WO Midstream ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

They move north and west. The low weight of eggs in their belly propels them. Their bodies move through the saltwater, past the glittering lures of fishermen. They turn and twist until finally, suddenly, they are home.


In the morning, I wake up just as Violet begins to stir. I kiss the soft slope beneath her chin, smelling the faint scent of my own milk. She moves into a light sleep cycle, her mouth pulling up into a sliver of a smile.

Her eyes open. Round and blue, they burst with light. She smiles with her whole round face and her eyes half close into little crescent moons. Her mouth turns up to meet them, a crinkle mid-nose. Thin tufts of reddish hair bend in several directions. At just over a year old, she is nothing I expected.

“Hi baby girl,” I whisper.

“Mama!” I hear from downstairs. I ignore the sing-song call of my son for a moment.

“Mama!” He hollers now, his voice louder and coarser.

“Let’s go see Maxie,” I whisper to Violet. Scooping her up, we head down the stairs to Max’s room.

“Hi Mommy!” my four-year-old roars as he runs to greet us. I shift Violet to make room in my arms for Max. Max does a little dance and charges toward us, crashes his way into a hug and begins vigorously rubbing the baby’s head. “Hi Biiiilet!” he greets her.

It is Wednesday, which means that my husband left for an early meeting before the rest of us were even awake. The day stretches ahead of us, unstructured. We parade down to the kitchen, my focus set on procuring coffee. Violet clings to my hip like a koala cub. “I wannnn booberries!” Max whines, trailing after me. I wannnn coffee, I think. For a second, I think of the days before I had children. Sweet quiet moments with my journal and a cup of coffee. No one clutching at my body or barking demands.

“I wannnn booberries!” Max repeats. Do we have blueberries? I wonder.

“Can you use your regular voice please? I can’t understand you when you whine,” I lie.

“IIIII wannnnn booberries!” he yells. I take a deep breath and set my half-filled coffee mug down and plop Violet onto the floor.

“MAMA!” she protests. Her arms lift toward me in a V her face crumpling.

“Just a second, Vi,” I sigh.

“I wannn Dada!” Max shrieks. Me too.

It is 7:15a.m. There are about twelve hours to fill until bedtime.


Each August just as the stores were starting to display number two pencils and Trapper Keepers, my mom, dad, brother and I drove out to the cluster of streams near Juneau, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. In the shadow of the glacier, a receding mountain of ice that varies from a cool blue to dirty grey, we watched the spawning sockeye salmon. We’d tromp down a short dirt trail towards a stream, my dad holding the prickly Devil’s Club bushes out of our way with his jacket. The four of us stared into the water, trying to spot the fish. My dad, who was as at home in the Alaskan soil as he was behind the desk at his insurance agency, was always the first to point out the salmon. At first, all I saw were slippery, mossy rocks or an errant pine branch leaning into the stream. But after a few minutes, our eyes adjusted and we could see that the water was clogged with fish, their green heads and red bodies a surprise splash of Christmas in the ebbing summer.

A few weeks later, we would head out to the glacier for another glimpse at the salmon. This time, the fish that were still alive were tattered. The vibrant reds and greens that had bloomed to attract mates had faded. Their fins were mangy, their bodies battered by the rocks and the current. When it is time to breed, the salmon stop eating and devote what is left of their life force to propelling the babies they will never meet into the wet world. My brother and I would point out all the dead ones floating in the shallow streams or beached on the rocky banks. “There’s one! Gross!” we’d say, plugging our noses against the overripe stench of fish.

We peppered my dad with questions.

“Why do they have to die after they lay eggs?”

“Why do they smell so gross?”

“How do they find their way back to this exact stream where they were born?”

“Nobody really knows,” my dad said, his eyes moving from the fish to the mountains stretching above the stream. Last year’s dusting of snow at the mountaintops had only just melted; soon it would start to collect again. My dad’s eyes roamed the mountains as if the answers were buried somewhere in the green and brown. “Nobody really knows.”


“Why are you stopping, Mama?” Max asks from the backseat. It’s late morning, and in an attempt to break up the day, we’re out for groceries and gas.

“Because there’s a red light.”

“But why?”

“Because…because we have to take turns with the other cars,” I say.

“But why? Why, Mom?”

“So we don’t get in an accident, Maxie.”

“Oh,” he says, and for a slip of a second, he is quiet. Blissfully quiet.

Sitting at the red light, I practice the breath we do sometimes in yoga, breathing in for three counts and out for five. Two, three, fo-

“Mom! Why is the gym there?”

“I don’t know. It just is.”

“Why is Bilet asleep?”

“Because babies need lots of sleep,” I sigh. Because she was tired of listening to your questions and plummeted into the sweet release of slumber. I pull up to the gas station.

“Why are you going here?” he asks.

“I’m going to put some gas in the car, Maxie. I’ll be right back.”
“But wh—”

I close the door a bit more forcefully than necessary. Breathing in the rich smell of spilled gasoline, I glance at Max through the window. He is smiling at me. His lips are still moving.

Max’s whys are exhausting, and the lack of quiet is maddening. But there is something more. Each “why” brings a small, orange burst of panic. It’s the same panic I’ve felt when starting a new job, when I am getting to know someone I admire, or when I realize I still haven’t learned to cook: the fear that I am a complete fraud and will soon be found out. How long will it be until he’s asking me the questions I truly can’t answer—questions about why people do bad things, why do people have to die, why will the sun someday burn out? Through the car window I can see my son’s beautiful blue eyes, full of complete trust that I know the answers to all his questions. He has no doubt that I am lightly holding his world.


Science, like my father, has been unable to completely explain how the salmon find their way back—against the current and all odds—to the very stream where they hatched. Some believe that the fish can smell their way home, having imprinted the subtle trail of scents on their journey to the sea. Others believe that the earth’s magnetic fields guide them, pulling them home like a magnet.


As a child, words were my home. I scrawled poems about rainbows, and curled up in my closet, devouring Judy Blume books. Later, I wanted to be an actress, a therapist, a musician. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree as I traipsed from one major to another, attending four different colleges in three different states. I wrote and stopped, wrote and stopped, never having the courage to commit fully to writing, though it is one of the few things I’ve loved without pause. I’ve worked at a retail women’s boutique and for a professional hockey team. I’ve slung coffee and I’ve temped. I drove from my homeland of Alaska to Maine, where a warm, braided force tugged at me from beneath the cobblestone streets, urging me to land and build a life. At times, I wrote. But facing the blank page often felt like swimming against a fierce current—too painful, too many sharp stones to batter me.

Then, I had children. Fatigue and lack of time edged the words out—and most everything else, too.


Like me, the salmon are also changelings. In the winter, they leak into the world from their pink, opaque eggs, already orphaned. Oblivious to the white world above, they burrow into the gravel. They soak in the nutrients from the egg that once held them. They wait for spring.

As they grow, they sprout dark spots and lines for camouflage. Their gills and kidneys morph, preparing for the migration from freshwater to saltwater. They hover near the sea. Their bodies turn iridescent. They enter the ocean, swimming into the unknown.


On the days Max is at preschool, Violet and I go for walks through the cemetery. I strap her into a baby carrier, and her eyes widen as they take in the sweeps of green, the yellow bursts of dandelions, the leaning tombstones. When it becomes too much world to take in, she rests her head against my chest. She doesn’t know that I don’t know the answers, that I worry about money, marriage, mortality. That at nearly 40, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. She doesn’t know that I’m not sure if I’m going to turn left up ahead and walk towards the duck pond, or go right at the gravestone encircled with fake flowers and angel statues. But there is the weight of her head, her full white cherub cheeks against my chest. My heart, her first sound. Her eyelids dip and open, dip and open. She slips into sleep. I turn left, towards the raspy call of the ducks.


In sixth grade, we had to write about what our life would be like in twenty years. I will have two kids, I wrote. I will mostly wear sweaters and jeans. These turned out to be true. But I also wrote that I would live in Alaska and take my place in the family insurance business.

Maybe, sometimes, we can map out the big milestones of our lives. But there is no way to predict the quirky details: At 38, you will have a torrid, wholly unexpected love affair with Brussels sprouts. You will take a road trip that plunks you down in Portland, Maine. The evil fashion trend of skinny jeans will infect the world. Your son will have the same blue eyes of your brother, who will die at 21. Your daughter will have red hair and skin the color of pale cream.


In the sea, in a liquid vastness that dwarfs their home streams, the salmon spend the thick of their lives. They dart from orcas and seagulls. They eat and grow. After a year or two or three of wildness, they retrace their journey. They head home, following the familiar curves of shore, their bodies swiftly adapting from salt water to freshwater, from a wide life back to a narrow one.


Today, between waking and bedtime:

One dance party to Footloose, two to Gangnam Style.

Max pulls his pants down in front of my dad, shakes his bum and says, “I’m going to poop all over Papa!” before laughing hysterically.

Max refuses to get in his car seat after preschool. I sit in the front seat to wait as he cackles and attempts to launch himself into the passenger seat next to me. My blood boils.

Violet takes a handful of stilted steps before plopping herself belly up on a beanbag, like lazy royalty.

“Gentle,” I say to Max. Twenty-three times.

One moment where Violet blows on a little yellow piece of plastic like a horn. This makes Max laugh, which makes Violet laugh. They spray spittle on each other. They are a small pair of insane people, and I melt.

How easily the salmon seem to shift gears, how they shape-shift, while I still flounder from the shock of parenthood. From the jolting pace of the days, the stop-start of tantrums and hugs, vicious boredom and sweet toddler skin.


They make their way home. Slowly, steadily. Perhaps the vibration of home echoes in their small, electric hearts, pulling them north. At the end of their journey, just before they breed and die, their fins go crimson. Their heads turn pine green. They brighten, ready to mate.

Afterwards, they are brittle and wasted. But they are home. They are completing what they were born to do, fulfilling their fate.


As the sun retreats, I glance around the living room. Peanut butter is smeared across Max’s face, hands and the couch. A small smudge stiffens a tuft of Violet’s hair. The floor is strewn with trains with little grey faces, popcorn seeds, and, not surprisingly, a small army of ants. My husband sits in his chair, still in his work clothes, absorbed in his iPad.

My husband and I used to go to the movies. We used to talk to each other. I used to move so often that I kept the boxes to anything I owned that was electric. Ten years have passed in a breath and suddenly we have two kids and a house and we are tired.

Tired and lost. My mind is full of half-finished goals: organize our finances, learn to cook, de-clutter the house, write a book. I feel like I am swimming upstream. I miss the wide, wild sea, the taste of salt on my lips.

How do the salmon do it? How do they find their way home without signs? Without anyone to tell them they are moving in the right direction, to bear left here, to steer clear of that stream over there? How do I know if I’m doing anything right? When there is no supervisor at the end of the day to say, “Hey, nice work today.” Or, “Um, it looks you could use some help over here.” If the kids are alive, somewhat clean and somewhat fed, I guess it’s a successful day. But there’s no one to tell me that, no sign.


And then, sometimes, there is. At the mall the other day with Violet, I pushed her stroller, the blare of music and lights exhausting us both. As her eyes opened and closed, attempting sleep, I stopped to glance at the mall directory. Amidst the blocks of stores, doorways and bathrooms, I spied a small yellow triangle. You are here.

I often feel lost and irritated, and my jeans have unidentifiable smears on them. But if I pull back from the map, I can see I am somewhere in the middle of a lovely, twisty, hard maze of a life. I am a right turn past here, a zig-zag short of there. My life is not circular like the salmon; I am not consciously predestined. But I am making my way, sometimes pushing upstream, sometimes easing through salty seas. If I can remind myself that I only need to follow the next curve of shore, I am okay. I made my way from Alaska to Maine, from alone to tethered. My body carried two babies and now they are here. Now we are here.

And now, finally, they are sleeping. Their sweet pink mouths suck, a body memory of comfort, of home. Of me. Their faces, round and soft, are constellations I could have never envisioned. Blue-eyed, creamy-cheeked and dimpled, they are my little moons. They look like the future: different than I would’ve imagined and lovely. Dreams wind through their heads, unseen and unknown to me; already they are separate, already they are full of mystery. My fingers find the keys and softly click. I breathe and wait for the magnetic pull in my chest, in my fingertips. The copper smell of rocky streams. And like the salmon, as I begin, I remember: It is words that ground me, that pull me home. You are here.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the Elephant Journal and blogs for Huffington Post. She also has pieces in the anthologies Clash of the Couples and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor.



Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer


I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.


“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.


I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.


I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.


Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.


Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”


While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.


Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.


On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.


The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.


I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.


At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.


 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.


A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”


I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”


Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.


The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.


Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.


Don’t Tell Me I’ll Miss This

Don’t Tell Me I’ll Miss This


By Stephanie Portell

“Cherish this time when they’re little.” I hear this all the time. I hear it from family, and I hear it from strangers. But no matter whom I hear it from, for me, it’s bullshit. How am I  supposed to stop and live in the moment when my toddler is screaming his head off because I gave him the wrong color bowl? How am I  supposed to find preciousness in my toddler screaming even louder in public when I tell him to be quiet? All I want to do in these moments is run away, shave my head and wear dark sunglasses so my kids can never find me. If you never want to run, and have found a way to seize the day, please let me in on the secret.

I have two children and I can speak with certainty when I say I am not going to miss this. With my first baby, who is seven now, I would try so hard to be present and to soak up the moments I was supposed to be soaking up. Even though there were likely only five or six times in my oldest son’s first two years I actually wanted to soak it up.

Now with my three-year-old, there is probably one moment a year on average I want to soak up (he is my wild child) and I find myself less inclined to do so. I don’t want to remember the times I wanted to run away as fast as I could. I want to remember him climbing in my lap and laying his head on my shoulder. I don’t want to remember him kicking and swatting at me as I’m struggling to put him in time out for clocking his big brother.  Instead, I want to remember him saying “you my best friend mommy.”

Let’s face it: In the first few years the blissful moments can be far and few between. I spent much of my time with my toddlers fantasizing about when they’d be teens. Thinking that if I had three wishes I would ask the genie to fast forward to when my children acted less like whirling dervishes and more like little adults.  In my most shameful moments, I ask myself why did I decide to do this in the first place?


Note to reader – I had put down my pen for a few weeks after writing this first part of my essay and now, weeks later, return to the writing anew. I have to tell you something important.

I want you to imagine a life of silence. Imagine a life where you don’t have to make a detailed plan just to go to the grocery store with your baby, your toddler, and your tween. Ah– freedom.

In the middle of my not-savor-the-moment thinking between starting and now finishing this piece, I watched a story that Oprah did once on her show. It was about a mom, and her three children who had an ordinary day going to the mall.

I don’t know this mom. I didn’t know her kids.

I don’t know if the youngest threw a fit when they left the mall that day because it was nap time, or if the oldest whined when she couldn’t get the shirt she wanted.

But I know that on their way home when a truck rear-ended them, and killed all three of her children, that mother would have given anything to hear a tantrum again. To hear her children complain, or bicker.

She would give anything to have to explain for the millionth time why her daughter can’t just buy whatever she wants at the mall, and to not be a chauffeur for soccer games and dance recitals without so much as a “thanks mom.”

Hearing this family’s story made me realize even though it’s perfectly OK for us to complain about our everyday challenges with the kiddos, it is also much needed to be present as best as we can. It doesn’t have to be the challenging moments when we want to pull the hair from our head in frustration. It can mean just making sure you are checked in mentally when you are having a genuine good time with your kids instead of only being there physically. It can mean not taking advantage of that time to do work or to just do something without them. Bathroom anyone?

I can’t be present 100 percent of the time or even 50 percent, if I told you otherwise I would be lying.

I am just saying I am going to live in as many moments as I can, because those moments are going to turn into my child’s own memories one day.

I remind myself, and you should too perhaps, that the mom’s kids in the Oprah story are gone, along with all of those moments she thought she would never miss.

Stephanie Portell is the mother of two little boys. She works full time in the medical field while working on her dream of writing any chance she gets.









Milk and Cake

Milk and Cake

beauty child at the blackboard

By Sarah Bousquet

Last week it occurred to me, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry door frame. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler-the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty-is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood.

The triumph of a body doing what a body does was packed with meaning. After nearly three years of struggling to conceive, I became pregnant naturally, much to my surprise and elation. For months and then years I had worried, wondered, researched—why wasn’t my body working? My pregnancy was an answered prayer, but one fraught with anxiety. The act of breastfeeding, just moments after giving birth, my daughter’s perfect latch, allowed me to see my body in action. It was the assurance I was providing everything she needed, the empowerment of a body at work.

When my daughter was six months old, a hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people.” I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly.  The lactating brain is plastic and creative; new neurochemical pathways are forged during the process of breastfeeding. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter. As she awakened to the world around her, taking in sights and sounds, babbling and laughing, intelligent eyes holding my gaze, I too became more alert and aware, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the door frame, baking half-birthday cakes.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.


Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Litlle girl reading lot of books, sitting above the pile of books. **** All inside the page of the book had been altered/changed. *****

By Emily Grosvenor

When I found out my sister and her Chinese-American husband were going to have their first child, I began scouring my personal library and then my favorite online booksellers looking for books with Asian children in them. Specifically, I was looking for those snuggle-in, mother-baby bonding board books capturing what it is like to fall in love with your child as he grows.

