The Sky Isn’t Falling

The Sky Isn’t Falling

Broken nest egg

By Sarah Coglianese

As a new mom, I experienced moments of utter bliss and moments of pure panic. I imagine that’s not unlike the experience of most first-time parents. Of course it’s not exactly the same for everyone, but it’s safe to say the adjustment period can be rife with anxiety for many of us. Among the concerns I recall having after Scarlett was born: Why was breastfeeding so much harder than I thought it would be? Why was the baby’s poop green? Why did she detest every nanosecond spent in her car seat? And why did I decide to start sleep training the night my sister-in-law and her family were staying with us, seven people in one small apartment? I guess that last one is less of an anxiety and more an example of poor decision-making.

But then there were the more obscure fears: What if the ceiling fell on her while she was sleeping? What if she was stolen out of her crib? What if she somehow got stuck in the refrigerator? Unlikely to happen though they were, these were the images that kept me up at night.

As my daughter grew, my anxieties abated. She was thriving, and developing quite a personality. A good eater, a terrible napper, alternately sweet and feisty. We got the hang of breastfeeding and took naps together in my big bed. When she was 17 months old, I quit my job and we spent days exploring our city, going to music classes, walking in the park, splashing at swimming lessons.

Then one day, I was pushing her stroller down the street when suddenly I stumbled, the stroller pitched forward, and we ended up on the ground. I scrambled to stand, to right the stroller, and then I just stood there looking down at my flip-flopped feet, one bleeding ankle. Scarlett was fine, not even crying, but my heart was racing. I pushed the stroller back to my car and told myself it was time to stop wearing flip-flops, but something in me knew that wasn’t the real problem. It wasn’t the first time I’d fallen. It wasn’t even the second or the third time. Though I’d been trying to ignore them, the falls had been happening more frequently, especially when I tried to go running. What was once my favorite activity was now nothing more than a three-minute exercise in frustration. My feet just would not lift.

Ironically, with something to actually be worried about, I stayed calm. I decided I wasn’t drinking enough water, that I was indeed wearing the wrong shoes, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. But when Scarlett was 22 months old, I saw a neurologist who suspected Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the muscle-wasting disease that carries with it a prognosis that no one wants to hear. I’d been worried about the ceiling falling on my sleeping child. Now the sky was falling on our life together. The diagnosis was confirmed, making my new probable lifespan two to five years. No treatments, no cure. I held my baby in disbelief. I’d had such a vivid imagination when it came to what could go wrong. But a terminal illness that would slowly paralyze me until even my lungs stopped working?

That one had not occurred to me.

Despite my ALS, our lives continued. There was no other choice. I began walking with a cane, and then wearing ankle braces. Scarlett started preschool. Eventually I acquired a bright purple walker, which made me feel like a little old lady. Sure enough, when I went to visit my grandma in the senior living facility to which she had recently relocated, a woman in the elevator took one look at me and one look at my walker and said, “You don’t live here, do you?” I was 34 years old at the time, but I knew it wasn’t a foolish question. Walkers like mine were everywhere, as I made my way to my grandmother’s apartment.

Were these my people now? Aging bodies slowing down. Death no longer a future glimmer, but a reality too hard to ignore. And was my grandmother, who had no trouble walking, actually in better shape than I was? Well, yes.

I was spinning, untethered from the person I felt I had once been. A marathon runner, a devoted mom and wife, an independent woman who had never particularly liked asking for help. I was consumed by my sadness and confusion, by my anxieties about what was to come.

And then I discovered other people who were like me. Young moms and dads, people in their 20s who never had a chance to start a family, all of them living with ALS. I found them by writing about my experience, by joining a group on Facebook, and by becoming heavily involved with several nonprofit organizations that raise money for ALS research. My people, it turned out, were not the ones in the senior home who had lived long lives and had much to show for it. My people were the ones who were fighting for their lives, fighting for more time with their children, fighting a disease that we’d been told would certainly kill us–and soon.


Scarlett is five years old now. She just started kindergarten. I haven’t run in a long time, and I can’t even stand up anymore. I spend my days in a wheelchair, my hands and arms are growing so weak that I often need help eating, and a machine helps me breathe for a few hours each day.  But I am still writing, and I’m still working to raise awareness and money to end this disease.

Each new phase of my experience brings fresh anxiety, but it is important to me to keep my daughter’s life as normalized as possible, to spend time with her—just the two of us—even if a caregiver is hovering nearby or waiting in the car.

ALS is relentless, and it will take my breathing muscles away from me. I don’t know when, and the worrier in me wonders if I’ll be sitting across a restaurant table from my daughter, watching her take down two slices of pizza, when my chest gets tight and an anti-anxiety pill isn’t enough.

For now, I take breaths as deep as they come, breaths that would horrify my former yoga instructor, and tell myself it’s okay. I still have time. The sky has not fallen. No one has gotten stuck in the refrigerator. And ALS, as scary as it is, is what we’re living with. The past five years of being a mom have taught me that I can’t let the fears, real or imagined, take over my life. I can be safe, I can be prepared. But I can’t give up.

Sarah Coglianese is a writer and blogger whose work has been published in The New York Times, Redbook Magazine, and, among others. Sarah was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 at age 33, and started to raise awareness of the disease. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, their six-year-old daughter, and a puppy.

New Day, Neurosis

New Day, Neurosis

By Amie Klempnauer Miller

200352457-001I am obsessed with excrement. I call the nurse, even though it is Sunday, to ask how concerned I should be if we have not had a soiled diaper in thirty-six hours. Wets, yes. Stools, no. Our daughter, Hannah, now just two-and-a-half weeks old, has been a slow starter in this arena. The nurse is reassuring, suggesting that Hannah might just be a “reluctant pooper.” She advises me to give the baby a sitz bath, to kind of warm things up down there. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a little anal sphincter stimulation with a rectal thermometer. If that doesn’t work, try half of a glycerin suppository. If that doesn’t work, good Lord.

And so we begin. Jane, my partner and Hannah’s birth mom, pours a bowl of warm water and we dip our baby’s little bottom in it. She screeches and urinates. Nothing else.

We put a little KY jelly on the rectal thermometer and give the anal stimulation a go. I cannot believe we are doing this. We are lesbians, for god’s sake. The only lesbians I have ever known who thought about anal stimulation were the women who always scared me when we lived in New York.

