This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only Mother's DayI am the mother who missed your kindergarten graduation. I am the mother who was drunk the morning of the first birthday party you were invited to, when you were four years old, the one who made you wrap up a toy from your own room (apologizing and promising another, though I never did a thing), because we had nothing. I dropped you off wearing my sunglasses so nobody would see the red in my eyes as I watched you walk away, with a gift that wasn’t a gift and blond ringlets and fear.

I am the mother who let you go on a February morning, with your brother, into the arms of your grandmother, who was taking you “to the park,” but for good and I knew it, because it was cold and raining and February.

I let you go because I wanted to go back to bed. You were five. Your brother was 18 months and still nursing and you were older and still small.

I am the mother who spent two more years “finding myself,” so deep in self-obsession, sure this pill and this doctor and this drink would be the next thing to fix it, the thing to set me right, to make me whole. Back and forth, in and out of centers and hospitals and your house and no house, I stopped by occasionally as “mama,” felt sorry for myself, blamed everybody else and wrote letters.

You kept them in a box by your bed. A wooden box stuffed with all I had written, on napkins and notes and cards I bought in thrift stores.

Every single one.

With the little pictures I’d draw from wherever I was of trees and flowers and houses, and love notes to you, my daughter, “I’ll be home soon” and “I miss you so much” and “How’s kindergarten?” and “You’re the best daughter in the world.”

I meant it.

You kept them all.

Each one with its hope of life and family and all the things I couldn’t make but could draw, the few pathetic things I could draw, a little house with windows and grass and sunshine, what I wanted for you, for me, somewhere, drawn on the table in the “art room” of whatever hospital I was in, with the crayons for “art therapy,” before I went outside to have a cigarette and miss my kids and wonder.

One day in March four years ago I woke up and was dead, having been killed by alcohol I knew there was nothing left and it should be so, because all I was and all I had failed, was me.  So I left myself in bed and walked on with nothing to lose, with something I couldn’t see or feel but knew must exist, because others were living freely with the same disease, and they told me how to do it. And I did it.

And I found their freedom and my own, within.

So with no fight left, I found a way to live, to come back to you and life, and for four years I’ve been born, having not had a drink since that day. A family again, you and me and daddy and your brother and new sister – even though families like ours don’t end this way, having been torn apart by alcoholism. They fade into nothing like the ends of tiny streams in a dry land. Like broken branches of nothing scattered on a park green.

Or they become us, something else, experiencing some miracle that reduced it all to a box on your bedside table – to a piercing in my gut that comes sometimes, like Mother’s Day, when you hand me a card written in your hand, with the little pictures drawn and the words you want to say: “You are the best mama in the world.”

There’s a part of me that wants to give it back and it crawls down deep into me and begs you to give it to some other woman, some other mother, who didn’t leave and isn’t me, but why?

When I’m here and I am your mother.

I couldn’t possibly ask.

And so I just hold it and look at you and remember, the house and flowers and sunshine, the messages sent with the dying blood of a mother, now pulsing through my veins and yours, giving new life to the drawings that once lay dead on the page.

On our page, to be lived, now, my daughter.

On Mother’s Day.

And tomorrow.

Author’s Note: I didn’t write the story of my alcoholism for a long time, not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t feel like I should be congratulated for taking on responsibilities that were always mine. I write about it now because it’s the truth, and it isn’t just a story of alcohol addiction, it’s a story of life and family and truth after failure, after obliteration. It’s the happiest story in the world. I found a giant, bursting life as I emerged from the darkest spot imaginable, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Janelle is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (

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Giving Our Children Experiences

Giving Our Children Experiences

Northern lights and Big Dipper shine brightly over a city

By B.J. Hollars

We’re on vacation in Duluth, Minnesota when I receive the text:

Skies should be amazing tonight.

The heads-up comes courtesy of my photographer friend back home, whose knack for tracking the Northern Lights is akin to a bloodhound chasing a scent. For weeks, he’d been pestering me to join him in the dark, to witness the celestial miracle I’d been missing. And for weeks I’d turned him down. There was always some reason not to rouse myself from bed (“Big day tomorrow,” “Wife will kill me,” “I’m beat”); each reply a white flag confirming that the comfort of my covers was too great.

But tonight his message takes on a new urgency.

You’re so close, he promises. Just a short drive away.

I hem, haw, but at last, am out of excuses. Given my northern locale, I am indeed on the doorstep of the Aurora Borealis.

I glance over at my droopy-eyed four-year-old sprawled in the hotel bed; his face lit by the glow of the television. It is the wrong light, the wrong glow, and I want to show him the right one.

“Okay,” I clap, “Grab your shoes, adventure time!”

“Nah,” Henry says, waving his own white flag.

“Hey, since when do I need to persuade you go on an adventure with me?”

(The answer, I know, is since he discovered the hotel had cable.)

“Come on,” I retry, reaching for the remote. “Quit being a zombie.”

“But I like being a zombie,” he moans.

Five minutes later, my zombie and I are buckled into the minivan.

“Keep your eyes to the skies,” I say, “we’re about to see something magical.”

Or we’re about to see a whole lot of nothing. Frankly, it’s hard to say. As my photographer friend had warned, without the aid of a camera, we weren’t likely to witness the spectral green glow in all its glory. Still, I figured we’d at least see something. After all, this wasn’t exactly a needle-in-a-haystack situation. How hard could it be to spot bright lights in a dark sky?

Five minutes pass.

“Is that it?” Henry asks, pointing.

“Nah,” I say, “that’s just the sky.”

“What about that?”

“Nope. Just more sky.”

This goes on for 25 miles or so, until at last we reach the town of Two Harbors.

“What about that?” he asks.

“Nope. That’s a gas station.”

“That?” he asks irritably.


We drive a few miles more, pulling to the side of the road to witness a strip of white-gray fog rippling through the clouds overhead. It’s the lights, at least I think so. And even if it’s not, I’m committed to making a good show of it.

I sigh, clear my throat, try hard to hide the disappointment in my voice.

“There they are!” I gasp. “Henry! You see’em?”

He does not. How could he with his eyes closed?

“Buddy, wake up,” I call louder. “You’re missing the lights!”

But he isn’t. Not really.

I wave the white flag again, and U-turn us back toward Duluth.

It’s then that I see it: the purple glow illuminating just beyond the tree line to my right. At first it’s so faint it hardly registers, but then, as we drive deeper into that darkness, it surges in strength.

“Henry!” I retry. “The lights! For real this time!”

But I can’t compete with a four-year-old’s dreams. A glance in the rearview confirms that he remains ragdoll limp in his car seat, a big boy overflowing well beyond all those straps. Just yesterday of course, he’d fit that seat just fine, and the day before he was practically swimming in it. But I blinked, and now I see him differently.

If you blink, you’ll see the Northern Lights differently, too. And in the worst case, a blink might cause you to lose sight of them completely. Neither the naked eye or the camera lens can halt a celestial body in flux. Nothing can halt a body in flux, either—no matter how much you wish you could.

Back in the hotel parking lot, I unbuckle him, then hoist him into my arms. His eyes flutter wide long enough to find the world just as he’s left it—quiet, dark, not a Northern Light anywhere. I lug him across the street, adjusting my arms in search of a better hold. But my hold isn’t the problem; my problem is that my boy now defies holding.

I shift his weight to one arm, then reach for the hotel door. Upon doing so, I glimpse our reflection in the glass and confirm what I feared to be true: we have lost our natural fit, have become two people whose angles no longer add up. All I have left is the snugness of his head nestled into my neck—the only concession the universe has to offer me.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit:




Oatmeal Tantrums

Oatmeal Tantrums

heap of oat flakes in a shape of heart shot from above

By Nancy Kay Brown

An animated handful of freshly prepared organic oats, flew across the room splattering every gleaming surface of our newly remodeled kitchen. “No-o-o-o-o-o,” Liza, our twenty-month old granddaughter growled, flinging another scoop of the cinnamon scented stuff that used to be food across the room where it landed on the glass door of my commercial grade stove. A gob of gelled goo whizzed past sliding down the stainless refrigerator. She cocked her arm and slung another that momentarily clung to my eyebrow, slid down my cheek and dropped to my shirtfront. As if summoning a wild rumpus to action, she shrieked a penetrating call. I’d simply asked if she was ready for a bath. Apparently, she wasn’t.

Liza had worked to break me from the day I had taken her and her older brother from my son and his pill popping, toenail painting, Jerry Springer watching wife. I’d removed them from the rain-sodden tent where Liza had learned to walk on mushrooms sprouting from the soggy carpet, where a family of wood rats had built their nest in her diaper bag, where I’d discovered her four-year old brother poking cigarettes and tampon tubes into the woodstove—because someone had to stoke the fire.

Now here I was at 5:30 a.m., a gob of cereal in my eye. After awakening a half hour earlier, changing Liza’s diaper, I’d pushed her up to a small-scaled table in her little red chair. Each day began that way–before the sun rose, before the birdies awakened, while Grandpa and brother slept soundly in the other room–I stirred yogurt into her bowl, the tart sweet scent of granny smith apples and cinnamon steaming my face, she’d sprinkle the wooden table with juice, dragging a finger through it, as if waiting for a pattern to emerge.

Liza growled, “Not mommy.” I slammed my half empty cup on the counter. Right. I wasn’t Mommy. I was a bad grandma, who’d gotten stuck raising a sloppy little girl whose mommy couldn’t stand her, whose mommy could barely stand up most days. None of us wanted it to happen.

“You can’t do this to me,” I may have called out as I cupped a glob of the lumpy gel and flung it at her head. Her face emptied, she reached for the mass plastered on her neck, eyelids retracted, lips peeled back and screeched like a wildcat. Arching her back, she fell backwards with a crash, red chair on its side, pedaling her feet, circling arms as if drowning on my locally milled, wide-planked floor. She knocked her head and thwacked her bony elbows, knees rubbing and sliding. Her eyes grew bigger than the sockets that held them. I didn’t stop. Scooping up a second handful of oatmeal I hurled it at her. Oatmeal dangled in her snarled hair.

Her shrieks grew louder then enormous. She gnashed her terrible teeth, roared her terrible roars. Emptying my tea, I filled my cup with chilly water from the tap and tipped it over her head. Streaming down her face, it slid into puddles around her.

She studied me. I studied me, too, twisting my hands to see each side. Who the hell had I become? Assaulting a baby? The baby I’d intended to save. Even Liza’s incapable mother would not have done such a thing. Oh, the racket, the mess. I longed to be down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down my shoulders and off my chin; melting away the heat. I whispered to her, “Stop,” and bent low up against her face, “Just stop. ” Then a lot louder, nose-to-nose, “STOP.”

At that, she roiled her forked tail, flipped over, slithered in a slurry of water and oats then stilled. I splashed a shot of whiskey into my cup and gulped it down. If someone they’d spied a crying wet baby on my nasty floor, me sipping something like tea, two of us embattled—toddler-to- toddler–they’d be wrong. Wrong about the tea.

I’d planned to be the kind of grandma that asked the children which exhibit they wanted to see at the local museum. We’d have made a habit of stopping for tea smelling of vanilla, flowers and mint, go by the bookstore and each choose a new book and read them to one another on the way home. I would be the sleep over grandma, extending my invitation to one friend each, teaching them all to cook, to use real tools, to build and supervise their own campfires. Rolling up in our sleeping bags, we’d talk into the night under the stars. After our visits I’d need a well-deserved rest, sending them back home to families that fed them, drew their baths and listened to their stories; families that treasured them and treasured me, the favorite grandma.

Instead at age sixty, I’d fought for custody of two little hellions, then being awarded them, as if that’s what it was, I’d sprouted horns, scaly skin and claws. Along with 2.5 million other grandparents, my husband and I found ourselves raising our children’s children. At first I’d clung to the idea that one day their parents would show up and take care of her after all. It didn’t happen. I was stuck. So was she. Who was I kidding? I’d brought it on myself. They were my son’s children and who was his mother? Me. When he got hard to deal with, (When wasn’t he?) I’d taken on more work. It took courage to face a child everyday. So I didn’t. I was spineless. Now it was his turn to snub his children. The cycle had to stop.

I peeled off Liza’s pajamas and released her into the tub. A simmer of thick clear water, the sticky residue of oats and milk fat floated to the surface. Her scream diminished, like the tottering spin of a top. My wobbly reflection glared at me in the window. The warmth of cinnamon-spiced steam made it almost seem pleasant, a grandmother and a small child captured in a moment. Had I no compassion for a little girl who’d lost her mother? A toddler who’d lost both parents and found herself with someone who would never be her mommy. Slipping underwater, her rubbery knees squealed against the sides of the tub. When a gulp of water slapped to the floor, I drew up her arm to make room and slipped in next to her, fully clothed, pulling her fishy body against mine. Shivering against me, she squirmed. I leaned forward and turned on a warm stream of water. We’d be there awhile.

As she squirmed above me flailing and kicking, Liza hit the soap dish and an instant welt appeared on her cheek, another on her head. Scrambling to manage her thrashing limbs, my knee rammed the faucet and drew blood. Battle scars. She twisted around pinching the fleshy meat of my arm like a snapping crab. I put her in a safety hold. How would I ever tame this child? Teach her to brush her teeth? Use the toilet on her own? Tie her shoes? My nose settled into her tangled hot hair. Dragging her finger along the ring of scum that gathered at the water’s edge, Liza put it to her lips and tasted it. I inhaled the fragrant steam of her scalp, smelled our shampoo, herbal and girlie.

Could I, the old sodden goat lying in that chilly tub of water, dare to think I could save Liza and her brother? What made me think I could change the course of two lives? Of six lives counting us all?

Liza twisted away. My lips skimmed her forehead. I was “not Mommy,” not the one that had birthed her, enfolded her for days at a time in a shared room in her other grandma’s doublewide on the snowy plains of Montana. Nor was I the mommy in the tent, inches away, gazing, nursing then awakening as if nothing else in the world existed. Back when there was no me. Then I was all there was. The one who’d only moments before wanted to send her slippery pink body, off with the gray-water, oatmeal-free and dried, down the drain where it emptied into the forest with the wild animals, where she’d have tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.

“Me do it,” she whispered, pointing at the knob. I exhaled as if my breath was a word in the only language we had left, studied the pipes under the sink wrapped with thermal insulation and the wall below painted the same blue green as my mother’s laundry porch–the undersides of leaves, mint, light wind. My waterlogged clothes fastened me to the tub with the weight of her, still and quiet, dropping as I exhaled then lifting again. Both of us knew that I was all she had.

She pulled from my lap to her knees, tight buttocks, muscled arms, grasping two-handed, knuckles white with the effort, one shoulder to her ear. I sat forward, wrapped my hands over hers and with a slurp and sniff of the flow, it stopped. “Off,” she whispered in a ripple of sound as she lay back and floated free. The black of her eyes spilled into the blue like her mother’s, the jaw line framing her dimpled cheeks, was my son’s. Liza, not yet two, still so small, couldn’t be blamed for any of it. There was no one else, only me, her small shoulders in my hands and hot tears streaming.

Liza lifted a palm of water that trickled through her fingers as delicate as breeze. Patting the water flat handed, slapping lightly she bent to break the surface with her lips, to hum a vibrating underwater melody. So effortlessly she’d returned to play.

Stepping out of the tub, I knotted a towel around myself and gazed at her delicate pink feet paddling. We would be here for a while.

Nancy Kay Brown is a retired Child Development Instructor. Oatmeal Tantrum is a selection from her memoir Grand Mommy. Her short story Burn Pile was published in Fishing for Chickens. Nancy blogs at Letters To Montana





The Last Stories

The Last Stories

DSCN0371~2By Anna Belle Kaufman

“Zackrabbit,” I say to the five year old seated behind me in his car seat, “I have another stop to make. But I can see you’re tired. If you don’t feel up to it, just tell me and we’ll go home now.” I glance back at my son in the rearview mirror.

My boy is no longer an eager little bunny. His once glossy bangs are now a limp curtain across his brow, dancing eyes are dulled by Dilauded (a powerful narcotic), the mischievous grin all but extinguished by pain. His neck and  right cheek are bandaged, swollen and purple with infection. Zack, cradling his constant companion – a small stuffed panda bear named Bumby – thinks for a minute, rubbing Bumby’s nose, then says, “I am very powerful Mama, I can hold in my tired.”

Heading towards our small home in the hills above Hollywood where the sun burns bright through smog, we drive through streets of MGM Technicolor: garish billboards, magenta bougainvillea, people bright as tropical birds in their shiny turquoise and pink spandex eighties aerobics wear. I, however, am living in different movie: one filled with the chiaroscuro nightmare and impending doom of Film Noir. The color leached from my world  a year and half ago, on the day – right before Zack’s fourth birthday – that my son was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1987 there are no treatments of any kind. Nothing.

I have grasped at whatever I could find: special diets, supplements, energy healing – anything that might help keep him alive until a medicine was created. But when Zack became too ill to attend kindergarten in the fall, I knew it was hopeless. Now, I only hope that he’ll be able to enjoy one last holiday season and not suffer.

The sense of doom heightens for me as each day winds toward dinner hour. The ever-present lump in my gut tightens with the sound of the liquor cabinet opening. My husband Gerry, working less and drinking more since Zack was born, is, at best, checked out after four or five, and can be a mean drunk (although never  to Zack, who he adores). I never know if he will start an exhausting nonsensical argument or angry tirade or how ugly it will be. I must negotiate a minefield, caring for Zack and trying to avoid explosions which, though not directed at our son, affect him. Gerry denies illness and death as much as he can. He says “I don’t do grief.” Now, even as help is obviously never going to come to save our boy, he forbids me, fiercely, to ever mention the D word with Zack.

So I must help my son on my own, covertly. But how? Although I have prepared Zack for numerous surgeries, helped him work through medical traumas with play and stuffed animals and blood made from paint, I have no experience or familiarity with death. I was not around my grandparents when they were dying, nor have I any religious education or community to draw upon or turn to. I don’t even know what I believe about death, if I think anything continues on. My pre-Zack career as a designer of costumes and sets did not prepare me for this; there is no script to study. I know the power of the right story, but what story is developmentally appropriate for a kindergartner? There are no children’s stories that I can find about dying that are not of the rather vague seasons variety with illustrations of trees losing their leaves – a metaphor that is useless to my suffering boy. Our Pediatricians never mention the D word and no one at the hospital is of any help. Internet groups, chat rooms and Google have yet to be invented. Bookstore shelves in the 1980s are not stocked with volumes on dying and grief. Except for one.

I manage to find the number for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s office in Virginia and leave a message. Surprisingly, she calls me back almost immediately and we talk for quite a while. She gives me her home phone number, saying “Please, call me anytime, any hour of the day and night that you need to. I just ask one thing: don’t give my number out to anyone else.” Then she adds “I’ve written a story for another little boy. It’s just what you need, I’ll send it right away.” Zack’s anxiety level, as well as mine, has increased as he feels worse and I am relieved when the package arrives, a story bound like a pamphlet, illustrated by Elizabeth herself.

When Gerry is out of the house, I read “Letter to Dougy” to Zack. In it, Elizabeth explains that when one doesn’t need one’s body any longer, your spirit leaves it to go to God, like a caterpillar leaving its cocoon to become a butterfly and fly away. We study her pictures of butterflies drawn in brightly colored markers. When we are through, Zack looks up at me with his old twinkle, smiling through the swollen cheek, in spite of the pain.

“Momma, when I die, we will go to Grandma’s and you will take the station wagon and I will fly and I will get there first!”

Glad that we had some private time to have the death discussion, I am, however, unprepared for it to come up around Gerry a couple of days later. I am seated in the back seat of the car next to Zack while my husband drives along Santa Monica Boulevard. Zack turns to me and asks, in his piercing high chipmunk voice, “Momma, when I go to God, will Bumby come with me?”

I feel that too-rapidly-descending-elevator feeling sink in my middle: there will be hell to pay tonight if  Gerry finds out we’ve talked about death, or God, in whom he does not believe.

Speaking quickly I answer, “Of course.”

Zack gives me a look and says “But Mom…. he’s a stuffed animal!”

Busted. By a five year old. The one time in his life I’ve given him the brush-off. Luckily, Gerry seems to have not heard us and, relieved, I quietly reply,

“I believe that if you want him there with you, he will be.”

I wonder if Zack understood the message underneath the brush-off, because he never raises the topic again in his dad’s proximity; his dying becomes a new intimacy between us, after those of pregnancy and breastfeeding. The following week, while visiting Zack’s grandparents, my mother and I are in the bedroom discussing her health problems and her grandson’s worsening condition in lowered voices while Grandpa and Zack talk in the dining room. I suddenly become aware of a palpable silence beyond the closed door and open it to find Zack standing there, anxiously shifting from foot to foot, rubbing Bumby’s threadbare nose. His Grandpa, absorbed in snacking and reading the paper, has neglected his frightened charge who now wants to go home, tears running down his cheeks.

“Zack, Did you think Grandma and I were whispering about your illness?” I ask.


“You don’t have to to wonder, or hear accidentally. I’ll tell you everything you want to know and I will always tell you the truth.”

We talk about his illness. He already knows that his blood was poisoned by a transfusion when he was a baby but I have been careful never to use the word AIDS. People are terrified of AIDS and AIDS patients, fear they can catch it from mosquitos, shared potato chips, a hug or a kiss. Even some nurses at our hospital won’t go near children they once cared for when those same kids were diagnosed with HIV. I don’t want anyone to shrink from a child who – in spite of lengthy hospitalizations and traumas in his first two years – became an exuberant extrovert, a charmer who used to love to work a room. A boy who, just a year ago, had bolted in the mall, zooming up to a complete stranger to introduce Bumby. I watched while the woman in the elegant pantsuit appeared alarmed, then smiled, and, by the time I  reached them across the food court, was ready to sign him for her talent agency. Being small for his age was an asset, she said, handing me her card. One month later, I found out why he’d stopped growing and told her we’d have to pass on her offer to to make some college money. (Zack, acutely aware that he was shorter than other children his age, explained it to me — and to himself. He would grow on the day of his birthday, when he turned five.)

Now, at this moment at Grandma’s, sitting on the bed clutching Bumby, Zack asks me “And can I die?”

Other parents, who might also pause if this question is raised, are able to answer “Not until you are very old, not for a long long time.” But I have promised to tell the truth.

“Yes Zack. Your body can become very sick and tired and painful and your spirit might want to leave it, like the butterflies leaving their cocoons. Or like taking off and dropping  a heavy coat  you don’t need on a hot day at the beach.”

He nods, he loves the beach. Grandma then joins in, talking about heaven, telling Zack and I that we will all be together there someday and that when she gets there she’s going to find a great big beautiful piano and practice all day. And if she gets there first, she will be waiting for him. Zack, relieved and cheerful, says “Okay, Mom, let’s go to Century City now.” And I push him in his stroller to the outdoor mall to see the holiday decorations.

But as fever and pain intensify, his fears about dying return. After coughing badly he asks “Do I go now Mom?” Then again, the next morning he asks me “Am I dying now, Mom?” He doesn’t want me to leave him, even for a  few minutes, and I realize that he thinks death is imminent and  he is afraid that it will happen to him if or when I leave the room, or leave him alone. We have another talk.

“Zackrabbit, Death won’t sneak up on you and surprise you. You will know if it is coming. You’ll decide when you’re ready and you will tell me.”

I believe this to be true. And it is. The first time is just a hint: I am rummaging in the hall closet when Zack creeps up behind me

“Momma, what is it like to be a let-go balloon?” Because Zack pronounces L as W,  it takes me minute to understand what he has said: a balloon that has gotten away from it’s owner. I see a forlorn pink balloon, lifting out of the extended  hand that held it and is still reaching for it, getting smaller and smaller against a threatening gray sky. I don’t share my image, but ask “What do you think, Pumpkin?”

Zack says that he thinks it would feel good to float free and fly up in the sky. He is telling me obliquely that his body, tethered to earth by pain, would welcome release. I, however, am the hand that holds the balloon. I don’t want to let go. I know it is only a matter of time before my balloon escapes from me, disappearing into nothingness while I remain helplessly earthbound.

He next tells me — although certainly I see him failing — through a story. Not one that he makes up, but one he chooses: Watership Down. At the foot of his bunk bed stands a green oxygen tank I have decorated with a drawing  of a purple panda, and a small television so that he can be distracted from pain. From all the videos, Zack only wants “Watership Down,” ignoring even former favorites like Dumbo, that has a train in it. We rewind and repeat to watch Hazel, the rabbit heroine, die. It reminds us of the story of the butterfly. We study the part where Hazel’s body, hurt and sick, remains on the ground and the Black Rabbit – the angel of death- flying, comes for her. Hazel’s spirit self – a more transparent version – flies gently up out of her body into the sky and leaves with the Black Rabbit.

Our last story is the one that allows each of us to say goodbye.

It is December, 1987, evening. In Zack’s room the only light comes from the colored globes of the balloon man lamp on the night stand. Zack and I have watched Watership Down a few times in the past two days. It is clear to me that Zack is so terribly ill that he should have left by now. At his last visit to Cedars-Sinai a few days earlier, the pulmonologist listened to his chest and couldn’t hide the shock on her face. Perhaps he is hanging on for my sake; I worry that he thinks it is not okay to leave me, or leave without me. And, of course, it is not. But I can not bear for him to suffer more than I can not bear to lose him. He sits on the potty next to his bed, belly distended and aching, eyelids swollen with edema, eyes unfocused black dots beneath lank bangs. We are alone.

So I tell him a story. It is the story of his entire life, in third person – I never say it is him. I tell him about a little boy who was born early, who spent lots of time in the hospital and who had many surgeries and was very brave. A boy who had a tube in his tummy and then a silver trach in his throat when he was small. A boy who went to St. Thomas School and learned to ride a big trike. A boy who has a panda bear that he loves and carries everywhere, and who makes waffles with his Grandma and silver jewelry with his Mom and computer drawings with his Dad, and who loves trains more than anything.  A boy who loves his Momma very very much and whose mother loves him more than anything else in the whole wide world. His mother understands that it is time for him to leave his body behind because it is very sick and it hurts. It is okay with her. She will be all right.

Only the end is fiction: the biggest lie I have ever told or will ever tell in my entire life.

“Zack, do you understand the story?” He doesn’t speak, seems only partly conscious, the whites of his eyes rolling up, but he nods yes, and I know he comprehends exactly what I am trying to tell him.

The next night, at 3:00 am, the Black Rabbit flies to our house; it comes for him while I hold him in my arms, singing his favorite lullaby.

Hours later, after the death certificate has been signed and his body and Bumby taken away together, I sit on Zack’s empty bed in the dusk of the early December evening. Outside, just past the window, a monarch butterfly flits around and around and around, making figure eights below the porch eaves. It flies like that for a long while, thirty minutes or more, as if it is trying to get my attention. Then it settles on the eave closest to the bed, folds its wings, and remains there while I finally fall asleep. It is gone the next morning.

On Christmas morning, a week later, my husband and I distribute Zack’s still-wrapped gifts to children on the pediatric ward at Cedars. I return home to find, among the condolence cards, a gift package with my name on it. Unwrapping a small but heavy box, I lift out a dense object that lays smooth and cold against my palm: a black glass figurine of a rabbit.

On the phone, the woman who sent the gift explains that she sent different glass animals to everyone on her list. Not knowing  why, she sensed  the black rabbit was right for me. She has neither read nor seen Watership Down although she also has a young son, and is amazed to hear the story.


When I told the last story to Zack, and in the even darker time after, it was unimaginable that I’d ever be okay. But eventually I learned that what I thought was a lie was simply truth that took a very long time to reveal itself.

Now, so many years later, on my desk next to a photo of a little boy with an impish smile, a shiny black rabbit crouches on its haunches, nose in the air, gazing at me. It silently prompts me to tell the tale I’ve never told before. You know the one. About a mother, some butterflies, and a rabbit, and the stories that came when they were needed.


Author’s Note: Six weeks after Zack died, I met Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at one of her retreats. She gave me a scarf that she had knit, made from the wool of her sheep, in pink – Zack’s favorite color. Her teaching story for the group was about a black rabbit.

Anna Belle Kaufman is a retired art psychotherapist who lives in the country in Northern California with her second husband, dog, and two pet goats. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The Sun, Calyx, the Utne Reader and the Networker.



Calamity Ben

Calamity Ben

WO Calamity Ben Art

By Laura Jackson Roberts


Fear Itself

“Abnormally fearless,” the doctor tells me. “Your son is abnormally fearless.”

I’m sitting in the pediatrician’s office listening to the sounds—howls, mostly—coming through the walls from other examining rooms. Somebody’s getting a shot. Abnormally fearless. I can see my reflection in the mirror on the wall. She’s nodding and she looks a bit concerned. Is her mouth twitching just a bit? She stops looking at me and blurts: “Yes! See how he’s on that stool, trying to reach that electrical outlet? That’s what he does all the time!”

The doctor sees and he’s smiling, but it’s not a good smile. Almost frozen on his face, it’s hiccupping somewhere between pity and regret.

I pluck two-year-old Benjamin from the wheeled stool as he spins around, and tuck him under my arm like a suitcase. He kicks his legs. “My husband and I don’t know what to do.”

The pediatrician is a good doctor. He helped us in the past, when Ben needed a rabies shot after a bat encounter. He’s going to help us now.

But when he opens his mouth, he stammers. “Just….just….” He stops, regrouping.

Now my own mouth opens in anticipation, because the advice is coming. I’m going to be able to breathe again, to sit on the toilet without worry that I’m missing an electrical fire or a mauling. The floods will stop. And the structural damage. This beautiful man is going to give me the gem for which I’ve been digging. I don’t have to live like this, because there are men like him, who have framed diplomas on their walls and stethoscopes in their breast pockets.

The smile on his face evolves into a genuine grin. “It’s probably going to get worse. Just keep him alive.”

Ben is my second child. A number two always surprises, because they never follow in the footsteps of their older sibling. Like many second children, Ben is a fun-loving attention-seeker who is far more outgoing than his Type-A brother, Andy. Andy is thoughtful, reserved, and loaded with common sense. Ben hasn’t a drop. In fact, he shows a startling lack of fear.

The word “fear” comes from the Old English word “fær,” meaning “calamity, sudden danger, or peril.” Babies are born with two: loud noises and falling. These applied to Ben for a few months, but he soon morphed into a ballsy doppelganger. While Andy never stood on the kitchen table—it was the place for eating—Ben didn’t see it that way. To him, the table was not a facilitating tool for consumption, but a challenge worthy of Mallory and Irvine. He climbed because it was there, and moved ever higher, ever closer to danger.

My husband and I would not understand our tiny creation for many years.


Pub Crawl

“Was it dark beer or light beer?” asks Poison Control.

I am so ashamed.

Ben is nine months old and it is a bright April day in the hottest year we can remember. His chubby legs are utterly delicious and he has reached that splendid explosion of personality a parent waits for. He babbles in his own language as he practices his hop-along crawl. And he’s achieved the pull-up.

The beer bottle was in the cup-holder of a plastic Adirondack chair. Ben sat in the grass around me, poking at dandelions and eating bugs, and this was okay because I was an experienced parent who didn’t get riled up over minor things. But I did have to pee, and Ben couldn’t go far in the ninety seconds it would require, so I ducked into the house. When I emerged, still pulling up my pants, I caught sight of my son. He had pulled himself to his toes, leaning against the seat of the chair. The beer wobbled as his sausage fingers reached. And then, as I stared, his hands found the bottle and he tipped it to his mouth. But he didn’t spit out the bitter brew.

My baby swilled that beer like a fat little frat boy.

The voice of Poison Control Guy breaks through my recollection. “Ma’am? Are you there? Was it a light beer or a dark beer?”

“It was a Corona.” I am holding him now as he tries to squirm away. He smells like a brewery. His onesie is soaked and the front of his diaper has absorbed all of the liquid that spilled down his round belly. Ben is alternately sniffing and licking his palms, and every few seconds he stares down at the beer bottle and strains to reach it.

Poison Control Guy says, “Oh, good!” with audible relief. “If it was a Guinness, you’d be on your way to the ER right now.”

“Oh.” I can think of nothing else to say. My infant has a taste for pale ale, and this wasn’t on my preparedness list today. “Is there anything else I should do for him?”

“Watch for signs of drunkenness.”

I stammer. “You…want me to watch my baby for signs of drunkenness?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

I watch Ben. He lurches. He drools. He slurs his words. He takes a few tumbles. He is either drunk or a regular, sober baby. I can’t tell. Have I averted disaster or invited it in?


An Episode in Which…

It’s noticeably quiet, but the rational part of my brain tells me that shit can’t possibly be going down because I’ve only been out of the room for the length of time it takes to pull a toothbrush out of the shower drain with a pair of tongs. Ben has done this before, so I’m a self-taught expert. The key is to visualize the angle of the trap and if I’m lucky the bristles will be at the top. Crap. I’m not lucky today. The bristles are down in the trap, but I get it out anyway.

Double crap. It’s my toothbrush this time. What is that? Slime? Can I just dip that in alcohol and keep using it?


I recognize the sound of a twenty-five-pound body on the landing in the kitchen. How did he get downstairs? I follow the sound, but he’s perfectly safe and…

Why are his hands blue?

Why are his lips blue?

“Ben, what is on your hands?” He looks at them, then at me. “Ben! What is on your hands and mouth? Were you playing with something blue?” Food coloring? Magic Marker? 

“Ben! Why are you blue?” I’m certain he’s going to show me a blue marker, or maybe an open baking drawer. It’ll be cute—there will be flour on the floor and maybe some little blue food coloring handprints around the kitchen.

But the kitchen is clean.

While I’m having a frenetic moment of worry inside my own head, he toddles off into the living room. He sits on the floor next to the fish tank, where I have been tending to a pair of angelfish who are suffering from a parasitic infection. Fish medicine is blue.

Benjamin’s mouth is blue. I see the boxes he’s dragged over to use as a stool. I see the discarded squeeze bottle. The child-proof cap has been gnawed off.

Toxic! In case of ingestion call a poison control expert and seek immediate medical attention.

Poison Control Guy is kind to me again. More importantly, he doesn’t remember me. He has a gentle tone, which somehow eases my physical anguish but can’t quite touch the mental component, the reality that my child guzzled fish medicine while I was in the bathroom with a set of kitchen tongs trying to un-wedge my toothbrush which that same child shoved into the drain.

I’m instructed to hydrate Ben, to dilute the poison. He should be okay, but I must watch closely for vomiting. Poison Control Guy calls me back in an hour, and again in two hours, to check on the boy.

The UPS guy asks me if Ben has eaten a smurf.

All babies have escapades. A tumble down the stairs ends in maternal and infant tears, or a swallowed substance triggers a frantic call to poison control. But as the tiny human grows, he learns that putting things into his mouth results in a bad taste and a belly ache. Ben either never learned or never cared, because he was abnormally fearless. Something inherent and primitive was missing: the fear.

But Benjamin is fearless. He won’t preserve himself.

It’s up to me.

Can I get a punch card for this?

The West Virginia Poison Control Hotline is 800-222-1222. I have it on speed dial in my phone, and posted in the kitchen, and the bathroom.

“Poison Control. How can I help you?” he asks.

Oh my God. It’s the same guy. This is his full-time job. He sits in a chair and answers the phone every time I call him.

I hesitate.

“Hello?” he says again.

“Uh, yeah.” I have to think fast. This is my tenth call. There was the beer and the bleach and the fish medicine. There was the Comet and the toothpaste and the Resolve Carpet Foam. There was the child-proof Tylenol, and the little packet of desiccants in a new shirt pocket that specifically said “DO NOT EAT” in bold letters. They should have rewards points for frequent callers. Nine poisonings and the tenth is free.

I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t leave booze and bleach out on the floor. In fact, it was quite the opposite: they were behind closed cabinet doors, with child-proof locks. They were six feet up in the air. They were supposed to be safe. But they weren’t. They weren’t safe from the tiny tornado. His fat fingers worked at those child safety locks, or broke them completely, and he climbed like a mountain goat. From the toilet, to the sink, and up on tiptoes to the top of the bathroom cabinet. And today, while I was speaking with the lawn tractor service man…today was not my fault. The tractor guy left the dirty oil filter out, right on the ground.

“What’s the child’s name?”

Poison Control Guy is going to recognize me.

“Aye. The lad’s name is…Scott.” Oh damn. I’ve affected a Highland brogue so as not to be detected. “The wee one tossed back a bit of motor el from the lon trahkter’s el felter.”

“He drank from a used oil filter? Oh no. How much did he swallow? Do you know?”

“Weel, it’s on ‘is lips and his got a bit on ‘is tongue.”

“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to need you to hydrate him thoroughly. Motor oil is toxic, but it sounds like he probably spit most of it out when he got a taste of it. Hydrate him and watch for vomiting and fever. I’ll call back in an hour to check on him.”

I promise that the lad will be hydrated and monitored. And I wonder how this has happened again, his tenth poisoning, when I have tried so hard to be vigilant. Rather than proving myself worthy of the sacred title of “mother,” I have revealed my ineptitude time and again. The task of raising this child has proven me to be a failure. It seems my arms just aren’t long enough to keep him safe.