I found nothing.

Tough times for diversity demand subversive measures. Like a Sharpie to your favorite children’s book. So I grabbed my nearest black marker, and colored in the hair of the spiky-haired blond kid on one of my own family favorite, I Love You Through And Through, by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak. I took a special, subversive pleasure on the page “I love your hair and eyes. Your giggles and cries.”

Parents and caregivers with children who have mixed ethnicity face a special challenge when looking for books. The goal shouldn’t be to give them all books that look like them. But rapidly changing demographics of our country have not corresponded to an equally fast change within publishing. It is still difficult to find books with characters of mixed heritage.

Now that I’m writing my own picture book I know how dire the situation is for diversity in the genre. Half of all children reading picture books in America today are non-white, according to a 2013 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. And yet, only 10.48% of children’s books featuring non-white characters. Latino children make up 25% of kids in public school, but only 3% of human characters in children’s books.

Many books featuring Asian-Americans, while wonderful unto themselves, deal specifically with the theme of having parents from two cultures. That’s great, but there just aren’t a lot of books where the characters just are an ethnicity.

It’s not difficult to see how this happens. Traditionally, publishers pick the illustrators for picture books, not the author. They have power to craft a character based on who they think is the largest possible audience for that book. It’s not surprising, really, that a book about a little girl who hides in the patterns of nature would end up being a little brown-haired girl, or, heaven forefend, a little boy.

My forthcoming children’s book about falling love with tessellations (repeating tile patterns) features a “Chinese-American girl.”

Now a white writer who chooses to make her characters non-white faces special challenges and must do her due diligence to create a story that is culturally sensitive and true to experience. Who am I to write a Chinese-American child into any story?

The organization We Need Diverse Books, launched first as #weneeddiversebooks in 2014 by a group of motivated industry leaders, writers, illustrators and diversity advocates, provides excellent resources for writers looking to incorporate diverse characters in their books. The information flies in the face of every edict to new writers – write what you know – and challenges them to do the research to find out what they don’t know. That means, avoiding stereotypes and making sure they are inadvertently attaching ethnicity to villainy, for example.

In my case, my character’s ethnicity served a personal purpose. I wanted my niece, Piper, to always have a book that looked like her, and I wanted it to be a book that didn’t deal specifically with the issues of having parents from two cultural or ethnic heritages. I also wanted my own sons to read books that looked like their cousins. The message I want to send them is not “appreciate the differences,” but “we are the same.”

But that doesn’t mean I won’t be testing my book with an audience of Asian-American moms, dads and kids from various family constellations before my book goes to print. I want to know what is working and what I may not have thought of, the subtle ways the existence of ethnicity shapes even the simplest children’s story.

As for the kid testers, I haven’t found a single one that looks at my character, Tessa, and thinks: She’s half-Asian! My favorite response to date came from our friend’s four-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Lennon.

She said: “I’m Tessa, too. Because she’s smart and I’m smart.”

Emily Grosvenor is an Oregon-based writer. Follow her @emilygrosvenor. Her children’s book Tessalation! is available for pre-order. Follow her @emilygrosvenor.

Photo: @OtnaYdur

The Art of Celebrating Nothing

The Art of Celebrating Nothing


By Laura S. Distelheim

This isn’t happening, is the first thing Nikki thinks when she hangs up the phone. And then she covers her face with her hands to block out the image of the teetering stacks of cartons – the teetering mountains of cartons – that are piled up on the table, the counters, the island, the chairs and the floor of the kitchen in front of her. The teetering stacks of cartons that she’d sworn to herself she’d be unpacking today now that the renovation is finally completed. But it is. See. It’s happening. That was her nanny, Fabiola, on the other end of the phone, calling to say that she’s sick and won’t be coming in today, and there’s her To Do list, as clearly as if it were hanging right there on the inside of her eyelids, sporting a blinking red X across it.

She draws a shuddering breath and opens her eyes. Think of the beach, she orders herself. Think of a waterfall. A sunset. A waterfall at sunset. Isn’t that what her yoga teacher had told the class they should do to fight panic? But, for some reason, what – or rather, who – she finds herself thinking of instead (boy, she hasn’t thought of him in years. What’s he doing here?) is her college English Lit professor. The one she’d had in her senior year at the University of Illinois, who had looked as if he’d been sent from central casting, with his white beard and his pipe and the suede patches on the elbows of his jackets. She can actually see him, right up there at the front of the lecture hall, turning to the blackboard and writing, “The world is too much with us,” in his wide sweeping scrawl. Ah. Wordsworth. She’d gotten an A in that class.

How could she have gotten an A in that class? She didn’t know a thing about the world back then. Where is he now, Professor… what was his name again? Well, anyway, where’s Professor Whatshisname now, when she deserves that A? Because now she knows. It is. It really is. The world really is too much with her. Too much world. Too much with her. Yeah? Well, too bad. The mom doesn’t get to call in sick. Okay. She can do this. She can do this. Of course she can do this.

She draws another deep breath. It’ll be fine. Okay. Think. Thinkthinkthink. She’ll have to change a few things around. Cancel her get together with Leah, for starters. They were going to grab a cup of tea at Arriva Dolce this afternoon, when Steph will be at preschool, but Max will be napping then, and if he misses that, he’ll be a bear. Okay. What else? The grocery store. The cleaners. The post office. The bank. She could do them this morning and take both kids with her, but it’ll take her four times as long. Maybe a couple of them on her way home from dropping Stephie off at school? A couple more on the way back to pick her up? Max’ll just have to nap fast. That’s all there is to it.

What else? The phone calls she’d promised to make for Steph’s preschool’s toy drive for Children’s Memorial Hospital. “Oh, I’ll be happy to take charge of that. It won’t be any problem at all,” she can hear herself caroling when Dana had called to ask if she could do it. She should be arrested for reckless volunteering. Well, it’s too late to back out now. She’ll just have to find time to take care of it. Find time? Okay, make time then. She has the sudden image of herself, knitting together a second. Knitting a minute. Knitting an hour. How, precisely, does a person make time? Another deep breath. Maybe this afternoon, when Max is sleeping?

The kitchen, though. She looks around at the cartons, lined up on the counters, teetering on the table, stacked up on the floor. “God hon, it’ll be great to finally get our lives back. You think you can really get it done by the time I come home?” Rob, at dawn this morning, heading out the door to his conference in New York. She hears the click of the door again – the starting shot of a race – and closes her eyes against another wave of panic. It’s like being in the middle of the ocean, trying to thrash her way toward a shore that keeps moving further and further away. Her heart is hammering so hard that it’s almost a relief when a crash from the family room startles her back to dry land, and she hurries in to inspect the damage: Max, splayed out and wailing beside the stool she’d left him sitting on, his bowl of Cheerios upended and strewn across the carpet.

“I tolded him not to stand up on it,” Steph announces from her perch on the back of the rocking horse, all raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders and big sister superiority, her imperiousness accentuated by the tiara she’s planted atop her red curls and the shimmering pink tutu she’s pulled on over her Cinderella nightgown.

“And what did I tell you,” Nikki asks, reaching down to swoop Max up onto her hip, where he rewards her by abruptly halting his wails and placing one sticky fist on her neck and the other in her hair, “about leaving that tutu in your closet? Didn’t Mommy tell you it’s not a toy? It’s your costume for your dance recital next week and if you tear it, we’re out of luck. Now please go right back upstairs and put it away. And, while you’re there, bring down the clothes I left out on your bed. Fabiola’s not coming today and Mommy needs you to be a very good helper.” When did she start referring to herself in the third person? What would Professor Whathisname have to say about that?

“Why she’s not coming?”

“Because she’s sick. And Mommy has a lot of things she has to do today, so you and Max both need to be very good listeners.”

“But Mommy, I hafta wear my tutu, you know why? Because it’s sparkly. And Hailey? Who’s in my school? When we was playing in the doll corner yesterday? She said I was the queen. Queens is always sparkly. And do you know what she was, Mommy?”

Who knew Cheerios could roll that far? Thank heaven she hadn’t poured any milk in the bowl. Rob’s right. This is exactly why she has got to get the kitchen back in order. It’s enough already with this chaos of their eating their meals in here. She carries Max over to the corner, turns on the television and sets him down in front of it… “to our Super de Duper Circus,” Barney croons and Max squeals and claps his hands. Whoever it was that gave birth to that purple dinosaur really should get the Nobel prize. Maybe she’d find out and nominate him. Or her. Of course it’s a her. A mom, no doubt, who had probably been snowed in with four children for a week when she’d conjured him up. Hallucinated him, more likely, but hey, it had paid off.

“Don’t move,” she orders Max, picking a Cheerio off his Spiderman pajamas. “And don’t even think about eating those Cheerios off the floor. Steph, what are you still doing here? Didn’t I tell you to go get your clothes?”

“She was the queen’s kitty cat. Did you know that Hailey has a real kitty cat at her house? Guess what’s his name. It’s really really really really funny.”

“Is it? Uh-huh.” Let’s see. She glances at her watch. Still more than three hours before she has to get Stephie to school. If she can clean up this mess and have the kids dressed in what? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? maybe she can at least make a dent in the kitchen before lunch time.

“Yes. It’s Puppy! Isn’t that a so funny name for a kitty?” Steph giggles, sliding off the horse and launching into a wobbly pirouette.

“STEPHANIE REBECCA GELLER! Will you LOOK at what you’re DOING? You’ve stomped ALL OVER the CHEERIOS. Did I not TELL you to go UPSTAIRS and take that tutu OFF?” She watches Steph jolt to a halt, her light dimming and her nose and eyes reddening. God, she hates yelling at them. She fights the urge to stoop down beside her, wrap her in her arms and apologize. No. If they don’t cooperate, she’s going to lose this day completely. They’ve got to learn that she means business when she talks to them. See? There she goes, up the stairs. Dragging her feet, of course, but at least she’s going. So. The vacuum.

“Mama, lookit Baby Bop doin’,” Max turns to say, but she’s already gone.

An hour later, when Stephanie walks into the kitchen, holding Disco Barbie’s body in one hand and her head in the other, Nikki has three empty boxes at her feet and is pulling a stack of soup bowls from a fourth, on the counter in front of her. “What happened to Barbie?” she asks. Not yet not yet not yet. She’s just beginning to get her groove here. She needs more time.

“She broked. Can you make her better? Fabi all the time makes her better.” Steph hands both pieces up to her and she sets the bowls on the counter to take them. Lost your head, huh? Boy, do I know how you feel. She holds the two pieces together and gives a press and a twist until she feels a satisfying snap. “Ta da!” All of life’s problems should be this easily fixed. “There you go, kiddo. All better. Why don’t you go put a dress on her? She looks a little cold without any clothes on, don’t you think?”

Steph takes the doll and appraises her in all her crayon-tattooed nakedness and then shrugs and sets her on the counter. “I don’t wanna. Will you play the piano wif me?”

“Oh, sweetie, I wish I could, but do you see how busy Mommy is? Look at all these boxes of things that have to be put away. We want to have dinner in the kitchen again, don’t we?” She feels as if her voice has its hair up in a high pony tail and is waving around blue and white pom poms. Give me a D. Rah rah. Give me an I. Rah rah. Give me a N-N-E-R. What do we have? Dinner! Where do we have it? In the kitchen! Yeaaaaay! Every four-year-old’s dream. But what choice does she have? She has got to get her life back under control here. If she has to live with these mountains of boxes for one more day, she really will lose it.

Stephanie nods and looks out the window. “Can we go to the park?”

Nikki follows her gaze, grateful to see a splatter of rain against the pane. “It’s raining out, hon. See? We can’t go to the park when it’s raining. Why don’t you play with the new art set Grandma gave you? Maybe you can make a picture to give to Daddy when he comes home.”

“But I don’t wanna play alonely. I want you to play wif me.”

“But you’re not playing alone, hon. You’re playing with Max. You can help him make a picture for Daddy, too!”

And there he is, as if on cue, toddling through the doorway with a yellow plastic hard hat placed backwards on his dark curls and a Cookie Monster sticker plastered to one cheek, and his beloved copy of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom clutched in both his hands. “Mama read?” he asks.

Mama sighs. “C’mon guys,” she says, shepherding them back into the family room, settling them each on a tiny chair at the play table, placing a piece of paper in front of them, opening up the art set, freeing the crayons and pencils and markers and chalk from their plastic slots and spreading them out in a row. “Wow, look at all these colors,” she’s saying. Just give me one more hour, she’s thinking. Enough to empty at least a few more boxes. Forty-five minutes, even.

Make it fifteen and there’s Steph, back in the kitchen doorway, this time with her new grass skirt – a gift from her Uncle Jeff and Aunt Jackie, who had dropped by last night, fresh from their anniversary trip to Hawaii – in tow. “Can you put this on me?” she wants to know, and Nikki, down on her hands and knees in front of the dishwasher, elbow deep in a carton of appliances, looks up and sighs. “Not now, honey. I promise we’ll try it on really, really soon, but right now, Mommy needs to find the toaster. Do you want to help?”

Steph shrugs, turns around without answering and heads back to the family room. It occurs to Nikki, watching her go, that she’d known even before she asked that she wouldn’t be trying her grass skirt on this morning. “I promise you we’ll play with it very soon, sweetie,” she calls after her. She means it. She’ll set aside an entire morning to do nothing but play, in fact. It just can’t be this morning or she’ll have to spend the afternoon on these boxes and she’ll never get to those phone calls or to her errands, which will mean she’ll have to try to get to them tomorrow, when she’s already scheduled an oil change for the car and a meeting with the other mothers of the kids in Steph’s dance class to plan the refreshments for next week’s recital. So it can’t be this morning, but it will be some morning. Soon. Really soon. And, oh god, now what’s that?

The phone. Which turns out to be Fabiola, calling to tell her the real reason she hadn’t come in to work today, and which she tucks between her ear and her shoulder while she – abandoning the search for the toaster – pries open the carton in which she’d packed away her bottles of spices. So that, when she hangs up a few moments later, it’s that carton she turns back to. Paprika, she’s thinking. Celery salt, forcing herself to focus on each label as it emerges from the box. Cream of Tartar. Sage. Why are her hands shaking? Everything’s fine. Fabiola’s safe. She’s okay. She’s fine.

It’ll turn out to be nothing, that black van, or vans, or whatever it was that someone saw somewhere out there in the town. Okay, so the word had gone out that it was being driven by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and a lot of people, Fabiola among them, had been spooked enough to stay home today, but things will be back to normal by tomorrow. Nine o’clock, just as always, there she’ll be at the door, calling “Where is my babies?,” the kids running to hug her. But that crack in her voice. She’s never heard her sound that way before. If I has to go back to Me’hico, my chil’ren, they can to die, is what she’d said. Simple as that. I cannot have any way for feeding them. Nikki sees them again, the two little girls, staring, unsmiling, from the photograph Fabiola had brought in one morning.
Two little girls, just a little older than Stephie, standing side by side with their arms around each other’s shoulders, in front of a small, crumbling one room house that seemed to be made of stone or concrete or some such thing. Cracked dirt in its yard. Nothing but air where its windows and door should have been. The home where they were living with their grandmother? She didn’t ask. Didn’t want to embarrass Fabiola, so she’d asked their names instead. Tulia and Karyme.

“They’re very beautiful,” she’d said, and Fabiola had nodded and smiled. They really were. All shiny black hair and large dark eyes and soulful expressions. They can to die. Those words. That crack. She’s heard words so close to those before. Coming from her own mouth, in fact. And even that crack she’d heard in Fabiola’s voice. It had been there, too, in her own voice, when she’d said them.

She should alphabetize these spices, as long as she’s putting them away. Why doesn’t she set them all out on the counter? There we go. Now. Let’s see. Allspice. That would probably go first. What is allspice anyway? Has she ever even used it? Well, there must have been some reason she bought it. And apple pie spice. She needs to do more baking. Nothing happened. Maybe she should call her mother and get the recipe for that great apple pie she always makes on Thanksgiving. Basil leaves. She supposes they’d probably come in right about here. Ginger? No. No, that’s much later. Black pepper. Celery seed. Nothing happened. Chives. Chives would be next, wouldn’t they? Where are the chives? Okay, forget about the chives. Cinnamon. Cinnamon, ground and cinnamon sticks. Here they are. Perfect. Nothing happened. This time, she says it out loud. Wow. She hadn’t thought about that day in months. She looks up and out the window at the glowering sky.

It was a Sunday. A perfect autumn Sunday. The kind of day when the weatherman says, “On a day this clear, you can see forever,” and “C’mon folks, get out there and pick those apples and walk in those woods. We all know what’s ahead for us, Chicagoland. Better grab hold of these days while you still have a chance.” That’s what they’d done, she and Rob. Grabbed hold of the day. Grabbed hold of the day and the kids and driven over to Anton’s Fruit Mart on Skokie Boulevard to pick out their Halloween pumpkins.

What comes after cinnamon? She surveys the counter again. Pushes aside the garlic powder and the marjoram. No, not yet. Cloves maybe? Where are the cloves? But it’s no use. There she is – it’s like watching a scene from a home movie – in her U of I sweatshirt and blue jeans, with her sunglasses perched atop her head and the breeze ruffling her hair across her face, walking along the outer edge of the rows of pumpkins that have been lined up in the parking lot, with Max riding shotgun on her right hip and Rob and Steph walking side by side just a few steps behind her.