Still no stool, so we decide to give up for a while. Jane carries Hannah into the living room where she slumps down into the oversized blue armchair, the baby lying in her arms. Hannah is feeling mellow, now that we are not dipping her in bowls of water and coming at her with gooey probes. She begins to root around Jane’s chest where she knows hidden food awaits. Her mouth hangs open, like a baby robin groping for a worm. Jane pulls her shirt up with a look of resignation. The fatigue of new parenthood is setting in like a slow, looming storm front. The adrenaline of the first two weeks has dripped away. Hannah sucks for ten minutes or so and then falls blissfully into sleep.

Jane sets Hannah—gently, gently—into her carrier and tucks a pink-checked flannel blanket around her legs. We go into the kitchen to make lunch.

“Why did we do this?” Jane asks. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I mutter. It’s surprising how quickly you wear down. Some things are not as bad as I expected: We get more sleep than many people, since our baby sleeps for one four-hour stretch each night. Before Hannah was born, I stocked the freezer with lasagna and soup and meatballs, so our diets haven’t been limited to take-out and toast. But the worry of new parenthood is far worse than I anticipated. The anxiety is intense. Hannah rasps and gurgles in the night and I leap out of bed to make sure she is still breathing. Her umbilical cord is seeping a little: Does that mean something is wrong? She spits up and I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is too much. If she soaks half of her bib, is that too much? Are three spit-ups okay, but six too many? Is this gastroesophageal reflux? Or is it just infancy?

I dread the evening because I know that the anxiety always gets worse after dark. With dusk comes fear. I tell myself that I needn’t be so worried. We have a support network, Hannah has checked out well at all of her doctor’s visits, and we have access to a twenty-four-hour nurse line. But at night, worries become obsessions and remote possibilities become impending certainties. I wait each night for the dawn.

Jane and I feast on each other’s anxieties. One of us worries about something, anything, reasonable or not (but best if it contains a kernel of possibility, a morsel of fact), and plants the seed in the other’s head. It takes root. It grows. We offer half-hearted reassurances: “I was just reading about encopresis, which is really terrible, but it usually doesn’t occur until later. She probably won’t develop it.” Meanwhile, each of us knows that the fear is growing, that the assurances are not heartfelt. And just as we know this, we know that we are feeding our own neuroses. And just as we know that, we become less and less able to do anything about it. We each withdraw, pulling back behind our own veil of worry.

“I think she’s fine,” I say. “But of course, we can call the doctor. Do you want to?” (You’re It.)

“No. I don’t think we need to call. What’s she doing? Is she all right?” (Now you.)

“She’s okay. I just wish she would have a stool. I can’t believe it’s been thirty-six hours.” (Your turn.)

“Why’s she crying again? Should we call the doctor?” (Back to you.)

“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”

And on it goes.

My cousin, mother of two miraculously grown children, calls to check in. I tell her the Saga of the Stool. Stephanie suggests that we bicycle Hannah’s legs (already doing that), hold her vertically (gravity), and try not to worry (hopeless). As we are talking, Hannah begins to screech. Jane waves at me and says that she thinks it’s time for the suppository. I get off the phone. Jane carries Hannah into the nursery and puts her on the changing table. The glycerin suppositories, made for children, look impossibly enormous. I take one from the bottle and cut it down by two-thirds. We are ready.

Jane removes the diaper and almost whoops. There is a poo. Not a huge one, but not a smudge. We are thrilled. I put the suppository back into the bottle, we clean Hannah up, and we go back into the living room, grinning giddily. I am so pleased that I call Stephanie to report.

“The eagle has landed,” I say.

She’s as excited as I am. This must be the bond that holds parents together: shared excitement over basic bodily functions that are otherwise not discussed in polite company.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, and I know she means it. “Things are moving.”

We sink into the sofa, Jane cradling Hannah. I am exhausted. I feel like I’m in boot camp, but at least we have had a victory. We have made it another day.

A week later, we are convinced that Hannah has cystic fibrosis. The beauty of this anxiety is that it has some degree of rational basis. After Jane became pregnant, we learned that she carries the most common genetic mutation that causes the disease. We immediately confirmed that our sperm bank screens all of its donors for the thirty most common mutations and does not accept anyone who tests positive. But still, we worry.

I scrutinize the entry on cystic fibrosis in the Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development—which we own—and learn that symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and digestive problems. Every time Hannah wheezes, snorts, grunts, gasps, or spits up, all of which she does with regularity, I am convinced that it is confirmation of chronic illness.

We learn that the initial test for cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. The doctor collects a little sweat from the child and measures the saline content. An elevated salt level can signal a positive result. I stay up at night and feel my heart clench when Hannah snorts. Jane admits that she has secretly been licking the back of Hannah’s neck to taste for salt.

By the time Hannah is ten weeks old, we’ve let go of our cystic fibrosis worries. Now we think she might be deaf. She doesn’t turn her head at our voices and she doesn’t startle at loud sounds. I try to test her hearing by ringing the doorbell. No response. I snap my fingers. No response. Jane and I begin sneaking up on the poor child and clapping behind her head. No response. We remind each other that she does seem to listen to music and calm down when the bathroom fan is running. But these could be anomalies. Clap. Nothing. I begin searching the Internet for resources on hearing impairments. I should know better by now. I quickly find the suggestion that parents try to test their child’s hearing by clapping behind the baby’s head.

We remind ourselves that she had a hearing test in the hospital and passed it just fine. But the tech was busy that day, I think. What if they just did a social promotion? Jane calls the pediatric clinic. A doctor calls back and says that the hospital test is ninety-nine percent accurate, but there is some concern that she isn’t startling.

I scurry back onto the Internet. Jane and I make a pact to stop trying to startle Hannah, at least until after her next doctor’s appointment, which is in a week. I think about doing it anyway when Jane goes to the grocery store, but I resist.

At eleven weeks, Jane takes Hannah to the doctor for a check-up. Everything looks good. The doctor isn’t concerned about her hearing or the startling lack of startling. She reassures Jane. Hannah gets weighed and measured, her growth noted and compared to other babies her age. At two weeks, she was below the fiftieth percentile in overall weight and now, at eleven pounds, three ounces, she is in the seventy-fifth percentile. Excellent. Her torso is exceedingly long; she has grown to twenty-four inches in total body length, putting her in the ninety-fifth percentile. But her head, which was in the ninetieth percentile for circumference, is now in the fiftieth percentile. It grew, but at a slower pace than the rest of her body.

