramp, onto the van lift buckled and strapped into the van and then get the lift folded back into the van. At the church, we needed extra time to unbuckle and unstrap Noah’s wheelchair, lower the lift, remove Noah from the lift, fold the lift back up, roll into the church to find a pew with an empty space on the end so Noah could sit next to me, since church pews don’t quite accommodate wheelchairs. We needed extra space to turn him around to get to the back of the church and get up the aisle for communion.

We didn’t leave the house without a plan. Accessibility was always a concern—would there be steps? If so, how many? We could handle a few, but taking his chair up a flight or two wasn’t safe or easy, though we did it more than once. Before we chose a restaurant, we checked out the seating and the bathrooms—we needed a table, not a booth or a high top and a bathroom without barriers.

Part of the structure of our life was getting Noah up and moving in the morning. Sometimes, even when he was in high school we’d sneak into his room together, throw on the lights and sing, with motions, an old Girl Scout camp song: Way Up in the Sky. We sang the words loudly, startling Noah awake.

Way up in the sky,

the big birds fly,

while down in the nest the little birds rest.

With a wing on the left and a wing on the right,

the little birds sleep all through the night.

Shh, they’re sleeping.

The bright sun comes up,

the dew falls away,

Good morning! Good morning! the little birds say.

Every single day we dressed him—unless he was in wake and wear, a clothing combination of plaid flannel pants from L.L. Bean and a long or short sleeve t-shirt that could be worn for pajamas and to school. He needed his ankle foot orthotics strapped on, which required a few minutes of foot stretching. He also wore a splint on his clenched and tight right hand. It gave him more range of motion and flexibility. Nothing with Noah was fast, easy or uncomplicated.

Mike usually fed Noah breakfast while I dressed for work. When they were done eating, I came in with a hot, wet washcloth to de-crustify his face and brush his teeth. “Ouch! You’re hurting me,” Noah said, thrashing away from me as I attempted to wipe sleep from his eyes or remove egg matter from around his mouth. Moving through the morning routine, the next stop was the toilet (a large potty chair over the toilet with a big belt that Velcroed around his waist) where we put him and where he sat captive until one of us came to get him. Sometimes he told us he had to go, other times we just put him there when the time seemed right, like in the morning. It was all part of our rigid organization. Neither of us wanted our teenage son pooping his pants.

“I’m done. I pooped,” he called out. “Come get me!”

“Are you sure?” I’d tease him from outside the door.

“I’m sure.”

“You better be sure,” I said.

Mike and I sometimes debated who would do the wipe and toilet dismount. It usually depended on who was running ahead or behind schedule that morning.

Leaning Noah forward onto the toilet, I’d have a wad of paper in my hand to wipe his butt.

“There’s no poop in there,” I said looking into the bowl.

“Just kidding,” Noah said. “I’ll poop at school.”

“That’s weird, you’re a school pooper.”

Noah laughed at the idea of being a school pooper.

As a toddler he could feed himself—not really well, but good enough. By the time he was three, the tone and spasms in his hands and arms increased and he began to fling food or poke himself in the face with a fork.

“Come on Noah,” we coached. “Steady does it.” We guided his arm, hand and fork toward his mouth. We tried to feed him things that would stick on a fork. Chunks of cheese, scrambled eggs, macaroni and individual peas worked well.

“I can do it,” he said and then the idea, the excitement of success kicked in and his hand would spasm and off went the food. Meals with Noah feeding himself lasted at least an hour, and the food intake was minimal. So we fed him when he was a toddler and when he was a teen. We never thought much about it or how it might look to others when we went out to eat. It was just normal to us.

Disability makes for a close family mostly because accessibility makes friendships for disabled kids difficult. If there are steps to a friend’s home, or a playground isn’t accessible, the kid in the wheelchair is likely to be left out. Even when there’s a desire for inclusion, the logistics of moving a kid in a wheelchair without a specialized van is a challenge. We did as much picking up and dropping off as we were able, but it wasn’t enough for Noah to develop the deep friendships that other kids enjoy as they become teenagers. That continual contact that kids have with one another from about middle school to high school just didn’t exist for Noah. There were no sleepovers, video game hangouts, car rides, prep sports events, or dates for him. He had good friends in school, there were kids he talked about and socialized with during the day. He’d talk with kids on the phone sometimes, but after school and on weekends, it was just family. Mike and I were Noah’s parents and his best friends. If it bothered him that he had no close friends, he never mentioned it or complained to us. Of course, we wished things were different for our son, but that kind of normal would never be our reality.

As I did almost every night since he was a baby, I put his pajamas on him, first one damp foot, then the other, trying not to catch his toe on the fleece material. As I pulled the top over his face I hesitated, leaving him trapped. His wet hair was all I could see.

“Let me out. Help!” he said, his voice muffled. I waited a minute and laughed as he rolled his head around and finally escaped the neck of the PJs. I kissed his shampoo-scented head, propped him with pillows, then shut off the lights and left him to dream the dreams of a teenage boy.

Roberta F. King lives in Muskegon, Michigan and is the VP of PR & Marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Her articles and essays have been published in Atticus Review, Boiler Journal, Hippocampus and Lifelines (Dartmouth College Medical School). Her memoir about the life and death of her son Noah will be published by Principia Media in May 2014. Find her at:

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

The Richest Person in the World

The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Jones_BMMom! I have an idea for Valentine’s Day. Let’s get candy coins. You know, those chocolate ones? Then I’ll give them to everyone because I have so many people to love and that makes me the richest person in the whole world. Get it? I’ll give them candy money because I’m so rich!


Mom? Is that a good idea?

Mom! Why are you crying?!?

I’m about the least sentimental person this side of Spock, but those words from my 11-year-old son’s mouth hit me right in my middle. I’m the richest person in the world because I have so many people to love from any child would be wonderful. From this particular little boy, it is miraculous.

Carter was born the very unhappiest baby who grew into the very unhappiest toddler and the very most anxious preschooler. By the time he started school, he had a list of diagnoses as long as his arm, none of which seemed precisely right, and although some of those diagnoses were very big, adult, and scary, they didn’t quite capture the long crisis our lives had become. A few months before Carter turned 7, I had begun to lose hope that he would ever experience any happiness more meaningful than the momentary excitement of a new toy.

What we know now but didn’t then was that Carter suffered a prenatal hypoxic brain injury that impacted his brain from stem to stern. He has a sleep disorder so severe that, when unmedicated, he sleeps every other night, only succumbing to slumber when his body is finally powerless against overwhelming exhaustion. He has hypotonia (low muscle tone) and is weaker on the right side of his body than his left.

In spite of all that, the most arresting reality of life for Carter and all of us who love him was, he was miserable. He suffered seizure-like rages during which he begged me to kill him or have him arrested. He tried to throw himself out of the car on the freeway. I restrained him when he tried to hurt himself and dragged him off of other children when he tried to kill them. My husband and I slept in shifts so we could supervise our wakeful, terrified son. Carter lived like a dervish: never playing, never sitting, rarely smiling. He was a blur of disorganized, frenetic activity, terrified of everything and enjoying nothing.

These days, Carter gives me full permission to tell the stories of those years in any way I like, but he rarely discusses it himself. He can’t bear to think about it. By that fall, he had developed psychotic symptoms, we had removed him from public school because the staff wouldn’t stop punishing him for crying all day, and finally, we got an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist.

That pediatric psychiatrist was Dr. S, and we had a good many more chaotic months and terrifying experiences ahead of us, but it was a turning point nevertheless. She was not the first professional to listen to us and take Carter’s problems seriously (though there were plenty who scoffed and dismissed me as an over-anxious mother), but she was the first one who took us seriously who was also qualified to help. It took months to find a drug combination that helped Carter sleep and eased his psychosis and rages, but knowing Dr. S was there, working with us, caring about Carter, and available by phone gave me hope.

Then came D, a new therapist, a young guy who looked at my son and saw not a diagnostic puzzle to be solved or a series of symptoms to be squelched, but a child with whom he could develop a relationship. Carter, always a cautious soul who loves his inner circle completely but is very careful about who he allows into that circle, trusted D in a matter of weeks. D was the one to break the news to me that Carter was delusional and hallucinating, and he was the person who stayed on the phone with me for an hour while I cried over this information. Through the fall and winter of 2009 and into the early months of 2010, he answered my questions, lent me books, and lit up with genuine happiness when he greeted Carter. He assured me over and over that, should we need to hospitalize Carter, he would spend time with him every day, and while we never did have to admit our little boy, the knowledge that D would be next to us if that happened was immensely reassuring.

As we began the slow, uncertain journey to stability (an improvement we were never quite confident about until Carter’s illness had been receding for over a year), we were gradually adding new people to our lives. First came a small support group for parents of children with serious mental illness (never underestimate the power of the presence of people who understand your experience). Next, a new school for Carter, a tiny community of children with special needs and their dedicated teachers where my son feels safe and confident enough to learn, and where he has developed his first genuine friendships. Finally, a new faith community, where most people don’t really understand but everyone is willing to listen. Soon, we’ll embark on a brand new adventure when Carter becomes a Special Olympics athlete.

Perhaps all of that sounds a little flippant, like an old fairy tale where everything was dark and scary and suddenly the sun came out and surprise! Everything is wonderful again! In fact, the road to the relative stability we enjoy has been bumpy and profoundly difficult. Our lives are, and will remain, more challenging than they would have been had Carter’s brain not been injured. In spite of all that, Carter really is the richest person in the world because he has so many people to love.

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom. I got to help him buy chocolate coins and make Valentine’s cards for all the people he loves and who love him in return, and for the mom of the boy who was once filled with little except fear and rage, well…

I think I have something in my eye.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [].

The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

photo 1-1Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, son, and the trick to nabbing a valentine is to seriously up your game, player. However, the trick to upping your game is tricky because it’s all about not having a game or any tricks. I’m sorry, but all the best things are paradoxes.

To construe romantic love as a game is to lose before it begins and you’ll inevitably lose afterwards too because there’s no escaping that part where you’re clutching your heart like Reverend Dimmesdale with snot all over your face and hair and your friends will have no choice but to shake their heads at your incoherent babble between all the cataclysmic sobs. It will end badly. Like everything. But no worries, young man. There’s a deep optimism beneath the surface of pessimism. I told you, man, paradoxes.

This is the part where I tell you to just be yourself. But does such a thing exist when you’re 15? To thine own self be true, Laertes. But what’s that even mean? And what in the world does it have to do with valentines?

What it has to with valentines is another paradox. Seek a valentine and she is nowhere to be found. A valentine never appears until you don’t need her. Being yourself, being true to your complicated self, and just doing what you love, however, is a valentine magnet. But, to contradict myself (only seemingly), playing video games all the time is not very attractive. That’s because—I’m sorry—playing video games is not what you really love. Not at all. It’s a distraction from what you love, like looking for valentines. What you love will call you like a vocation, which is actually, of course, a goddess singing to you with her arms wide open in a gale of black chaos. Embrace her. Hear her song. I’d sing it for you but I don’t know the words and neither do you. That’s why I told you to hear her song. Are you even listening? Get over there and embrace the goddess!

It could be anything. You might love to write or paint or play the drums or fix cars or build log cabins or compete in triathlons or read big fat books about Being or wars or wizards and dwarves. But you’ll know it when you find it because it’ll be love and you’ll lose yourself and you won’t need anything else to make you feel whole because you’ll already be empty, gone, lost in what you love, which—paradoxically—is the substance of fullness.

And then—when you are completely satisfied—that’s when you’ll be swarmed by valentines. Be wary, though, of people attracted to the power of your love who seek to be its object. These are vampires whose thirsts your blood will never quench and soon you’ll be arguing about money, the color of towels, and other incomprehensible matters. Rather, your valentine, also attracted by the force with which you love, will love and protect your love, and you too will love and protect what she loves for only those in the throes of the goddess’ song can recognize and love one another.

The desire to play video games will vanish. You’ll look upon your valentine with no small amount of discomfort because your whole body will vibrate with a million things to say but you, in a dazed and blinky stupor, will be dumfounded, speechless, conked by lust. It is at precisely this moment, when what resolutely resists articulation insists on being said, that you will be called to pull up your chair to the table of poetry. Here, don’t waste your metaphors on her physical appearance, on the pearls of her teeth or the crashing ocean wave from her waist to hip. Stay true to love. Make no sense. She is a book in a thunderstorm, a map of fire, a key to the house of ashes and forgotten songs. Like that. Confuse her. Real lovers will find comfort in confusion, joy in ambiguity, and home in the rotation of seasons.

Seriously, write her poems. I’m giving you all my heat.

And this above all: Be kind. Figure out what kindness means to her and be exactly that. Imagine all your conflicts from her perspective, see yourself with her eyes, and be for her everything she desires. Forget yourself. Unflinchingly, unceasingly, with complete abandon. Chase away every thought about getting or not getting the love you want. Just be the love you want and you will find in so doing a paradox about which the very wise do not dare to speak unless it’s the gentle rain on the silent mountain.



The Shema and I

The Shema and I

By Jessica Bram

WO The Sherma ArtWhen I was twelve my mother gave me an instruction that was to stay with me in a most annoying way for the rest of my life.  I was waiting at an airline gate about to take my first plane flight alone, thrilled at the prospect of my first experience at air travel and this undeniable leap toward adulthood.

Finally, the door to the ramp whooshed open.  This was it.  As I stepped forward to board my mother, who had been standing quietly at my side, turned toward me.

Her face was unusually serious.  “As the plane is about to take off,” she said, looking at me intently, “I want you to say the Shema.”

This caught me by surprise.  Although my mother lit Shabbat candles most Friday nights, and attended High Holy Day services each year, I did not think of her as a particu­larly pious person.  Hebrew prayers were not something commonly invoked in our day-to-day life.  Yet here she was instructing me to say the most sacred declaration in the entire Jewish liturgy—not only an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but also, an explicit statement of the existence of one and only one God, thereby defining Jew as apart from Christian.  It was proclaimed at every service: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”  Accompanied by a full throttle organ blast of major chords, Shema never failed to induce a huge shiver like icicles coursing down my shoulders as the congregation sang out, each word almost its own triumphant declaration: “Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Elohenu! Adonai! Echod!”

I was impressed.  Did air travel really merit a gesture so profound?

It occurred to me then that my mother’s command might have had less to do with reverence than supersti­tion.  My mother was of that genera­tion for which air travel was still regarded as somewhat perilous.  When she had stuffed quarters into the flight insurance dispenser in the terminal earlier, I was quite certain she was aiming for insurance of a different kind.  To ward off “the evil eye,” no doubt, and deliver me safely.  In any case, I imagined her thinking, it couldn’t hurt.

Even at age twelve I could recite the Shema from memory. But I had learned it in the unlikeli­est of places: Girl Scouts.  I had been chosen as one of three, along with a Catholic and a Protestant girl, to recite our respective religion’s prayers at the opening of a huge convoca­tion of Girl Scouts and Scout leaders from the Greater New York area.  So I had the odd experi­ence of pro­claiming the Shema aloud for the first time before a microphone and few thousand Girl Scouts, mostly Christian.

I did not forget my mother’s instructions as the plane, engines roaring, began its acceleration down the runway.  At the very moment of that heart-stopping miracle in which a huge machine lifted into the air, I obediently whispered a quick Shema.  And then turned my attention to the astounding first sight of tiny cars crawling along slim, winding ribbons of highway; of perfect squares of green and rust laid out like a giant, undulating checker­board; and most breath­taking of all, the sudden surprise of rising through grey mist to a blindingly bright blue sky above a snowy floor—the most perfect depiction of heaven I could ever imagine.  Now this, if anything, spoke to me of God.  Not an ancient Hebrew prayer that reminded me mostly of our great stone synagogue with its worn velvet seats.

Over the years, as I grew older and air travel became commonplace to me, the Shema had a habit of popping into my head at that very moment in which the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway.   To be perfectly honest this became, more often than not, irritating.  I meant no disrespect for this sacred declaration.  But when flying to Mexico on college break with not much more than a bikini and a bottle of Bain de Soleil; or off on my honeymoon in Paris; or even, during my young banker days, when flying to Pitts­burgh with a pile of annual reports on my lap, the last thing I wanted to think about was religion, or four thousand years of rabbis in black coats.  Least of all did I want to be reminded of martyrs of the Middle Ages uttering the Shema with their last breaths before being burned at the stake.  But there it was, every time: the Shema.  Seeming almost to utter itself with some odd power of its own.  And suddenly I would become, once again, the obedient daughter. A Good Jewish Girl—dutiful, reverent, and chaste.  It has been that way ever since.

My first born son David was eleven when he flew alone for the first time, to Space Camp in Florida.  At the airline gate, neither of us spoke as David waited to board.  Ostentatious­ly noncha­lant, David scarcely glanced out the large observation window onto the runway, as though air travel was nothing unusual to him.

Should I do it?  I wondered.  Should I tell him to say it?  I wasn’t the slightest bit supersti­tious. But, well—it couldn’t hurt.  And it was tradition, after all.  I hesitated, and then reconsidered. Should I burden David with this annoying instruc­tion for the rest of his life?

I was caught in a small panic of indecision as the plane was called to board.  It was now or never.  Maybe I should just tell him.

I took a breath.  No.  Let him think about Space Camp, and adventure, and the view out his window.  Boy stuff.  Not religion.

With barely a “Bye, Mom,” David stepped out the door to the tarmac where a row of gleaming airplanes waited in the distance.  A flight attendant at his side, David walked briskly toward the farthest plane, which seemed to grow larger as they approached it.  And then, as David’s figure became smaller and smaller, a strange kind of reversal in time took place.  David seemed before my eyes to change back from confident almost-teenager to small boy to toddler, and then to that baby boy whom I once never let out of my sight.

And then I understood.  It hadn’t been superstition at all that had been in my mother’s mind when she told me to say the Shema.  It was the knowledge that she had that day been putting me in the hands of her God, entrust­ing me to His safekeeping.  Deliver­ing me not only to the sky, but to this first step toward adulthood and that inexorable journey away from her.  The words of the Shema—her words, but spoken by me—were the link of their hands as I passed from one to Another.

The small black speck that was my son disappeared into the plane.  I remained at the window, and the words came easily.  Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.

Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003.



Skin On Skin With My Teen

Skin On Skin With My Teen

By Nancy J. Brandwein

SkinonSkinMy 13-year-old daughter and I face each other, propped against opposite ends of our worn old couch. I have my New York magazine, and she has her book. Our calves knock lazily against each other now and then, or she plants her feet flatly against the thin bones of my shins. The pressure hurts, sometimes a lot, but I treasure this contact, this skin on skin. Friends with older daughters caution that mine will likely make an abrupt break from any contact with me. My wariness of that moment (when will it happen? Will there be a sign or many signs?) makes it hard to truly relax here on the couch, but it also makes me hyper appreciative of this moment.

I like the smell of her feet, fruity from the cheap Payless flats she wears without socks. If they were anyone’s feet but hers, I’d gag, but instead I inhale their vinegary aroma the way I happily breathe in her sour cat’s maw breath when I wake her on school days. First, though, I grab her feet in both hands and give them a tug, suddenly aware of the weight and heft of this girl who had always been so slight.  I rub the dry creased soles of her feet or take my index finger and, like a doctor with his rubber triangular hammer, sketch a line from big toe to heel. Her body curls deeper under her Andy Warhol duvet. But I uncover her head and kiss the sweaty brow under wisps of the tawny mane she worships. Sometimes I hold her pointed chin while she yawns in my face. I wince, but still stick close.

On weekends I often help her prep the sacred hair for yet another Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I part and comb damp hanks and hold the blow dryer, just so, at her command, to make the long honey-colored locks straighten without frizzing. At night, when I flop on her bed and sing a line from the ritual song I once used to sing her to sleep, she might pull on the frizzy ends of my middle-aged hair or mindlessly sweep it off my forehead as she tells me, excitedly, of some new plan she has of making jewelry from garbage, of selling her old clothes, or traveling to Iran. I wish I could say, as I used to when she was four and we played at hairdressing, “Do my hair.” I could command her to attend to my body—braid my hair, scratch my back, polish my nails—as she now commands me to attend to hers.