Walking side by side, but not hand in hand, because Steph is already cradling a tiny yellow gourd in her arms. “Oooh, a baby one,” she’d cried when she saw it and had reached down and carried it with her. And now, entering the scene over there to the left, are Jeff and Jackie and their two boys, whom they hadn’t expected to see there, so that, for the next few seconds, there’s a lot of waving and smiling and laughing and calling. And now here it comes. She throws a longing glance in the direction of the counter again, but there’s no point in looking away: Elliot, the older of Jeff and Jackie’s sons, tugging at his brother’s sleeve and pointing, saying, “Wow, look at those over there!” The two boys leaping over several rows of pumpkins to reach the giant ones at the distant end. Steph swiveling to watch them go, leaning down to set her gourd on the ground.

The Nikki standing in her kitchen, looking back from here, can see the idea forming in her daughter’s mind as clearly as if it were printed out in a balloon above her head. But the Nikki up there on the screen, the Nikki who’s standing right next to Steph there in that parking lot, has just turned in the wrong direction. Has just turned to ask Jackie if she’s read the book for their book club meeting yet, while the Rob up there on the screen is reaching over to take Max from her arms, so that the Steph who’s up there on the screen, being too small to hop the rows of pumpkins as her cousins have done, has a split second of a chance to dart away from her father’s side, around her mother’s back, out into the parking lot to follow them.
Even watching it again now, in the kitchen, in the morning, in the safety of the spring they are all here to see, Nikki finds herself shaking so hard that she has to lower herself into a chair. Nothing happened. It was over before it began. There had been that one endless moment – a fraction of a speck of a sliver of an instant later – when she and Rob, both realizing what Steph had done and whipping around in her direction, had found her, all Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt and open-mouthed grin and dandelion hair blowing in the wind, dead center in the path of an oncoming SUV.

And then the SUV had veered, its brakes keening, and nothing had happened. Nothing happened nothing happened nothing happened, they had said and said and said and said and said – to themselves, to each other, to the car’s taillights, to the fruity autumn air. But that night, standing with Rob in the hallway, listening to the sound of Steph’s high, silver voice, rising up into the darkness of her Over the Rainbow room as she counted the glow-in-the-dark stars they’d glued to her ceiling just before she was born, it had hit her like an aftershock. “She could have died,” she had croaked, her voice cracking, and then had found herself down on her knees on the carpet.

What if she had? No need to ask. She already knows. She already knows that, if Steph had died on that Sunday afternoon, she would have stood, writhing, in the doorway of that Over the Rainbow bedroom the next morning, looking at the empty bed and the uncounted stars, listening to the memory of the “Rise and shine, shiny bunny,” she would never say again, of the “I’m not a shiny bunny, Mommy, I’m a shiny girl,” she would never again hear. And she knows that, later that day, later every day of the world from then on, she would have looked at her watch and looked at her watch and looked at her watch and looked at her watch, until 12:00, when she would have found herself thinking, “This is when I would have been fishing in my purse for my car keys, grabbing her Beauty and the Beast backpack, zipping her purple jacket to her chin and leading her out into the garage.”

What if she had? I’ll tell you what if she had, she thinks. If Steph had died that day, then, last night, when Jeff and Jackie had given Max the coconut shell monkey they’d brought him from Hawaii, she would have tortured herself with the thought that ifonlyifonlyifonly that SUV had veered away in time, they certainly would have also been giving Steph the grass skirt she’d been asking for. And then, this morning, she would have tortured herself with the thought of Steph bringing that skirt to her and asking her to help her put it on, and then with the thought of herself tying it around the pudgy tummy, with the thought of Steph’s face filling with light as she wriggled her hips, with the thought of how she would have let loose with one of those husky, wide-as-the-sky laughs she’d been known for ever since she was a baby. The two of them would have then stood in front of the mirror, she would have known for sure, deciding that, really, Steph looked not just like a hula dancer, but more like a queen. And then she would have imagined how they would have sat together at the computer – Steph on her lap, leaning back against her – googling Queen Lili’uokalan.

That’s exactly how it would have happened. If Steph had died that day, she wouldn’t have spent this morning emptying boxes. No. If Steph had died that day, she would have spent this morning sitting right here in this kitchen, looking out at the lilac tree that’s just beginning to blossom in the back yard, knowing that she was in a world that no longer held her daughter in it and imagining how it would have felt for the two of them to sit there at that computer together. Trying to remember the tickle of Steph’s curls against her neck, the wriggly weight of her on her lap. Trying to remember the up and down lilt of her voice and the sweat and Ivory soap scent of her skin and the feel of her small, steady heart through her back.

She sits, unmoving, in the chair with her hands in her lap, taking short, shallow breaths. Listens to the hum of the refrigerator, to the clunk of the ice maker, to the tinny murmur of the television and the rise and fall of the children’s voices, though she can’t make out what it is that they’re saying. A cardinal lands in the lilac tree and she watches it until it cocks its head and flits away. Somewhere out in the street, a garbage truck groans and she listens until it drops back into silence. Why is that? is what she’s thinking. Why is it that, when tragedy comes, we continue to see the other life in our mind (“I would have been making breakfast now. I would have been going out to the driveway for the paper, turning on the television to check the weather, taking Tuesday for granted.”), but if it doesn’t come, if nothing happens instead – if the car swerves away in time, the cell divides properly, the piece of concrete falls from the high rise five minutes before someone we love walks past on the sidewalk below – we rarely, if ever, stop to think: “But for that miracle, I would have been grieving now. I would have been sharing this bed with a memory. I would have been dialing this cell phone number, knowing that no one will answer. I would have been clutching at air instead of holding this small hand in mine”?

She looks at the boxes stacked up on the floor in front of her. What had she called them? Mountains of boxes? The mountains of boxes she had to conquer before she did another single thing on this Earth? She envisions it: This Earth. Spinning through darkness. Spinning through darkness and crawling with bearing-down SUVs. With the SUVs that are bearing down on Fabiola’s children, over there, who live perpetually frozen in their path, while she waits and watches from over here, holding her breath and hoping she can somehow find a way to make them veer away. With the SUVs that are bearing down on all those children in their beds at Children’s Memorial, to whom she’ll bring teddy bears and checkers boards and Legos, while their mothers wave their arms and scream, silhouetted in the headlights, wishing she’d bring miracles instead.

She can hear them, she’s sure, their cracking voices. She can hear all the cracking voices of all the mothers all over the world. The mothers rocking their babies in the bomb shelters and the refugee tents, and the mothers standing back up in the rubble of the earthquakes, and the mothers picking through the remains of their huts on the beaches where the tsunamis have raged ashore, trying to make them veer away, all those bearing-down SUVs. She can hear their cracking voices and she can see their waving arms. And where, in all of this, is she? There. Down there. She’s that one right over there. That one looking away from the retreating taillights and away from her children, who, due to nothing more praiseworthy or profound than the randomness of fortune, have been left whole and unscathed in their wake. She’s that one who’s racing right past with her eyes on her watch.

It’s a lovely sound, really, the clickety clack the spice jars make when she stands up and sweeps them off the counter and back into the cardboard carton from which they’d just come. And the sound of the sudden silence that blooms in the playroom after she clicks off the television is an even lovelier one. Steph pauses in her hammering, her arm frozen midair. Max turns from the television, his face a question mark. “What did we do wrong?” is what she can see them wondering, but look at them now, she thinks, as soon as she asks, “Who wants to play the piano with Mommy?” Look at them squealing and tumbling over each other in their race to the bench. Really, it occurs to her as she stoops to pick a few stray Cheerios she’d missed earlier out of the carpet and slips them into her pocket, people could save themselves a fortune in self-help books on How to Live With an Open and Forgiving Heart if they’d just take an internship with a preschooler instead.

She helps Steph climb aboard the bench, sits down beside her and swoops Max up onto her lap. “What’ll it be guys?”

“Free,” Max announces, underscoring his request with a fist on the keyboard.

“No, Mommy, not Free Blind Mice. That’s a baby song and I hafta anyway pick first ’cause I’m the oldest.”

“Well, how ’bout you each pick a song and we’ll do both of them?”

“Okay. Twinkow Twinkow Littlow Star. Did you know that Mrs. Levy? Who’s my teacher at my school? She always sometimes plays it when we sit on the aphlabet rug, and it’s about diamonds. And you know what else? Betsy who has the red shoes says that Mrs. Levy’s glasses that are all sparkly have on them diamonds.”

“Well, isn’t she lucky. That sounds like a very good pick then. Does that sound okay to you, Max?”

“Hokay.” Another fist on the keyboard.

“But Mommy?” Stephanie’s dark brown eyes lock on her mother’s.


“Where is the stars?”

“Well, they’re way, way, waaaaaaaaaay up in the sky.”

“Could we go to them on a hairplane?”

“Haiwpwane!” Max swivels toward the window and is halfway overboard before she grabs hold of the back of his overalls.

“Whoa there, buster. Where do you think you’re going? There’s no airplane out there right now. And if there were, we couldn’t ride it up to the stars. We’d have to take a rocket ship. Maybe when you guys grow up, you’ll be astronauts and then you can ride on a rocket ship to the moon and see the stars.”

“Nuh-uh. Bemember? I’m gonna be a queen.”

“Oh, of course. How could I forget? I’m counting on being the queen’s mum. Well, maybe you can be both. You could be the first queen on the moon. How does that sound?”

“Good. If you and Daddy and Max will come wif me.”

“Sounds like a plan. You know what else sounds like a plan? Playing some music! Seems to me that we could do with a little less talk and a lot more action. How ’bout we get going with the star and then we’ll move on to the mice?”



“So. Twinkle Twinkle it is. Do you remember what I showed you? First we put our finger on this key, and then on this key and then on this key and this key.”

“Uh-huh. But Mommy?”


“Why they’re free?”

“Why are who free?”

“The free blind mice.”

“Oh! Well, actually, they’re not. Well, maybe they are. I mean, I hope they are. We want everyone to be free, don’t we? But this song is about three blind mice. There are three of them.”

“One, two, free,” says Max, holding up his fingers.

“Bery good! Isn’t that bery good, Mommy?”

“It sure is. What a smart boy you are, Max. Just as smart as your big sister. Okay. How ’bout giving that a try, Steph, just like I showed you? And then we’ll give Max a turn.”

“Uh-huh. But Mommy?”

“What, sweetie?”

“Why they’re blind?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure. I think maybe they were born that way.”

“The same like Aristotow, who’s Big Bird’s friend with the purpow face and orange hair, who he reads books with his fingers?”

“Yep, just the same.” Although there are all different kinds of blindness, is what she finds herself thinking, a vision of herself standing at the kitchen counter, her eyes trained on the tiny bottle in her hand, intent on making sure that the paprika doesn’t end up next to the black pepper in the cabinet, flashing through her mind, as Steph, head bobbing and legs swinging now, reaches a pudgy finger toward the keyboard and the music starts to play.


Read our Q&A with Laura.

Laura Distelheim’s work has received the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, the Richard J. Margolis Award, a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant and the Press 53 Open Award, among others, and has been noted in Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize.




Moms Night Out

Moms Night Out

By Susan Buttenwieser


You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.


The Moms from Toddler Room A have the night off. They are letting loose at the back table in a T.G.I.F. knock-off.

“Get your husbands to baby sit,” the email from Cruise Director Mom instructed earlier. She’s the self-designated organizer of the monthly snack schedule, teacher thank-you gifts, and lice outbreak alerts. “Because tonight is MOM’S NIGHT OUT!!!!”

Immediately, the Reply Alls started rolling in.

Compara-Mom was the first to rsvp. “So TOTALLY psyched!! Can already taste the salt on my margarita! I am ready to PAR-TAY!” Her main reason for getting out of bed each morning is to display her vastly superior child-rearing skills.

Cheery-Bitter Mom chimed in. “Literally cannot wait! Stuck at home all week with two sick kids and they are driving me crazy! Let’s get this PAR-TAY started!” She makes baby food from scratch, sews all her children’s clothing, and loathes them.

“Just wish we could start the PAR-TAY right now!” Overly-Aerobicized Mom signed off with her signature yellow smiley-faced emoticon.

Now here you all are in this brightly lit restaurant with no discernable cuisine. It is mostly empty except for a few happy-hourers anchored to the bar. The Moms pound umbrella drinks and nibble at nachos smothered in cheese and hot chilies. Nearby speakers blare that one Edie Brickell hit that gets Cheery-Bitter bouncing in her chair.

At first everyone is giddy and the conversation is easy. It is seven p.m. and you are in a bar. Not home navigating baths or bedtime stories or scraping barely touched chicken nuggets into the trash. So giddy that everyone is able to overlook the fact that the Cruise Director chose a place that is subpar to an airport lounge.

You discuss the preschool teachers where you all know each other from. How hard it is to find something to wear that feels remotely flattering. How hard it is to find time to exercise. How hard it is to find time to do anything for yourselves. How lucky you all are that the Cruise Director organized this.

But then that first sheen of excitement wears off and an awkward lull washes over the table. You are missing the social crutch of attending to your children’s constant needs in the confines of the playground or the pre-school hallways. The Cruise Director tries to flag down the waitress for another round. Compara-Mom tells Cheery Bitter that she looks like she’s lost weight. Overly Aerobicized agrees. And then there is more awkwardness.

So the Moms turn to the one subject that comes so easily: husband hatred.

Compara Mom won’t let her husband buy groceries. The Cruise Director can’t trust her husband to take their kids to the playground because he doesn’t provide “appropriate supervision.” Cheery Bitter’s husband always fucks up the laundry and Overly-Aerobicized’s can’t cook.

“He still hasn’t figured out how to put a diaper on!”

“He won’t get up with the kids in the mornings. Not even on Mother’s Day!”

“He thinks cereal is a suitable option for dinner. Sugar cereal!”

“He has no idea what he’s doing!”

Another round of umbrella drinks arrive along with baskets of Buffalo wings and fried mozzarella sticks. One Eagles’ song after another plays, followed by a Randy Newman double shot. The fluorescent lights beat down on as the grievances fly around the table.

“He never even thinks about buying wipes.”

“Oh don’t get me started on wipes.”

“They think the wipes somehow appear mysteriously in the apartment by themselves.”

“He won’t do anything about a routine.”

“He’s let’s the kids watch TV whenever they feel like it.”

It is hard to get a word in edgewise as the outpouring of vitriol grows louder and more vicious. Then Overly-Aerobicized over-shares about sexual problems.

A long silence follows. Finally the Cruise Director comes up with a lighter topic.

“Do you remember right before you gave birth? Those last few days of freedom,” she slurs. “What is your favorite memory from The Before?”

The Moms clamor to share their memories: getting breakfast in bed, foot massages, candlelit dinners.  

You decide to keep yours quiet. The week before your daughter was born, you and some friends went to a strip club in your neighborhood, which has since been shut down and turned into a bagel cafe. It was a no frills dive, a rarity in the city now. A small stage lined the whole of one mirrored wall with the bar directly opposite it. At one point during the long evening, the dancers all gathered around you, placing their hands on your outstretched belly, squealing whenever they felt movement. “Bless this baby,” the women said a few times, in between quietly complaining about the lousy tips they were getting that night.

You don’t feel like these Moms would understand how at that particular moment, right on the edge of motherhood, it was just the boost you so desperately needed. The dancers’ collective excitement at your huge belly was like having your own personal alternative cheerleading squad.

Remembering this right now only widens the chasm you have been feeling all evening. You don’t know these other Moms very well, haven’t gotten past the small talk phase of friendship during late afternoon pick-up, when everyone just wants to get home. You’d been hoping that socializing with them might produce kindred spirits, maybe somewhat of a support network even.  

Instead, after making up an excuse about needing to get back home you leave some money on the table and start gathering your things. When you stand up to leave and push your chair in, the Moms seem to barely even notice your imminent departure. As if you hadn’t really been there in the first place. 

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in  Women’s Media Center Features and other publications. She teaches writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. This piece is part of a collection that is being developed with the artist/illustrator Sujean Rim.

Photo: Patrick Schöpflin

Top 10 Books on Discipline and Parenting

Top 10 Books on Discipline and Parenting

Mindful Discipline ARTBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Vanessa Lapointe, a psychologist and author of the forthcoming Discipline without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up [LifeTree Media], writes, “Of all the workshop requests I receive, discipline is by far the most popular topic. Big people everywhere want to know how to discipline. By ‘big people’ I mean parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, aunties, uncles, caregivers, and any other adult who plays a significant role in the nurturing and growing up of a child.”

Various philosophies, versions, names, and age-targeted suggestions abound when it comes to discipline, especially for toddlers and teens. But one thing pretty much every book about discipline agrees upon is that discipline is not about punishment and is instead about teaching. Most also agree that a style of parenting that experts call “authoritative parenting” appears to work best for many families. The fourth book on this list, 8 Keys to Old-School Parenting, defines authoritative parents as those who, “Set high expectations and help children live up to those standards; they enforce high moral standards with loving acceptance. They promote self-control with social responsiveness; they teach children to make responsible choices within firmly established limits.”