“Do you think her head isn’t growing fast enough?” Jane asks me that evening. She knows better than this. She understands statistics and the fallacy of percentiles, especially when it comes to diagnosing normality. “Do we have a pinhead baby?”

I imagine Hannah all grown up: a giant torso with a head the size of a Vidalia onion. Our little Onion Head.

“I think,” Jane says one day when the baby is peacefully asleep in her bouncy seat, “that I have been assuming that something is wrong with Hannah rather than expecting her to be all right.” I have also been constantly worried that there is something grave, something dreadful that has eluded the doctors, that is lurking behind the diaper pail, hiding under the crib, waiting to snatch our baby away. Some of this is a product of reading too many articles and watching too much television. We have heard the stories about sudden deaths, freak viruses, and bizarre conditions that go undetected. It feels threatening to trust her to be healthy, as though we might be blindsided if we do not remain diligently on guard.

I suppose our neurosis is normal, although I sometimes wonder if it would help to have a husband in the house who would say, “Oh, she’s fine” and turn on the Packers game. I have made a lifelong art of worrying and I’m not about to stop now. Still, I do realize that I need to let go of at least a little of it before our pediatrician refuses to see us anymore.

It’s a thin line between fear and love, a line that has become perforated since Hannah’s birth. The two passions intermingle, and anxiety courses through my heart. Is it possible to love a child wholeheartedly but without fear? Or does the magnitude of our vulnerability as parents demand that we stand on guard against all dangers, real and imagined?

I lie in bed at night and watch the clock, counting the hours until dawn.

Author’s Note: Jane and I are still worriers, but our fears lessened somewhat after Hannah really did get sick with a couple of nasty viruses, one of which landed her in the hospital. While we were there, one of the nurses noticed how willful Hannah is, even when hooked up to an I.V. “You’re strong,” she said several times to Hannah. “That’s going to serve you well.” Hannah is strong, as it turns out, and Jane and I are beginning to let ourselves trust her to recover when she gets sick and trust ourselves to give her what she needs to grow and thrive. And, we’re happy to report, her head is a perfectly normal size.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You (a Memoir of Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood (Beacon Press, 2010). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her wife Jane and daughter Hannah.

Our Year Of The Bunny

Our Year Of The Bunny

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Bunny artI am digging through a giant wire bin filled with stuffed animals – outsized ladybugs with too wide grins tangle limbs with pink kittens, fuzzy green dinos, and a couple of Sponge Bobs with grubby faces. I can hear the buzz of florescent lights, the boop-boop, bing-bing from the animated toys two aisles over. Somewhere a baby cries. I sift through the pile, shoving aside the fluffy poodles and grinning cheeseburgers. I am looking for something. Someone. I feel strangely desperate as if digging through rubble. I seek the familiar grey brown fur and kind dark eyes of Bunny.

Bunny was once just a stuffed rabbit. He was given to my daughter, Sadie, by our babysitter on her sixth birthday. A tag bearing the Toys R Us logo pierced his ear. She squealed with joy and hugged him to her chest and then placed him on the shelf in her room where he sat in the company of dozens of other stuffed animals for months. And then one day, she cried huge tears as we drove away from the house.

“I need Bunny,” she said.


We turned around to retrieve the rabbit and after that, he seldom left her arms. After a few months, in Sadie’s company, Bunny was transformed. His fluffy fur matted. Our dog chewed his ear and I clumsily mended it with black thread and crooked stitches. A trip through the washer scratched thick cataracts into his eyes. His body grew long and slender from being held in the crook of my daughter’s arm. His head bent to one side to make room for her shoulder in sleep. He was beloved.

“Do one or more things with Bunny,” was the last thing Sadie said to me before leaving for school. Every day, she made this request (demand?) and every day she plopped Bunny into my arms. There were some days that I made an attempt to move him from room to room, and other days when I tossed him on the table and forgot all about my promise. There were (and I regret to say this now) a few days when I vented my frustration with my daughter on Bunny. I might have twisted his neck a little. I might have thrown him at a wall. Once, I took him with me all day, photographing him at the bank as I made deposits, at the grocery store riding in my shopping cart and at home I made my lunch and put a carrot on a plate for Bunny. In the afternoon, when Sadie asked what I did with Bunny, I showed her these photos. She looked at them and then looked at me.

“These are a little blurry,” she said.

My daughter is not an easy child.  That is not to say she is not easy to love.

For every day, Bunny wore a red ribbon with a small brass bell. For special occasions, he often sported a necklace made of crystal beads. He had a red necktie and a blue velvet coat for snowy days. I sewed him a set of striped pajamas and a tuxedo jacket with tails. While working on this jacket, I burned my arm on the iron. It left an angry red mark that demanded explanation.

“I was ironing the lapels of Bunny’s tuxedo,” I said over and over again in complete seriousness as if I’d been Edith Head working up a suit for Clark Gable. Just an occupational hazard. What I meant to say is that I played my own part in bringing Bunny to life.

On the second to last day of the year, when Bunny was lost, he was wearing a satin ribbon the color of champagne.

It was not until we had gotten off the second airplane and the second bus, and the elevator that we realized Bunny was lost. It was three o’clock in the morning and at the tail end of the holiday season and we all should have been long in our beds. My husband ran up the down escalator to catch the bus.

There were five or six buses. All white. All chartered. All driven in the middle of the night to an airport where we were not originally expected to land.

I held my daughter’s trembling hand and rode the elevator back up to where the buses had been. The first person who helped us was the airport security guard. His name was Henry. We explained the situation and he took careful notes on a small spiral notebook he kept in his breast pocket. He asked us to describe Bunny and I felt uncomfortable referring to him as a stuffed animal in front of Sadie. I tried to delicately describe his bedraggled state while my daughter held back tears.

“He has a very thin waist,” Sadie said.

“I had a bunny once,” Henry said. He paused and looked up from his notebook, staring not into the night of Los Angeles, but perhaps into a night long ago. “I took him everywhere.” He kneeled on the ground before my daughter. “We’ll find your Bunny,” he said.

We drove home through a thick fog. Our fuel gauge was on empty and my husband’s aging parents were in their own tiny car somewhere in front of us or behind us and no one could see a thing. My son fell asleep, but Sadie sat up straight, staring ahead, the tears coming fast and silent.

