Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mother and daughter holding hands while walking together

By Estelle Erasmus

When my daughter was two, we took a short family cruise. Our last night on board, I packed up our luggage and left it in front of our door to be picked up. By the time I realized I had stashed away all her diapers in our oversized suitcase, they’d already collected it.

“I can’t sleep without my pull-ups,” my newly potty trained toddler cried.

“You’re able to hold it in during the day, honey, maybe you can do it in the night, too,” I said.

“I can’t,” she wailed.

With my daughter listening closely, my husband and I investigated where we could get pull-ups. Unfortunately, the shops had closed for the evening.

As I placed a mound of towels in her crib, in a makeshift effort to avoid the flood that was coming—and not just from her eyes— I felt torn with guilt. I reassured my anxious child that she’d make it through the night dry, while my heart ached for her knowing she wouldn’t.

Then her small voice piped up.

“We have to go to the camp on the boat, mommy.”

“You’re not going to the day camp downstairs now. You’re going to bed.”

“No,” she insisted. “The camp has pull-ups. I saw them.”

Racing down three flights of stairs, I was grateful to see a cavalcade of little ones watching a movie. The understanding counselor responded to my plight by donating a few diapers. But the real gift was how my sweet baby had solved her own problem.

It started me thinking about the steps we had taken the first time we tried to toilet train her. First, I bought Once Upon a Potty, which I read to her, and then I got her a potty of her own that I let her decorate with stickers. Finally, I showed her the illustrations from the book to demonstrate exactly how it worked. My Princess sat on her “throne” and did nothing but look at picture books. After a few weeks of trying with no discernible results I was frustrated and gave up.

Shortly after, we attended a party, where the tiara-topped birthday girl in a tutu proudly pulled out her “seat” and filled it to the brim. I saw a light of recognition flash in my toddler’s eyes as she connected the deed with the device. After that, toilet training was a breeze. Just as important, I realized that my child does best when she can model her behavior after someone.


Soon after, I had the chance to help her when I noticed that she came on strong with new friends in the playground, following them around, or reaching out for her pal’s hand, then becoming upset if the girl pulled away.

One day after another incident that left her full of ire, I hugged my frustrated little one.

Mommy’s going to help you. I’ll show you what to do.”

She hugged me back.

Let’s pretend I’m your new friend,” I said. Go ahead and take my hand.”

When she did, I pulled it away from her.

No, I don’t want to hold hands,” I told her in a child’s voice.

“But I want to, mommy,” she said.

Don’t grab her hand again,” I said. “Just tell her, ‘it’s fine’, then walk away.”

After a few practice sessions—which had her screaming with laughter when I varied the pitches of my voice— she stopped acting desperate for friendship.


The summer she turned five, during a weekly play date three girls battled over who would wear the one sparkly gown for dress-up. It ended up my daughter’s prize, infuriating one of the girls who told the rest not to play with her.

Though we were both upset, I calmed down.

“Listen, sweetie, not everybody is going to get along, and not everybody is going to like you and that’s okay.”

She nodded with rapt attention, brushing back the tears brimming from her eyes.

“If it happens again, say, ‘It’s a free country. You don’t have to play with me and I don’t have to play with you’. Then find something else to do.”

We practiced for a week until she had the words and the attitude right. The next time someone tried to shun her, my girl was ready with the script we’d worked on. The result was minimal emotional collateral damage.

As she grows, I’ve noticed that her friends are exerting more influence on her, particularly when it comes to achievement.

For example, last summer, she was tasked with the deep-water challenge at camp in order to be allowed to paddle boat on the lake. The challenge was to hold her breath underwater for twenty seconds, float on her back for two minutes, and swim four laps without touching the sides of the pool. A few of her friends had already passed the test. At first she was fearful, but I pointed out that everybody starts at beginner levels for any challenge in life.

“Yesterday, your friend Ellen didn’t pass the test, but today she did. She worked hard to do that—it didn’t just come to her. You can pass, it, too. But you have to practice.”

“I will,” she said. And she did.

She came to show me her medal, when several weeks later she aced the test.

“I’m so proud of you, but more important, you should be proud of yourself,” I said.

“I am mom.”

My seven-year-old is eager for more challenges.

Right now, I’m teaching her how to cross the street with me as she carefully observes how I look to the right and the left, and watch for cars turning or backing up, before we start walking across.

“Mom, when I’m older, I’m going to cross the street by myself, and I’m not going to hold your hand at all,” she shares, flush with the power of her future.

If traffic were a metaphor for life, I would say that for now, we’ll practice together navigating the quiet streets of her childhood, in preparation for the busy thoroughfare of her teen years.

Because one day, instead of being steered by me, she’ll need to be the one doing all the driving.

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist and writing coach. She has been published in Brain, Child, The Washington Post On Parenting,, Vox, Salon and more. You can read more of her work at:






How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

How to Wake Up a Teenager on Vacation, in 16 Easy Steps

By Rachel Pieh Jones


When the twins were young, I thought they would never sleep. Or never at the same time and never at the time I also wanted to sleep. Now our trouble is the exact opposite. My twin teenagers go to school for three months and then have a month break. By the time that break comes, they are exhausted and all they seem to want to do is sleep and eat.

So, to ensure the teens participate in our family activities even while on vacation or to get them to their jobs on time or to simply see them during daylight hours, I’ve had to take drastic measures. I have employed a variety of methods and they always end with me laughing, the kid groaning, and Mom emerging as victorious.