This group of books about discipline starts with those targeted at the broadest age range, like 8 Keys to Old-School Parenting, then narrows in on the youngest kids, tweens, and teens. At the end a few books focus on targeted populations and how guidance learned in those arenas can help all parents.

The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm, and Calm Guidance—From Toddlers to Teens by Kim John Payne

Kim John Payne is well-known for his 2010 book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Earlier this year he released The Soul of Discipline to help parents establish a strong foundation in early childhood that will help kids. Payne claims that in 30 years he has never met a truly disobedient child or teen, but he has met a lot of disoriented ones who react by being difficult. He details three phases of parental involvement that build upon one another: the Governor oversees the early years, the Gardener cultivates flowering of teen years, and the Guide oversees the teen years. He also contextualizes everything, like in Chapter 9 where he details the history of discipline, “Avoiding Discipline Fads.” In addition Payne offers concrete advice to parents (I especially loved the tips on pages 83-86 about how to handle serial interrupters!).

Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits & Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Shauna Shapiro and Chris White

Unlike many other books on “discipline,” Mindful Discipline focuses not just on parents and what they can do, but also on what children can do. Shapiro and White emphasize the ways in which self-discipline enables children to learn to guide their own lives, what they call the five essential elements of Mindful Discipline: 1) unconditional love, 2) space, 3) mentorship, 4) healthy boundaries, and 5) mis-takes (this is not a typo, but their term for “missed takes instead of mistakes”). While discipline can help kids learn to be free, Shapiro and White remind is that, “Nature has intended for the parent-child relationship to be a loving hierarchy.” Each chapter ends with a mindfulness awareness practice that will help everyone in a family practice being more mindful.

Elements of Discipline: Nine Principles for Teachers and Parents by Stephen Greenspan

This short, but dense, book written by a Clinical Professor of Psychology near the end of his career is directed at all adult caregivers, so not just kin caregivers but also teachers. One of the strengths of this volume is its clear explanation of the history of discipline philosophies and its description of the three major psychological approaches when it comes to discipline—affective, behavioral, and cognitive. Greenspan places a lot of emphasis on socioemotional development and social competence, so it is no surprise that he thinks the three long-term outcomes of effective discipline include happiness, boldness, and niceness. This can be accomplished through warmth, tolerance, and influence, good advice for other pursuits throughout our lifetimes and not just while parenting growing youngsters.

8 Keys to Old School Parenting: For Modern-Day Families by Michael Mascolo

Mascolo focuses on “old school parenting,” but what exactly is that? To him it’s parenting techniques that have stood the test of time. One thing that has definitely been dropped is violence, but the sense of authority remains. Mascolo, also a psychology professor, begins 9 Keys to Old School Parenting by articulating the parenting attitude that informs the whole book: “I am your parent. I’m not your friend, your playmate, your maid, or your chauffeur. You are not my equal. I am responsible for your safety and development. I am here to teach you how to be successful in the world.” Not surprisingly the first key is to value your parental authority, but others include “cultivate your child’s character,” “solve problems,” and “foster emotional development,” and you definitely can’t go wrong there.

Discipline with Love & Limits: Calm, Practical Solutions to the 43 Most Common Childhood Behavior Problems by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Unell

About 30 years ago Wyckoff and Unell published a book called Discipline without Shouting or Spanking. In the intervening years the book’s title and content have gone the way of more positive discipline, so now we focus on love and limits and do not even mention spanking. The authors position the book as one you will pick up when a problem arises, much like many books out there for health issues like rashes or sore throats. You can read the first 30 pages or so to set the scene, but then turn to the “problems” as they arise, like “plane travel stress” or “sibling rivalry.” Each problem section briefly defines the problem, gives advice to try to prevent the problem, and what to do (and what not to do) to solve the problem. The sections close with a case history, which are not always helpful. Overall this is a good little resource to keep on your shelf.

Nelsen, Jane, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy. Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, From Infant to Toddler—Laying the Foundation for Raising a Capable, Confident Child by Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy

Back in the Winter 2015 print issue of Brain, Child I wrote about this book in a round-up of how to deal with the emotional storm of toddlerhood. Earlier editions or Nelsen et al’s work helped establish the positive discipline mentioned above that we know today. Different “positive discipline” books exist for different age groups and scenarios, but it’s always good to start at the beginning. Some of my favorite parenting advice that I have found to be so true is in this book: “No parenting tool works all the time. Be sure to have more than just time-out in your toolbox… There is never one tool—or three, or even ten—that is effective for every situation for every child.”

How to Unspoil Your Child Fast: A Speedy, Complete Guide to Contented Children and Happy Parents by Richard Bromfield

In this short book with lots of punchy advice, Bromfield lays out a 7-day plan to unspoil children aged 2-12. While not a discipline book in name, it is about discipline because spoiled children often do not listen or respect their parents. Bromfield focuses on natural consequences and less on concrete activities parents can do themselves or with children to change their behavior. Each chapter starts with an interesting quote that will speak to parents, making the book an easy one to digest in small doses. The advice is more general, but it is worthwhile, like suggesting parents study actions of those who have more control over your child that you do, like teachers.

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas Phelan

Now in its 6th edition with over 1.6 million copies sold, 1-2-3 Magic is certainly doing something right! In February 2016 the newest edition will be released, which continues to focus on what clinical psychologist Phelan denotes are the three jobs of parenthood: controlling obnoxious behavior, encouraging good behavior, and strengthening relationships with children. Previous edition have focused on start and stop behaviors and utilizing timers when raising kids, and presumably the newest edition will suggest using cell phone timers and not just egg timers. Phelan also provides simple, but effective, suggestions to parents, such as: agree to keep your child’s bedroom door closed so you won’t see the mess inside and nag, but in exchange your child has to pick it up once per week. Seems like everyone ends up happier when following advice in 1-2-3 Magic.

10 Days to a Less Defiant Child: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child’s Difficult Behavior by Jeffrey Bernstein

Bernstein says that in the past 25 years he has worked with over 2000 families who have defiant children. What is a defiant child? It is one who is quick to anger, overly dramatic, and almost constantly resistant to doing what is asked. A defiant child is different from a disobedient child, but s/he is also different from a child who has conduct disorder, destroying property or physically attacking animals or people (which would require being seen in person by a specialist). Targeted at ages 4-18, Bernstein suggests reading a chapter per day over the ten-day period. First published in 2006 and now in its second edition the book advises parents to think you are on a reality show, someone is always watching, so be careful of what you say and how you say it to model good behavior and emotional processing.

Parenting Children with Health Issues and Special Needs by Foster Cline and Lisa Greene

The first book on this year’s Top Ten Books for Parenting Children with Disabilities, this slim volume provides needed advice for all parents, regardless of their children’s needs. It reminds parents that to effectively communicate and influence their children they should strive to be consultants and not drill sergeants. And the best piece of advice for all of these situations, as Cline and Greene so succinctly state, “I love you too much to argue.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor.




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

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

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

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

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

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

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

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

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

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

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

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

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

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

My little boys were supposed to die.

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

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

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

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

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

If they survived.

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

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

If they survived.

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

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

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

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

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

If they survived. 

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

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

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

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

If they survived.

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

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

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

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

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

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

When they survived.

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

When they survived.

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

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

When they survived.

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

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

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

Ben caught my eye.

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

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

When we survived.

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

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

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

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

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

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

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 http://www.deborahblicher.org and on Twitter at @dblicher.

Photo by Keith Galick

Relieving Myself

Relieving Myself

By Heather Caliri

winter2008_caliriI attended the new playgroup with the best of intentions—intentions that included not yelling at the participants.

It started out well: Lucy, my daughter, gamboled over pillows while the two mothers who organized the Elimination Communication (or EC) group talked. They’d brought props: a plastic ice-cream bucket, a tiny white potty, articles, a book, their supportive husbands. And trump cards: their tiny, crawling, diaperless babies.

Besides the organizers, I was the only one actually practicing EC. As the two women shared with the six others how connected they felt with their babies, how much more hygienic and healthy EC was, I looked around at the wide-eyed newbies.

I wanted to yell, “Don’t believe them! Your whole life will revolve around your child’s urination! You’ll drive yourself insane!”

Instead, I stayed quiet, concentrating on keeping Lucy from choking on Mr. Potato Head’s face.

*   *   *

A few years ago my husband, Dyami, and I watched his brother and sister-in-law try EC with their second child, Ava. Their first child had gone the conventional route, using disposables until he potty-trained.

But Ava was diaperless from birth. My in-laws suspended her tiny bum over their sink. Sssss, they said as a cue, and presto-chango, she peed; once or twice a day, she pooped, too. They kept her on absorbent towels in bed and used a bowl in the bedroom at night. By the time she was walking at a year, she’d toddle over to her little white potty and relieve herself.

There were some chancy moments, like the time I held Ava when she was only a month old. “She’s really sweaty,” I said. Evelyn, my sister-in-law, laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said.

And there was the time that Evelyn asked me to keep an eye on Ava in the living room. Ava made a few complaining noises. When I looked up, there was a snake trail of poo on the carpet.

Despite those misses, Dyami and I were intrigued. “Elimination Communication” sounded a little cute, but we liked the idea: learn our child’s rhythms rather than depend on diapers. We borrowed Evelyn’s EC book, Diaper Free, and read about the environmental benefits: no disposable diapers clogging landfills, no cloth diapers using water. The author pointed out that in countries like China and India, diapers are rare. And we were impressed that Ava never had to be conventionally potty-trained; instead, she grew up with a sense of her elimination needs and how to meet them.

But the clincher was what my brother-in-law Jamie told us when we asked whether it was worth the hassle. “Absolutely,” he said. “We didn’t have to scrape poop off of her butt several times a day. It was worth the few misses for that reason alone.”

So, in the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, we read a book called Diaper Free!, bought a little red potty, and prepared to try it for ourselves.

*   *   *

It didn’t start off as I’d visualized. Once Lucy was born, Dyami was the first to attempt to “communicate.” He stripped her diaper off, cradled her bum over the sink, and made the cuing noise, “Sssssss.”

We waited. “Sssssss,” he said again.

No pee. No poop. The only thing his attempt produced was a fussy baby.

After that, I gave up on trying for a few weeks, guiltily putting the cloth diapers on her. I had absolutely no sense about when she might soil one of them.

I reread Evelyn’s EC book like a bible, hoping for clues.

I joined an EC group online, hoping to learn by osmosis.

I e-mailed my sister-in-law. “I’m not feeling super-confident,” I said.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she e-mailed back. “You’re in the early days. Everything in our culture is telling you to put a diaper on her bum. Remember, you’re a maverick in the Western world.”

I’m a maverick, I told myself. I liked the sound of that.

I didn’t mention to Evelyn that we’d never actually gone without putting a diaper on Lucy’s bum. It would come with time, I thought.

Finally, I read in the forum that babies usually pee after they wake up. Aha! I thought. It made sense: After all, I peed after I woke up. After her next nap, I tried the sink again. “Sssss,” I said. Lucy went slightly cross-eyed, shifted her weight, and a tiny fountain of pee spurted from between her legs.

She was two weeks old.

I was hooked.

*   *   *

Elimination Communication is about trying to gauge your baby’s patterns, signals, and preferences, and facilitate her being able to pee and poop outside of a diaper—without punishments or rewards. The people who brought the EC philosophy to the U.S. had traveled abroad, or were from other cultures; diapers, they saw, weren’t necessarily synonymous with baby care. They felt that sitting in urine and feces for extended periods of time—or for any period of time—seemed pretty unhygienic. How much better would it be to eliminate the middle man (the diaper), and send the waste straight down the toilet?

Of course, for a newborn, a gigantic, noisy toilet can be scary (as I discovered the first time I held Lucy over it, only to be rewarded with instant screams). The bathroom sink, on the other hand, has a drain, a faucet to rinse off poopy bums, and a handy mirror to check progress and entertain the baby. After a few days, I got over having one of our two bathroom sinks serve as Lucy’s toilet, and kept a bottle of Windex handy when I did get grossed out.

But I’ll be honest with you: Hygienic or not, EC is a lot of work, especially at the beginning. It seemed as if every fifteen minutes, I was undoing Lucy’s diaper, taking her to the sink, and hoping I’d guessed right that time.

I caught my first pee after reading a list of “Golden Potty Rules” on the EC forum online:

1. Potty when sudden fussiness strikes.

2. Always potty before leaving anywhere.

3. Always potty upon arrival anywhere.

4. Potty on waking up from sleep.

5. Potty after an accident.

6. Potty upon getting out of the bath.

7. Always act on sudden random potty thoughts.

I’d expected all this pottying to be hard. On the forum, members likened EC to paying cash, instead of credit—pay now or pay later. I figured my hard work would pay dividends when I was through with diapers at a year and a half or earlier.

What I hadn’t expected was that I’d reap dividends on the front end. I was pleasantly surprised. The hype was real. I felt connected to my baby in a way I hadn’t imagined. She’d fuss, I’d take her to the bathroom, and she’d pee, visibly relieved. When she couldn’t fall asleep, I tried a potty break : Usually it settled her. Our laundry decreased dramatically, from a load almost every day to two a week or less.

We were mavericks. We were trailblazers.

Sometimes I felt superior. At Lucy’s first visit to the pediatrician, I took her to the bathroom several times while we were waiting. The nurse kept offering to hold her. I didn’t quite know how to explain that Lucy was the one using the toilet.

When the pediatrician came in, she noticed the cloth diaper and said, offhand, that we must be doing a lot of laundry.

“Not really,” I said. “We have her pee and poop in the sink instead of in the diaper when we can.”

She blinked a couple of times, then laughed. “Well, it’s not as if she can tell you she needs to go.”

I smiled in amusement. No, Doctor, I thought. That’s exactly what she does.

But sometimes EC got us into trouble. I decided to pee Lucy in the middle of a walk, and chose a secluded-looking half-wall outside of a local apartment building. I dropped Lucy’s trou and held her close to the stucco.

The only problem was that I hadn’t noticed that the wall faced the rental office. Apparently, the manager had a really great view of my alternative parenting technique. After a minute, said manager came out, a nicely coiffed blond woman in khakis.

“What are you doing?” she asked, sitting on the half-wall.

“Letting my daughter pee,” I said. Lucy was about three months old.

“Doesn’t she have a diaper?”

I patted the prefold on the grass beside me and used my best I’m-not-crazy voice. “See, in China and India they don’t use diapers.”

She nodded, clearly now convinced I was crazy. “Do you live around here?” she asked.

I pointed over the hill, then realized she meant in her apartment complex.

Question: Would it have been better if I were a resident ? Or better that she not know where I lived?

“I can leave if we’re bothering you,” I said, bracing myself. Suddenly it occurred to me that people get arrested for public urination.

“No, no,” she said. “I was just worried. I saw you take off her diaper and didn’t know what you were doing.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t call the cops (or Child Protective Services). She just wished us a good day and left.

It still amuses me to imagine her dinner conversation that night.

*   *   *

Being a trailblazer is tiring. On good days, I was a renegade, a virtuous environmentalist who could read her daughter like a book. But on those other days, the days when Lucy didn’t pee or poop in the sink, even though I spent half the day holding her over it, I wondered where my fabled connection with her had gone. I couldn’t tell: Was it her not being able to pee on-cue? Often, food allergies—or what I thought were food allergies—seemed to play a role in “bad” days. I’d eat dairy, or wheat, and the next day, Lucy would poop a foul-smelling, dark green liquid, pee every five minutes, and squirm from painful gas. Or was it me? Had I not tuned in enough or paid enough attention? What if I’d gone five minutes earlier? Or held her just a bit longer? Was it that we used diapers (unlike the true believers)? That I’d eaten wheat/dairy/soy/wine/peanut butter? Or was it just—normal?

And then there were those Golden Potty Rules. If you do the math, following the rules I’d found on the EC forum meant I was taking my daughter to the bathroom all the time. Which is one way to catch pees but is also a way to go insane. Often I’d spend five minutes holding her over the sink when she didn’t need to go. Perhaps it would have helped if I hadn’t been reading the EC forum all the time, increasing the likelihood of those “sudden random potty thoughts.”

I wish I could say that being in an online community and talking to other ECers helped. It didn’t. I never participated in my EC forum much, though I lurked. Every few hours, I tuned in, searching for clues. I read about “potty-tunities” and “nakey-butt” time. Waterproofing solutions for bedtime, travel tips, training pants, in-laws. Food allergies, aiming tips for boys, ECing through the stomach flu. “Graduating” from diapers, EC and daycare. EC full-time. EC part-time.

The posts that always riveted me were those about “potty pauses.” In the dreaded potty pause, the child would suddenly refuse to be held over the potty. No matter if they needed to go, they wanted no part in the process. Parents who didn’t keep diapers on their babies started having carpet and upholstery serve as diapers. Parents who thought their child had graduated from diapers put them back on.

I read about potty pauses like some people read the obituaries.

Two posts in particular soured me on the forum. Both were tirades (the writer’s words, not mine) by one of the most frequent posters. “There is no such thing as a Potty Pause,” she wrote. “You are failing to adequately adapt…You need to get more creative, more aware, more with the flow, and change your mind set .”