“It’s going to be okay,” we said.

“It’s not okay,” Sadie said. “He’s scared. He doesn’t know where he is.”

We tucked the children into their beds, assuring Sadie that we would try our hardest to find Bunny. Tears leaked out of her though she was more than half way to sleep.  We were bereft. Sadie had made Bunny come to life for us. In one short year, he’d had six birthdays (one on Mother’s Day and one on my own birthday, facts that at the time had made me a little cranky.) Bunny was the manager of “The Nina Vista for Bunnies,” an apartment house Sadie made out of a vacuum cleaner box. He was allergic to milk chocolate and liked to swing on a trapeze Sadie strung from the top railing of our staircase. Everywhere she went, Bunny went too, his body held close under her arm.

“I feel like I’m going to vomit,” my husband said as I was buttoning myself into my pajamas. I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. It was nearly five in the morning and I was sobbing these huge convulsive sobs. We wrapped our arms around each other.

I dreamt of Bunny alone on the bus. I dreamt of his floppy body slumped on the tarmac. I dreamt of my lonely daughter. And I woke two hours later and started to make calls. I called our airline and the airport where we landed and the airport where we were supposed to land.  I made notes in a little spiral notebook. I called the baggage counter and the ticket counter and I wracked my tired, tired brain for any clue. When did we have Bunny? When did he leave us? “Somewhere near Salinas, I let him slip away…” The song wouldn’t leave my head.

My daughter woke early with puffy eyes from a night soaked in tears.

“Is Bunny home yet?” she asked.

“We are trying to find him,” I said. I was careful never to say we would find him. I was careful not to say he was coming home for sure.

I lost my Dad once. For nearly twenty-four hours, my father roamed alone on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was sixty-two, his brain hit hard by what he called “Al’s Hammer.” I couldn’t know for sure if he was coming back. We already had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; we knew there wasn’t a whole lot to hope for. We knew that even if we found him, it was still just a matter of time before we lost him for good.

I told my daughter this story while we pulled weeds from our yard. We found my Dad. My stepmother found him walking up the road as calm as could be. He was returned to us unscathed.

“But then, he died,” Sadie said.

“He did,” I replied. “But think of all the good stories he left to keep me company.”

“This would be more fun if Bunny were here,” Sadie said.

I told another story, one with a more hopeful ending. I told the story of how Sadie’s dad and I spent two years apart. I told her how when I first moved away I never thought I would have a good time again. I missed him so much that nothing was fun. But eventually, I laughed at jokes he did not tell, I enjoyed parties even though I knew he wouldn’t be arriving late.

“But you could talk to him on the phone,” my daughter said. “He came back, right?”

He did come back. I didn’t tell my daughter the story of my college boyfriend and how much I loved him and how many arguments we had and how one day, he got into his Volkswagen beetle and drove away and I never saw him again. I didn’t want to tell her that big loss is inevitable and that sometimes we can prepare for it and sometimes we can’t but no matter what it will often leave us quaking in the dust. I know from experience that eventually, you get up from the ground and you keep moving, but on that day, I wasn’t sure that if I said this she’d understand I was trying to be helpful.

On New Year’s Eve we attempted to be festive. My mother-in-law wore a silver metallic sweater, but her eyes were puffy from crying. She, too, had dreamt of Bunny on the bus, on the tarmac; Bunny alone in the world. Before we lost Bunny, when it was just after Christmas and we were all together on the beach in the sun, my in-laws renewed their vows. They wrote their own ceremony and spoke the words with only their children and grandchildren as witnesses. They have spent over forty years together.

“I only wish there was more time,” my mother-in-law said as she raised a glass and the last of the sunset set her champagne aglow.

Just before the ceremony my father-in-law had needed a chair and the arms of his two sons to help him into the water in his snorkel and flippers. It was slow, awkward going on the sand and in the shallows, but once there was enough water he swam free. We could hear him laugh all the way up on the beach. I only wish there was more time.

Sadie sat at the table, a bottle of sparkling cider at her elbow. She poured herself glass after glass. Drowning her sorrows. Her lower lip quivered. It was a new year, but we were anything but happy.

That night she sat on my lap and cried when it was time to go to bed. “I know Bunny is alive,” she said. “Because one night I heard breathing and it wasn’t mine. And it smelled like carrots.”

On New Year’s day, the second day of his absence, Sadie read a letter to the tenants at the cardboard apartment house known as The Nina Vista that began, “I regret to inform you that Bunny is missing.” She wondered if anyone would know how to work the elevator. She wondered who would bring more litter for Bear’s room.

Bunny was missing. “He doesn’t know where he is,” Sadie said again and again. I began to understand that my confident, beautiful, creative child was still finding her own place in the world. She didn’t know where she was. And when I thought of Sadie on a bus or on the tarmac I was gripped with panic. I cried so much in the first weeks of January. I cried because my daughter was crying and because I felt that I’d let her down. I grieved because I felt I hadn’t protected her from the kind of sorrow that should come later in life. The loss of a beloved shouldn’t come so early. I cried because it was painful to witness this loss and because it was a reminder of all the loved ones that had passed through my own life.

Days went by and I made more and more calls. I filled my notebook with phone numbers and names of bus companies and baggage handlers. I talked to every person who had anything to do with our flight, our landing, our transfer, and our luggage. I talked to the women who worked the ticket counters and the guy who cleaned the airplane. I talked to the man who organized the last minute landing at the wrong airport.

“I had a Bunny,” he admitted. “He’s in the closet. Not that he’s gay. He’s just in storage.”

This kind man drove out onto the tarmac. He walked around and checked the trashcans and the chain link fence. He was so kind that I felt certain there would be good news.

“How you doing?” he asked when I picked up the phone.

“Well,” I said.

“You won’t be,” he replied. He was very sorry. He told me to hug my little girl extra hard.

The officer in charge of the airport Lost and Found department told me he would be testifying in a wrongful death case. He would be out of the office because he’d be in court. I made a sympathetic sound and described Bunny again, but he wasn’t really listening.

“It’s for my wife,” he explained.

He told me how he talked to her on the phone just as he was leaving work. He arrived home and ate dinner alone. He thought she’d stopped to run an errand. He didn’t think anything could be wrong. Not even when he opened the door to find the coroner. Not even when he saw his wife’s driver’s license clipped to the man’s clipboard. It was the first rain. Her car hit the cement divider. She died instantly.