Curious George Flips a Switch

We had ribs for dinner last night, and the kitchen isn’t so clean. In fact, my husband put rib bones in the garbage disposal, and it sounds like the engine on a Piper Super Cub about five minutes after it’s crashed into a barn.

I’m flummoxed by the rib bones, which have splintered into shards now, and have begun to work their way into the mechanism of the disposal. Luckily, my wrist is narrow enough to reach down into the hole and fish these wretched little time-wasters out, piece by piece.

I can hear Ben. Trains. Living room. He’s alive.

When I think I’ve retrieved all of the rib bones, I reach under the sink and turn on the garbage disposal. Horrible noise. Damn. More bones. I turn it off and find another piece. Turn it on. Horrible noise. The pattern continues as I turn the disposal on and off repeatedly. When it stops sounding like mangled metal, I’ll know it’s clear.

I’m feeling around for that last rib bone when I hear the grinding. It seems I hear it before I feel it, and then my fingers blaze with scarlet pain. Thankfully, evolution has given humans quick reflexes. I pull the hand out and stare at it for a few milliseconds before I release the scream. It’s a long scream, a primal scream. It’s the scream of a hand in the garbage disposal, a thing of horror movies and unimaginable what-ifs.

And while I’m screaming, there is Benjamin at my feet. He’s crept up quietly beside me, and he’s watched me turn the disposal on and off and on and off. He’s seen the switch. And he’s gone for it. His hand is frozen on the switch, and his face is frozen in horror. When he hears my scream, he jumps as though there are electrodes in his butt cheeks. Then he too begins to scream. We’re both standing in the kitchen, looking at each other, screaming. For a brief moment I swear that I see a hint of fear.

As my adrenaline tapers off, so does my howl. And then I begin to yell. Ben falls apart, running from the room as fast as he can, tripping over the dogs’ water bowl and upending a potted plant. Dirt spills out everywhere, mixes with the water, and congeals to a soupy sludge. On the uneven floor it all slides to the west and runs under the refrigerator. I can hear him sobbing in another room.

I stare at my hand. It’s still there. It’s actually still there. Oh, it took a hit—it’s purple and gnarly-looking, to be sure. A few of my fingernails aren’t so much damaged as they are gone. Lucky for me, garbage disposals are designed to grind, not to slice. We all imagine they slice, but there are no blades. Just grinders. I’ve been mashed like a Yukon gold.

He tried to mutilate me.

This thought settles into my head for twenty seconds, and though I can still hear him bawling, I don’t think I can move. I continue to stare at my hand. Ten fingers. Holy shit. I carried this child for nine months, I gave birth to him and loved him. I let him barf on my shoulder and now he’s tried to de-finger me.

Finally, I’ve got the wherewithal to wonder where he has gone, and I find him in the next room, crying toddler tears of regret in the corner. He comes to me with a soaking face and wails, “I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry I did that!”

I tuck my flaming fingers into the folds of my shirt and use my good hand to wipe his tears. The horror which flickered across his face evolves so quickly into remorse that I’m not sure it was there at all.


The Little Engine That Had No Choice

At the park, I chat with a woman supervising her three-year-old daughter. Our kids run from slide to rope ladder to swing. We follow them, conversing, knowing we’ll never see each other again. I am tired, deep in my heart. The weight of being Ben’s caretaker is putting knots in my shoulders. It feels like keeping suicide watch in a room full of firearms, and my safety record sucks.

Eventually, the woman asks me the question I’ve been expecting. She tries to be casual. “So, what’s that on his head?”

“That bruise shaped like a pear? He fell.”

Every child falls, and boys do it with aplomb. “It sure is bluish,” she says. “Glad he’s okay.” She looks at me out the side of her eyes. “How’d that happen?”

I don’t sugar coat my answer. “He launched himself down the stairs.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. She looks hard at my son, who is climbing the rope ladder in his bare feet—God knows where he’s put his shoes. Her daughter stands on the ground and looks up as Ben hangs on with one hand and leans backwards over the abyss. At least there’s a rubber mat on the pavement.

“My daughter sometimes jumps on the new couch. It makes me nuts. Is that…stair-jumping thing….is that something he normally does?”

“Yes. It is.” I want to say something about Ben’s pediatrician and the abnormally fearless, but I don’t.

She bites the inside of her lip. “Is he still in diapers? I think I smell something. Maybe it’s my kid.”

Was I really going to have to do this? “No, it’s his shirt,” I reply.

This woman can’t contain her curiosity. Not that I blame her. “His shirt?”

“He found a bottle of deer repellant and sprayed his shirt a few times. It was in a bag on the backseat. I bought it at the garden store and he reached it from his seat on the way over here. You should smell my car.”

She gapes.

“It’s dried blood and putrescent egg solids.” I add, and grin because it’s so damn vile.

She’s repulsed. And she’s starting to think it’s time to get her kid away from mine. Up on the apparatus, Ben lets out a howl and holds his thumb. I coax him to the edge beside the fireman’s pole and he throws himself into my arms. Something electrical shoots up my back and I grunt hard. This child is breaking me down. My vertebral column is giving up.

My new acquaintance approaches me. “Is he okay?” she asks. “What’s that on his thumb? Is that a rope burn?”

Oh great. This, now?

“No,” I answer, deciding to being honest. “That’s a regular burn. He got up on the counter and made himself toast in the night.”

Under my breath, I mutter, “I’m just trying to keep him alive.”

On our way home, I wonder what special combination of genes came together to form this unusual child. His father and I are prudent, logical first-borns. His brother worries constantly about things like an escaped bull on the playground, and a colony of flesh-eating ants nesting in his jack o’lantern. Andy is always on alert. The boys have an unequal distribution of fear, with none left for the younger. My husband and I are paying the price for our roll of the genetic dice. We’ve created abnormally fearless, and now we have to raise him.

Now we have to save him from himself.


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Ben is on that spinning stool in the doctor’s office again. He’s going to make himself sick. He knows how to vomit on command, so it won’t be a taxing performance. And he’d love to be able to show the pediatrician the extent of his intestinal pyrotechnics.

Kids are howling in the next room. I hear a tired mother’s voice. Ben is no longer on the spinning stool. Crap. He’s on the scale. It’s broken. He actually broke the doctor’s scale. Am I going to have to pay for that? Maybe they won’t notice.

I’m sitting on a chair in the little room, staring at myself in the mirror. My reflection just looks back at me. She looks like me from last year, listening to the abnormally fearless diagnosis for the first time. It doesn’t yet thunder in her head like a mantra, like a warning. On her side of the mirror, she’s still wondering how to fix it, rather than how to accept it, as we do on my side. I miss my own fearlessness, but it no longer fits my body, no matter how many times I try it on. Everything about motherhood worries me now.

Perhaps when we begin a parenting journey for the second time, we’re all abnormally fearless. With the first child, we battle. We slay the dragons of ignorance and sleep deprivation. We triumph and find patience and earn our smug-parent stripes, imagining how easy another child will be. But each child is a blank slate, one who pays neither mind nor homage to his predecessor. And my reflection doesn’t know this. She’s sitting there wondering why the Andy-rules don’t apply to Benjamin. How can she tweak this little blonde problem, this tiny boy, so that he fits into his proper place, where she can steer him along with one hand?

Benjamin won’t be steered. The only hands on the tiller are his own. I’m in the boat, but I’m sitting up front, and I just can’t get control. Do I claw my way to the back and take over, or do I keep a watchful distance? Would it matter to Ben what I tried to do either way? Is my only job to stay the course?

I don’t know how to raise this child.

Ben’s poking around in the garbage can. He pulls out a discarded tube of….ew. Lube? Is that rectal thermometer lube? Christ on a kayak. I snap at him, haul him out of the rubbish, and mentally prepare my questions for the doctor.

When he walks in, he’s a new face, a new partner in the practice. Damn! He’s going to think I’m a delinquent. Our other doctor gets it; he knows I’m trying. He told me to keep the kid alive and I need to see him so I can stand up and point at the little garbage weasel and shout, “He’s alive! You told me to keep him alive and I did and now I need you to tell me how much easier it’s going to be!”

The new pediatrician is ridiculously handsome. I watch Ben receive an examination. I watch him jump up and down and tell the doctor his name and his dogs’ names and where he goes to preschool. And I watch him begin to swing from the broken scale in the corner while the doctor takes notes. It makes a wretched clang and I pull Ben off, because it’s time to receive my assurances that this is just about over. I’ve put in a solid year of life-saving duty, of vigilance. I’ve dropped the ball many times, but the boy is in one piece and there’s minimal scarring and no major head trauma. Almost all of our pets still have tails and we’ve developed a healthy relationship with our plumber. Ben even has his own Facebook fans. They call him “Calamity Ben.”

“Do you have questions?” the doctor asks.

I take a big breath. “Last year the other doctor told me that Ben was abnormally fearless and that I just had to keep him alive. I’ve been trying and he’s still diving off of furniture and picking up snakes and throwing knives. He’s not afraid of falling or traffic and he takes off his life jacket and throws himself in the pool. I keep calling Poison Control. It’s been a year from hell. Is he going to stop soon?”

This pediatrician doesn’t bat an eyelash or miss a beat. He flashes me a Ken-doll smile.

“Keep him alive for another year,” he chuckles, and touches my shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

Author’s Note: I’m often asked if Benjamin’s stories are the truth, and I reply, wearily, that they are. As of this morning, he has a black eye on the left side of his face, permanent marker on his nipples, and no desire to live gently. For some reason, I was chosen to be his mother. He and his brother are the loves of my life.

Laura Jackson Roberts lives in Wheeling, West Virginia with her husband, Shawn, and sons, Andy and Benjamin. Recently published on Matador Network, she is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, focusing on humor in nature.

Bedtime in 21 Easy Steps

Bedtime in 21 Easy Steps

By Christine Alderman

21 steps to bedtime

To the Management,

Lately my bedtime has not been to my satisfaction and there has been some confusion about what I require. Here are just a few tips to help clear things up.

1. I prefer a bath that is warm, with some more cold water, and then some more hot water, and then some more cold water, with a little bit more hot water.

2. Only empty the bathtub after I am done playing. Which is never.

3. I try to make you proud by using the potty. I prefer to climb to the potty on my potty steps myself. Unless I don’t. Please know which one it is.

4. I prefer at least three books from each parent. And then one more from each of you so I don’t forget your voices all night. Because I love you. And then another one. Because I love books.

5. Please rock me in the big chair until I am ready to get in bed. I will indicate this by going stiff as a board.

6. I want to climb in my own bed. Do not help me. Except if I slip. Then help me. But don’t help me too much or I will need to do it again so I can show you I know how to do it.

7. I am hungry. I think I need dinner again now.

8. Thanks for the cold milk cup that is only cold enough if it waits in the fridge until the minute I need it. I will keep telling you I need milk until you get back upstairs in case you forget.

9. My bed feels nice. A clean sheet each night helps my complexion. Thanks.

10. My bed is too hot. I need a different blanket.

11. My bed is too cold. I need a different blanket.

12. My bed is not right. If I get out and climb back in that might help.

13. Please cover me up with almost all of my arms covered up, but not covered up too much, and my feet, but not my left foot.

14. Please fix my pajamas so that the footies don’t cramp my toes, but aren’t so loose that monsters can get in there and get my toes. Monsters love toes.

15. Now that I think about it my teeth are a bit sore. Medicine would be great. Purple would be great. I will say please over and over until you get back with it. You like it when I say please.

16. My mouth is sticky. I need water.

17. I need to go potty. You like me to go potty. You ask me all day. I will make you proud now and use the potty!

18. Please cover me up again with my blanket. But not this blanket. The other blanket. The one that is in the washing machine. I miss that blanket.

19. Please pat my back for a little bit. A little bit is the same amount of time as when you say we will be at the grocery store for just a little bit more.

20. Please put sweet dreams in my head. Only the best dreams. I have suggestions if you need them. Sit with me and I will tell you about them.

21. The door needs to be open a crack so I can hear you. Please don’t be too loud.

If I am not asleep please see above steps. You must have missed one. I can remind you of them if you want.

Please note that I have a separate issue with your naptime performance. I will address this in a separate memo.

Best Regards,

A. Toddler

Christine Alderman has worked with children, youth, and adults in juvenile detention, prison, and schools. Christine has a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. She lives in Texas with her husband and her threenage daughter.

What No One Ever Told you

What No One Ever Told you

Little Playing with House

Rebecca L’Bahy

Sometimes you feel a rage build up in you and it is only 7 a.m. You are feeding the dogs, the cats, making waffles, making coffee, making lunches, barking orders: Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. Get your shoes. Get your backpack. We’re late, we’re late, we’re late. You are so close to what you have been waiting for – three kids in school full-time. Your own brain-space. You sit and stare at a wall. There is a bird in your throat, a rock in your ribs. You avoid the kitchen. Sometimes the whole house. Drive around in your mini-van unsure where to go or what to do. Something is missing from your day. From your life. You should, you should…but you don’t. Then 2:30 comes too soon and your six-year-old wants to play house. How about a board game, you suggest. With a board game there is no pretending, there is a beginning and an end. She starts to cry. She wants to play house. Why won’t you ever play house? You yell something at her, something mean. She cries harder. You are her first love and you have broken her heart so you let her: the Disney channel, candy, salamanders in the living room. In the quiet, guilt. Look at her! Do you even see her? How she watches TV upside down in a headstand, her hair spilling out on the couch, her arms vulnerable as spindly tree branches? It isn’t until later, after the final push through dinner, and clean up, and the bedtime routine, after you collapse exhausted into her bed to cuddle that you see her: that hair, those arms, her tiny baby teeth. You were there when they came in. You were there when she chipped one on the driveway, and you will be there when they fall out one by one. You have always been there, even while you were thinking What if.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

Alone All Day With a Toddler Meal Plan

Alone All Day With a Toddler Meal Plan

By Susan Buttenwieser



One sip of hot coffee with milk, swallowed seconds before toddler topples her breakfast off highchair tray.

Toast crusts basted in toddler saliva retrieved from floor.

Honey Nut Cheerio remnants. Slurp out of princess bowl hunched over kitchen sink.


Pre-playground snack:

Rest of now-lukewarm coffee with congealed milk. Serve over ice and gulp while trying to convince toddler to wear something other than her zebra dress for the fifth day in a row.

Cheese stick inside folded over bread heel with mustard dollop. Eat with one hand and apply sunblock with the other, carefully working around butterfly stickers lining toddler arms that must not be compromised in any way. Fish dirty dress out of laundry basket as a change of clothes. Shove into backpack along with a clean diaper, sippy cup, Goldfish crackers, plastic bag of broken sidewalk chalk, and toddler’s beloved cracked turtle bucket. Scoop up toddler and click her into stroller.

Iced coffee from coffee truck parked on 7th Avenue in front of sex toy store. Banana chocolate chip muffin is an unplanned purchase to placate toddler, which could be argued is the slightly healthier option over a donut.


In-playground snack:

Occasional sips of lukewarm water from fountain covered in pigeon poop. Frozen water bottle was forgotten at home and the only other source of hydration, now that every last drop of iced coffee has been drunk including the ice, is toddler’s sippy cup or a complicated negotiation for a trip to the nearby deli. Temperatures have already reached 93 degrees on this smothering, wind-free morning. Stand on black rubber mat that is flip-flop melting hot and push toddler on swing. Sweat cascades from armpits, forming a tributary down the lower back area. Smells from overflowing garbage can and glass-shattering shrieking from nearby children create head-ache vortex. Adjacent mom, a one-woman show of every nursery rhyme ever invented, doesn’t help. Especially when toddler looks over at her longingly.

Handful of toddler’s Goldfish crackers while she plays in nearby puddle with beloved cracked turtle bucket. Nearby dad provides a long detailed discourse on how the nose is blown to his son. “Look at me. Hold the tissue like this,” the dad says, his brows furrowed in concentration. “Now blow. No, look at Daddy. Watch Daddy do it. Like THIS. Look at Daddy. See? No, not like that. Like this!”

Just three more Goldfish. And that’s it.

Stuff bag at bottom of backpack as inhalation prevention technique.

Temptation of Day-Glo orange crackers proves too overwhelming and suddenly they are completely gone. Dry off toddler after she has crawled through the sprinklers, using crumpled up napkins discovered at bottom of backpack. Move to sandbox area. Shellacked-in-Lycra mom takes a break from micro-managing her child’s attempts at making a sand castle to offer wipes for toddler. “So you can wash his face,” she says and has trouble accepting that toddler is actually a girl. “You should pierce her ears so people can tell,” she advises. “Was she premature? Is that why she’s not walking yet?”



Hurry home with hungry, snack-deprived toddler. After feeding and changing her, wipe her off with washcloth and put her down for a nap.

Cold, macaroni and cheese rejected by toddler. Eat with tiny purple spoon and read the Daily News.



Banana-chocolate chip muffin crumbs straight from the paper bag, using fingers as shovel. Try to write. Make coffee and bring to desk. Panic about clutter. Decide a fruit snack will help with concentration. Cut up apple into slices and return to desk. Get distracted by folder filled with pictures from high school. Somehow an hour passes and now there’s only maybe another 30 minutes for writing, showering, sweeping kitchen floor, folding and putting away the clean laundry that has been in the basket for two days, chiseling off crusted food blobs on stove top and the mildew growing up the edges of the tub, paying the overdue Con Ed bill, watering the not-quite-yet-dead plants. Intersperse with anxiety attack about plethora of dust balls, lack of meals cooked from scratch, the miniscule amount accomplished on a regular basis. The only thing to show for this day so far is pushing a stroller five blocks without getting hit by a car. Whatever is left of a professional life feels far away.


Late afternoon refreshments:

Frozen ice water during excursion to the library and supermarket. Underbelly of stroller weighted down with books and groceries, balanced only by toddler body.



Tall Boys with dinosaur chicken nuggets on Curious George plate and side of uneaten peas after bath and bedtime story, toddler slumbering soundly in her bed, the New York City night pulsating outside darkened living room windows.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

29 Ways You Know You’ve Had a Good Day At Home With Toddler + Baby

29 Ways You Know You’ve Had a Good Day At Home With Toddler + Baby

By Maria Morgan


Picture this: you just spent the day at home with your toddler and baby. Your husband comes home and asks how the day was. You pause for a moment to replay it all in your head, and if any of these 29 things are true, you know you can truthfully answer, “It was a good day!”

1. You showered.

2. You ate three square meals.

3. It’s not the winter, your plumbing functions, nobody is sick, and your car works.

4. Your mom, a.k.a. The Laundry Fairy, came.

5. You managed a trip to the grocery store.

6. You managed a trip to the grocery store without having to stop to change a diaper or breastfeed.

7. You bought Frosted Brown Sugar Pop Tarts at the grocery store.

8. When you got home, you ate some.

9. Your toddler doesn’t know you have them.

10. Or that they even exist!

11. You cleaned the kitchen, the toilet, or some Goldfish crumbs from the bottom of the diaper bag. Whatever. Something is cleaner than it was earlier in the day.

12. You realize that your baby has suddenly become a tummy time champ.

13. A friend visited! Even better if she brought food or coffee. Or washed your dishes.

14. Both kids napped.

15. Both kids napped at the same time.

16. Both kids napped at the same time—and so did you!!!

17. You tried leaving your cell phone out of reach to see if you’d enjoy the time with your kids more. It helped. A lot.

18. Finger-painting wasn’t nearly as disastrous as you thought it was going to be.

19. Not even once did your toddler get all up in your space when you were breastfeeding to let you know (with or without words) that he needed a poopy diaper changed.

20. At one point your toddler asked, “Mommy, are you frus-ter-a-ted???” which made you realize that your efforts to help him manage his emotions must be working at least a little. Plus it was ridiculously cute and helped diffuse some of your frus-ter-a-tion…

21. Your toddler spent much of the day pretend-breastfeeding his stuffed giraffe.

22. Two words: Baby. Smiles.

23. The two of them spent a moment lying on the floor gazing at each other. You put your feet up and let your heart melt a little. It lasted about 4 seconds, but it was really nice.

24. The baby snoozed in the swing long enough to allow you and your toddler some much-needed cuddle and story time.

25. You prepared and served dinner. Bonus points if it was something other than hot dogs or frozen tortellini.

26. You comfortably wore non-maternity pants all day.

27. Your husband is home in time for baths—hooray!

28. Your husband brought you flowers. Or wine. Or leftover Danish from a morning meeting. Whatever little treat makes your heart skip a beat.

And you can get through any day when #29 is true:

29. Sleepover at Grandma’s tonight!

Here’s hoping that any of these 29 things are true for you today.

Maria Morgan is a wife, mother, and middle school teacher whose writing has appeared on Scary Mommy, Mamalode, and BonBon Break. She is the voice behind Sandboxes and Sticky Back Felt. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

How to Survive the Night

How to Survive the Night

By Ashley Lefrak 


9:36 PM

Walk your toddler back to bed for the twenty-seventh time.

Start reading on-line parent forums about what to do when a toddler keeps leaving his room after bedtime.

Read about people claiming to have solved this problem through the purchase of special sheets and fun tents! Read posts accusing these parents of either lying or having simple children. Read the sheet/tent parents telling the other parents to shut it about their kids’ intelligence.

Walk your child back to bed.


9:49 PM

Note the number of people publicly losing their minds online due to powerlessness in the face of toddlers. Commend yourself for not losing yours. Worry briefly about how you’d know if your mind were unraveling.

Read about those for whom calmly walking their child back to bed worked after two nights. Curse them loudly into the computer.

Read one woman’s post that says, “They grow up so fast cherish this time!” Admire her briefly. Accuse her of lacking an inner life.


9:45 PM

March your child back to bed.


Start counting something besides the number of times you, or your husband, have done this. Focus on the tiny hairs on your fingers or the not so tiny ones sprouting from your toes.

Don’t think too hard about toe hair and whether your amount is normal.


10:02 PM

Learn about people locking the door to their child’s room and wondering if it qualifies as child abuse and other people saying no it does not and still others claiming, “If you think it may be child abuse, it probably is child abuse.”

Notice your son, no longer standing in the doorway.


10:12 PM

Remember you have a husband. Attempt conversation with him unrelated to children or bedtime or exhaustion level. When this fails, contemplate his toe hair.


10:20 PM

In a sequence you can’t later recall, fall off your chair and realize you are asleep.


12:13 AM    

Startle-sit to the full upright position. Your baby has woken to find himself in the comfortable confines of his crib and is screaming as if someone just removed his liver with a soup spoon.

Try soothing him using the many methods you have devised. Listen to him wail and wonder what could possibly make anyone being held in the arms of a familiar, milk-scented giant this unhappy.

Imagine, for momentary comfort, that you are being held by a friendly milk-giant.


1:03 AM

When the only thing that gets the baby to sleep involves clutching him to your chest while bouncing in the dark, or spinning in a circle while rhythmically lifting your heels off the ground while trying not to fall, commend yourself. If you cried a little bit while bouncing or spinning, don’t worry. You will have another opportunity to not cry in less than hour.


2:12 AM         

Roll over. Grab your husband’s shoulder. If he doesn’t wake, start finger jabbing him directly in the rib cage.

If he still doesn’t stir, say something concise like, “Can you seriously not feel that?” If he still doesn’t move, there’s a chance he’s dead.


3:28 AM         

Have a delirious conversation with your partner in voices laden with misdirected accusation regarding whose turn it is to go to the baby.


4:32 AM         

Feel a sweaty palm, heavy as a wet towel, on your shoulder. Shove it away only to discover your toddler softly sobbing, clutching his arm to his chest like a wounded wing.

Walk him back to his bed. Stay with him until he falls asleep or you begin to drift off on the thin rug beside his bed indifferent to the feeling of your spinal column, disassembling.


4:50 AM         

Limp to the door while avoiding heel puncture from plastic toy anatomy strewn in your path.


5:20 AM

Tell the small child chanting, “Morning time! Want. Mine. Breakfast!” two inches from your bubbling saliva that it is, in fact, despite sunlight, still bedtime.


5:21 AM

Observe your toddler, bed height, exhaling CO2 directly into your mouth. Propose that he return to his room and make a tower out of his diapers, or play “eating breakfast” with his diapers, or any other task involving his diapers because you’re pretty sure he can reach them.

If he is still staring at you, give your voice the cadence of a new and exciting challenge. Ask if he wants to try something new and exciting. Come up with a developmentally inappropriate and therefore time-consuming task.


5:22 AM

When he says he “Don’t want to!” at a volume that explodes molecules formerly nestled in your brainstem, tell him he can do anything he wants.


5:23 AM

Contort yourself into an exaggerated “C” to accommodate the thirty-pound body now lying perpendicular to yours.


5:32 AM         

When the self-deception that you are getting anything approximating sleep ends, beg your husband to take the toddler to the kitchen. To Madagascar. Make wild and impractical promises in exchange for five more minutes of sleep.


6:12 AM         

Give the crying baby milk. Negotiate with him in your mind. I give you nutrients, you give me sleep.


6:19 AM

Briefly become a human hurricane powered by coffee strong as crack. Stay in motion or risk collapse.


7:02 AM

If you are waiting for a free moment, don’t. Go ahead and sit with the baby atop your thighs while trying to use the bathroom.



Prop the baby on a hip with one hand while jogging up your underwear with the other while flushing the toilet with your foot.


7:04 AM

Exit the bathroom to confront the mounting sounds of your toddler trying to speak over your crying infant trying to cry over your speaking toddler.


7:07 AM

Hide somewhere. Tell your toddler you are playing “hide and seek” but neglect to tell him what “seek” means.


7:12 AM

Overhear your toddler singing to the baby a lilting tune in his impossibly high voice about tinkle tinkle. About widdle. About tars.


Ashley Lefrak is a writer and photographer. Her work has been featured in n + 1 and The New York Times. She can be reached at

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning ART 2

By Vera Giles

I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.

I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.

The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”

I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said:  “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”

“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”

We walked to the edge of the pool.

I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”

Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.

“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”

I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”

I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.

“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”

Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.

A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.

She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”

It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”

Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.

This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.

Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.

I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.

The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.


I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.

I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.

Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.

Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.

It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.

Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.

At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.

I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.

I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.

She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.

Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.

I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.

My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.

Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.

I fell asleep, from shock.


I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.

My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).

I did not commit suicide (like my mother).

She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.

Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?

When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.

“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.


When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.

But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.

“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.

By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.

There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.

Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?

Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.

So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.

Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.

More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.


I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.

One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.

I still didn’t know how to swim.

I still didn’t feel like a great mother.

I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.

And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”

Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.

“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”

How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.

How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?

Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.

I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.

“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”


We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.

Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.

I could be his mother.

Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.

I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.

Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.

Mixed Tape Of Shameful Parenting Moments

Mixed Tape Of Shameful Parenting Moments

By Susan Buttenwieser


Side 1

Making a behavior chart so three-year-old will put on her socks without having a meltdown.

Using the chart.

Chasing someone else’s toddler in the playground who stole your daughter’s beloved cracked turtle bucket and refused to give it back. Even when asked nicely.

Tussling with someone else’s toddler once you caught her, both of you gripping tightly onto the bucket handle.

Saying Duckie in front of people outside immediate family members.

Cruising the princess aisle in K-Mart. During work hours.

Purchasing princess bling.

Owning a Barbie after pre-child claims that you would never, ever let your daughter play with them. Or watch princess movies. Or dress up like a princess. And never, ever have Bratz dolls.

Owning so many Bratz dolls, accessories and clip-on shoe/feet that they fill a giant plastic storage container.

Walking down the sidewalk with your daughter dressed in a Barbie wedding dress, the only way she would agree to leave the apartment after long rainy day inside.

Tearing up at princess movies.

Tearing up when daughters wear matching Gap pajamas after their bath.

Tearing up at their dance performances.

Tearing up at everything.


Side 2

Shouting vagina on D train platform when pre-kindergartener asks what part of a woman’s body a baby comes out of, but then had trouble hearing the answer over screeching subway tires, even though the word was repeated six times.

Placing infant in Lost & Found milk crate on top of broken goggles and hair-laden bathing caps during Family Swim at the Y because strollers aren’t allowed in the pool area and older daughter needs supervision in the water.

Placing infant in laundry basket amongst dirty underwear and socks and ignoring her while cooking dinner, making brownies for school bake sale, helping older daughter with 100th Day of School art project which involves gluing 100 pairs of googly eyes onto 100 balls of cotton.

The six weeks of taking your toddler to the playground with her left arm in a cast.

One daughter hurling a full pint of milk onto pizza restaurant floor at the exact same moment that other daughter has sudden case of explosive diarrhea.

Every time they are rude in public.

Every time they are rude in private.

Every time they totally lose their shit.

Every time you totally lose your shit.

Every time you find yourself inside a Buy Buy Baby.

Allowing your daughters to eat Froot Loops, so unhealthy that Kellogg’s can’t even be bothered to use correct spelling, as if to speed up the brain-damaging process.

The many hours spent only in conversations with people under the age of two.

Losing the ability to speak to other adults.

Losing the ability to be an adult.


Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 


Rock Rock Boom

Rock Rock Boom

keith-galick_0001By Deborah L. Blicher

The little blond boy sits too still on the playroom carpet, his feet out in front of him like a doll’s. He stares vaguely at his sister, his cousins, and me. He should be crying. A minute ago I was in the kitchen, scrubbing peanut butter off the lunch dishes, when the cousins surged in yelling, “Misha hit his head! He’s bleeding!” So I dropped the sponge and ran.

Now, in the playroom, I ask Misha’s four-year-old sister,Stoh etta? (“What is it?”) because I don’t know the Russian for, “What happened?” Katja and Misha spent their early lives in a Russian orphanage. My language study hasn’t prepared me for a head injury.

Before Katja can answer, three-year-old Misha focuses his eyes, sees me, and begins to cry.

I think, He recognizes I’m his caregiverhis mother, I correct myself. Then I think, What would a mother do now?

Peter and I had both felt ambivalent about having kids during our courtship, but our feelings polarized when we bought a house together 15 months before our wedding. I loved children, but I didn’t want the sacrifices that come with being a mother. I expected to be laid off from my software job any day, and I hoped to use the time and our new, quiet home to revive my long-dormant writing career, the work I’d wanted to do all my life. Peter, just coming into his medical career, needed to work long hours.  He envisioned a house noisy with children, and me raising them full time.

We shouted at each other, stopped speaking, and finally cancelled the wedding.

I scoop up Misha from the carpet and ask him, “G‘dye balit?” (“Where does it hurt?”). He can’t hear me over his screams. Then I see blood welling from a two-inch gash just behind the top of his head, where his close-cropped hair springs up like a rooster’s comb.

One of the cousins says, “Misha was standing on the rocking toy, and it wobbled, and he fell and hit his head on the wall. Will he be okay?” His eyes plead with me to say yes.

Why does he think I’m in charge?  I wonder. “I’ll see what I can do,” I say. With Misha in my arms, I trot towards the kitchen. Four pairs of small feet follow me.

Terrified of losing Peter, I convinced him to join me for counseling with our rabbi. We laid everything out for her, bristling. She told us, “You guys actually aren’t that far apart. Debbie, you like kids but you don’t want to lose the creative life finally within your reach. Peter, you want to parent as much as you can, but you’re at an inflexible point in your career. I know you’re a compatible couple with good negotiating skills. I think you can work this out.”  She recommended marriage counseling.

We booked an appointment.

While Katja and the cousins observe, I sit Misha on the counter, page Peter and the pediatrician, and call my mother.

My mother sounds calm. “Remember your brother got whacked in the head with a screen door when he was that age? And both your nephews?”

Of course I remember. They all have identical scars.

“It was scary, but they’re fine,” my mother says. “Check the size of his pupils.”

I check. “They’re different sizes,” I report.

“That’s a concussion,” my mother says calmly. “The pediatrician will tell you to go to the hospital. Can Peter meet you there?”

I tell her he has not yet returned my page, which means he’s seeing patients.

“Do you want me to come?” she asks. “Yes!” I reply, thinking, A mother ought to be there.

After five months of marriage counseling, Peter and I agreed to raise a family. He finally understood my desire for a creative life and that I’d need autonomy in order to achieve it. He agreed to put money towards day care so I would not be overburdened. As for me, I understood that he honestly did not know he wanted kids until the moment he told me. He was the genuine, steady, insightful partner I still wanted, and he would be a genuine, steady, and insightful father.

We rescheduled the wedding.

My sister-in-law will take Katja home with her while I rush Misha to the hospital. I worry that Katja might feel abandoned after living with us only three months, but I have to tend to Misha. I explain everything to her in my best Russian. She nods sagely, hugs me, and goes upstairs with her oldest cousin to pack a bag. She’s lived half her life in a group of children, so leaving our home with three kids must make sense to her. It makes more sense, I think, than staying with me.

Peter and I chose adoption so we would not be limited by my fertility’s ticking time bomb. We applied after being married two years, when I turned 42. We chose Russia because we’re of eastern European descent, and we agreed on one child because the happiest writer-moms we knew had only one. The odds favored our being matched with a baby boy about nine months old. I felt a little happy. Maybe I could handle raising one boy. Maybe it would even be fun.

Usually talkative, Misha rides silently in his car seat. In the rearview mirror, I see his eyelids droop, then his entire head. I know enough about brain injuries to fear he will not wake up if he falls asleep. Every so often, I say in Russian and English, “Ni spat! Don’t sleep!” He raises his head but does not reply.

As the traffic crawls, I feel concern, but nothing more, for this child in my care. I ask myself, How I would feel if I were his mother?

I keep reminding myself, I am.

The adoption match came six months earlier than Peter and I expected. Our caseworker called me at home to ask whether we might consider two Russian siblings, aged three and two. Of course not, I thought. I cant raise TWO kids.  But I thanked her and said I would talk to Peter. I paged him right away.

Peter cannot get to the ER for three hours. “There’s nobody to cover for me,” he explains. As we hang up, Misha’s eyes close. I keep shouting, “Ni spat!” to jolt him awake. When that stops working, I set the car radio on “scan” and turn up the volume. Finally, I roll down the windows for the cold air. Misha keeps dozing. I think, I‘ll be in big trouble with his mother if he lapses into a coma.

The Russian siblings were blessed with perfect health and unusually good care. In the photos, Katja had auburn hair and a pout that showed she resented posing on the couch when she could be playing. Beside her, blond Misha grinned into the camera, his chubby hands clasped in his lap.

So cute! I thought. But I felt nothing beyond what I’d feel for, say, a photo of two bear cubs.

As our car inches under the last overpass before the hospital, Misha suddenly exclaims, “SCHOOL BUS!” And indeed, one is passing us in the next lane. Looking out the window, he begins narrating in Russian and English as if nothing has happened.

For the first time in an hour, I exhale.

For the first time in my life, I recognize my son.

Peter and I decided to meet the Russian siblings, so I put my book project away and started reading about adoption. The literature discussed the attachment of children to parents. My questions concerned parents’ attachment to children. How long would it take? What if the mother would rather write books than wipe noses? Was there hope for her?

I swerve into the first parking space I can and gather Misha into my arms. I don’t stop running until I see my mother in the doorway of the pediatric ER.

“Why didn’t you take the elevator?” she asks.

I ask, “What elevator?”

“Where did you come in?”

“The entrance by the big doors?” I say. Inside me, something begins to growl, Must fix boy. 

“By Oncology? Why did you park all the way over there?”

Then it hits me: I’ve sprinted through the entire hospital and up several flights of stairs. Like my great-grandmother running through the shtetl carrying my toddler grandfather when he upended a soup kettle. Like my mother speeding my brother to this very hospital when the screen door smashed him in the head.  I am the mother of an injured child. Must fix boy! comes the bear growl. Get help! Help now!

My mother leads us to the triage nurse.

Peter and I first set eyes on our children in the vestibule of their apartment. Their caregiver Anna, solid and warm, opened the door. Katja stood behind her looking sidelong at us, as if not sure we could be trusted. Misha smiled up at us from between Anna’s legs. I gasped, covering my mouth in astonishment, which did not subside, and probably never has.

When Peter arrives at the hospital, Misha has been diagnosed with a concussion. He’s now playing Legos with three boys wearing gauze patches on their heads saturated with anesthetic. Their mothers didn’t laugh when I called them “the head injury play group.” When the triage nurse asked Misha how he’d hit his head, he’d spread his little hands wide like starfish and said, “Rock rock rock rock rock BOOM.”

Peter tells me that, once the anesthetic takes effect, a surgeon will probably put sutures or staples in Misha’s head. I immediately volunteer to go pick up Katja. I feel I will kill anyone who approaches our son with a sharp object in his hand.

“Mama pupka!” Katja shouts into the phone. (“Mama’s butt!”)

Katja and I are in the bathroom at home. I left the hospital an hour ago. Peter and I thought the kids might want to talk to each other, so we arranged this phone call.

Through the receiver at Katja’s ear, I hear Misha respond, “Mama piska!” (“Mama’s pisser!”)

Both children scream with laughter. I take back the phone.

“Sounds like everything’s normal,” Peter chuckles. “Misha did fine with the surgeon. We’ll be home soon, love.”