“It’s not that EC is hard,” she wrote the next day. “It’s that…you got a kink in your think.”

Some of me knew what she meant. Really, EC isn’t supposed to be about potty training. It’s not supposed to be results-oriented. EC is about better hygiene, connection, and communication.

The problem was that I am results-oriented. I like communication and connection as much as the next parent, but I also like convenience. And hygiene is all fine and good, but did I mention convenience?

Her comment about EC not being hard just pissed me off. She said all it took was a paradigm shift. Well, I hadn’t spontaneously produced one, thus far. And I refused to feel guilty about anything else.

I changed my settings so that the forum’s e-mails didn’t come directly to me—I’d have to go online to read. Which I haven’t done since.

Not reading the forum was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Turns out being a renegade makes me paranoid. I thought community was what I needed, but instead, community (for me, anyway) just turned EC into a giant pissing contest. I did EC looking over my shoulder, hearing the voices of the “successful” ECers critiquing my technique, second-guessing me, and making me feel inadequate. Perhaps if I’d participated more in the forum, put my fears and inadequacies out there, rather than just lurking, I’d have found comfort rather than judgment. Or maybe if I’d held Lucy over the sink just a few more minutes…

*   *   *

It wasn’t me going crazy that opened my eyes to how crazy I had gone. It wasn’t even the forum. It was Lucy.

Lucy turned eight months old and decided it was time for our very first potty pause.

Day One: Take Lucy to the bathroom. She screams. Quickly take Lucy away from the bathroom, fumble with the diaper while she screams and flails. Take Lucy back to whatever she was doing.

Three minutes later, she poops in her wool hand-washable diaper cover. Since I hadn’t invested in the more expensive fitted diapers (why would I, when we were doing EC?), the poo dribbles down her leg and stains the cover and the carpet.

Day Two: Lather, rinse, repeat. Literally: I washed those diaper covers every day, then hung them to air-dry overnight, only to have her poop in them the next morning. Crazy? Yes. But I kept thinking , Surely this is the last miss.

Up until this point, I rarely missed Lucy’s poops. Pre-potty pause, I bragged about this. “I almost never change poopy diapers.”

One thing I’ve learned as a parent: It’s not a good idea to brag about how you’ve figured out your child, unless you enjoy eating your words.

After Day Three of the pause, I realized Lucy wanted to go to the potty even less than I wanted to take her. And I didn’t want to take Lucy to the potty at all. I didn’t want to see a potty. I didn’t want to think about signals, or pauses, or communication. I wanted to keep a diaper on her and forget I’d ever heard about EC.

That’s when I decided to go to a real live EC support group I’d heard about it from a local midwife and went, figuring some community might make me feel better.

We all know what happened next: I was left choking down my screams while trying to make sure Lucy didn’t choke on Mr. Potato Head.

After the playgroup, I decided not to take Lucy to the bathroom if I didn’t feel like it. Period. At the beginning, that meant I just didn’t take her. I didn’t even change diapers unless I felt like it (until she started getting her first diaper rash).

After a break, though, I started taking her after she woke up, as long as she didn’t protest. Then it was just when we were out and she fussed but wouldn’t nurse. Dyami took her on the weekends when he was home.

Throughout these lazy days, I kept telling people how badly EC was going, how I’d pretty much given up. Until one day I realized we’d gone the whole morning without wetting a diaper.

Turns out we’d started practicing again without my noticing.

Despite what the experts, the latest parenting fad, or my own perfectionism would have me believe, I can’t control my daughter. Trying to live up to an ideal just pitted me against Lucy—and made me feel like a martyr.

But once I threw out the rules, I realized EC worked fine—when I made it work for both of us.

Today at a restaurant, Lucy kept squirming in the sling. I excused myself and took her to the restroom. The faucet was a clay pitcher set into the wall; the sink a brightly painted ceramic basin. When you moved a lever, the water poured out of the pitcher’s mouth into the sink, a never-ending stream. Lucy played happily with it, relaxed, and relieved herself.

It was as easy as that.

Believe me, we’re both relieved.

Author’s Note: After avoiding the EC playgroup for a while, I decided to go back. While I chatted with the other moms, I mentioned writing this essay. Unfortunately, I realized I was afraid of what they would think only after other moms asked to see it. A few days later, I e-mailed it out and waited nervously for responses. To my surprise, they said they could relate. It goes to show: My sense of isolation was self-inflicted.

Heather Caliri is a writer based in San Diego. Her work has appeared at Skirt! Magazine, Literary Mama, and BlogHer. She crafts essays each afternoon while her two homeschooled kids watch Disney Jr. Get her free e-book about post-perfectionist Christianity on her blog, A Little Yes.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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Good Twin/Bad Twin

Good Twin/Bad Twin

GoodTwinBadTwinGood twin/bad twin. It’s just the dichotomy we’re meant to avoid, all the books say so. One child who puts her coat on and goes to bed when she’s supposed to, and wears a halo for it. The other with a forked tail between his legs, because he doesn’t do either of those things without a drop-down fight. Praise the positive behavior, discipline the negative, it sounds simple enough. But what happens when the breakdown of behavior between twins, between any siblings really, is continually reinforcing an angel/devil dynamic? Do you let things slide for the “bad” kid so as to not make him feel oppressed or less loved? Do you hold back compliments from the “good” kid for the very same reason?

I know, I know, let’s not call them “good” and “bad.” Before I became a mother, I frowned upon the linear use of those words. Surely, I thought, parents could do better than bandying about such morally generic expressions to describe their offspring. We’re talking about children, after all, not cantaloupes. Never label the kid, only label the specific behavior, that’s the golden rule, right? Oh how the mighty fall. If I had a dollar for every “Such a good girl!” or “What a good boy!” that escapes my lips, well, I’d have many more dollars than I do now. For bad behavior, I concede, I change the word. I’ll ask my three year olds to stop being “difficult,” I’ll scold them for being “naughty.” Once upon a time, “naughty” sounded so prissy to me, so British. And now, here I am, a schoolmarm in the making.

The reason I embrace this language, I’ve come to see, is because toddlers don’t get nuance. They get “good.” “Good” is clear, “good” is desirable, “good” is a blanket term for sitting down at the table the first time you’re asked, for spontaneously saying please, for eating your food, you know, with a utensil. They get “naughty” too. “Naughty” is “No!”, “naughty” is not what Mommy wants, “naughty” is pouring your milk into your spaghetti and using the mixture as a medium for wall art.

All toddlers are crazy, but each is crazy in his or her own special way (to paraphrase Tolstoy). Watching twins navigate the terrible, trying, testing—whatever T word you care to ascribe to that period of time between 23 months and four years old (if you are lucky), when life feel likes one giant game of tug-of-war—has underscored this for me in an unprecedented way. And some kinds of crazy, truth be told, are easier to deal with than others. Which takes us back to the good/bad dichotomy.

My daughter is dramatic and obsessive and a little aloof, but she is conciliatory by nature. She thrives on order. She follows instructions and accepts convention. She recognizes the link between cause and effect, the fact that certain behavior will ineluctably land you in your room and that it is therefore best not to engage in said behavior. My son, on the other hand, is funny and outgoing. But he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He balks at routine. When all three of my other children are dressed and buckled into the car, there he stands, framed by the doorway, naked as the day he was born. No matter how many times he has been punished for it, he will still throw the remnants of his snack bag across the living room, like confetti at a wedding, just to see the pieces fly.

You might have had a toddler like my daughter. You might have had a toddler like my son. But have you had them at the exact same time?

Siblings are fixated on what they perceive the other one is getting or what they perceive they themselves are missing out on. This is true in general, but it is particularly so, agonizingly so, for twins. If singletons are born with an ultra-sensitive fairness barometer built into their psyches, activated the minute their parents give birth to another child, twins are born with it already dialed to HIGH. Praise one, you’ll get a pleading “But what about me, Mommy?” Speak sternly to the other, you’ll get a “But I’m great at waiting my turn, Mommy!” Fairness is important. Equality is impossible. As confused as these two properties can get in the realm of parenting, they are not the same thing.

I make every attempt to treat my twins fairly, but I don’t treat them equally, if they are not behaving equally well. It might seem obvious in theory, but it’s damn hard work in practice. It means you don’t get dessert if you don’t finish your dinner, despite the fact that your sister is slurping ice cream right next to you. I have no solution to the good twin/bad twin dynamic currently playing out in my house, only the observation that childhood is a series of unequal phases, for the parents as much as the children. Different ages suit different children and different children suit their parents’ personalities at different ages. The hope is that the phases pan out in a roughly equal way over the duration.

My older children have taken it in turns, so far. My “angry” baby transformed into a toddler who was surrounded by an aura of sunshine. My dream baby, the one who was so placid there were moments I would wonder if anybody was even in there, is now filled full of tween sass, calling his brother a dickhead every chance he gets. My twins? They too are bound to flip flop. I see in my daughter’s histrionics, which are containable at three, flashes of the diva she will most likely be at thirteen. I see in my son, once he is old enough to set the pace of his own life, the potential for a boy whose obsession with the mechanics of the world will be a credit to him and not a thorn in my side. I suspect it won’t be long before I’ll be writing another post in which their roles are reversed: good twin/bad twin part two (or three or four). Stay tuned.

This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

IMG_0564-1You know that pair of simply breathtaking little shoes you just can’t stop eyeing for your toddler even though they are too expensive to justify the purchase?

I happened upon a photo of them the other day. The photo is four years old now; the toddler has turned six. Seeing those empty shoes, I was reminded of something very smart I learned, but often forget.

Here’s what happened: the cute little soft shoes, pale sky blue with perfect Portlandia “put a bird on it” birds were something like forty-odd dollars. We have a generous hand-me-down stream, so there wasn’t a “need” for any shoes, let alone ones that cost an arm and a leg (I couldn’t help myself; never does a cliché work so well as this one right here). But I coveted the shoes. I’d go to the store where a sweet bird was perched on each shoe and I’d pick up the left then the right, and admire. And then, I’d put each shoe down. I’d walk away, slowly.

I really, really loved those shoes.

The most amazing thing happened: my friend passed a pair of them on to us when her daughter outgrew them. “These are scuffed up, so I feel bad about passing them on,” she apologized. “They aren’t perfect.”

Are you kidding me?

They were more perfect that way. “I love that they’re scuffed and loved and I love them more than you can know and I’m relieved that I didn’t have to buy them or not want to scuff them and there’s now absolutely no pressure on Saskia to wear them loads, but if she does, I’ll be thrilled,” I said, the words gushing out. “This is the single best hand-me-down we’ve ever gotten,” I declared.

I most certainly meant “we.” The perfectness of the gift had about nothing to do with my fast-walking toddler.

Don’t you know even as a toddler the precious pale blue bird shoes were not my pink-loving, sparkle-loving daughter’s favorites? She wore them plenty, but not the way I would have had her wear them—not with ardor. I often had to put them on when she had no agency over her wardrobe, like after I’d carried her to the car or stroller in her socks.

Fortunately, she wore them and I enjoyed them (to the hilt) and eventually, she outgrew them. Fortunately, hand-me-downs continue to serve as the basis of my now-six-year-old-daughter’s wardrobe. While few things have been as personally swoon-worthy as those shoes, my hand-me-down or bust mentality can be challenged by a few pricey brands with glossy catalogues that clutter our front hallway or sneak peeks via my email inbox. Inevitably, I fold every now and then for some dress that’s so adorable I can’t stand it, and rarely are the things I gravitate toward frilly or sparkly. I don’t even always go for pink.

Not surprisingly, this means that the clothes I purchase because I can’t stand not to are not necessarily my daughter’s favorites. Some, she likes fine, others less so, and some, not at all. I find myself in an uncomfortable position when I care about her clothing.

I cared, at times, about my young sons’ clothing, too. I loved to get beautiful clothes for my small boys, too. There were things I fell for, like the OshKosh overalls size six months or the smoky blue hooded chenille sweater. With my daughter, sometimes it feels different than it did with my sons. I’d call “daughter as doll Syndrome” and I’d have to admit, I am uncomfortable placing my sensibility about how she should look or dress atop hers and the pressures she already feels to look certain ways, pretty ways (not from me, but all the messages from everywhere). This place where my fashion sensibility and dress-up the doll impulses meet pit my desire not to care or covet against how much I like little girls’ cute, comfortable dresses for my girl. I’m caught between not wanting looks—or clothes—to matter and the love for the pretty object on my pretty gal.

Clothes and appearance and girls, that’s a thicket of questions to contemplate. For now, sometimes I buy the pretty thing on sale or get her a pair of shoes I know she’ll love (see, next year’s red canvas Mary Jane sneaks with a flower affixed). More often, I just look, lust a bit, and don’t buy. The tension remains. While the little shoes signify the beauty of hand-me-downs, perhaps they endure in my memory as a reminder that it’s okay to care about my daughter’s clothing—just not too much.

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

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Double Stroller and Gaining Perspective

The Perfect Double Stroller and Gaining Perspective

Double Stroller A w grayOne of the lowest points in my ability to keep a healthy perspective about parenting (and life) occurred in 2006 when I was pregnant with my second child. Instead of harnessing some wisdom about a child’s true needs that I ought to have gleaned from my first two years as a mom, I became shamefully obsessed with finding the perfect double stroller.

“Perfect” had a precise definition. I wanted a stroller that was smooth and sturdy for long walks, but light enough to carry in and out of the car without Herculean efforts. Ideally it would have a good cup holder, adjustable handles, an easy-to-use basket, quality wheels, and cost less than a week’s vacation in Fiji. I had not succumbed to the pricey Bugaboo with my first child, and I would not fall prey to “needing” the Mercedes of strollers as a second-time mom either. That much perspective I was able to maintain. At least.

The perfect double stroller didn’t exist, of course. I knew that to be true about single strollers, but chose to forget it. Most of my friends (and the people who write on online message boards) had regrets about the brands and models they owned. The basket was too flimsy. The wheels were good for walks, but too big to fit anything else in the trunk. The system for opening and collapsing the thing took a PhD in Engineering. Nevertheless, most people made do with their choices and moved on with their lives.

Despite that bit of logic and knowledge, I spent ungodly amounts of time reading online reviews of double strollers. It was a time-consuming, silly “hobby.” We ended up with two doubles anyway: a heavy, clunky one for walks, which we bought used from friends; and a light, cheap one to keep in the car. Both are fine and far from perfect just like the two single strollers we own for the same variety of purposes. Yes, that means we have four strollers, which would shame me except that we had two more kids after that, and they sufficiently wore out all four models.

Don’t worry. I have nothing left to say about strollers. I’ve long since deduced that this entire period of my life had nothing to do with strollers anyway.

As time passed, I saw that my hyper-focus on finding the right match was really about my desire to control the imminent change in our lives. We were going from one child to two, which was making me anxious.

But if I’m being absolutely honest, there was even more going on than that. I think I allowed myself to lose perspective because I was lonely and bored. I’d stopped teaching when my oldest was born, and I wasn’t writing yet. I didn’t have the full social and spiritual life that I have now, nor the confidence to know that my kids simply needed a good mom engaged in their lives and her own life. They didn’t need a seemingly flawless mom who was wrapped up in finding an equally flawless stroller, winter jacket, pair of rain boots, nursery paint color, big kid duvet cover, and more. I was worrying about all the wrong things as if finding the right stroller or the perfect anything else would affect our lives in a way that truly mattered. I had lost my mind over nonsense and never wanted to be that way again.

I have less of what I call “stroller moments” now, the shorthand my husband and I use for when I’ve crossed the line from reasonable decision-making, planning, and thinking to needless obsessing. (We have a few different code words for when he needs a dose of perspective.) I recommend the code word concept for forced, on the spot self-awareness. It’s a tool that gives me a path for escaping any new pit where my mind has fallen.

These days my stroller moments are more often about friendship and family issues, but the underlying problem is still a false sense of control. Why is so and so mad at me? Do I make more effort in our friendship than person X, Y, Z?

“Is this the double stroller all over again?” I might say to my husband. From the expression on his face I can always see that it is before I’ve even finished asking the question.

One day I’ll probably help my kids find their own code words. However, with their youth, and thank God, their health, they’ve earned their lack of perspective. I’m going to let them enjoy that innocence for now.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Read Nina Badzin’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.


Learning to Love Motherhood

Learning to Love Motherhood

By Chantal Panozzo 

Girl enjoying snowtimeRecently, both my two-year-old and I had “aha!” moments. Hers was: “Snow is cold.” Mine was: “Oh, so this is why people have children.”

I was never one of those women who felt born to breed. I didn’t have dreams about bridal gowns or babies. Even though I met my future husband when we were both 19, we felt no particular rush to do anything but enjoy our lives. We got master’s degrees at 25. We got married at 26. We moved to Switzerland at 28. When I wasn’t working, I concentrated on one thing: seeing the world’s wonders.

My husband and I were DINKS (double income, no kids). And we lived like it. We traveled when and where the spirit (and great airfare deals) took us. Warsaw for the weekend? France on a Friday? Notting Hill next week? Takoui, and sign us up. I printed out a map of the world and hung it on our fridge. After every trip, I colored in the countries I had visited.