I was choking back sobs when I got off the phone. My husband looked at me like I’d gone crazy.

“I couldn’t make that up,” I said.  “The lost and found guy has lost his wife.”

Ten days went by and Bunny was still lost. I kept hoping there would be someone with an eye for details. Someone who would look at the bedraggled lumpy stuffed toy and see the glimmer of satin ribbon, the little necklace made of bright plastic beads and the ear sewn and sewn again. This person would see the small things that added up to a larger beloved whole, but this person did not appear.

Sadie wanted to dye her hair blue. She wanted to look different. I got it. I’ve cut all my hair off on more than one occasion to mark the end of one thing, the beginning of something else.

“I find it affirming,” my husband said. “We are watching her rebuild. She is visibly healing.”

I wanted to agree, but I wasn’t sure. Her visible healing showed too much bone and blood for me to handle. Sadie tried out other stuffed animals. She placed each new candidate under her arm, in Bunny’s old spot, where they were shifted, re-shifted and ultimately rejected. Her empty arm hung like a broken wing.

“What about Celina?” I asked. Celina is a frog in a dress. She was Sadie’s favorite before Bunny arrived and she was sent back to live on the shelf. I figured Celina knew a few things about loss.

“Most stuffed animals,” Sadie said “are fun to take out once or twice.  Then they come home and sit on the shelf and tell stories to the other animals about where they’ve been. But a Bunny is family. They go everywhere.”

And so I went to Toys R Us. I felt strange doing it; a little nervous as though I was on a quest for something illicit. I told myself I was only going to see if they had another rabbit. I was doing research that any responsible parent would do. A small child wandered the aisle near me. He was tethered to his parents by a thick black leather belt threaded through the straps of his overalls. They weren’t taking any chances.

And here I am, up to my elbows in plush, searching and searching. A noise comes out of me as I pull a rabbit from the bottom of the bin and the kid on the makeshift leash swerves away. The rabbit is plump and fluffy, his shiny eyes unknowing. I quickly flip through the photos on my phone until I find Bunny in a shopping cart, Bunny at the beach, Bunny eating shave ice. I have hundreds of images of Bunny because he is in every single photo of my daughter taken in the last year. I compare the photo to the plush toy trying hard not to breathe like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo.” The coloring is right. The ears are sewn down, not standing up. Bunny was a lop-eared rabbit. The tag says $10.99. That’s it? He’s cheaply made with crooked seams, probably stuffed with toxins, but he is the right rabbit. I tuck him under my arm and head to the register. Now that I’ve found him, I cannot put him back.

“Thank heavens you had this,” I say to the cashier.


I ramble on about Bunny, how we’re recasting like Darren on “Bewitched.”

The girl raises one thin, penciled brow. She’s not even twenty. She definitely doesn’t get “Bewitched.” She’s was born after they swapped Becky on “Rosanne.”

“Sentimental?” she says.


Having the rabbit in my car is comforting. I look across at him and feel shy and elated. He sits in my purse the way Bunny used to sit in my purse. His gray brown fur makes me feel calmer for the first time in days. I am doing something. I am solving the shit out of the problem. I think of the way that Sadie shared her food with Bunny, giving him bites of pizza, ice cream or broccoli. “This is asparagus, Bunny,” she would say putting the food against his mouth. And then, after a beat, “Good job for trying.”

I imagine what will happen when I get home. This is another rabbit; this is me trying to help you. Good job for trying. I’m not sure how to give the rabbit to Sadie. I want to make it clear that I do not think it is possible to replace Bunny. What I am providing is a rabbit. Because a rabbit is someone you can talk to. But I don’t want to seem pushy. I don’t want it to seem that I’m trying to fix things so that I feel better. If someone had tried to give me a new Dad I would have decked them. I just want to see if this new rabbit will fit comfortably under Sadie’s arm and give her someone to talk to. I want her to be able to share her loss with someone she perceives to be a good listener.

When I arrive home, our babysitter Alicia is waiting. I pull her into the office and open my purse to give her a glimpse of the floppy ears. She immediately gets weepy.

“How are we going to do it?” she asks.

“I think you should do it,” I say because I have no idea how we’re going to do it. “You have my faith and confidence.” Alicia gave Sadie the first rabbit and I think it is better coming from her. From me, it looks like I’m trying to put a Band-Aid on the situation, but from Alicia it’s magical.

Alicia ties her long blonde hair in a knot, adjusts the waist of her skirt and takes a breath. She holds the rabbit for a moment and then tucks it under her arm and heads upstairs to Sadie. I hear their murmured voices and then Alicia comes back down alone. Her eyes are glassy with tears and mine overflow. I realize I’ve been holding my breath.

“I told her it was Bunny’s cousin. He knows Bunny is out of town, but he wonders if he can stay for a while.”

“And how did that go?”

“She wondered if when Bunny came back she could still keep the new rabbit.”

Alicia and I hug a sloppy, weepy hug, and for the millionth time I thank the lucky stars that brought such a kind and kindred spirit into our world. Sadie comes down the stairs. She holds the new rabbit in both hands in front of her.

“This is King Tut,” she announces. She tells us that he can join us at the park, but she will not hold him the way she held Bunny. “Bunny is fierce,” she says. “If he knew I was with King Tut, he might be angry.”

“He would want you to have a friend,” I say. I’m embarrassed by how much I want her to move on and feel better. I feel guilty for selling Bunny out so quickly.

At the park, Sadie leaves King Tut on the cement and goes to play on the slide. He is not allowed on the swing and he cannot play “Skin the Cat,” the way Bunny used to do. So I sit on the steps next to the rabbit and watch my daughter on the swings and the slide and in the sand. She is still sad, I can tell. The sadness weighs her down and holds her dancing toes a little tighter to the earth. Eventually, she returns for King Tut. She holds one paw and then shifts him to the familiar spot under her arm as she begins to climb the ladder to the slide. I can see that her need to be comforted is as great as my own need to comfort her.

I wish I could explain to Sadie that everything she loved about Bunny she gave to him. He was a fluffy lump of nothing until she brought him into existence. He listened because she spoke; her scent became his scent, his body shaped to her own. The rabbit may be missing, but she, my wonderful, imaginative, caring, fierce and loyal girl is still here.