Toilet jokes in Russian, I think. A head-injury play group. He’s right: for our family, this is ‘normal.

I tell Peter I love him and hang up. Then I ask Katja, in Russian and English, please to find her toothbrush.

Deborah L. Blicher’s essays have appeared most recently in The Boston Globe Magazine and Lilith.  She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two children, and two redfoot tortoises.  Find her at and on Twitter at @dblicher.

Photo by Keith Galick

This is What The Last Child Gets

This is What The Last Child Gets


Until a few days ago, I was convinced that Nate, our youngest of four children, got the short stick in life. Any time and money for extracurricular activities is earmarked for the big kids. Getting the two older kids to real music lessons means no baby music classes for two-a-half-year-old Nate. Studio gymnastics for the middle two means no  “tumblers” at the baby gym for Nate. Nate only wears hand-me-downs from his older brother and cousins. To call his crib used is a massive understatement. Barely hanging on is more like it. And his board books look equally chewed and dilapidated.

With three siblings ahead of him, it always seems like Nate is last on the list. Sure, for the first year his needs came first such as stopping everything so I could feed him or change a diaper. And it’s true that at two-and-a-half, Nate’s afternoon nap and early bed time still influences our family’s schedule. However, other than getting his basic sleep necessities protected, I was struggling to think of any benefits whatsoever to being the youngest child in our house.

Then something important occurred to me while I sat in the living room happily watching Nate push his Matchbox cars down a twisty plastic Fisher Price ramp. I’m enjoying Nate’s toddlerhood more than I did with the other kids. “Sit,” Nate had said to me a moment earlier, pointing to the couch. He wanted me to simply stay there while he played, and I obliged in a way I never did when the other kids were his age. I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t worry about what he would do once he got tired of the cars. I felt relaxed and amused by my son. One of the five of us is often his audience. It’s no wonder that the youngest in big families is stereotypically the life of the party and the big personality.

I also take pleasure in Nate’s toddlerhood because Nate will be the last toddler I raise. I savor his shenanigans and attributes in a way I didn’t with any of his siblings. I’m not anxious to potty train him, move him to a bed, or stop buying him footed pajamas. In hindsight, I hurried Sam, Rebecca, and Elissa through those stages because there was always another baby coming. When all three of them were Nate’s age, I was either at the end of a pregnancy or taking care of a newborn. The last months of my pregnancies were punctuated by back pain and heartburn that woke me all night long. The first months of newborn care were equal parts sweetness and exhaustion mixed with hormone-induced depression. Nate gets the benefit of having siblings without living through the upheaval of adding to our family.

Considering Nate’s life in relation to the stage of motherhood I’m in now, I think the advantages of being the youngest might outweigh the drawbacks. Yes, his books are a little munched on, but Nate has an experienced, confident mom. I know how to take care of my needs alongside my kids’ needs and my husband’s. I’m less likely to let others push me around, which means I stand up for what’s best for Nate, too. If we need to leave somewhere early because Nate is too tired to participate, I’m not sheepish and worried about offending family and friends the way I was when motherhood was new. Likewise, I don’t let Nate push me around either. He has the broadest palate in our household, for example, because he’s the only one I didn’t treat like a restaurant patron who could dictate his chosen meal. My life is not ruled by worries of Nate throwing a tantrum. After ten years in the game, I know it does not serve a child to have his mother cowering in fear of what he might do next. He will throw tantrums, and we’ll both survive.

More than anything, I let Nate’s toddler ways amuse me because I’m keenly aware how quickly this stage ends, how quickly all the stages end. As I sat watching Nate push his cars on the ramp, I considered how the bouncy seat and play mat used to sit in that very spot. Through the years, in other corners of the living room, we’ve had a baby swing in full use then the Exersaucer. For ten years, off and on, my husband and I have moved those infant items in and out until we eventually donated them to another family. Before long, the cars, trains, and Duplex Legos will go, too.

This is what the last child gets. He gets a mom who knows how quickly years pass, and a mom who is less desperate to check stages and ages off a list. He gets a mom who opens her eyes and lets him stay who he is in this slice of time because she knows that once these moments are gone, they’ll only be photographs, memories, and nostalgia. For now, at least, this is our life together, the six of us. I want to stay a part of it. Finally, I will not wish the time away.

When the Raspberries Come

When the Raspberries Come

Rasberries growing on the bushBy Rebecca Altman

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child but didn’t know it, my husband and I planted three raspberry bushes.

They bore fruit the summer my firstborn was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. One at a time, he stuck each berry on his pointer finger and let the juice run down his arms.

The following winter I was expecting again, and explained to my son that he would be a brother soon. Like many parents I struggled with how to make something as inscrutable as gestation tangible to a two-year-old.

I couldn’t tell him: in August. Nor did the concept of summer resonate. The regularity of seasons passing one to the next hadn’t been established yet.

The explanation that satisfied him, by which I mean the one that stopped the incessant question—when can I see him?—was this: when the raspberries come. I told him to watch the bushes in our backyard and when the fruit was ready, his brother would be born.

He ran to the window, but there was nothing to see. I had shorn the canes to the ground after their leaves dropped. Snow covered the dormant roots.

Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a fetal ultrasound found a swelling of the right kidney. It hadn’t formed correctly and would never work. I was moved into a high-risk obstetric practice for regular fetal monitoring. Each week, in the darkened exam room, I’d wait for the reassuring cadence of his heartbeat, more rapid and erratic than the steady rhythm of mine.

I would read the technician’s face, like she read the screen, the two of us searching for slight deviations from the norm.

*   *   *

Spring arrived, the first canes sprouted. My son and I wandered out to the raspberry bushes to check their progress. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June and July. As the days shortened again and my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.

When the precariousness of my pregnancy felt unbearable, I found comfort in the raspberries growing as they should.

And then, as expected, they arrived at the end of August. And so did my second son, whose birth—and health—we celebrated with berries. We decorated his first birthday cake with them. And then his second. My boys sat underneath the bushes, the canes arched over their heads. They stripped them clean and then, grinning, emerged with berry-stained chins and t-shirts.

*   *   *

Until I had children, I had been out of touch with cycles and seasons, disconnected from the ecological system of which I am a part. But since I’d become a mother, I’d grown into the habit of juxtaposing our lives with the lifecycle of our raspberries. They had become timekeepers, steady and sure during the disordered days of early motherhood.

I began to wonder about other ways to ground us in our place and time:

When the trees bud.

When the acorns drop.

When the snow flies.

But the more I read about the ecology of eastern Massachusetts where I live, the more I discovered that the timing of seasonal events is shifting with a complexity as intangible to adults as a mother’s pregnancy is to a small child.

As we alter the Earth’s chemistry, some seasonal changes no longer sync with the expectations we formed as children about the order of things. Muddied, too, is our sense of seasonal weather patterns, of storms and when to expect them gathering on the horizon. And the very same industrial practices that disrupt ecological systems, scientists tell us may also be interfering with the basic functions of the human bodies—how our children think and grow, and even with our capacity to bear children at all. Uncertainty, it seems, is the new certainty from which we must build our lives.

I learned from ecologist Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring, that lilacs now bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when I was a child. And when my children are grown, scientists predict they may bloom as much as a month in advance. Someday when the lilacs bloom, when the raspberries come could mean something altogether different. It’s a small shift in comparison to the catastrophic changes other communities face, but this giving way of accustomed seasonal rites signals larger changes that make me question the future. What will the world be like for my children, or their children, or their children’s children? The more I learned about, and witnessed, the changes already underway, the more I worried whether it was selfish to want another child.

But the summer my youngest turned three I was—to my surprise—pregnant again. The raspberries ripened early, small and pale. We ate them in July instead of August. It seemed strange at the time, and in retrospect, foreboding.

*   *   *

On the last night of August, my 36th birthday— when the raspberries should have been in full fruit—the pregnancy went dormant, just shy of the second trimester. It began as a cramp, a few stupefying spots. We had been out to dinner, about to take an evening stroll, when we rerouted ourselves to the hospital. There, the radiologist couldn’t sense life, only its absence. They sent us home. They told me: expect bleeding.

In what few stories other women shared with me, miscarriage was a noun, as in: I had a miscarriage. But no one described it as a verb or, for that matter, in a way that would have helped me understand what to anticipate. I sensed there would be an emotional component—how to let go of the expectations that accompany a pregnancy—and a biological one, and I knew little about either, most especially the latter. How does an expectant body reverse states? What should I expect now that I wasn’t expecting? I arrived at the wrong assumption that a miscarriage would be a withering, slow and solemn. Instead, I found it to be a violent uprooting.

For hours, my body heaved like labor. Each convulsion released fist-sized clots. I retreated to the shower. Blood splattered onto the glass doors against which my husband pressed his hands. This is natural, I told him, I told myself.

But bodies contain a finite quantity of fluid.

It was the unexpected taste of metal on my tongue that made me relent, that convinced me the miscarriage had gone off-course. We raced back to the hospital on vacant, after-midnight roads. Hours later, after another ultrasound, after fainting twice, after hours of waiting in my own blood, I was strapped to a table so the OB could harvest from me what my womb wouldn’t surrender. I left the next afternoon barren, barely conscious, in a body that had betrayed itself.

In the fallow weeks that followed, in the absence of cultural rituals around pregnancy loss, I read how other women have marked miscarriages and coped with the cross of guilt-grief that can accompany the unraveling of a pregnancy and other taken-for-granted certainties. With miscarriage, there is rarely a body to bury. But a friend told me to plant something, as she had done. I hadn’t even known she’d lost a pregnancy.

*   *   *

And so a month later, still white-lipped and disoriented with anemia, my mother and I went to a nursery. By then it was autumn. The sedum had turned burgundy. The nursery was emptier now that the growing season had passed and what plants remained had overgrown their pots and were discounted. She bought me a hydrangea and helped me drive it home. My father and now six-year-old son dug the hole to set it near the raspberries. In the act, I realized burial and planting felt like analogous transactions with the Earth, which receives what we put into it, and in turn, offers the solace that comes with the possibility that life can begin again, enriched by what has gone before.

After they placed the hydrangea in the ground, after I knelt down to pack soil around its roots, I looked up and saw the raspberries had borne a second batch of fruit. In the six years since we planted them, they had never fruited twice.

Maybe everything that happened that summer was the product of erratic fluctuations in fertility, perhaps it was a fluke, or happenstance, or a harbinger of disturbances in complex systems. I would never know, but I needed to find a way to live with the multiple, sometimes subtle, sometimes engulfing uncertainties that have become the hallmark of this era in which I raise children.

On that long-shadowed late September afternoon, after we finished planting, we filled our muddy hands with berries and went inside, thankful the raspberries had come back.

Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and sometimes teaches seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. Her recent creative non-fiction has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.  She blogs at


A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

By Emily Grosvenor

tumblr_n00zmmBaZQ1sn7lxto1_1280You were that mom who wanted to find the lighter side of things and connect with strangers over how hard it is to be around toddlers. You were the mom with the Nikon standing between me and a pair of open arms. I was the kid, your kid, the one holding the flower pot wailing my eyes out.  Your punchline. Your punching bag. A tiny guy with feelings larger than the Internet.

I cried. You snapped a pic. You tried to read my mind. You gave me a funny caption, one of those captions that gets at the very heart of what it is like to interact with someone who can’t use his words: “I planted a flower in the pot he gave me.” And then there I was with our pot, on a stranger’s website about stupid stuff toddlers cry about. 142,365 “Likes.” A book deal. And before I can even write my name, I’m on the cover because you were one of only three people submitting images who had a high-res camera.

I’m on page 35 in a book you had to buy yourself. That year, you bought copies for everyone in our family for Christmas. You handed it out at the office. Within days, everyone I met wanted me to show my sad face.

You really could have stopped there, Mom. You didn’t have to take my fame and turn it into an Internet empire. You didn’t have to start taking photos of my untouched dinners and launch a Tumblr called “Shit My Kid Didn’t Eat.” I actually ate that prosciutto and melon risotto, Mom. You didn’t have to mess up my birthday cake every year to get on Cake Wrecks. You could have left my prominence as a fleeting blip. Instead, it became a thing, like family game night, except every day and for the rest of my life.

You’d set me up on the porch with the flower pot and see if you could recapture the magic. I cried a lot at first. Not about flowerpots by the way. I was crying because it sucked, Mom. Getting your picture taken when you’re crying sucks. I stopped crying after a while, until I learned how you can turn on the waterworks and fake it. My face can’t actually make that kind of sorrow anymore, mom. Trust me. That shit can’t ever be that real again.

Over the years, my hair darkens and the lines furrow into my brow and my nose grew from its tiny nub, my teeth fall out and grow back in again, but I still there, crying for the camera, sure. But each year you record something different. There I am, as an eight-year-old, aware of the joke, mugging for the camera. There I am, 13, more than kind of annoyed, eyes rolling as far back in my head as they go. There I am, 14. I had asked you if I could wear one of those masks from The Scream and you said no. There I am at 16, flower pot in hand, giving you the finger. At 18, I still love you so I do it for you, Mom.

I tried to own it for a while. I tried to make it part of my identity. For a couple of years, I took myself all over the world with the pot. I held up the tower of Pisa with it. It sat on a wall at Machu Piccu. It saw the tulip fields of Amsterdam. I took it through the ancient bonsai gardens of Japan. I made some Pol Pot jokes backpacking with it through Vietnam. Kind of felt bad about that one. But really, all I wanted to be was that Nirvana baby, floating in a sea of aqua after the mighty dollar dangling from a fishing hook. I could have disappeared into normalcy until years later, when journalists would have to track me down to find out what happened to that kid with a flower pot. But that never happened, Mom. Instead, you launched your website with master SEO strategy, and posted a picture of me crying every day with the same flower pot. For the next 23 years.

I’ve found some friends in this crying game. I’ve stopped short at gathering for the bi-monthly support group meetings of the kids that ended up in the book. They’re a whiny lot. The littlest things set them off. It’s almost like they think they can get attention by crying in public. There is a lot of group hugging. They’re all trying to recapture their lost youth or something. All of them seem to have some kind of unprocessed anger towards their parents. I follow their online ranting, though. All text, of course. Most of us don’t own cameras. Or kids.

Here’s the thing, Mom. You were wrong. I wasn’t crying because you put a flower in the pot I gave you. I was crying because you planted petunias.

Emily Grosvenor is a travel writer and essayist in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at

This image originally appeared on the blog Reasons My Kid is Crying

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Lucky Day

Lucky Day

WO Lucky Day ArtBy Amy Silverman

One morning not long ago, I found myself in the bathroom with my 10-year-old daughter, Sophie.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. We live in Tempe, Arizona, in an old house with screened porches and original hardwood floors, but only one bathroom you’d want to spend any amount of time in, and let’s just say its charm is limited. I’m pretty sure that if you tugged too hard on the soap dish in the bathtub, the entire house would come down.


But it’s all we’ve got, and my husband Ray affectionately refers to it as the “his and hers and hers and hers bathroom.”

As our daughters have gotten older, Ray’s bathroom time has shrunk considerably. Our little girls are growing up.

Well, one of them is. At nearly 13, Annabelle is a ballerina, petite and poised; she leaves behind a trail of hair nets, nail polish bottles and Instagram photos, and is appropriately modest about her changing body.

Sophie’s a little more complicated. She has Down syndrome, an extra 21st chromosome that affects every bit of her. From her straight hair to her oddly shaped toes, Sophie doesn’t look like the rest of us. I have heard that sometimes kids with Down syndrome go through puberty early. That is not the case, so far, with Sophie. She’ll soon be 11 and shows no physical signs of change.

She’s not very happy about that.

So there we were, Sophie and me, together in the bathroom one morning before school. We both needed showers, and she was up first. I turned on the water, then turned to Sophie.  Much like getting Sophie to put on her shoes, or eat her dinner, or give me back the iPhone she’s snagged, this task – getting her into the shower – required a serious game plan.

I cajoled and bargained her out of her clothes, and was insisting that no, taking a shower did not deserve the reward of a shopping spree at Barnes and Noble, when Sophie stopped, grinned and held up one arm.

“I have armpit hair!” she insisted. “Feel it!”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” I said, running my fingers along her armpit, distracted by the clock and the day’s long “to do” list.

“Hey, Sophie, I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand back and tuning in to the conversation. “I don’t feel any armpit hair. You’ll get it, but you don’t have it yet.”

Her eyes welled with tears, her naked little chest started to heave.

Shit! I thought. At this rate, we’ll never get to school.

“I know!” I said. “Let’s check and see if you have any hair – you know where.”

“Okay!” she said, super excited.

I crouched down and squinted hard, standing up straight to report my findings.  A white lie wouldn’t really hurt, right? We couldn’t afford another tardy at school.

“I see some!” I said.

You would have thought I’d told the kid we were going to live at Disneyland. She jumped up and down, squealing, her entire body shaking with the kind of pure joy most of us are lucky enough to experience once or twice in lifetime, and announced,


It was my lucky day the day Sophie was born, though I certainly didn’t know that then. Before Sophie, I’d never met another person with Down syndrome and had no idea what it meant, other than that this was going to seriously fuck things up. When Sophie was about two weeks old, I suddenly remembered something that made my stomach fall to my ankles: Pink Slip.

In the early 1990s, there was a VHS tape that made the rounds at certain parties in Phoenix. Ray and I had both seen it. Known as “Pink Slip,” it was an instructional video about menstruation from the 1960s or 70s, the kind the school nurse showed, but different because this one was geared toward a girl who was “slow.” That’s all I thought of her as – slow. It wasn’t until Sophie was an infant and I went back and watched the video on YouTube that I realized that, like Sophie, this girl had Down syndrome.

Since she was “slow,” it took a lot of extra explanation to teach this girl, Jill, about her period. In fact, in the video, the entire family gets in on the act. Mom and sister Susie show Jill a big calendar and explain (again and again – and again) that “every 28 days, blood will come out from an opening between your legs for three or four days.”   We all thought it was hilarious. At least, I thought we all did. I know I did, a fact I owned unhappily the day I made the connection between Sophie and Pink Slip.

“I’m going to have to show that video to Sophie someday,” I thought, wincing.

Ten years later, I realized it was time to teach her about puberty. I didn’t know what I was going to do about it, but I did know one thing: No way was “Pink Slip” going to be the way Sophie learned about her period.

There had to be a better way, something less condescending. Something that hadn’t made the rounds at parties – and now on the Internet – as a big, fat joke.  So when the local Down syndrome support group sent out an email advertising a puberty workshop, I signed us up.

The workshop, led by the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty, was split into two parts. The first day was for parents only, with a Power Point presentation and hand outs about how to teach a developmentally disabled young person about puberty. The plan was to come back the next day and separate into two groups, boys and girls, for The Talk.

“So tomorrow,” the speaker said as we were wrapping things up on the first day, “I will be showing a video about menstruation. It’s pretty out dated, I know you’ll all laugh at it, but it’s – “

I raised my hand.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Pink Slip,” was all I could get out. Ray was staring shut-the-fuck-up daggers at me.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not the name. I don’t recall it at the moment. You’ll love this one. It’s about two sisters -“

“Jill and Susie,” I said, my face hot.

“Well, yes,” the instructor said. “But it’s not called “Pink Slip.””

Oh God, I thought. It has a street name.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“How do you know about it?” she asked.

“Let’s talk after class,” I said.

“Okay, here’s the thing,” I told her after class. “I’m not proud of this, but we used to watch that video at parties and laugh.”

Ray chimed in: “I never thought it was funny.”

Thanks, Ray.

The next day, Sophie and I showed up for the girls-only meeting. We talked about safety and crushes and the girls went into the bathroom to try on pads. When the instructor drew a girl’s figure on the board and asked everyone to add a body part, Sophie added a bra.

When it came time for the video, the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty gave me a funny look then showed something else. Not “Pink Slip,” but instead an innocuous, modern, dumbed down explanation about getting your period.

Since the workshop, Sophie has been obsessed with puberty. And so in the morning, when she’s procrastinating, I find myself agreeing to let her wear deodorant – which she doesn’t need – if she brushes her hair first.  Mascara if she takes her thyroid medicine. And always, a bra from her collection.

The other day, Sophie was about to get in the shower when she announced, “I got my period yesterday!”

“You got your what?!” I sputtered.

“My period!” she said.

“Well, okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. If you really got your period, then there would be blood on your underwear.”

We both looked down at her crumpled Barbie panties on the floor and lunged for them at the same time. A spirited game of keep away ensued.

I held the stain-free panties aloft, victorious.

“I really did get it!” Sophie said.

“You didn’t get it yet, but you will – soon,” I said. “I promise. Now get in the shower.”

Sophie climbed carefully into the tub. I adjusted the temperature of the water, secured the shower curtain, made sure she could reach the No More Tears shampoo. As I walked down the hall to my bedroom, I could hear her singing her ABCs and was reminded that, despite the bra collection and the hair obsession, Sophie is still a very young girl. And on so many levels, despite what happens to her body, she is destined to stay that way.

Amy Silverman is managing editor of Phoenix New Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, on the radio show This American Life and on She co-teaches the workshop Mothers Who Write and blogs at Girl in a Party Hat []. Amy lives with her husband and children in Tempe, Arizona.

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Not a Scary Story

Not a Scary Story

By Kimberly Ford
summer2011_fordFrom where I sit most afternoons, on the second-floor library of my son’s new middle school, I can look out the bank of windows to the outdoor courts where Will practices basketball with his sixth-grade team. Will’s coach recently said, with a note of surprise in his voice, “You sure are one tough kid.” The coach may have been surprised because my eldest loves nothing more than math and reading. He thinks for long stretches before he speaks, an angelic look on his face. But put the kid in at point guard and you’ll rack up a couple of fouls for the good guys.

But then, this kid is surprising in a lot of ways. One Monday afternoon, a few months ago, Will and I—his younger sister and brother home with a sitter—piled into the car to see our beloved Dr. Greene. Will had been thirstier than usual. He’d been waking up to pee—five times a night. Dr. Greene is seventy-one. I’ve known him since I was four. He is levelheaded and calm and charming. I assumed this Monday would bring a little chit-chat, Dr. Greene in the bow tie he always wears, before something like, “Waking to pee? How about no liquids after seven.”

Instead, after Dr. Greene had asked about me and the kids and about Will’s basketball season and what he was reading, my favorite doctor sighed. He sat back in his chair and said, “Kimber, there was sugar in the urine sample.”

Which is when you have the first inkling that your life is going to change and that your kid’s life is going to change. You look at your twelve-year-old, who’s sitting on the high examination table looking very tall and very large but still kicking his size-nine feet like he’s six years old.

Your son asks, “What does ‘sugar in the urine sample’ mean?” and you feel sick because you can’t answer that question, and you don’t know how Dr. Greene is going to answer it, and given that your boy is sitting right there, you can’t ask the questions you want to: about longevity, about life expectancy. At this point, Dr Greene explains to Will that this really only means that he’ll have to have some blood drawn. It’s Dr. Greene who sends the order and who tells Will that sometimes sugar in the urine means the pancreas isn’t doing its job. It’s Dr. Greene who squeezes your shoulder on your way out and smiles, and it’s Dr. Greene who does not say what you want him to, which is that your firstborn is completely fine.

Dr. Greene, in fact, calls less than half an hour later, just after you’ve walked through the door and into the kitchen and begun browning the ground turkey for the tacos.

“Kimber,” he says. “Sounds like you’re cooking dinner. Are you cooking dinner?”

“Yes,” you say. “Tacos,” as if this is important.

“Here’s what I need you to do.  I need you to go into another room where you can be alone for a minute.” And because adrenaline makes your hands and feet and scalp tingly, and because this does not sound good, you walk not into the dining room where the kids might hear you over the TV they’re watching, but upstairs and, for no good reason at all, into your youngest son’s bedroom.

There, Dr. Greene tells you that Will’s blood glucose level is 906. Nine-hundred-six means nothing to you then. Even when Dr. Greene says in a clear, calm voice that normal is about one hundred, the numbers mean nothing. Your pediatrician’s tone is what makes your hands and arms and shoulders start shaking. You stand there, and your knees also begin to shake when Dr. Greene tells you that you need to take Will to the hospital. Right now. You are standing with the phone pressed to your ear, wearing a slim gray skirt and high heels, and when he says he’s already arranged for a bed, you realize that a skirt and heels are not at all what you need for a night in the hospital. As he says, “Bed 302” and “North Wing of Packard,” you kick off your heels and unzip your skirt. There in your youngest son’s bedroom, the one with the dormer windows and the low, angled ceiling, you stand shaking, thinking that yoga pants are what you need for the hospital. You pull down and step out of your skirt and underwear. Dr. Greene repeats “302” and “North Wing” as your husband opens the door to your youngest son’s room. Your husband’s eyes widen. You are standing there with the phone to your ear, visibly shaking. His expression grows quizzical, a little alarmed maybe, as he stares at you, there, in your black sweater and nothing at all from the waist down.

But here’s the good thing. Your husband, Bill, heads back downstairs to tell Will, per Dr. Greene’s last instructions, to stop eating anything he happens to be eating. You follow in your black yoga pants and your black sweater, you and your husband ready to tell your three kids that actually, you need to head on over to the hospital. You worry there will be wailing and crying and small ashen faces. The amazing thing? Your three kids seem to think this is … exciting! Will, who is sitting at the breakfast bar and who feels totally fine, grins at you, curious, like this is some kind of joke. Your daughter, your worrier, gapes from you to your husband and then to her older brother who pretends, then, to faint. Will slumps over onto the countertop, his sister yelling, “That’s not funny!” and you laugh, and your husband laughs, and your worried daughter laughs along with you because this is actually very funny.

And here’s another good thing. It’s clear from the beginning that both of you—both mother and father—are going to the hospital. You need to be there—both of you—for your son, and for each other. So you do what you need to: You think of your mother, who lives two miles away but who is a psychotherapist working eight to eight, six days a week and who is not available on short notice. You do what you’ve never done before: You call her office, and when you get her machine you hang up and call a second time, a third, then again. You imagine her seated in her wing-backed chair across from the little, red answering-machine light that flashes at an incoming call. Your mother might take you for a desperate client who can certainly wait until the end of the current session. She might think you are the most persistent of solicitors. Instead, your mother excuses herself to the client seated on the couch. She crosses the room and picks up the phone, and you say, “Mom?” and she says, “Hi. I’m here with a client,” as if to underscore that she is not, in fact, available. You say, “I’m sorry, but we have to take Will to the hospital. I need you to come over here.” Of course, you could have called a neighbor. Any number of friends would have been more than happy to help. But your younger children will be less worried with the grandmother they adore. You will be less anxious if it’s your mom who is with them. Neither you nor your husband will have to come home in the middle of the night to relieve a friend who has kids of her own at home, and you’re sorry about the client, but the client will just have to understand that the night has come when you’re about to drive your kid across town to the hospital, and the client will just have to accept the fact that the people you love are going to step up.

The nights in the hospital—there are three—are long. That first night, no fewer than four endocrinologists will explain the situation: The pancreas makes insulin, the hormone that allows the body access to the glucose it needs to survive. Your son’s pancreas is no longer producing enough insulin. What they tell you, each in turn so that you can maybe just begin to understand, is that you will essentially have to become your child’s pancreas to gauge needed amounts of the hormone and to deliver those hormones to keep him alive.

It will be nine o’clock, then ten, then eleven, and you will not think, until days later, of how the idea of going to the emergency room used to sound so terrible because it always seemed like something that had to be done at night. The emergency room seemed awful because you, for one, are exhausted by nine. You are almost always asleep by nine-thirty.  The idea of leaving the house after dark means not getting into bed on time, which means not being able to wake up before the kids the next day to enjoy that perfect hour alone, just you and your coffee.

At some point around two-thirty in the morning, though, when your son has been given insulin and his blood glucose has dropped to 506 and he has finally fallen asleep, you will not feel tired in the least. You will feel the need to step out into the hallway. Not because you actually need to check something on your phone, which is the excuse you’ve made, but simply because you need to step out of the room. You will walk into the hallway, and there will be your nurse, a young woman with pretty, dark hair named Erin who has had Type-1 diabetes since she was a kid and who seems healthy and kind and empathetic and who has just had a baby of her own, which instills hope that your kid might have a normal life and that Julia Roberts’s premature, post-partum demise in Steel Magnolias is not the fate of every single person with this disease.

Erin smiles at you in a way that says she understands exactly what you’re going through because, in fact, she does. She asks if you’d like a cup of tea, and you didn’t know before you stepped out into the hallway, but you do want a cup of tea. When Erin leads you to the alcove stocked, especially for parents, with graham crackers and saltines and the tea and the coffee you will absolutely need five hours from now after you’ve gotten no sleep, the little alcove and the comfort of such an empathetic person seem like a miracle. Erin says, “Can I do anything else for you?” and you shake your head and say, “No. Really. Thanks.” Then she says, “This is hard. It’s really hard. But he’ll be okay,” and you believe her.

It’s actually a little harder to believe Erin by the next morning. Not because you haven’t slept at all, but because your son starts to feel bad. It turns out that in some kids, when insulin lowers blood glucose from a life-threatening 906 to a more normal 68, the process can be uncomfortable. Your poor kid spends the whole first day in the hospital vomiting.

One of the things Bill and I learned that first day is that when you are diabetic and verging on ketoacidosis—when blood is overly acidic because the body has begun to digest its own fat stores—vomiting is not good. After Frosted Flakes and apple juice and sugar-free root beer went down and came back up, after several hours of Will throwing up yellow bile, an IV was put in his arm and he was finally able to sleep. By the end of the first twenty-four hours, he kept down half a cup of Rice Krispies. Then a soft white roll. Which meant it was time to begin what we needed to do—master the understanding and management of an extremely complex disease (there would be an exam!)—before we would be allowed to leave the hospital. I have a B.A. and an M.A. and a Ph.D. Never before had I been such a good student. By the second morning, Will and Bill and I were calculating the number of carbohydrates in the foods Will liked to eat, measuring his current blood glucose, drawing up insulin from glass vials into syringes and injecting it into the skin of his belly so that our son might have the exact amount of insulin his body needed to release glucose from his bloodstream into his system.

At some point in the high-stakes studying and care-giving and the large-scale acceptance we were having to undertake, I got a headache. I needed Tylenol, and they had it in the gift shop. I dreaded the trip. The children’s hospital gift shop, I was sure, would be horribly depressing, full of carnations and baby’s breath, Mylar balloons and mawkish greeting cards for critically ill children. Instead, its shelves were lined with colorful books and wooden toys and an array of art supplies that rivaled our local toy store. In the middle was an enormous display of stuffed animals that reached all the way to the high ceiling. Will is the only one of my three children who has ever liked stuffed animals. It always surprised me when a kid who was so athletic and so cerebral would get so excited about the stuffed raccoon my parents gave him for his sixth birthday or the plush bunny in his Easter basket when he was eight. I walked around and around the display, taking out animal after animal to feel the fur and to be certain the eyes weren’t too sad. All the while, I was sure that my twelve-year-old son would think this was stupid. He had just started middle school, his feet had just grown two sizes larger than mine, no one had dared give the kid a stuffed animal in years! Finally, I chose a fox with a velvety body and a wise face whose smile was heartening without being goofy. I swallowed my Tylenol at the cashier stand without water and hustled back to the room with a cup of tea in one hand and a glass of water for Bill in the other, the fox tucked casually under my arm.

Will sat forward from the raised back of the bed. He held both hands out. “Awww,” he said, and actually laughed a little. “Is that for me?”

I nodded. Bill handed the fox to Will who hugged it to his bare chest.

“He’s so soft,” he said.

Bill asked what he was going to name it, and Will said, “I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox sounds good.”

And I realized that just as Bill and I were beginning to fret about our son’s growing up and leaving us forever, just as he’d started to think maybe it wasn’t that cool for us to pick him up on campus or that certain colleges across the country sounded interesting, this disease would mean more communication and more understanding among the three of us. Diabetes meant we would get to hold him a little closer for a little longer.

*   *   *

Not that any of what we learned in the hospital felt like anything other than torture. Case in point: shots. No one likes shots. The idea of my son having to inject himself four to five times a day, every day, for the rest of his life, seemed like more pain than I could comprehend.

Enter my sister. When Bill and I called my mom, who cancelled her clients for the next three days, my mom called my sister. My sister, who lives forty minutes from us, on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, packed up her one-year-old, cancelled the nursing shift she was supposed to work the next day, said adieu to her husband, and came to stay with Aidan and Quentin until Bill and I could get home. Once Will had begun to feel better after that long first night and Bill and I had begun to understand hypoglycemia and lipohypertrophy and ketoacidosis, I decided it was time to run home to see my younger kids.

Who meets me at the doorstep but my sister, the nurse practitioner.  In her hands are the syringes and vials of saline she’d bought at the pharmacy. With my giddy younger son and daughter at her sides and her own toddler on her hip, she announced that we were going to “inject each other!” My eight-year-old, full of nervous laughter, was so animated that he had a hard time drawing up the saline, but the kid had surprisingly little trouble popping the syringe into my belly. My daughter giggled through a self-injection. My mom—doubled over with laughter—poked the needle right into her stomach but was so keyed-up that she yanked it back out instead of holding it there for the requisite count of five, which seemed—to my little ones—like the funniest thing their grandmother had ever done.

My mom and I have always been close. My sister and I have always been close. On the drive back to the hospital that second day I had a good cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was moved. The three of us had been drawn, by my son having developed a disease, that much closer.

Of course, with this kind of medical situation, there are plenty of tears, and not all of gratitude. You will cry, and your kid will cry. And this—watching your twelve-year-old cry—is harder than measuring out strawberries on the new kitchen scale you buy because you want to be precise about the number of carbohydrates that you need to “cover” with exact dosages of insulin. The tears come, we have found, on Sunday nights, the eve of a new school week, or on the last night of winter vacation when we are all reminded—by a new beginning—that Will’s diabetes isn’t going away.

The sadness, though, is balanced by moments like the first day back to school after Will was discharged. The first day back, of course, happened to be the basketball team’s end-of-season party, replete with the cupcakes and juice that Will and I needed to attempt to “calculate” and “cover.” The team gathered around a picnic table, Coach King just beginning his commentary on the season, my son back with his gang. When he took out the small, black nylon case holding the blood glucose monitor, the other nine boys grew still. He pricked his finger then squeezed it with the other hand, waiting for a large enough drop of blood to collect. In that moment I worried that Coach King had slowed in his comments. I worried that Will was embarrassed by all the staring. I thought maybe he should have checked his blood glucose level over by me, away from the table.

At which point there came, “Cool!” from the boy next to him, one of his best friends. Will grinned at Rory. He wiped his finger on his friend’s navy blue uniform, and Coach laughed, and the boys laughed, and Will beamed. He might have ended up the happiest of them all, once he and I realized that we’d overestimated the number of carbohydrates in the snack and had injected too much insulin. His blood sugar had gone low enough that my son—none of his teammates holding it against him in the slightest—was the only player who had to have a second cupcake.

So, no, I never imagined, when my eldest child graduated from elementary school and started at his new middle school down the street, that I would be on campus every day at 11:50 to help him count the number of carbohydrates in his lunch and inject the exact dosage of insulin. I would have been angry if you’d told me last year that the novel manuscript I was close to finishing was going to be tabled for months while I became an expert at managing a complex disease I barely knew existed before Dr. Greene’s phone call. I would have been full of dread at the number of nights you told me I’d have to spend waking up to check two a.m. blood sugars. I might have been resentful if I’d known the number of days I would have to rush back to school because Will had run out of testing strips or felt “low” and the nurse’s office was locked and he thought he’d left his monitor in the art room but the art room was locked, too, and could I please come over with the spare monitor?

What I wouldn’t have known last year, because I was worried about my children in only the most abstract and dire of ways, was that there is real joy and real satisfaction in sitting here on the second story of the library. Being at my sixth-grader’s school every day was never the plan. But where I sit now, spending all afternoon at school even three months after he was released from the hospital because the baseball season is upon us and there’s no way to know how a new sport will affect his blood glucose levels, I get to watch my son walk back from the cafeteria, talking and joking with friends. I know Will better than I might have, because of his disease. I know his friends better because they come into the nurse’s office at lunch with him and they wave to me and they call me by my name and ask if they can have a roll of the Smarties they know I always carry in my bag in case Will’s levels go too low. These are the same boys who noticed one morning that Will was talking fast and slurring a little and walking “kind of funny” and that maybe he should check his blood glucose. When the number was a dangerously low 38, they were the ones who had him eat some of the candy he always carries in his pockets, one running for the nurse while the others walked him into a nearby classroom until Will showed he was fine again.

Will’s diagnosis on November 30 meant that I got to ask, on the last afternoon of spring break, “So, think you’re ready to do lunchtime injections on your own?” At which point I felt a surge of affection and love—not what I thought I would feel—when he said, “Actually I think I still need you.”

What I didn’t know last year, but I do know now, is that when the reality you don’t want becomes yours, there’s plenty of good to be had.