Here, I pass these suggestions on to other parents, also desperate to see their teens open-eyed before noon:

Preamble: In between each step, wait five to ten minutes. Always knock before entering the room. Even though they are probably still sleeping, you just never know and should respect their privacy. Remember, their brain chemistry is undergoing some serious hormonal onslaughts and they do need inordinate amounts of sleep. Remember also that they are working hard at school, enduring the stress of the teenage social world. It might help to have breakfast (or lunch, depending on the hour) already on the table so they can just stumble from bed to chair. This list builds upon itself, so each additional step is performed on top of the preceding steps.

After step 3, you will begin entering the room but you have performed the required knock several times by now, so feel free.

It is vital to remember that each step must be enacted with love, affection, and the teens ultimate best interest in mind.

I skipped some earlier steps which seemed self-evident and which I also employ before launching the following onslaught. These could include things like setting alarm clocks (my son sets five and misses them all), simply knocking on the door and saying, “Time to get up,” gently rubbing their back or leg or arm and reminding them of the day’s obligations, and sending younger siblings in to do the job for us. When/if these fail…

1. Pound on the door. I mean pound, full-fisted, make it rattle.

2. Shout, “Time to wake up. Time to wake up. Time to wake up.” 

3. Add the loudest rooster crow you can muster.

4. (You are now in the room) Shake their shoulder and say, “Good morning.”

5. Yank the pillow out from under their head and say, less gently, “Good morning.”

6. With great gusto, whip away their sheet or blanket.

7. Start hitting them (gently) with the pillow and with each tap say, “Up. Up. Up.”

8. Flick their ears repeatedly. Alternating ears is helpful but not required.

9. Flick other parts of their body: head, back, chest. Or tapping, tapping can also prove effective.

10. Pull arm hair. Pull leg hair. Stay clear of the armpit air.

11. Plug their nose so they are forced to breathe out of their mouth but back up quickly or turn your head away when that mouth exhales.

12. Crow like a rooster (yes, again), while performing karate on their back or chest (you know I mean to do this gently but firmly, right?)

13. Pull them by one arm out of bed. This will only leave them asleep on the floor but they are now a few feet closer to the shower, consider that time saved later.

14. Threaten to record this whole ordeal (which has taken over an hour and can replace your aerobics routine for the day) and offer to post it on YouTube and Instagram.

15. Say all kinds of wonderful things about yourself, like what a great mother you are, how good-looking and smart and creative you are, something about your awesome sense of humor and ability to relate to younger generations. Move their heads up and down in agreement. Record this as well and threaten to post it.

16. And last but not least, ice cubes. They never fail.

In my experience, the only method that produces my desired result is #16 but I just can’t bring myself to start there. The result probably won’t be what you are really aiming at—an alert, up and about, teenager but it does result in opened eyes and verbal acknowledgment of what an annoying mother you are. I consider that: mission accomplished.

Though, on second thought, I have yet to follow-through with the YouTube threat. That might be a pretty effective method if I did it just once. The dread of such shame could be enough to get those sleepy teens out of bed.

Now if these methods would only be so effective in getting them to do their homework…

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

New Year, New Gear: Moving to Airplane Mode?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Girl held aloft flyingshould parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in.


We are en route to visit my family in California. A mother and her infant sit a row ahead and across from me. As she takes out a bottle and a burp cloth, I smugly take out my notebook and pen and prepare, from my place above the Plains, to write something rich for my final essay of the year.

However, as I put pen to paper, commotion comes from across the way. Not from row 8 with the well-behaved infant, but from the one behind it, seats 9A and 9B, the row with my 14-year-old girls.

The mother of the infant looks back with judgment as the daughter in 9A swears at her computer because, I soon gather, her movie didn’t download and now she has nothing to do but—dare I say it—read. In addition, I learn when I lean over, the Afrin isn’t working for the daughter in 9B, who has a cold. To help with the stuffiness, 9B is chewing gum and the chewing is driving 9A, already distraught due to the download failure and, the real issue, the fear that she failed to make the school musical, bonkers. In all my planning, I realize, I overlooked the reality that in addition to the notebook and computers, we also took ourselves.

9B blows her nose and announces that while her movie is functioning, her earphones hurt her clogged ears too much to listen.

Then 9A hollers over 9B to me in seat 9C, “Do you think I’ll make it?”

I say, “I think so,” to appease my daughter as much as the horrified mother in 8B. I feel like explaining to her that we are not concerned with 9A’s actual survival, she simply auditioned for the school musical earlier in the week and will, upon landing, find out whether or not she made it. For several reasons, the odds are stacked against her and so in my daughter’s adolescent, all-or-nothing view of life—a view which her sleeping baby will have someday—9A’s future hangs in the balance as we fly. But of course, I say nothing. Instead, I long for my husband’s window seat as I hold my breath and hope that we survive everything from the flight to the musical to the rest of our lives.

As it seems I’ve been doing all year. I lived the past year like we now are flying, minute by minute, holding my breath. I’m not only referring to the real kind of breath holding that comes with, say, waiting for biopsy results, but the maternal kind of breath holding, the kind that comes from shuttling folks through the angst of adolescence. The year was characterized by crises that mandated my repetition of the line, “In 2 weeks, will you remember this?” A bad grade. A bad pimple. A bad exchange with a friend. And currently, a bad audition. But though it’s been minute by minute, two weeks at a time, 52 weeks have suddenly passed, and I, suspended in air, stare at the baby in 8B and wonder when it was that the ones in 9A and 9B grew up. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that time with teenagers is no different than time with infants; the years pass quickly though the minutes drag on.