Recently my daughter asked me when she should start shaving under her arms. “If you have hair there,” I said, and boldly ventured, “Do you?” She flapped open one arm like a chicken wing to reveal a few strands of curly brown hair. “Aaw,” I said, moved. I well remember my own scrawled diary entry “I have hair under my arms!!!!” I reached out to touch her there, but she snapped her armpit shut. There are rules I must abide by, and those are, for now, namely that skin on skin is OK if she initiates the contact: her skin on my skin first, as a way of granting permission. And even then the permission might come with codicils and fine print about which I am unaware.

These days when we stroll the city streets, usually in pursuit of some clothing item from my own adolescence that she must have (desert boots … studs … peasant blouses), I am often gobsmacked by her sense of freedom with my body. My daughter pulls at my arm and lifts my hand to her mouth as if to take a giant bite. It is a game she plays, “I must bite! I must bite!” she tells me. And if I am not fast I will feel a small impression of teeth on the top of my hand.  Happy in her body—and with her purchases bought with my credit—she does an impish King Tut walk in front of me, then throws an arm around my shoulder, something she can do since she is now just one inch shy of my height. Or, in a more sedate mood, she will loop her arm companionably in mine and we walk like two ladies who lunch. Yet—and there’s the fine print—when I am encouraged to hold her hand or rest my hand on her waist, she may dart away.

At other times, though, her touch reminds me that she is still very much my little girl. Coming back from our outings, we walk through the maze-like Times Square subway station, and she is young enough to fear being parted. She walks behind me, pinching the unloved loose skin at my elbow as we make our way through the crowd.

Just as I love her spontaneous hugs or love bites, I treasure my daughter’s utilitarian approach to my body—as guide through the city throngs, as footrest on the couch, as backrest while we watch TV on the living room floor. This notion of being the ground for my daughter’s explorations goes back to toddlerhood. Learning to walk, she clung to my thigh as if I were a stable oak tree. Lying on the couch trying to read the paper, I’d peer over the New York Times to see her scaling my bent knees. My memories of our sensual connection go further back, of course, to breastfeeding days. I remember that anxious moment when I’d prop her at my breast and she would fuss or twist her head the wrong way. When she finally latched on, I’d will myself to stay stock still, so tenuous did the connection seem, until she sucked in long regular draughts and I could relax and shift position. Even when the feed was going well, though, I was unable to multitask when breastfeeding—all those fantasies of reading Trollope’s Barchester Towers in small increments went quickly out the window. Most of all, I loved to attend, not just to the moment, which seemed always to stand outside of time, but to revel in the accretion of moments, which would, with time and the gradual weaning, soon be labeled a “stage” and put behind us.

Those stages of infancy, toddlerhood or even early childhood seemed so clearly demarcated, unlike the messiness of adolescence. Those same friends who warn me not to bask so in the physical connection with my daughter told me that her period, which she announced from behind a closed bathroom door, would presage raging hormones, bitter fights, or worse: an icy hatred.  It’s hard to imagine this as my 13-year-old daughter and I face each other on opposite ends of our worn old couch, our calves knocking lazily against each other. “Ouch,” I cry when her sharp, unclipped toenail scratches my shin, but I wear the thin red scrape like a badge of motherly pride. “See,” I want to tell the naysayers, “We still touch. We are still close.” But just as in those days when I held her to my breast, I feel I must hold my breath and remain absolutely still, like a table or a chair. I wonder when “close” will become “closed.” It is enough, for now, to lie across from my daughter on the old green couch or, if I’m really lucky, to squeeze next to each other down its length. Then her fragrant hair potions waft over me as her elbow jabs my side every time she opens and closes her book. Sometimes her long tapered feet actually trap my own against the nubby couch fabric—as if she, too, is willing me to stay.

Nancy J. Brandwein is a freelance writer ( who has published in The New York Times, Brain, Child, West Side Spirit and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband and two teenaged children.

Purchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teenagers. $10 Shipping included. Click here.

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

Snowbound and Housebound and New Year’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War on Terror

War on Terror

By Francie Arenson Dickman

photo-5My daughters leave for school at 7:30 in the morning, which makes for an early start in our house. I’m downstairs doing all of my least favorite activities—unloading the dishes, making lunches—in the dark while my children are upstairs doing the things essential to get ready for school, like doctoring an invisible pimple with makeup from my bathroom or checking the Instagrams posted in the 30 seconds since they last checked. If they have time after this, they brush their teeth and get dressed. These are the days, the ones when they wind up in the kitchen without me having dragged them there, that I feel buoyed. I don’t bank on them anymore, I’ve adjusted expectations but nonetheless, I don’t expect much worse. So I was surprised the other morning, surprised in a bad way, when, with my head in the dishwasher, I heard my phone ding. This particular sound signaled that I was being summoned by my daughter.

A few months ago, each of my daughters assigned to my phone a unique ringtone, or text tone as I believe they are called, so I can identify who is in need without looking up from whatever I’m doing, in this case, putting away dishes. The text tones, like their cries as babies, are easily distinguishable. One is upbeat and silly. It sings “you’ve got a text message” in a goofy voice. The other is a single, repeated call, like a sick wolf or a train about to run you down. It is appropriately entitled Suspense. Any time I hear either’s sound, I hold my breath, since as with their infant cries, they both tend to text me reflexively, and primarily in times of discontent. “Not having fun here, come get me.” “Forgot my lunch.” “Pants ripped.”

So, with trepidation I shoved the wok from last night’s unappreciated stir-fry into the drawer and shuffled to my phone. It was after 7, no one had yet appeared in the kitchen and the lone wolf had just called. This couldn’t be good, I thought, and it wasn’t.

“My hair didn’t crimp right,” the sentence read. Actually, it wasn’t a sentence because it didn’t finish with a period or any other form of recognized punctuation. Instead, at the end of the line were 4 emogis, little smiley faces; the ones she chose had tears coming out of their eyes.

I paused for a moment to soak in the reality that my home had devolved into every other home in America that housed kids in what I like to think of as the terrorist years. The irony didn’t escape me either that my daughter and I were feet away from each other and rather than storming down the stairs to show me the aforementioned hair, as I would have done, or even screaming, she didn’t make a sound. If I hadn’t have checked the text, I wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. I decided that in this case, it was probably better if I didn’t make a sound either.

So against my impulse and better judgment, I typed back, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I used a period instead of an emogi.

I waited. No little dots issued forth to indicate my daughter was responding. I figured maybe she was busy uncrimping her hair or better yet, cutting it off, as I had once done after a perm gone bad. Or maybe, if I was lucky, she was putting on clothes as it was now ten minutes after 7.

My other daughter had already strolled into the kitchen and was now eating cereal. “What’s going on with your sister?” I said. Since we were face to face, I was allowed to use actual words to communicate with her and she managed to use some in return.

“Don’t know.”

My daughters are twins and they are twelve. They were born two weeks after 9/11 and for the first months, years actually, of their lives, I, like the residents of Lower Manhattan lived on a constant state of high alert. My adrenaline worked overtime. I’d gained 60 pounds while pregnant and lost 70 in the four months after. My hair turned grey. I developed Ulcerative Colitis. I’d lay awake at night on edge, waiting for signs of unrest over the baby monitor, which I see now, was the precursor to the iPhone. My father who was born in 1931, a solid 70 years pre-Sept 2001, could never understand the monitor. “When they really need you,” he’d say, “you’ll hear ’em. If you respond every time they whine, they’ll never shut up”.

I also remember my father telling me, “You got two to three rough years ahead of you, then it’ll all be ok.”

“But then,” added my mother, who was sitting next to my father on our couch, “it won’t be.” They each held a baby, having stopped by for one of their 10-minutes-is-all-we-can-tolerate visits.

At the time, I focused on my father’s words. They hung in my head, a beacon of hope as the minutes ticked by, the nights grew quieter and life, as he predicted, got easier. I no longer trembled for hours on Sunday nights before my husband set out for the week. I gained weight. I dyed my hair. My colitis went into remission. As the horrors of late 2001 faded with time I, like all Americans, slipped into a state of complacency, where I lived happily until now.

I stormed upstairs to find my daughter maniacally wetting and brushing, wetting and brushing. All of the hair supplies in her arsenal had been brought forth to the counter. The mirror, along with her sweatshirt, was splattered with water. I have to give her credit, her hair was worth the 4 tearful emojis. The back of it, which I learned had been braided loosely by her sister, hung in a gentle wave whereas the sides, which she’d done in a series of Medusa like braids, had produced a wild, Amazonian look, reflective of her text tone, I thought, as I stood in the war zone that was her bathroom and tried to not laugh.

“I’m not going to school,” she informed me, adding for impact that she also had a pimple in her nose that was making it hard for her to breath.

“I too feel it hard to breath,” I told her, “due to the pimple now sitting on her countertop.”

She rolled her eyes. I grabbed her brush and did the only thing I could think to do. I pulled her hair into a ponytail. Yet unlike years ago when I had sole control over hairdos, she was now armed with the motor skills to yank the hair band out of her head and the verbal skills to inform me that the ponytail was off center. Then she grabbed a headband, and of course her phone, and stumped her way downstairs. I decided to declare a victory as at least in body, she was headed in the right direction, a step closer to the door.

I freely admit these days that I drop my kids at school with the same joy with which I once welcomed the babysitter. Time to regroup. Settle my nerves. I color my hair, I do some work, and reflexively, I do as my daughters do. I call my mother to complain.

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.

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.

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 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. 

The Favor

The Favor

By Priscilla F. Bourgoine

0-22For months I avoided the fitness center. I didn’t want to run into Faith who worked there. She had lost her son five years before. She knew what I was going through. I didn’t want to talk to Faith because I didn’t want to join her club.

My doctor had ordered me on Thursday back to the gym.  “Exercise will help you,” she said. The last thing I wanted to do was move.  Dr. Whyte passed me the prescription: “30 min. of cardio, 3x per wk.” I imagined that I turned her to ice. When my middle daughter was young, she loved how Kimberly the Pink Power Ranger froze whatever got in her way. Every morning and every night, since the June day of our horrible loss, I willed superhero magic. I commanded life halted: the summer breeze, the blossomed lilies, the honey bees, the deep oceans, even the orbited planets.

On Friday, at the gym’s entryway, I sat down and put on my sneakers. I glanced up and saw Faith headed my way. Early daylight illuminated her auburn hair. Her slight smile acknowledged me. The twinkle in Faith’s brown eyes misplaced for good somewhere along the sidewalk of her life like a button that never turned up. I looked down and concentrated on making tight double-knotted loops with my laces.

Faith stood in front of me. “I have a favor to ask of you,” she said.

I raised my chin.

That afternoon, back home, with a bottle in hand, I climbed downstairs into our basement to search for the photo Faith desired. I heaved the large Rubbermaid tub with a thud to the cement floor. The photos of my three children shook loose inside the container. Faith knew too well what she had asked of me. I guzzled the Pinot Noir and wiped my lips. Since our own awful afternoon eleven months ago, it was the facts of my middle child’s twenty-three-year life that I clung to like a rescue rope thrown to me in the deep rising waters of grief.  How can I deny Faith the next stone to step on to stay afloat from the thunderous current of despair?

Months before, when the summer sun hung high, the goldenrod bloomed, blueberries hung plump on the lakeside bushes, and the sticky heat weighted down my work dress, a small paper bag had been left in my office mailbox.  Inside was a book of mediations on loss with a postcard, a field of forget-me-nots. Faith had written: “We found this book the most helpful. We hope it gives you some peace. Call me when you are ready to walk.” That’s when I made the connection. Five years before, my oldest daughter had called me from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had cried into the telephone. A wretched ice storm had covered most of New Hampshire and had shut down electricity. I had mistaken her sadness for worry over those of us trapped in the frozen darkness. She told me that wasn’t it, though she was upset for us. There had been a sudden death. That kind and handsome boy with the dark eyes who had been her date for her senior prom had been killed in a car accident on a slippery mountain road.

On Sunday, my husband held his oval glasses in his hand and pressed his eyes close to the newspaper article. “Listen to this French interior designer’s meaning of color: Every color has a psychological effect on a room. Particular color combinations give one another balance. Colors like vibrant vermillion red and chartreuse green, when paired together, properly symbolize survival.” He cleared his throat. “Colors give us permanence.”

 *   *   *

The dampness from our home’s foundation seeped into my flesh and bones. I swigged another sip of bitter wine, and put the bottle down on the cement floor. With both hands I dug through the plastic tub of loose photos. Like someone at a contest, I pulled a photo free and held it up toward the light. There we were. My three children and I had picnicked by the ocean. The day’s brightness had beamed. I remembered the breeze that summer day had fluttered our beach towels and sand had stuck to our bodies, covered in cocoa butter lotion. We had used our sandals to tack down the corners. The endless blue had spread-out above us. Our bare legs had touched. For our lunch we had gobbled our usual homemade bread slathered with butter and sliced bananas, drizzled with honey.

 *   *   *

On Monday, I bought a picture frame for the prom photo I had uncovered at the bottom of the bin. Years before on that spring day, the four teens had stood outdoors beside a stand of pines. My older daughter wore a little black dress with a wrist corsage. The outline of what would become a full moon had peeked out from the dusk. Off camera, my middle daughter had swung on the swing set. Valerie yelled to me, to them, that she would sway high and fly.

At the gym, in my workout clothes, with silence, I placed the package wrapped in bright red and bright green paper with ribbon into Faith’s empty hands, and headed to the treadmill. This will be the only evidence Faith will ever have of her son in a black-tie tuxedo.

Colors remain. People fade.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy. 

Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist outside of Boston and, offers web therapy through a Manhattan company. She earned a MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Priscilla lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. 

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.

Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

By Anne Sawan
Photo on 2010-12-18 at 17.24 #5When he was small, he would ask me to sleep with him every night.

“Please sleep with me Mom.”

And most nights I would. I would snuggle in next to him, feeling his small body pressed against mine, an arm thrown across my neck as he burrowed in so close our noses would touch, his breath minty and sweet against my cheek, his hair still damp and fresh from the bath. He would whisper his dreams and silly rhymes in my ear as the room slowly darkened, a gently stillness seeping in, his chest rising and falling in time with the soft whir of the overhead fan. All thoughts of the piles of laundry that needed to be washed, the already late bills to pay, the sticky dinner dishes that should be rinsed, floating away as I lay with my arms around my child, both of us drifting into sweet, sweet slumber.

And some nights I wouldn’t. On those long, hard days when I just needed some space to think, wanting some peace and solitude to collect my thoughts and mull over the day. Those nights when all I could dream about was an empty chair, a cup of hot tea and a good book, or a piece of the couch, a mindless television show and a glass of wine.

“No, not tonight. I am busy. I don’t have the time,” I would say impatiently.

On those nights there would be tears and pleading; “Can I just have a glass of water … maybe one more … can you turn on the light in the hall … open the door just a little … now it’s too bright … please can’t you lie down here … just a few minutes” and then, finally, thankfully, he would fall to sleep, alone.

Those days of asking are gone now.


Funny, I remember the last time he asked.

The asking had slowed down, becoming more sporadic over the years as he grew, separating from me, as he needed to, but still, occasionally … after a scary movie, a hard day at school, a lost baseball game, he would ask … and I might.

Then came the dark, dismal, cloudy days of preteen rolled eyes, low mutterings, and out right defiance. Days of arguing, yelling and talking back. He came to me after one of those long days; one of those days that left me still seething hours later from his insolence, the bitter taste of disrespect rolling around my mouth, the heavy buzz of surliness ringing in my ears.

“Can you lie down with me for a few minutes?” He mumbled, his eyes shifting first to the window, then to the ceiling and down to the floor.

“What!” Anger boiled, bubbling and popping inside my chest. I was too annoyed to care that this humble asking was his best apology. Too angry to see that this might be the time he needed me the most. I snapped and snarled, “No! I’m busy! I don’t have the time for that! Go to bed!” dismissing him with a dark glare and a wave of my arm.

He shuffled out, shoulders slumped and I sat, by myself, pretending to look at my book.

Minutes went by. The clock on the wall steadily ticking out the beat of time … passing. I heard him turning in his bed, but he never called out. Never asked for water or a nightlight. Never pleaded for me to open the door just a crack … and the dull space that had started in my head slowly wormed its way down to my heart and landed with a heavy thud in my stomach. The silence of the night surrounded me, and in the quiet, sliding through the anger, I heard the whir of a soft whisper. Not much more time.

I put down my book and shut my eyes and listened to the gentle hum, the quiet warning.

Not much more time.

And alone, in the darkness, I remembered. I remembered the little boy that dragged his yellow dump truck all over the house carefully putting it next to him on his pillow at night as he pulled up the covers. The boy who had me read the same dinosaur book over and over until we both could name and identify the eating habits of each creature. The boy who held tightly to my hand as we crossed the street, readily sharing his vanilla ice cream and always saving the very tip of the sugar cone for me. The boy who showed me the joy of finding worms in the rain, how to collect baseball cards and tried to teach me to like roller coasters. The boy who snuggled next to me, his chubby hands on either side of my face as he whispered about what he wanted to be when he grew up—a baseball player, a rock star, a paleontologist, a dad.

Not much more time.

I walked across the hallway, over the dimly lit space that separated us, and stood near him.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Move over.”

I climbed in next to his awkward almost adolescent body, the sour smell of sweat surrounding him but this time there was no hand thrown across my neck, no noses pushed together or silly whispers in my ear, instead he moved away, turning to the wall, and we slept in uneasy silence, our backs pressed together.

And that was the last time.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s book published by MeeGenuis. 

Purchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teenagers. $10 Shipping included. Click here.

Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

By Jack Cheng

0-14My 10-year-old son can be a train wreck.

I know it’s not his fault. His limbs are growing faster than he knows, and his brain is all over the place, from the world of Minecraft to the Marvel Comics Superhero Universe to the Greek gods of the Percy Jackson-verse. Still, excuses aside, he’s simply not that cognizant of his own body.

When he walks down the hall, I cringe, worried that he’ll knock over framed photos hanging on the walls.

When he wobbled his bike down a path through the park, I winced as he passed pedestrians, afraid that he would ride into them.

And he hardly ever seems to walk by his little sister without bumping into her, sometimes jostling her playfully, sometimes just knocking her over.

“What’s wrong with him?” my wife and I would ask each other, after sending him to his room for a body checking infraction.

It took a while, but I think I figured out what was wrong, why he had an incessant need to bump into things, consciously or not. My wife always suggests exercise: “A tired kid is a good kid” is one of her mottos (which, I’ll note, she adapted from something she heard in a dog obedience course). Another dad at soccer practice was telling me his son needed tackle football—that boys this age just needed to run into each other and get some of that energy out. I think my wife and this dad were on to something, but I think there’s something beyond just physical activity.

I thought back to wrestling with my son as a toddler. It seemed both recent and long ago that I would lift him above my bed, throw him onto the mattress and shout “Body slam!” while smothering his body with my own. It’s been a few years since we’d played like that. And that’s when I realized:

He needed a hug.

Part of the reason it took me so long to understand is my experience of my own family. I never doubted that my parents or my sisters loved me, but I also remember how bizarre it seemed the first time I saw my parents holding hands. This is a clear memory since I was probably about 16 at the time. They are fairly traditional Chinese people who are not into public displays of affection.

I wasn’t sure my son would admit he wanted to be hugged, but I tested my theory. The next time he bumped his sister, I got reflexively mad again, but I kept my temper in check and took a deep breath. Come over here, I commanded, and then, to his surprise, I gave him a big squeeze. He returned the gesture and, after a minute, it seemed to make him feel better. He may have just been relieved that he wasn’t getting punished.