Author’s Note: Seventeen months after diagnosis means that life is a lot easier. I am no longer at school every day, but I make plenty of drives over when Will’s blood sugar is 389, or his pump site has been yanked out during soccer or he has run out of testing strips. Seventeen months out, there is still plenty of worry and time spent calculating and administering medication, and there are still tears.

I was, however, lucky enough to recently become VP of Research for the Greater Bay Area Board of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the leading funder of research toward finding a cure for Type-1 diabetes. What my role gives me is direct access to hope. I pass this hope on to Will almost daily.  Last fall I passed some of it along to his new friend, eight-year-old Owen, who, when I asked how long ago he had been diagnosed, said:  “Eight months, three weeks, and … six days.” Just last month I passed that same kind of hope along to eleven-year-old, newly diagnosed Carter. When I told him that JDRF was going to find a cure, Carter spoke to everything you need to know about the real difficulties of Type-1 when he said, “Please, please hurry.” 

Updated Author’s Note: When I heard that the inimitable Brain, Child was going to feature “Not a Scary Story” four-and-a-half years after Will’s diagnosis, I got pretty fired up.  I would write a quick comment about how much EASIER life is.  My eldest is SIXTEEN, a sophomore soccer player who is thriving. Still, two nights ago I checked Will at 1:47 a.m. for the second time that night to find his blood glucose was 38.  I could not have been more worried racing down the stairs in the pj bottoms I sleep in, panicked at the question of how long he’d been so low, at whether or not he was going to seize, of what I would do if I got back upstairs and he was non-responsive.  He hasn’t been 38 since the afternoon I wrote about in the “Story.”  He ended up being just fine . . . after three blood glucose checks, at half-hour intervals through the night;  and more than a little worry on the part of his mom.

Kimberly Ford”s fiction, reviews, and essays have been published in The Believer, Redbook, Mothering, The Threepenny Review, and Brain, Child. Her best-selling non-fiction book, Hump: True Tales of Sex After Kids, was published in 2009. Her short story “Generation” was named a Recommended Story in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2008.


Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

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Weaning Ella

Weaning Ella

By Jill Christman

spring2007_christmanMy daughter Ella was just over two on the morning of her last breastfeeding. She’d stumbled in from her own room around five a.m., as usual, scrambled up into our bed, and latched on. Humming and suckling, she slipped into sweet sleep. Most mornings, this was the method by which my husband and I got to be those rare parents who sleep until eight.

This morning was different because I needed to catch a flight, without Ella, to interview job candidates for three days at the Modern Languages Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I’d never been away from Ella for a night. Not ever. I lay awake and watched Ella nurse, feeling sick with love and the specter of our separation, touching the tiny droplets of sweat on her soft temple, watching her jaw pumping out the rhythm of our bodies together.

My husband Mark and I had decided that this forced separation would be the perfect weaning window, and I knew chances were good that this would be the last time she and I would lie together like this: cuddled, content, sleepy and sleeping. I must have drowsed off myself because the next thing I knew the morning news was mumbling in my ear and the clock glowed six thirty. In that alarm clock moment I did what I had always done when I needed to get up without Ella: I slipped my finger between her lips and my nipple to break the suction, held a gentle pressure under her chin until her sucking wound down and her mouth relaxed. And then I got out of the bed.

In the dark, on the way across the room to the shower, I realized what I had done. I had failed to mark the last time as the last time. Standing frozen in the warm stream of the shower, I felt as if that moment should have been something more. What should she and I have done? Lit a candle? Whispered a prayer? Shared a promise?

Think of all your last times in love. Did you know they were endings? The end? This time, so rare, I had known, and I had let it slip away.

*   *   *

On the plane to D.C., my heart was breaking and my seat belt was broken. The buckle clicked, but when I leaned forward, the whole mechanism slid easily along the nylon strap. No resistance. No help at all in a crash, but then again, who are we kidding? Nonetheless, I notified the flight attendant, who couldn’t get the darn thing to clamp either, and then there we were, a whole plane waiting on the tarmac because of my seat belt. I dismantled the thing and put it back together. It worked! The mechanics were cancelled, we took off on schedule, and the flight attendant offered me a free drink for my heroism.

I didn’t want to be on that plane. I wanted to see my baby. I ordered a Jack and Coke. Why the hell not? I wasn’t nursing, after all. I wanted this high-noon cocktail to feel liberating. Instead, I deplaned with a big, fat headache.

*   *   *

We met with the job candidates in my gloomy hotel room. By day, I dressed in a loose jacket to hide breasts that grew larger with every interview, and at night, when all of the candidates had gone, I peeled off my professor clothes and climbed naked, a mother again, into the shower. I needed to express milk—enough so I’d fit into my clothes, not enough to encourage production. She’s not here, I told my body. Give it up.

Ba ba is our family word for breastmilk. Months before I found myself in that dim hotel shower, wet and weeping, I read a sidebar in a parenting magazine that had made me smile. A recent study out of Australia reported that nursing toddlers say their mothers’ milk is “as good as chocolate” and “better than ice cream.” No wonder Ella was crazy for ba ba. Sweet goodness and a cuddle with mom. That’s some soda fountain.

Standing under the warm stream, I lifted my hands up under my breasts and they felt like full IV bags, liquid heft. What a waste to squeeze it all away, I thought, but I did. I did.

*   *   *

After three days in D.C., I was afraid to go home. What would we be now?

On the plane, I obsessed over our reunion, and all the possibilities scared me. Maybe she would run towards me, short arms flailing, demanding to be nursed. My husband and I had discussed this, of course, and he had been firm. He knows my weaknesses.

“You will say no,” he told me on the phone. “You weren’t here. It was hard. We’re not going to do this to her again.”

This made sense. But I wondered about the other end of the spectrum. What if she’s mad? What if she feels abandoned? What if she doesn’t want to see me?

When I pulled up in the car, Ella was waiting at the glass storm door, leaping intermittently. I watched her press her face and both palms against the glass and jump, a haze of breath and nose smear. From the driveway, I could see she didn’t plan to punish me for going away. Instead, she was all over me with hugs and stories. In those first happy hours, she said nothing of ba ba. I was enough.

But there was a bedtime ritual yet to be performed, and part of it was going to be missing.

After a bath with four rubber ducks, I dried her in the frog towel and got her into footie pajamas. My heart was in my throat. Ba ba time. “Hold me,” Ella said. “Mommy, hold me.”

“How about a book?” I said with forced cheer. “Do you want to read a book with Mommy on the couch? And then Daddy will read you some more books in the big girl bed?” I heard the false notes ringing from my lips, and I knew she could too. Ella’s two, but she’s no fool.

The book-reading on the couch went fine: My Opposites. Mis Op-puestos. “Ooh,” I said. “Look! The green snake is lo-o-ong. En español, largo. Can you say largo?” Her pronunciation was surprisingly good. I sounded like a parody of a bedtime parent. When the book was over, we headed back to the bedroom. I was as cheerful as Christmas morning, but Ella was onto me. She dug her heels into the area rug beneath the dining room table.

“I want some ba ba,” she said. Mark and I made eye contact. This is what we’d been waiting for. “I want some ba ba.”

I threw my head back and laughed (a friend of a friend had mentioned this technique and in this moment I had nothing better). “Oh no,” I said, still laughing, “You don’t want ba ba. You’re a big girl!”

Mark repeated my message, smiling at Ella, and then directed his expression to me and hissed, “Redirect! Redirect! Don’t come in the bedroom. You’d better just stay out.”

By now, Ella was on the floor, sobbing. “But I needba ba,” she countered. “But I needba ba.” At this point, nobody was saying anything just once.

I walked to a part of the house where I could not hear the screams. My breasts were aching. By the time I returned, maybe ten minutes later, the sounds were muffled. Reading sounds.

Mark appeared triumphant about an hour later, rubbing his eyes.

*   *   *

At seven the next morning, Ella scrambled up into our bed. She flopped on her belly and turned her face toward me, breathing softly. Her breath smelled like sweet corn. I fluffed a pillow to keep her head up with my head, not in the habitual place, breastside. I rubbed her back and hummed. This seemed to make her happy. But then she flopped around. “I need you to change my diaper,” she said. “And then it will be seeping time.”

I did. It was not sleeping time.

“I need Something,” she said, capitalizing the something A. A. Milne-style.

Mark watched us through a cracked eye and chose this moment to intervene. “Do you want some water? In your sippie cup? Are you thirsty? Here you go.” If he hadn’t been supervising, would I have folded? Would it have been our little secret? I still wonder who was weaning whom.

Ella slapped the cup away. “No. I need Something Else.” Amazing. She couldn’t seem to remember what she wanted. She couldn’t seem to remember what those dark, early morning moments had been for throughout the first two years of her life. But we could see her mind working. Redirect. Redirect.

“I need Something Else.”

Mark gave options. Juice, soy milk, Kix.

She rejected them all and turned to me, half-remembering. “Roll over,” she demanded. “Roll over.”

Since I was facing her, I started to roll away, obediently, a woman without a plan.

“Noooooooooooooooooooo! Roll over! You need to open up the ba bas.” She pulled on my heavy black shirt. “You need to open them up!”

*   *   *

And so it went—a cycle of remembering and forgetting until time did its work and made nursing a vestige of babyhood, an artifact, something that happened “last night”—Ella’s umbrella term for all things gone by.

Later on the first full day of my return, Ella had seemingly forgotten about nursing again, and we made oatmeal cookies. After the margarine and the sugars, I reached up to turn on the KitchenAid, and without being told, Ella put her hands flat on the countertop and said dutifully, “Only Mommy or Daddy can touch that machine.” I wondered: If she can forget breastfeeding, the nearest and dearest thing she has known, after only five days, how can she remember anything at all? How can she hang onto something I’ve told her maybe twice about a mixer, and not be cognizant of the soft keystone of her young life?

In the weeks after D.C., even though I could reach out and touch her whenever I wanted, I missed Ella. I missed my baby. The relationship changed—it had to—once the nursing was over. I cuddled her, and she let me, but it wasn’t the same. I had nothing to offer her that was mine and mine alone to give.

That can’t be true, can it? It felt true.

We held back from each other, doing a kind of dance to avoid physical closeness that might remind us of what we once shared. I keep trying to figure out what this feeling was like—this stage on the letting-go continuum between giving birth and dropping her off for her first day of school—but since Ella is my first child, I can only compare this shift in intimacy to the end of a romantic relationship. Not a messy, dirty breakup, but the kind born of time and change—the kind you both know has to come. Okay, so you talk and talk and talk. It’s over. This is it. This is the best thing for everyone. But his stuff is still in your apartment, the hide-a-bed couch is a back-breaker. This is a time of transition. You agree he can stay for three more weeks until the lease starts on his new place. He can even sleep on his side of the bed, but he can’t roll over onto your side.

But you know how many moles he has on his back. You know how he likes a swirl of honey in his coffee, but not the whole spoonful. You know he’ll never replace the cap on the toothpaste, even if it’s a flip top designed for recalcitrants like him. You know everything. But you can’t touch him when he’s feeling sad about leaving. You can’t, because if you do, well, there you go, you’re back in it, and you’ll both have to begin the separation all over again.

This is how Ella and I felt, and I know her well enough that I can speak for her, too. Here’s the difference: She wasn’t leaving. Not yet. For now, she’s not going anywhere, and we need to figure out what our new intimacy is going to look like. We need to figure out what replaces what we’ve lost, what we’ve grown beyond. This can be exhausting.

A week after my return, this involved a turkey and hummus sandwich with the crusts cut off at 3:30 a.m. A picnic. The next day, I sighed and said to Ella’s babysitter, “I don’t want her to think that this is what we do—we wake up in the middle of the night and have picnics! But she was hungry. She ate the whole sandwich. I can’t just let her be hungry.”

The babysitter laughed. “Well, she was having midnight picnics before, wasn’t she? It was just a different caterer.”

In nursing, Ella and I had located each other. Seconds after the doctor tossed her onto my belly, she rooted around and found what she needed. Knowing nothing but what I’d read in books, I followed her lead. Here you go, Baby. Here you go. Shhhh. Since then, we had known no other way of being.

But motherhood is about letting go—first from our bodies, then our arms, then our sight, then our homes—and then? Weaning falls hard on this spectrum, forcing me to see the life Ella will live far beyond me, where she will learn to find her own sustenance, her own comfort.

I have never seen a child of mine grow up. I am starting to see what it looks like.

Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

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Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?

Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?


No, it’s the wrong message

By Kathy Gillen

debatenogifts“It won’t hurt much,” I told my two-year-old, Paige, as she waited for her immunizations. “It will be all done real fast.” Part of my statement wasn’t a lie.

Later, in the car, Paige examined her Pooh Bear bandage. Her tears were gone, and the trauma seemed to be fading. I was still shaken. But I knew just how to ease my pain: produce a little magic. “We’re going to go to the toy store,” I told Paige, “and you can pick out something because you were so brave when you got your shots.”

As the stiff plastic packaging and wire ties were removed from the new baby doll, delight filled my daughter’s face. The doll traveled by her side … for about a day. Paige never mentioned her doctor visit and soon abandoned the doll for her play kitchen. Later, as I tidied her room and placed the doll in a basket with other toys, I wondered: Did she deserve a treat? Pain is a part of life. Should she receive gifts or a lollipop for enduring her day, for growing up, for eating beans?

I continued to struggle with my reward system for a long time as Paige faced rejection from the neighbor kid, tackled a pile of cooked spinach, and lost her status as an only child as we added new siblings every other year.

When does behavior deserve a reward? After Pilates class, I used to treat myself to a Starbucks mocha. A pedicure is a treat I justified because I hauled sandals and swim noodles and beach towels to the pool all summer. And if I finished folding my laundry and put it all away, I decadently lay on my bed and got lost in a novel. But how would I teach my children that not all struggles end with a Crunch Bar or new Mario video game, when I often rewarded myself for enduring small inconveniences?

My answer came with my fourth child. Merritt had a degenerative, genetic disease. She would never develop beyond her present infantile state. Not even a side-by-side refrigerator or fresh family-room carpet would work on this hurt.

My mom friends tried to soothe me. Homemade dinners and certificates for massages were well-intentioned and appreciated, but when you win the horrible-things-that-happen-to-kids lottery, there is only so much a roasted chicken can do.

Still, the rewards kept coming. “You deserve it,” became a phrase used over and over by my well-intentioned friends. I bought into the mentality, too.

We desperately want life to be fair. We want goodness and love and great schools and healthy children for everyone. And when we realize it won’t be fair, we’re quick to offer rewards for pain. It’s easy to offer our children gifts and treats in exchange for their hurts. It seems the obvious thing to do, to try to take away their troubles.

When we act is if parenting produces hardships soothed only by rewards, then we model entitlement. Moms, of course, do deserve a break, dinner out, a kicking new outfit, and anything that helps self-esteem, but we need to set parameters for our rewards. If I had continued to rely on treats to help me cope with the daily chores of raising a special-needs child, then I would set a poor precedent for my children’s ability to handle adversity. And it isn’t just the demands of a handicapped child that can wear me down. If my kids see me fleeing the house for a mid-week shopping spree and I tell them, “I deserve some time alone,” then I’m teaching them that inconvenience is a reason to max out the credit card, or worse, that they are causing me grief which can only be fixed with a trip to the mall.

The doll I gave to Paige after her shots only taught her that the unpleasant parts of life will be rewarded. Well, sister, there will be a lot more unhappy times than a couple of shots. What will I do when she struggles with homework? Give her ice cream? When her first love breaks her heart, will I buy her a designer handbag? If her number one college pick sends her a thin letter, should I send her to Paris?

I don’t want my kids to be like dogs, anticipating a treat each time the cupboard of disappointment opens. I want to empower them to face adversity, solve problems, and understand that a positive attitude can be the quickest way to gain their equilibrium. Nobody wants hardship for a child, but amazing, life-altering joy can be found in even the dark corners of life. Teaching kids to embrace hardships without the aid of rewards can be the difference between understanding life and just muddling through it.

I recently heard of a girl who, while in the hospital with a rare kidney condition, decided to tell the people who sent her gifts to instead donate the money to an organization helping AIDS orphans in Africa. A child who is able to see beyond her own suffering and understand greater pain is rare. Children are self-focused, and when they are in pain they expect all of their parents’ attention and love. But in a society where parents try to cushion every blow their children receive, we need to teach our children that love doesn’t have to come wrapped in a brightly colored cardboard box or scooped into a cone.

Pain shouldn’t always be alleviated. Some of our children’s greatest lessons will be learned through their struggles. My compassion for others and gratitude for each new day has intensified through my own pain. Sure, I could have done without a few of those horrific months, sitting in labs, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices while searching for answers. But my kids might have perceived Merritt as a hardship if I had rewarded myself with a new car or diamond tennis bracelet. Instead they see her as a special girl who doesn’t get ice cream after therapy or baby dolls after the doctor but lots of hugs and rounds of Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Do I deserve a break? Sure, I need time to myself, to regroup and relax. My kids need to see me having fun. But I hope they see me enjoying life, not rewarding myself for living it.

Kathy Gillen lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and four children.


Yes, parents have the power

By Renée Hill

debateyesgiftsThere is a conversation I have had with my mother many times since the birth of my first child four years ago. The basic outline goes like this.

I didn’t have a lot of theories when I first started rewarding my son for his good behavior. The fact was, his birthday is in December—the same month as Christmas—and by late spring, I wanted to get the kid some new, age-appropriate toys. I thought it would be a bad precedent to set, if all he had to do was ask for them. So I started tying the acquisition of new playthings to his behavior. Voilà: My practice of rewarding his good behavior was born.

We’ve been chugging along like this for years now. He got M&Ms during potty training, plastic dinos after vaccinations. He gets new games for his Gameboy after good report cards and jaunts to the bookstore after a week’s worth of saxophone practice. When school lets out, we take a vacation.

You can call it bribery. I call it, “Hey, kiddo, I’m proud—let’s celebrate.”

I know the arguments against what I’m doing. The kid will come to expect rewards for any little thing. He’ll become an insufferable brat. His expectations of the real world will be unrealistic. He’ll grow up and be unable to handle his adult life, all because a well-meaning adult (me) taught him that life rewards good behavior, jobs well done, hard work.

But, jeez, it’s not as if he’s been sequestered in a bubble the span of his formative years.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, I was well aware of all the ways my small world was unjust. It wasn’t fair that I got my glasses broken in dodgeball, or that the richer kids seemed to be the more popular ones. It seemed arbitrary that we had to ask to use the bathroom at school, or that we could only get two library books at a time. It seemed cosmically wrong that, while a bunch of us girls were talking during class, I was the one who had to sit out recess.

These days, they don’t play dodgeball anymore (sorry, optometrists!) and you might get a note home from the teacher when some social situation goes awry. But, really, in the course of a childhood, hundreds of injustices are visited upon our kids. Small ones, we hope. Invisible to us, probably. But it happens to my kid, your kid, every kid. That’s the way the world is.

What I don’t understand is how we collectively got the idea that home is supposed to simulate the big, bad world. Why, again, are we supposed to try to mirror the reality that rewards aren’t necessarily handed out equally, or at all? It seems to me that the goal of any home should be the opposite: to offer a respite from the daily grind of the world’s uncertainty and injustice. I want my home to be the place where my son can expect unconditional support, where his efforts go rewarded, and where his biggest fan lives.

What I’m creating in our house, I suppose, is more like an ideal world. Here, there is compassion, in the form of making banana bread together when someone’s had a rough day. In our house, if you’ve worked to the best of your abilities and accomplished a goal, you might get a new CD. If you do something kind, someone takes notice, and there might be a trip to the ice rink in your future.

In many ways, my rewards system is more realistic than expecting the boy to find his work rewarding in itself (remember learning the times tables?) or hoping that he can find a vein of altruism to mine. Because, as imperfect as the world is, most of us adults work for the reward of money. We’re capitalists, after all. But I’m careful, in rewarding him, to give bonuses for effort, not his innate qualities like his handsomeness or athleticism. Besides, he can suss out what’s subjective mama-love (you’re so gorgeous!) and what’s genuine pride in his accomplishments.

My son will someday be an adult in this dog-eat-dog world, and with any luck, he’ll have a measure of power. He knows the great feeling of getting a reward. And he knows—because I’ve made it obvious—that I’ve gone to some effort to reward him when I get him a new gizmo or celebrate with a special outing. He’s learning that grown-ups—whether they’re parents, teachers, or bosses—have the power to reward. They should use it.

Renee Hill is a freelance writer. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor,, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is

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Glass Half Full

Glass Half Full

By Katy Read

From Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

fall2011_read“We Get It, You Hate Your Kids,” snapped Jezebel, an online pop-culture blog for women, last January. The headline’s sharp tone was startling—somewhat out of character for the staunchly feminist site that often defends women expressing unconventional or unpopular views.

Not, apparently, if they’re negative views about motherhood.

“It seems like nowadays you can’t open a magazine without someone smugly declaring what a letdown parenthood is,” writes Jezebel‘s Sadie Stein.

The post was in response to a London Daily Mail essay in which a writer, frustrated by her difficult three-year-old, confesses (in a tone more guilty than smug) to occasional flashes of dislike for the boy. To Stein, this was merely the latest of “a regular bonanza of reluctant fathers (and) discontented moms.” Specifically, she cites Ayelet Waldman’s 2009 memoir Bad Mother and “every parent on TV, from Modern Family to Real Housewives.”

Enough already, Stein writes.

“[D]oes anyone think parenthood is all roses and sunshine? As someone planning on having kids soon, I feel far more aware of the inconveniences, sacrifices and indignities than the bliss.”

Stein’s annoyance with disgruntled parents appears widely shared. Criticism, especially of mothers who complain, comes not just from traditionalists but from progressives and feminists—that is, people who might normally be expected to support women frustrated with their roles.

“Why are Moms Such a Bummer?” asked Hanna Rosin of Double X, a women’s blog on the left-leaning website Slate, in 2009. Rosin pointed, again, to the example of Waldman’s book, comparing it unfavorably to a more lighthearted memoir by a dad.

“You and I both know that parenting has its joys and agonies, etc.,” Rosin wrote. “So why is it that in the public forum, it’s become routine for mothers, in particular, to self-flagellate?”

Or why, wondered Emily Matchar, can’t more modern mothers be like cheerful Mormons? In an essay on the also left-leaning Salon, Matchar describes herself as a “childless overeducated atheist feminist” who has become enthralled with blogs written by young Mormon mothers.

Unlike typical “mommy blogs,” which “make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like ‘guilt’ and ‘chaos,'” Matchar writes, upbeat Mormon blogs “help women like me envision a life in which marriage and motherhood could potentially be something other than a miserable, soul-destroying trap.”

Is it coincidence that actual motherhood is still in the future for both Stein and Matchar? In any event, Matchar’s essay struck a chord. Eighteen thousand readers recommended it on Facebook.

As if to counter this morass of motherly moodiness, a host of books have recently popped up to assure readers that, contrary to what they may have heard, raising children can be a pleasant experience.  They speak to working mothers (Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor’s What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance, from 2009) to at-home mothers (Rachel Campos-Duff’s Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood, also 2009) to mothers willing to call themselves housewives (Happy Housewives: I Was a Whining, Miserable, Desperate Housewife—But I Finally Snapped Out of It … You Can, Too! 2006), to mothers in general (Meagan Francis’ The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood, published this year).

Written in a somewhat different vein, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You’d Think (2011) has been getting media attention lately. Caplan argues that parents make their own job unnecessarily difficult. If they’d cut themselves some slack, he insists, raising kids would be more enjoyable—so much so that couples should consider having more children than they’d planned.

At the same time, however, other observers contend that it’s still rare and socially risky for mothers to admit any discontent. Laura Kemp, writer of the Daily Mail essay that triggered the Jezebel piece, presents it as a foray into forbidden territory.

“Among the mums I know, such fierce negative emotion is never spoken of,” she writes.

In last year’s The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, psychiatrist Barbara Almond argues that maternal ambivalence—simultaneous feelings of love and hate for one’s own darling offspring—is quite normal. But it provokes such intense societal disapproval that it remains mostly stifled.

“The negative, or hating, side of maternal ambivalence is the crime ‘that dare not speak its name’ of our time,” Almond writes.

So which are we: A culture in which mothers hesitate to voice misgivings for fear of social reprisal? Or one so inundated with maternal kvetching that onlookers are understandably tired of it?

Either way, the question seems new. Not long ago, the public’s image of parenting must have appeared considerably simpler.

*   *   *

Shortly after my sons were born in the mid-1990s, I became aware that almost everything I heard, saw or read about being a mother failed to mention one important aspect of the experience: Sometimes, it sucks.

My family lived across the country from other relatives and friends with children (local friends, for various unconnected reasons, were mostly childless). With few nearby role models, I looked to pop culture as a guide to my new life stage. What I found was oddly discomfiting.

Everywhere I turned—books and movies, bumper stickers and TV commercials, celebrity interviews and mass-emailed inspirational stories—mothers and offspring appeared to glide through the world wearing beatific smiles and bathed in a pinkish, soft-focus glow. Mothers were generally seen shouldering their responsibilities gracefully, relishing their roles, free of self-doubt or resentment. Children were adorable angels. Caring for them was enjoyable and fulfilling. At worst, the occasional bout of misbehavior might provoke a flash of frustration or annoyance, quickly soothed with a soak in a Calgon bath or vented in Erma Bombeck-style wisecracks.

Huh? My sons were certainly adorable, but “angels” would be more than a stretch. Caring for them was lovely … er, sometimes. As for the other times, I tried to shrug them off with nonchalant Bombeckian humor, but privately the strains of caring for two high-energy, strong-willed, demanding beings often left me with frustration no bathtub would soothe, unless maybe it were filled with gin.

Hard as it is to believe now, the idea that motherhood was not always idyllic was rarely heard back then. As far as I could tell, motherly malaise was practically unknown.?Why couldn’t I achieve seamless contentment? Either something was wrong with me, something was wrong with my children, or I had stumbled into Stepford.

“What about Anne Lamott?” you may be wondering. Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a frank and funny 1993 memoir about her son’s first year, certainly acknowledges the darker side of mothering. Reading it might have gone a long way toward assuaging my insecurities. A friend even sent me a copy as a baby gift. But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to opening it (too busy reading baby-care manuals, I suppose). Nor was I aware, at the time, of a few landmark scholarly books about the complexities of the maternal experience, including poet Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976), psychologist Shari Turner’s The Myths of Motherhood (1994) and sociologist Sharon Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). These books didn’t get discussed on the playground benches, at least not the ones that I frequented.

My eventual savior was Rachel Cusk. Her A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (published in 2002 in the United States, 2001 in the UK) chronicles “the anarchy of nights, the fog of days” with her first baby. Dry and scathingly unsentimental, the British novelist eloquently captures the deep and complex love she feels for her daughter, but also frankly describes sleep deprivation, alienation from typical motherhood culture, a sense of entrapment, breast feeding that left her “gloomy as a cow.”

It was stark and unusual for its time, and some readers found A Life’s Work bleak. The New York Times reviewed it favorably, yet noted that as “a serious female writer,” Cusk had risked “career suicide” by writing a memoir about motherhood.

To me, the book was cause for celebration. Here was evidence that I wasn’t the only one experiencing contradictory feelings, some of which had seemed unacceptable.

Other mothers—and writers—must have noticed the dearth of three-dimensional portraits of motherhood and decided to do something about it. There began a slow but steady stream of memoir, fiction, journalism and cultural criticism about the demands of childcare itself, about mothers’ second-class social status, about mothers coping with shifting identity. They included Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It (1999). Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (2001). Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002). Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (2003). Susan Douglas’s and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women (2004). Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005).

These books are still relevant, insightful, and eye-opening. But it’s hard to convey from today’s vantage point how pioneering they felt back then, how refreshing their messages. Reading them, I could relate for the first time to bored 1960s housewives, setting aside their mops to flip through The Feminine Mystique. We shared some similar frustrations—unrealistic demands, glorified drudgery, culturally enforced conformity, social isolation—except that our focuses had shifted from spouses and households to children. As my foremothers felt socially compelled to pretend not to mind waxing floors or picking up their husbands’ strewn socks, so I felt required to pretend to enjoy playing with action figures on the floor with my six-year-old.

These new messages were heralded as breaking news. The New York Times in 2002 ran a story headlined “Admitting to Mixed Feelings about Motherhood.”

“After two decades in which boomers managed to make children the raison d’être not only of their lives but of the culture at large,” Elizabeth Hayt reported, “another version of motherhood is beginning to seep out, with some mothers speaking up—in the impassioned tones of those breaking a taboo—about the drudgery of child care, the isolation of the playground and their loss of identity.”

Beginning to seep out. Breaking a taboo. That’s how revolutionary complaints by mothers were considered less than a decade ago.

Hayt quotes feminist author Naomi Wolf: ”Motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed-out state that has no depth or complexity. That is the socially acceptable picture in the mass market. But women have discovered that the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood has nothing to do with their lives. Women are hungry for the truth. They want to know they’re normal when they feel overwhelmed, lonely, isolated or ecstatic.”

Say it, sister! That’s exactly why I found those books so comforting.

But the books were not universally praised, even back then. Many saw them as exaggerated, whiny, self-absorbed, silly. Some critics dismissed the problems discussed, mostly by middle-class mothers, as trivial compared to those of women in more oppressive cultures or disadvantaged classes, as if no problem deserved mentioning if there was someone else with a worse one.

“[I]t is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2004 New Yorker review of motherhood books.

Though more familiar these days, motherhood writing is not noticeably more welcome. The difference is that now, in addition to finding fault with individual books, critics complain about their multitude.

Even Rachel Cusk—my onetime hero, author of A Life’s Work—piled on in a 2009 interview. Asked what she thinks of the “slew of mommy memoirs” that followed her own book—once again, poor Ayelet Waldman’s book is dragged in as an example—Cusk resoundingly trashed them:

There’s definitely this strand of “I’m going to be really honest and say I don’t love my children” or “I’m incompetent,” ha ha ha. It’s an old form that repeats itself. I’m sure it’s dishonest in one way or another, although I can’t put my finger on why. People write—”I drank like a fish when I was breastfeeding” or “I didn’t sterilize the bottle,” and of course you know they did nothing of the sort.

There are people who are genuinely in crisis, who are alcoholics, say, and can’t cope with a small baby, or who are truly psychologically vulnerable and are a genuine threat to themselves or the baby. But that’s not who is writing the “bad mother” memoirs. When I wrote A Life’s Work I didn’t just set out to say every single thing or reveal my failures or flaws. I made very strict decisions about the kinds of things I would say so that they had a larger purpose, and got to something bigger, more universal. It doesn’t console anybody to know that Michael Chabon’s wife loves him more than her children [Waldman, who is married to esteemed novelist—and fatherhood memoirist—Chabon, notoriously confessed in a New York Times essay to loving him more than she does their children]. This kind of memoir writing is a toxic, and dishonest form of writing.

Why do you think these memoirs have proliferated?

I don’t know what to make of it. I remember a good writer, a literary person, wrote one of these and it made me so angry. It was so dishonest, and it’s exactly this lack of honesty that makes the culture of motherhood so treacherous to navigate.

Here I’d like to attempt an authorial analysis of Cusk’s vitriol, to try to explain what she means by sweepingly condemning an entire genre into which her own book could reasonably be considered to fall, why she fails to state any objective differences between her book and others, why the interviewer (again, it’s Slate’s Hanna Rosin, the writer who just a month earlier had wondered why mothers are “such a bummer”) doesn’t ask her to clarify.

I’d like to do this, but I can’t. Frankly, I’m mystified by the whole exchange.

One thing is clear, though: Women who write about negative aspects of motherhood open themselves to disapproval ranging far beyond the literary merits of their work. More than with any other nonfiction genre that comes to mind, critics tend to question the validity of the writers’ intentions, their sincerity, the appropriateness of their even expressing their views.

All of which would seem to both contradict and underscore psychiatrist Almond’s point. Over the past decade, maternal ambivalence has finally been daring to speak its name. In return, it frequently is told to get itself back into the closet.

*   *   *

Bryan Caplan does not slam motherhood memoirs in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kid. In fact, he gives no indication he’s aware of their existence. But he seems to have heard their message, at least in part.

If raising children was once seen as rewarding, in Caplan’s view it is now widely assumed by both mothers and fathers (as well as their still-childless counterparts) to constitute an endless treadmill of hard work, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights.

“When asked, ‘Why don’t you have as many kids as [Americans] used to?’ both men and women respond with groans,” writes Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. “To be brutally honest, we’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain.”

Think again, Caplan cheerfully advises. While he doesn’t offer to abolish dirty diapers, he brings news he expects to even more comprehensively alleviate the toil of child rearing.  It’s this: Parents can’t really control what kind of people their children will become. All attempts to mold our kids one way or another are bound to be futile, he says, so don’t bother trying. We’re off the hook!

Caplan draws heavily on ideas that Judith Rich Harris presents in her breakthrough 1998 The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a book Caplan credits with getting him to start “thinking seriously about parenting.” Harris is a former textbook author; like Caplan, she is not a professional child psychologist. That may have helped her think outside the box, since child psychologists (especially those who write books themselves) often have a vested interest in convincing parents that their actions are extremely important. But Harris found evidence that nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, a conclusion drawn from behavioral studies on twins and adoptees.

Twins studies isolate the effect of genes; studies of adoptees eliminate it. By doing so, they overwhelmingly indicate that parents’ practices have little to no effect on their offsprings’ eventual health, intelligence, happiness, success, personalities, or values. They challenge the familiar assumption, for example, that if you read to your child she’ll grow up to enjoy reading. In fact, if you like to read yourself, chances are she will, too. Or not. Either way, you don’t have much control.

Caplan fills more than a quarter of his book with support for this theory, detailing study after study. As a bonus, he offers statistics showing that parents need not fret excessively about their kids’ health and safety; childhood mortality rates have plummeted to a fraction of their 1950s levels.

If you can’t hope to mold your children to your liking, and they’re probably not going to die, Caplan argues, then you might as well sit back and enjoy yourself.

“This knowledge should inspire every parent,” Caplan writes. “Raise your children with love, control your temper, and enjoy family time. They’ll appreciate it when they’re children and fondly remember their happy home when they grow up.”

Oh, Bryan Caplan, if only it were that simple.

Let me first state that regarding nature and nurture, I’m completely in Caplan’s camp; with me, he’s preaching to a devoted member of a tiny choir. For years, I wanted to carry a copy of The Nurture Assumption around in my purse so that I could pull it out for anybody—from in-laws to fellow grocery-store patrons—who might question my own parenting approach. I have examined some of those twins and adoptee studies, interviewed scientists involved, written articles about their work. I also have been embroiled in numerous debates on the subject, attempting like Caplan to convince skeptics—i.e., almost everybody—who understandably bristle at the counterintuitive findings, widely perceived as implying that “parents don’t matter.”

Although Caplan presents his case adroitly and supports it with mountains of research evidence, experience tells me it’s an uphill battle. But I applaud him for making the effort, because if parents could relinquish the belief that they have both the power and responsibility to turn their children into brilliant students and model citizens, they’d shed a substantial chunk of the guilt and self-doubt that modern parenting typically entails.

Why do moms “self-flagellate”? Because they’ve been taught that kids pay a long-term price for their parents’ ordinary mistakes. They don’t. Because they think they’re to blame for their children’s flaws. They aren’t.

But guess what. Admitting you can’t control phenomena that nevertheless significantly color your emotional well-being and day-to-day life is not necessarily a ticket to relaxation. Even armed with twins studies and mortality stats, I have not experienced parenting as the carefree romp that Caplan promises.

Sure, much of it has been wonderful. However, not to get all whiny mother on you, raising children remains an often complicated, frustrating, and stress-inducing enterprise, involving many kinds of challenges.

These may include—to pick a random handful— financial strains, sibling rivalry, troublesome content in video games and other mass media, children with disabilities and disorders, children who break rules or laws, children with academic difficulties (even if you don’t hope to mold a star scholar, it’s hard to shrug off a report card dotted with D’s). And even if you understand that kids are safer than they were in the ’50s, just try going peacefully to sleep when your sixteen-year-old has the car, was supposed to have been home an hour ago, and isn’t answering his cell phone.

Caplan often mentions how much he fun he has as a parent. As of the book’s writing, he has twin babies and a seven-year-old. Cynical readers may wonder if he will still be this cheerful when the kids are teenagers.

And I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t hear much about Mrs. Caplan’s take on all this. The author does hint, at one point, that he and his wife aren’t always in total accord.

*   *   *

Although The Monster Within was published just last year, author and psychoanalyst Barbara Almond does not agree that complaints about motherhood have reached a cultural tipping point and have now become excessive, obvious, old hat.

On the contrary, she contends they’re still very much taboo.

“The concept of maternal ambivalence and its forbidden quality has been explored by various writers but still remains highly unacceptable in our culture,” she writes. “It is one of those societal problems that fill us with outrage and horror, even as some part of us secretly understands its normality.”