That night, she takes King Tut to bed. He is one lucky rabbit.

Tanya Ward Goodman’s essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Literary Mama, the “Cup of Comfort” anthology series and  Her memoir “Leaving Tinkertown” will be released by The University of New Mexico Press in August 2013.  

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Meanwhile, Upstairs

Meanwhile, Upstairs

By Kris Woll

Meanwhile Upstairs Art 2When I realized what I had done, I reached for my phone and called my OB’s after-hours number (saved in favorites, just under his office number and right above my husband’s cell).

Yes, I need to speak to the doctor right away, I told the answering service.

Are you in labor? the calm voice inquired.

No, but it’s very serious, I said.

If this is an emergency, you should dial 911, the voice responded.

It is serious, but not yet an emergency.

Ok, so let me get your name …

I rattled off my birth date, my last appointment, my due date (still over 7 months away).

And what is the situation? the voice inquired.

I ate the wrong cheese, I responded, choking on the words.  Tears welled; I filled with guilt and fear.

I’m not sure that I heard you, the voice responded.  The wrong cheese?

Yes, the wrong cheese! I cried back.  I ate feta!  On a salad!  From the deli by work!  I was craving salt!  And it’s my favorite salad!  And then I came home and went to the fridge to get some cold water and …


And saw the magnet, with the “foods to avoid during your pregnancy” list.  Soft cheese.  Feta cheese!  I should have read it when I put it on the fridge, but I didn’t, and now …

My voice trailed off as tears took over.

There it was: the big catastrophe, avoidable, had I simply been prepared.  But I wasn’t, and now everything would be ruined.  I didn’t read the magnet, even though it had been on fridge for weeks.  And so I gave into my salt craving by going after some feta, ignoring the PB&J on wheat wrapped in tin foil, now squished at the bottom of my purse.

Can you please have the doctor call me?  I begged the voice.  I need to know if there’s anything I can do to …

I will, Miss, the voice responded.

I hit “end” and curled up in the corner of the futon in front of the TV, phone in hand and blanket almost over my head, waiting for the phone to ring.

I have always been a little bit of a—what’s the word?—let’s say a worrier.  A little on the nervous side.  For example, when I was a child for two entire summers—nearly all of the warm weather, no-school days between my 2nd and 4th grade years—I sat in the southwest corner of my family’s unfinished, cement basement, reading Little House on the Prairie books and stuffing cotton in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the thunder—if and when there was a storm.  I could not be forced to wait for something like a weather-service issued tornado warning, or even a storm watch.  Just in case the ever-present wind of my prairie hometown blew something my way, I would be safe.  I occasionally snatched my mother’s purse or all the fruit in the fridge and set them by me and my books until someone noticed they were gone and came to claim them.  Just in case, I’d explain.

My parents and older siblings tried to lure me out of the cellar with reason and logic.  Kristie, it’s sunny and there are no clouds.  Kristie, it’s only 40 degrees outside.  Kristie, it’s late August and you need to practice existing outside of the basement because school is about to start.  But this was not about logic and reason.  I’m not quite sure what it was about, really, because no one thought to invest in a psychological evaluation of the child who wouldn’t leave the basement corner during summer vacation.  But I can say it would be only the first of several—perhaps many would be a word choice here—demonstrations of my rather worrisome worrying.

Still, it took another 21 years—and approximately 10 weeks gestation—before my worry spread to Greek salads, which proved particularly troublesome.  Because here’s the thing: soft cheese knows no basements.  There is nowhere to hide from feta digested.  I scanned website after website, where people with questionable avatars submit poorly punctuated and deeply fretful questions about falling, having sex, and yes, eating feta, while pregnant.  And then know-it-all’s respond with finger wagging and directions to call your doctor or go to the ER.  I scanned these as I waited for my doctor’s call—What’s keeping him? What can an on-call OB possibly be doing that is more important than this? —and emailed a baker’s dozen of contrite, horrified, highly-repetitive emails to my husband, who was on a flight to the opposite coast for a conference and would get them six hours later, in one big batch.  (And who would, because he is patient and calm and wise, quickly delete them and wait several hours—blaming traffic, meetings, or the time change, before calling to check in.  He had to develop his own strategies for living with my worry.)

I was writing message number 14 (subject line: What Will I Do?) when the phone rang.

How are you doing? My mother-in-law asked.  She was calling because her son was gone and I was newly pregnant and she was being nice.

I started to cry.  To bawl, really.  To howl and wail.

You miss him?  she asked.

No, I sobbed.  I ate the wrong cheese!

After explaining, between tear-induced gasps for air, that I was not (yet anyway – sob, sob, sob) suffering from food poisoning, I described my deli lunch.  And the magnet on the fridge.  And my resulting terror.  She responded that, back when she was pregnant, they didn’t have those magnets.  But they did often have cocktails and cigarettes.  Which she would not recommend, but was just sharing.  To calm me down.  The ol’ but Kristie, come on up from down there! line, updated.

It’s just …

It’s just what? she asked.

I don’t want to lose this pregnancy!

Of course you won’t, she responded.

But last time I did.

I surprised myself with that line as it left my mouth. But I was now 10 weeks along.  Which—last time—was when I got those bright red spots, and then went into the doctor, and he turned the screen away and said, I’m so sorry.  On top of the salad topped with croutons and olives and that terrifying cheese, I was having a tough (gestational) week.

I don’t remember what else my mother-in-law said, but I eventually stopped crying, hung up the phone and even closed my laptop.  I sat on the futon, watching TV—the very futon where, the following July, my water would break, the very futon around which I would lean and stand and sway while I labored for several hours, waiting for regular contractions while watching Harry Potter DVDs.  And at some point—on the feta night, not while in labor—I fell asleep in the futon’s comforting little curve.

For the first day of 4th grade, I had to come out of the basement corner, strap on my backpack, pick through my short, permed hair, and put on my giant pastel pink glasses (with this sentence, at least one reason for basement-hiding seems a bit more evident), had to head out into world and its weather.  Looking back, that little act of bravery provided good practice for the rest of my pregnancy (and for the one that followed, and for years of motherhood that I am currently wading my way through).  We should read our magnets and keep an eye on the weather, be smart and safe, and then—though we often have no idea what to expect, and though we worry—we must get on with things.  Some of what will happen will come without warning.  Some dangers will never make it on a list on the fridge.  And sometimes those things we have always feared and associated with suffering and terror may surprise us.