And on. We have an hour and 45 of them left in this flight. 9A is saying something again about the musical but the good news is that my ears are now clogged. I can’t hear, so I do what I rarely do, I shrug my shoulders and turn away, which is, I suppose, the strategy I should always use. I should parent like my kids’ iPhones are now set, on airplane mode, instead of reacting, even if only internally, to every issue that rolls in. I don’t need to be high in the sky to see the big picture. I’m well aware that the school musical crisis is only a matter of the moment. Just as I know that as 2015 rolls into ’16 and 14-years-old turns to 15, the conveyor belt of crises is only going to move faster and the shelf-life of my daughters’ issues will extend. I see what’s coming down the pike. I have a girlfriend whose daughter is dealing with high school finals and heartbreak. I have a mother whose daughter (me) dealt with breast cancer. So do yourself a favor, I want to tell the mother in 8B, train yourself now to take it down a notch. Put yourself on airplane mode, you’ll extend the life of your battery.

Previous generations of parents tuned out all of the time. When my mother, back in 1950, told her mother that she had no clean underwear for school, her mother told her that she didn’t need any because it was warm outside, then she went back to sleep. When, back in 1976, I cried at my birthday party because I wasn’t happy with my gifts (in fairness, I received about six or seven of the same very girly tube-tops), my mother sent me to my room and continued the party without me. Yet, we grew up fine. Well, maybe not fine, but good enough.

And guess what? Good enough might just be the new gold standard. In his article, “The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent,” published on December 22, 2015 in Psychology Today, Psychiatrist Peter Gray, says good enough should be the goal. His basic message to parents is chill out. Even if you mess up, even if your children struggle, all will be okay.

So, for the new year, I resolve to get on trend and adjust my settings.

Though I see already that it’ll be hard to teach an old(er) mom new tricks. With 30 minutes left in our flight, with 9B still obsessing about the musical and 9A still complaining about her ear, the mom in 9C does what no good enough parent would ever do, she hands the paper and pen with which she planned to write her essay to her kids and tells them to, “Do something productive.” Surprisingly, they listen. They use the paper to make a list of the things they want to do on vacation, which they hang in my parents’ kitchen. As the days go by, my girls cross off goals as they accomplish them. Including 9B’s goal to make the musical. She’s part of the ensemble, it turns out. She’s doesn’t have lines but she gets to dance. She is happy. “It’s good enough,” she tells me.

I tell her that good enough is, in fact, the goal.

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


Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen

WO Dancing Queen ArtBy Daisy Alpert Florin

Last summer, my family and I spent a week in Vermont at the kind of family resort that promises fun for all ages.  It delivered: while our three kids participated in wholesome summertime activities with their peers, my husband, Ken, and I had time to reconnect during long bike rides, canoe trips and swims in the lake.  Each night, the resort offered after-hours activities as well, most of which did not appeal to me.  Bonfire and sing-along?  Too hokey.  Trivia night?  Too geriatric.  But Thursday night’s offering seemed perfect: Dance night with DJ.

I love to dance.  Years of childhood ballet have not translated into a lifetime of grace, but give me a few drinks, blast some pop music and I’m unstoppable.  At 40, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between.  Before last summer, the last time I had been dancing was four years earlier at a friend’s wedding.  I danced non-stop, sweating through my dress, pausing only when the DJ took a break for the father-of-the-bride’s toast.  So any chance to dance, I’ve come to learn, should not be passed up.

Ken and I reserved a babysitter, put our kids to bed and headed up to the inn.  The breakfast room had been transformed into a dance floor, complete with disco ball, strobe light and a mountain of sound equipment.  When we entered the room, a few guests were taking salsa lessons.  I sipped my maple mojito through a skinny straw and watched the sad scene unfold.

“What’s up with the salsa lesson?”  I asked Ken.  “I thought we were here to dance.”

“Calm down.  There’s the DJ,” he said.  “Let’s just wait.”  He patted my hand, trying to keep my tantrum at bay.

Dancing, or the promise of dancing, can bring out my nasty side.  At my five-year college reunion, fueled by several foamy beers and the crush of alumnae dancing around me, I had yelled at the college students sneaking some grooves on the tiny square of dance floor set up on the grass for the class of 1995.

“This is our dance floor, yo!” I’d hissed at them.  “Get the hell off!”  I couldn’t stand the thought of them dancing every weekend the way I used to, traipsing from frat house to frat house in search of the best crowd and the best tunes, while we returned to entry-level jobs in the city, our weekends spent in overpriced bars with nary a DJ in sight.

The salsa lesson ended and the dance floor cleared out.  The DJ started spinning some tunes, mostly unoffensive, generic stuff: “I Will Survive,” “Holiday,” “Dancing Queen.”  All in all, pretty uninspiring.  The crowd apparently agreed with me: fifteen minutes in, the dance floor was pretty much empty.

“This is lame,” I said to Ken, eyeing the middle-aged crowd around us.

“Do you want to go?” he asked.

Before I could answer, the doors opened and a crowd of staff members entered the room.  This could get interesting, I thought and ordered another drink.

The young men and women, released from their day jobs as camp counselors, waitresses and Zumba instructors, sauntered in in groups of four and five.  Having shed the cocoon of their uniforms, they emerged like butterflies in low-slung jeans and baby doll dresses.  All week long, I had been obsessed with the group of young people who kept the resort running.  I invented fictions about them–love triangles, bitter breakups, kinky sexting.  Each morning, as I biked from our cabin to the resort’s main buildings, I passed by the staff’s residence.  It was a shabby Victorian-style house covered in layers of colorful paint and strung with Christmas lights.  I could only imagine the amount of screwing that took place inside.

The staff greeted each other, some affectionately, others nonchalantly.  I recognized the waitress who served us breakfast each morning standing on the periphery of a loud group of girls.  She was wearing a brightly patterned dress, high-waisted and billowy around the hip.  Looking around at the other girls, I noticed they were all wearing different versions of the same dress regardless of how it suited their figures.  They were too young to know how to dress for their bodies, but young enough for it not to matter.