By “maternal ambivalence,” Almond means simultaneously loving and hating your child. Though that might sound shockingly aberrant, she assures readers—based on her clinical practice, her research and her own experiences as a mother—that it’s a normal emotional state, usually harmless, universal and pretty much unavoidable given that the legitimate needs of mothers and their children are often in direct conflict. You want five minutes alone in the bathroom; your three-year-old feels abandoned. You want to relax with a book; your nine-year-old needs posterboard for the science project due tomorrow. In fact, maternal ambivalence can actually serve constructive purposes, she says, leading mothers to closely examine their relationships with their children and helping children understand themselves as separate individuals (therapist talk, perhaps, for “Get your own damn posterboard.”).

But contemporary culture exacerbates normal ambivalence, Almond says, placing higher demands on mothers even as it dismantles the support system on which we used to rely. Modern mobility has geographically separated parents from relatives who once helped with child care; divorce generally leaves a larger burden on mothers.

Yet standards for adequate parenting have not relaxed—on the contrary, they’ve increased.

“[A]s the conditions of mothering become more difficult, more is expected from mothers, and mothers, in turn, expect more from themselves,” she writes. “Perfectionistic standards of child care in every area—feeding, sleep, play, emotional and intellectual development—prevail.”

No wonder mothers are ambivalent. But the biggest problem isn’t the ambivalence itself, in Almond’s view, it’s the guilt and shame that stem from society’s prohibitions against expressing it.

“I believe that that today’s expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time has become more unacceptable to society as a whole.”

More unacceptable? Well, you wouldn’t know it, would you, given all those books and articles by disgruntled mothers? Or wait—does the fact that those books are often met with scorn and skepticism simply prove Almond’s point?

It’s tempting to see the backlash against parental complaint as some sort of cultural correction, to assume that the pendulum has culminated its decade-long swing in one direction and is now heaving back the other way.

But maybe it’s more accurate to say that both trends—the original backlash against Stepford mothers and now the backlash to that backlash—are happening simultaneously, feeding each other, continually bouncing off each other. Cultural constraints lead mothers to complain, which draws societal condemnation, which makes mothers feel even more stifled, which provokes further complaint … Even this article itself could be seen as complaining about complaining about complaining.

So maybe a more accurate metaphor is not a single giant pendulum but a Newton’s cradle, one of those mesmerizing desk toys from the 1970s. It consisted of multiple small pendulums, a row of metal balls dangling from separate strings in a frame, in which a swing and strike on one side causes a swing and strike on the other and back again. Get it started and the two sides clack back and forth, back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy, endlessly clacking away.

Author’s Note: If I were the conspiracy-theory type, I might imagine a sinister plot behind efforts to keep mothers from complaining. After all, mothers perform the lion’s share of unpaid housework and child care—and pay a steep economic price for doing so, on average making less money than fathers or childless people and suffering from a higher rate of poverty. What better way to keep mothers from rebelling against those circumstances than to discourage them from voicing any objections? It’s ingenious: convince women through cultural conditioning that mothers are blissfully content—or ought to be, anyway—and penalize those who contradict that image by lashing back with criticism dripping with contempt.

Luckily, I’m not a conspiracy nut. So of course I don’t seriously think that the writers and publications I quoted in this piece, whom I respect, are in cahoots with opponents of reforms that would make mothers’ lives more manageable (universal health insurance that would make part-time work more feasible, for example). Still, it’s worth asking why the reaction is so swift and harsh—why the outrage? where’s the threat? what deep, dark fears are being tapped?—when a mother dares to mention the empty half of the glass.

Katy Read’s essays have appeared in Salon, More, Real Simple, AARP The Magazine, Working Mother, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her two sons.

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Between Depression and a Hard Place

Between Depression and a Hard Place

By Anna Blackmon Moore

winter2009_mooreAs soon as I learned I was pregnant again, I shut myself into the bedroom of my two-year-old son, gazed at his train car blanket, his shoes on the floor that no longer fit, his stuffed penguin. I thought about my brain. Then I called my psychiatrist.

“This is a surprise,” she said coldly.

“I discussed the possibility with you at our last appointment, remember?” I said. I had actually discussed having another child with her at our last two meetings. Our appointments occurred only every three to six months and took half an hour; I used them for refills of anti-depressants. Five months before, I had started taking Lexapro, a switch from Prozac, which I had been on intermittently for nearly twenty years.

“I just wanted to ask about my medication,” I continued. “Should I go down to five milligrams? How safe is it?”

“Most women try to get off anti-depressants before they get pregnant, Anna,” she said. She had not mentioned this—not once, not in doctorese, not directly or indirectly or vaguely—in any of the appointments we’d had in the last four years, which is how long she’d been my doctor. During my first pregnancy, I decided on my own initiative to stop taking Prozac but then resumed it in the second trimester. I had not planned to do so, but anxiety, one of the many characteristics of my depression, became too debilitating.

“I’m only four weeks pregnant.”

“Well, I guess it’s too late now.”

Was she in a bad mood? Why was she talking to me this way? Why was I so incapable of asserting myself with doctors? Apparently, she wanted me to believe that I had already damaged my baby’s developing organs somehow, that there was no turning back. Too late now, she had said, since your baby is already ridden with birth defects.

“But they calculate conception by the first date of your last period,” I argued. “So the baby was really only conceived about two weeks ago.” She didn’t know this?

Women like me are hardly alone in their frustrations. Those of us who take anti-depressants and become pregnant are forced to make wrenching decisions about medication. Every piece of literature I have read on this issue, from studies in medical journals to user-friendly websites to sections of baby books, whether the drug in question is an SSRI like Prozac or a psychotropic like Lithium, summarizes the nature of our decision like this: Along with our doctors, we need to decide if benefits from our medications are greater than any potential risks they could bring to our baby’s health. If our benefits win, then we should take anti-depressants. If potential health risks to our baby win, we should not take our anti-depressants.

What a shit sandwich.

By the time I called my psychiatrist, I had already been served that sandwich. I was familiar with it; I had ingested the thing. I was preparing to ingest it again. But if my doctor was going to treat me with such impatience and disdain while I was going through a pregnancy, when women at any level of mental and physical health need as much support as possible, then, I thought, Fuck her. The following week I cancelled our appointment, recalling a poster that my best friend, sixteen years earlier, had taped on our kitchen cabinet when we were roommates in a tiny apartment after graduating from college. The heading was 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman; below it were twenty bulleted commands. The only one I could remember was the last: “Walk out of any doctor’s office you want.” Instead of walking out, I just didn’t return.

*   *   *

When I learned I was pregnant with my first child, Ian, I was on Prozac. The average daily dose, the one I was prescribed, is twenty milligrams, but sometimes I’d skip a day (or two), sometimes I’d go down to ten, sometimes I’d wean from it altogether. Changing doses of medication without a doctor’s guidance is part of having a mental illness. For some people with severe depression or other severe mental illnesses, changing or stopping doses is a symptom of the illness itself.

I adjusted my dosage because I do not like being depressed. I would prefer not to have this condition. So self-adjusting is how I prove to no one at all (since I do not discuss my adjustments with anyone) that I do not need this drug. I still think I might not. Maybe I just need a good kick in the pants, a transformation of attitude, or time alone in a dark room where I can analyze my worthlessness and all its manifestations over and over again until I figure it out or until it goes away.

Pregnancy, however, made me think about my depression in ways that were less self-absorbed. My thoughts about how or whether I actually had this condition were no longer relevant or even important, I realized, because what if after I gave birth, I dropped into a serious depression? My mother had. She describes it like this: She had me, broke down, and then got into bed. She got out again “when it was spring.” Since I was born in the spring, this means that my mother was incapacitated and largely absent for the first year of my life.

For the rest of hers, she sought and received various forms of treatment at various times with varying levels of efficacy. She has always struggled with depression. As a result, my brother and I have struggled with it, too. (My alcoholic father shares plenty of responsibility here as well but requires too many additional words.) As a young adult, my brother’s mental illness institutionalized him for years; as a teenager, I was hospitalized for a suicidal gesture—I slit my wrist with a dull paring knife—and I was an in-patient in treatment programs for alcoholism and bulimia. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was ten to “work through” the same “issues” that have influenced my feelings and thoughts for as long as I can remember. I’ve been on and off Elavil, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Imipramine, Welbutrin, and Effexor. Despite my functional professional and social life—I’m a college instructor, a writer, a friend, a wife, a mother—I am always in some kind of emotional pain, or caught in a self-reflective ache, and in general I feel pretty bad about myself, who I am, how I behave, and how I think.

This state of being poses challenges for me and other depressed women when we become pregnant. Just a cursory glance through the various genres of pregnancy literature confirms that during pregnancy, a fetus needs a contented, functional mother. The mental health of the mother is even more important right after birth, because a depressed mother who neither smiles at nor interacts with her infants can easily be worse for them than most of the side effects they might experience as a result of anti-depressants.

And these side effects are a matter of mights. If pregnant women take Prozac or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to regulate and adjust the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their brains, their newborns might experience, according to the Mayo Clinic, “tremors, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances and high-pitched cries.” These are withdrawal symptoms and go away within a few weeks of the baby’s birth. Knowledge of this dissipation, though, is hardly comforting to the almost eight percent of pregnant women who are prescribed these drugs during their pregnancies. No pregnant woman, depressed or not, could disregard visions of her newborn shaking uncontrollably or crying like a siren, especially if this suffering were caused by drugs she had passed into her baby’s system.

The possibilities of health risks grow mightier when we consider possible long-term effects on a child whose mother took SSRIs during pregnancy. According to my former psychiatrist, we do not know whether SSRI babies demonstrate a greater incidence of depression, attention disorders, mood disorders, or cognitive problems as children, teenagers, or adults. But I think we have to question the reliability of such implications, anyway: Since mental illnesses are often hereditary, children or teens could get them straight from the genes of their mother, whether she were medicated while pregnant or not. And if teenagers or even toddlers suffer from mood disorders, it would be impossible to prove definitively that fetal exposure to SSRIs was the cause.

What I do know is that my brother and I suffered from mood disorders—big ones—along with all kinds of other psychological and emotional problems; at the same time, while we were growing up, my mother’s depression was never consistently or properly treated. If it had been, I know my mother would not have been perfect, but it is fair to say that she would have been more engaged with her children, more attentive and supportive during our infancy, at least. Our family might have been stronger.

So we’re back to the shit sandwich. Treat it or don’t—which is worse, and which is better? Who knows?

Many doctors advise a weaning from anti-depressants before women become pregnant or early in the first trimester, when the baby’s organs are being formed. Both my GP and former psychiatrist advised me to stop taking them unless I was suicidal. I should “hold out” until the second trimester, they said, when the drugs would likely be safer for my baby. Their opinion is grounded not only in common sense, but also in the memory of the thalidomide catastrophe. From 1958 to 1961, pregnant women in the United Kingdom and Canada took thalidomide to ease first-trimester nausea, filling their prescriptions because the drug’s manufacturer and, subsequently, doctors espoused its safety. The manufacturers, in fact, had not tested the drug, and eight thousand babies were born with profound birth defects, from missing and deformed limbs to unsegmented intestines. According to Sandra Steingraber, in her excellent book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, what made thalidomide especially teratogenic—a cause of birth defects—was the fact that the drug interferes with the formation of blood vessels and protein production. Just as important was the timing of its ingestion: Pregnant women took it when their embryos were sixteen to twenty-one days old, during peak organ-formation.

As a result, the medical community now has clear directives on medications and pregnancy: Steer clear of as many as you can. The logic of this instruction is obvious. But as a person with a mental illness, I see perspectives and biases emerging on this issue that have little to do with thalidomide and untested drugs and lots to do with how we tend to blame mental illness on those who suffer from it. In a post to “Taking Anti-depressants During Pregnancy” on the Berkeley Parents Network website, an anonymous writer articulates perfectly what I was feeling: “There is a lot of discrimination against treating mental illness in pregnancy. Do you think a doctor would suggest someone with high blood pressure or diabetes just STOP [her] medicine while pregnant? Absolutely not.”

 *   *   *

After the incident with my psychiatrist (who I saw primarily for medication), my therapist helped me by discussing the Lexapro issue with two doctors she has worked with in the past. As I sat in my usual spot on her couch, she informed me of my options: Go off Lexapro completely or stay on ten milligrams; five is non-therapeutic and, therefore, would not help me. Since I had already adjusted on my own to five milligrams a week before, I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I was stuck: If I kept taking such a low dose, I’d be exposing my fetus to the drug, and I wouldn’t be getting any benefit from it. It was ten milligrams or nothing.

“I guess,” I said, “it’s time for me to decide what to do.”

She nodded.

That night, I looked through various articles and websites on Lexapro and pregnancy. I found mostly information I already knew, since Lexapro is an SSRI and the research on these drugs lumps SSRIs together. Eventually, however, I found a public health alert put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, which summarized the results of two studies published that year. The first, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked a group of women who stopped taking anti-depressants while they were pregnant and a group of women who did not. The women who went off their meds were five times more likely to have a relapse of their depression.

The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that fetuses exposed to SSRIs after twenty weeks had a six-times greater likelihood of developing persistent pulmonary hypertension. The disease is very serious and sometimes fatal, but “[the] risk has not so far been investigated by other researchers.” So it would seem that going off Lexapro in the first trimester actually carries less serious of a risk to the baby than my resuming the medicine later on. All right, but what about me? Whose risks finish first?

It was time to decide. But with whom? I live in a large town. We have other psychiatrists, but not many. Even if I lived in an urban area, getting in to see a psychiatrist can take months, especially as a new patient. There were other options—GPs and obstetricians are doctors, of course, but the ones I had seen discouraged medication in general and offered little support. So I made what I thought was the most informed decision I could about my health and the health of my family: I decided to discontinue the Lexapro, at least for the first trimester. For the next week, I took my five milligrams only every other day, and then I stopped it altogether. Maybe I could do it this time.

*   *   *

Now, in my ninth week of pregnancy, I sleep poorly, cry often, and feel deeply angry all the time. This anger has been characteristic of my depression all my life. I have to watch what I say and how I carry myself and how I react for fear of alienating my students, friends, and colleagues. I yell at the dog, snap at my husband, shout at my windshield. With my son, I am less patient. It’s cute when he explores the potential of his toothbrush and brushes the drain, but must he do it every single night? Must he always choose to read The Biggest Book Ever? If I do lose control, I feel disturbed, unhinged, and terribly guilty. The most difficult parts of my day are transitions, which require what feels like tremendous effort of body and mind: bed to bathroom, car to office, desk chair to kitchen, couch to bed. I feel more than ever like I am a failure.

Come on, woman, I hear in a deep authoritative voice of some distant patriarchal figure, pull yourself together. But I’ve been pulling since I was a teenager, and my depression has not seemed to budge for extended periods of time without the help of drugs. I have pulled myself into pieces. I work against a cavernous sense of negativity, and this in particular has never felt transitory. I cannot therapize it away, or overcome it, or counter it through cognitive exercises. As I get older, my depression feels more and more biological, more deeply folded into the fluid of my brain. Stopping medication when my hormones are in flux, when I’m sick, when I’m teaching a full load, when the stress of another baby grows by the day … this seems more and more like a bad idea, my husband says. And I agree.

So yesterday, I went to my unaccommodating GP and asked for Prozac. Prozac has been around a long time, so doctors and researchers have published hundreds of studies on it. Prozac and Zoloft are the safest of all SSRIs.

During my first pregnancy, I took twenty milligrams of Prozac per day in the second and third trimester. I also breastfed my son while I was on the same, consistent dose. When I was in the hospital, recovering from childbirth and learning to breastfeed, several nurses expressed concern. What were the possible effects of Prozac on the baby? Did I know? Had I consulted with my doctor? (Why they didn’t learn the answers themselves and then share the results with me, since I was consumed by worries of feeding my baby properly while fuzzy with painkillers and lack of sleep, I do not know. Perhaps they expected more from me.) I explained that I felt very safe in what I was doing because of what I was told by a lactation consultant in the hospital following his birth. The consultant explained that any side effects Ian might have—the same he might have from exposure to Prozac in the womb—would go away within a month. (Ian was a product of the good odds: He experienced no side effects and seems fine in every way, developmentally and temperamentally.)

According to the specialist I spoke with at the nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), to which I was referred by the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health, SSRIs are indeed the most studied of all the anti-depressants on the market.

The specialist started answering my questions by first explaining that the baseline of birth defects for every pregnant woman is three to four percent. This percentage goes up with factors like age, health problems, and the genetic history of the mother. Then she summarized what the studies say about mothers who take SSRIs during pregnancy. During the first trimester, women who took high doses (between sixty to eighty milligrams) of Prozac increased their risk of having a baby with a low birth weight by one percent. (These results were not found in newborns whose mothers took other SSRIs at similar doses.) The babies of mothers who take SSRIs in the third trimester have a ten to thirty percent rate of toxicity withdrawal—and the withdrawal is limited to the newborn period.

Okay, I thought. Okay. I felt suddenly relieved—not because I thought SSRIs might be totally safe, but because I understood the studies more clearly. I realized later that what I felt was not a rush of relief; what I felt was a rush of informed.

*   *   *

The studies I have read on anti-depressants and pregnancy are structured, more or less, like this: Over a period of years, scientists and doctors gather records on a group of infants with birth defects and a group of infants without birth defects. The doctors then conduct interviews with the mothers or review medical documents to learn about what drugs the mother took before and during their pregnancies. They then compare the interview results or the medical documents to the birth defects and look for correlations.

They have indeed found them. One study of 13,714 infants (9,622 with birth defects and 4,092 without) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2007. The correlations the authors found between the infants with birth defects and SSRI exposure were very low—low enough to conclude “maternal use of SSRIs during early pregnancy [is] not associated with significantly increased risks of congenital heart defects or of most other categories of birth defects. [We observed] associations between SSRI use and three types of birth defects, but the absolute risks were small, and these observations require confirmation by other studies.”

This study and others like it did not keep my GP, when I saw her on my Prozac mission, from suggesting that she would “prefer” I didn’t take the drug until week twelve or thirteen.

“But if you can’t make it,” she said, typing notes into her computer, “I’m okay with prescribing it now.” She then stopped typing and looked right at me. “As long as you know the risks.”

My doctor has my baby’s health in mind, I realize. But—way to be supportive.

“Perhaps I’ll just hold the bottle lovingly for the next few weeks,” I said. “Like a teddy bear.”

She laughed.

I understand, I went on, that as a general rule women should stay off everything in the first trimester. But isn’t there any evidence that a depressed mother can also be harmful to her fetus? Not really, she said, because that’s harder to quantify. What I understood her to mean was this: We see toddlers with emotional problems; we determine that all of their mothers were depressed or anxious during their pregnancies. But since so much happens between birth and toddlerhood to influence a child’s emotional state, it’s much more difficult for anyone to verify a concrete link between maternal depression and childhood mental health.

So I gaze longingly at my Prozac. In only a few weeks, it will be building in my system, doing whatever it does to make me feel better. And I can do it. I can make it. I am like a runner with burning pain in her legs, a few inches from the finish line, or a dieter warding off desires for a piece of chocolate cake.

These metaphors are absurd, unhelpful, and demeaning. I am trying, in acting like a strong woman, in making my decision while consuming a shit sandwich, to reject this language and this way of thinking. My difficult doctors were right: There’s a big difference between suicidal and too sad, too sleepy, too pissed. Yet the mother and her body and her mind—especially her mind—are the center of the family; they are its source, its foundation. Mothers need to be energetic, positive, patient, loving, and as present as possible. If I need drugs to embody these adjectives, then I need to take them. My children need me to take them. The medical community should direct and inform my taking of them as much as it is able to, but for now I have to keep my expectations of their knowledge and especially their support fairly low.

Women often have to endure. To tolerate. They also have to negotiate, evaluate, assert, reassert, assess, deliberate, and wonder. And cry. Because as I make the decision to take drugs, to go on Prozac as soon as the last day of week twelve has passed, I cry.

Bullet #21 on 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman: “Make your decisions. Then weep.”

 *   *   *

Author’s Note: My daughter, Adele, is now four months old. She’s a champion cooer, nurser, and puker, and she’s been doing beautifully since her birth. The rest of my pregnancy with her was very hard—I was chronically ill with colds and bronchitis, which affected my mood significantly. When I was about six months pregnant, I decided to go up on the Prozac—from twenty milligrams to thirty, and it helped get me through and be more present for my now three-year-old son. 

In retrospect, I notice how doctors, when they discussed anti-depressants and my pregnancy with me, emphasized the safety of the baby in my body but forgot entirely about the needs of the one already here. Mothers need to be functional all the time, pregnant or not; along with their gestating babies, they and their families also need to thrive.

Anna Blackmon Moore is a writer and writing instructor in California. Her blog is

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

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Close Encounters with Kindermusik

Close Encounters with Kindermusik

By Elisabeth De Vos

fall2007_devosI am teetering on the edge of the Abyss of Maternal Guilt. My extroverted, twenty-one-month-old daughter is repeating her daily litany: “Grammy. Grammy come soon? Want Grammy come see Mari. Jenni. Jenni come soon? Want Jenni come see Mari.” Her list includes all our family and friends, the ones she hears me talking to via speakerphone while she scribbles on recycled paper with beeswax crayons—but who she sees only on rare visits.

Her social isolation is the result of various realities my husband Steve and I must deal with, including, but not limited to, living a continent away from most of our extended family and a minimum of forty-five minutes away from that precious resource, friends with same-age offspring.

However, distant relatives and relative distance don’t matter when your daughter is using the W word: want. I am her mother. Since her conception, the sole purpose of my existence has been to meet her needs. Mari wants social interaction. Mari is not getting it. Therefore, I must remedy this situation or plunge into maternal guilt.

I am cowering at the brink of the blackness when I have an idea. There is, a mere five blocks from our home, a small strip mall containing a natural pet-care store we used to frequent. I remember sitting in the car while Steve loaded our trunk with forty-pound bags of chemical-free dog chow made from people-quality ingredients and watching moms with young children in tow entering and exiting an adjacent business. Equally significant, those moms were removing their shoes upon arrival. And the name of the place frequented by these shoe-removing moms was Kindermusik.

This memory lights up in my mind, a beacon of hope at the edge of the abyss. A Kindermusik class would provide social interaction for Mari. It would enable us to meet friends with same-age offspring who live nearby. It would give me a chance to work on taking my daughter in the car without her dad accompanying us to serve as Toucher of All Things Unclean, including the steering wheel.

Later that day, I balance my daughter on my hip with one hand while manipulating my computer’s mouse with the other. There it is—Kindermusik International’s website. Mari’s tolerance for being in my office (where, despite the reassuring presence of my medical-grade air purifier, I won’t let her touch anything because of the flame-retardant-contaminated dust emitted from my laptop) is very short. I have just enough time to glance over the website and get the phone number for the school in our neighborhood before her patience expires.

But I am elated. It appears, from my brief perusal, that Kindermusik originated in the 1960s in Germany. This bodes well. The 1960s produced my husband, me, and the values that we adhere to. Germany, we’ve learned since becoming parents, seems to be about the only country producing toys, clothing, educational philosophies, and floor finishes that are consistent with those values.

We are eco-conscious global citizens. Reducing, reusing, and recycling, television-less, back-to-basics and back-to-nature eco-conscious global citizens who try, through our personal and purchasing choices, to bring about what Steve has dubbed The Organic Future: a world where people live in harmony with nature and each other. Hence, our enthusiasm for all-natural pet food, air purification, and European enlightenment.

All of this, of course, puts us on the distant left shore of mainstream America and its raging torrent of trendy consumer products and programs, including kiddie enrichment curriculum. So despite Kindermusik’s pedigree, despite the fact that encouraging words like “joyful,” “natural” and “multicultural” leapt out at me from the website, I harbor some doubt as to whether it will be right for our child. Because in addition to those happy-hippie words, there were an awful lot of little trademark symbols. Whisking Mari out of my office and into the bathroom where I can wash any toxic dust off my hands, I decide I’m not going to let those â„¢s rain on my idealism parade. Not yet.

I call the Kindermusik in our neighborhood. I have some questions, and am hopeful that the answers will confirm that yes, my daughter soon will be basking in joyful, natural social interaction set to a multicultural music soundtrack. The owner is pleasant. She is helpful. I learn that we are welcome to attend a free trial class prior to registering for the next term.

I ask her about the shoe removal. Oh yes, she assures me, they do their best to keep the carpet clean for the kids. Green light. Is it vacuumed regularly? Indeed, she answers. And it’s new, as well. Oops, yellow light.

How new? Installed last spring, which is now three seasons back. I sigh, relieved. The owner is confused by my reaction, so I explain that strong chemical odors can trigger migraines for me, but the carpet should have finished the worst of its off-gassing by now. (I forego the opportunity to enlighten her about the evils of conventional wall-to-wall, knowing from long experience that she’ll be far more sympathetic to my moderate chemical sensitivities than to my extreme environmental sensibilities.) Green light again.

On to the issue of germs. I am again relieved when she readily launches into a description of their infection-control measures: instruments wiped off between classes, instruments that get inserted into mouths (whether intended for that purpose or not) set aside for special cleaning, “gallons” of hand sanitizer available at all times and parents encouraged to use it, as well as free disinfectant wipes. Green light, even though her sanitizer and disinfectants are probably not environmentally friendly.

What about the ceiling, I ask. This one stumps her. I explain that I am familiar with the pet-care store next door, and that the strip mall her school inhabits is obviously older and has a textured “popcorn” ceiling, which can contain asbestos. Does she disturb that ceiling? Does she, like the pet-care place that only my husband enters, hang decorations from it? She sounds perplexed, but assures me the ceiling is left alone.

And the paint? Is it in good condition? Yes, and bright red. Green light, green light.

I get off the phone. The Abyss of Maternal Guilt is receding into the distance as my daughter and I zoom toward the Musical Garden of Extrovert Delights. The natural, joyful, multicultural garden. The environmental-contaminant-tracking-shoes-free, undisturbed-popcorn-ceilinged, disinfected-instrument garden.

*   *   *

I am more than just an ultra-progressive mom. I am also a mom who has Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD). Where other people see some parking-lot grime on a pair of shoes, I see petrochemical toxins leaching toward my child. Where other people see an old textured ceiling, I see asbestos particles showering into the air she breathes. Where other people see a stranger’s hand picking up a Kindermusik instrument, I see a threat of incurable disease. All of this makes me an ultra-protective mom. The kind of mom that calls Kindermusik schools with queries that don’t appear on their website’s FAQ list.

Being ultra-progressive and having OCD means that I continually struggle to sort out which of my concerns stem from my values and which from my illness. Most people, members of my family included, tend to assume that I am ultra-progressive because of my OCD, and that without it, I’d drift happily back toward the middle of the road. What they don’t understand is that I have passionately held beliefs and I have a mental illness that causes obsessive fears around those same beliefs. In other words, I am obsessed with environmental hazards because I care deeply about environmental health, and not the other way around.

But there’s another catch: OCD has been called a “disease of doubt” because it involves a malfunction in the part of the brain that generates the sense of being certain. So when I make decisions, I can never be sure whether I am honoring my values or caving in to my sickness. This is a critical fact which very few people comprehend. OCD is not about whether you have germs on your hands; it’s about an inability to generate the internal sense of certainty that your hands are “clean.” Normal brains do this so automatically and effectively that their owners are not even aware it happens. When it doesn’t happen, you notice. You notice that you have OCD.

I first noticed symptoms of this disorder when I was nine. I started seeking help at age twenty. The medical community didn’t figure out that OCD is a neurological disease and not a Freudian complex until I was almost thirty. The three different psychiatrists I went to apparently never heard the news. I didn’t get valid information about or treatment for my problem (which I ultimately found on the Internet and in bookstores) until I’d given up on the counseling and medical professionals. By then my condition had been complicated by pregnancy and childbirth, an experience so psychiatrically profound it can induce OCD in those previously unaffected.

OCD causes intense, often unbearable, anxiety. So does being a mom. Especially being an ultra-progressive mom in suburban America. Which means that when I’m not fearing that my child’s body is being assaulted by mutated microbes and toxic residues, I worry that her soul is being assaulted by mutated dinosaurs and talking sea sponges.

My mother knows about my values and about my OCD. She is still coming to terms with both of them. Since I am a mother myself, and I suffer from a genetically based disorder, I can understand how painful it must be for my own mom that I have this problem.

Her reaction to my values is a little harder to comprehend. Mom is a recovering starving artist and former hippie who has embraced her newfound middle-class, mainstream status with a convert’s zeal. Sure, she’s still a vegetarian with eclectic interests, but it’s become obvious, as I’ve taken her former beliefs to their idealistic extreme, that she’s disappointed I adhere to the very values she raised me with. Go figure.

I call my mother and tell her about Kindermusik. She is enthused. Since my daughter was a year old and I e-mailed digital clips of her bobbing to music by African pop star Angelique Kidjo, Mom has urged me to get Mari into a musical program. And since Mom came to visit months after my daughter’s birth and witnessed me in full-blown postpartum OCD paranoia, she has worried about the extent to which Mari will actually get to leave the house. I caution Mom that I have to check Kindermusik out, that there are still issues, but that it looks like a green light.

When I do get a chance to peruse the Kindermusik website more thoroughly, the light turns back to yellow. First, the requirements for being a “licensed Kindermusik educator” basically boil down to being able to carry a tune and promising you’ll make every parent buy the At Home materials kit. And second, Kindermusik has launched a new endeavor, home parties that offer “everything musical for a child’s world.” This trademarked service is a member of the Direct Selling Association.

Now not sure what to think, I call the ultimate authority on all things kid: my sister Debi—licensed mental health counselor, assistant professor of child psychology, certified play therapist, mother of six-year-old twins who are both gifted and special needs, coupon and two-for-one goddess, thrower of super-deluxe double birthday parties on shoestring budget, baker of Easter bunny cakes, maker of rainbow-unicorn Halloween costumes, and all-around glue-gun maniac. That sister.

She’s the one I call with questions ranging from “My eighteen-month-old is yanking at her hair. Is this developmentally appropriate or the early signs of trichotillomania?” to “How can I create a pink tail for a kitty cat costume in ten minutes without a glue gun?” If Debi doesn’t know about it, then it’s not worth knowing. She is my guide to the world of childhood beyond the Organic Now.

“I am confused. Is Kindermusik a legitimate music education curriculum or a mass-marketing scheme?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers. Ah, that clarifies everything.

In her expert opinion, the curriculum is good, but only as good (and as free of purchasing pressure) as the Kindermusik educator. I tell her the local franchise (ugh!) has two certified music therapists on staff. She deems this a green light. I tell her of Mari’s recitation of wants, of my hopes for a Musical Garden of Contaminant-Free Extrovert Delights. “Go,” she responds.

And so, emboldened by finding myself on a route where all lights have turned green, I boldly advance toward the Garden: I send my husband, Toucher of All Things Unclean, to perform reconnaissance. Steve returns with a brochure for the upcoming semester and a report that although the facility appeared to be well maintained, there was no clearly delineated shoes-off area. We decide that the best course of action is for me to attend a Kindermusik class without Mari to determine if it is acceptable from the standpoint of our values and tolerable from the standpoint of my OCD.

*   *   *

A week later, on an icy January morning, I hurry across the parking lot of the strip mall and approach the Kindermusik franchise. From long-practiced resourcefulness, I have a paper napkin in my pocket that I discreetly use to open the front door without contaminating my hands.

It is as Steve described: a smallish rectangular space with the far end partitioned off. It is carpeted. The carpet extends to the front door, and while there are shoes and backpacks lined up along the walls, there is nothing to indicate where shoes may and may not go.

I have arrived, as planned, during the fifteen-minute interval between classes. I am observing, as planned, the shoe rituals of arriving and departing Kindermusik attendees. Moms holding babies are putting on shoes and jackets, picking up diaper bags and backpacks. One mom gets ready to go, then remembers she needs to ask Nancy, the owner/teacher, something ….

I have lived with this disorder long enough to know the truth of Murphy’s Law. The forgetful mom strides across the carpeted expanse, to the very center of the space, with her shoes on. Red light. Moms (and dads) leave. New moms (and a dad and a grandma) arrive. A little boy runs over to greet the teacher without remembering to remove his shoes. Sigh.

I begin contemplating what decontamination measures will be necessary should I decide to bring Mari to Kindermusik despite the badly organized and poorly executed efforts at carpet cleanliness. Perhaps we could take the first class of the morning, or perhaps I can keep her on my lap so her clothes don’t touch the floor.

I introduce myself to Nancy, then take a seat against the wall, outside of the circle of parents and toddlers that has formed in the center of the space. The class begins its “greeting song.” I let my gaze wander around the room, to the plastic bins of instruments and supplies on shelves along one wall; the partitions in the back, with products for sale (sigh) on more shelves behind them; the dozen or so glittery silver snowflakes hanging by thumbtacks from the popcorn ceiling.

Holiday decorations. Suspended from the popcorn ceiling. The same popcorn ceiling, which, I was assured, does not get decorated.

I have been in treatment for this disorder long enough to not panic when I witness the true state of the Kindermusik ceiling, but I eye Nancy with newfound suspicion. Still, I have come this far. I have already sat down on the contaminated carpet. I have already breathed the contaminated air. I might as well stay and find out what Kindermusik is about because I know from the website that this is not the only franchise in my area.

What happens next: Singing of songs with accompanying gestures. Playing of simple instruments (pairs of wood sticks, bell shakers) in time to recorded Kindermusik music. Prancing around in circle while swishing squares of synthetic chiffon embroidered with Kindermusik logo, also in time to Kindermusik music. Starting and stopping on cue. Listening to recorded sounds. Reciting of rhyme with accompanying gestures. Performance of circle dance (parent-child pairs weaving in and out of circle, each in turn). Telling of “story” to toddlers seated on custom throw blanket woven with Kindermusik logo.

Also what happens next: Little girl sucks on bell shaker. Nancy promptly intervenes, explaining bell could hurt her mouth, but does not set aside the shaker for special cleaning. Bell goes back in basket, along with every other germ-infested instrument.

The “story” that’s told involves a ring binder containing pages that alternate between drawings of doors and pictures of kids in the class. Kids “knock” on door, then turn page to see who’s there. Cute—until page turn reveals Big Bird. And Cookie Monster. And Tigger. Could have been worse, could have been Barney and SpongeBob, but still evokes ultra-progressive mom’s nightmare of daughter innocently opening door to find consumerized kiddie culture lurking behind it.

Finally, singing of goodbye song accompanied by zither. Parents and children join hands for circle dance. Not enough gallons of hand sanitizer and free disinfectant wipes in the world to cope with Mari holding some adult stranger’s hand.

Class ends. Nancy announces brightly she has stamps. Confused, I think: stickers. But no, Nancy has a rubber stamp and an inkpad and she is stamping the children. She is creating blue snowflake imprints on their hands. Their cheeks. Their tummies. My horrified gaze flits from stamped snowflakes to snowflaked ceiling. Stamp ink is non-toxic and washes off, Nancy assures a parent. I do not bother to inform her that “non-toxic” is actually a designation given to substances that aren’t fatal when ingested unless more than a pint is consumed.

Class is over, and Nancy wants to touch base, find out if I’ll be enrolling my child. I am still reeling from the OCD gauntlet I’ve just run, but I try to disentangle my invasive, irrational thoughts from my authentic beliefs and feelings. I tell Nancy honestly that I have a much better understanding of what Kindermusik is all about, but I’m not sure how my daughter would respond. I explain that we frequently listen to world music at home, and that my daughter might not enjoy the toddler-oriented Kindermusik themes, as right now she’s requesting we play a lot of French Caribbean zouk. Nancy stares at me blankly, then offers that the next semester’s theme is “Fiddle-dee-dee,” which features lots of … fiddle.

*   *   *

As I drive home, park our hybrid-engine vehicle, change out of my contaminated pants and socks, and repeatedly wash my hands, I wrestle with two questions: Is Kindermusik the right place for Mari? And if I answer “no,” is it because of its lack of depth and diversity, or the dirty shoes and holiday decorations?

I go to the kitchen to prepare my daughter’s organic vegetarian lunch. As I steam couscous and grate cheese, I worry that Mari will miss out by not attending Kindermusik. What if she won’t achieve her potential? What if the lack of developmentally appropriate, group musical education will cause her to fall short?

But humans have been making music a long time. A really long time. And 99.999 percent of that time, they didn’t have franchised classes available to them, but they somehow managed to pass on the knowledge and joy of vocal and instrumental self-expression to their offspring. Maybe instead of spending hundreds of dollars for weekly sessions at the strip mall, I should put that money toward a week-long trip to some primitive place where my child can experience music closer to its source, where she can hear percussion instruments the way they’ve been played for millennia. Thoughts of unsafe drinking water, exotic diseases, and political instability quickly deter me from this idea.

Left to her own devices, Mari already imitates the vocal stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. She insists we play the soca hit “Ice Cream” over and over. The first time I put on the Beatles, she started doing a waltz step, then dipped into a deep plié, swooping her arms upward in perfect coordination with her legs. She doesn’t really need us to pay for three minutes of swishing a nylon scarf in order to develop rhythm when she has yards of real silk (low-impact dyed, of course) and all of the Putumayo World Playground CDs available each day.