Just like anyone, I know my son needs physical affection. The trouble is, he’s a ten-year-old boy and doesn’t know where to get it. His sister hugs all her friends, even hugs her teachers goodbye, but he and his buddies don’t embrace. They race side by side, they climb trees, they sit next to each other playing video games but they get embarrassed when they touch. Once after a brief falling out with a friend, I told my son and his pal to shake hands and I could sense that the physical act was as awkward as the apology.

He’s getting big, and heavy, and frankly, has a bony butt, so sitting on his parents’ laps has long been a rare occasion. He doesn’t hug his sister, but left to their own devices, their games often involve piggyback rides or feats of dual gymnastics that require grappling of some sort.

So now I hug him. I told my wife, when he’s acting up, I’m going give him a hug—the fact that he’s misbehaving is my signal that he needs it.

Then, at dinner last week, I asked, a bit teasingly, “Hey how come I hug you, but you never hug me?”

He asked me a question in response, “How come we only hug when you’re mad at me?”

I was taken aback. I had figured out a transaction—he acts up, give him a hug—but I’m still not a particularly huggy person myself. My social engineering was totally transparent to him. In fact, it was backfiring—he took a hug to mean that I was mad at him. The worst part was, he was right. My heart was in my throat.

“I’m not mad at you now,” I said.

He came over and we held each other tight. When I let go of him, he wiped his eyes, but he assured me that that was just his allergies.

I suffer from the same allergens.

Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Boston, works on archaeological digs in the Middle East, plays music with the Newton Family Singers, and runs the “Daddy Bank” for his kids. Follow him on Twitter: @jakcheng

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Purchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teenagers. $10 Shipping included. Click here.



By Virginia Pye

0-13The TSA attendant hands my children back their boarding passes and before they shuffle over and start to remove their belts and shoes, they look back and wave. “It’s OK,” my teenage son mouths through the glass as his college-aged sister blows a kiss and offers a smile. “They’ll be fine,” my husband says as he takes my hand. I press my fingertips to my eyelids and realize it isn’t our kids I’m worried about. It’s me.

Our son and daughter are leaving the family vacation early, as we had planned it, while my husband and I stay on for another week at the rental cottage up in Maine. The kids are old enough to manage on their own back home; old enough to have anticipated in advance that one week with the whole family would be just the right amount of time.

As we head toward the lone escalator in the Bangor airport, I find myself watching people saying their farewells on the threadbare carpet. I see a somber young man in desert camouflage kiss his girlfriend goodbye. A gangly preteen twirls a cheerleader’s baton with pink plastic ribbons on the ends and calls for her daddy to watch one more time before he steps beyond the stanchion. A young mother helps her father pry his grandson off his leg. The toddler cries and the mother tells him they’ll visit again at Christmas, no doubt a vague eternity to the boy. How, I wonder, do people manage the everyday heartache of leaving?

I remember my father idling in our station wagon in front of Logan airport as my mother and I hugged goodbye on the sidewalk. In my twenties, I was leaving again, far too soon, she said. She brushed back a few tears and complained that they never saw enough of me anymore. I felt a surge of longing as I pressed up against her. Some part of me ached at the thought of saying goodbye to my childhood, but then I pulled myself free. Without pause, I turned and hurried into my new, young life.

My husband and I walk out into a drizzly Maine morning. Almost immediately, the kids call and say their flight’s been delayed. We decide to kill time near the airport: before we drive the hour and a half back to our rental house on the coast, we want to be certain that they are safely on their way. The rain comes in great sheets and we call the airline many times over the next six hours, first to learn about the grounded plane’s mechanical failures, and then about weather delays up and down the East Coast.

We also exchange texts with our children who sit waiting at their gate. They watch movies on their computers and read from their summer book lists. Each time we contact them, they tell us the latest updates, that they’re doing all right. They eat vending-machine snacks and manage. They’re more independent now, with all the glamour that entails. Despite the inconvenience, I sense they’re relishing their freedom. So long as the flight isn’t cancelled altogether, they’ll be fine. The last thing they want is to return with us for another night. We all agree it was a great vacation together, but the kids have places to go now. They’re ready to be on their way.

Years ago, when I had turned from my mother and dashed into Logan, I couldn’t bear the sight of her missing me before I’d even gone. I didn’t yet grasp what she must have already sensed: that even though we would continue to see each other regularly for visits and vacations, this was an ending. I hated the pained look in her eyes and so it seemed best to leave quickly and without a fuss. Back then, with no cell phones, I couldn’t send a text to reassure her that I’d made it to my destination. I might not even have called home for several days. The break was clean and allowed us to experience it separately, and alone. I understand now, it must have been miserable for her.

As the rain continues and we wait for our children to take off, the pain I had blithely tried to avoid back then revisits me full force. My children are departing and my parents are gone now, too. My father died five years ago, but this is our first summer trip to Maine since my mother’s death a half a year ago. As we ate lobster, took invigorating hikes and viewed glorious sunsets from rocky shores, I had a searing urge to tell her all about it. As an adult and a parent myself, I had called her often, especially from wherever we traveled, to reassure her that we had made it and were having a good time. Our kids stranded in airport limbo would definitely have been worthy of a phone call mention. My mother found pleasure in our happiness, or felt concern for our concerns, even when we were far from her. Now, with my own children poised to leave, I appreciate her generous, long-distance attention more than ever. I also understand that she had had little choice. She had to learn to love me from afar.

With her gone, I’m beginning to fathom that I must learn to love her from the greatest distance of all. I notice that without her, and without the kids, I feel rudderless. I hadn’t realized that the ropes that tied me to my mother also helped me set sail in the first place. Because I counted on her to be my pole star, I came and went with some ease.

In our last phone call on New Year’s Day, I told her about the special dinner we’d had with friends the night before. She seemed distracted, even disinterested. I asked if she was feeling tired. “Oh, yes,” she said, “very tired.” Before I could inquire further, she added, “I have to go now.” We said we loved each other as we always did, and then said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I told my husband that something was wrong. My mother had said, “I have to go now,” as if someone on her end of the line was insisting on it. Twelve hours later she died.

The sorrow of departure is woven into family love, although I had wanted to avoid feeling it for as long as possible. My children don’t experience it the way I do, but perhaps they will someday with their own children. I hope to keep them tethered to me, although with a rope that will necessarily stretch longer and grow finer with each next step they take.

Their flight finally leaves Bangor after dark. Later that night, they text and tell us that they made it home. I reply cheerfully, “Great. Have a good time!” From this distance, it’s the only choice I have.

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Her award-winning short stories are in literary magazines and her essays appear in The Rumpus and forthcoming in The New York Times Opinionator blog. Please visit her at

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

The Adolescent Remedial Guidance Home Help Program (A.R.G.H.): A School of Remedial Learning

The Adolescent Remedial Guidance Home Help Program (A.R.G.H.): A School of Remedial Learning

By Laura Amann

DEPT_motherwitWelcome to the A.R.G.H. School of Remedial Learning! We’re glad you’re considering our program. This intense, competency-based curriculum is designed for students who grapple with the obvious tasks in everyday life. Our school fills educational gaps often misunderstood or tuned out during private, individualized home instruction.

Our qualified, experienced instructors help students face the challenges of daily life. Graduates of our programs are better prepared to face the rigors of living in a household shared with family, friends, or roommates.

Please read below for our course listing. (Discounts are given upon registration of more than one class. All-day intensives are also available).

Toilet Paper Roll Changing (Course Number: 0244)

Students learn how to execute the basic properties and intricacies of changing a toilet paper roll. Using a multi-sensory approach, students identify an empty roll, locate a new roll, change the roll, and dispose of the cardboard tubing.

This is a hands-on course. Students will come away with an understanding of the spring mechanism inherent in a toilet paper holder as well as proper identification of a full and empty roll.

Dish Maneuvering (Course Number: 0232)

This class focuses on the skills needed to maneuver plates, cups, and utensils from any location to a dishwasher or drying rack. Students will demonstrate the ability to pick up dishes and transport them safely and efficiently to the sink area and then promptly remove food particles before placing in dishwasher. Emphasis is placed on identifying and avoiding pitfalls common in dish maneuvering, such as leaving dishes in sink without moving to next step. By semester’s end, students will execute the proper operations in the correct order. (Extra consideration will be given for ability to load dishwasher or drying rack with maximum efficiency.)

*Note: This course is a prerequisite for “Emptying Dishwasher (Course Number: 0242).”

Towel Hanging (Course Number: 0254)

In this inquiry-based, multidisciplinary course, students gain hands-on experience hanging wet towels, and learn a variety of options for towel hangers, such as bars, racks and hooks. Discussions will include inherent problems with using the backs of chairs and the floor as towel holders. Instructors will cultivate the students’ ability to recognize when a towel needs to be washed. Homework includes identifying appropriate towel hangers within the home.

*Prerequisites: a basic grasp of the properties of gravity, a rudimentary understanding of mold and mildew propagation, and a working knowledge of personal hygiene.

Removing Toothpaste From Sink Area (Course Number: 0264)?                                                                                                    

One of our most deceptively challenging courses. Curriculum is specifically designed for those students who believe they have already mastered the challenges inherent in rinsing toothpaste off the sink. The instructor will guide students through the necessary and imperative steps to ensure that all toothpaste and toothpaste foam is successfully rinsed down the drain.

This course also covers the necessary steps to replace the lid on a tube of toothpaste. Extra consideration will be given to students who can maximize efficiency when squeezing out toothpaste.

*Note: This class does not delve into the properties of basic oral hygiene, focusing instead on the environment surrounding the action.

Undressing Effectively (Course Number: 0322)

This course will critically analyze the relationship between clothes-wearer and clothes-washer. Students will learn the finer art of removing clothes without inverting items and how to keep clothing separated. Students will focus on success- fully removing a pair of pants with neither socks nor under- wear balled up inside and will learn to take off shirts, sweaters, pants, socks and other articles of clothing properly and efficiently. Emphasis is placed on correctly identifying inside-out and right-side out. Extra credit will be given to students who can correctly identify the difference between the space just outside a dirty clothes receptacle and the space in- side said receptacle.

Note: Please come fully clothed to all sessions. This is a G-rated course and no nudity will be permitted.

Folded Clothes (Course Number: 0328)

This advanced-level class builds on the concepts and skills covered in “Undressing Effectively (Course Number: 0322)” with an emphasis on mastering the delicate act of moving clean, folded clothes into dresser drawers or onto hangers in closets. An accelerated version of this course guides students in the finer art of searching through a drawer without unfolding the items contained within. Emphasis is on speed and skill of maneuvering without disrupting.

Don’t see what you’re looking for? Classes are being developed regularly. For a complete listing of courses as well as those being considered, please email us at:

Laura Amann is a freelance writer and editor who mothers a brood of four in the Chicago area. Her award-winning essays have also appeared in Salon, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Parent.


Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Nutshell logoIt’s October and you know what that means? It means it’s time to sit down and chat with your children about vulvas and penises and how they work! Yes, October is Let’s Talk Month, a national public health education campaign coordinated by Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth is an organization that focuses solely on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in the United States and in developing countries around the world.

According to a 2012 study by Planned Parenthood, most parents of teens are talking to their kids about sex. Nearly 90% of us have had at least one sex talk with our kids. That’s pretty darn good. Unfortunately, while we’re comfortable talking to our teens, the same research says that less than 18% of them are comfortable talking to us.

So who are they talking to? Research doesn’t say but likely they’re talking to each other, which means the information they’re getting might not be all that good.

You can help your teen get solid information and support by finding trusted mentors you can count on to share your family values and letting your child know that this person will respect their confidentiality and that you’ll respect it, too. This could be a relative or a family friend, a teacher or a coach. I’ve designated my kids’ best friends’ parents, who are people I can trust to give good advice and who have already earned my children’s trust.

There are some other challenges for us, too. While parents are discussing relationships and telling their teens to put the brakes on before heavy petting gets to third base, only about a third of us are also talking to our kids about actual sex, like how to do it safely or how to talk about sexuality with a partner. The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health, found that nearly two-thirds of our teens have had sex by the time they’re 18. Most kids lose their virginity at around 17 (that goes for both boys and girls), which is longer than our generation waited and they’re better about using birth control than we were, too.

But our kids are exposed to way more media sex than we ever were. According to a study published in 2008 in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, 93% of boys and 62% of girls under the age of 18 have seen online porn, which means we need to be talking about it. It’s not enough to tell our kids to shield their eyes; they’re going to see it and they’re going to need to know that it’s not a realistic depiction of sex.

Parents can point kids to, a terrific web site with heavy (and explicit) questions from teens and smart, safe answers. Scarleteen addresses the straight community and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning community

(Note: Scarleteen is a sex-positive site, which means that families who are more inclined to encourage celibacy might not find it appropriate for their values.) With articles like “Porn: How Much (Or How Little) Does it Influence Your Sexuality?” and “Looking, Lusting and Learning: A Straightforward Look at Pornography” teens can start thinking critically and making their own informed decisions about the media that surrounds them.

If you don’t quite feel ready to hand your teen the link to Scarleteen or you’re parenting younger children, you might want to check the site out just to get an idea of what is worrying adolescents today. It might help you start thinking about how you’ll broach the heavier topics and heck, you might even learn something new.

You can also look to the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ for help with sex education. Their “Our Whole Lives Lifespan Sexuality Education Curricula” starts with classes for kindergarteners and continues on into adulthood. A secular program, the Whole Lives curricula was developed in accordance with the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, produced by a task force made up of experts in adolescent development, health care and education from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The curricula values are: Self Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity. Participants learn about human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health and society & culture and are encouraged to examine their own values so that they can make their own good decisions.

For a related piece, read Brain Child’s Conversation Starters by Catherine Buni

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

Summer With An Unemployed Teen

Summer With An Unemployed Teen

By Christine Ritenis

0-12The unemployed teen—I’ll call her Nicole—reclined on the couch in sleepwear snuggling with our two dogs, her eyes glued to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “Dance Moms,” or another insipid reality show. It was 11:30 on a July morning and I was irritated. The frustration began when finals ended, Regents exams were over, school closed, and the lounging started. This was not the way summer was supposed to go. Not for my daughter, a high school junior-to-be, and not for me.

The years when a local zoo or playground outing entertained her were behind us. At sixteen, Nicole preferred to visit major amusement parks, the nearest some two hours away. As much as she would have loved daily thrill rides, they weren’t an everyday option.

We’d discussed several generous possibilities with our only child over the winter. She could participate in a teen tour. “No,” she said, “I’ve done that. Besides, I went on a school trip this spring.” To her credit, she added, “another would be too expensive.”

She could attend a university program and experience living on campus. “No,” she replied, “none of my friends would go with me. Too scary.” I didn’t say: unlike the 60 mile-an-hour 185-foot-drop you braved on the Down Time attraction?

She could participate in a community service project. “No,” she answered, “I’ve heard they’re boring.” Instantly, I was enraged.

Boring? Our parenting mistakes clearly included raising a daughter who didn’t appreciate her good fortune and hadn’t learned empathy for those with far fewer opportunities, a teen whose priorities were twisted up and upside down, like the roller coaster rides she adored.

“How about a job?” I coaxed. “Why?” the 16-year-old retorted. “You give me money.” My face flushed and I began to sweat, fury disguised as a hot flash. Remembering the late nights and double-shifts of my teenage years I resolved to cut off her cash supply. “Besides,” she continued, “we’re planning a family vacation and there’s the Taylor Swift concert in Philadelphia.” The summer, it seemed, revolved around the award-winning singer’s tour dates.

With no further productive ideas, we agreed to an unstructured break—just once—but demanded that Nicole pass the New York State driver’s permit test and take an SAT prep class during her time off. “I’ll be busy,” she assured us.

She wasn’t. Without a set time to get up and a daily schedule, Nicole loafed. Initially, I was sympathetic. After a difficult academic year, she was exhausted. “She needs to relax, recharge,” my husband maintained. But as the first week of vacation dragged into the second, I became unsettled. “Are you getting dressed today?” I inquired post-lunch when l’d spent the early hours chasing after dogs, shopping for a week’s worth of groceries, and folding multiple loads of laundry.

“No, no one can go out.”

The friends had made plans. Some worked as camp counselors or babysitters; others trained for sports teams, life guarded, did something useful. Nicole hadn’t foreseen the limited social options during a summer of freedom. Lacking alternatives, she started vacation homework—reading, essays, and problem solving—and took occasional stabs at tidying her overstuffed room, a task she had assigned herself, but left unfinished the prior summer. Positive steps, though short-lived.

“What are you doing today?” Nicole asked at 2 o’clock on a sunny Monday.

“The usual,” I answered abruptly, “the supermarket, errands, cleaning, cooking, writing.” My job, I noticed, was last on the list.

“Oh. Can you drive me and some friends to the mall?”

Because I work from home, it was generally assumed that I’d be available for transportation whenever Nicole or her pals made plans, an irksome expectation, especially when taxiing teens interfered with deadlines. A trip to the mall would get her out of the house for a few hours, I reasoned selfishly. Browsing in the stores would provide exercise. Feeble justification, but I agreed to drive as long as someone else picked them up.

“They can’t,” Nicole said, “they work.” Recognizing the blunder, she wheedled a ride home from another parent. “I know you do too mom. I’m sorry.”

In her absence, I focused on a long-neglected project while the dogs snored nearby.

“What are we doing tomorrow?” Nicole inquired of the chauffer/social director that evening.

“I’m doing what I always do. You’re on vacation, not me,” I snapped. Despite its flaws, Nicole had grown accustomed to her lie-about-life. I determined then that she wouldn’t have the luxury of languor the following summer.

“How is school break going so far?”

“It’s ok.”


“A little.”

“Enjoy it. You’ll be working soon,” I pronounced more harshly than intended.

Later I’d realize that Nicole would have adult burdens before long. That day she lounged and I raced around. When I returned, she was still lounging. After dinner, she asked me to lounge with her, but naturally, I was busy.

Jealousy I’m ashamed of made its presence known. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Nicole retreated silently to the basement. Subsequently I noticed her playing with the dogs more often. She set and cleared the table without prompting and dug new tunnels through the flourishing clutter-mountains in her room. Soon clothes hung neatly on their hangers and bags of books to be donated lined the hall. Next she prepared for and passed the driver’s permit test. We deferred the SAT prep course until fall—it interfered with Taylor’s concert.

When that event was finally over and our northern-California vacation concluded, Nicole resumed her inactivity. “She’s tired,” my forgiving husband pointed out, “has jet lag.” Me too, I thought, but restrained the impulse to argue with an ally.

The trip was idyllic. Point Lobos, where land, sea, and sky converge in a rush of waves and wind is the most beautiful place ever, Nicole declared. Big Sur’s ocean-side cliffs and dramatic coastal landscape were surely conceived by a painter. The week of family time was filled with new experiences and unexpected discoveries, while home remained colorless.

I wanted to appreciate this extended period with Nicole. Soon she’d be driving and college was a mere two years away. Well into summer, I was reminded by a friend of the year after our college graduation. I had a full-time desk job and a shared fifth-floor walkup in the city. The month of May arrived with its usual sense of anticipation, but office work continued its dull march. June, July, and August came and went without interruption. When was the break I expected? A vague sadness I didn’t understand at first recurred each spring as the weather warmed. I felt it again, that flatness.

No responsibilities. Nearly three months off. I envied Nicole’s limited obligations. She didn’t yet have to support herself. Outside the academic year, she felt little stress and could relax. Yes, I coveted her free rein.

I couldn’t atone for weeks of snappishness, but we discussed a mother-daughter road trip to visit schools in upstate-New York. Diners and motels, no cooking, cleaning, or other demands. One-on-one conversation in the car. We might, if the circumstances were right, sneak in a last amusement park outing before school resumed.

The following summer, I assured her, we’d both be employed.