Thirty-two years and 32 countries later, my biological clock began dinging and donging as much as the medieval clock tower across the street. The possibility to add a little bundle of joy to my life was slowly announcing its expiration date. Didn’t babies define happiness? I loved happiness. And even though I had plenty, I got greedy; I wanted more. So a year later, I was pregnant. When “joy” arrived I took her home, jubilant. But it wasn’t long—maybe 72 hours—before “joy” made me feel something else: sorrow. Instead of seeing the world, I was seeing spit up. I couldn’t help it; I missed my old life.

Did I have a mental disorder? Everyone I knew was congratulating me, saying how wonderful a baby was and how I should enjoy every moment. But all I could do was smile and nod and silently wonder, which moment did they mean?

Was it the moment when I dripped from every orifice in my body (orifices that before giving birth I didn’t even know existed)? Was it the moment at 3 a.m. when I was reminded I wasn’t a woman, but a cow?  Was it the moment when poop became the main topic of conversation at breakfast? (That is, if I even remembered to eat?)

The truth is, after I had a baby, my life as I had known it took a free fall. Warsaw on the weekend? I had taken less baggage to Warsaw than I did now to go across the street. Work out? Even if my husband was home, I felt like I had to ask his permission to leave the house. Go back to work? Great. I could feel guilty. Stay at home? Fantastic. I could feel like I had wasted my education.

The worst part was my dining room table. Where the silver candlestick holders had once been was a big, yellow electric breast pump slowly sucking the life out of me every time I looked at it—never mind when I used it.

I don’t know what I expected, but as a member of the Google Generation with everything from instant coffee to instant answers for “what airline flies direct to East Timor?” perhaps I assumed I’d also be graced with an instant love of motherhood. But instead I found myself silently regretting it.

Why did you want a baby? Stop. I wanted to stop asking myself that. But since that thought usually happened at the same moment I was sleep deprived and spilling some preciously pumped breast milk, it only egged on other troubling questions, especially if I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror. I had bags under my eyes and an extra ten pounds around my hips. My God, what did you do to your life? Stop. I didn’t want to ask myself that either. Especially when my daughter finally began smiling. But my protests did no good. My thoughts babbled more than my baby. And since they were mean and selfish thoughts, I didn’t share them with anyone. Instead, I let them ferment inside me like a Swiss Gruyere. For two years.

Then it snowed.

Of course, this particular snow was hardly my daughter’s first snow, but at 25 months, it was the first snow she registered. We watched it from our window. “Snow!” she yelled, “Pretty!” She remained mesmerized for at least nine minutes, practically an eternity for a toddler. “Out,” she said, “go!”

We prepared to go outside. That took approximately one decade. She wanted to wear her dirty diaper. She wanted to put her rain pants on backwards. And she wanted to wear her sandals. I tried not to remember my old life, when I left the house exactly eight minutes before the train to the airport was coming, tantrum-free and perfectly dressed for the weather.

Practically a lifetime later, which included several bribes in the form of Saltines, we were at the park. I took my daughter out of her stroller and set her in the snow. I was sweating from the effort it had taken to go two whole blocks from the apartment. Do something, I willed my daughter. Do something to make all the effort in getting here worth it. But she didn’t do anything except stand there as frozen as an ice sculpture. Then, to remind me she wasn’t a sculpture, she whined. And held up her arms for me to pick her up.

I sighed and held her for a few moments, debating whether we should just go grocery shopping instead. But something—let’s call it renewed patience—made me set her down in the snow again.

I began making little snowballs as she stood there. First I threw them. As her frown began to melt, I handed her little snowballs and she threw them. “More!” she said, until we had made so many snowballs that a patch of grass surrounded us.

“Walk,” she said. She took a hesitant step. “Snow,” she kept saying, as her pace quickened

When we reached the park’s fountain, that mercifully, was finally turned off, we made more snowballs and threw them into it. Each time a snowball self-destructed at the bottom of the fountain, my daughter shrieked with joy. “Snow!” she sang, her face registering total bliss, as if snow were the most amazing thing ever.

At that moment, I realized it was. Snow was amazing. It was white and cold and beautiful and I loved it. And that’s when I realized how much I loved my daughter for making me remember that.

I felt nothing but peace and happiness then. Thanks to my daughter, a new way of appreciating life had opened before my eyes like a flower. It was a world where small things were big and wonderful. It was a world where an airline ticket to an exotic country wasn’t necessary to find wonder. Instead, wonder was right in front of me, waiting to be discovered. It was in the form of my little girl in an over-sized pink coat and pink boots. She was going to make sure I didn’t miss a minute of it.

“Walk! Snow,” she said.

Inspired by her words, I began to sing a song I had sung as a child, with a newfound sense of awe floating along with the melody: “Let us walk in the white snow, in a soundless place. With footsteps quiet and slow, at a tranquil pace…”

My daughter smiled. “Mommy. Snow,” she said. She couldn’t have summed up the moment better—even with a verb. We threw another snowball in celebration of her 35-year-old mother’s ability to finally see snow as clearly as a two-year-old. I held her close, my lips warm on her cold cheek.

Then she decided to take off her gloves and my newfound love of motherhood took a commercial break.

“Aren’t you going to put your gloves back on?” I asked.

“No!” she said.

I shrugged, feigning indifference and made her another snowball, which she took with her bare hands.

“Oh,” she said, “cold!” She dropped the snowball like a hot potato and looked at me with the most wonderful expression: as if she had just watched a horror film.

“Snow is cold. That’s why Mommy wants you to wear your gloves,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Then she cocked her head and looked up at me like I maybe, actually, might have had a few words of wisdom to offer.

Now there was something to love in a daughter. So as she held out her hands for me to re-mitten, I was smitten. Her tiny appreciation for my common sense was yet another reason, two years after becoming a mother, that I finally loved my new and wonder-filled life.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

What I Learned Between My First and Last Children

What I Learned Between My First and Last Children

ApfelOften the lessons of parenting young children come too late. You do the best you can with the first kid, ushering him through the early stages of childhood, by instinct and expert advice, with varying degrees of success. It is a thrilling time, but it is also an exhausting one, when perspective is elusive. And then, somewhere in the middle of it, you have another baby. You can’t quite apply to the new child, though, what you’ve learned from raising the older one, mainly because you aren’t sure at that point what it is you’ve learned or whether you’ve learned anything at all.

That’s my story, at least. I made mistakes with my first son that I didn’t really correct with my second. With 26 months between them, I hadn’t yet emerged far enough from the morass of “small children” to see the wreckage clearly. By “mistakes” I don’t mean that I parented them “wrongly” in any objective sense. I am measuring myself only by the practical standard of the kind of children I was intending to raise: children who are confident, respectful, polite, well-adjusted and independent.

These are the five things I learned to this end by the time my second set of kids, a pair of twins, came along five and a half years later.

1. Caution breeds caution.

My first child was a timid creature. Slow to walk, slow to climb, for years he wasn’t sure of his body or what it could do. I used to follow him around the playground, arms outstretched, as he tottered from one rung of the ladder to the next. If I could be his human safety net, I thought, he would blossom into a trapeze artist. Except he never wanted to take the leap, literally or metaphorically. His nervousness made me nervous and we spun, together, in a vicious circle: I stopped encouraging him to push past the boundary of his comfort zone, because his discomfort made me uncomfortable. He was then loathe to try something new as a result.

I don’t force my younger kids to scale heights they are scared of or walk headlong into situations that threaten them, but I don’t acquiesce to their tendency to avoid them, either. This means peeling pudgy hands from the top of the slide, despite the protests, and giving that small—but necessary—push. And then seeing their faces alight with glee and pride at the bottom, as they race back up to do it again.

2. A sense of entitlement starts earlier than you think.

When it comes to toddlerhood, there are battles and there is the war, but the two are not as clearly defined as we might like. Often we pick our battles, only to realize later on that we aren’t even sure what it is we were “fighting” for in the first place. For me, now, the war of the toddler years is about establishing patterns of respectful behavior. It is true that toddlers are irrational and erratic and as bossy as can be and these characteristics are, in some sense, “just a phase.” But this is not to say that we should weather the storm of the terrible twos and threes with a pint-sized captain at the helm.

Patience and goodwill are one thing, submission is quite another. From the time he could utter a word (“more!”), my firstborn was making demands. I catered to his whims, because it was easier but also because I thought I was supporting him in the quest to find his voice. What this ended up teaching him, however, is that his voice is more important than everybody else’s. Whether a child has a sense of entitlement or not can reduce to the simple distinction between a question and a declaration. I am helping my twins learn, at the impressionable age of two, that most of the things they “want” are not theirs by right. They are, instead, things that need to be asked for. And the answer will not always be “yes.”

3. Manners don’t teach themselves.

I didn’t push manners on my first two children. I had a view that gratitude and appreciation should stem from some well of personal epiphany and that to use words like “please” and “thank you” by rote, before they acquired true meaning, would only make them empty. We live in Britain, the land of niceties, and I figured the way around the over-formality here was to let the child see for himself when such expressions were appropriate. To wait until he genuinely felt the feelings behind them.

Not only didn’t my kids pick up manners in a time scale I was comfortable with, but they sounded incredibly rude in the process. So from the moment my twins were old enough to talk, it was “juice please” or “no more, thank you” or “sorry I spilled” even though it was an accident. In the beginning, the words are prompted. But over time they build bridges to the emotions and act as a continual reminder that kindness and reciprocity are the cornerstones of human interaction. And let’s be honest: kids ask so much of us, and they make so many mistakes, that doesn’t it feel exponentially better to meet those requests and misjudgments when they come with a “please” or “sorry” attached?

4. Mom is not the be all and end all. 

This is obvious if you work outside the home or have commitments that take you away from your young children. It is far less obvious if you are the one nuzzling up to them for every feed and whispering every soft lullaby before they close their eyes for the night. My first two babies were dependent on me for the vast majority of their basic needs—even Dad played a very second fiddle. This was partly because they were breastfed, but it was partly because I construed motherhood as a zero-sum endeavor. Being a stay-at-home mom made me feel like I was in for a penny, in for a pound. That I was somehow morally bound to be the primary caregiver in a way that pushed everybody else to the edges.

I’ll admit it felt good to be needed completely. But being needed in that way leaves little space for the person so needed. When the twins arrived, letting go of the reins was inevitable. We were lucky to have hired help from early on and they were able to bond meaningfully with people other than their mother in a way my older sons never were. What I didn’t count on was how blissful it is to have another human being that can put the baby to bed or give the toddler the consoling cuddle. What I didn’t realize was how healthy it feels to be able to walk out the door by myself, with nobody in tears.

5. Being a parent doesn’t mean being a constant audience.

“Watch me, Mom!” A constant refrain out of the mouth of son number one, who at eight is still reluctant to play by himself. I can’t blame him: I spent the first years of his life watching him. Watching him, entertaining him, cheering him on and then watching him some more. I was fascinated by his development, every milestone he hit was like a display of fireworks, impossible to peel my eyes from. I didn’t carve out enough time for him do things on his own or to do nothing at all. I propped him up with toys and gadgets and mother-led activities, as if boredom or loneliness would work some irreparable damage. He wanted me there, that was my rationale, of course he did. If I wasn’t a witness to his feats, it was like they hadn’t happened.

Alas, life is not a stream of continuous validation and being comfortable in your own company is a gift. My younger children are left to their own devices a lot more, when I am “busy” or otherwise engaged, sometimes simply when I think it is good for them. Their presence in the world has shown me the magic of what happens when their older brothers are left to their own devices too, both of whom taught themselves how to ride a bicycle without so much as a wink from me. Having four kids means you can’t be an intensive audience to each of their lives. But it also means they have each other to do some of the watching for you.

Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

By Aubrey Hirsch

photo (4)My son is growing up at a rate of exactly one second per second. And I think that’s the perfect speed. I don’t want him to be a baby forever. I want him to become the person he carves himself into, at the rate he chooses to grow.

It’s true that I love watching his satisfaction when he balances one block on top of another. But I can’t wait to see him study hard and learn something even I don’t understand. I want him to stretch himself, to work and try. And fail, sometimes. I want him to know the deep pleasure that accompanies triumph after disappointment.

His sweet toddler babbling is like music to me now, but I can’t wait for him to tell me what he’s thinking, what he wants, who he is and not just who I think he is. We often talk about wanting to keep our kids small, to protect them from the less appealing parts of life. But I want my son to have everything life has in store for him.

I want him to experience splendor and grief, summer sun and injury. I want him to lie to his best friend and feel the white-hot rush of embarrassment in his cheeks. I want him to have friendship, get picked on, make a pretty girl laugh, feel so alone he can barely breathe.

I want him to laugh until his ribs ache and cry until his throat is raw. I want him to run fast and skin his knees. I want him to give up on something important. I want him to make wrong decisions. I want him to know that pain and sadness lurk around every corner, under every good thing, and that life is unfair and unforgiving. But that there is beauty there, too. And hope. And comfort.

He should have warm air on his face, but also burning fevers. I want him to feel like no one understands him. I want him to have splinters and sore muscles and heartache. He should have pain. And love. And sorrow. And happiness so pure that it hurts him, because he knows—even as he has it—how soon it will be gone.

I want all these things because I love him and because this is what mothers do: We make our kids eat their vegetables and attend their oboe lessons and apologize to their friends when they screw up. We do this because we know better than our kids that temporary discomfort can open doors to wonderful things. And that sometimes great pain makes room in our hearts for joy to fill.

Even if I did hope to keep him small, if I thought having this child, at this age, made me the happiest a person could ever be, then I’m not so selfish that I would keep him from having his own perfect moment with his own perfect child. So I don’t mind watching him get bigger and watching the seconds tick away. I know those clock hands are moving toward amazing things for him, even the ones that seem terrible at the time.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. She has also written essays on pregnancy and motherhood for TheRumpus.net. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com

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First Communion

First Communion

By Rowen Wilson*

First Communion ArtIt is a school night, and my daughter, in first grade, tries to set the table in the cute way that first graders try to help.  She sets the silverware all around, then the plates and napkins, and the glasses.  “And for you, Mama,” she smiles, setting the wine glass at my place.  An unsettling thought rises in the back of my mind and I push it back.

I am a high functioning person.  I am a teacher, a distance runner, a book reader.  I have a Master’s degree and I teach graduate courses.  I read to my three children daily and I help my daughter practice the violin each morning before school starts.  I don’t smoke and I eat healthy foods.  I enjoy my wine.

I am not an alcoholic.  I can control my drinking.  I don’t drink until after five. I drink chilled Chardonnay while I prep dinner at night on autumn evenings, a couple of glasses during dinner and while we move through bedtime.  I read to my kids every single night.  I bathe them and brush their teeth, and I often get up to run five miles or more before they wake up for breakfast.

The hours between when I pick up the kids from school and when Andy gets home from work are long.  The kids are tired and wild.  I try not to turn on the television, to help with the math homework, to negotiate peace between my three and six year old, to keep my toddler busy, to make something resembling dinner.  I reward myself with the bottle of wine and a plan for a nice meal.  The package store sells pretzels; the children call it the pretzel store.

I do go through a lot of wine. My husband drinks less beer.  My empty bottles pile up in the recycling bin.  Sometimes I throw a few soda cans on top.  My husband suggests we switch to drinking only on the weekends.  I agree.  Bath time is long and the kids slop the water out of the tub.

Winter drags on.  The winter coats are dingy now and the sky is dull.   I can’t drink only on the weekends.   Eventually, I go underground.  I start to hide my wine.  I drink before he gets home.  I pour wine into a water bottle and leave it behind the house.   I pay in cash so there is no record of the sale.  I have a secret now.

Something takes control of me in spring.  It is cunning. It begins planning our day.  It plans when we will get wine, how much we will need, how we will hide it, when we will drink it, how we will hide our drunk.  This becomes the priority of our life.  It is getting warmer; daffodils coming up through the earth.  On weekends I am drinking much more.  Sometimes I can barely read the words of my kids’ books at night; the letters spin.

One morning I wake up and I cannot remember putting the kids to bed.  I look in on them.  There they are, in their footsie pajamas, tucked in and sleeping with their sweet flushed cheeks and peaceful mouths.  At breakfast I ask my daughter what books we had read, hoping it will spark my memory.  “Mama, why did you ask me that?” she says.

Near the end, I have blackouts.  I hide wine in my closet.  I have to be careful to remember to throw it away when I am out.  Sometimes I drink in the morning.  One summer day my husband comes home to find me and the kids in the yard.  We are playing “Drive-in Movie.”  I have blown up a camping mattress and set it up behind the mini-van and let them jump on it and watch DVD’s in the car.  I am there on the mattress with a smile on my face and my eyes closed and the kids are climbing all around me.  I have been drinking all day.

I am afraid now.  I wake up in the morning sick.  I feel sick until I have something to drink.  I look in the mirror and I feel panic rise and I tell myself it is not going to happen again.  But it does.  I do not have control anymore.  I have lost control.  I am not the driver.  Alcohol is the driver.  I have not been the driver for a long time and now it is too late.

One of the last times I drink I almost die.  I go to the liquor store alone at ten o’clock in the morning.  I buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy and I drink both of most in my car right there in the parking lot.  I do not know why.  A small voice inside me asks me to stop but we push it back.