But what she doesn’t have is a room full of toddlers. If I take her to Kindermusik, she will get to participate in group activities with her peers. But after witnessing for the first time a franchised enrichment class, I worry that she will also get the subtle message that she’s not doing it “right” when the Kindermusik educator sings “Time to dance” and she thinks it means fly across the floor to the age-inappropriate music of Prince, inventing footwork as she goes. Or worse, she will get discouraged when she points imperiously at the boombox and commands, “Want different!” after being confronted with Kindermusik’s scientifically validated, emotionally tame melodies.

I might be able to fight my way past my obsessions if Kindermusik were really a joyful garden of multicultural delights, and I might be able to compromise on my values if it was truly germ- and dirt-free. But the double whammy of middle-of-the-road commercialism and aging strip-mall contamination is too much for me. I feel disappointed in our culture and ashamed of myself.

I also feel doubt as my mind starts its endless loop of “what ifs”: What if I’m exaggerating my objections to avoid the anxiety of my disorder? Or what if I’m stigmatizing myself for having a mental illness by not honoring my authentic responses to Kindermusik? But what if I’m using the mediocrity of the program as an excuse for not overcoming my obsessions? And what if I’m never able to find toddler activities that appear both safe and of value?

I need a normal brain to sort this out, and Steve has one. He listens patiently to my report on Kindermusik, laughing with me at the OCD ironies of the experience, and nodding as I talk about my other perceptions, then stopping me when I get on my self-doubt anxiety-go-round.

His response cuts to the heart of the matter: What we need is social interaction for our daughter. If that’s all we’re going to get out of Kindermusik, we might as well just take Mari to a bona fide playgroup and maximize our toddler-face-time-payoff for all the decorated-ceiling and mass-marketing exposure.

*   *   *

The next morning arrives bright, cold and guilt-free. Last week, Mari and I scheduled a precious playdate at our home. For this day, at least, I know my child’s voracious social appetite will be satiated, and maybe tomorrow I can commence my quest for ongoing sustenance.

While the toddlers amuse themselves with sustainably harvested wood toys and North African soukous plays in the background, I tell my friend with same-age offspring that I need to get Mari more peer contact. She responds that after having spent the better part of the last two years in the Void of Maternal Isolation, she would be happy to drive forty-five minutes each way for a Wednesday get-together at our organic oasis.

Green light.

Elisabeth De Vos is the author of a science fiction novel and several short stories, as well as an essay included in the Smart Pop anthology series.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)


Our Social Experiment

Our Social Experiment

By Paige Schilt

fall2010_schiltLast Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush.

“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.

I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.

My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

As in, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”

“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”

Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.

*   *   *

When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”

“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.

“What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.


“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just testing.


Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem-solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at three a.m. while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank Engine around the track.

By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.

Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my childrearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy—the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings—develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.

*   *   *

One day, not long after Waylon made his aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru—partly because of her preference for New Age shawls, and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.

Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.

“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”

“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”

Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?

Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.

Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It’s impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.

As queer parents, our gift is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay—yet we that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious blessing.

*   *   *

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson likes to refer to gay and lesbian families as an “untested and far-reaching social experiment.” For Dobson and his ilk, the essence of the good family is adherence to gender roles: Men and women have certain natural strengths, which are divinely ordained to complement each other. In this view of history, the blueprint for family gender roles was spelled out in Genesis and remained virtually unchanged until the lesbian baby boom.

But contrary to what the promoters of traditional family would have us believe, queer people are hardly the first to tinker in the laboratory of gender development. Back in 1962, Katy’s mother was determined to produce a baby girl. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the sex of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the power of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, where she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted, “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see it. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

*   *   *

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the first woman president.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as an antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

The Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with a spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress and a baby on her hip. Her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the internal contradictions of mass culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife.  My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

*   *   *

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough women’s studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at two, three, and four—already miraculously masculine, already chafing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texas swagger was culturally correct—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie festival was the moment when Little Katy appeared in buckskin hunting jacket and coonskin cap. She posed next to the Christmas tree, clearly delighted by her freewheeling duds, but she was distracted by a large, rectangular package in the pile of presents. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership … and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”

*   *   *

Just before our trip to the beach last December, we went to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Laila, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Laila would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.

“Umm, I think … Barbie.”

Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.

Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”

Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a quick phone call to Laila’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Laila was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not bear the responsibility of introducing our young friend to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.

*   *   *

A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that two hundred dollars a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass as male in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way home, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”

Not to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.

“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said.

“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.

Sitting in the front seat, I felt my heart swell.  It wasn’t just because Waylon was giving Katy a precious gift of recognition. It was because he was so proud of his ability to consider someone else’s feelings.  He is compassionate.  He is kind.  As far as I’m concerned, this social experiment is turning out just fine.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: This past Mother’s Day, Waylon made a homemade card for my mother. It read: “Dear Meemaw, when I am with you, a door in my heart opens like never before.”  I was a bit taken aback by the heightened diction, but I remembered that his first-grade class had just finished a unit on poetry.  “Did you hear those words in class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “my heart told it to me.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Paige Schilt is a writer and activist from Austin, Texas. Her blog,, chronicles the adventures of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.

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It Gets Better

It Gets Better

Letter to My Teen Self ArtDear Me,

You know how you feel when you see the “Runaway Truck Ramp” sign on the highway? Like there must be an eighteen-wheeler barreling massively behind you, on the brakeless verge of destroying your beautiful, doomed life? You can picture the tiny, rosy-cheeked children screaming, clinging to you, since you are, of course, riding in the back with them the better to distribute string cheese and hand-holding and the occasional contorted breast, bared and stretched towards somebody’s crying face, but only if they’ve been crying for a long time. About to be crushed—all of it. But runaway truck also feels like a metaphor for something—for you, maybe, with your impulse to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes with a sandwich and a glass of beer. Just so you can use the bathroom one time, without having a concurrent conversation about poop with the short person who has to stand with a consoling hand on your knee, looking worriedly up into your straining face. Later, it won’t be like that. You’ll see the sign, and the nearby gravelly uphill path, and you’ll think, “That’s a good idea, for the runaway trucks.” Also, you will shit alone.

You know how you know by heart the phone number of the Poison Control Center? Because the children, your constantly imperiled children, like to eat ice melt and suck batteries and help themselves to nice, quenching guzzles of cough medicine? You won’t know that number anymore.

One day, the children will eat neither pennies nor crayons nor great, gulping handfuls of sand like they have a powerful thirst for sand, sand, only sand. They will no longer choke on lint and disks of hot dog or fall down the stairs, their heads making the exact, sickening, hollow-melon thump that you knew they would make, when you knew they would fall down the stairs. They will still fall out of trees and off of trampolines. They will still scrape their elbows and knees and foreheads, and you will still be called upon to tend to these injuries. And you will be happy to, because they so rarely need you to kneel in front of them any more, to kiss them tenderly, here, and also here. Rest assured, though, that there will be ongoing opportunity for the knelling likelihood of doom and destruction. Ticks will attach their parasitic selves to the children’s scalps and groins; rashes and fevers and mysterious illnesses will seize everyone, and you will still go on a Googling rampage of “mild sore throat itchiness coma death.” The kids will still barf with surprising frequency—but competently, into tidy buckets, rather than in a spraying impersonation of a vomit-filled Super-Soaker on the drunk frat boy setting.

You know how you see germs everywhere? Every last microbe illuminated by the parental headlamp of your OCD? One day you won’t. One day you will handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. In a public bathroom, the children will no longer need to touch and/or lick every possible surface. Seriously.

You know how you’re tired? So tired that you mistake talking in an exhausted monotone about your tiredness for making conversation? You won’t be tired. Or rather, you will sometimes be tired, sometimes rested, like regular people are. You won’t have to blearily skim the passage of the novel you’re reading, where the protagonist lies down on her soft bed, between crisp, clean sheets, your own eyes filled with tired, envious tears. You won’t daydream about rest and recumbency, lawn chairs and inflated pool rafts and white hotel comforters. You won’t look forward to the dentist, just so you can recline alone for forty heavenly, tartar-scraping minutes. One day, you will once again go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You will sleep as much as you want to. You’ll actually be shocked if you don’t get to, if a child is ill or can’t fall asleep, even though now you lie wedged into various cribs and cots, night after night, still as a button, while a small somebody drifts off and snaps awake gropingly and drifts off again. “How did we used to do it?” you will say, and your husband will shake his head and grimace. You will no longer be constantly scheming to lie down, tricking the kids into playing another round of “Sick Patient,” so you can be dead on the couch while they prod you therapeutically with plastic screwdrivers and the doll’s bottle. “I’m still not better,” you mumble now, but you will be. You really will.

One day, you’ll be sitting on the couch with your husband, reading the Sunday paper, and around the time you’re getting to the book review, you’ll think to ask, “Are the kids still sleeping?” And he’ll shrug without putting down the sports section. The kids might be sleeping, or they might be reading in their beds, playing with Legos, stroking the cat, bickering gently, resolving their differences. And you will be awake, even though you don’t have to be. I swear it on a stack of attachment-parenting books. Speaking of the newspaper: You will one day climb back into bed with the heavy wedge of folded sections and an unspilled mug of hot, milky coffee. You will even do the crossword puzzle—and all the puzzles you’ve been saving. It’s okay—I know about the newspaper that still arrives constantly, either because you’re in denial amount the way you recycle it unread, or because you cannot recall your account password and don’t have the intelligence or emotional resiliency to figure out how to cancel your subscription. But still you tear out the Sunday crossword and stuff it into your bedside table with this crazy idea that you might get to it later. And you will. You’ll open the drawer one evening (to ferret out some birth control, no less) and you’ll find the archaeological evidence of your optimism: hundreds of puzzles spanning a sizable chunk of the early millennium. And you’ll lie around doing them in a kind of ecstatic trance, practically eating bonbons and weeping with happiness.

You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. And sometimes you won’t, but it won’t even be the children’s fault. It’s just that you’re lazy. Or doing a crossword puzzle.

You know your body? How it’s like baggy, poorly curated exhibit about reproduction? You know how your weaned bosom looks like a cross between a pair of used condoms and Santa’s sack, on the day after Christmas? All empty and stretched out with maybe one or two lumpy leftover presents that couldn’t be delivered? It will all get better. The bosom will never again look like a bursting gift-filled bag of awesome, that’s true. But it will look less harrowed by motherhood; the breasts, they will tighten up a bit. All of it will tighten up a bit and be yours again, to do with what you will. For example, your husband won’t gesture to you at a party after you’ve been nursing the baby. “What?” you mouth back now, sticking a fingernail between your teeth. “Spinach?” And he shakes his head and points at your front, and you look down to see the elastic top of your tank top, and how your left breast is hanging over it. That won’t happen any more. But it’s true that some of your many nipple hairs will turn gray.

Even though you’re older, though, you’ll actually be less hunched! One day, whenever you arrive somewhere, you will simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat/seat belt/shoes/socks/sippy cups/diapers/turd on the floor. Why, you wonder, does so much of your current life take place below you? (It’s because the kids are small.) One day infants and diaper bags and hemorrhoids and boobs won’t be hanging off of your person like you’re a cross between a human mobile and a Sherpa and a performance art piece about Dante’s Inferno. The flip side is that there will be fewer cuddles. Lots still, but fewer. For example, every morning you will have to kiss your twelve-year-old good-bye not on the school walkway, but in the bushes before you get there, like you’re sneaky, chaste teenagers.

You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids, but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice skating, swimming, singing in the rain—how they all end in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling? All those things really will be fun! You’re just doing them too soon because you’re bored of HI-Ho Cherry-o and the diaper-smell Children’s Room of the library and those hairshirts of conversation about would you stay partners with Daddy if he turned into a mosquito and was always buzzing around and stinging everybody but had his same face? One day, you will watch Monty Python and The King’s Speech with the kids, instead of Arthur’s Easter Egg Surprise and Caillou by Mistake Draws on a Library Book, and you will hardly believe your good luck. At the dinner table, you’ll talk about natural selection and socialized medicine. You’ll arrive at your campsite, and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss, rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to get run over by a Jeep. Your vigilance will ebb away until you actually take for granted how it feels to sit with a beer in your hand, looking unworriedly up at a sky full of stars with a lapful of big kid.

They will still believe in fairies. Sort of.

They will buckle their own seatbelts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels. They will do most, if not all, of the important things that you worry they’ll never be able to do, ever, such as following the pendulum of your finger with their gaze and wading in the neighbor’s inflatable pool and riding the merry-go-round (phew!). Speaking of merry-go-rounds: The years will start to fly by surreally, the seasons recurring like you’re captive on a deranged carousel of time. The dogwood will bloom, it will be Christmas, the dogwood will bloom again, the children will start middle school. That is how it will be.

They will stop doing most of the annoying things that you worry they’ll always do: They won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason, or announce guiltily, “Floss isn’t for eating,” or make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, no, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch. They won’t talk about poop all the time. Kidding. They will still totally talk about poop all the time!

Not to be all baby out with the bathwater, but they’re also going to stop doing some of the things you love. They will learn that the line from “Eleanor Rigby” is not actually all the lonely peacocks. They won’t squint into the darkness and marvel at the moon beans, or hold their breaths when you pass the gravetary. They will no longer announce odd questions into the darkness of bedtime. “Mama, mama—how do cats turn into old cats?” And you will no longer sigh and say, “Time.” But they will be funnier on purpose. “Is that a robin?” your daughter will ask one day, pointing to a bird hopping along the hedge. When you say no, “Robins have red breasts,” she will say, “Plural? Breasts?” and use two index fingers to pantomime a bosom. They will make you laugh all the time, and they will make you think, and they will be exactly as beautiful as they are now. But with missing and giant teeth instead of those minuscule rows of pearls you so admire.

You know how you secretly worry that this is it, that it’s all downhill from here? I know you do. The children will turn into hulking criminals; their scalps will turn odorless; life will just generally suck. You lie in bed now during a thunderstorm, two sleeping, moonlight faces pressed against you, fragrant scalps intoxicating you, the rain on the roof like hoof beats, heartbeats—and the calamity of raising young children falls away because this is all you ever wanted. You boo-hoo noiselessly into the kids’ hair, because life is so beautiful, and you don’t want it to change. Enjoy it, do. But let me tell you—you won’t believe it, but let me—you will watch them sleeping still and always: the illuminated down of their cheeks, their dark puffs of lips and dear, dark wedges of eyelashes, and you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.

Author’s Note: When Ben was three weeks old or so, sobbing in the front pack at the natural foods market while I fantasized about killing myself with an overdose of patchouli, a woman leaned in close to say, “Enjoy this. It’s such a fun age.” Then her head all but spun around, green vomit spraying from her mouth, when she added, “It’s all downhill from here.” So, I just want to be clear here that I wrote this piece not because I didn’t love having babies and toddlers swarming around for years and years, but because I loved  it so much that I was always paralyzed with terror about it ending. “Just you wait,” people have been saying doomfully to me for years. So I wanted to say it to you: just you wait. It gets even better. 

Brain, Child (Summer 2012)

This Sucks

This Sucks

By Kelly Feinberg

Pink Breast Cancer RibbonSometimes it happens so quickly, so seamlessly, that I’m not even conscious it is happening. I’m standing in line for a smoothie and a sweet potato muffin at our local co-op, say, and I go to unsnap my wallet only to realize my eleven-month-old son has pulled my hand up to his mouth and is sucking on my finger. Or I’m talking to a stranger who has stopped me to compliment my baby’s big brown eyes, his welcoming smile, and suddenly I’m aware of a line of drool sliding down my wrist. Embarrassed, I try to pry my finger out discreetly, but this kid’s had a mean suck since the moment of his birth. And it’s not a quiet, discreet suck either. When he takes my fingers to his mouth, it’s like they are his own and he’s just enjoyed a satisfying meal of barbequed ribs. There are sound effects and facial expressions. Whenever I try to take back my dripping digits, the result is often a sharp tug to his clamped little jaw or a loud popping sound and a spray of saliva. These are not mothering moments I’m proud of, so I often let the sucking continue while trying to make a quick getaway, mumbling something about teething.

When our son was about six to nine months old, my husband and I justified the whole finger-in-mouth arrangement because we believed Ari, who showed no interest in a pacifier, needed to suck on our fingers to ease the pain of incoming teeth. “Those poor little gums!” we’d soothe while rubbing the hard ridges that signal incoming teeth. Yet now all four front teeth are securely in, our son has grown into an accomplished eater, and still, as he reels toward his first birthday, his desire to forcibly take a finger and work on it like a peppermint stick only increases in fervor.

In part, I blame Dr. Sears for getting us to this point. If we had known that his advice to slip a finger into a breastfeeding baby’s mouth while transitioning to sleep would get us to this point, I don’t know if we would have taken it. My newborn barely napped during the day. Was it really that bad to let him soothe at my breast while sleeping? In the middle of the night, I never tried to release my baby from my breast; I just slept peacefully and soundly through nighttime feedings and (what was often) all-night nonnutritive sucking. I even enjoyed it. So why did I need to trade breast for finger during the day? We love Dr. Sears’ parenting philosophies, but we’ve pored over many of his parenting tomes and we just can’t find the next step—how do we now get our fingers back? I’m not the nervous, first-time parent type, but I have to admit, I’m starting to get worried.

When I’m able to step back and understand Ari’s sucking as an emotional need rather than a reflex or developmental stage, I feel tired, more than just from lack of sleep. I feel the weight of all that’s happened in the past five months, nearly half of his young life. When Ari was only seven months old, I was forced to wean him from exclusive and happy breastfeeding when an enlarged milk duct turned out to be cancerous. Due to my age, treatment needed to be swift and aggressive, involving a bilateral mastectomy. One day I breastfed Ari on demand, wore him wrapped tight against my chest, and slept with him skin-to-skin; the next day I mixed bottles of formula to hand over to my husband and moved to the other side of the bed, out of reach. Between the pain of weaning and recovering from the surgery, it was a good three months before I could swoop my baby up into my arms again and hug him close.

Through all of this, the Aerobed stayed inflated in the nursery as friends and family arrived in shifts; I simply couldn’t be alone with my baby. On top of it, right when I was really healed, my husband left for a month-long research trip and our presence in Ari’s life reversed again. Daddy was now out of reach, and Mommy was the constant. This might explain why “I need to suck on a finger sometimes,” which had always been directed at the closest warm body, has evolved into “I need to suck on Mommy’s finger at all times.”

Over the last few months, how I feel and how I react to my only baby’s favorite pastime depends a great deal on my own physical and emotional state. Pad over to me in the morning after a decent night’s sleep and a cup of coffee, and I’ll gladly let you lay your sweet little face against my leg for a quick sucking session between block play and a game of hide behind the curtains. Keep me up from two a.m. on by rolling over constantly and arm wrestling my finger to your mouth until it feels raw like a skinned grape, and I’m not so generous. I may snap and say things aloud I’m not proud of like, “Why don’t you suck on your own finger!” or “Do you want to sleep in your crib?” It’s not the questions themselves that I’m ashamed of really; Ari has been known to suck his own finger on occasion and he loves his crib, gladly taking his afternoon nap there every day, stretched out on the soft polka-dot sheets. It’s the angry, desperate tone I use when I get to the point where I’m offering ultimatums to an eleven-month-old that bothers me.

When the ultimatums during a night like this don’t work—as of course they don’t—I may do something drastic to avoid more relentless sucking during morning nap. Something crazy that I would be ashamed to share among the home-birthing, baby-wearing, attachment-parenting set I aspire to be a model member of. Something like, oh, maybe pulling a gardening glove printed with tiny watering cans over one hand like some deranged Michael Jackson impersonator in order to deter the relentless suckerfish. When the glove gets in the way of Ari’s mouth, he lets loose a terrible sobbing cry; his chubby baby fists pinch and swipe. When wrapping him up and wearing him doesn’t work (his reach is impressive and he doesn’t mind wrenching my wrist to get fingers into their proper angle), I try to soothe him in different ways that I remember from my days working in a daycare. I rub his back and swirl his soft baby hair, I shush him softly, I put on the new lullaby CD his grammy gave him. Over and over I say the mantra I’ve been whispering since I first held him in my arms. Mommy’s right here. Mommy’s right here with you. But to him I’m not really there. Not all of me anyway, not the part he wanted and needs to feel secure and to drift to sleep. Ultimately, I pull the glove off when I realize that we’re both crying, that we’re both feeling angry and desperate and out of control. I give him my finger and together we give in to much-needed sleep.

*    *    *

The hardest part about parenting a baby with an intense sucking need, whatever the cause, is other people’s responses. There’s obvious and unhelpful advice like “Have you tried a pacifier?” and “As long as it’s only occasionally…” There are the judgmental sideways stares from the childless woman on the small commuter plane (she visibly and audibly expressed her displeasure when I sat next to her), and there are the sympathetic and depressing half-smiles of other women in the waiting room of my breast surgeon. Most of the time, I’m sure, I have only imagined a public response that I then internalize and fret over the next time Ari grabs my hand. I have blushed hot from embarrassment while Ari sits in my lap at a restaurant, sucking away while I try to finish my dinner, and I have ended conversations with neighbors on my own front porch because I felt exposed, as if it wasn’t my finger in my baby’s drooling mouth, but instead my full, naked breast leaking milk down his chin.

And what if it were? Didn’t I breastfeed this same baby on a ledge, crowded with midday shoppers, overlooking a public market? Didn’t I pull up my shirt and offer my breast at a baseball game, just off the path on a hike, sitting in a hard plastic chair at Target? Then, I felt important breastfeeding in public, a champion of all things natural and best for my baby. Now I just feel sad. My finger is a poor substitute for breastfeeding, and my baby and I both know it. It is evident in his continuous, never-satisfied suck and in my impatience.

One day, while I’m chatting online with a friend who doesn’t think she wants children (and who isn’t keen on hearing what other people think about someone else’s parenting choices), I mention that Ari continues to suck on my finger. Christi was one of my first caregivers after the surgery: a nursing student, longtime friend, and someone I admire for her intelligence and fearlessness. “I’m just so worried that Ari’s going to be screwed up because I had cancer,” I type. “There was a two-year-old in my toddler class once who made herself throw up the whole time her mom went through chemo. What if this never goes away?”

Christi’s answer is humorous at first and I appreciate the chance to laugh. “I sucked my thumb until age twelve and I’m fine,” she writes. But then she adds that we’ve all been through a lot as a family. “You’re doing a good job,” she reassures me in that small text box at the bottom of my screen, “an unbelievable job managing it all.”

I read her instant message—filled with typos as our notes back and forth always are, we’re so eager to talk to one another—and I just feel better. Maybe that’s all I need, that stamp of approval, that understanding of our particular situation that I can’t get from a Dr. Sears book or from a stranger who happens to be sitting at the table next to me in a restaurant. If I can just let go of the feeling that I failed my son when I stopped breastfeeding him and that my body failed me when it fed cancerous cells, then I wouldn’t worry about what we look like in public.

If anyone asks why my one-year-old is permanently attached to my hand, maybe I should just tell them the truth—that I’d prefer to be breastfeeding but can’t. That breast cancer sucks, that weaning a baby before you’re both ready sucks, that not being able to hold your next baby to your breasts sucks, and that being hard on yourself for your parenting choices sucks, thanks for asking. And then I’ll go back to adoring that little boy in my lap who only knows how wonderful it is to suck; how dreamily soothing and simple.

A note from Brain, Child EditorsKelly passed away on Friday, May 14, 2010, about three months after writing “This Sucks.” The essay won a 2010 Pushcart Prize posthumously.

Brain Child (Spring 2010)

Bored Again

Bored Again

bored_again art“Mama, isn’t pucely the puceliest pucely you ever did puce?”

Pucely—a derivative of pussy—is what our seven-year-old daughter calls the cat. She is in love with the cat. (“Oh my God!” she cries, rushing at houseguests with the cat in her arms, her nose buried in his fur. “You have got to smell my pussy!”) Now she is lying on our couch on her back, bare-chested in shorty pajama bottoms. She appears to be watching the ceiling fan. “Isn’t he, Mama?”

“He is.”

“But isn’t he the very puceliest?”

“The very,” I say. “Do you want me to help you find something to do?”

“No.” She scratches her mosquito-bitten ankles. “I don’t want to do anything.” At least not anything but gurgle in the back of her throat a long, low sound that’s like a cross between growling and gagging.

I used to make the exact same sound. I also used to make a different sound using a lollipop that I sucked vibratingly against the side of my cheek. And one through my trumpeted-together lips, cheeks puffed out, that sounded like a grass whistle being blown by an elephant, but softly. “Mom, she’s doing it again.” I drove my older brother crazy—but no crazier than I drove myself, so it seemed fair enough.

My husband and I laughed recently when the Mad Men mom—with her comically retro exasperation—says to a restless child, “Only boring people are bored.”

Indeed. And also: Bored people are boring. It’s the behavioral equivalent of humidity: a vague clamminess that drapes itself around you like a cloak knitted from the damp wool of torpor. Bored people complain and make weird mouth sounds and memorize the Sears Wish Book like they expect to be tested on it. (Training bras, page 23, Barbie Styling Head, real pretend make-up sold separately, page 60.) Also, there’s the nausea. I don’t mean it in some kind of Sartrian existential way—just that my memories of childhood boredom are often twinned with my memories of feeling like I might barf.

For example: the record player. Home with the flu, my brother and I would sprawl on the living-room floor while the Beatles’ Red Album turned around and around the hi-fi; we lay back-down on the carpet or cheek-down on the wood; we watched the dizzifying vinyl; we studied the liner notes, like British-Invasion scripture that we already knew by heart. We had a comprehensive mental catalogue of the lyrics, even if we didn’t understand them. (Did you know, for instance, that “Norwegian Wood” is about something less like the Scandinavian forest I’d always pictured than like birch IKEA bookcases? Me neither.) It was the only record that we had, and listening to it was not the background to what we were doing; it was what we were doing.

“Love Me Do,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “Eleanor Rigby.” (Was her actual face in a jar by the door?) To hear those songs even now is to be plunged into a kind of queasy ennui born of repetition crossed with both tedium and illness. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon my head—but dully.

And then there was the car. Road trips meant a single sickening piece of original-flavor Trident and listening to my parents listen to the metallic top-of-the-hour news jingle. (Dee dee di-dee dee. “1010 WINS news. You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Deedle-y dee dee, deedle-y dee dee.) If it was raining, you could lean your cheek against the glass to watch the drops gather and skid, gather and skid, the boredom itself gathering up into a kind of carsickness that occasionally had to be barfed out the window.

Boredom is like a fever dream, like the way you feel staring at the wallpaper’s repeated pattern while you lie sweaty in your sickroom, listening to the clinking silverware and muted laughter of life happening elsewhere. Bored thoughts flap around like a fish on the deck of a sailboat that’s going nowhere in a windless bay. “But sometimes it feels good to be bored, right?” I ask the kids now.

Ben says, “I think if it feels good then that’s not boredom. It’s the difference between wanting to not do anything, which is nice, versus there not being anything you want to do, which is being bored.” Boredom is that agitated space between relaxation and action: Dialed down, it can become a pleasant kind of inertia or meditative stillness, where it feels good to sit quietly with your own thoughts; cranked up a notch, it can produce creative release. But that middle place is the boredom itself—restlessness with no movement. A dull and desperate longing for something else, something more or less.

It’s a strange kind of luxury, boredom—a luxury full of loss. Read the Little House on the Prairie books with your kids, and you just can’t help envying the absence of boredom: They are simply too busy starving to death and having a fire-baked potato explode in their eye and chasing locusts off their crops to experience a moment’s ennui. The kids like to imitate them: “We each got an orange and a wooden button, and it was the best Christmas ever!”—but they envy the inherent meaningfulness of Laura and Mary’s lives, these pioneer children who were never stuck at a birthday party sticking foam die-cuts to a visor with tacky glue. Even my own childhood now feels quaintly creative. We did not have endless bags of rainbow-colored chenille stems to bend and discard; we had my dad’s actual white pipe cleaners, and you could take just enough to shape a pair of glasses—five—before he’d notice them missing. We had rubber bands and tinfoil and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, which I read while laughing Fiddle Faddle out of my nose.

Which is not so different from my kids. Ben can spend an entire day reading Far Side comics in his pajamas or picking Brandi Carlile songs out on the piano. Birdy eventually thuds to the carpet for her cat-talking, fan-watching stupor, and is motivated by this act of gravity to get out the colored pencils and draw a picture of her Care Bears jigsaw puzzle. Then she builds a Lego battleship. Then she wanders outside to arrange bark and moss into a house for the fairies, which she situates next to a toadstool “in case it rains and they need an umbrella.”

I am not trying to sound like one of those crafty-mama blogs that makes you want to kill yourself, the kind you bookmark one day because you think that putting out a wooden bowl of felt gnomes sounds like a good idea (“felt gnomes?” you add vaguely to your to do list), but then you unbookmark it the next when you realize that the bowl is supposed to get refilled every morning with a different inspiring and wool-based activity and it is just too fucking much to deal with. And yet. You do have to learn boredom, learn to live with it, to manage it with the power of your own mind, without recourse to video games or bungee jumping or sniffing glue or starting a nuclear war or date raping your roommate’s girlfriend. The most dangerous people we know are the least able to sit still, to be inside an absence of motion: they are the most inclined to leave their families, to be addicts, to keep the TV on twenty-four hours a day, to kill themselves. But to manage boredom quietly? That’s one of life’s great skills: to allow its nothingness to resolve into wonder, imagination, illumination, or mindfulness, like a blurry picture that focuses suddenly into beauty. It’s a kind of inoculation against catastrophic restlessness.

Also, it prepares you for having kids: what to expect when you weren’t expecting your whole life to turn into Waiting for Godot, with Godot himself turning out to be almost as boring as the waiting. Captive under a nursing baby, you call upon all your car-tripping skills, all your floor-lying practice. The baby poops and cries and spits up in your hair, and it is all one big long meditation, half way between tedium and franticness.

(“Wake me if I actually do anything,” Ben said recently, watching a very long video we’d taken of him as a newborn, kicking microscopically on his changing table.) The baby wants to play Candy Land and Hi-Ho! Cherry-O and some weird zoo game where you’re both dying dolphins, and you breathe in and out slowly through your nose and notice the way the sunlight is catching the down along those ripe peaches of her biceps. The baby wants to read Maisy’s Bedtime and Maisy’s Morning on the Farm and Where is Maisy? and your brain threatens to contract and shrivel into a dried pea rattling around your skull, but instead you inhale the baby’s summer-smell scalp that is pressed fragrantly against your face, (Also you occupy your mind with estimating Lucy Cousin’s net worth.) The baby wants you to sing the ABCs, but like a lullaby, no not like this—here she warbles like Katharine Hepburn calling to loons on Golden Pond—like that, yes, again. Again, Mama. Again. And you sing and you sing and her darkly lashed eyes flutter and close, the beloved rose of her face open and slack in sleep.

The baby, bored, wants first to clobber you with her berserkness (“Booty dance, booty dance, booty dance shakes a booty in your face!”) and then to talk boringly about the cat some more. “He’s pretty Pucely, right, Mama?”

“Please, honey.”

“I know. But Mama?”


“What if Pucely forgot that he hadn’t pooped yet? And then he pooped on your face!”

“Yup,” I say. “That would be something.”

“Right?” she says, excited. “Right? What if he pooped right on your face!

“Do you need me to help you find something to do?” I ask again, and she says,

“No. I’m pretty busy.”

Author’s Note: “Do you think a piece about boredom is going to be boring?” I asked Michael as I was working on this, and he said, “It depends how boring it is.” Hm. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be boring. But is it weird to be so nostalgic about boredom?” I asked, but he had already glazed over. I am boredom personified, it turns out. Hallelujah.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

The Elephant Maker

The Elephant Maker

By Amber Kelly-Anderson
mikesElephant_illustration“You have such a sweet smile,” the elderly man told my toddler son. “You need this.” His hand extended a small carved wooden elephant with tiny wheels.

We were sitting in a restaurant enjoying a late lunch with my mother when the man approached us. Having someone come over to talk to Alex is nothing new: he’s a sweet guy with a charming smile that he spreads around indiscriminately. He flirts shamelessly with women of all ages and ethnicities and growls at men in a playful way that makes them want to fist-bump him. Someone once referred to him as a “ball of joy.”

However, as a mother I am suspicious of people giving things to my baby. When my oldest, Liliana, was nine months old, we traveled through China, where people gave her everything from an umbrella to a toy mouse to some sort of fruit I couldn’t identify by sight. Not wanting to offend anyone, we accepted the gifts graciously, keeping the objects and giving the fruit to my grandfather who was with us (mainly because Liliana had no teeth). I set aside my apprehensions in order to avoid being the typical rude American.

Back home in Texas, it is a different story. Blame it on too much SVU or too many people trying to hand me flyers for comedy, porn, or weight loss pills—I distrust the world. I’m suspicious of any stranger who gives things away. Everyone has an angle.

This man seemed well-intentioned—with his baggy sweater and worn but polished black loafers, he actually reminded me of my own grandfather. But my mind immediately went whirling through a list of reasons why we should reject the gift. Was it really a gift? Did he want money? Did this obligate us to spend time with this man? What was the catch?

As these thoughts flashed through my head in blinking neon warning signs, the man handed Alex the toy. The carving was rough, the outline of a trunk and tail at each end of a smoothed piece of wood about half the length of my index finger. Four wooden wheels made from a different type of wood allowed the figure to balance independently and roll when pushed, emitting a slight squeaking sound. The wood had been left untreated, the pale grain merely sanded to protect little fingers. Even if its simplicity hadn’t been strangely beautiful, Alex’s reaction was. His chubby fingers spun the wheels, giggles of glee bursting forth. I knew that whatever the cost, I would probably pay it.

But the man didn’t ask for anything or try to strike up a conversation. He just stood in silence for a moment, watching my son. With a pat on the little blond head, he smiled, and returned to his table.

“Thank you so much,” I finally managed. The man gave a back- wards wave over his shoulder.

Alex played happily with the toy, racing it around the table and along the sides of his high chair, alternating between growling and vrooming noises. Occasionally my eyes darted over to our elephant benefactor, puzzled.

A few minutes later the man approached another table with a little boy who appeared slightly older than Alex. “Would you mind if I give him this?” he asked the mother before offering the boy a carved wooden car.

Again the man returned to his seat and went back to eating his lunch alone. Before we left, we stopped to thank him once more.

“Did you make it yourself?” my mother asked him.

He smiled.

“Yes, ma’am. I find it helps me pass the evenings. I don’t have any little ones in my life, but I want someone to have them. Hope it makes him happy.”

He said this without sadness or self-pity. Instead, he smiled with delight and let my son’s tiny hand shake his finger. Alex blew him a kiss and then snuggled the elephant to his cheek.

So often I find myself wondering what kind of world I am borrowing from my children. In my classroom, in the news, in my daughter’s school—the world is thick with petty people and seemingly insurmountable heartbreak. As a culture, we appear to thrive on the big moments—the scandals, the tragedies, the violence. And while we like to celebrate the fantastic and the silly, accounting for the popularity of YouTube, experiencing those quiet moments of beauty in our everyday lives is a rare gift. Even rarer is the gift of being open to the reception of such gifts.

This culture has fostered cynicism that leaves me exhausted by suspicion. Although my mothering instinct will not allow me to completely let my guard down, this experience reminded me to open myself to sincerity. There are good people in the world who want nothing more than to bring happiness without a price. A simple gesture can be just that—the human heart exists in the pure state. My challenge, then, is to open myself to both the giving and receiving of such love.

I will never know this man’s name, but I am grateful to him. Alex loves the little elephant, so simple in its loving craftsmanship. When he is old enough to understand, I will explain the gift that was given to us both that day. Since that day, I have been able to go to bed each night just a bit more hopeful about the world, knowing that there is an old man in my town who is quite probably at that moment whittling little wooden wheeled toys to give to children in the hope that it will make them happy.

Author’s Note: Once Alex turned two and became convinced he is actually a dinosaur and/or shark, I had to rescue his little elephant from play rotation. For now I keep it in a box with things like his hospital bracelets and clipped curls as I view it as an important part of his childhood. I am eager for the day when I can return it to him so he can enjoy it as intended.

Amber Kelly-Anderson is a Texas-based mother of two, writer, and professor of literature and history at Howard College. Her most recent publications include: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Sprout, and Roots: Where Food Comes From & Where It Takes Us. She is also a 2013 blogger for Ploughshares Literary Magazine. Read more of her work at

Illustration by Michael A. Lombardo


Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms

Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talking Smack

Talking Smack

By Johanna Bailey

spring2009_bailey“Let’s leave the kids at home and meet up for a drink sometime!”

Every time I join a new playgroup, there’s always at least one person who suggests a girls’ night out. I’m never sure exactly how to respond. Do I say that alcohol gives me a headache? That I’m on medication and can’t drink? That I’m allergic? Or do I say nothing at all and just hope that they won’t notice when I order orange juice at the bar?

The truth is, I’m an alcoholic and heroin addict in recovery. Eight years into my sobriety, it doesn’t get any easier to say that out loud.