Watching them, I couldn’t help wondering how I had entered this other group, parents–or “guests” as we were known–when deep down I felt like I should be hanging out with the the staff.   Why had I never had a job like this instead of wasting my college summers working at internships in fields I’d never entered?  They got to go dancing.

As Ken and I sipped our drinks and grooved half-heartedly to ABBA and Van Morrison, the staff played out their own dramas, oblivious to us.  My eyes tried to meet theirs across the dark room. Can’t you see? I tried to telegraph.  I’m really one of you.

After a few more songs, I walked over to the DJ.

“Are you going to play anything more current?  Like Katy Perry or Rihanna?” I asked the boy-girl pair parked behind the turntable.

“Yeah,” the girl answered flatly.  “We usually play the older stuff first for the older crowd and then we’ll start with something more modern.”

My eyes met hers straight on.  “Well, let’s hit it NOW, O.K.?”  I think I kind of yelled.

Seconds later, Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” exploded through the speakers.  I ran out onto the dance floor, pumping my hands toward the roof as the chorus rang out.  I twisted and grooved through the twangy horns section and stamped my feet during the final na-na-nas.  The music continued, the songs of summer streaming out one after the other.  I knew them all from listening to the radio in my minivan.  I closed my eyes and felt the music pulse through my body.  I shouted along with lyrics that had nothing to do with my life anymore, stories of love and breakups played out in school yards and on city streets.

After awhile, I gave Ken the O.K. to head over to the bar, and I moved around, unfettered, looking for a new group to join.  I found our waitress dancing with a group of her friends.  Their circle opened slightly and I poked my way in.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the biggest hit of the summer, came on and the crowd screamed.  It was a song my kids and I had hooted along to during our morning ride to day camp.  Now I mouthed the lyrics seductively in the dark: I know you want it… I know you want it.  The girls and I swiveled our hips and shimmied our shoulders, shouting when Robin anointed us all “the hottest bitch in this place.”

Wanting to end the night on a high, I slipped off the dance floor as soon as the song ended.  But before I left, I grabbed the waitress’s arm and pulled her toward me.

“Listen to me,” I said, my lips close to her ear.  “Go dancing every night you can, OK?  And just, like, own it.  Do you get me?”

And then I was gone, pulling Ken away from the bar and out into the summer night.

“Did you have fun?” he asked as we walked along the dark path back to our cabin.

“It was good,” I said, yawning.  Nestling closer to him, I remembered that all I’d ever wanted during the crazy nights of my youth was a man to walk home with afterwards.  All the primping and preening, the sexy moves on the dance floor, all of it had been in pursuit of the life I had now.  The moon rose high in the nearly black sky, crystalline stars stretching on as far as I could see.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a freelance writer. She lives and works in Connecticut.

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Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

image-1Friends warned me that parenthood changes everything.  I understood and accepted that parenthood would change me, but I didn’t understand that parenthood’s influence was even greater than that.  Parenthood has transformed my parents, my vacations, my house, and my relationship with coffee.  Parenthood has even transformed words I formerly considered synonyms into words that mean drastically different things.

Parenthood changes everything.

Quiet vs. Silence

Before children, silence and quiet were relatively interchangeable.  Silence just meant deeper quiet.  Now I believe the difference between quiet and silence should be taught in every pre-natal parenting class.  Putting a diaper on wrong or forgetting to burp the baby can lead to trouble.  But, that trouble is nothing compared to the trouble that mistaking silence for quiet can cause.

Quiet means children are focused.  Quiet means children are sleeping.   Quiet means the cartoon you are letting them watch is having the desired effect.  Silence, on the other hand, means there is a gooey substance being spread somewhere in the house. Silence means something rolled, stacked or organized is being unrolled, toppled or jumbled. Silence means crayons or paint are being applied to a non-paper surface.  Silence means a child is pooping in an isolated corner.  Quiet is a treat. Silence is trouble.

Click vs. Snap

Before children, click and snap were just two words in a long list of available onomatopoeias to describe life’s soundtrack.  Now, I know that a clicking sound and snapping sound are not the same.  It is essential to know the difference between click and snap during the “some assembly required” phase of a new toy.

Click is the goal.  Snap should be avoided at all costs.  Click indicates you have accurately interpreted the cryptic graphic instructions and lined up two pieces that were, indeed, intended to fit together. Snap indicates you are about to make a kid cry and will be required to plug the tear dam with promises to replace the now-cracked piece of plastic that no longer feels like a bargain.

Going to Bed vs. Going to Sleep

Before children, I thought you sent kids to bed and that was the end of it.  Oh, the bliss of ignorance.  Now I know that the time you send children to bed has no correlation with the time they go to sleep.

Going to bed means entering the bedroom and putting oneself in a horizontal position on the mattress.  Going to sleep means actually closing one’s eyes and entering a period of slumber.  Those two events are separated by lots of interim steps.  Requests for water.  Requests for another hug and kiss.  Claims of being scared that are delivered with a wide grin and a surreptitious glance at the living room TV in a never ending quest to crack the mystery of grown up television.  A trip to the bathroom.  A knock-knock joke sibling session.  Another trip to the bathroom.  And, finally, sleep.

Snack vs. Meal

Before children, I thought a snack was a small bit of food eaten between meals.  Now I understand that it is sometimes food between meals but mostly just a marketing trick that transforms unacceptable foods that will not pass a toddler’s lips into delicious treats.

Carrots served on the go between a park excursion and home?  Delicious!  Carrots served at home as a side dish to the main course?  Unacceptable.  Green beans grabbed from the garden on the walk to the car?  Delicious!  Green beans grabbed from the garden and served on a plate?  Unacceptable.   Hummus at the zoo?  A tasty and exotic dip!  Hummus with dinner? Unacceptable.