Like that windy, stormy, thundering July night, after a hot and steamy day, when—eleven stories up, high in the Manhattan skyline—I gave birth to a son.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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

The Worry and Wonderment Of Parenting

The Worry and Wonderment Of Parenting

By Lindsey Mead

0-12One morning in the middle of the year Grace was in 3rd grade, while driving to school, I asked both my children what they thought they would remember as the main thing they had learned from me. Why I asked I’m not sure, but legacy and lessons were on my mind. Whit blurted out, “Potty training,” and all three of us laughed.

“Well, Whit, that is one thing I’m awfully glad you learned,” I said with a grin.  Grace was looking out the window, pondering.

“Manners, I think,” she said, hesitating. “Oh, and paying attention.” I glanced back and caught her eye in the mirror, then brought my gaze back to the road.  “Yeah, that. You talk so much about wonder. I guess paying attention to the wonder.”

We pulled up to school and the moment was gone. I walked both kids across the street and into the gate, pressed kisses on both of their cheeks, and got back in the car. I caught a glimpse of Grace’s profile as I waited to pull out and drive away, and was struck by how it still looked exactly like the silhouette of her as a nine month old that I’d had painted onto a Christmas ornament.

All day I thought about wonder. Urging my children to really notice things, and to remain open to wonder, is without a doubt one of the central themes of my parenting. I am extremely porous to the world, to both its grandeur and its terror, and sometimes this overwhelms me. If I were paying slightly less attention, for example, perhaps I’d be able to get through a day without being brought to my knees by the slicing realization of how fast it’s all going. But I don’t know how to be in the world any other way. And so I’m left with what I notice, and with what I wonder.

I have so many questions about what lies ahead on this mothering road. On Grace’s tenth birthday, one of my close friends expressed disbelief (and perhaps a little frustration) at my sentimentality. “Why do you feel sad,” she asked, “When we’ve talked about how it keeps getting better?”

I don’t know the answer to that. Hopefully it will keep getting better. Probably, it will. But right now, everything feels tremendously uncertain, and I can’t see very far ahead. I keep thinking of EL Doctorow’s headlights, reassuring myself that I can make the whole journey this way.

What do I worry about? I worry about guiding Grace through the enormous physical changes that lie ahead for her. I worry about all the things that may chip away at her self-esteem: the attention of boys, eating disorders, huge pressure to perform at school, tension about admission to selective schools. I worry about keeping at bay technology that could distract or harm her while also realizing that she will grow up in a world where familiarity with those things is crucial. I worry about how to preserve her interest in the outdoors and in unstructured play—what feels like the essence of her childhood—in a world that privileges accomplishment and achievement.

I worry about the over-sexualization of young girls and what that means about what she should wear, when she should pierce her ears, or wear makeup.

I have opinions about all of these areas. I’ve never been short on opinions. But one thing I’ve learned in over 10 years as a mother is how quickly what is can vanquish what we thought would be. I used to scoff at when people said their children were their teachers. What a cliché, I always thought to myself, rolling my eyes internally. But now I understand it. Grace has overturned my assumptions time and again, and I expect that will continue to be true as we move forward into this next phase.

All of these fears are real. But I know there is one central, overarching worry.  It is that our relationship will irrevocably fray. I worry that if that happens we won’t recover the closeness we share now. I believe fiercely in the importance of my daughter’s blossoming independence, and over and over again I actively foster it. But in my deepest, most honest mother heart, I worry that I’m not myself strong enough to weather months or years of her desire and need for distance. My most common and frequent worry—occurring to me several times a day, at least—is that this season of my life is almost over.

But braided through all these worries, there is so much wonder. There was the wonder of my toddler daughter stooping to notice a weed poking through the sidewalk, or the wonder of my six year old son the first time he made contact with a baseball pitched at him. There is the wonder we all feel at the “fairy stream” near the tower that we love to climb, and the wonder that sweeps over me when I watch my sleeping children, the babies they were once animate and visible in the planes of their faces.

The web of worries is wide, but twined throughout it, there is so much wonder.

Lindsey Mead is a mother and writer who lives outside of Boston. Her work has been published and anthologized in a variety of print and online sources including the Huffington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and Literary Mama. She blogs at A Design So Vast and is also on Facebook and Twitter. 

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


Armageddon Mama: Parenting toward the Apocalypse

By Tracy Mayor

fall2010_mayorLast February, a freak storm blew through our region one unseasonably warm Thursday night, packing flooding rains and fearsome winds that caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage in about ten minutes’ time.

I was out—minus my husband and kids, a rare week night occurrence—and drove home over pitch-dark roads amid downed power lines and whole stands of trees that had been toppled so suddenly and so recently that the air was full of the smell of pine and dirt. Three times I started down familiar streets, only to have to turn back because they were impassable.

When I finally pulled into our debris-strewn driveway after midnight, I found our power out and our dog waiting anxiously by the door. My boys, a teen and a tween, had gone to bed, but my husband, Tom, was up waiting for me, nodding off at the kitchen table, incongruously surrounded by the happy glow of a dozen winking tea lights.

Those tiny, useless candles, left over from a dinner party, pretty much constituted the whole of our emergency-preparedness stash. Once upon a time (after 9/11, to be precise), we’d halfheartedly stocked up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and duct tape, with a few cans of Dinty Moore beef stew thrown in for good measure. But over the years the cache had been multiply raided by the disaster-indifferent inhabitants of the place: The water went to a school function and the stew to a canned-food drive; the duct tape was commandeered for a Halloween costume.

Our stash of flashlights, at one time carefully kept within easy reach for just such a emergency, had been scattered to the four corners of our property after a late-night game of outdoor tag one summer night. But even if Tom had been able to locate them in the howling dark, it wouldn’t have mattered. The batteries we’d hoarded had long since been reassigned to game controller duty. I rummaged through a junk drawer and found a tiny penlight for each of us, then gave up and crawled to bed, grateful that I’d finally broken down a few months earlier and bought us all real down comforters, which kept us warm in our beds even as the temperature sank.

By morning, the house was down to fifty-three degrees. Staggering outside, dazed and coffeeless, Tom and I discovered that the enormous crash the boys had heard the night before was an oak tree that had split in half and raked the back of the house as it fell, shattering my older son’s bedroom window and peeling off a line of clapboards on its way down.