I went into a store.  That’s all I remember.  I was very, very drunk.  Somehow, a clerk in the store helped me.  She called my husband with my cell phone.  He got me to his car using a shopping cart because I was too drunk to walk.  He thought I might die.  I was forty years old, the mother of three.  He thought that I might die.  And I got drunk again all the rest of that week, just as soon as we got the chance.

Alcoholism is a terminal disease.  According to the World Health Organization, it is the third leading cause of premature death.  There is no cure.  However, people who seek treatment and stop drinking can fully recover.

I am powerless over alcohol.  I cannot manage my own life.  I must admit defeat or die.   I pick defeat.  I let my husband take my car keys, my cell phone, my credit cards.  I let my father leave me at High Watch Recovery Center in Kent, Connecticut, where I spend three weeks in treatment.  I let the therapists and counselors tell me what to do.  I don’t fight.

I stop with the rationalization.  I stop comparing.  I begin to identify with who I am.

In rehab, I have the profound experience of sharing a secret with a room full of strangers that I had not shared with myself.   Out loud, I say I am alcoholic.  I say I can’t drink safely.  I say I lied so I could drink and say I schemed so I could drink and say I drank around my children.  I shake and I cry and I rail and other women meet my eye, they don’t look away and they say “Me too,” and they say “I know,” and they say “oh, that was me.”  I see I am them.  I identify.  I see I am a million other women, alcoholic women suffering from this disease, keeping this awful secret and dying from it alone and hating themselves for it silently while loving their children like all mothers do, all while alcohol wants them nothing else but dead.

We sit in a circle and we say our names.  We say we are alcoholic.  To hear so many others say these words aloud is an affirmation.  I begin to breathe.  We begin to speak.

The communion I experience among these women saves my life.  I learn that in fact I am not alone. I learn that lies and secrets corrode my self-esteem and waste my dignity.  I learn that damage to my self-respect fuels my disease to drink.  I hear their stories, and in listening I see the cycle.  In their stories I become awake.

Today, I consider myself pretty lucky.  In the U.S, only 11% of alcoholics seek treatment.  Only 11% of the people in this country who have this disease, from which more than 75,000 people will die from every year, will seek treatment.  I am in that 11% and alcoholism is not going to take me down.  But my God, did it try.

One of the darkest factors of this disease is the stigma that is attached to it, and particularly to those who are parents.  People who have diseases like diabetes or heart disease do not develop resulting behaviors that cause them to drive recklessly, act belligerently, black out, or engage in other types of socially inappropriate and dangerous conduct.  People don’t worry about letting their kids sleep over the girl’s house whose mom has diabetes.  Nobody wants to carpool with the alcoholic mom.

Alcoholism is a disease of the mind and the body.  The shame that comes with this disease makes it difficult for the alcoholic to talk about her disease with doctors, friends, and loved ones.  To make matters worse, her disease tells her brain not to, because her disease doesn’t want her to stop.

I can’t be left alone with the whispering voice perched on my shoulder and I shouldn’t be.  I enter into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I am no longer alone; I break my silence; I find communion; I hold the hands of my sisters.  I do the next right thing.

I will always be an alcoholic, just like I will always be a redhead and I will always be a mom.  My disease is a part of who I am.   There are many things that I am still afraid of.  I am afraid that one day I will slip and drink again.  I am afraid for my three young children, who will have to navigate their own course through life, with its many liquor stores, its college days, its interstate miles.  I am afraid they might inherit my disease and be alcoholic like me.  There are plenty of things to fear.  More important, though, for me to focus on today and watch my seven year old set the table for supper, fully present.  She smiles at me, gap-toothed, the way that second-graders are.  What a gift.  What an incredible gift life is.

About the author:  Rowen Wilson is a pen name. The photo used here is stock photography.

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My Super Man

My Super Man

By Daisy Alpert FlorinIMG_3335

Oliver, my four-year-old, hung his Batman backpack in his cubby, a still point amidst the chaos of preschool drop off.  He was wearing a Batman t-shirt with removable cape, a Spiderman sweatshirt and Justice League sneakers.  Underneath, he wore his underwear backwards so the picture of Iron Man was facing forward, inviting what I can only imagine was a wicked wedgie.  After hanging up his backpack, which held a Spiderman lunchbox and water bottle, he headed toward his classroom clutching a book we had made by stapling together pictures of Spiderman from the Internet like a talisman.  As I watched him walk away, his sneakers lighting up with each step, I wondered what exactly was going on with my youngest son.

Oliver’s fascination with superheroes began about a year and a half ago, shortly before he turned three.  What started out as a mild interest in Spiderman, Superman and Batman quickly expanded to include all superheroes both major and minor.  His collection is vast, added to by well-meaning family members and friends: toys, books, clothing, games, a piggy bank, dozens of figurines and–the crown jewel–a silkscreen canvas of a dozen superheroes purchased at great expense by Grandpa.  Oliver subscribes to a superhero magazine, and we’ve borrowed every book and video from the library numerous times, renewing them again and again and returning them only with great reluctance.  Along the way, he has acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things superhero: costumes, superpowers, alter egos, villains, even the alter egos of the villains.  He knows the difference between DC Comics and Marvel and can list the members of the Avengers, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

And then there are the costumes, colorful, synthetic bodysuits with velcro closures that make the transformation complete.  (If you pay extra, you can buy the “muscle version” in which strategically placed foam inserts give your preschooler a bulging six pack and pecs.)  Oliver knows wearing costumes to school is a no-no.  “When I come home, can I put on my Captain America costume?” he often asks me on the way to school.  And sure enough, as soon as he gets home, he will pull the costume on over his clothes, a look of relief on his face, like slipping into a hot bath at the end of a long day.  I have taken him on errands in full Batman attire, inviting smiles and comments.  “Hey, Batman,” a clerk at Costco once said as we walked past.  Oliver grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him.  “He thinks I’m Batman!” he whispered.

When I let him, Oliver loves nothing more than to scroll through images of superheroes on the computer.  Then he begs me to print them out so he can tape them to his walls.

“Don’t you think that’s scary, Oliver?” I asked him one night, pointing at the picture of Spiderman battling the Lizard that hung over his bed.  The Lizard’s claws were sharp and his muscled limbs burst through the seams of his lab coat.

“Nope,” he said.  “Remember, Mom?  I’m not scared of anything!”

Was that really true?  When I taught preschoolers, I often told parents who worried about the aggressiveness of superhero play that this kind of play was normal because it helped children feel safe in a world that is constantly revealing new dangers.  But while I understood this intellectually, I worried about my own son.  Was his world so scary?  Had I done something to make him feel nervous or insecure? When my daughter, Ellie, went through her princess phase, I had similar worries about the extent of her identification with these pampered damsels in distress.  Would she grow up with unreasonable expectations of what she could be?  But in hindsight–Ellie, now eight, rolls her eyes at princesses–I see that much of my worrying was for nothing and that as much as it irritated me at the time, I actually missed the phase.  Would Oliver outgrow superheroes one day as well, trading them in for more dude-like passions like skateboarding and fantasy football?  Perhaps.

But one night, while reading Spider-Man’s Worst Enemies for the umpteenth time, I wondered what I was worrying about.  Dressed in Batman pajamas, Oliver snuggled close to me as I read, his strawberry blond hair shining in the light of the reading lamp, his thumb planted firmly in his mouth.  “Anyone who hurts people or breaks the law is Spider-Man’s enemy,” I read.  “As long as Spider-Man is around, his enemies will never win!”  So maybe Oliver will never outgrow superheroes and become a guy who goes to Comic-Con dressed like the Green Lantern.  Maybe he’ll also grow up to be someone who believes in justice and in the power of good over evil.  I looked down at my son, his cherry brown eyes framed with soft eyelashes curved like commas, and reflected on what amounts to my parenting philosophy: What’s the worst that could happen?

Daisy Alpert Florin is a staff Editor at Brain, Child. She lives and works in Connecticut.

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New England Beach Babies

New England Beach Babies

By JoeAnn Hart

Web Only Beach Baby art“What now?” I muttered as my trowel hit an obstruction. “A plastic something.” In the depths of a major garden excavation for my son’s wedding, I kept coming across indestructible bits of our family’s life. Bare tennis balls, bottle caps, keys to cars we no longer owned. This time, though, as I cut away the roots wrapped around my latest find, annoyance gave way to memory. It was a child’s green plastic shovel, and as I turned it over in my hands, years of sitting at the beach with children washed over me.

“What a luxury,” people had always said, “to live within walking distance of the water.” What a pain, I’d grumble to myself. I grew up with suburban sprinklers, not ocean, so I was not a relaxed summer-time mom. Getting the kids ready for our daily beach expedition was like being backstage at a circus, helping squirming bodies into suits and painting faces with sunscreen. Adding up the hours, I have spent a full week of my life searching for sandals the length of my pinky. I could not begin to guess the time spent packing The Bag: Sunscreen, water, box juices, cookies, mini-carrots, peanut-butter sandwiches, towels, more sunscreen, and a blanket. I was exhausted when I finally hit our isolated patch of sand, and it was just the beginning. Clutching a sweaty baby boy while digging a moat with a toddler without taking my eyes off the oldest at the water’s edge was no day at the beach. I did my best to identify the sealife for the two older girls (“that’s a dead crab, honey, put it down”) and answer their questions about nature. “Why is the water blue?” Because it reflects the sky. “Why is the sky blue?” Have a cookie.

We stayed as the tide played in, then out. (“Where does the water go?”) We kept time by an upright stick in the sand, and when its shadow reached a certain angle they knew we had to head back. After packing up camp, an epic adventure of lost and found, we’d begin our forced march, me pushing the stroller with baby and toddler smushed together like sardines, the oldest lagging behind and whining. This was followed by the hose-down, story-time and a nap. That last one more for me than them.

Oh, it got easier over the years. My job became that of lifeguard, albeit one who burned easily and got dizzy from the sun. I sat in a chair, a magazine open on my lap, and watched the kids float like soap bubbles and swim like otters, dark shapes against the sunlight on the surf. Occasionally I’d be called into duty to help steady a kickboard, but mostly they tried to lure me into the water so they could hear me screech like a seagull. My children, true New England beach babies, are unfazed by the sharp slap of the frigid Atlantic. I will never get used to it.

One by one, they reached the age to beach it alone. My oldest girl would run off after breakfast and I’d meet her down there with the two younger ones. In later years, there was just one with me, and then there were none. After that, I’d only go to check that everyone was using sunscreen and staying hydrated. Usually I’d just find them working on their tans, but well into their teens, I’d catch them building kingdoms of sand, festooned with seaglass and bird bones. At the end of the day they’d watch their creations wash away with a shrug. To them, raised on tides, change was the way of the world.

Not so many years later and there I was with a little green shovel. Slipping two fingers into the handle, I could feel the small hand that once wrapped around it, and suddenly I missed the beach. Not the heat or the sand fleas, but the three familiar shapes moving through the water’s brilliant light. I missed their childhoods, and sometimes, I think, so do they. For his wedding, my son wanted a sand castle cake, a clambake at the beach, and silhouette photos against the sun as it dropped into an orange-red sea.

I stuck the shovel in a pile of dirt and tried to guess the time.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published, and she is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband and a few barn animals. To find out more, please visit www.joeannhart.com


How To Explain To A Sighted Toddler That His Parents Are Blind

How To Explain To A Sighted Toddler That His Parents Are Blind

By Kristen Witucki

0-2Langston knows my husband and I can’t see. That we are both blind. He never points at things and always attempts to verbally describe something to us. He knows that if he wants to show us something he can’t describe, he needs to bring it to us or us to the site. He even manages to show us where our dog threw up without having us touch it directly or touching it himself. “Mess,” he says in disgust, “mess, mess!”

Last August, a job teaching English and creative writing at the West Virginia School for the Blind caused my family and me to pick up and move from the Northeast, where we’ve always lived, to West Virginia. In New Jersey, both my husband James and I worked, but now he has retired and is Langston’s fulltime caregiver. When I rationally think of immigrants and ex-pats recreating their lives in new lands, the move is inconsequential, but when emotions outrun my intellect, the move is gigantic and becomes more so as the weeks turn to months and the months turn into the end of my first year as a teacher. I miss the diversity and accessibility which come with living in a suburb along the Northeast Corridor. I miss play dates and chatting with mothers of children Langston’s age.  We can’t walk to a grocery store or a doctor’s office anymore, so because my husband and I are both blind, we need assistance driving there. My colleagues happily drive us places, but we worry, because we can’t reciprocate.

Langston also can’t attend a real nursery school until he’s four. Since I’ve come from a land in which kids seem to be educated at birth if not earlier, this feels appalling to me.  My mother, however, received this type of rural education and assures me my child will come out all right in the end. We decided Langston needed some social exposure and that it didn’t matter whether the “kids” were his age or not. When spring came, we began making pilgrimages to the dorm, and through those evening journeys, we began to feel at home here.

“I want see Nee-nee again!  See Ba-dawn, see Ed-die!” Langston tells me this several times a day every day. He can’t comprehend phenomena like teen social events which naturally exclude him or, worse, Homegoings, when my residential students disappear for a few days, leaving the dormitory deserted.  Every evening, after I’m home from school, he wants to “see kids again!” Anita, a fellow blind teacher whom he calls Nee-nee, takes Langston down the slide with her on the playground or rocks him in the rocker on our front porch. DaShawn sees well enough to take Langston for rides on a scooter or a bicycle, or he runs with Langston, even after I tell him it’s ok to stop if he wants to.  Eddie, a blind adolescent who wants people to think he has no feelings, drops the facade as he gives Langston a hug or a high five or lets Langston dump water on him during water fights. When we show up, my students cheer and accept him as one of their tribe, and Langston adores them. It doesn’t matter to him or to the visually impaired teenagers around him that he can see.

Although Langston is aware that his parents are blind, he has never articulated it. He knows what we need without knowing words for it. In my zeal to increase his vocabulary, I decided to talk to him about blindness one afternoon. “Langston,” I said, touching my closed eyes, “I am blind.  Mommy is blind.”

“Bind,” he repeated.

“And Daddy’s blind,” I said.  “Nee-nee’s blind.  Eddie’s blind.” I decided DaShawn’s visual impairment was too complicated to explain in Blindness 101.

“I’m bind,” he said cheerfully.

“No,” I said, “you can see.” I touched his eyes gently with a fingertip. “See? Your eyes are open, and you see with them.”

“No,” Langston said, “I’m bind!”

Then he began listing our relatives. “Grandma’s bind, Aunt Frances is bind, Topher is bind …”  (All of these relatives are sighted). Then he ran away to play with his cars and trucks.

I sat there, stunned. In my day job, I often encounter kids who deny the extent of their visual impairment, struggling to read print when Braille would be easier or pointing out what they can see. Now my two-year-old is denying his sight?

No, I told myself, you’re overthinking this. Again. I remember lines in Stephen Kuusisto’s ground-breaking memoir, Planet of the Blind. “On the planet of the blind, no one needs to be cured. Blindness is another form of music, like the solo clarinet in the mind of Bartok.…The sighted are beloved visitors, their fears of blindness assuaged with fragrant reeds.” Langston is the solo clarinet, a beloved visitor, upon our experiences as blind people and as his parents. Maybe all children, as participating observers, adopt worlds they’ll go on to leave behind.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at www.kristenwitucki.com.

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Boys Who Push

Boys Who Push

By Amy Ettinger

Art Boys Who PushShe likes the boys who push. Especially Paulie, the outcast. My daughter’s preschool teacher says Paulie and Julianna are drawn to one another like magnets. No matter how much she tries to keep them apart, they find each other. Sometimes it’s at the snack table or on the swings. Julianna gets too close or takes a toy Paulie wants and he retaliates.

Before school we practice saying, “STOP” as loud as we can. I pretend I’m Paulie and I push her hard on the shoulder. “Stop,” she whispers.

“LOUDER,” I say.

“Maybe I will tell Paulie he can’t come to my school anymore,” she says. A 4-year-old’s solution.

“There will always be people in life who try to push you around, who will try to test your boundaries. You have to learn how to stop them.”   (At these moments I wish the house was secretly bugged so someone else could hear my mother’s wisdom). Julianna doesn’t seem to pay attention.

I think, maybe naively, that if I teach Julianna to stand up for herself now, the lesson will be hard-wired into her for when it really matters. When she’s a teen and the other girls are trying pot and sneaking out to parties.

Mostly I’m concerned about this attraction to the rough-housers, the young sociopaths. Of course, we’re not supposed to call them that, but there’s one in every class.  Last year, it was Eric, the boy who threw a wooden block at a visiting puppy, smashed the caterpillars and wouldn’t share the trains. Julianna went over to the train table every morning ready to play.

Julianna’s grandma was also drawn to the outliers, the dreamers, the ones that nobody else wanted. She met my Dad at a dance for college graduates she attended with a friend from group therapy. Mom was in analysis for more than 15 years to deal with her painful shyness. And then she saw my Dad (who was not a college grad) but snuck in to the dance meet ambitious girls—disproving the motto that “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Dad didn’t care that Mom didn’t talk much. He talked enough for them both. He was rough around the edges, talking back to police officers who often pulled him over for speeding, and mouthing off to his bosses.  Not surprisingly, he was always getting fired.