Trip vs. Vacation

Before children, trip and vacation meant the same thing to me.  Now, I understand that parents do not take vacations (periods of exemption from work).  Parents take trips (voyages, journeys). Travelling with children requires the same amount of work you do every day, only in unfamiliar setting with less comfortable accommodations.

Vacations involve reading trashy novels with your feet in the sand.  Vacations involve sipping adult beverages with colorful umbrella accessories.  Vacations involve drifting in and out of sleep in a sunny lounge chair while you try to figure out what day of the week it is.

Trips involve hauling luggage filled with enough board books and plastic toys to start a daycare.  Trips involve contorting your left arm to reach under the seat for the dropped sippy cup.  While it is possible to lose track of the date on a trip, it is always clear when it is meal time or nap time.

Trips are exhausting and leave you in need of a vacation.

My Parents vs. My Children’s Grandparents

Technically, my parents and my children’s grandparents are the same people.  They inhabit the same body.  But, that is where the similarities stop.

My parents forbid soda, chips and cookies.  My children’s grandparents sneak them an extra spoonful of brown sugar in their oatmeal.  My parents required regular cleaning of dishes, rooms, and bodies.  My children’s grandparents think chores and baths can wait until the block castle and all its outbuildings are complete.  My parents insisted on respect for elders.  My children’s grandparents barely hide their chuckles when my kids roll their eyes at me.  My parents taught me that if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.  My children’s grandparents tell stories about my childhood that set a less than stellar example for the next generation.  I wish my parents had been as cool as my children’s grandparents.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  My friends tried to tell me that parenthood would change everything.  I just didn’t understand that everything meant EVERYTHING!

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Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

IMG_0060It’s pretty. It’s so pretty, the snow and the pink sunsets that begin as peachy blushes and then go full on rose. It’s lovely, the thought of time and hanging out and what, puzzles or board games or movies? It’s … vacation.

And I am, as is often the case, stressed about who’s coming and preparations and I don’t feel relaxed or cozy. I don’t feel “in the moment” other than the moment that is hand-gripped-tight-to-my-to-do list. I’ve added people and I want to make the stockings right and I put together calendars for the grandparents and godparents and it’s a good day of work to find and choose and order those photos and, and, and. The preparations rarely get simpler.

I wonder if I’m alone in this. There’s a way that I imagined more “quality time” and instead I feel often I plow through time (it’s dense; it’s like snow—to be cleared often not walked through when the walk through part is the most fun). I feel it maybe most around these holidays (and in summer). It might be a freelance thing (I was away three days this summer—and had an interview to do and write up during that brief window). It might be something else, like my comfort in routine. Busy as I am—I get the gifts, make the meals, entertain the people, go to the parties and performances and before that bring the teachers gifts and go to those performances and such, I feel adrift. Plus, I’m tired. All that’s required to have us “off” and in “holiday mode” is certainly not relaxing.

Tradition seems to require gifts. It requires big meals and big gatherings. My dream for one of these December breaks is not to uphold tradition, but to go to Florida. All of us could go, my peeps, and just … hang out. Or, as I said to my dear hubby during our long, late night drive to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, maybe one year he and I could each could take turns: he’d do a holiday and I’d do another holiday and I’d take one off from family duty (picture me in my house on Thanksgiving furiously throwing things away; picture me walking on a beach on Christmas morning; I think it looks nice).

This isn’t and is about love, my wish to take a break. I love this family. I love them more than my desire to upend tradition, I guess. They love the traditions we’ve accumulated (the eleven year-old: “Even if Grandma’s not coming this year, can we have bacon?”). Traditions are their own routines; they are their own memory nuggets and they are powerful lures. I play the same music every year on Christmas Eve, a compilation of local artists doing holiday-inspired songs that went out of print for years (and just got reissued). I find the stockings. I really enjoy the kids’ excitement and the house full of people and food and all that wrapping paper. I love that we can make our house a place that is warm and happy and loud and welcoming. I guess I choose tradition after all. Still, Florida… There’s circularity to my escape dream that does not lead me to escape. Like one of those chutes you get to during the Chutes and Ladders game, the long one during a round you inevitably get it five times, I do end up with my cheery-as-I-can-muster face by Christmas.

Anyway, this is now, the time when there are smalls and larges and everyone lives here. It’s not forever. We lost my father-in-law, the original Christmas lover, and the Christmases directly after he died were hard and sad (so was the one before he died). I still see most vividly his rapt face and gleaming eyes, his robe wrapped round him, ready to open presents. His love for the holiday made me love it. And the kids love it the way they love it and so I choose to tolerate it and try to love it, too. I hope that one day, if they don’t want to hang onto traditions, I’ll let them go. Because someone someday is bound to lobby that we all find a beach over the winter holidays, right?

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Discovering the Day-Cation

Discovering the Day-Cation

our family vacation, circa 1978

    Family vacation, circa 1978

The rooms of my childhood home are filled with souvenirs of my parents’ travels around the world. Masks, plates, sculptures, and paintings from exotic locales hang on the walls and sit on every available surface. In one of the bathrooms my parents featured photographs of the polar bear migration they went all the way to Churchill, Manitoba to observe. And next to the front door sits a six-foot tall wooden giraffe that arrived months after their first trip to Africa. My parents’ house was a colorful place to live.

Most of the trips they took on their own as well as our family vacations meant getting up early and exploring the slice of Earth where they’d landed. I didn’t mind missing some of the harder-to-reach locations like their dolphin-watching trip near the Bermuda Triangle, because I always imagined that I’d go on those types of adventures with my husband one day. I assumed that I’d fill my own home with the colorful and the exotic, that my inevitable wanderlust would take the two of us and our children (when feasible) around the globe.