When not shuttling her teenager 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 FiddlebackThe Writing Disorder, and Brain, Child. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

Something To Think About: The Kids Are Online, and The Kids Are All Right

Something To Think About: The Kids Are Online, and The Kids Are All Right

Nutshell logoMy father and I argue about the state of the world a lot, as children and parents will do. My father is sure that texting is the death of interpersonal relationships and I’m sure that texting is just another technological leap like the radio, the television and the Internet – the kind of leap that makes old folks shake their fists and tell the kids to get off of the lawn.

Some of the research on this tends to side with my dad, witness this study out of Washington and Lee University. Texting While Stressed: Implications for Students’ Burnout, Sleep, and Well-Being, examined the experience of 83 incoming freshman and found that the more they text, the lousier they feel. They sleep less, they stress more about relationships and they burnout on their studies more quickly.

The issue we have here isn’t texting; it’s texting too much. And what the study shows is a great teaching opportunity, not a call to return to the age of the landline.

My dad read a report about the study and immediately sent it to me as proof that he’s right and I’m wrong. I read it and thought about how it gave great pointers for the youngsters to learn how to moderate their text intake by clearly listing the red flags. Is it interfering with sleep? Adding stress? Making you burn out fast? Well, there you go. Time to curtail the texting.

As a counselor, I see lots of worried parents and lots of screen-savvy kids. My client list includes both hard-core gamers and virtual social butterflies. Certainly a few of them are escaping into online worlds in order to avoid facing real life challenges and some of them are slaves to their smart phones but the vast majority of them manage things pretty well.

Lots of parents worry that virtual relationships will take the place of real life relationships but I think this stems from a misunderstanding of what virtual relationships are. Virtual relationships are real relationships; ask anyone who met their current spouse on eHarmony. Besides these crazy kids have new fangled things like web cams and USB headsets, which allow them to see that the imaginary people who live in their monitors are actually real live human beings with real live lives. Parents of a certain age used to fall asleep with the phone glued to our ears (remember that? I’d listen to the entire Dark Side of the Moon album with my boyfriend, both of us sitting in rapt silence on opposite ends of the phone line listening to our respective record players) so we should appreciate the lure of socialization from afar.

As for the smart phones and the texting, the tweeting, the Kicking, the Skype-ing, the FaceTiming and the ooVooing, I agree with my dad who looks askance at the families sitting in a restaurant, heads buried in their screens with nary a word exchanged with each other but that’s not a technology problem; that’s a people problem. I agree that using technology to avoid each other is a sign of dysfunction but it’s a chicken and egg thing. Did the texting as avoidance tool beget dysfunction or did dysfunction beget texting as avoidance tool. My money is on the latter.

There was much debate among the psychiatric community about whether or not Internet Addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder ought to be listed in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is also known as the bible of mental health professionals. At this point, neither one was included although the discussion and the research continues. I’m happy both with the current omission and with the ongoing debate because we do need to wrestle with this and we need solid research before we start giving people a diagnosis.

Meanwhile I think parents ought to be aware that managing our time with the Internet or with smart phones can be problematic and that teens—with their immature brains and emotional development—are especially vulnerable. But they’re going to head out into the great big wide world without us someday and we need to help them manage the virtual world, which they can only learn by doing.

So how do you know your teen needs to curtail her screen time? You ask yourself these two questions: Is it hurting her relationships? Is it hurting her school life? Is she stealing from your wallet to fund her Steam account? Or does he knock over his baby brother and his limping grandmother to get to his vibrating phone? Then it’s time to talk. (Me, I’ve had to set limits on texting during sessions with both teens and adults.)

Parents need to help their children learn moderation, (which can be challenging if we’re fighting our own compulsive need to add to our ever-growing Pinterest collection or to thumbs up all the events on Facebook). We need to recognize when our concern is valid and when it’s really a reaction to growing older and not understanding how that Vine thing works.

We also need to talk to our kids. One of the gamer girls who used to come to my practice was better at managing her Internet intake than her mom realized. When I facilitated a discussion between the two, the daughter had the chance to explain how she knows when she needs a break and what rules she’s set for herself to make time for schoolwork and going on World of Warcraft campaigns with her guild. So if you’re not sure if it’s a problem, ask your child. Then ask how they would know if it WAS a problem. You might find that your kids have given more thought to it than you realize.


Art by Michael Lombardo



By Patricia O’Connor


… In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute

Will reverse…

 T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

It’s 5:48 a.m. I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It’s been five weeks, two weeks past a reasonable deadline. I have to make a decision. It’s the same decision I make every month or so. Oh, do not ask what is it? Let us go and pay a visit…

I once disdained women like me. I considered them weak, vain, emotionally stunted. I have always been of the opinion that it is what’s inside your head that matters, not what’s on top of it.  Yet here I stand beneath the harsh, unforgiving light above the vanity mirror, ready to take stock. I ask myself, do I really want to dye? Again?

You have to understand: I had given myself a deadline. I was going to stop pretending that I’m a youthful, perky brunette sometime around, say, age 40. Okay, 45. But today, I am 50. I started coloring my hair when I was 30, when I could honestly say I was prematurely graying. Surely, I thought then, in ten years—15 at the outside—I’d be self-actualized, emotionally mature and self-confident enough to embrace my gray.

But, it’s the other part of me that generally wins these mirror-side debates. This self has never known me as anything other than brunette: brown bangs over blue eyes. Who would I be if I were (honestly) gray? When others look at me, who would they see? I think of poor defeated J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s anti-hero who in the course of a single poem ages from an awkward young man skirting the edges of high society to a weakened old would-have-been walking along the lonely beach, daring not even to eat a peach. In the course of a radical hairectomy, would I too be transformed, like poor J. Alfred, and become, among other things, intimidated by fruit?

Other women, more content and far more powerful than I, have accepted their silver with grace. I watch for them in grocery stores, coffee houses, and playgrounds: Dignified older women with pink cheeks to offset their silver. Intellectual women bent over books, wearing black wire-rimmed glasses that contrast with the pewter in their curls. Earth Mothers in Birkenstocks, 100 percent cotton clothing and long, loose hemp-gray braids. Lean, athletic women with their practical ponytails a-swoosh with white. So different from each other, and yet these women seem to share a kind of wisdom, or at least an acceptance, that I have yet to reach. To me, they are bastions of integrity. They seem to dare you to look beneath the surface, or in this case, the hairline, to drink in their pink cheeks, firm chins, strong characters. If you’re stopped by the salt in their pepper, they seem to say, you’re not worth your salt.

I want to be just like them. And I don’t want to be gray.

I know that time will come for me when I am finally at peace with my age, my face, myself. I will cut off the hair I’ve waited so patiently to grow out, let the white roots become wiry, white spikes, and then we will see who is who.

The question is, is today that day?

It’s not that simple.  This isn’t just about me. I dye for others.

*   *   *

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

I think of my 14-year-old daughter, Katie. Of course, I was dying my hair long before she was born. Even during my pregnancy, I pleaded with my midwife to let me color my hair. I used natural facsimiles throughout the slow and queasy first trimester. Day one of week 13, I broke the seal on my trusty box of L’Oréal. My daughter was born to a brunette mother.

A brunette mother shepherded her to preschool, cut up apples and partitioned graham crackers for her classmates, sat cross-legged (she can’t be gray, she’s still limber) in story circle. A brunette mother escorted Katie to kindergarten, first grade, second. I didn’t want to admit that while other mothers were pushing 25, maybe 35, I was cresting 45. Maybe there were other mothers of third, fourth, or fifth graders who had a touch of silver at the temples, but few were white from brow to nape as I suspect I was.  How embarrassing, I reasoned, it might have been for my poor Katie if those other, younger mothers were to ask, “Who is this nice older lady who picks you up every afternoon?”  It doesn’t seem to traumatize my daughter even now when she witnesses her mom’s hair going from BROWN to soft brown to hazy brown to are-those-highlights to what-color-is-that-anyway to BROWN again, just so long as Mom isn’t gray.

Katie likes to inspect my hair after I’ve colored it, poking through the undergrowth like a baby chimpanzee grooming her mother. “You missed a spot,” she’ll inform me, but usually it’s an area in the back where most people wouldn’t see. She likes being part of this color conspiracy. I wonder what I’m teaching her about her own appearance.  I tell her to embrace who she is as she is, but how credible am I? My girl is so beautiful, although she can’t seem to see it. Her blue-green eyes are bright and full of energy. Her smile is infectious. And her long hair is a soft brown with golden highlights. I know many women who would pay big money for her hair color. (I color my hair on the cheap. At least I’m teaching her frugality.) Recently, she informed me that she wants to dye her hair colors that wouldn’t pass dress code at her school: purple, teal, or jet black.

Maybe it is just human to want to manipulate nature. As I walk across the community college campus where I teach, I notice the 18- to 22- year-old women who dye their hair: Peroxide blondes streaked with black, blue or red. Mahogany brunettes striped with hot pink or yellow highlights, and the striking, lean woman with the cut biceps and spiky tomato red hair. I march north, trying to look natural, while women half my age glide south trying to look preternatural.

Lately, I’ve noticed the co-eds who dye the top layer of their hair gray, the color of cobwebs, so that their natural color peaks through—a reverse two-tone. Of course, on them, it looks good. The undeniable luminosity of youth can’t be hidden by dyes, cosmetics, or even zits.. I watch these girls now with their hanks of cobweb and wonder if at the root of it all—beneath the ageless desire each generation has to separate itself from the last, beneath the youthful need to make a statement, make an impact, or at least make friends—if the gray across the crown might be an attempt to dim what might otherwise be an unbearable light.

I speak for women my age . We want it back. We took that luminosity for granted when we had it, and now we’ll pay Estée Lauder or Mary Kay whatever they want to return what had once been ours for free. Age-defying, wrinkle-concealing, lip-swelling, color-enhancing, gray-covering—it’s like we’re trying to Photoshop our features, or worse, take a Thorton Wilderesque trip back in time. If we could only have that skin, that hair, those long, firm arms again, even for a brief moment, this time we’d appreciate them. More accurately, perhaps we’d appreciate ourselves and the personal power cut biceps imply.

Most of Katie’s friends don’t realize I’m that much older than their mothers.  It is not my face that gives me away. I don’t have wrinkles, per se, although, my jaw line is beginning to appear a bit jowly, and my eyes—once my most dramatic and attractive feature—are more sunken than they once were. Still, I would like to think I have the face of a woman closer to 40 than 50. When my hair is correspondingly youthful, I can almost convince myself, if not others, that I’m 39 and holding.

They say 50 is the new 30, but that doesn’t mean 60 is the new 40, or that it should be. Go too far with this dyeing thing and you begin to look kind of pathetic—a modern-day Miss Havisham clinging desperately to Lady Clairol’s veil. This is not the person I want to be, nor is it the person I want my daughter to see.

When Katie was 10, I asked her what she would think if I just went gray.

“No! Don’t do it, Mom,” she said. She looked at me as if I had asked what she’d think of me turning myself into a flying squirrel. “That would be disgusting.”

“What about when I’m 89?” I asked.

“Not when your 90 or 332,” she said and sat on my lap. She stroked my hair with one hand.  “I don’t want you to be old.”

A child’s world view: gray = old. To her, this means that as long as I color my hair I will not age. This is the sort of magical thinking that keeps Lady Clairol in the black. It’s also what keeps me hooked: as long as I don’t look 53 to her 15, or 56 to her 19, maybe Katie and I will remain close, the way we are now, the way I wasn’t with my mother when I believed she was a hoary, white-haired relic and she knew for certain I was a snarky, foul-mouthed teen. Of course, snark happens no matter what.  And Katie will have to find her own way of being in the world, apart from me.  In a few years, it will be she who glides away through a college campus, perhaps with hair the color of cantaloupe and raspberries. Still, there is a small part of me that half believes that if I can remain the brunette mother Katie has always known, she will remain the sweet, unaffected girl she has always been. I want Katie to be comfortable with who she is. But how can I model self-acceptance if I continue to hide my gray hair in shame. You don’t need to tell me, I know:  Too much is riding on Medium Brown # 5.

*   *   *

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a white spot in the middle of my hair—

And so I spin, twisted and knotted. The face in the mirror appears strained and not a little frumpy. My eyes are still puffy with sleep. Pillow creases still mark my cheek. But there is more to it. I look deeply tired, the kind of tired a hot shower and a cup of coffee can’t fix.

Mentally, I flash through all the self-help tips I’ve scanned in back issues of More, O Magazine, or Health that clutter my stylist’s salon. I could take up yoga or meditation. I could do that variable-speed walking thing. I could drink green tea and eat more fiber.  I really should lose 10 pounds. Maybe 15. Okay, 30. But, to do so would require months of self-discipline and denial.

Or, I could dye my hair.

In the course of 45 smelly minutes, I could appear—if not svelte and strong—alert and maybe even pretty. I would feel instantly better about myself. Isn’t that worth $9.99? Dyeing is cheaper than therapy.

I fumble in the bathroom cabinet for the box. I always have at least one stashed in the back, in case of a color emergency.  I know what to do:  I’ll pull on the vinyl gloves; pierce the colorant tube with the rapier tip embedded in the cap, mix colorant with developer. Shake. I will fill the bathroom with those familiar fumes, press the pointy plastic applicator against my scalp and squeeze.

I set the box on the counter unopened.

Deciding shouldn’t be this hard, but it almost always is. If there weren’t carpools to drive, lunches to pack, papers to grade, I might stand before this mirror forever and never be sure.

To be fair, I haven’t given gray a chance.  Facing the mirror, I pull back my hair on either side of my part. Silvery roots shine like a path of moonlight through a dark sea. In a moment, my eyes, once bright, become sunken; my skin appears sallow. Freckles darken into age spots. I grow old…I grow old…

I am a Lady J. Prufrock, paralyzed by indecision, eviscerated by fear, aging at exponential speed in the glass. Opportunities I once considered but never seized flash before me. Each retreating possibility leaves a bitter residue like dust, white, across my crown. I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.

I release my hair as if it’s on fire. It springs up, and with it seemingly do my features. Eyes brighten, double chin recedes, freckles—yes, they are definitely freckles— lighten.

Not yet, not yet, not yet, I chant quietly.

I may be getting older, but I am not yet old. Neither am I the frightened 20-something, or hesitant 30-something woman I once was. If my midwife was right about women who give birth after age 35, I may well live into my 90s, or even to 100. I have years, years, for visions and revisions of the person I wish to be. And, frankly, Lady Clairol and friends, you have nothing to do with it.

And yet, Lady, you have everything to do with it.  Hair color, I realize, is not just a crutch, it is a talisman. I keep a box of dye in my bathroom cabinet for the same reason monks in the Middle Ages kept skulls above the tables where they illuminated holy texts: It reminds me of my mortality. It reminds me that the moment is fleeting and precious. Eventually, the color will fade; the skull will remain. Is this all? I want to turn Prufock upside down, spin him on his shiny, balding pate:

[It would] have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead…

All I can tell is that I do not wish to be a Prufrock, to play time’s passive victim. Unlike poor, paralyzed Alfred, I must choose and choose and choose.

Today, I choose to dye. Quietly, I turn the lock on the bathroom door and break the seal on the box. Once again, I engage in my own private alchemy. I start to hum. I can almost hear the mermaids sing along.

Patricia O’Connor tries to lead a colorful life in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she lives with her husband Jeff and daughter Kate. Patricia teaches English full time at Central New Mexico Community College. In her spare time, she writes, sings, travels and goofs around with her family.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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




By Lorri Barrier

0-10It is day five of my oldest son Ian’s first week away at camp. It is a totally unplugged camp, which is good for him. Like most twelve year olds, the virtual worlds of Minecraft, Pokemon and Zelda are his reality. This also means he is unplugged from me. He’s been to sleepovers and stayed weekends with grandparents, but this is different. I can’t call at night. I can’t check and see if he remembered to change underwear or clothes. If he’s eating enough. If people are being nice to him. If he’s having fun.

I saw Ian last on Sunday morning, when another mother and two kids going to the same camp picked him up. I stood at the car window and called him “sweet pea” out of habit. I realize now I shouldn’t have done that, but it just slipped out. He had sort of a half smirk on his face. He said a little sarcastically, “Bye, Mom!” His blue eyes were shining. He is sweet boy; he always has been.

When I was younger, I said I never wanted children. As an only child, it was probably closer to the truth that I couldn’t imagine children. My experience was limited to a few babysitting gigs at age thirteen, and wrangling a few slightly younger cousins at holiday gatherings. Children seemed like scattered, unpredictable creatures. Even when my husband and I married, I asked him over and over—”You are sure you are okay not having kids?” He says now that he knew I’d change my mind, but I don’t know how he could have known. He never did anything to pressure me, but I did change my mind.

At work, I obsessively check the weather in Burgaw, NC. That’s where Ian is. It’s been mostly cloudy all week, so he hasn’t been too hot. He burns easily. I wrote that on the camp sheet under “Special Concerns.” He sunburns very easily. That’s another thing I would say, if I could call. “Are you wearing sunscreen? On your face? What about your hat? That protects your scalp from getting burned.” If I could call, I imagine Ian holding the phone as I say these things, rolling his eyes. “Yes” he’d say. “Yes, Mom. I am fine. I am wearing sunscreen everywhere.” It would appease me. But I’d have no real idea if he’s doing it or not. But at least I would have heard his voice.

Ian was delivered by C-section. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had childbirth and baby care books everywhere during my pregnancy. I sometimes told people I’d read them, but really, I hadn’t. I’d read a few chapters of each, and then become bored. I like books with a plot and characters. Give me some dialogue. It was hard to visualize what I might do with this baby that was still mostly imaginary. I decided I’d figure it out when the baby got here. That’s the way I’ve done most things in my life—learn as I go.

It’s Thursday, and raining again. It’s rained so much this summer that people joke about monsoon season.  Usually at this time of year, the grass is brown and crunchy in North Carolina.  Usually in July, I carry water to my tender dogwoods and lilacs at the edge of the woods. Not this year. I watch the rain from work. I’m distracted, I can’t focus. I check the weather at camp. There’s a flood warning in Burgaw. Flooding in some areas is imminent it says. The Cape Fear River is rising as I type this. I have no idea how far the camp is from the river. I know in 1999, there was a major flood at the camp. Water stood at two feet inside the buildings. I saw the pictures on the website. That was almost 15 years ago, my husband would say if I mentioned it. I imagine Ian standing on top of his bunk, the floor covered with water. Would they call if the river flooded the camp?  What would be the point, my husband would say. I’m sure they will take care of them and are prepared if that happens.

When they finally pulled him out of me, I cried. C-sections hurt—don’t let anyone tell you differently. I thought of the line from Macbeth, “From his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” The doctor said, “The umbilical cord is all wrapped around his foot!” Then they held him up above the sheet dividing my head from my dissected lower body, and I watched the doctor unwind the cord, bleary-eyed, exhausted. A blue coil, just like a telephone cord. The kind of phone Ian has never used. That’s the kind of phone I imagine him answering, if I could call. I imagine him answering it in the kitchen, the phone hanging on the wall. In the background, through the door frame, I can see the other kids playing board games and ping pong.

“Yeah, it’s raining today,” Ian would say.

“Is anything flooding? Are you okay?” I’d ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.

“No, Mom. We are fine. I have the rain boots you packed if we go out later.”

I wish I could give a name to this feeling at my core that feels like tangled homesickness, embarrassment, and love. It feels a little like quickening; a primal flutter—what I felt when I didn’t know him, didn’t know what to expect, but I knew where he was. At least I knew he was safe.

When they handed Ian to me, he seemed so small. He didn’t weigh as much as our cat. But I did learn to breastfeed, and he learned to nurse. I learned to change his diapers and bathe him, little though he was. I learned how to pack a solid diaper bag, fasten a car seat, and wear him in a sling.  I learned to wake quickly from a deep sleep, walk the floor with him at night, swaying—the dark world reduced to two, mother and son.

This is a different kind of learning. It’s not hands on; it’s hands off.