Even more troubling is what—if anything—I say to my son, Nico, and when. He’s only three. When he asks why I don’t drink wine like daddy, I explain to him I don’t like the taste, just like he doesn’t like the taste of corn. And that’s all the explanation he needs. Right now, Nico’s idea of partying involves lots of balloons and short people running in circles screeching. It’s going to be a while before he’s ready to hear about my history of substance abuse. But I know that time is coming.

For better or worse, the days are gone when people would simply sweep the dicey parts of their personal pasts under the nearest rug as soon as they became parents. No longer can we just leave a few pamphlets on the kids’ beds and assume that we’ve done our job in talking about drugs and alcohol. No, today we’re supposed to talk to our kids, the experts tell us. We should be open and honest about everything from drugs to sex to the death of a family pet. And this makes sense to me. Certainly I would never want to travel back fifty years in time to try and morph myself into some sort of a June Cleaver of a mother.

Nevertheless, I still can’t help but wonder if, in my case, being completely honest with my son is really the wisest option. On the contrary, I’m terrified that by telling him about my past, particularly regarding my heroin use, I’ll only be increasing the chances that he’ll end up experiencing the same problems that I did.

One morning sometime during my junior high years, my stepfather sat with me at the kitchen table and talked about some of his more harrowing experiences with drugs. I sat there transfixed as he told me about the night when he found himself lying facedown in a forest in the rain after binging on whiskey and cocaine.

Given the fact that he was talking about it over waffles, it didn’t seem to me that whatever he’d experienced had done him any lasting harm. He had a family and a nice house, and soon he’d hop into his Saab and head off to a good job. Rather than serve as a warning to stay away from drugs, as he had intended, the story merely tickled my curiosity. I, too, wanted to spend a cocaine-fueled bacchanalian night in a forest, albeit in dryer weather.

By that age, I’d already noticed that alcohol played an important role in our house, both for relaxation and celebration. My parents were not alcoholics, but they did drink. They were the only ones on the block who did. That’s because I was raised in Salt Lake City, a land dominated by Mormons, a group of people who don’t even possess coffee machines, let alone corkscrews or shot glasses. It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots. People who drank were free-thinking liberals who stayed away from oversized hair bows and minivans (aka “Mormon movers”). People who did not drink were conservative goody-goodies. The men in the latter group all had Ken doll haircuts, and the women had a penchant for wearing floral headbands. Most importantly, their children did not invite me to their birthday parties.

My parents were honest about their own youthful transgressions, which ranged from my stepdad’s coked-up nights of excess and regret, to my mother’s single puff off a joint in 1969. In my adolescent mind, that made my step-dad credible and my mother clueless.

What any of it had to do with me, however, was beyond the scope of my imagination. The teenaged “It won’t happen to me” mentality was deeply etched into my mind. So I ignored my parents when they warned me that the high incidence of alcoholism in our extended family meant it was very likely I’d develop substance abuse problems myself if I weren’t careful. After all, it was one thing to know that I may have a predisposition for addiction, but another thing entirely to see that Suzy at school had been smoking joints for months with no apparent ill effects other than having eyes that resembled a couple of glazed donuts.

And then there were the mixed messages. My parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to use drugs or drink, but, like many of my friends’ parents, they tacked on an addendum: If I did “somehow happen to find myself” in a situation where I couldn’t safely drive home, I should definitely not be afraid to call them for a ride. The way I interpreted this was, “We don’t want you to do it, but we expect that you might anyway. If you do, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t permanently chain you to your canopy bed.”

So I went to parties, drank, and started experimenting with drugs. Did I worry about getting in trouble? Sure. But I worried more about winding up as a twenty-one-year-old Girl Scout who was still selling cookies in a pair of perfectly creased polyester pants, which was my mental image of anyone who didn’t drink or do drugs. We sinners had to band together, and if that meant pounding ten cans of the three-percent-alcohol beer sold in Utah supermarkets to get a buzz, I was all for it. For me there was no middle ground. If you didn’t party, you might as well head down to the Mormon temple and prostrate yourself on its well-manicured front lawn.

My stepfather never became either an addict or an alcoholic, but I sure did. In that light, his story hit far wide of the mark in terms of its intended effect. Do I want to open up to Nico some day and risk the same thing happening to him?

My hesitations about sharing my past were reinforced even more when I read David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, about his son’s crystal meth addiction. In the book, Sheff agonizes over whether or not he made a mistake in telling his son that he himself had used drugs, including crystal meth. He proposes that in some instances, it can actually do more harm than good when adults tell kids about their past substance abuse: “It’s the same reason that it may backfire when famous athletes show up at school assemblies … and tell kids, ‘Man, don’t do this shit, I almost died,’ and yet there they stand, diamonds, gold, multimillion-dollar salaries and cereal box fame.”

Even Barack Obama admitted in his 1995 memoir that in his youth he drank and used drugs. Obama has stated since then that his purpose in revealing his past was to show young people who have problems that it is possible to make mistakes and still recover. An admirable sentiment, but what about those kids who haven’t tried drugs? Is the knowledge that their new president used to get drunk, smoke pot and snort cocaine really helpful? Or might it just make them think that they, too, can mess around with drugs and alcohol for a few years before going on to become successful and famous?

I’m not running for president, and it’s not likely that my face will ever grace a box of Wheaties, but my life is pretty good considering the foolish decisions I made in the past. The negative consequences—the devastation of those that loved me, the loss of self-respect, the years of depression, and the humiliating memories—all of those are almost impossible to verbalize in any way that would be enough to convince Nico not to follow in my footsteps. The fact is that I was supremely lucky—lucky that, unlike so many others, I was able to put down the drinks and the drugs and move on with my life without any long-term serious consequences.

Still, I wouldn’t wish my experiences on my worst enemy, let alone my beloved child. Is there any way to say this to Nico without it sounding like just another cliché?

I decided to do a bit of investigating and to talk to some experts in the field of adolescent substance abuse. My first stop was Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “Of course you have to tell him about your history!” he exclaimed. He went on to tell me that as an alcoholic and addict in recovery, I have “a very powerful voice and a credible message.” Pasierb also said that although I don’t owe my son a “blow-by-blow summary” of everything I’ve done, I still need to be honest with him about my drug use. “Teenagers have a big bullshit filter, so if you lie to them, they’re going to know it. Basically, honesty is the best policy.”

After speaking with Pasierb, I headed to my local library, where I plowed through as many books on the subject of adolescents and substance abuse as I could find. In the end, it appeared that most experts agree that parents should be truthful about past drug use but that they don’t need to go into every last detail. Exactly how many details one should reveal, however, is up to the individual.

In the 2002 book Just Say Know by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson, the authors warn that the decision of how much to divulge must be taken very seriously. They urge you to use caution when discussing your past drug use with your kids.

Okay, but what does that mean?

Should you tell a teen about your own drug experiences? No single answer will work for everyone. … The most compelling reason to avoid sharing your own drug history is that it conveys a kind of permission: “You did it, so what’s the big deal?”

But they follow that advice up with this observation:

On the other hand, some would argue that coming clean about your own causal drug use can promote a sense of honest communication between you and a teen. Maybe so. But remember that kids and adults don’t always interpret things in the same way.

Ambiguous advice such as this is typical throughout the literature on talking to kids about drugs. Tell them, but don’t tell them everything. Tell them, but be very very careful how you tell them. Tell them but only when they’re ready to hear it.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell my son when he’s in elementary school about the summer I literally burned through my aunt’s entire spoon collection cooking up heroin. But when will he be ready to hear that? Does any kid ever need to hear that about one of their parents?

There are at least a couple of experts out there who share my fears about revealing past drug use. In a July 2008 article in Ebony, psychologist Dr. Michelle R. Callahan recommended that parents not volunteer their drug history to their children, at least until they become adults (or very close to it).

“Chances are that your children will hear your confession of your drug use, take one look at your success, and determine that doing drugs didn’t slow you down one bit,” she writes. “You look good and you live well, so in their minds how did drugs hurt you?” Even John Walters, then director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, had suggested that parents keep the truth about past marijuana use from their children, saying to a group of Louisiana parents in 2002, “They’re your kids, not your confessors.”

I’m aware that, as an addict in recovery, my situation is unique. I know that I can’t necessarily follow the same rules as everyone else when it comes to talking to my son about my drug history. But what rules should I follow? Most of the advice out there is aimed at either people who fooled around with drugs in their youth but never developed a problem, or at people whose addictions directly affected the lives of their children. I was an alcoholic with a serious drug problem, but I’d been clean and sober for five years by the time my son was born, so I don’t fit into either category. This means I have an entire life to reveal—or to hide.

Steve Pasierb told me that I have a “powerful message” for my son—but will its power help him or hurt him? Addicts come from all different kinds of backgrounds and families, and although studies have shown that parents are the most important influence on whether or not kids abuse drugs and alcohol, in many cases being a good parent just isn’t enough.

The more I’ve toyed with the idea of not telling Nico about my heroin addiction, the more I realize that I don’t really have a choice. I want to be able to talk with him freely and openly about drugs, something I know I wouldn’t be comfortable doing if I had to lie or omit the truth about my own history. But more than that, perhaps the most important reason I have to be honest isn’t so much for his benefit as for mine. One of the reasons I got sober in the first place was so that I could stop lying. The idea of having to lie for many more years to the person I love most in the world is inconceivable.

My own parents weren’t able to keep me from becoming an addict, but they were able to help me to get sober. If we hadn’t had an open and honest relationship to begin with, I don’t think that would have been possible. I pray that it won’t ever get to that point with Nico, but if it does, at least he’ll know exactly where he stands, and that I’ll be standing right there with him.

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until my son was born that I started to comprehend the heartache that my addictions caused my parents. My mother had always told me that I would never realize how much she loved me until I had my own child. Now I understand what she meant. This is the most personal thing I have every written, yet at times it felt as though I were writing about a fictional character. When I remember how my mother cried when I told her about my heroin use, however, I know that this was me. I hope it will never be my son.

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

About the Author: Johanna Bailey lives with her husband and two sons in Barcelona, Spain. Her website is

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Plush Attachments

Plush Attachments

viewer“You poor thing,” I say to him, after the morning blur of sneakers and lunchboxes has shut the door behind itself. “Are you already missing Birdy?” He smiles, his face pinkly gentle and unblinking, and I hug him consolingly, tuck him down the front of my shirt so that his small-eared little head can peek out over the top. This is how Birdy ferries him around everywhere she goes—everywhere except fourth grade. He’s like Mary’s little lamb. I often wonder about the strangers grinning hugely at Birdy—and then I remember that they’re seeing a cotton-candy-colored monkey head smiling at them over the neck of her t-shirt.

His name is Strawberry, and he’s a floppy beanbag toy, the kind designed for a baby to clutch and chew and fling. Years ago, Birdy fell in love with him at our local farmstand/tourist trap, in the candle-smelling corner of bless-this-mess kitchen plaques and overpriced stuffed animals. She bought him with her own money. When we stop in now for cider or donuts, Birdy whispers to him, “This is where you were born!” which is exactly what I whisper to her when we visit friends with new babies at our local hospital.

Strawberry is the soul of patience and adventure: he has gone camping and sailing, bowling and ice skating, rock climbing and apple picking. He is, like Birdy, a vegetarian, a board game fanatic, and a democrat. He has seen Ratatouille, Brave, and Toy Story 3 (which made him cry) from the back of our station wagon at the Wellfleet drive-in. He’s been a member of various weddings, tucked into Birdy’s dress or suit jacket, depending on what kind of fancy she feels like. He has been grabbed up in the playful mouths of dogs and sniffed disgustedly by our cat. He has been barfed on at home and away, scrubbed out in our kitchen sink while Birdy shivered and cried, and under a hotel faucet while we apologized to the concierge and stripped the bed. He has been bathed in the plastic dolly tub and swaddled in a towel before getting powdered and sometimes, poor guy, diapered; he has spun through the gentle cycle countless times, and always emerges bright and smiling into Birdy’s waiting arms. He has gamely worn a preemie onesie, a jaunty cap, a pair of doll overalls, a sleeveless wool dress cut from the sleeve of an old sweater, a cowl-neck cotton dress cut from a tube sock, and a homemade mermaid costume, complete with bottle-top bra. He trick-or-treats as a miniature version of Birdy: a flower fairy with petaled skirt, tiny wings, and a wand taped to his willing arm; a robber with a bandit mask, a loot bag, and the very face of innocence.

“I would totally want Strawberry to be alive,” Birdy sighed recently. “But only if he could have his same personality.”

He’s like a pet, really—lavishly doted on and enthusiastically cherished, but unsullied by complicatedness or tantrums or the imperative to say “no thank you” instead of “yucky eggy yuck.” Or expectations: Strawberry can grow up to be a bum, for all I care! Plus, he’s adorable—this delicate primate alter-ego—unlike some of the gross animals the kids attached themselves to over the years: the Pooh with its plastic nose and pilled nylon half-shirt; the blue souvenir bear with “Florida!” embroidered across its chest; the various flea-market finds with their creepy stains and sewn-on trousers. The kids caught us once attempting a large seize-and-dump operation: a garbage bag full of the least of the stuffies—unfavorites we’d imagined, incorrectly, that we could sneak off to the Goodwill. “It’s all the ones you guys don’t even like!” we tried to explain. “The dinosaur puppet that gives you ‘a weird feeling’ and the dog with the ‘creepy-sad face’!” Our children— and these were not little children, mind you—wept for their forsaken animals. “If we promise to love them more can we keep them?” My god, what can you do?

But there’s something darker about Strawberry, and I don’t quite know how to put it into words. It’s not that the Birdy smell of him makes my heart ache unspecifically. It’s not that I project my love for her onto him, although that’s getting at it. It’s that somehow I project my dread onto him—my fear that she could be lost to us. One weekend last winter, Strawberry went missing and turned up, after a heroic search by Birdy’s dad, on the street next to her school. Only turn up is not quite the right expression: Michael wandered the dark with a headlamp until he found Strawberry, who lay in a ditch, encased in ice, from which Michael hacked him out with an axe. Birdy clutched her smiling, frozen monkey and cried with relief. The next day brought two feet of fresh snowfall, and if we hadn’t found him when we did, we never would have. I remember this detail because that was the same snowstorm that buried the lifeless body of a friend’s son, dead in a freak skiing accident. Thank god they got to him when they did, everybody said. Otherwise they wouldn’t have found his body until spring. That is the coldest comfort I have ever heard of.

Maybe it’s totemic: Let it happen to Strawberry. Whatever it is. Isn’t this a nice monkey? I send my thoughts to the gods, to whatever force might listen. Take him. It’s like the people we saw in Thailand, with their spirit houses— a tiny replica of their home, enticingly nicer than the big one, to trap the picky evil spirits who are more into luxury details than size. Or the Hmong, who put their kids in colorful hats so that the evil spirits will mistake them for flowers and leave them alone. I would wreathe my children’s fragile necks in climbing ivy, cover their hair with pompoms, scent them with blossoms, if I thought it would protect them—and if they wouldn’t have to, you know, go to school like that and be mad at me all day. Instead, there’s Strawberry. Nothing to see here, folks! Just a toy monkey! Move along! Although if anything happened to him, Birdy’s sadness alone might kill me.

I live in anticipation of my own broken heart. I try to move through the world gracefully, my fears fluttering behind me like elegant streamers, rather than sitting on my head like an unflattering wig made out of an anvil. It’s true that I’m no longer the newly minted mother of twelve years ago: the one who couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs without picturing the baby tumbling from my arms to his death; the one who couldn’t cross a street without summoning the imaginary bus to mow us over. But I can’t help fretting still that our happiness is precisely what makes us vulnerable. That we’ll be punished for it. I picture wringing my hands at a hospital bedside; I picture standing graveside; I picture myself bereft, Strawberry’s mild face slicing me clean through with the razor, the rapture of grief. I tell you this confessionally.

After the ice incident, I scoured ebay for a spare Strawberry, a back-up. Could Birdy learn to love another pink monkey? I really don’t know. When I was pregnant with her, I was so devoted to her older brother that the idea of loving another baby seemed vaguely grotesque. It made excellent sense to have another baby, of course, but only so we could harvest its organs in case Ben ever needed them. And then, oh, that fuzzy perfection of head, that valentine of face, that intoxication of lashes, of coal-dark eyes! I was doomed. We’d have to have a third, if we wanted spare organs for the first two.

Even now, writing this, Birdy is home with a fever, Strawberry tucked into her palely striped nightgown. The phone rings, as if cued by my own fretfulness, and it’s the town itself, robo-calling us to tell us that there’s an Eastern Equine Encephilitis high alert. Symptoms include fever and lethargy; it is nearly always fatal. While we listen to the message, I raise my eyebrows at Birdy’s father, and he shakes his head, pats my crazy shoulder. I am tempted to Google “too sick to even want a popsicle / Easter Equine Encephilitis.” But I don’t.

The thing is, of course, we lose our children metaphorically all the time. Their little selves are swallowed up by their bigger selves, and they’re all nested in there, I know. They disappear and reappear, all those versions. They toddle away and back. They stretch and return, shrug you off, and then crawl into your lap. At some point the big kids lose so many teeth that you catch a flash of their old gummy baby smiles—the ones that turn your heart into a staggering clubfoot. This is the kind of loss that’s actually called growth, and we’re lucky for it, of course. But one day it’s going to be totally Velveteen Rabbit around here: Strawberry in a box with the rest of the castoffs. (Will he become a real monkey then? As long as he has his same personality…). One day, I will find him and cry. And he will mean Birdy, still and always: the face of sweet and blameless perfection. He is a metaphor, a symbol, an appendage, an extension, a projection, a fact. He is a transitional object. He is an object of devotion. He is hers, as she is—not quite, not ever truly—mine.

Author’s Note: Even as I was editing this piece, Strawberry, who now wears a laminated tag with Michael’s cell number on it, went suddenly missing. He was in the car, safe and sound, but I’m just crazy enough to worry that by writing about him, I’d jinxed everything somehow. And I was thinking that it had been a long time since I’d written a piece that I’d hate for my kids to read, but I’d really hate for them to read this. “When I look into your stuffed monkey’s face, I wonder what it would feel like to look into your stuffed monkey’s face after you died.” What is wrong with me? (That’s a rhetorical question—don’t answer, don’t send prescription medication.)

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at



By Hilary Meyerson

spring2009_meyersonI am a conscientious parent. To prove it, I’m setting my kids firmly on the path to mediocrity. I want them to strive for the goal of fair-to-middling in a wide range of activities. I want them to be spectacularly average.

This can be problematic for me, trying to raise children who are not the best at anything. My six-year-old daughter, Harper, just finished kindergarten, and is still in that golden age when anything is possible. She has art and music and playtime and fun every day. But my eight-year-old son, Henry, like his second-grade classmates, has already begun to identify at what he is “good” and “bad,” and the bad is to be shunned at all costs.

If you’re “bad” at reading, by all means, give that up. Is math hard in second grade? Write it off, you’ll never be good at it. Art? Music? Writing? It’s the same. If you’re not excelling at it by six, it’s probably too late. As for a working definition of what it means to be “bad” at something, just ask any kid: It means that someone else is much better.

Still, good parent that I am, I shuttle my kids after school to various enriching activities: swim lessons, music, soccer. At these extra-curricular endeavors, I can see the weeding out has begun, as kids begin to improve exponentially at their chosen activity.

Henry plays violin. He asked for lessons when he was four. One day in preschool, the father of a classmate came into class and played for the class. Not a professional musician, but rather a fifth-grade teacher who played for fun in the evenings. My son was enthralled. After this musical introduction, he insisted he wanted to take lessons. I found this hard to believe, not having one musical impulse myself, but almost a year later he was still talking about it. I found him a teacher. I tried to be casual about his lessons, but secretly I was envisioning him as an adult, headlining famous music halls, thanking me for nurturing his early passion, as I sat teary-eyed in the front row. I like to think all parents have this insanity with their eldest.

Fast forward three years. Suffice it to say, Henry is no Itzhak Perlman. After several years of listening to his performances, informal monthly affairs in his teacher’s tiny living room, I’m pretty sure we should not count on music scholarships for college. There is usually one student who dazzles the audience, who is so lost in the music I feel I am intruding on a private moment just by listening. Then there are those miserable souls who stand up and saw away at their tiny instruments, torturing the slimmest of tunes, while looking miserably into their parent’s video cameras, their eyes pleading for a swift death.

Henry is neither. He usually volunteers to go first, probably to get it over with, though he isn’t particularly nervous. He does a serviceable job at his piece, accepts his accolades with a smile, and eagerly heads for the cookies and juice. He helps the little ones set up their stands, offers encouragement on their renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and is slightly in awe of the teenagers who play after him.

He practices most mornings for about twenty minutes. He enjoys his lessons, probably because his teacher is one of those rare individuals who really gets kids, and knows that learning a difficult instrument is about more than music. Some days he gripes throughout his practice when he has a hard piece to practice; occasionally, he’ll ask me to buy him the sheet music to a song he heard somewhere or sang in school. I buy it and hand it to him without comment, and he learns it for fun. Last Christmas, it was “Frosty the Snowman,” and he played it every day for weeks until we begged him to play something else. He has never asked to quit.

Recently, another mother asked me what my endgame was for Henry’s violin playing. That was the word she used—endgame. I was stymied. I babbled some nonsense about the value of learning an instrument, but it wasn’t until later that I really thought about it. It’s clear he’s not going to be a famous soloist—the old joke about practice and Carnegie Hall is inapplicable. I never thought of an endgame. I’ve heard that our local high school and middle schools have decent music programs, and I’m pretty sure he’d enjoy playing in an orchestra.

“But what if he gives it up after high school?” the endgame mother asked me. “Wouldn’t that bother you? All that money for lessons down the drain? All those years?”

After high school? I can’t possibly think that far ahead. What about the now?

My daughter, Harper, took gymnastic classes when she was in preschool. She loved it all, the leotards and tumbling, but the zenith of the class was trampoline time. I have a photo of her in mid-bounce, her hair flying up around her, the look of sheer joy and delight on her face that makes those childhood photo ops priceless.

Then, when she was four, she was invited to join the “developmental team,” the very first rung of the competitive gymnastics ladder, a six-hour-a-week commitment.

Much has been said in the media of this specialization of kids, particularly in sports. No longer do kids play with a neighborhood soccer team in the fall, community center basketball in the winter, Little League in the spring. The pressure is to pick a sport and excel at it—kids work with baseball coaches and trainers all year in preparation for the all-important spring season.

The gymnastics coach looked over Harper’s small form critically, saying it was late to be joining, but there was still potential. Barring injuries, she could peak at fourteen. We signed her up for soccer instead. Where, I am proud to report, she is a very mediocre soccer player. But she is the best daisy picker on the field, and is having a great time.

When I express my opinions on mediocrity, I invariably get the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” argument. Wouldn’t you rather have your kid be really good at one thing, than decent at many? But what makes anyone think we have a choice?

I think it is monumental hubris to assume we can mold our kids to be superstars at anything. It’s not like we get a form to fill out when we enroll them in school, as nice as that would be. Imagine the discussion: “Honey? Has Junior had his chicken pox booster? Check. Do we want full-day or half-day kindergarten? Full. Do we want him to excel at one subject, or be competent at many? What’s that? One subject? OK. Which box should we check – there’s math, science, reading, art, sports … wait, the list is on page two, we can only pick one …” It doesn’t work that way. Our job isn’t to make them a résumé; it is to make them happy, well-adjusted people who can choose their own callings.

I also think it is galling when parents expect far more of their kids than of themselves or their own peers. It is a gift to excel at one particular thing. But how many of us can say we’ve reached the pinnacle in some discipline, or even come close? How many can say they have a passion that they pursue to the exclusion of all others? Sure, there are those who identify so closely with a hobby or pursuit that it encompasses much of their lives. And this is a gift indeed, to be an avid rock climber or quilter or Scrabble player or cyclist and to have the time and resources to pursue it outside of your breadwinning life. But think of your twenty closest adult friends. How many can be summed up in one word? How many would want to be?

This past weekend, my husband and I performed one of those duties I consider part of toiling in the trenches of parenting: attending the spring dance recital. Our daughter takes beginning tap and ballet. For this experience, we pay the (hefty) class fee. To participate in the recital, we pay another (large) fee, for the costume and program. Finally, we must purchase (expensive) tickets to watch our daughter in her three-minute routine, and then sit for another hour to watch the rest of the dancers. The dance studio is popular, and has ten shows over one weekend, twelve acts per show. Dancers and parents file in and out of a high school auditorium like so many sheep.

The shows, like the class schedules, are dominated by the younger dancers. There is class after class of three- and four-year-olds participating in something optimistically called “Creative Pre-Ballet.” The littlest dancers perform (and I use the term loosely) with their instructor on stage with them, modeling the routine.

One step up is my daughter’s age group, able to perform alone on stage, but with their eyes focused on stage left, where their instructor dances the routine with exaggerated movements in the wings to cue them. Harper tap-tap-tapped her way through “You Can’t Hurry Love” with her classmates, all of their eyes riveted to the wings where we could see the occasional foot or hand of her instructor, dancing behind the curtain. We cheered and clapped as our daughter took her bow, and resignedly settled in to sit through eleven more acts of other people’s children.

After the little ones were done, the intermediate classes took the stage: a smaller number of awkward middle schoolers cringing their way through their routine, looking anywhere but the audience. Then the lithe and graceful high schoolers, those few girls who had specialized in this endeavor for their childhood years, performing an intricate dance they had choreographed themselves, their careful blank expressions perfect imitations of every supermodel in every magazine as they gazed out at some unknown point in the distance.  Finally, after creeping increments of years in the ages of the dancers, at least a twenty year gap: The Beginning Adult Tap class was brought to the stage.

The MC of the show, a dancer’s father pressed into service after years in the audience, had been doing a fair job—until this act came on. He seemed flummoxed as to how to introduce this unusual group. It was quite a different demographic, following wave after wave of tiny tots in dance shoes the size of Milano cookies. His introduction went something like, “Let’s give the next act extra applause, because, well, they are going to need it! This is, um, Beginning Adult Tap. Can you believe it—how nervous must they be?”

Despite the painful introduction, or perhaps because of it, I was intrigued. When the curtain opened, there were twelve fully grown adults, eleven women and one man, dressed simply in red shirts and black pants. The music was cued. They began to dance.

I recognized at least three of the women, other mothers I knew from the playground or school activities. Of all the acts, this was the only one that was fully engaged with the audience. Eyes forward, big smiles, contagious enthusiasm. Their number began slow, their music a classic rock song we all knew from the pre-kids days. It picked up, the dancers gaining speed, as most of the audience unwittingly mouthed the words.

As I watched them tap in perfect unison, I thought about these dancers. They all have jobs, families, car payments, grocery shopping like the rest of us. They’ve all obviously done something else with their lives before taking this tap class. But for whatever reason, six months ago or so, they went and signed up for a beginning tap class and showed up the first week with a brand new pair of clackety shoes. Then they showed up for class once a week, despite the demands of jobs and children and other responsibilities, and practiced. Then they performed for an auditorium full of parents, people deciding whether their little dancer should go to the next level or perhaps try karate. Just because it would be fun.

As their dance led up to a thundering finale, a wild, exuberant finish that brought down the house, I recognized the look on every one of the dancers’ faces, damp with perspiration. It was the same one Harper had in midair above the trampoline, in that long-ago gymnastics classes—sheer happiness. They were enjoying that moment.

And suddenly I had an answer for the mother who wanted to know the point of all those violin lessons. This is what I want for my kids. I want them to take time away from the responsibilities of daily living, to do something that they really enjoy, without worrying if they will be the best at it, or will receive recognition or kudos for it. I want my son to take out his violin every Christmas, as his own kids groan, to play “Frosty the Snowman” yet again, because it’s tradition. And maybe take it to his kid’s preschool and play for a delighted bunch of four-year-olds.

Endgame, indeed.

Author’s Note: Here’s the final irony about those tap dancers: They were fantastic. This ought to be a heartwarming story about the middle-aged women (and man) who had the guts to flub their way through a few dance steps, enjoying themselves despite their obvious shortcomings. But it didn’t turn out that way. They were good. Really, really good. For those brief moments on stage, they were not moms or dads or doctors or firefighters or whatever they did offstage. They were dancers, in perfect unison, dazzling the audience, their joy evident for anyone to see. Maybe they were hoping to just become mediocre, but in truth, they were nothing short of magnificent.

About the Author: Hilary Meyerson is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She is the editor and social media strategist for Outdoors NW magazine, a regional outdoor recreation publication. You can find more of her writing at She’s pleased to report that her kids are turning out happily average, but more than average happy. 

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

Ben Will Be Two

Ben Will Be Two

By Abbe Walter

Art BenBen will be 2 in two weeks. He is walking around the house with a book that sings the nursery rhyme “Rock-a-bye baby” when you open it. A different line sung for each page turned. He never keeps it open past the first page. Open, shut, open shut, open, shut. Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! My 3-month-old Jake is napping in his crib and the August sun is pouring in thick like butter through the living room windows. At 9:00 a.m. sharp the phone rings. My stomach drops. My husband Brian looks at me from the next room. I take a deep breath and say hello, meeting Brian’s eyes. Brian immediately picks up the other extension in time to hear Dr. Khan ask me if someone is there with me, and me saying yes.  “OK, good,” Dr. Khan says. “I’m so sorry but the blood tests we did yesterday, well, it looks like Ben has cancer, most likely leukemia.

Brian drops the phone and collapses against the living room wall onto the floor crying, instantly, gasping for breath. I can hear him in stereo, through the phone and through the house. Dr. Khan says I can hear you are not alone, that is good. (Brian later tells me his first thought was that Ben was going to die. For some reason, death did not enter my mind at that moment though it certainly haunted me so many times in the years that followed.) I have no thoughts or feelings and I do not shed a tear. I am aware that I am not crying, but I don’t know why, and I quickly think that I should be crying. But I am not. I am numb, floating above myself, watching from somewhere else, hearing Dr. Khan speak, not understanding, not absorbing. Yet I realize that I am asking questions about how to proceed. Where do we go? What do we do?

I am staring at Ben, who is walking around with his book. Rock-a-bye baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby!

One of us calls our parents, I don’t recall whom. Brian’s parents will come to our house to watch Jake and my dad will meet us at the hospital. Brian’s parents arrive; everyone is hugging each other except for me. They are hugging me. I am not hugging. They are all crying. I am not crying. I am staring at Ben. I am imploding.

By 10:30 a.m. Ben is admitted to New York University Medical Center. Ben needs to have an IV put in. I don’t understand why he needs an IV and I’m afraid it will hurt him.  They take us into a small room. No windows. Ben is sitting on my lap and I am holding him and kissing the top of his head. Brian is standing next to us, his hand on my shoulder, a hand on Ben.  A doctor attempts to access a vein. Ben screams. Tears spring from Ben’s eyes, from my eyes. The doctor shakes her head and says, it didn’t work, let’s try again. She tries again, shakes her head again and says shoot. I ask what’s wrong. She explains how his veins are so tiny and so fragile. The veins often collapse. It can be tricky, she says. I ask if there’s anyone else who can try.

At 11:30 a.m. there have been so many pokes and so many collapses, so much screaming and so much crying, that I am certain Ben, Brian and I have all been permanently punctured. Now there is a small army of doctors and nurses in the small room and I am incredibly hot. Sweating. By now, the room is totally dark except for Ben’s beautiful little arm, glowing translucent red with tiny blue veins, magically illuminated by a special light they brought in, and the fluorescent glow of the fish tank against the wall, meant to be calming, soothing, relaxing, distracting.

I want to smash my head right through that tank and scream. I want to crawl out of my skin. I want this to stop. Rewind. I want them to leave my baby alone. I ask again if the IV is really necessary right now, and everyone looks at me, some sadly smiling. By now it’s all been explained to us more than a few times by more than a few doctors. Your son has leukemia. He needs to start chemo today. First step is the IV. We need to get started. There is no choice.

I recoil at the thought. I don’t want them to put that poison inside my beautiful, perfect, innocent baby boy. I am sick with worry about the effects the chemo will have on his young body and his developing brain, the effect this experience will have on his life. What had been his life. What his life is supposed to be.  What his life was supposed to have been. I am struck with the realization that life is forever changing right now. Now. That they are stealing my son from me in order to save him and he will never be the same and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. There is no choice.

Ben is once again struggling against the looming IV needle and a team of nurses, doctors and techs are holding him down. My jaw is clenched and my blood is racing, heart deflating. Another poke. Another scream. Another collapse.

“No more, mama,” Ben says.

I need this to stop. I am yelling at the doctors and nurses to just get someone, an expert, someone who can successfully access my baby’s veins and just get this done.

I need this to stop. Can’t somebody just do this?

I have lost track of time in that small, dark room. Ben has stopped struggling. He is limp, damp, staring deeply into my eyes with his big baby blues. His strawberry blond hair clings to his forehead. I cling to his small, chubby hand. My mouth is so dry. I want to say I am sorry to him but I cannot speak.  My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am desiccated.

A short while later the doctors and nurses finally get the IV in, and they cheer, happy and triumphant, smiling at us, as if we feel the exact same way.

Author note: Ben will be twelve. He is almost as tall as me, is sweet as sugar, laughs the loudest laugh and still has the most beautiful blue eyes in the world. Ben was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia over 9 years ago. He was treated for 3 years and 2 months, and is considered cured. I know that childhood cancer is one of those dark fears nobody really wants to think about. I understand you. This essay was written as an invitation to take just a peek. Maybe understand those of us who have gone through it. And those who still are fighting the fight.

About the Author:  Abbe Walter lives with her husband and four children in Connecticut, where she also works and writes. She is a practicing clinical psychologist who has been published in various scientific journals. This essay is her first non-academic publication.  

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Hearing Henry

Hearing Henry

By Krysty Krywko

Art Hearing HenryCan you say juice? Juice. How about please? Please. There I am on all fours, my face inches from my 20-month-old son’s – pleading with him to at least try to repeat a word I might recognize.

I miss not being able to talk to my son. While he babbles and giggles all day – there are very few sounds I understand. To his credit, he has mastered a system of pointing and pleading that allows him to get what he wants: his juice cup, his favorite toy train.

My firstborn, Molly, started talking early. I felt I had an edge with her, an inside track on how to understand her mood and her temperament. With Henry, I am missing that final piece of the puzzle that will help me put him all together.

I do not know my son. Not in the way that a mother should know her child. I know his smell. I know the shape of his body as it presses into mine. But I do not know him – his being, his essence, all that stuff that is inside his head. He floats around the fringes of our family life – separate, yet together. I want him to join the conversation whether it is around the dinner table and we are talking about all the different ways you can eat a strawberry, or while we run errands and count the number of taxis we see.

Despite my years of teaching experience (12) and my degrees (a Master’s in Curriculum and Teaching; a Doctorate in International Education Development) my son’s lack of speech is unexplored territory for me. I don’t know the developmental markers for speech at his age, but I do know my son should be further along than he is. It seems to me there should be an attempt on his part to do more – to put words into fragments, fragments into sentences, sentences into conversations. I have great faith that the development of my children will simply unfold as it is meant to, a rambling list of “firsts” – first steps, first teeth, first words. Isn’t there supposed to be a master plan for all this?

I sit in a café. Latte and notebook spread out before me. Beside me sits a mother with her young son. I’m not sure how old the child is; he looks about the same age as Henry. The two of them are engaged, using words. They have a conversation, or at least as much of a conversation as can be expected between a mother and a young child. The overheard chatter bounces around the chambers of my heart. When Henry and I go out; there is silence. Maybe some gesturing and sounds on his part, the very few words he has cobbled together; mommy, up, goodbye. This is what I hang onto.

It is what I hang onto when my mother says I should take Henry to the doctor because something is not right with him, with the way he interacts. It is what I hang onto when my father tells me he is worried, that Henry, rather than moving forward, seems to have regressed in the past few months.

Henry’s pediatrician, on the other hand, is not worried, and it is her white-robed efficiency that I also hang onto. When at the end of his two-year-old visit she asks if I have any concerns, I say:

“I do. I think Henry should be talking more than he is.”

“Did he pass the newborn hearing screen?” she asks.


“Does he go vroom-vroom when he plays with his trucks?”

“Yes,” I reply uncertainly. I am not sure where she is going with this.

“He’s fine. You need to remember he’s a second child, he’s a boy – he’ll start speaking when he’s ready. Boys are often delayed. There’s no need to start worrying until he’s closer to three.”

I know now there is no medical basis to the pediatrician’s reassurances. Instead, her white-robed efficiency masked a combination of hocus-pocus and old wives tales. There is no mention of further testing, no scheduling of follow up appointments. Just go home and wait and all will be well.

And I play along because I am out of worry at this point. The past two years have been a mess of doctor appointments and consultations as we waited for the hole in Henry’s heart to close; and when it didn’t close we waited to see if the pressure between his heart and his lungs could be regulated; and when it couldn’t be regulated we made plans for our two-year-old son to be put on the heart-lung machine while the doctors cracked open his rib cage and fixed his faulty valve.

Henry comes running to me, hot on the tracks of Molly, who is four and half. She carries her newly colored picture of a farmhouse, complete with animals.