Enter Reality

When Bryan and I got married, we had neither the money nor the time to travel before our wedding. We’d only dated for a year before we got engaged and were married less than a year later when I was 23. Cancun was our first destination simply because we wanted to go somewhere warm that wasn’t too far away.

We had not even started unpacking when I found the hotel’s concierge and signed us up for a day trip to Chichen Itza, a site I’d already toured with my parents. As we ate dinner, I felt anxious knowing that we’d have to leave the resort’s grounds by six o’clock the next morning, but vacations meant doing and seeing. I didn’t possess an overwhelming sense of adventure, but I didn’t know another way.

“What will we do for breakfast?” Bryan asked before we went to bed. I described, without enthusiasm, the breakfast boxes that my sisters and I had eaten half-asleep as we waited in the darkness for vans headed to Masada, Stonehenge, and elsewhere. I then sighed audibly as I called the front desk to arrange the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call.

“Do you not want to go?” Bryan asked.

I shrugged. “I’ve been there. But you should see it.”

He stared at me. “I was going for you. I don’t care if we stay at the hotel the whole time.”

I considered the possibility of a vacation with no early rising, no falling asleep on buses, no tours, no museums, no animal sanctuaries, and no ruins. “But what would we do?” I asked.

“Sit by the pool. Read. Drink piña coladas.”

“That’s it? Every day?” My hopeful smile mirrored Bryan’s. I’d found my pool-sitting, book-reading, piña colada-drinking, non-museum-visiting, non-obscure-gallery-searching soulmate. It was a defining moment in our young marriage as we stumbled on  a brand of vacation compatibility so different from the one I’d imagined. Yes, we had come all that way to do absolutely nothing, and it sounded perfect.

During those early years, we found other vacation activities we liked. We planned the occasional fall weekend away to look at the changing leaves, or to see friends in cities where we could also catch a show, shop, and eat well. I will always appreciate what my parents taught me about art and culture, but I’ve walked through enough museums with them to last me the rest of my life. That Bryan is content spending part of the day in a new city finding the perfect donut makes him the travel companion of my dreams.

Discovering the “Day-cation”

Thirteen years and four kids later, Bryan and I are even less motivated to plan adventurous trips. We find that leaving our kids for longer than a few days is logistically and financially prohibitive. And taking them with us anywhere other than Chicago to see my parents or the occasional family trip with his parents and siblings is not in our skill set.

It was out of desperation to recapture our early do-nothing getaways that Bryan and I discovered the power of the day-cation. Once we realized we could get a dose of relaxing time right here in Minnesota, we made some easy-to-execute plans. We have spent the day in the charming town of Stillwater along the St. Croix river, a mere forty-five minutes from our house. Another time we “traveled” to the cute main street in Excelsior along Lake Minnetonka—only fifteen minutes away, but a destination we rarely make time to visit. We’ve also taken day trips simply to look at the leaves along the way. One time we spent the day at a spa ten minutes from home.

We’ve distilled a vacation down to its essential parts: time to relax, reconnect, and take a break from our everyday routines. The “where” has become inconsequential.

Another benefit of lowering our vacation standards to the day-cation is that when we actually do have the chance to leave for a few nights, we feel like we’ve entered another universe. We’re headed to New York City soon to celebrate our anniversary, a trip that will last exactly sixty hours door to door. It may not be two weeks in Tanzania, but at this point in my life, it feels like a fascinating, luxurious jaunt. At the very least, it will feel like more than enough time to remember that home is the destination I love more than any other place in the world even if I need a day away now and then to refresh my patience and my perspective.


By Robin Schoenthaler

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AMI have many strong suits; dancing is not one of them. So the day I nail a complicated backstep on my very first try it’s hard to tell who is more shocked, my dance instructor or me.

My dance teacher, graceful on the floor and off, asks me if I’ve been, um, practicing at home.

Now of course I haven’t been practicing. I’m a single mom with two kids and a job, and it’s everything I can do to get to this one-hour dance class each week. But I blurt out, “Yes, I do a lot of backsteps at home, with my teenager,” and then feel embarrassed when she looks impressed.

Because in point of fact, my fourteen-year-old son and I haven’t danced together in ten years; the very thought of it makes Kenzie break out in hives. Still, everything I know about backing up and backing away and apparently backing around a dance floor I’ve learned while parenting a teen.

When my kids were babies, being a mother felt fully frontal—all that feeding and rocking and cooing. Then, gradually, my parenting became more and more about the side-by-side—walking alongside the kids holding hands, crouching beside them at playdates, scrunching up next to them in teeny tiny chairs at pre-K, sitting beside them at movie theaters and soccer games.

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.

I’ve watched these kinds of parent/teen backsteps during the confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs we’ve attended over the last few years, too. They all seem to include a moment when the child moves front and center and the parents pivot and do a backstep. Our neighborhood church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation outside of Boston, holds its own coming of age service every June for kids finishing middle school. As Kenzie wound down eighth grade and began to prepare for his ceremony, I wondered how the church would present this new phase of his life.

I also wondered how I would make it through the day. I’m not very good at these kinds of ceremonies. I’m a world-class weeper, which mortifies my eleven-year-old son, Cooper, halfway to a coronary (the more-experienced Kenzie has come to some sort of grudging Zen state of surrender about mom’s waterworks). Plus I tend to approach these kinds of ceremonies in one of two ways: either endlessly obsess about every aspect of the day to the point of madness, or go on auto-ignore until standing at the local convenience store asking about clip-on ties half an hour before the kid is due to line up.