Mom was a shy do-gooder, a Barnard graduate, who worked for a time with emotionally disturbed children in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods – Bedford, Stuyvesant.  She lived with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment until she was 21, in the shadow of her domineering mother.

She met Dad just as she was starting to find some independence. Dad was unselfconscious. He had an ego and an energy Mom craved.

When they fought, it was explosive. My brothers and I watching as they tore each other apart (often with words and sometimes with fists).

The worst moment in my parent’s marriage came when I was eight years old. My  brothers and I were in front of the TV, when we heard our parents bickering in the kitchen. My parent’s voices got louder, until we heard a thud.

The kitchen of our Silicon Valley home was divided from our living room by a bar-height counter where we ate all our meals. The three kids stood on the living room side of the counter. We saw Dad standing behind Mom in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around her throat. It was like watching two mimes acting out a fight. Neither made a sound.

Mom was trapped. Her stomach was pressed against the tiled counter. Dad’s body kept her from backing up or escaping to the side. Mom pulled at his fingers. They were strong and callused from years of building and tinkering. They didn’t budge.

Finally, Dad let go. Mom ran into the bedroom to call the police, who came a few minutes later. They took Dad out of the house in handcuffs, but released him a half-an-hour later after taking a statement from my mom, and asking my brothers and I to intervene when my parents’ fights got too out of control.

Mom went to talk to a lawyer, but my parents never divorced. They were married for almost 30 years. Dad mellowed a little, but his nature never really changed.

I learned from Mom’s bad choices, even though the odds were against me. Girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher rate of being battered as adults. When I was looking for a mate I picked the opposite of my father. My husband’s a pleaser, a shy writer, a kind and sometimes goofy man.  We laugh a lot, even when we argue.   I have always been proud of my choice, feeling like I side-stepped a potentially tragic inheritance.  It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I learned that legacies can skip a generation.

Intergenerational transmission of domestic violence sometimes happens without parents even realizing it. The memories I have of my parent’s relationship are wired in me—sometimes I don’t even know that they’re there until the smell of cigarette smoke transports me back to my childhood home. The memories are a part of me, whether I realize it or not, and that affects what kind of a mom I am to Julianna. Do I lose my cool, “flip my lid”?  Of course. And I have bursts of anger that frighten us both. Especially when she kicks me in frustration when I deny her a special treat or throws a shoe at her father in the heat of an argument.  But why I get and angry, and how I recover is important for both of us to understand.

The relationship between my husband and I is the most important model for Julianna to learn about a healthy pairing.  As one therapist told me: “No one takes a beating at age 20.” When Julianna sees Dan and me making calm, egalitarian decisions for difficult problems, it teaches her what’s normal. And when she sees us fight? Well, that’s important to. That she never sees our anger explode to scariness, that she sees us re-group.  We do our best, although we can argue with heat, with passion, like any married couple. And I tell myself it’s normal, although I have to admit that I have no idea what that is.

There is still so much violence against women, that as a parent raising girls it’s hard not to think about. More than a thousand women are killed each year in the United States in domestic violence. Thousands more are seriously injured.

We need to encourage our girls to have a strong voice, even if her nature is to be quiet.

Every day, Julianna reminds me more of my mom.  She is cautious and fearful, and often painfully shy. Their phobias are even the same: they both loathe dogs of any kind.   Sometimes I wonder if it’s the time they spend around one another. Mom’s been a once-a-week babysitter since Julianna was born. But I know that it’s more complicated. Julianna inherited her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her disposition.

I remind myself that Julianna is four, and that it’s too early to draw these conclusions.  Her preferences for many things change almost daily. One day she loves the slides, going down the steepest scariest one 30 times before I bribe her out of the park. The next day she refuses to even leave the house.  She experiments with different ways of interacting with the world, sometimes sulky, sometimes kind, sometimes an adventurer and the life of the party.

She is an only child, so she mostly learns about other kids at school. She has been sheltered, and so maybe her time with the troubled boys is teaching her what she doesn’t want in life. I hope that the lessons I go over with her each day will stick.

My husband and I half-joke about getting Paulie thrown out of preschool, but I know another ill-behaved boy would take his place(and Julianna would be the first to find him).

My inheritance is my hyper-vigilance, my desire to save my child from a danger (both internal and external) she may never face.  But, if she does face it I want her to be ready. I want her to be strong.

So, I repeat our daily lessons.  One morning she tells me her baby doll also goes to a school with a boy named Paulie who pushes. “She doesn’t say stop, and she doesn’t call for the teacher.”

“You both have to learn,” I tell her.

“Every time, you say stop or call for help you are teaching Paulie that he can’t push people,” I tell her. I can tell that the thought appeals to her. She already wants to be the fixer, the one who makes it all better.

As her mom, I have no such illusions. I cannot control her curiosity or attractions. How can I? I can’t even control my own.

But I can understand a little better about what makes me tick and why. How my parents’ bad marriage may or may have not affected who I am today. And who I am to my daughter, and how she is in the world.

And even as I remain vigilant to outside threats—the boys who use their bodies instead of the words—I have to remember that sometimes the scariest things of all are inside our selves.

Amy Ettinger writes for the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four-year old daughter.

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Mothering Through Two Brain Surgeries

Mothering Through Two Brain Surgeries

By Maria Richmond

Brain Tumor ArtThe symptoms snuck up on me—slowly, steadily. A numbness that started in my arm, and eventually reached my legs, then turned into full body numbness in bed each night. One minute I felt fine and the next, I felt like I was trapped in a stranger’s body. I didn’t recognize myself anymore.

I was living a good life in Orlando, Florida with my husband and two beautiful boys; Alex and Caden, then, ages 3 and 5. There were always things to do in Orlando; theme parks, lakes, beaches, and playgrounds. I spent every day playing with my boys, going on fun excursions and adventures.

Until my symptoms grew worse.

“Are you okay, Mommy?” they’d ask, when they’d see me holding my head or grabbing onto the back of a chair for balance. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m ok, guys,” I’d tell them.  “Just a little tired.” But I wasn’t tired. Something else was going on. I knew it.


A month after the symptoms started I found a neurologist.  Dr. Arning didn’t know why I was going numb, getting dizzy, or having bouts of mental confusion. He sent me for an MRI. The morning of the MRI Alex and Caden sat with me in the quiet waiting room. “Bye, Mommy,” they said as I followed the technician.

When it was over, the technician told me the doctor would call if he saw anything. My thoughts shuffled: Saw anything? Oh no, do I have cancer? What will happen to my boys?

Dr. Arning called the next day. “You have a brain cyst,” he said. “come into my office in the morning” In his office Dr. Arning explained something called a Cisterna Magna —a Posterior Fossa Arachnoid Cyst. “These things are normally asymptomatic and don’t cause problems,” he said.  Ok, I thought, a cyst is not a tumor, but it was a brain cyst, and from what he described, a very large one at that. And I was already having symptoms, plenty of them, so I was not asymptomatic. All I could think about as I left the office was what would I tell my boys?

At home, Alex and Caden sat playing Legos on the living room floor. “What’s wrong Mommy?  Are you ok?” Alex asked.

“I’m OK,” I said. “I just have kind of a boo-boo in my head.”


Over the weeks, my symptoms grew worse. “Can we go to the park today?” my boys would ask. But by now, even a short trip to the park was too much and I didn’t feel comfortable driving, especially with my boys in the car. So more often than not, I’d say, “Sorry, guys, we’ll go soon but not today.” I felt terrible always saying no. Terrible.

Over the following weeks, I searched for another doctor, who specialized in brain cysts. I found one who immediately told me I would need brain surgery. I thought only of my husband and boys, a deep pit in my stomach, what if I don’t survive?

The night before surgery, Alex and Caden stood next to me in my bedroom as I packed, “We have something for you,” Alex told me. He handed me a small black notebook and turned to a page to show me his handwritten note: “Don’t worry, Mom.  God is with you.” I buckled under his tenderness, marveled at how grown up he was, and so calm. The boys didn’t seem worried. I told myself if they weren’t nervous why should I be? But I didn’t want this to be the last time I saw them.


After I woke up from surgery, as soon as I was able to, I called Alex and Caden. They bombarded me with questions; “Are you OK now, Mom?” they asked. “When are you coming home?” “Did it hurt?” They wore me out but it felt good to be answering them—because I could. Because I was still here.

When I got home from the hospital a week later the boys greeted me as I walked in the front door.  “Did it hurt?” Alex asked. “Can we see where they did the surgery?” I showed them the scar, “I’m OK now,” I said hugging them, reassuring them.

“Can we go back to the park again now?” Caden asked.

“Yep,” I said.  “Soon, we’ll be going all kinds of places. My brain just has to heal a little.”


Things went well for a while.  I gradually gained strength, and ventured out more and more. But about four months later, the headaches, numbness and mental confusion returned. I was back to being homebound. I saw the look of disappointment on Alex’s face—I could hear his thoughts, I thought your surgery was supposed to make you all better.  I was no longer better.

I had a second surgery to get a shunt put in my head — directly into my cyst. It would help keep the fluid draining and the cyst from building pressure. At least we hoped. I was gone again for a week.

As I recovered at home from this second surgery I tried to balance motherhood with umpteen doctor visits, and countless days of not feeling well. I was unable to be the kind of mom I had hoped and planned on being. It was taking a long time to get back into “mommyhood.” Things were now officially beyond difficult.

Often I was too sick to tuck Alex and Caden in. I’d have to say goodnight from my bedroom across the hall. Guilt settled in. I felt like less of a mother when my boys called from their beds, “Goodnight, Mommy. We love you.” I’d sink into the sheets and make wishes for myself and for the kids. I wished for my life back. I wished to be better.

But the shunt wasn’t relieving the pressure, so sometimes Alex and Caden would ask “Why are you crying, Mom?” Caden sometimes thought he had done something wrong, and he’d apologize, “I’m sorry Mommy,” he’d say.  “I didn’t mean to.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong honey,” I would reassure him.  “Mommy is just sick.”

I spent my days at a new doctor’s office. This new doctor didn’t know why the shunt hadn’t worked, and he didn’t seem to want to figure it out. His treatment was to turn my shunt down at each visit so more fluid would drain out and relieve the pressure. But this approach did not work.


When I said goodbye to my boys again, they were scared. “When are you coming back?” Alex asked. I knew I didn’t look good, my speech was slurred, and this time we had no idea how long I’d be gone. “Can we come with you?” Caden asked. My husband and I made the 8-hour trip back to the hospital where I’d had my surgeries.

As I lay in my hospital bed again, I worried my boys would forget the kind of mom I had been—that I used to be. I was sure when they grew up all they’d remember about their childhood was how I was sick all the time. They’d no longer remember going to the park, to Disney and Sea World, and all the fun things we did. Instead, their memories would be of being lugged to constant doctor appointments, waiting in the sterile hospital, and watching me recover from surgeries. I didn’t want them to have only those memories. I wanted them to have good memories of us as a family —fun times. But those dreams and thoughts were getting doused more every day. “I’m sorry,” I told my boys in my mind. “I’m sorry I’m always sick now.”

During this hospital stay the doctors determined that the shunt had been over-draining for many months. Too much Cerebral Spinal Fluid had been pulled off my brain and had essentially, let my brain dry-up.

Yes, my brain was drying up, to the point where it was no longer floating – a condition known as sagging brain, and my sagging brain had then caused my brain stem to fall into my spine. I needed more fluid back around my brain before it went into shutdown mode. The doctor turned the shunt pressure back up to allow more fluid to collect around my brain. This would put me out of the “danger zone.” Hopefully.

But there were no guarantees that my brain would ever float back to its normal position, or that this would get rid of all of my symptoms.

This had been, by far, the most frightening and devastating of all the hospitalizations, but I went home a few days later, and once again, there was the big homecoming.

“Are you better now?” The boys asked when we pulled in the driveway.

“I sure hope so,” I told them. “I’m planning on it!”

Months would pass before I’d feel even a little better. And although I was able to eventually be a mom again, I was not the mom I had hoped I’d return to; I was a long way from being the mom I had been years before, before my brain cyst. I would have to search for a long time to find some new normal that my boys would remember, with some joy.

Author’s Note: Alex and Caden are 14 and 12 now. Although there are times I feel like I have missed chunks of my boys’ lives while they’ve been growing up, I remind myself to be grateful for having the privilege of being here.

Maria McCutchen Richmond lives in North Carolina with her two boys. She has been writing for many years; and for the past three years, she has been freelancing and writing articles for the web. She is an activist for those with brain cysts, speaking out and trying to help others by starting a following for arachnoid cysts on EmpowHer.com, starting a blog on www.arachnoidcystsupport.blogspot.com, writing articles about the condition, and educating others about this rare brain disorder.

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.

Peeping on the Potty

Peeping on the Potty

By Candy Schulman

WO Peeping on Potty ArtMy daughter is a nudist.  Greeting the Chinese take-out delivery man in a yellow turtleneck, she is not quite three and completely bottomless.

Mortified, I watch my husband pay for our dinner while I say in a loud whisper, “Come inside.  You don’t have any…pants on.”

“I’m just standing here next to my daddy,” she says, while I worry what the delivery man must be thinking about our American culture.

Amy tries to spear rice grains with the tip of a chopstick.  She’s having a great time, even though her bare rear is getting imprinted by the pattern of a cane seat.

We are not weird or perverted.  We are simply trying to toilet train our toddler. I teach; Amy resists. Child-rearing gurus advise parents to delay toilet “learning” until after the defiance of the terrible twos settles down. Given my daughter’s strong will and a case of terrible twos that began at eleven months, I may be waiting until Amy goes to college.

Today’s method is to get those disposable diapers off your child–she’ll never feel the urge to “go” when her butt is padded by super absorbency fibers.  In the homes of young children you’re sure to see a lot of little tochis flashing around.

My mother toilet trained my brother at eighteen months.  She had no choice, or should I say hehad no choice: with another infant to care for, my mother wasn’t going to hand wash two sets of cloth diapers.

Experts today adopt a laissez faire approach, lest the children turn into anal retentive adults. Hence my bare-bottomed girl…and if you need proof how far she is from anal retentive, all you have to do is take one look at the condition of her room.

Months pass.  Finally Amy agrees to start sitting on the potty. She smiles, saying, “I hear it.”  But I hear nothing.

“I hear it!” Amy says, but it’s all in her mind, rather than in the bowl.

“I’m finished,” she announces, wiping herself needlessly in the wrong place.  She flushes and is off.

Someday she will “go potty.”  But the more I see 4-year-olds in diapers, the more I wonder if my mother had a better idea.

I try behavior modification.  If I can “hear it,” she can hang one sticker from an array I’ve purchased. Perched on the edge of the bathtub, my usual observation spot, I finally hear it. I jump up and down, cheering.  Before her feet touch the ground, I dial Grandma in Florida.

“I made peep on the potty all by myself!” Amy screams into the phone.

Then she demands her reward: five stickers.

“We agreed on one.  One for each pee-pee.”  I can’t believe I am actually uttering such words.

“Four,” she says, a fierce negotiator, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.

“Okay…three.” All the money I thought I’d be saving on diapers goes into my sticker budget.

My mother calls from Florida.  “In the middle of my bridge game,” she reports, ” I told three eighty-year-old women that my granddaughter finally peed on the toilet.  They looked at me like I was nuts. Told me to finish bidding.  They might not care, but I’m awfully proud.”

So am I.  A year of reading Everyone Poops has finally paid off!  We buy a dozen pair of “big girl pants”—Amy appropriately selects Pooh.  What a deprived childhood I had, a bland world of only white underwear….

She refuses to put on her big girl pants.  She still insists on being bottomless, or else she wears leggings around the house with nothing underneath.  What have I created?

“When you’re ready,” I say, “you’ll wear big girl pants.” Every two seconds I inquire, “Do you have to go potty?”

“No,” she says, annoyed.  “I alweady went potty yesterday.”

Why do I feel competitive that Amy is the last one in preschool to still wear diapers?  I take comfort that her language skills are high; I don’t think any of her college applications will question the age she was potty trained.

The turning point arrives when Amy puts Pooh underpants on her cherished stuffed puppy.  When I check on her before I go to bed, I find her asleep, mouth ajar, hugging a golden retriever in underpants.  I find this image adorable…until the next morning, when she decides to wear Pooh underpants to school for the very first time.  Puppy goes to school identically.

Amy holds up Puppy in triumph, all fur and underpants. People giggle.  I feign nonchalance.  When you’re the mother of a three-year-old who peeps on the potty, you must pretend that nothing embarrasses you.  It will be decades before we learn whether allowing toddlers to make decisions for themselves will empower them or send them to shrink’s couches with the complaint, “My problems began when my mother was too casual about toilet training.”

On the way home from school, I tell Amy, “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m a big girl now,” she says.

Minutes later, in the grocery store, Amy holds up Puppy in his underwear and boasts to a captive audience, “I’m wearing Pooh underwear too.  But Mommy’s big girl pants are black!”

There is a hush.  People stare.  I smile wanly and reassure myself that this will all seem ludicrous when more challenging times arise.  Such as explaining the facts of life.  I can’t wait.

About the Author: Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and several anthologies. She is Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

 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.