I imagine Ian will be glad to play his video games again, and he might even be happy to see his younger siblings. He may ask me what I did while he was gone. I worried constantly, but I won’t say it. “Oh, nothing,” I’ll say.  “I went to work, came home, went to exercise class, played with your brother and sister, you know, the usual. I missed you.”   I see the image of the doctor unwinding the twisted cord from his tiny foot again.  The first time I ever saw my son.  And I practiced deeply, repetitively, falteringly, grudgingly, the painful art of letting go.

Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child.  Women’s issues are of particular interest to her.  Her blog is available at

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.


Dear Drudgery: Setting The Table For Thankfulness

Dear Drudgery: Setting The Table For Thankfulness

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

I’m not sure if there’s a right way to teach gratitude. (I do know that endlessly repeating “You should be grateful!” is not as effective as you might think.)

And kids aren’t the only ones with gratitude issues. When I’m feeling drudgey, counting my blessings is just one more damn thing I’m not getting done. My crabbiness about preparing another dinner obscures my great good fortune that I have something to prepare.

But I’m convinced gratitude is a muscle—you work it, it gets strong, and suddenly you’re flexing all over the place.

My husband, without even trying (OH HOW TYPICAL) hit on a way to get us to work that muscle hard. In the beginning, neither of us had any idea he was striking a blow against drudgery and for blessing-counting.

Anthony’s announcement appeared on a Friday—a single sheet of printer paper taped to the inside of our front door, where none of us could miss it as we stumbled downstairs toward consciousness. He’d used clipart of the Extra, Extra guy—you know, the one brandishing a newspaper, from the Chance cards in Monopoly.

Coming soon! he was shouting. Hot Breakfast Wednesday!


Neither the Extra, Extra guy nor Anthony was providing further detail, so for five long days we waited. Anthony had never announced a Big Thing before. To be honest, Things were kind of my thing.

On the Wednesday in question, I stayed home to witness. (Our both-parents-work rhythm typically involved me heading to the office very early while Anthony did mornings. I got home in time to produce something edible for dinner.) And OH MY! The fully set table held waffles and fruit and warm syrup in pitchers. Sausages! It was like Christmas morning but WAY BETTER, because I hadn’t been up until 2 a.m. wrapping things.

Every Wednesday, Anthony told us, he would make a legit breakfast before school.

Hot Breakfast Wednesday became instant legend. And, like anything awesome, its name was soon nicked—even the acronym HBW wasn’t short enough. “Woo hoo!” hollered Middlest the following week, banging down the stairs at 6:55 while groping his way into a t-shirt “It’s time for HBDubs!”

You’d think I’d be thrilled, too, right? Super grateful? There was my husband, being all awesome! Taking his own steps to undrudge-ify our lives, not looking to me to do it!

I was, mostly. But this one little corner of me was kind of a dick. It couldn’t help but notice that I produced dinner regularly, with no formal announcement.

“And dinners are way harder!” that bit of me whined.

The kids gushed about HBW to their friends. I tried to imagine anyone saying, “Guys! My mom does the coolest thing. Almost every night when I come home, there’s dinner! No joke—hot dinners, like constantly!”

But Anthony figures out the waffle iron, and suddenly he’s this big hero?

I hate when I get resentful and pissy. I do it anyway.

*   *   *

 What’s for breakfast? Anything, everything. Pancakes, of course. Eggs all ways. Beans and rice. Hash browns—from potatoes we grew in the garden or a bag we grabbed in the freezer section. Scones. BACON. No vegetable? No worries! Breakfast is a very forgiving meal.

Like any cultural icon, HBW was soon rich with ritual and unwritten rules:

1. The table is set. Whoever’s home sits down. We talk to each other.

2. Except for clearing their dishes, kids aren’t asked to help.

3. HBW goes on hiatus whenever school does.

But the most interesting convention of HBW was so subtle that I didn’t know it existed until a not-us person broke it. One Tuesday evening, a friend of Middlest asked what must have seemed like a reasonable question:

“Hey, what’s for HBDubs tomorrow? Ask your Dad if you can have. . .”

Anthony and I, overhearing, gasped and looked at each other. Who was this punk?

“Dude,” said Middlest, “We don’t ask.”

The unspoken (till now I guess) principle of HBW is that it is the product of divine intervention. Like snow days, manna from heaven, a letter from Hogwarts—HBW happens to you; your only job is to receive it with thanks. Anthony must have instilled this somehow. Wordlessly, which is his way.

We mixed up the rhythm and I got a stint as HBW master. One week I apologized for a particularly lame offering: “Sorry, guys. I didn’t get to the store so it’s just oatmeal today. I toasted some almonds, though.”

And Youngest replied “Mama, it’s hot breakfast! This is awesome! Thanks for making it for us!”

*   *   *

HBW was so over-the-top wonderful that our kids couldn’t help but express their gratitude—flex, flex, flex. I’m glad they were older (Youngest was in sixth grade) when Anthony started it. It wouldn’t have been a miracle in Kindergarten, but when you’ve been getting your ownself out the door for years—and then, suddenly, a weekly feast appears?

Middlest took a gap year. When he returned from his travels to live and work at home, the job he finally found kept him working past midnight. But there he was each Wednesday morning, chatting delightfully, saying THANKS THAT WAS SO DELICIOUS! (and then, usually, going back to bed.) When asked why he set an alarm, he said:

“I just figure. . .Hot Breakfast Wednesday is a two-way street.”

And so Anthony’s brainchild became a canvas on which what’s best about our family got writ. A midweek moment where we show up and no one bickers and we are our best selves.

But what about my own petty resentment, that little, drudgey place in me that had been crabby about. . . uneven thanking?

I got over it. I’m an all-in HBDubs fangirl.

*   *   *

Gap year is over, and Anthony just dropped Middlest off at college on the other side of the country. He emailed me:

“We picked up the boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond. As the clerk rang us up, [Middlest] looked at me and said, ‘Thanks, Dad. Thanks so much to you and mom for buying me all this stuff.’ The clerk nearly wet herself. She said, ‘Now, that’s what I’m talking about. He’s the first kid I’ve heard this week thanking his parents.'”

And then that nice clerk threw a 20% discount onto the entire order.

HBDubs doesn’t get all the credit, but I know it helped get our gratitude muscles in shape. So, Hot Breakfast Wednesday? Thank you.


Illustration by Christine Juneau

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

Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The first of our new monthly Brain, Mother book review column. Subscribe to our blog and become a randomly chosen winner to receive a free copy of Sticks and Stones.

0-2The 1999 Columbine massacre changed the way we see bullying in schools. Since then 49 states have passed laws addressing bullying. In her recent book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist, shows how in post-Columbine America bullying has become one of the biggest stories about 21st century childhood.

And, yet, according to Bazelon’s research, things aren’t as dire as you might think. The stats show that somewhere between 15-20% of kids are regularly involved in bullying (either as victims or bullies) and while cases of bullycide are tragic, often there are underlying issues such as mental illness. To make her case Bazelon draws on Scandinavian research, analysis of legal cases, and in-depth investigation of three high profile cases involving children in the Northeast.

Sticks and Stones is divided into four parts; the first two focus on the stories of Monique, Jacob, and Flannery, while the third focuses on a synthesis of research, and the fourth on conclusions and tips to combat bullying. I found Part III to be the most compelling, particularly Chapter 9, “Delete Day,” which concentrates on Bazelon’s visit to Facebook and what the social media giant is doing about cyberbullying.

Bazelon writes: “The electronic incarnation of bullying also changed the equation for adults by leaving a trail.” Kids today care more about having a Facebook account suspended than getting suspended by their schools, so she argues that the company should do more protect teens (Bazelon suggests a simple solution that Facebook make the default settings private for any teenage account holder, which Facebook hasn’t yet done).

This links to one of the major takeaways from Sticks and Stones—that adults and social institutions play a crucial role in bullying.  Whether it be parents not intervening, or even intervening too much especially when it comes to the press, or teachers and school administrators not taking threats seriously and missing signs of serious abuse, our educational system and social media sites play a major role in the “drama” between kids. While Bazelon acknowledges that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between typical drama among teens and bullying, she iterates that the best working definition of bulling is verbal or physical aggression repeated over time that involves a power differential between children. Her portrayal of Flannery’s story, related to the national headline-making “bullycide” of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, illustrates just how complicated this can be: Even after talking with many people over a period of months and pouring over legal documents, Bazelon confesses she still isn’t 100% sure what happened.

As a mom I learned from Sticks and Stones that as involved as I am while my son is a toddler, I need to stay that involved as he ages and engages with peers online and in school. Our work doesn’t stop when the kids head into the schoolyard; whether they are bullies or bullied, they are still our children.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist who studies childhood, competition, and beauty. Her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, was recently released—and she now contemplates what activities her sons will participate in someday. Visit her website, for more.

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.

Fiction: Glitter City

Fiction: Glitter City

By Constance Ford

iStock_000014333528SmallFrom her bedroom, where she was sewing beads on a sheer black tank top, Juliana heard the brakes squeal on her daughter’s Pontiac Grand Am and felt her shoulders relax, knowing Holly was finally safely home.

She continued threading her needle through the shiny beads, fastening each one in a swoopy, scalloped line that ran across the lower part of the top. She found it relaxing, somehow, the tiny, precise movements that forced her mind to empty itself of everything except the needle and silky fabric in her lap. The top wasn’t new—she’d worn it once, her final day at Rancho High. It was see-through and she’d worn it on purpose, knowing they couldn’t do anything worse to her, since she’d already been fired. She laughed a little at the thought, then held the top up, admiring it. She thought it looked kind of retro, and when it was ready, she would wear it with her black pencil skirt, layered over a camisole or maybe just over her leopard bra, with a cardigan on top for professionalism’s sake. She was an English instructor at the university now, and, of course, there, you couldn’t go around with your underwear showing.

She finished the row of beads she was working on and set the blouse on her lap. The house seemed silent, and she realized she’d heard Holly cut the engine, but hadn’t heard the car door slam. She went to the living room, opened the front door into the hot blast of Las Vegas sun. Holly’s car was parked at a strange angle, but it was there in the driveway and nothing else looked amiss. Juliana looked at the house across the street wondering whether Matty, Holly’s boyfriend, was home. Holly and Matty rented the house across the street from Juliana. They lived there several months before she moved to the same neighborhood. Holly and Matty kept odd schedules, often working all night at Pussycat Tattoo but other times, both would be home for days, no coming and going, just sleeping maybe, as far as Juliana could tell.

She held the door open a minute longer, then went across the street, stepping around the little stone Buddha they’d plunked in the center of their front yard, thinking to knock, knowing they probably wouldn’t answer. They didn’t seem to like it when she came over unannounced, and at the last second, she lost her nerve and went to the car instead.

“Oh—Holly.” She rapped on the window. Holly was behind the wheel, her head lolling back against the seat, her eyes closed. Juliana rapped again, but Holly didn’t respond. “Holly,” Juliana shouted, knocking smartly on the glass with her knuckles, then grabbed the handle of the car door to wrench it open. The handle was burning hot, and the door wouldn’t budge. Sometimes it stuck, so she stretched the fabric of her top around the handle and tried again, but it was clearly locked. She stared at Holly through the glass. It was so hot today—she was sweating herself, from fear and heat, and although Holly was only wearing a tube top and ragged jeans, she could see sweat beads on her forehead and on her brightly tattooed chest and arms. Juliana stared for a moment longer, then ran to the front door of Holly’s house and thumped on it. “Matty,” she yelled. “Come outside!” She tried to peer into the little decorative glass windowpanes, but she could see nothing, no movement. Just a blurred distortion of their coat closet, right inside the door.

A locksmith, maybe? She took her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed her older daughter Alexis. It went to voicemail. “Alexis,” Juliana said. “Please call me back.” Alexis was attending law school at University of Nevada. She’d had a chance to go back east for school, to Columbia, but had decided to stay closer to home. Juliana, Alexis, and Holly couldn’t seem to stretch very far apart, even though Alexis was filled with rage at Holly, always telling Juliana that she treated Holly like a spoiled baby.

The phone buzzed, an incoming call, and Juliana answered. “Alexis, hi, sweetie. Could you help?”

“What is it?”

Juliana’s throat tightened, but she tried to speak lightly. “It’s Holly.”

“What about her?”

“It’s just, she’s in her car and I can’t—”

“Is she all right?” Alexis said.

“At the moment, yes, but—”

“Oh God, I’m in the middle of a class, Mom. I came out to the hall for a minute, but I can’t really talk right now.”

“Alexis, it’s so hot. I’m worried about her.”

“Then call the police!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We don’t have to do that,” Juliana said, her heart rate speeding up, but she did not want to start an argument.

“Mom, just—”

“Never mind,” Juliana said, a little too sharply. “Call me later.”

They hung up without saying good-bye—what they always did when they were angry at each other—and she hurried back to the car. She wasn’t going to call the police. The neighbors would see, no doubt, and it was bad enough already. Matty and Holly had escapades in the front yard plenty of times. Once, Holly had come outside in her underwear, yelling after Matty, saying she didn’t care what he did, or if he EVER came home. Juliana tried the car door again. Wasn’t there an extra key somewhere? Or did Matty have it now, he with his stringy hair and scrawny arms?

She didn’t really like Matty, but Holly had been so excited to move in with him. Holly said she loved Matty and loved the small house they shared. It had a backyard with a grapevine-covered trellis and a treehouse in a big spreading oak, an amazing find in Vegas, even in the Arts District. In the evening, Holly said, she and Matty could see the Stratosphere from their yard, its sparkling lights, its thin spire pointing into the sky, and the fireworks that were shot off from the tops of the casinos on the Strip. Juliana could see them in the treehouse at times, Holly and Matty, wisps of smoke coming from the tree. “Is there a drug problem?” she’d wanted to ask Holly, but she couldn’t quite get the words to come out of her mouth, imagined Holly shrieking with laughter. She had asked her what that smell was, once, when she’d come into their house, almost choking on the thick scent. “It’s just incense, Mom, part of our meditation ritual,” she’d said. “Buddhism is about discipline. Matty knows all about that kind of stuff.”

Juliana didn’t understand why his name wasn’t just Matt. Or Matthew. Matty seemed so childish, especially for a man who was 32 years old, and Holly, just 24. But Matty was a tattoo artist, too, and standards were different for artists, as far as names, as far as everything. She understood that. It was Matty, in fact, who’d done Holly’s first tattoo when she was 16, a tiny stick of dynamite above her right hipbone. Now she had tattoos everywhere, and vivid red roses bloomed on both sides of her neck, difficult to cover with clothing, guaranteeing that, for Holly, most ordinary employment would never be possible. But Holly said you had to go all out to be an artist, playing it safe wasn’t what it was about. Something about that struck a chord in Juliana—she admired that kind of thinking, wished she could be more like that. Years ago she had wanted to do something with fashion or design—she’d made some interesting bead jewelry, had sold it at several shops, even. But then she’d met Rex, in her second year of college, and he seemed so sure of himself and his goals, and somehow, becoming an English teacher seemed more acceptable to him.

And she had doubts about tattooing, it was true—needles digging into skin, the potential for disease and infection—the shops with their loud music, endless drawings on the walls of skeletons and naked women wearing sailor hats. On the other hand, she respected people who could make their living doing a craft they loved. So she’d been supportive of Holly in her goal of becoming a tattoo artist, much to Rex’s dismay, even at the expense of finishing her art degree at University of Nevada. Although she still hoped Holly would finish it. It seemed like the practical thing to do, in case—what? In case she needed health insurance at some point. If she got her degree, went on for an MFA, she could probably teach art. In case she wanted to have a steady paycheck someday.

But Holly didn’t seem to be getting anywhere since she had moved in with Matty. He even claimed Holly had hit him once, had taken pictures of himself with a blackened eye, but Holly had said he punched himself in the face, to make her look like the bad one. Sometimes Juliana heard Holly crying, clear across the street, or thought she did. She and Matty seemed to be stuck in a cycle of fighting and making up—some sort of entrancement, apparently, with the highs and the lows. The hideous and the gorgeous, all mixed together. Like one of those majestic marble Gryphons standing guard in front of Mandalay Bay, slick and shining, with web-like wings and dagger claws. Like the whole city of Las Vegas, a jumble of glitter and grime. Although how they imagined their fighting went along with Buddhism, Juliana wasn’t quite certain. Suffering, she thought vaguely. Maybe that was it. Except wasn’t Buddhism supposed to be about learning to avoid suffering?

A thought struck her and Juliana ran around to the passenger side of the car. The lock was broken on that side and she yanked on the door. It opened. “Holly,” Juliana said. “Thank goodness. Holly!”

The car was stifling, every inch of it burning plastic and metal, reeking of vodka and cigarette smoke. Juliana put her bare knee on the hot vinyl and jerked it up again, leaned across the seat, trying not to touch anything. “Holly,” Juliana said, jiggling her shoulder.

“Wha—” Holly lifted her eyelids and let them sag down again.

Juliana felt tears come into her eyes.

No one seemed to understand what it was like to have a daughter like this, how fiercely Juliana loved her, how desperately she wanted her to be okay. “We need to get you into the house.” Juliana tried to keep her voice steady. “Out of this hot car.”

“Too tired.” Juliana could just make out her slurred words.

“No. It’s hot. You have to go inside.”

Holly’s mouth had fallen open and she was snoring gently. A tiny tattooed skull pulsed in the soft spot between her clavicles.

Juliana ran back to the front door of the house and pounded on it again, but there was still no sign of Matty. She couldn’t carry Holly into the house without help. Holly was tall and athletically built, like her father, and Juliana herself was not. She’d been surprised when she saw a picture of herself recently, how thin her arms were. She hurried across the street to her own house and grabbed a bag of peas from the freezer, a bottle of water, and a wet washcloth.

Back at the car, she leaned in and placed the wet washcloth on Holly’s forehead. This seemed to make no difference, so she pressed the cold peas on too. “Wake up!” Juliana said.

“I am,” Holly slurred.

“You have to come in the house.” How many times could they repeat this conversation? She held the cold water bottle against Holly’s leg, but she didn’t seem to feel it through her jeans. She pressed it against her neck.

Holly flung her arm up and smacked Juliana in the mouth. “Lemme alone.” Juliana gasped, the pain in her lip sharp. She felt a surge of anger and grabbed the peas, tromped back across the street to her own house, and shut the door. She went to the bathroom and stared at her bruised lip. This will look good with my top, she thought. A beaded blouse and a fat lip. She went back to the front door and stared out at the offending red car, containing her daughter, and pressed the frozen vegetables to her own face.

So let her sleep it off, she thought. If that’s what she wants. The door was open now. She had a bottle of water, a cold cloth. She should just get in her own car, drive down to the mall, go shopping. Get her nails done. A pedicure. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘tripping over Buddha?'” her sister had asked when they talked recently on the phone. “It means when you don’t recognize the important thing, even when it’s right in front of you. You should move here, to San Francisco,” she said. “Let Holly cope on her own. Get your own life.”

Which was exactly what Juliana wanted, truth be known. She’d only moved to Vegas because Rex wanted to—he was a bankruptcy attorney, but when they divorced, he’d moved away and she’d stayed. She had a good job—now she wanted a man in her life, for God’s sake. She was 46, after all. Her life wasn’t going to go on forever. But instead of following her sister’s advice, she had moved from her perfectly nice house in Summerlin even closer to Holly. Right across the street.

Juliana went to the bathroom to look at her lip once more, to make sure it wasn’t bleeding, then sat down on her bed, forced herself to pick up the needle and the small box of beads. It was going to be beautiful, she thought, poking the needle through a bead. Clothes were her meditation. “They’re not going to like that,” her husband had said to her once, years ago, when she was leaving for school, wearing a pair of cute white boots she’d found on Ebay. “Why can’t you just dress like a teacher? It’s like you don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Rex Jackson’s wife, aren’t I?” she’d said, caustically, stung by his remark. She shrank inside remembering her former job, as a teacher at Rancho High School, where the vice-principal, a man with a head like a bulldog—he was the football coach, or assistant coach, as she recalled—had written her up once after an observation because her bra straps showed through the dress she’d been wearing that day. It was a beautiful dress—pale gray lace, knee-length, loose and swingy—and her students didn’t given two raps about whether her bra straps showed through. She stabbed her needle through another bead.