“Mommy, Mommy! Look what I drew, Mommy. How do you like my picture of a farm? See here are the babies and here are the mommies.”

“It’s great, honey. I love the way you drew the baby pig, he looks so happy next to his mommy.”

Henry holds up his picture. Syllables tumble out of his mouth. He is excited to share his artwork. I have no idea what he is trying to tell me though. I feel like we are both getting ripped off. I’m not sure what I am looking at other than a jumble of colors. The generic platitudes that tumble out of my mouth sound empty and hollow – the kind of chatter you engage in with a stranger in the elevator, mindlessly commenting on the weather.

Henry is two months shy of his third birthday, when his preschool teacher suggests we take him for a hearing test. Someone has finally stood up and named the obvious: that my son needs help, we need help.

Henry and I sit in the backseat of a taxi on the way to the audiologist. A fire truck blares up behind us. Henry doesn’t even flinch. I know my son can’t hear even before he is diagnosed with moderate to severe bilateral hearing loss. All the pretending, all the excuses slip away.

What I don’t know in the backseat of that taxi is that Henry will be fitted with hearing aids. That in a few short months he will start intensive speech therapy at a special school. That he will come home tired and overwhelmed from listening to all the new sounds. What I don’t know in the backseat of that taxi is that Henry will begin to talk. That he will be able to say he loves me and that Cheerios are his favorite breakfast cereal. At this moment I only know all that we have lost; I do not yet know all that we have to gain.

Author’s Note: Four years have passed since we first started this journey into Henry’s hearing loss. When we first inserted his hearing aids, miniature grey receivers with batteries, we weren’t sure what to expect. Henry turns seven this April and is a confident and inquisitive first grader. He has a wicked sense of humor and the hearing aids that I once thought would define him are only a small part of who he is.

About the Author: Krystyann Krywko is a writer and education researcher who specializes in hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. Both she and her young son were diagnosed with hearing loss one year  apart. She is the author of the e-book, “What to Do When Your Child is Diagnosed with Late Onset Hearing Loss: A Parent’s  Perspective,” available on Kindle. She also authors the blog, “After the Diagnosis: Helping Families with Hearing Loss.” She can be contacted through her website

Bathroom Reading

By Beth Strout

stroutI used to be a toilet training expert–you know, back before I had kids. I held deep convictions that anyone whose child was not potty-trained by the age of two, maybe two-and-a-half for boys or the slow-witted, was seriously slacking as a parent. Unlike your average pompous childless person who smugly dispenses childrearing critiques, I wasn’t just a garden-variety sneering restaurant patron or irritated airline passenger. I was a Montessori-trained preschool teacher and I felt that this entitled me not only to cook up these little nuggets of genius but to mouth off about them regularly. When I had kids they were definitely going to be toilet trained by age two, at the latest. I had experience with other people’s kids–why would mine be any different?

My daughter Annika is now three years and three-and-a-half months old. She is not potty-trained. She will use the toilet at home if she is naked from the waist down and in close proximity to a toilet when the urge becomes critical, but she will go to great lengths to avoid using the toilet if said planets are not precisely aligned. Just this morning we left a horrible Pull-Up full of green sludge reeking in the sanitary napkin disposal in the ladies’ room at Barnes & Noble. I shudder to think of what my karmic punishment will be for this crime. Anyone with a working knowledge of mythology knows that hubris–pride, thinking that you know it all–is just the sort of thing to get you turned into a pig by the higher powers. The punishment usually fits the crime, so it is appropriate that I should now be the parent of the three-year-old hunkered down behind the stuffed animal display at America’s largest bookstore chain, taking a stinky dump.

“Annika, are you pooping?” I hiss in a desperate whisper as I dash past her hideout, chasing her eighteen-month-old brother. He is headed for the exit holding five or six children’s books on tape.

“No, Mommy! I’m still working on dat poo-poo!” she shouts, neatly solving the mystery for the confused shoppers who are glancing surreptitiously at the soles of their shoes or wondering if perhaps a sewer main has burst.

I dive for Sam, pry the coveted “takes” out of his chubby little fists, and stuff him into the sling. We march back to the poisoned atmosphere of the rapidly clearing children’s book section to claim the little stink bomb and drag her to the bathroom. I deserve every dirty look I get. I’ve been on the other side of that look and, karmically speaking, I have plenty more coming to me.

I am also aware that there is a sort of parental code of honor that says that when your kid makes a poopy diaper at a public venue, you seal the offensive package in the Ziploc baggie that you happen to have brought along for just this purpose and remove the foul relic from the premises. The only time I ever have Ziploc baggies ready is when they have recently been emptied of snacks. Stuffing a poop-filled diaper into a sandwich-size is a challenge, but I have done it when there’s no way to flee the scene. Unfortunately for the staff of Barnes & Noble, I was simply not equal to the task, and the book stacks provided adequate cover for me to sneak out well before some poorly compensated worker received an unpleasant surprise.

Back when it was all still theoretical, I actually had an Amateur-Day-at-the-Child-Psych-Lab theory about why some children are resistant to toilet training. It went something like this: When a caregiver changes a child’s diaper, he or she touches the child, talks to her, gives lots of eye contact. When the child sits on the big, cold, scary potty, she loses this opportunity for contact with the caregiver and reasonably balks. My solution to this problem was simple. I would squat down in front of the toilet so that I could touch her, talk to her, maintain eye contact. Then I would give her a sticker. Kids love stickers.

As half-baked ideas often do, it looked good on paper but was a total bust in real life. One evening, I sat her on the toilet at our local sandwich shop and assumed the position in front of her dangling ankles. I gazed earnestly into her eyes. Sam was back at the table with his dad, so I could give her my undivided attention. I was sort of excited to put my plan into action. I tried to mentally telegraph I’m here for you, honey. I gave her knees a reassuring little pat.


“Yes, honey?” Right here for you, babe, right here.

“Could you go away from me? I need privacy.”

“Sure, sweetie.” I went to the mirror to sulk and pretend to casually look at myself in the ghastly fluorescent light.

Never one to let well enough alone, I meandered back over to the toilet and tried a slight variation on my earlier position. I actually sat down on the floor in front of the toilet. I should mention at this point that, while this particular restaurant keeps an immaculate facility, I am positively horrified by the thought of all of the germs that one encounters in a public restroom. The idea of her hands on the toilet seat and any number of my own body parts on the floor was odious. It made me want to scream. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want her to be any more apprehensive about using public restrooms than she already was. We had recently encountered a monstrous black beetle thrashing in its death throes in the bathroom of an upscale sporting goods store and I was trying to play down the Chamber of Horrors vibe. I hoped that I looked upbeat but not pushy. Annika sighed and stared at the wall behind my head.

Suddenly her posture changed. She tilted her pelvis forward and curled her head forward to get a better view of her crotch. I looked, too. For a split second, just as the urine started to bubble forth, I felt elated. See, my theory was working after all! This was going to be a cakewalk.

Then she peed all over me. The angle of her crotch sent the piss straight up and out of the toilet and, sitting directly in front of it, I could not have been better situated for a direct hit. This did not bother Annika in the least. In fact, she announced her accomplishment loudly as we exited into the restaurant. “Daddy,” she crowed, “I made a tinkle in the potty!”

It was a humbling moment, and I couldn’t even blame it on Sam. He certainly doesn’t help and has been my mental fall guy for some time now. I like to think that if I hadn’t had my babies so close together–twenty-one months apart, not that it was planned–I could have gotten her potty-trained according to my original schedule. I could have watched her like a hawk, seen the telltale wiggling, checked my watch against her last sippy cup of juice, and sat her little bottom on the potty at regular intervals until she got the hang of it. I was going to give her stickers.

But, as soon as Sam could crawl, he was following Annika into the bathroom and pulling up on her legs every time she sat down to give it a try. “Mommy! Shammy is pinching my legs!” she would wail, indignant, and administer a stout kick to his head. This would knock him down and because our downstairs bathroom is the size of a phone booth, he would smash into me (squatting attentively in my official position in front of the toilet) domino-rally style. They cried. I poured sweat and boiled with frustration. When I tried to block the bathroom door with my body, Sam wept bitterly, heartbroken, the kid who wasn’t invited to the party. When I let him in, he unrolled bales of toilet paper and tried to cram fistfuls of it into the toilet between Annika’s legs, eager to demonstrate his understanding of the process. Annika was not impressed. More crying. More sweating. The thought of trying to wrangle both of them into a public restroom for this sort of scene makes me want to cry.

I figure that Sam will have to be about three years old before he is going to be at all manageable in a public restroom. By then Annika will be about five. Maybe she would have potty-trained naturally by this point. I mean, how long could she possibly go? What’s the record?

There’s actually something appealing about just letting her learn “naturally” at her own pace. For starters, I would be spared many of these unpleasant scenes. Friends and family could just shake their heads and chalk it up to my hippy-dippy, crunchy-granola style of parenting. That she still sleeps with us in the family bed and has only recently been weaned from breastfeeding has most of them convinced that I’m turning her into a criminal anyway. I’m more or less comfortable with being the neighborhood nut job.

I could even convince myself of this pose except that I am using disposable diapers. There, I said it. Because I am taking the low road and jamming the landfills with mountains of neatly wrapped packages of human excrement, I am foisting my guilty conscience onto my daughter in the form of forced toilet training–double bad karma.

I started using them full-time after Sam was born, and I would be wretched with remorse about the pollution if I weren’t so darned grateful for the convenience. The little story that I used to use to assuage my guilt was that, as soon as Annika was potty-trained–and, remember, that was going to be very soon–I would get Sam into cloth diapers that I would launder myself. It seemed doable with only one kid in diapers. But Annika shares neither my agenda nor my guilt over the state of the environment and is apparently in no hurry. I have honestly tried to be mellow and let her progress at her own pace, but those little jolts of guilt every time I throw another stinker into the garage trash can specially designated for this purpose are turning me into a shrew. I mean, it’s not like I want to spend all day calculating my next move in the potty wars. You’d think that, given the choice, she’d choose whichever option didn’t include regularly finding herself with a cooling loaf of poop smashed between her buns. But you’d be wrong.

It all boils down to guilt, this parenting gig. You feel guilty if you do too much and guilty if you don’t do enough. I worry that I am going to spend a good deal of my afterlife dealing with nasty diapers in some sort of purgatorial landfill. I worry that I am pushing my child into the Freudian nightmare of forced toileting. I worry that she will never be potty-trained and will have to just eventually graduate into Depends. I worry that that loaf of poop is giving her a rash. I worry that my loathsome sister-in-law will torment me with lengthy boasts of her daughter’s bowel mastery. I worry that all of my worrying is going to make my adorable little girl as neurotic as I am.

You won’t find me spouting any of my sofa-cushion-psychologist theories nowadays. I no longer roll my eyes at those exasperated-looking parents in the grocery checkout line. And I most certainly do not start sentences with the words, “Well, when I have a teenager . . . ” I’ve accepted my fate. When people shoot disgusted looks at me and my stinky offspring, I try to smile humbly. I resist the urge to sneak the reeking packages into their purses and backpacks when their backs are turned. I’ve learned my lesson. Now, can I please just pay my fine and go home?

 Author’s Note: About a month after I wrote this piece, I decided, That’s it, we’re goin’ commando. I bought Annika a bunch of hip little bikini panties in psychedelic prints, put them on her, and took her out in public, armed with a complete change of clothes and a sense of impending disaster. To my utter surprise, she has been accident-free ever since. In fact, she has to use the bathroom dramatically less often than I do. True to my original pledge, I have begun working off my bad karma laundering Sam’s cloth diapers. I owe. I owe big.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2003)

About the Author: Beth Strout lives with her husband, two children, and a neurotic Rottweiller named Dodger in the deep suburbs of Austin, Texas. You can contact her at

Art by Jaki Wood

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The Snip

The Snip

By Kate Haas

TheSnipThe grandmotherly woman with the Minnie Mouse lapel pin doesn’t blink an eye when we ask for the video. She coochie-coos the baby strapped to my chest, then leads my husband and me past shelves of health books and racks of earnest pamphlets, over to a small, curtained cubicle in the corner of our HMO’s Wellness Resource Center.

“Here you go,” she says with a professional smile, plucking our request from a nearby shelf. We step inside, draw the curtain, and insert the videocassette. We’re ready.

Well. One of us is ready, anyway. He presses play.

The screen brightens and a scene of suburban domesticity appears. Imagine Brad and Janet, the naïve protagonists of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ten years later. Brad, still geeky, wears tan, too-short swim trunks that expose his skinny white legs as he splashes in the backyard pool with his two wholesome, blond daughters. Janet, her hair now showing a touch of bleach, turns from her seat under the patio umbrella to gaze adoringly at her husband. We hear Brad’s nasal, whiny voice-over: “For Janet and me, vasectomy was the right choice.”

Inside the darkened cubicle at the Resource Center, my husband and I giggle. We are here because, before granting a man an appointment to see the urologist—much less allowing him to take the irrevocable step of curtailing his fertility—our HMO requires him to watch a video about it.

So, with our seven-month-old second—and last—child squirming in our laps, we watch Brad and Janet walk into the doctor’s office to discuss the big V. The physician (henceforth referred to as Dr. Toupee) smiles reassuringly at the couple from behind an imposing desk as he explains “the procedure.”

“Doctor,” Brad inquires diffidently, glancing at Janet, “will this have any effect on our, ah, sexual intercourse?”

Dr. Toupee clasps his pudgy fingers together and assumes a grave expression in acknowledgement of the seriousness of Brad’s concern.

“Not at all,” he reassures. “There may be a slight reduction in the amount of fluid contained in each ejaculation, and the ejaculate will no longer contain sperm, of course, but your experience of intercourse will be unchanged.”

Janet nods, trying to look worldly, as if she hears the word “ejaculate” used as a noun on a daily basis. Brad gives her a tight smile. Bruce and I giggle some more.

The camera follows Brad to the doctor’s office, where he arranges himself impassively on the medical equivalent of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The nurse covers him with a blue drape. Dr. Toupee approaches with a syringe.

“Now you’ll feel just a little prick…” he says blandly.

Bruce and I are beside ourselves. “Oh my God, did he actually say, ‘little prick?’ ” I gasp. We feel like a couple of ninth graders watching a sex education presentation.

On screen, Brad makes it through the surgery, walks gingerly out to his car, and goes home to sit stoically on the couch with an ice pack. In the final scene, the family is relaxing in the tastefully appointed living room. The kids play while Brad and Janet nestle on the couch, beaming at each other in a manner that makes it clear they’ve got no problems in that department. We get the message: vasectomy is No Big Deal.

Except that it is.

Our two children frequently overwhelm us. We can imagine all too well another round of diapers, nursing marathons, sleepless nights, and the constant vigilance of life with a toddler. It’s a vision that makes us tremble. So why do I feel ambivalent at the prospect of permanently closing the door on our fertility?

It doesn’t trouble Bruce in the slightest. “I would have done this years ago if I hadn’t met you,” he reminds me. And it’s true; when we met, my husband had no intention of having children. Ever. That we are the parents of two is a tribute to marital negotiation and compromise.

I refrain from asking if he’s glad now that he didn’t get the snip back then. We are in the thick of things with two under five and there are days when I know exactly what his answer would be.

I have those days myself. The days when my patience is stretched so thin I start to wish I were a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child fundamentalist instead of a supposedly pacifist Quaker. The days when the frustration of not being able to do what I want, when I want, tempts me to get in the car and leave. Adding another child—another baby—to our family is unthinkable.

But I do think about it. The few times we’ve been careless, and each time my period is late, a flicker of anticipation stirs in me. I imagine the thrill of being pregnant again, the pervading excitement and expectation of those nine months, the drama of birth. (Conveniently, I don’t dwell on the next eighteen years.) Is all of that really over for us?

“Maybe you’d get your curly haired girl this time,” Bruce teased on one of those occasions. “Little baby Rose,” he sighed, evoking the vision of a daughter named after two great-grandmothers—a vision that vanished with the birth of our second son.

“What are you getting all mushy about?” I demanded incredulously. “You know you don’t want another. Do you?”

“Well. It would be exciting, having you pregnant again,” he admitted. “That big belly growing … another birth, seeing the baby come out, watching you be so strong.” We smiled at each other, remembering, and then he shook his head. “But the minute that baby was in your arms and nursing, you’d realize it was all a terrible mistake.”

He was right. Still, I was surprised that my husband had articulated my ambivalence so astutely. Although pregnancy made me feel more like a grumpy, avenging angel than a powerful fertility goddess, I savor the thought of giving birth again. Because really, is there anything else that comes close?

My first son’s birth took place in a haze of exhaustion. There were raised voices shouting, Push, push, push! There was pain. There was an unbearable burning sensation. And then, though I have no memory of his emerging, a gangly baby was being held up in front of me.

When my second son was born, three years later, I was more with it. This time all present had strict instructions not to yell “Push!” at me. This time I actually felt the baby—hard and soft and slippery all at once—slithering out through me. Two years later, I can still mentally summon up the exhilaration of that moment—the triumphant realization that I had just pushed a human being out of my body and into the world. I had never been more proud of myself.

I want to do that again.

Sometimes I fantasize about how it would be. After two hospital births, this time I might have the baby at home. No bumpy car ride with the contractions four minutes apart. No nurses coming around to hook me up to that damn monitor. This time I would remember to prepare the right, soothing music mix. Gregorian chants, ethereal guitars… I stop myself before this scenario gets too groovy. Some aspects of the way I labor would undoubtedly remain the same. To be strictly honest, I would probably be yelling at everyone to just shut up for the love of God, the way I did the last two times. But that would be fine.

It’s not going to happen.

Bruce will get the snip, my toddler will wean, and this exhausting phase of our lives will give way to the next one. I won’t imagine a next birth because I’ll be certain there won’t be one. If my period is late, there will be no half-terrified, half-thrilled consultation of the calendar. I’ll finally sort though those boxes of little hats and sweaters on the basement shelves. I can’t quite picture it, but we’ll move on to being parents of school-aged children. Homework and soccer practice are as foreign to me now as diaper-changing used to be, but I’ll figure it out.

Recently, Bruce and I brought a meal to new parents in the neighborhood. We cooed over the baby. I couldn’t wait to be asked to hold her. How light in our arms she was, how delicate and perfect those little fingernails! But in the car, on the way home, there was a palpable sense of relief, of escape, of better them than us. We laughed giddily, like trekkers who are finally descending the mountain.

I don’t want another child. But I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, at my belly that has sheltered two babies, at my breasts that have nourished them, and it’s strangely sad to think that never again will I feel the invisible dance of a baby kicking inside me. That from here on out, my body won’t be called upon to sustain anyone but me. That this phase of my life is ending.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for physical independence. I won’t miss being woken nightly by a toddler’s sleepy demands to nurse. I can’t imagine feeling nostalgia for the nausea of pregnancy, or the fatigue of new motherhood. My maternity clothes? Long since passed on to friends.

And then, of course, there’s the sex. Bruce and I may have mocked that cheesy video at the HMO, but we want the same thing Brad and Janet wanted. These days, sexual encounters are either triumphs of strategy or brazen acts of defiance against Morpheus. Fighting our way through the chaos and fatigue to reconnect can be exhilarating, but often enough it’s easier not to make the effort. A marriage that has weathered the pressures of two active children needs all the spontaneous passion it can get.

Graduate school, full-time work, and family life take a lot of a man’s time, and for the year and a half since we watched that video, getting on with life has pretty much precluded “the procedure.” But with the degree finally in hand, my husband has made the appointment. The seven-month-old baby we brought with us to the HMO that day is now over two years old and has become a playmate to his brother instead of an unwelcome interloper. Watching our boys race down the street hand in hand or put their heads together over some scheme, we see how far we have traveled. And with each milestone reached, it’s easier not to think about starting the journey over.

I’m ready.

Author’s Note: Shortly after completing this essay I was at the park, sharing intimate details of my life with a near stranger, as we mothers often do. Nodding toward a cluster of women with young babies, I confided—perhaps a bit smugly—that since my husband’s surgery, all of that was now over.

My new acquaintance pointed to her kindergartner. “Meet ‘Over,’ ” she said. “You mean…?” I stammered. She nodded. Her second child had been conceived eight years after her husband’s vasectomy. “I love this kid, don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But have your husband tested yearly. No one told us that. Now it’s my personal little crusade.”

Note has been taken.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is

Art by Clover Archer

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.

Extreme Family Flying

Extreme Family Flying

By Rebecca Martin

Extreme Flying ArtI recognized the woman approaching me in the baggage claim in Los Angeles from when I’d seen her six and a half hours earlier in the terminal in New York. Back in New York she had glided through the crowd to the Business Class line, a tall exotic model-looking type, with a dark curly halo of hair and a slight glossed pout hanging below monster-sized black sunglasses. She looked perfectly composed, even with the small infant hanging off her front from a baby carrier. Beside her was a daughter of about four pulling her own suitcase and behind her a pack mule of a husband pushing a stroller with a baby carrier and carrying four or five carry-on bags covered in designer initials. Six hours later, she still had on her shades, but instead of looking chic and serene, she looked disheveled and weary.

“Did you do this yourself?” she asked me, pointing at my children. “Oh, yeah,” I said, downplaying it. Then she turned to her husband, still laden in designer bags, and said, “she flew from New York with three kids by herself!” She then turned back to me and added, “You’re amazing!” “Oh, thank you,” I said, and then looking down at my five-year old, Johnny, holding my hand and at Maeve, three, and James, one in the stroller, I added, “but, these guys were really good” as if they deserved any credit. It is a response I have rehearsed to give a sense of humility, because I hear that I am amazing for flying solo cross-country with three kids all of the time and what I really want to say is, “Yep, I am pretty incredible.”

I don’t do much else that is dazzling, like run marathons or scale mountains, but three times a year I fly with my three children from Connecticut, where I live, to California, where I grew up and my parents still live. I am an average person, until you see me at airport security. In one motion, I can remove three pairs of crocs and my own shoes, pull my electrical devices from the one bag I am carrying, place the bag on the belt, and collapse my double stroller. It is a move worthy of an instant replay. It should be named after me. I so relish this ability and the others that get me through the six hour trip, that flying with three children has sort of become my extreme sport—complete with rigorous judging. I secretly score other people I see flying, shaking my head and deducting points at solo adults who fill four bins at the security belt or parents who pack multiple bags but cannot produce a wipe on demand.

I award myself points for not needing the assistance of others—not that we are often offered much assistance. To other passengers just the sight of me so outnumbered in the terminal seems to foretell imminent disaster. As we wait and James engages in his usual pre-boarding sprints across the waiting area, chubby arms flapping at his sides, I have noticed people gesturing toward us nervously and whispering. I imagine they are saying, “Yikes! That child does not look like he could sit still for five minutes!” or “I hope we don’t get stuck sitting near them,” or, “that mother must be insane.” But there are the rare good Samaritans—they are always grandmothers, who express their fear that their own children might be stuck in my position one day—and once or twice my bladder has forced me to accept one of their offers to hold a baby for a moment.

I don’t have to fly without help. I have a husband and parents who can occasionally fly with me, but I would have to make the trip less often. Besides, help is not always what one would hope. “Was I supposed to be watching him?” My Dad said to me after James took a header into the aisle. My husband has been known to enjoy the onboard film. Once, when James was just three months old, I took a babysitter: it was heaven, but that is a luxury I cannot afford. Besides, flying without her, is like working without a net—there’s the exhilaration factor. It’s like my Everest, but how many people do that six times? And I do enjoy the praise that it inspires from other people. I may not be the mom who hosts the best play dates or be president of the PTA, but I can fly.

I engage in no doping—for myself or the kids. We fly chardonnay and Benadryl free. I cannot risk slowing my reaction time—my daughter Maeve can wiggle to the floor and dart down the aisle in a split second—and I have heard that a kid could have the unintended response to an antihistamine and end up jumping her way across country. Also, I need to be at my sharpest; my mastery lies in my recall of the location of all of the family restrooms in JFK and LAX, being able to easily grab hold of the two fully charged DVD players and three sippy cups in my single carry-on bag and to pick up matchbox cars with my toes. I am not saying that things always go smoothly on the flight, but they have never been so tragic that I have had to drown my sorrows.

When things get hairy and I am pulling a screaming child up from beneath the seat in front of us or holding someone’s legs still to keep them from kicking the chair in front of them for the hundredth time, I do as any sports psychologist would recommend, and use mental imagery to keep me going. I go to India, where I have never been, and not to some ashram where I meditate myself out of my body, but rather to an image of traveling third class across India with all of my children. I have even looked it up. The train trip from Mumbai to New Delhi is over 16 hours. If the mothers of India can endure that, then I can make it to LA in Economy Plus.

And in my favor, as always in motherhood, is that I have no choice but to go on and that, like all experiences with my children, when I look back on the trip the time seems short. I wonder if other endurance athletes feel the same way.

Of course, I do not really fly with my three kids for the feeling of pride I take in being able to do it, nor do I need to outdo myself. I have no plans to attempt a solo transoceanic flight—the equivalent of a quadruple axle. I just want to get to California, where I am able to collapse into the bed my mother makes for me. With the time change, I wake up at dawn. This last trip, the June Gloom slowly receded from the beginnings of mountains outside the window. The lushness of winter that can make the hills of Southern California look like piles of moss was already drying out to reveal the scattered cactus and the prickly leaves of Live Oak that reach up from narrow canyons. It was worth the trip. I love Connecticut, but this is my landscape and I want my children to know it, I thought and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I did not have to get back on a plane for two weeks.

Author’s Note: I waste an inordinate amount of time feeling like a pretty shabby parent. Even when I suspect I have done good, I immediately refer myself to my most recent mothering snafu, be it forgetting that the bus comes home early on teacher conference days or overcooking the nut-free spider cookies for the school Halloween party. But so many people are really in awe of my ability to put myself in a difficult situation from which there is no escape, i.e., boarding a plane with three children, that I decided to let myself enjoy this small triumph and ponder just what makes me so fantastic.

Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in, Literary Mama, StepMom and She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.


Intelligent Designs

Intelligent Designs

By Gary Greenberg

IntelligentDesignsWe found the bug, my son Joel and I, on one of the first hot days of summer. It was perfectly preserved in the remains of an abandoned spider web, as if it had flown through a museum window and right into a display case. More than three inches long, its body was brown-black and so deeply articulated that its abdomen trailed its thorax like some kind of afterthought. Three wiry appendages, one of them at least twice the length of the bug itself, hung from its belly like the antennae of a spy plane. With its narrow waist and yellow-and-black-striped head and legs, the bug reminded us of a gigantic wasp, but really, in our collective fifty-five years, we had never seen anything like it.

Forty-eight of those years are mine, and with them comes this feeling of responsibility to impart knowledge—as if it’s not enough to sit on the front porch and look at the creature under a magnifying glass, to speculate on its origins and purpose before tossing it into the overflowing dustbin of family history. So I got out the Audubon guide I bought for just this kind of Teaching Moment, and there on plate 465 was a dead ringer for our find: the Giant Ichneumon. “Mated female flies from tree to tree,” I read to Joel, “pressing its long antennae against the bark to detect vibrations made by horntail larvae in wood. Female curls ovipositor”—I decided that was the long wire—”over abdomen, curving it down to enter bark at right angle. Sharp tips cut progressively deeper until they reach larval tunnels. Female inserts a very slender egg into each horntail tunnel. Each ichneumon larva attacks horntail host, causing its death, but not before ichneumon larva is fully grown.”

As I translated Audubon into seven-year-old—”So the ichneumon mom kills the horntail baby so that hers will grow”—I thought that all this carnage under the bark was a perfect illustration of nature at its most savage and ruthless. “Isn’t it amazing,” I asked him in my best Socratic tone, “that all of this could happen by accident?” I was winding up into full pedantry, ready to expound on the improbability of the idea that natural selection—the shotgun marriage of luck and necessity—could spawn the ichneumon’s ability to seek out and ambush a tiny worm in a sapwood burrow, that this insect’s distant ancestors stumbled by accident on such a bizarre and bloody solution to the problem of reproduction.

When he ran away to show his mother the latest addition to his cabinet of wonders, I figured it was because he didn’t want any more bad news.

Joel is more collector than philosopher these days. He doesn’t ask so much anymore about where the person before the first person came from or who painted the sky. He’s content just to carry a jar of fireflies up to bed and drift off to sleep watching them, as if all the answers were self-evident in their shimmering. But when he asks me who brought him the loom he got for Christmas or who traded the shiny quarters for the tooth under his pillow, I can tell that he’s still worrying those knotty questions, his apprehension evident in the way he circles around the metaphysical implications of Santa and the Tooth Fairy by never just asking me whether they are real.

Not that I blame him. Seeing things from your kid’s viewpoint can give sudden credence to all sorts of strange notions—the enchanted universe, for instance. I mean, when you think about it, natural selection is so farfetched as to seem impossible, if not downright ridiculous. It’s a story with too much pathos and drama not to have an author. I intended to point out the monstrous majesty of unplanned beauty, but something else arose: the Giant Ichneumon put me, a long-lapsed Jew married to a longer-lapsed Methodist raising a child outside of any church or temple, in mind of God.

Once that happens, you’re suddenly in league with some unexpected folks: the creationists, the intelligent designers, the textbook-burning Bible thumpers who reject the tradition of empirical inquiry and flout the logic of Occam’s razor to insist that the accretion of accident cannot possibly account for order and symmetry in the natural world, that all the intricate hand-in-glove relations of creation must have a creator. And for a moment, watching your barefoot son chatter to his mother in the sun-drenched garden, the purple irises brilliant against his yellow hair, it doesn’t feel too bad to think that this was somehow all planned, that your delight is more than the firing of an electrochemical potential descended from a distant fight-or-flight imperative, that it is something real, something that matters, something that some intelligence had it in mind for you to feel.

That doesn’t make the moment itself any less fragile (and you have to wonder where the intelligence lies in a nature so much stingier with joy than with pain). But it does imbue it with substance and depth and meaning, the exact qualities erased by all the rational talk about random variation and struggles for survival.

I don’t know which is the greater folly—to believe that billions of years of accident created this luminous tableau and the capacity to revel in it or to believe that some force actually went to all the trouble of making this happen for me. I know which one I find more convincing, if for no other reason than that it is very hard for me to believe that Creators do retail. And I know which one I wish were true, because whatever consolation there is in stoicism, Darwin’s is a pitiless view. My son is only on the cusp of disenchantment, and for a moment I was there with him. If he’d stuck around, maybe I could have bolstered his belief in Santa and fairies and ichneumons as characters in an epic true story. But then again I am sure I would have found my way back to reason, teased him with transcendence, only to come crashing back to earth.

Author’s Note: When the bug incident happened, George W. Bush had just joined in the shouting match about Darwinism and intelligent design. It was easy to see the president’s advocacy of ID as another example of his conviction that reality is beside the point, that truth must serve power, but I hadn’t grasped the inherent childishness of this attitude, its wish-fulfillment logic, until we found the ichneumon, and that led to unexpected sympathy. I may wish my president was more grown up, but I have to admit there is something compelling and comforting in his sense of a magical universe.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

About the Author: Gary Greenberg is a freelance journalist and psychotherapist who lives and works in Connecticut. His essays and features have appeared in Mother Jones, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Tin House, among other publications.

Art by Digital Imaging by Clover Archer

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The Biggest Baby

The Biggest Baby

By Natalia Cortes-Chaffin

On her second birthday my daughter Leah pushed her chocolate chip cupcake towards me: “Eat it,” she said. It was about the fifth piece of cake she’d been served in her life. Yet despite her love of chocolate and frosting and all varieties of sprinkles, and despite how infrequently I let her indulge, she wanted to share the cupcake with me. She wanted to share it with her feet, too, but mostly she wanted to share it with me. I recorded our little exchange on my phone. I replay the video sometimes when I need to sugar up my day.

Leah is almost three now and, according to the weight guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, she is obese. The CDC designates as obese any child age two to fourteen with a Body Mass Index measurement that falls within the 95th to 100th percentile. BMI represents how much of weight comes from fat, as opposed to the more desirable muscle and bone. It’s determined by an intricate math formula that incorporates weight, height, age, and gender. Studies estimate that 19.6 percent of children ages six to eleven have BMIs that fall into the obese category, and this number is climbing rapidly.

Researchers have also found that a majority of obese children were obese as babies, before they had a single lick of ice cream. Findings like these, along with early obesity’s negative impact on future health, last year prompted a Colorado health insurance company to deny a 4-month-old coverage because he had reached the 95th percentile for his height and weight. The parents were blamed. I guess they were supposed to put their baby on a diet and set him on the infant equivalent of a treadmill.

I suspect this insurance company would point an accusing finger at me, too. My daughter Leah, with an average BMI of 98 percent, has been obese all her life. A typical two-year-old girl is about 33 inches tall and weighs approximately 26 pounds. When Leah turned two, she had reached 35 inches and weighed a whopping 35 pounds—just two pounds shy of her nearly five-year-old sister, whom she loves to topple to the ground while giggling. After the birth of our first two daughters, my husband had hoped Leah might be a football-playing boy. I used to joke that he’d gotten his linebacker.

Admittedly, Leah’s toddler proportions were shocking, the kind of future surprise I didn’t anticipate during pregnancy, when I was worrying about random genetic disorders. That surprise was even greater because Leah wasn’t a large newborn. At birth, she weighed a slightly above- average seven pounds and twelve ounces, just like her two sisters before her, just like many other bouncing babies with all their ten fingers and all their ten toes. She scored the neces- sary scores to be swaddled in a striped hospital blanket and earn a thumbs- up from our pediatrician. We took her home. Family and friends dropped by to slip pinky fingers into her palm and present her with tiny clothes. We never expected that she’d outgrow those new- born clothes within two weeks. At first, we thought nothing of her rapid weight- gain. Everybody loves a fat baby.

“Way to go, mom,” her pediatrician said to me, when we put her on the scale at one month. She’d gained almost four pounds, 50 percent of her body weight. Babies are supposed to get fat, not extremely fat, but plenty fat. They are programmed to eat and sleep and grow. By plumping her up, I was doing my motherly duty. Again her pediatrician pointed his thumb at the sky. Family and friends called to see how much she’d grown, how much she’d gained. They oohed and aahhed at the numbers.

I was told horrid stories of other babies, the ones who refused to eat, who wouldn’t gain weight, who were prodded with tubes and sliced open for intestinal surgery. I was lucky to have a healthy and hungry baby. I was lucky my body adjusted so easily to the role of dairy cow and produced a farm- worthy abundance of fatty milk. And it wasn’t just that I was lucky. The subtext in every “how’s your baby doing” conversation is always judgmental, always blaming or praising the mother for circumstances that may or may not be under her control. Leah was doing well and, yes, I had a hand in it; I was nursing her and changing her diapers and bathing those ten little fingers and ten little toes. The conclusion was automatic: I was a good mother, an exceptionally good mother at the rate Leah was expanding. I expected us to be put on a poster.

I reveled in the thought that this incredible growth was the first inkling that my baby was extraordinary. My husband and I soon discovered that Leah was indeed extraordinary, with an emphasis on extra: extra rolls around her arms, extra chunkiness around her thighs. Healthy babies double their weight in four months. Leah doubled hers in two. But this was the kind of growth that usually comes with green skin, torn clothing, and gamma radiation. At Leah’s two-month check-up, the plucky nurse with blue scrubs and an I Dream of Jeannie hairdo weighed her in at 14.2 pounds. Though she’d also grown three and a half inches, month two was when Leah stepped off the edge of the growth chart and waved bye-bye to the black dot that represented the 100th percentile for weight. We have yet to swim back to the shores of that growth chart, and I can’t remember the last time we saw land.

About this time, when Leah was two months old, the Discovery Health Channel broadcast a report about a seven-year-old boy who weighed 100 pounds. It was part of a show about rare diseases that aired while my husband was away on a business trip, which is usually when I indulge my obsession with rare diseases by watching the Discovery Health Channel. Leah, who was then four months old and shaped like a giant pumpkin, looked like that boy’s baby pictures. Tragic scenarios tumbled through my mind as I watched the program. I pictured strollers collapsing under her weight, kids pointing long fingers, parents steering their eyes towards normal children. I dreaded her wanting to fly like an airplane and me not able to help her soar. For the first time I understood my husband’s distaste for these shows. I feared Leah might have a genetic disorder like this boy did, some kind of disease that would have her ballooning like Violet Beauregard turned blueberry in Willy Wonka. I raced to the side of her bassinet, watched her sleep under a white cotton blanket. Her tummy rose. Her tummy sank. My love for her was like a primal ache.

“It’s brown fat,” the doctor said with a nonchalant air that mocked my maternal instincts and addiction to WebMD. He explained that some breastfed babies put on an enormous amount of weight. “She’ll slow down at nine months. You’ll see.” I Googled “brown fat.” According to various web sites, brown fat is a mutant form of fat whose cells produce heat and thus help newborns stay warm in the absence of actual cuddly fat. Without it, infants run the risk of dying. Eventually this kind of fat vanishes. It’s not the kind that leads to chronic debilitating issues.