A couple of months before the ceremony we schedule a family vacation. Just before we leave, all our preparations blow up—quite literally—in our faces. Volcanic ash disrupts travel all over the Eastern seaboard, not to mention a little conclave called The Whole of Western Europe, and my attempts to reschedule flights are flummoxed in the ensuing chaos.

Right as I’m ready to give up entirely and do a staycation week (which will no doubt consist of six days of yelling at the boys to quit playing video games and one day of cyber-surrender), Kenzie takes over. During the course of a single afternoon I watch as he gradually crafts a smart set of Amtrak timetables, sorted by direction, departure time, and price. We pack and depart on a sleeper car for Chicago, leaving old airline tickets in their envelopes on the floor.

When we walk into the train station, Kenz strides ahead, managing the luggage while Cooper and I bring up the rear. It sets the tone for much of the trip.

On the train, Kenzie takes a kitty-corner seat in front of Coop and me; he always does this these days. Does he want me watching his back, or does he want me out of sight? Did this happen with our German ancestors on their Kansas-bound immigrant trains—did they sit kitty-corner or on benches side by side? And did my siblings and I do the same with our own beleaguered mom: Did we cling to her skirts, or did we pretend she wasn’t there?

Kenzie takes to the streets of Chicago like a native, sidling right in with his newfound loping gait. A few months earlier, I’d started to notice a change in his stride, but when I teased him about it (“Quite the swagger, big guy”), he would smooth his strutting out. Not anymore: Wherever we go, his hips go first, rocking and rambling down the street.

In a clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, Kenz homes in on a black rocker shirt. Once he was a boy who wore all sweats all the time, but sometime during the last year he’s become a serious shopper, a clothes hound. At stores I sit outside dressing rooms while he works his way through armloads of shirts. Out of nowhere he has developed his own specific style, and he often knows it when he sees it. There in Chicago, he sees it.

Outrageously priced and über-trendy, the shirt stands in the window and calls his name. Kenz tries it on in the middle of the store and stands with one hip jutted. He meets my eyes in the mirror and after a moment’s pause launches into a soliloquy on all the reasons he has to have it, rattling on about the singularity of this shirt, the way it fits his hips and lifestyle, and how it really is a perfect example of his carpe diem way of life.

His passion (for a shirt!) is irresistible. I end up fronting him the money. I am not a money-fronter (a family motto admonishes that “this is a home, not a credit union”), but I front him the money.

At the cashier’s desk he slides in front of me to chat with the salesclerk about some heavy metal lyrics. Standing behind him I see, as if for the first time, how the soft baby circles of his boy body are evolving into teenage triangles—the base of his neck, the muscles in his calves, the torso tapering more every week.

He wears the shirt out of the store. He doesn’t take it off for three straight days. His arms disappear in the sleeves, the shirt tail bounces with his strut. Every time I see this skinny guy swimming in a big black shirt it takes me a long minute to realize who he is.

He’s still wearing the shirt when we land at the trendy Graham Elliot restaurant our last night in Chicago. It’s got a “bistronomic” menu—haute-cuisine casual bistro food, Kenz informs me breezily, having heard all about it on Top Chef. He orders a never-heard-of-it-before dish. Even before he starts to chew I see his eyes turn inward. He begins to groan with pleasure, and I think for a minute that he is going to swoon right under the table.

The waiter lights up when he sees Kenzie’s response. They chat back and forth about ingredients, spices, cooking techniques. When he realizes that Kenz is both a budding cook and a Top Chef fan, he escorts us into the kitchen (the kitchen!). The chefs gather round to chat with my son; they encircle him. I start to talk a bit about the meal, but then I realize this is all about Kenz and these young chefs; they are there to talk to him.

The head chef—who is wearing a beret in the middle of this high-intensity, high-end restaurant kitchen and is therefore dazzling to us all—appears out of nowhere and steps into the circle to talk to my son.

The light in the kitchen streams down on the tableau—the thirty-something, bereted head chef, the rocker-shirted, hundred-pound teen, the circled tribe of sous chefs. For maybe the first time ever, I consciously step backwards; I want to be in no one’s sightlines. The chef, astonishingly generous, invites Kenzie back for a day of cooking the next time we’re in town. “Help you learn what it’s like,” he offers. “Come on back, work alongside us,” he treats him like a man. He looks him straight in the eye and talks about the unwritten script that is his future.

Kenz floats out of the kitchen. By the time he hits the sidewalk he looks about three inches taller: shoulder blades nearly touching, hips trim and rocking, eyes clear and gazing far ahead. After a pause my boy murmurs, “I can’t believe how long he talked to me,” and the rest of the walk he is silent.

The next afternoon we take the sleeper car back to Boston. Kenz and Coop sleep curled up in the bunks above me; I listen to their steady dreamy breathing from below. Within an hour of our arrival home Kenzie signs up for cooking classes.

Throughout the spring, out of nowhere, he takes over the kitchen. I sit and watch him cook, flinging energy and salt. While he reads his recipes he tosses utensils in the air, flipping the serving forks over and over, then the spoons, sometimes his pie pans. He learns to whisk, and I watch his forearm muscles, every day more defined. He takes to striding outside to yank long stalks of herbs straight from the garden. He tosses half the plant, unwashed and uncut, into his dishes. We find twigs in everything we eat. At least once a week he says to me, “See how my thyme flies,” and I obligingly groan, and then smile and turn away.

Meanwhile, the upcoming coming of age ceremony looms. Our assignments for the ceremony are deceptively simple. Each teen is to write a five-minute speech, and each parent is to present a symbolic object that conveys their hopes and dreams for that child. I begin to speculate about what gift I will offer to Kenzie and what hopes and dreams I want to define.