The students had more important things to worry about than exposed bra straps, like whether they would still have somewhere to live when they got home from school, or whether their father had been thrown in jail, or worse, shot, by the drug dealer he owed money to. And she’d had a jacket with her that day, or was it a sweater? But she hadn’t put it on, because the room was warm, as usual—there was hardly enough air conditioning in the world that could cool a classroom crammed with 38 sweating, cursing 16-year-olds, in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was April, probably 95 degrees outside that day. The vice-principal had spoken to her immediately after class, handed her the written evaluation, and had given her his comments orally, as well. His eyes had not seemed to want to meet hers when he mentioned that her dress was inappropriate, but clearly the point was that she should put on her jacket now. Dress code was of utmost importance at the high school level, she’d noticed. Concern about curriculum took a distinct back seat to rules about flip-flips and spaghetti straps.

But anyway, it was over, the humiliation of her past, she thought, firmly. She had a better job now, much better. She’d left her job at the high school in February, and starting the next fall, she was hired fulltime at the university. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work—do a sloppy job at one place, then get rewarded with more pay and better students at a different institution. But that’s what had happened. Well, she had a PhD, after all. She was more suited for college teaching anyway, where there weren’t administrators peering over your shoulder every minute. Although she often felt she didn’t quite fit in at the university, either. The other instructors at UNLV seemed to look at her in a skeptical way, as if they weren’t quite sure what she was doing there. “Look at Juliana’s go-go boots,” one of the English department secretaries had said once to another woman in the office, laughing. She had always liked boots, and even after Rex’s comments, couldn’t quite get herself to give them up. But the ones she’d had on that day had just been low-cut western style, for heaven’s sake, nothing like go-go boots. Now she felt worried every time she went into the office.

She glanced at her watch. She’d been sewing for seven minutes. She jabbed her needle through another bead, and the sharp point went straight into her finger. “Ow,” she said, standing suddenly, and the beads slid off her lap and scattered over the hardwood floor. She knelt, thinking to gather them, then jumped up, crunching them underfoot, and ran back across the street to the car.

“Holly. Holly!” she said, reaching in and shaking her. She couldn’t stand this. The car seemed even hotter than before. She grabbed Holly’s arm, tried to drape it around her own neck. How long would it take for Holly to get dehydrated or heat stroke? And how drunk was she? Or had she taken something, some pills or drug? Surely not. “Come on, Sweetie, wake up.” She put her arm around Holly’s waist and heaved, trying to pull her out of the car, but only succeeded in making Holly slump sideways on the burning seat. She tried once more, but Holly was limp and heavy, her long legs twisted now under the steering wheel. Juliana propped her awkwardly back up, then sat down on a small curb that ran along the side of the driveway and watched her through the open car door, wondering who to ask for help. She’d only lived here for a month, hadn’t met any of the neighbors so far, not a single one. People in Vegas didn’t really make friends with their neighbors. New people came and went so often that it hardly seemed worth it.

She scrolled through the numbers on her phone, looking for someone else to call, but there was no one. No one nearby. A helicopter droned overhead, and she imagined that Alexis had somehow sent help.

A car drove slowly up the street toward her, music thumping, some kind of low-riding blue car. Two kids were inside, each with an arm out the window, holding something onto the roof of the car, a sparkly, spoked saucer-shaped object that looked like it must be the top of a merry-go-round, or some amusement park ride. “Yo, teach!” The driver stuck his head out the window. “Look what we got! It’s sick, ain’t it! We’re taking it to the pawn shop.”

It was Major, one of her students from Rancho High, the one who had helped her move. When he found out she was leaving Rancho he had stood at the door of her classroom, his eyes filled with despair. “You really leaving?” he’d asked. “Yes,” she said. She had told the students that she had been let go, so it wouldn’t look like she was deserting them, but the truth was that she had quit. She just couldn’t stand the ridiculousness of it all, the lack of any serious discussions about literature or writing or any interest from the administrators in actual learning. They just didn’t care, and she hated it. Major used to come up behind her at her desk and start rubbing her shoulders and neck, when he could tell she was stressed. Once he had hugged her, and she could feel him swelling against her. She didn’t push him away—she just didn’t really care. What difference did it make? She let him breakdance in her class- room one day. They moved all the desks back, someone turned on a CD, and he gave a demonstration, whirling around on his head until he finally kicked over a stack of books.

That was the kind of high school teacher she was, she thought ruefully. A nice one. She told him she’d pay him $50 to help her move to her new house, across the street from Holly, and afterwards, she gave him a ride home. They’d sat in the parking lot of his apartment complex talking for a few minutes. “You giving that to me? Thought you was joking,” he said, when she handed him the money. He grabbed her in a hug, and she felt astonished at the strength of his muscular arms. Rex, for all his stolidness of character, hadn’t been half this strong. She felt something tightening in her stomach. “I have to go now,” she’d said, almost wishing he would kiss her, but right then, a policeman had rapped on the car window. “Step out of the car, please,” he’d said. Another cop car pulled up and they made her and Major get out, separated them, questioned them, made them hand over their IDs. “You’re his teacher?” the one interrogating Juliana said. “No,” she said. “Not any more.”

“But you used to be?”

“I was just giving him a ride home. That’s it,” she said, her face flushing.

“Are you married?”

“No, I’m divorced.”

“What do you know,” he said, giving her a look.

“He and I were just talking, though. We weren’t breaking any rules.”

“You know how old that kid is?”

“Yes, he’s 16.”

The questions went on and on. She could see Major glancing at her from the back of the police car, a frightened look on his face, while the other officer made him spread his arms and legs, patted him down. Finally, they had to admit that nothing illegal had occurred and let them go.

“You’re walking a fine line here, lady. Get a boyfriend your own age,” the one had snapped at her. Afterwards, Major told her they kept asking him if she had tried to make out with him, had touched him in any way that was inappropriate or offensive.

She’d wanted to cry from the embarrassment of it. As if she’d tried to rape him, or wanted to! She had, though—that was the truly awful part. She had wanted to kiss him, at least for a second. The policeman was right. The whole thing made her cringe, and she’d been furious at Major after that, had refused to talk to him, even though he often hung around the grocery store where she shopped, tried to carry her water, offered her rides. It drove her crazy, reminded her of everything in her life that seemed unfair and painful. Her divorce—her husband had left her, but maybe that had been her fault, too. Her tattooed daughter. All of it. Somehow, her own doing. But how? What had she done? The last time she had seen Major at the grocery store, she had told him to leave her alone. “Why?” His voice was pleading.

“Don’t talk to me,” she said, practically yelling. “I’m sick of this. You’re just a kid! I’m getting a restraining order against you.”

He had looked at her, shocked, then shuffled to his car in his low-hanging pants, and sat there, staring at her.

But now, there he was, driving along the street. “Major!” she called, waving to him. She ran down the road after him.

“What’s happening, Ms. J? You talking to me again?”

She pointed wordlessly to her daughter’s car. “Could you do something for me?”

His face, which had lit up when he saw her, changed to embarrassment. “Gotta get going.”

“No, I just—I need—”

He shook his head. “Don’t report me, okay?”

“What? Wait!” Juliana shouted after him. “I can’t just leave her in there!” She watched the blue car, stared at the strange, sparkly contraption on its roof, until it went around the corner at the end of the block. As she ran back through the yard to her daughter’s car, her foot caught on something and she stumbled, falling onto her hands and knees. She glanced behind her, and found herself staring into the little Buddha’s fat grinning face. Do something, she could hear her sister saying.

She crawled into the seat beside Holly and tried to pour a little water into her partially open mouth, but it just dribbled back out, down her chin. Something was really wrong. Was she even breathing? Juliana took a swallow herself, but even the water was burning hot now, and she cried out and threw the bottle onto the curb. Across the street, she saw that one of the neighbors, an older woman with a large shiny clasp in her gray hair, had come out onto her front steps, was staring in her direction.

Juliana felt a sob shudder through her. Her life was a mess; completely out of control. Everyone must think so. She slowly stood up, groping for her phone. Her hands shook, but she dialed.

“This is Clark County 911. What’s your emergency?”

She could hardly speak. “Please,” she choked out. “I need someone to help me. I need help.”

Constance Ford originally from Idaho, earned an MA in creative writing at Hollins University, and a PhD in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2009, she received the Nevada Arts Council Grant for fiction, and her stories have recently been published in Pif Magazine and Switchback. She teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas and is currently putting the finishing touches on her debut novel, Evangeline.

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.

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.

Please RSVP

Please RSVP

0037On the invitation to my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I included the acronym RSVP.  I am certain the word “optional” did not accompany this request for a reply so I remained puzzled as to why so many did not inform me as to their intentions.

The crisp white invitation included the details of the day in a turquoise font. And then, in hot pink, to really stand out for the invited guests, the words “please RSVP by October 6th.”  My decision to add the word “please” before the letters RSVP could technically be construed as redundant since RSVP comes from the French phrase, réspondez, s’il vous plaît, which literally means “please reply.” Yet, my decision for the additional “please” was perhaps a subtle attempt to convey to my guests that I would really appreciate for the invitees to accept or decline by the designated reply date.

One full week after my RSVP deadline, I stepped away from my computer screen after sending messages to 18 parents and 14 couple friends. I added some pleasantries and exclamation points to the emails to soften the potential embarrassment of missing the response date. I fell short of adding the smiley faces that jump up and down and wink at the email recipient and realized that if I was going to add emoticons that an angry facial expression would be a more accurate interpretation of my actual feelings.  And, perhaps an added “p.s. I’m sorry I even invited you if you can’t find the time to let me know if you are coming.” I had mailed the invites six weeks prior, giving a full month to respond. Why do people ignore invitations?

I’m still uncertain whether I would have received a larger response rate if I had included a reply card with a self addressed stamped envelope for the invited guest to fill out and return by mail. My “greener” approach, providing an email address to respond to, perhaps presented some with technical difficulties. My parents’ friends, however, responded in a timely fashion via email yet I am still not sure whether it is a coincidence that their replies were in all capital letters. Is it that the “caps lock” button was activated or were they screaming at me for not including a simple reply card?

Maybe using RSVP is too vague. Maybe in the future I just need to write on the invitation what I really mean. I wonder how the invitees would react if, “please RSVP” was replaced by “I really need to know whether you are coming and don’t make me chase you down.”  Or, maybe, “if you don’t let me know by the reply date, you won’t be invited to any more of my parties.” Perhaps then my invited guests would let me know whether they plan to attend.

 Subscribe to Brain, Child


Caravan of Chaos

Caravan of Chaos

By Mandy Mays

0-11Driving is a sacred rite of passage, a privilege, but most important – it’s a chance to finally be liberated from the tyranny of parents! Ah, freedom. Who wouldn’t love the chance to leave behind the constraints of parental supervision? Learning to drive, however, is only a sacred rite of passage for teens. For parents, it would be more appropriate to call it a scary rite of passage.

Unfortunately for me, the year I started driving was the year my mother broke her decades-long habit of smoking, reducing her to a bundle of nerves in the car with me. Clutching her makeshift “pretend” cigarette of an empty Bic pen tube, she would cringe as she climbed into the passenger seat. Before I even pulled away from the curb, she would be puffing furiously on her substitute cigarette, clutching the door handle as if it would offer protection. Her nervous tic was punctuated by occasional gasps of horror as I motored down the street … both sides of the street.

I wasn’t that bad of a driver. But still, it was more than her nicotine-deprived body could endure. Needless to say, I was relieved when my mother announced that she had already taught two children to drive and would turn over my driving instruction to my father.

My father was not as nervous as my mother. However, we both had this strange idea that we were ourselves infallible, which led to some heated conversations on whether I had pulled up to the line or not. We would even get out of the car-in the middle of traffic-to prove our point. Our driving adventures came to an abrupt halt after one particularly precarious incident that resulted in many unhappy drivers behind me, horns beeping, and people cursing. After communicating with the other drivers in universally understood sign language, my father got back in the car and said, “Head home.” Side note: I really was right. Honest, my dad was wrong. That didn’t change the fact that he too had endured enough.

So my quest for freedom was temporarily brought to a standstill. Enter my brother, Nick. I thought it would be great to drive with him, my cool older brother who already possessed that coveted scrap of laminated paper proving his right to drive. Our first time together in the car, we had a bit of a falling out over a cat in the road. He wanted me to speed up; I thought making a pancake out of some child’s Fluffy would be cruel. Our ensuing argument was distracting enough that my hands temporarily left the wheel to wave around for emphasis … and our car made contact with the curb. Later, Nick declared to my parents, “It’s hopeless.”

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to move to a city with an excellent subway system. New York? Washington? Perhaps memorizing bus routes would be a good idea. I had given up hope of ever attaining that elusive prize of a license. Until my brother Paul entered the picture. Paul was different. He was so calm, so steady and sure.

“Mandy, that is a red light. Do you see that light up there? The light above the intersection? It’s red. Okay. That was a red light. Next time we will stop at the red light.” His voice never deviated in tone, always calm and reassuring.

“Mandy, people normally drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”

Even when faced with imminent danger he remained a patient teacher. “That was an interesting move, Mandy. However, turning left on red is not legal. Not to mention that doing it in front of oncoming traffic is not a good idea.” How could I fail with an instructor like Paul?

It turned out that I could fail-twice actually-before passing my driver’s exam on the third attempt. But thanks to my big brother, Paul, I passed. He was the pillar of fortitude who never gave up on me.

I firmly resolved that one day, when I had children, I would be the patient instructor that Paul was. I would not scream in terror like my mother, or yell in frustration like Nick. There would be no anxious hyperventilating or whispering of prayers. No, I would be better than that. I would be just like Paul and this would result in my children becoming skilled drivers.

Ha! After the first few times my oldest child took the wheel, I stashed Dramamine in the glove compartment. The constant jerking every few feet was more than my head could take. Motion sickness ruled the car. Forward-BRAKE! Forward-SLAM! Every start and stop was punctuated by, “Sorry.”

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Sorry. The curb surprised me. Is there one of those everywhere?”

“Sorry. Uh-oh. Did I do that?” (Points at shopping cart hurling off from the impact.)

“Sorry. What’s that smell? Tires leave marks on the road? Really? Can we see?”

“Sorry. I forgot you have to put the car in park.”

A series of events prevented my daughter from obtaining her license quickly, which is how I ended up this summer with TWO drivers in training, my daughter and my son. This past week I concluded that the Dramamine was no longer serving its purpose, and moved on to anxiety medication instead.

Both children practiced their skills yesterday. Side note: cemeteries are excellent places to practice. Not only are there “roads” with very little traffic, there is less risk of harm to others. After all, you can’t kill a person who is already dead.

There we were, scooting along the roads in the cemetery, fluctuating between 2 and 30 miles per hour. (The speed limit was 10.) Maybe the anxiety medicine was too strong, because I had the brilliant idea that we should move our practice to actual streets. I gave excellent, precise instructions that my child ignored.

Pulling out of the cemetery, my son confidently sped up, immediately turning into oncoming traffic. I was a frozen statue. Should I yell BRAKES!”? No, we could NOT brake with traffic rushing toward us. Moving forward at the traffic would only escalate our certain doom. Reverse was not an option as we no longer were at the cemetery exit. I couldn’t even yell, “TURN RIGHT!” because there were cars on that side of the road.  So I sat frozen in horror. Fortunately, my son quickly evaluated his options and chose the safest route out of danger: the sidewalk. As the shock wore off, I feebly managed to say, “Next time, we will drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”

Sadly, it was not the only sidewalk we frequented that day. Our explorations took us from sidewalks to the left side of the road to the grass edging of yards. At the end of the day, both children came to me and privately expressed their concerns about the other’s driving aptitude. One claimed to have a bruise across his chest from the seatbelt constantly locking with the brakes being slammed. I listened all the while mulling over an epiphany that I had while trapped in the vamoosing van of demolition. (“Sorry.  Will those branches grow back?”)

My revelation was this: Maybe Paul wasn’t as calm as I had previously thought. Perhaps he was not the patient instructor I remembered. Maybe when Paul was in the car with me, he too was frozen in place, unable to use his vocal cords.

Paul, the paragon of driving, may need to brush up on his teaching skills. Because next year, my youngest child will join the ranks of his siblings in the golden age of learners permits. I suspect I will need to call in reinforcements.

Mandy Mays is the mother of three children, and teaches Junior High Language Arts.  Currently, she and her daughter are working on a book chronicling the awesome year she was a student her class.  

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Can Homeschooled Children Excel On Standardized Tests?

Can Homeschooled Children Excel On Standardized Tests?

By Lucie Smoker

0-6“Oh yeah,” my son Brad said when asked if we had received any mail. “I got a letter from National Merit. It’s no big deal but I’m officially a contender.”

My heart stopped for a moment and I hugged him, crying. The National Merit Scholarship is awarded for top-notch performance on the PSAT.

Before age 13, Brad had never taken a test.

Our relaxed homeschool took its framework from Waldorf, unschooling, and multiple intelligence theory. “School time” consisted of about an hour of active learning each day with free learning and homeschool group activities filling the rest. For us, the true goals of education were to ignite a love of learning and to establish a strong base of practical skills. In other words, to build up the passion and tools to help pursue dreams.

My two boys thrived, but even after what I thought were fantastic afternoons learning together, I often received phone calls from relatives concerned that I was ruining my kids’ futures. They loved our boys and didn’t understand how I could endanger their chances for rewarding careers. While I felt confident overall, a small part of me agreed with the naysayers. Who was I to experiment with the boys’ education?

Our eldest, Brad, expressed an early interest in science, which we fed through home experiments, science clubs, telescopes and kits. When he reached the middle grades, I organized homeschool chemistry classes and spent my budget on things like microscopes and lab equipment.

As he prepared to begin high school at home, his enthusiasm to become a physicist or engineer blossomed. If he truly wanted to become a scientist, he would need to strengthen his hated math. Together we chose a very difficult math curriculum to challenge him. The homework sometimes took hours to complete. He went from missing most problems to getting most right. Brad also worked harder on his English and writing, knowing scientists have to write reports and express their ideas for grant money requests and professional presentations.

Part of me was terrified. What if I missed something important? What if he couldn’t get into college? While my research and my heart told me we were on the right track, I couldn’t stop replaying those family concerns in my mind:  Who was I to experiment with his future?

Then, our finances hit a breaking point. I needed to work full time. Simultaneously, Brad hit a social problem. Between bullies in scouting and his best friends moving away, he was becoming more and more isolated. Our small town provided very few social opportunities for teens outside the school framework.

After much heartbreak, we made the decision to put Brad in the local public high school. I could homeschool his younger brother in the mornings; work the afternoons/evenings, and spend a little time helping Brad each night. It was the best solution we could manage, but I was concerned for Brad.

At a 2000-student high school in a state ranked 49th for education, my husband and I worried about low standards and a lack of enthusiasm for learning. My son was afraid he couldn’t keep up with the work. Since he was a quiet child, my relatives were convinced that he could not cope socially. And the school counselors warned that he might not be able to compete on standardized tests.

In my heart, a nagging little voice kept telling me I had crippled my son. He couldn’t possibly adapt from such a relaxed environment to a six-hour school day. And while my mind refuted that idea, my soul cried over it every night.

But we were all wrong. Brad excelled in his classes. And many teachers impressed us with their dedication. At every stage, Brad read beyond the planned assignments and helped to tutor his peers.

While some labeled Brad’s shyness a result of homeschooling, I knew it was really his nature. His brother was the opposite, an extrovert. To be certain we weren’t pressuring him to be someone he wasn’t, together we set a few simple goals:

1) Hold up your head and walk with confidence.

2) Reach out to one child in each class. That person doesn’t need to become a best friend, only an acquaintance. Greet that person every day.

3) Sit with someone, anyone, for lunch. Bullies are drawn to kids sitting alone.

4) Join one club, just one to start.

Brad didn’t want to feel fake, but we worked on the difference between phoney and friendly. He joined the quiz bowl team that first year and added the debate team the next. He met a few brainy-kid friends.

During his junior year, Brad’s mostly AP classes posed a challenge. Because he still loved learning, because he wasn’t burned out, he dug in his heels to study harder. When he didn’t have after-school activities, he came home, went to his room and did homework.

While my part was very minor, I sat down with him regularly to talk about school and about his dreams. When obstacles got him down, I helped to keep his focus on his goals. We even talked about … gulp … girls.

Despite his strong GPA, Brad feared he could never compete for entrance to a science research university. His laboratory skills would not meet the standards set by better schools. His chemistry class, for example, was in a temporary shack with makeshift labs. After suggestions from me and from a counselor, he joined a national science competition to work on his skills and applied for a summer laboratory camp at a top university.

His biggest concern, however, was that so many of his peers had been taking standardized tests for a decade. We bought him a prep book and helped with some strategy–but he could never compete, he thought.

When the test results finally arrived, Brad had out-performed most of his peers. The same counselors who had doubted now talked about his possible scholarship qualification.

“I’m so proud of you,” I finally choked out the words.

“It’s no big deal, Mom. I’ll find out in September whether I got the scholarship–or even made finalist.”

While we hope he gets it, the scholarship is not that important. No day passes without his receiving recruitment letters from universities like MIT, Columbia, Harvard and Rice. There’s no doubt that he will gain acceptance to at least one university. We’ll find some way to pay for it.

What matters is that our choices and imperfect journey have empowered him to reach for his dreams. Brad’s future is up to him. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

An Oklahoma mom, Lucie homeschools by day, works nights and writes in her spare time. Her first mystery Distortion, was published in 2012 by Buzz Books USA, Its sequel is in the works. You can find her at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Ear Buds At The Opera: On My Daughter Turning 13

Ear Buds At The Opera: On My Daughter Turning 13

By Vincent O’Keefe
Earphones at the Opera Art“How’s it feel to be a teenager?” I asked my firstborn from the front seat. It was the morning of her 13th birthday.

Silence from the back seat. When I glanced in the rearview mirror, I saw the reason: ear buds. That’s how it feels for both of us! We are now one degree further separated from each other, I thought to myself. I made a mental note to pierce the fog a bit later with a text message reading “Look up n answer ur father plz.” That usually works (and annoys her in the process).

As for most parents, my oldest child turning 13 has been bittersweet for me. We seem thrust into the middle of so many endings and beginnings. Especially as a stay-at-home father, I lament that our ears are not the buddies they used to be. There is less talk of card games and bike rides, more talk of make-up and what not to wear.

I know our bond remains strong, however, even if it may need to hibernate for a while. I also acknowledge that after many years of at-home parenting, the exhausted part of me has longed for this day. Speaking of exhaustion, one of my daughter’s friends perfectly captured the contradictory nature of thirteenhood when she commented on the girls’ odd trend of wearing mismatched socks (or not wearing matching socks, I guess): “Wow, I must have been really tired this morning. My socks actually match.”

Turning 13 has also brought my daughter closer to her mom, as all those body questions have inevitably arisen. Recently at the dinner table, I listened politely for a while to their talk of various feminine products but eventually tried to change the subject. At that point, my ten-year-old daughter cackled, “Dad, you’d make a horrible mom!” Given how many times I’ve been dubbed “Mr. Mom” or its emasculating equivalent, I welcomed such mockery of my maternal skills.

One of the most gratifying moments I’ve experienced since my daughter turned 13 was when she learned how to play a song on the piano from her parents’ wedding years ago. I do not read music, so it was already a thrill to watch my daughter surpass my knowledge in this area. But when she learned “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera, my wife and I had to hold it together.  Life had come full circle; what more could we ask of her? That earned her a few sleepovers.

The most dramatic line from the song reads: “Anywhere you go, let me go too.” Hearing that line decades since a date with my future wife in Toronto, I couldn’t help seeing the paradox. When my daughter followed me around the house as a toddler, that could have been her anthem. When my teen now leaves the house, a small voice inside me echoes the line. Well, not every minute–I’m no helicopter–but more times than I thought I would.

Another of my daughter’s friends recently quoted Dr. Seuss in her 8th grade graduation speech: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I think every parent in the audience fought a lump in their throats for a moment.

Before going to bed on my daughter’s 13th birthday, I noticed my first grey eyebrow hair. What the pluck? Coincidence? I think not. My mustache has started with the grey outliers, but I was hoping the rest would take more time. Alas, there is no magic formula to stop the turning of the world, our kids’ ages, or the color of our hair. Well, there is that formula for grey hair, but I’d look ridiculous (and further embarrass my teenager).

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph. D. in American literature. His writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and The New York Times’ “Motherlode” blog, among other venues. He is finishing a humorous memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. A chapter on colic is currently titled “Take This Onesie and Shove It.” Read more of his work at or follow him on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe.

Order our Special Issue for Parents of Teens

Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?

Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?


ScanAs my teenage daughter likes to remind me, sharing a bathroom with her brother, well, sucks. I get it. Growing up, my older brother and I shared a bathroom. Luckily though, our bathroom had two sinks, which meant we had own our space for occasional side by side nighttime teeth brushing or last minute before school glances in our matching oval mirrors. It was nice looking for a 1970s kids’ bathroom, with speckled apricot colored countertops, a terra cotta ceramic tiled floor and floral wallpaper with a contrasting ebony background. Assuming I set my alarm early enough and raced to the bathroom to get first dibs for a hot shower, I enjoyed my morning time in there, the potpourri in the mini glass bowls giving an added fresh scent to the room. But, if for some reason, I had over slept, even for a minute or two, I would race to find a closed door, the sound of the shower the exclamation point that not only would I be waiting a while to get in there, but the combination of fog, humidity and inevitable older brother bathroom smelliness would be a terrible start to my adolescent day.

My daughter is 15 and my son is 13. Like my brother and me, they share a bathroom.

“When will you be out of the bathroom?” my 13-year-old son Daniel yells to his older sister. He had already knocked on the closed door. Twice. Then a third time, not just a tap but a more forceful attempt, using his balled up fist rather than the palm of his hand. I’m not too far away if needed, downstairs in my office typing away at my computer.

Emily’s Taylor Swift music blares from behind the closed door, now a decibel or two louder, a direct response I am sure to her brother’s request. Then, a moment or two passes, as if she’s given his question some thought or perhaps she is simply done with whatever it is she’s been doing in there. Taylor Swift’s voice lowers to a whisper her lyrics now barely audible. The sound of the knob turning as Emily opens the door is an introduction to the final act of this familiar scene. She gives a dramatic flip of her wavy chestnut hair as she breezes by Daniel, and then, as an unexpected twist to the contentious plot, she gives him a quick tickle under his armpit, setting off laughter from both. “I’m still pissed,” Daniel says, still giggling as he walks into the bathroom shutting the door closed which he then quickly re-opens to throw his sister’s wet towel down the hallway.

I stop tapping at the keyboard, sit back in my desk chair and smile. Or is it a smirk? I survived the bathroom battles and banter with my brother years ago; now it’s my kids’ turn to do the same.

“You know what I will miss the most about my house?” a good friend recently asked in anticipation of her upcoming move to a new and bigger home in our community – one with bathrooms connected to each child’s room. Before I even had the chance to guess or give the obligatory “What?” she continued. “My kids’ forced time together … sharing a bathroom.” She paused, composing herself, as if she was about to grab a tissue from her bag. I knew exactly what she meant. “The fighting, the talking, everything. I’ve even heard them giggling in there. Many times … especially after an argument.” I sighed alongside her, thinking about my two teenagers, how as they’ve become older, time together needs to be somewhat forced upon them. Not just at the dinner table or on family car rides. Long gone are the days they sat in the gritty sand at Compo Beach, digging with their shovels and pails, taking turns to run to the water to fill their buckets.

Having my teenage kids share a bathroom is more than just sharing sink space and toothpaste with each other, more than yelling “I need to get in there” or “when will you be done?” Maybe they’ll learn to respect one another simply by flushing the toilet for the next person’s use or removing the inside out dirty clothes and wet towels before leaving the room. In this stage of adolescent life when one is glued to her phone or her laptop and the other is either focused on the X-box or the outside basketball hoop, sharing a bathroom forces them to stop what they’re doing and be in the moment. With each other. Together. And if that moment is a negotiation, an argument, a realization how to accommodate or understand each other’s needs and feelings for their shared space, or just a passing by shove or tickle, I’ll take it.

I think I might call my brother today.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

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…”


“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.

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.




A Letter To The Teenage Boy Wearing The Offensive T-Shirt

A Letter To The Teenage Boy Wearing The Offensive T-Shirt

By Tiffany Doerr Guerzon


To: The teenage boy wearing the offensive T-Shirt

From: A mom

Subject: What I wish I would’ve said to you

You know who you are. You are the boy wearing the T-Shirt emblazoned with the message: Sorry girls, I only date models.

And you know who I am. I am the middle-aged, overweight mom who stood and glowered at you for a full thirty seconds after reading your T-Shirt. Or maybe you didn’t notice me, because I’m not a model. But I’m here to tell you that I am a model—a model mother, wife and citizen.

I know I don’t look like a model to you, as my hair is highlighted gray instead of peroxide blonde. And if my hips are roughly double the circumference of the average super model, it’s because I pushed three babies out through these hips, you ignorant twerp.

If my silicone-free breasts offend you because they aren’t as large or firm as those you would find in the Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, that’s because I nursed all three said babies with those breasts. If these tired old boobs want to lie down and rest, then I say they have it coming.

You probably didn’t notice my legs because I’m not mincing along in stilettos. I’m wearing sensible shoes because my feet hurt from years of walking the floor with fussy babies and standing on the sidelines cheering at my kids’ sports games.

I know that my face isn’t smooth and wrinkle free. Those lines are a roadmap of my life and the crap I’ve had to put up with from punks like you. At least you can tell I’m pissed off by the expression on my Botox-free face.

Furthermore, the bags under my eyes aren’t heroin chic but the real thing. They are the product of years of parenting-induced sleep deprivation and nights spent lying awake worrying about my daughters going out with snot-nosed kids like you.

So I am a model, just not the kind you’re looking for. My advice to you is to go home and kiss the mother who brought your sorry butt into this world. Or, if she let you out of the door knowing you were wearing that T-Shirt; then slap her for me.

Tiffany Doerr Guerzon is a freelance writer and the mother of three children.  Her work has been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Parenthood, the Christian Science Monitor, and over forty regional parenting magazines across the US and Canada.  Read more of her work at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Subscribe to Brain, Child


Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

IMG_0040The only way I will get my 13-year-old-son to write me letters from camp this summer is if I pay him. That’s right, money in exchange for letters.

This summer will be my son’s 6th year at his seven-week all boys sleep away camp. To date, I’ve received, on average, two letters per summer, each on one side of a piece of paper with a total of about ten lines (that’s being generous) or less (that’s more accurate—and includes the salutations). One of his letters each summer is simply a list of requested items for parent visiting day three weeks into camp, which sets my maternal instincts into overdrive, and includes a week-long scavenger hunt type of shop for his desired goodies, snacks and some surprises for my boy.

For years, I have watched our mailman, Cliff (that’s his actual name – best name for a mailman ever – thank you “Cheers”) from my office window as he slows down his mail truck in front of our house. The sound of his truck starting back up and slowly pulling away is the signal for my daily walk down our long driveway, hoping that instead of more Victoria Secret catalogues, Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and bills there will be a small letter-sized white envelope with my son’s name and camp address on the familiar red return label adorned with mini baseballs. And his distinctive messy handwriting, the one I wish was a bit neater during the school year but long for on the hottest of summer days. Because all I want is a piece of him, a sliver of his gregarious personality, the way he looks at me when I tuck him in at night, his freckled face after a day in the sun, his braces-filled smile. But every day it’s the same. No letter.

Whether my son writes me or not, I still make sure to write him every day, either a quick email, a sports clipping from the newspaper, or an actual letter, some days creative, others a summary on what’s happening at home, including our Labrador Tobey’s inevitable daily destructions.

For years, I have stood by the “no news is good news” argument for his lack of letters as well as the “isn’t that a good sign” sentiment. But then, last summer, a good friend boasted about how many letters she had received and how she couldn’t decide which to read first. “Wow,” I said, lingering on the image of my daily letter-empty mailbox. “You’re so lucky to get so many letters.”

“Do you know how much today’s mail cost me?” she said.

“You think he would write me if I didn’t pay him to?” she continued in a matter-of-fact tone, adding, “Yup, he gets $5 per letter. But they have to be good. No two-liners for that fee.” My confusion quickly morphed into a combination of minor shock and horror, with a tinge of envy mixed in. Why hadn’t I thought of that idea? But I wasn’t the type of mother to bribe my kid to write letters. Or was I? How far would I be willing to go for my own parental benefit and maternal fulfillment?

Last month, I was at a friend’s house while she was organizing her daughter’s camp pack. “It’s her first summer,” she said, showing me the selection of flashlights for her electricity-free cabins. I was impressed by her organization. Then she presented her daughter’s plastic stationery box, filled with decorative pens, personalized stamps, stickers and enough stationery for what seemed like the entire camp. As she rearranged the owl-themed pad and brightly colored envelopes, I joked, “you think she has enough stationery to last her through the summer?” She and her daughter gave each other a knowing look, as if I had stumbled upon a secret or an inside joke. “I’m paying her for each letter she writes. Right, Olivia?” “Yeah!” Olivia replied, as her brown saucer-shaped eyes widened. Another friend in the room, who also sends her daughter to camp added, without hesitation, “everyone does that. How else do you think we can get them to write?”

Years ago, when I went to camp, we had to write our parents. The counselors collected our letters daily. And in the afternoons, they placed mail from home on our beds. My mother wrote about her daily routine, her teacher-like script handwriting filling the front and back of her personalized stationery. My father was more the creative type. His letters were riddled with puns and mazes and games. In one, he cut tiny strips of paper and stapled them together, writing one or two words on each piece, creating a long measuring tape with a string of words and sentences. In every letter he ever sent me, he hid the letters “SP” (short for “special princess”) somewhere on the envelope or in the content of the letter, his own personal spin-off on one of my favorite pastimes growing up – counting Alan Hirschfield’s NINAs in the weekend edition of the New York Times.

Maybe I wrote my parents letters because I had to; maybe I wrote them because I wanted to. Maybe I wrote them because I loved receiving mail.

Perhaps the only way I can get my son to write me letters from camp is if I pay him. And these days, a bribe or reward is not out the realm of my parenting repertoire. Yet, there’s something so pure and fundamental about writing a letter. It’s not a text or an email; it’s not an Instagram photo or a Facebook message. It’s pen to paper. It’s writing down thoughts and recreating events.

I send Daniel to sleep away camp, knowing there will be moments filled with questions, discomfort, and uncertainty. And yet, for every one of those experiences, there are so many more “best ever” moments – like the group trip to Cooperstown, NBA day, the rope burn. I just want my son to tell me about it – all of it. But I recognize he can’t. That he chooses not to. That it’s all part of his summer experience away from home. Away from me.

Subscribe to Brain, Child

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.

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

To 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

Dear Drudgery: Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)

Dear Drudgery: Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)

0-1I was waging a straight-up assault on the relentless non-funnitude of my life’s necessary tasks, and I named the next institution Ten Minutes of Cleaning.

Cleaning is yuck, sure, but drudgery is not just a matter of the work itself. Drudgery is time-worn ruts and the same damn thing over and over. Drudgery is waking up knowing that today’s dishes will get just as dirty as yesterday’s, and that tomorrow they’ll need washing yet again, world without end.

Although it wouldn’t affect the dirtiness of the dishes, Ten Minutes would lower my drudge factor, I figured, because it would at least be a togetherness thing. Beyond that, I thought no conscious think about magic, education, or the power of the unexpected. But that’s just because I’m shortsighted.

In its most basic form, Ten Minutes of Cleaning looked like this:

1. Shortly after dinner, each of us drew a slip of paper from the Jug of Endurable Tasks (which I had populated easily on a quick, note-jotting wander through the house).

2. After the drawing, if necessary, we held a brief training period (Eldest: “What’s a baseboard?”)

3. We set the timer. For a focused ten minutes, we worked the tasks we had pulled.

4. The timer made its timer sound. Cleaning halted.

I figured we’d give it a try. Then, a few nights in, it was clear to me that Ten Minutes of Cleaning wasn’t just working. It was working like a freaking charm.


I have thoughts.

First, cleaning a house that teems with children and life is a never-ending task, and Ten Minutes rendered that infinite finite. “Done” had no relationship to whether the house was clean (it wasn’t). By definition, cleaning was done when the timer went off. If you’d fished out an easy task—Windex the handprints on the banister*—well, score! But even if the Jug had handed you a monster—Clean the fridge—no one was expecting you to finish. Just make that little dent. Zip! Ten Minutes left no time for paralysis, for dread.

That timer also ushered in my favorite part of the whole operation:

Me: Time’s up! Stop cleaning!

Child: I only need another minute! Please!

Me: Rules are rules. Stop cleaning I say! Stop it at once!

Ten Minutes also taught us that, for such an itty-bitty snatch of time, ANYTHING is actually endurable.

That cooler we picked cherries into last July, then abandoned on the back porch? And now we’re so afraid of what’s going on in there that we pretend the cooler does not exist, even though we keep tripping over it? Yes, that. Chop chop. It’s just ten minutes.

Our new practice let me introduce a world of housekeeping skills, bit by tiny bit. The constant struggle just to keep their beds findable meant my kids were rarely exposed to weird, occasional tasks, like discarding the decade-old cleansers and shriveled sponges that bred beneath the bathroom sink. Now, the tasks I used to tackle late at night (or on a rare, empty-house Saturday, or not at all) were open season for anyone: That thing under the stove burner, catching all the drips? It comes out. Let me show you how we clean it. . .

Is it imperfect? Yes. Jobs get done incompletely and not to my occasionally pathological standards. But I’m okay with it because ten minutes after we start, my house is still about fifty minutes (ten minutes times five people) cleaner than when we began. Yes, sometimes the living room remains piled in toys and backpacks while its baseboards and furnace vents are deeply clean; I do not recognize this as problematic.

And let’s talk about fairness. Yes, Middlest, you’ll get more done than your little sister does even though she makes more messes, but it’s just ten minutes. In fact, today, how about if you don’t choose anything from the Jug? Just help Youngest with whatever she picks. That way, she’ll get better.

I had an inkling of the Fun possibility inherent in Ten Minutes when I first created the jug. (Full disclosure: We actually started with a saucepan. It worked okay.) Still, I didn’t tell anyone I was adding a few non-cleaning tasks, because I didn’t know yet if it would be brilliant.

But hopes were exceeded the moment Eldest arched a skeptical brow, shoved her hand into the ceramic pitcher, and pulled out a task I had included just for her:

“Wait,” a sunrise was happening all over her face. “This says ten minutes of READING! Are you SERIOUS?!” She fled for her book, hooting.

Expecting, at best, a Windexing task, Eldest had instead pulled out a gift. Unearned and unasked for, and ten minutes long.

From then on, whenever we reached for the Jug, there could be magic. And there could be magic is the mortal enemy of drudgery.  Once we adopt the possibility of unexpected gifts as a world view, life is never so drudgey, ever again.

The year I Committed to Fun, I wanted us to live into the truth that sure, there’s a whole lot of stuff we have to do to keep our lives running … but inside it, something excellent could happen. Maybe you have to make it happen, but the magic is out there. The dishes will still get dirty, so: Let’s not let the dishes be the whole story.