In May our church holds a special service honoring high school seniors. In prior years I had watched “Senior Ceremonies” with scant attention, soothed by the usual magical thinking that my own kids would “never be that old.”

Now, only two weeks away from Kenzie’s eighth-grade ceremony, I walk right into an emotional pluckfest. The most enervating, chest-clutching, and groping-blindly-for-the-Kleenex moment takes place when the minister cups her hands around the cheeks of each high school senior and says to them: “Aren’t you just something? So now off you go, dear one. Off you go.”

I honestly don’t recall ever seeing anyone outside of a French film touch an eighteen-year-old’s cheek with that kind of tenderness. I begin sobbing, an EmoMom mess, impervious to Cooper’s hissing, “Please don’t sniff so loud!”

Watching those catch-your-breath-gorgeous seniors bask in the heat and light of their transitions, it dawns on me what I want to talk about at Kenzie’s coming of age ceremony: his moment in the heat and light of the restaurant kitchen in Chicago—the first time I watched him carry on a man-to-man conversation outside of our own family circle, the first time I saw him radiant with the potential of his wide-open future, the first time I consciously made myself step back out of his way.

I decide my “gift” should be the restaurant’s eponymous shirt. I can’t buy it online, but in searching for it I locate the head chef’s e-mail address, and I instantly write him a gushing e-mail fan letter. I tell this near-total stranger everything about my son, the restaurant, their food, our church, the ceremony, the kitchen, the light; I believe I also mention his beret, perhaps more than once.

Throughout the e-mail I try to tell him about what it means to see a young son grow taller in a high-end, crowded commercial kitchen, and what it feels like to deliberately move backwards and witness it all.

The moment I press “send,” I am embarrassed. This poor young chef, working night and day, trying to do some nice kitchen tour PR, and what is his reward? A middle-aged mom gushing about some kid he can barely remember. I figure e-mail silence will reign, not so much a guarded silence as a sniffing “weirdo e-mail” non-reply.

But his response pops up in my inbox almost immediately, sweet and touched and self-reflective. He promises to send the T-shirt posthaste. I write back and thank him (for stepping up, for writing back, for not putting my e-mail into the folder marked “fan letter, subtype: geezer”) and settle back to wait. Of course, geezer that I am, I don’t remember to give him our home address until forty-eight hours before the ceremony at which point it becomes a nail-biting FedEx race to the finish.

In the end, the T-shirt arrives safely, as does the appointed day. The kids line up outside the church, skinny, eye-rolling, all dressed up. My boy wears his rocker shirt and truly looks divine. Each boy-child and girl-woman walks up to the lectern and speaks with a clear voice while the congregation listens with sweetness and intent. After they finish, we parents walk behind them, newly stationed in the back.

Each parent steps forward to present his or her gift. One set of parents gives a toolbox, another a Dr. Who action figure. Two different sets of parents choose fedoras for their boys, both exactly the same type, both for different reasons. One mom gives her daughter a prism, a single dad shares a chin-up bar, a couple gives their rangy boy a pie labeled pi.

When my turn comes, I step up beside my Kenzie, in front of hundreds of people, in front of him. I look into the eyes of my rocker-shirted, soft-eyed, skinny-guy son and am rendered essentially mute. Finally my words spill out, contorted, jumbled, the story twists around. I have less than a minute to speak, but I want to tell it all, the train tracks, the dance steps, the rocker shirt, the restaurant, the kitchen, the head chef, the fork flipping, the twigs in our food. I keep repeating the word beret.

I look into my son’s eyes, his gorgeous eyes, glowing part tolerance, part embarrassment, part bone marrow intuition that this is all worth it, part smart-guy grinning at predictable mom (“of course she’s crying, DUH”). I start to sense our new order together. I feel the alignment begin to rotate, and I feel him shifting, too.

From here on out, it’s going to be mostly about that backstep. If he gets a fever, yes, I will step forward. In the car alone we will sit abreast, and with his brother we’ll sit in a circle.

But when he talks to friends I will stand back; and on school trips he will sit behind me, melding into kin group. And when there is a woman—like the girl who pressed her thigh into his during the ceremony’s line-up, don’t think I didn’t see that, you little trollop—when there is a woman, there will be no backness back enough. I will not even be a shadow in the room.

We look out on it together, and then I give him the restaurant’s T-shirt, nervous for a moment that he outgrew it just last week. But it’s fine, and he loves it. We have a quick air hug, and then my mama-babble is over and so is my mama-lead. It’s done.

All I have to do now is what I have to do for the rest of my life: back up and back away. So, I do, I do it, I turn and I pivot. I walk away from him and his rocker shirt, from him and his friends clutching their new gifts, from him and his gorgeous eyes and his smart-guy grin. I go stand in my new place just behind him, while he moves forward, carrying the T-shirt, becoming a silhouette in the light.

Author’s Note: Kenzie still fits in the Graham Elliot T-shirt, just barely, and it’s now got a lot of cooking stains on the front. The rocker shirt from Chicago looks like it will fit for at least another year or so. Cooper’s coming of age ceremony take place in less than two years. I’ve already bought some Kleenex.

This piece is dedicated to Kim Foglia, a fantastic teacher, parent, mentor and friend. Her tragically short life, as well as her premature death from pancreatic cancer, was full of lessons and gifts. On the same day that this essay was officially accepted for publication, I also received word that Kim had, just prior to her death, transferred her “lifetime subscription” to Brain, Child to me. She died two weeks later. She is deeply missed.

Robin Schoenthaler is a mom/physician/writer in the Boston area. She now has two boys in their teens so she is backstepping as fast as she can. Her website is at

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Brain, Child (Spring 2011)