* Hint: All children love tasks where there’s spraying.

Illustration by Christine Juneau




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.

Purchase our 2015 special issue devoted to parents of tweens/teens

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

This feature story comes from Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, now in its second printing.

Order Today.

Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

0-1“Jeez, Mom! You don’t have to yell!”

“Really? ‘Cause it seems like I do. Just once, I’d like to see you people hang up your backpacks without me having to THROW A TEMPER TANTRUM!”

Sometimes, I come a tiny bit unraveled.

Sometimes, the responsibilities that come with the charming children and the stressy job and just existing on the planet, really, become too much. The drudgey form my life has taken sends me into something of a spin.

A few years ago was my nadir. I scarcely recognized the pinched, exhausted woman staring hollowly back at me above the bathroom sink.

I moved through each day beseeching everyone I encountered to understand that I was not, actually, the careworn hag before them:  I am so damn fun on the inside, I mentally assured coworkers, PTA parents, the checkout guy at Safeway. You people have no idea.

When you find yourself explaining, even internally, that the person you’re being is not the person you are, it’s possible that something is amiss.

As I hit drudge bottom, I knew I wanted to be more fun, to have more fun. But the thought of adding fun activities to my schedule got me exhausted all over again. I needed more outward manifestations of my inner fun person, but where would I find the time?

I stewed for a while.

At last, I announced my solution in the minivan. “I have critical information for you people,” I said, as we headed out for a Saturday of epic birthday-shopping, practice-attending, errand-running proportion. “I’ve made a commitment, and I want to say it out loud so that you can hold me to it.”

My pause here was perhaps overly dramatic. “I am committed to fun.”

While Eldest and Youngest processed this information, Middlest piped up from the way back. “So, like, you’re only going to do fun stuff?” He pitched another M&M in the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. For Middlest, manifesting his inner fun person had never been much of an issue.  “What about going to work, and driving us places?”

“Exactly,” I said. “I can’t drop the things I do already, so this won’t be easy. That’s why I have to be committed.”

My family seemed game. Also, a little disbelieving and not so interested. No matter. The drudgery was my problem. I’d take it from here.

Eleanor Roosevelt, righteous badass and mother of six, was being her supergenius self when she said “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” And you know what? Ditto drudge. I’d let myself get all drudgey, and I could revoke my pass. I was committed to finding fun all over the place. Given my dearth of disposable time, the first step would be to fun-ify necessary tasks.

I like a challenge, so for my starter funification I took on the piece of my world that made me the craziest: nagging. I knew I couldn’t eliminate it; our whole house would implode. But could nagging be hauled out of the drudge zone?  Could I make nagging … fun?

I poked around in my brain, and realized that I had let a lot of things that brought me joy fall to the wayside. That way lies drudgehood, I was convinced. So: What used to please me that I’d let slip away?

Travel, poetry, loud music in a car with no roof. Flowers everywhere, staying out late. Hmm.

When I began composing in the genre we would christen Hassle Poetry, my primary medium was haiku. I found it freeing that my commitment was to fun, not literary excellence.

I taped my first effort to our twelve-year-old’s bedroom door:

My darling daughter,

Teeth cannot straighten themselves.

Call Doc Shapiro.

Sometimes I would add a little vocab lesson, just because I could:

Bifurcation means

Something one, now split in two

Where’s the other sock?

(Lovelies, please: Put all your laundry in the hamper)

I taped my poems to math books and wrote them in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. They were certainly no less effective than standard nagging, sometimes more so, and the whole operation made me grin.

Kids come into our lives and move into the center, which is exactly where I wanted mine. But there’s lots of room in there. I’d just forgotten is all. Hassle poetry was my first foray into joyfully, goofily, tucking other things I love back in the center of my mothering. As time went on, my offerings would get bigger.


Illustration by Christine Juneau


Etiquette and the Toilet Seat

Etiquette and the Toilet Seat


totoHave you ever sat down on the toilet and found yourself nearly falling in because someone (ahem) did not put the seat down?

For the most part, I live amongst the civilized, which is saying something because I have a husband and four kids, three of them boys and two of the boys, teenagers. Plenty of frustrating things happen when you live with other people, such as stumbling upon wet towels heaped on the bathroom floor or following a blazing trail of lights first thing in the morning. Those are just my personal pet peeves. I’m equally guilty of annoyance (according to my teenagers, sometimes, my existence counts as an annoying habit).

The seat up problem is something I abhor enough to have enforced a put-the-seat-down mandate for my husband and my sons. I began seat down behavior modification long before my husband and I got married, when we were dating and he still wanted to make a good impression upon me. I started to train my boys as soon as they began to stand up to pee. They are pretty good about the seat but they still forget, and I tend to hold grudges about this every single time it happens. It’s not even that I nearly fall in (generally, I see the seat aloft before I try to sit), but when I dip, especially first thing in the morning—and therefore begin my day with a startled reflexive narrow escape from unwanted wet tushiness, I get grumpy. My ability to shake early morning disgruntlement is lacking. There’s nothing like family life to encourage a person to work on forgiveness. Trust me—I’m trying.

I do imagine this particular form of considerateness is one that people who live with other people should demonstrate. When someone (presumably male) forgets to put the seat down, my sense of injustice flares. I’m not content to leave this negligence alone. I rail against such poor etiquette. However, I think my standards may be high, because whenever I go into a unisex public bathroom, inevitably, I find the toilet seat up. It’s possible that men do not value women’s comfort. Note: this is an unscientific study.

I’m not a sociologist so I took to the Internet to see whether there were any guidelines to proper bathroom protocol or if the Wild West reigns supreme. I found Modern Manners Guy with an answer: “When it comes to the perennial debate between men and women about the toilet seat, the answer (for everyone) is to leave both the toilet seat and cover down. It’s just polite.”

Male-humans who use unisex public bathrooms, please take note.

The good news is that technology may help us all. Newer toilet seat designs lower very quietly—no big, loud slam. I think (or hope, or pretend) that this feature means seats lower so much more seamlessly that people (male people) can ease the seat into the polite position. We have two newfangled toilets in our house, because two years ago, two older toilets broke at the very same time. These seats tend to be in the correct position whenever I walk into the bathroom. Although I admit it’s possible I’ve just trained my family very well.

Of course, the person who finds the toilet seat up and the ensuing predicament most amusing is my five-year-old daughter. A slapstick plunge into the toilet—if it’s not at her bum’s expense—is as hilarious as life gets. Although I want her to be incensed about a raised toilet seat (her turn will come), I also think she has a point: laugh more, even at yourself and you’ll be happier—and find the bathroom a funnier place to boot.

Subscribe to Brain, Child





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)

Purchase our Special Issue devoted to parents of teens

Why I Got a Tattoo With My 18-Year-Old Daughter

Why I Got a Tattoo With My 18-Year-Old Daughter

Vector illustration, template for your design

By Carolyn Butcher

I’m no tramp, but at the age of 48 I had a tattoo of a monarch butterfly applied to the back of my right hip. It is in flight–the tawny orange wings are up and the long, graceful hind legs float behind it as if it has just taken off from a flower. It is a butterfly in its prime.

This is the story of why it is there: Around the time of her fourteenth birthday, my daughter came to me with a look that told me I was about to face one of those parental moments that have to be handled just right. With her hand on her hip, Susannah said: “I’m going to get a tattoo.”

“Well,” I said, playing for time, “I have always told you and your brother that you are responsible for your own bodies, so if you really want to do something permanent like that …”

“WHAT?” she shrieked, “You would actually let me get a tattoo?”

My answer to this utilized the golden bluffing rule: When unsure of your facts, state them with such conviction that the opposing side would question their own certainty of your error. I told her: “It is not a question of whether I would let you or not because I would have no say in the matter. After all, no reputable tattoo clinic would take you as a client until you are 18-years-old.”

I had no idea if I was correct, but by using the adjective “reputable” I had an out. If my daughter continued with this plan to mutilate the beautiful alabaster skin that I had lovingly patted with baby powder, protected with SPF 40, and healed with kisses when her brother and his friends had chucked her out of the Little Red Flyer; if she was able to make an appointment at a tattoo parlor, I could always say: “Oh well, they can’t be reputable,” and then frighten the hell out of her with hygiene concerns.

It was only a test–this time–but just when we were both safely back in our corners, I made what some might consider a fatal error, but which turned out to be my Fortunate Fall. Susannah asked: “Surely you don’t like tattoos do you? I mean, you would never get one would you?”

“I would never say never,” I said.

Susannah’s response was joyous and sure: “OK, on my 18th birthday we’ll get tattooed together.” And every year after that, on her birthday, she would give me a look that went through my eyes and connected to my core and say: “Three more years …,” “Two more years …,” and then, “Next year.”


The Christmas before Susannah’s 18th birthday, my mother, who lived in London, died of ovarian cancer. Although she and I had certainly had our own share of verbal battles when I was a teenager, we had grown very close when I had my own family and we talked by phone daily.

I flew to England on the overnight flight on December 19, 1999. Earlier that day, my brother had called me from the hospital and said our mother was close to death; she knew I was on my way and he thought she was waiting for me. I hung up the phone feeling her very close to me and walked into my kitchen where the sun was just hitting the climbing rose outside the back door. Suddenly, an enormous monarch butterfly flew into the sunbeam and floated up and down, back and forth, basking in the warmth.

I thought about the pain my mother, my brother and I would all feel if I walked into her hospital room straight from the airport. As I looked at the monarch, still flitting quietly in the sun, I realized that my mother and I had nothing that needed to be said. Out loud, I said: “Don’t wait for me.  It’s really OK.”

Within the hour the phone rang and my brother said simply, “She’s gone.”


The following April, when Susannah turned 18 and said, “OK Mum, let’s go and get that tattoo,” I had no hesitation. I felt honored that my daughter wanted to commemorate her entrance to adulthood by getting tattooed with her mother, and I knew exactly what I wanted to have done.

I have a tattoo of a monarch butterfly on the back of my right hip.

Carolyn Butcher is a writer living in Santa Barbara, California, who lectures in English Literature at Santa Barbara City College. “The Butterfly” is adapted  from her memoir, “The Posterity Box,” which is a book of reflections triggered by relics of her past.

Why I Didn’t Want to Medicate My Daughter With a Magic Pill

Why I Didn’t Want to Medicate My Daughter With a Magic Pill

By Jenn Amock

0-4From childhood, I’ve been wary of magic.

Our culture and media trained me to be. Look at what happens to the prince in Disney’s Princess and the Frog when he goes to the voodoo man to try to get riches. Or there’s the queen in Rumpelstiltskin who almost has to give up her child in exchange for help landing her man. And even in Snow White, it is the magic potion in the apple that almost kills her.

In all of these stores, the message is clear. Magic comes with a price. You don’t get what you expect in the end. It’s better to be honest, do the hard work, and don’t rely on magic shortcuts to get your end rewards.

So you can see my hesitation with parts of modern medicine, especially pills. I mean, there’s always some side effect when you take medicine. So, if there’s a way to tough it out, change my diet, add more exercise, or get more sleep, I’d rather do that than some kind of chemical intervention.

All this got challenged when my daughter started kindergarten and began having trouble in school.

Over her first three years of school, we watched a pattern emerge. She would start the school year excited and engaged. Then, as the year progressed, the novelty wore off, and the reserves of strength built up over an unstructured summer got worn down, and we would hear from the teachers.

“She’s not completing her work,” they would say. “She doesn’t seem to be progressing. She’s not playing with the other students. She wiggles out of her seat. I just can’t get her to pay attention at all.”

Some of it I could understand. She had very asynchronous development. Intellectually, she was like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited budget. She could recognize every letter of the alphabet at 17 months old and multiply two digit numbers in her head at six years old. She could create stories in her head with the complexity of a multi-level video game at six. Yet her awareness of her body in space (which I have learned is called proprioceptive awareness) was delayed. She could not keep track of where her feet might need to be to keep from tripping over something, she wiggled incessantly, and you could forget dribbling a basketball.

Despite knowing these things, I didn’t know how to understand what the teachers were telling me. It had to be that she was just young. It must just be that the teachers weren’t trying hard enough to engage her. After all, it couldn’t be that something was wrong with her.

But my husband and I didn’t want to rule out a need for some extra help.

So, we went through rounds of specialists: pediatrician, occupational therapist, neuropsychologist, developmental optometrist and finally neurologist. We heard different things, “sensory integration disorder,” “extremely bright and gifted,” “written expression disorder,” “dysgraphia,” and finally “ADHD, predominantly inattentive type.” Through occupational therapy, writing therapy, applied behavioral therapy, in-class intervention, vision therapy, nutritional supplements, a gluten-free diet … we tried almost everything to help her. Except medication.

None of it helped her pay attention in school or do her work any faster.

But still, I did not want to put stimulants into my daughter. “I am NOT putting my child on medication,” I said multiple times.

Was it fear? Was I was afraid of some of the effects that I’d heard other kids go through: the pain of coming off the pills, addiction to stimulants, not knowing how to regulate herself when she’s older, bad drug combinations when she’s a teenager, feeling generally weird and not like herself, losing her wonderful imagination, anxiety, lack of appetite, lack of sleep?

Or was the part about not wanting to take the shortcut? Did I think that it was cheating to do it with the meds? Did I think that she would lose out on learning to self-regulate if I gave her a pill?

Or was it a third thing? Was it denial? Did I just not want to believe that my daughter really couldn’t do it on her own?

I think it was all the above.

But, one particularly difficult day, after a very talented and understanding teacher told me my daughter was having trouble staying present through a four-sentence conversation, I watched my sweet girl struggle to pay enough attention to her math homework to even write the number 6.

And I said, “This is enough.  It’s too hard on her.” I called her neurologist’s office and said, “It’s time to try medication.”

So they gave us pills. They gave us an extended release version of a fast-acting stimulant. The low dose is metabolized over the course of 10 – 12 hours – just long enough for my daughter to do her schoolwork, but not so long that it’s still in her system when she’s trying to sleep. And there’s no need to use it on weekends or vacations.

I skeptically tried it, watching carefully for side effects. All I saw the first day was my wonderful, playful daughter who maybe had an easier time finishing her thoughts when she spoke.

But at school, her teachers told me it was a radical difference. She did her work without redirection. She stopped rolling around on the floor during carpet time. She expressed opinions without being asked. She began socializing with the other kids and working well in a group project. All in the first week.

I am sure that this little pill really isn’t going to solve all her attention problems on its own. We still have to work on some other skills. As she grows, we will have to change dosage and prescriptions. And sometimes she won’t like it as much as she does right now.

But in the meantime, it’s making me rethink my position on magic.

Because magic isn’t always dark and dangerous in those stories. Sometimes there’s good magic that’s used to counteract the bad magic. And that’s always the magic that comes from a place deep inside of us. A place that comes from the most true form of love.

And I’m hoping that this turns out to be that kind of magic pill.

Jenn Amock is a former marketing professional turned Mom and freelance writer.  She lives in Texas and has two daughters.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Got Boys? What It’s Like to Only Have Sons

Got Boys? What It’s Like to Only Have Sons

By Aline Weiller


Legos.  Lightsabers.  Little League.  Ahhh … the joys of raising boys. While pregnant with my first child and pondering the gender, my mother diplomatically said, “You get what you need.”  Apparently boy-deficient, I gave birth to two, three years apart.

A childhood tomboy, I had a penchant for building blocks versus playing house — a pastime that prompted a call home from my kindergarten teacher, concerned that I was wasn’t engaging in “girl things” at play time, to which my mother replied “And your point would be?”  Early Polaroids feature me with low pigtails, snug beneath a baseball cap, a “Bad News Bears” wannabe.  My most revered Christmas gift was sporting equipment — a prized, wooden hockey stick and matching helmet combo.  I rest my case.

Though now a hair blowout and fashion enthusiast, I skirted the girly-girl cliques until middle school and beyond.  Who knew crashing my brother’s playdates would yield keen insight into all things boys?

When blessed with boys, you discover both the pros and not “cons,” but perhaps, missed opportunities.  There are no fancy bonnets nor fluffy tutus or trips to the American Girl store.  No prom dresses or wedding gowns or donating ten-inch braids to Locks of Love.

But I don’t despair. Boy land has its perks!  There are less bad hair days and clothing wars, save the occasional request for a player-specific jersey on deck in the laundry.  And fewer tears on playdates.  Oh, and boys never get cold, which helps when you’re missing their mitten’s mate.  I’ve become video game literate, know the scariest Halloween costumes, can locate the coolest sneakers, and “get” sports stats.  Of little surface value, this classified intel will win you fans on field trips and sleepovers.  Judging American Idol with boys is also not a bad gig — you’re Mariah Carey’s shoo-in understudy, no audition required.  And being the go-to-gal for that Guitar Hero Pat Benatar ballad is also not too shabby.

Boys’ birthdays and the accoutrements are similarly a plus.  The gift buying, alone, is an all-out adventure even the likes of Indiana Jones would relish.  The gadgets and gizmos, electronics and engines, collectibles and cards.  And who can forget the party stuff?  Simply stated:  boys’ goody bags rock.  Step aside Hannah Montana and High School Musical, our secret surprises are the epitome of awesome.  Take for example, my absolute fave — the squishy, light-up eyeball ring, which I’ve even sported around the house, post-party.  Not to dismiss the beloved parachute guy and the ever-popular Barrel-O-Slime — also perennial standbys.  In addition, cakes sporting super heroes, pirates, and Jedis, in my opinion, beat out Hello Kitty any day of the week.  Just sayin’.

And while we’re talking turkey, shopping highs are not exclusive to those with daughters.  We, too, can get excited about a solid spree.  Snapping up a sweater vest or two can provide a pick-me-up of Starbucks proportions. And let’s not downplay the triumphant rush after finding matching outfits, they will actually don, for the holiday card, complete with beach backdrop.  Not to dismiss the thrill of buying their first blue blazer.  Okay, maybe not nirvana, but still moments that merit a journal entry.

It seems, too, boys are always on a mission — competing in some dire, fantasy face-off.  For reasons unknown, restaurant outings seem to beckon their invisible foes, as breadsticks become makeshift swords and crayons instant torpedoes.  Note:  straws also double as a weapon of choice.

Did I mention boys are fans of water pistols, pools, and puddles, yet less fond of bathing?  I accept their love of action, but their need for entanglement — worthy of Hulk Hogan’s admiration — still boggles me.  What’s more, boys will jump off ANYTHING and approach running and climbing with Olympic fervor.  They revel in play and never tire of the outdoors; inclement weather short of hail ceases to faze them.  Did your survival guide to raising boys also leave out these gems?

But, like Sears, boys have a softer side.  My first-born, and now teen will endure a Sarah McLachlan song in the car, and has been known to unconsciously hum along.  Born in Atlanta and dubbed my “Southern Gentleman,” he’s quick to open doors and tote groceries.  Tall and patient, he waits for me on harried airport treks when I lag behind, bursting carry-on slung on my shoulder.

My younger son shows his affection out of the public eye.  Like any good middle schooler, he’s banned me from the bus stop, but our morning good-byes remain heartfelt, leaving me with a faint mixture of worry and relief.  Privately sweet, he proclaims I’m the “Best. Mom. Ever.” — a thesis he supports with Post It Notes and night time hugs.  We sometimes practice our Mother-of-the-Groom dance in the kitchen, albeit two decades premature.

Loyal and brave, boys are forever protecting the mothership (and their mothers).  Built-in bodyguards, they’re crusaders in khakis — always ready to fight the bad guys.  Valiantly, mine would defend me to the end.  Boys, they do love their mothers.  And we, them.

Yup, I’ve got boys.  They’re just what I needed.

Aline Weiller is a freelance writer/journalist whose work has been featured in print/online publications and blogs.  She is also the founder of the public relations firm, Wordsmith, LLC, based in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Subscribe to Brain, Child