In town, power lines swung aimlessly, and whole neighborhoods were blockaded by uprooted trees. Most frightening to any New Englander: There wasn’t an open Dunkin’ Donuts to be found in twenty square miles. Shaken, I returned home and took charge of the situation, the way a person might who’d long ago attended Girl Scout sleepaway camp. I dragged our grill out from its winter hiding place, fired up the briquettes in the sharp February air, feeling a bit foolish, and brought a huge pot of water to a boil.

“Look,” I said proudly to my sons, who were just emerging from their lairs, “we can make instant coffee, Swiss Miss, and oatmeal, and still have enough left over for a little spritz bath to keep clean.”

“Oh my God, I’m not washing in a spaghetti pot.” My sixteen-year-old, Connor, pulled out his iPhone and started tapping. Within ninety seconds, he’d determined that a) our street wasn’t due to get power back for three days; b) one neighborhood of new construction, where the power lines had been buried, was already back online; and therefore, c) he needed a ride to the house of his friend who lived there. Immediately.

“Don’t you want to hang with us and play Bananagrams in front of the fireplace?” I said forlornly, trailing behind him as he tossed some clothes and his toothbrush into a duffle bag.

He gave me a pitying glance. “I’ll be in the car waiting.” And that was the last we saw of that kid for seventy-two hours.

It was just as well. As it turns out, board games in a dark, cold house with a flooding basement kind of suck. Once night fell, Tom, our twelve-year-old, Will, and I gave up trying to be troopers and just went to bed. As I lay huddled next to my husband, I said, “What if this goes on indefinitely? I don’t think our kids have the right coping skills for this kind of thing. I mean, life without the Internet and all.”

“Ditching your family in favor of heat and lights sounds like an excellent coping skill to me,” Tom observed dryly. “In a real crisis, I’d follow the self-involved teenager every time.”

The ’00s have been a tough decade for parenting, anxiety-wise. Y2K set the mood, 9/11 shook us to the core, and suddenly in between changing diapers and taking pregnancy tests, we were worrying about anthrax in the mail and terrorists on every street corner. The first decade of the new millennium brought us two wars, two recessions, a flu pandemic, an autism epidemic, a childhood obesity epidemic, a housing crisis, a health care crisis, a crisis in public education, and toys made with phthalates, BPA, and lead paint from China. Whew.

Meanwhile, the globe continued to bake and, in turn, cook up ecological disasters, as Bill McKibben documents in his wrenching new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). Eaarth is the name McKibben uses to distinguish the planet on which we now live—”one that’s melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways no human has ever seen”—from the one we have known since the beginning of our existence.

Since record-keeping began, the temperature of the planet has risen by a degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit, enough to trigger a forty-five percent increase in thunderheads, which in turn generate lightning, which sets off wildfires everywhere from California neighborhoods to the Arctic tundra. As oceans warm, hurricanes and typhoons become stronger and more frequent. Meanwhile, glaciers melt, cutting off a reliable supply of clean water to hundreds of millions of people, as has already happened in northwest China, and once fertile areas like Russia’s vast wheat-growing region turn into deserts, taking the food supply with them (as I write, 1.8 million acres are burning out of control in Russia, which has responded by halting its wheat exports).

This past decade, as we helplessly watched the devastation from the string of Florida hurricanes, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most unforgettably, the breakdown of social order in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti following the February 2010 earthquake, it was almost disrespectful not to wonder, could any of that happen here? To me? To my family?

Of course, parents have worried about the state of the world since hominids first began live-birthing their young, and it can’t have been a walk in the park raising kids during World War I, or the Great Depression, or World War II, or the Cold War (heck, the whole first half of the twentieth century was no parenting picnic). But still, compared to the bubbleheaded feel-goodedness of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush eras, the ’00s have indeed been times of extraordinary worry and real economic and psychic pain among American families.

Through it all—or some experts say, because of it all—parents ramped up their involvement with their kids. A 2010 study by two economists at the University of California, San Diego analyzed a dozen surveys, taken between 1965 and 2007, of how Americans say they use their time. The UCSD report found that the amount of time spent with children had risen “dramatically” since the mid-1990s for parents at all income levels but especially among those with a college education.

Throw a stone in any family-friendly neighborhood in the country, and you’re likely to hit an SUV heading off to infant swim or to Kindermusik or gymnastics or ice skating, painting, pottery, quilting, cartooning, photography, cooking, hip-hop, ballet, West African dance, belly dancing, circus camp, herb gathering, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, canoeing, soccer, football, baseball, kickball, field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, trampoline, violin, piano, guitar, drums, voice, French, Chinese, Spanish, German, archeology, Legos, karate, judo or capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.

What’s up with the frantic enrichment? Partly it’s just plain fun for the kids (if you can afford it, of course), but according to Margaret Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont, there’s an underlying motivation as well.

Today’s parents—specifically, college-educated, professional-class parents—are deeply worried about their children’s future, says Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (2010). “With the hollowing out of the middle class in this country, it’s no longer clear what kinds of skills will lead to a good occupation and to financial success,” she explains. “A generation ago, you could say, ‘I want my child to be a doctor,’ and that would ensure financial success. Now, nobody knows.”

As a result, that class of parents strives to raise children who are both highly skilled and highly flexible. “They want them to be good athletes, to be good students, good friends, to demonstrate a wide range of skills. So if a child shows even a bit of interest in art, they sign them up for art class,” Nelson says. “The fear is that if their children settle too soon, if they settle on the wrong thing, they’ll be out of luck.”

The goal is not just entry into a top college, or success in a financially stable career, it’s to raise kids who are able to compete in the kind of world that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out in his best-seller, The World Is Flat (2005), where Americans must be well-educated, hard-selling, fast-moving entrepreneurs of their own careers in a fully wired, completely interconnected, always-on global marketplace of ideas and innovation.

Only problem: What if that isn’t at all what the near future will look like? What if we’re raising our kids to succeed in a George Jetson kind of world, but they wind up living more like Fred Flintstone?

You don’t need to be a Jericho junkie or holed up in a “survival condo” in the Mojave Desert (though there are in fact families doing just that) to at least imagine something happening to disrupt our wired, wealthy way of life, either temporarily or permanently.

In Eaarth, McKibben talks about the kinds of disasters induced by climate change that some societies have already experienced and that he says the rest of us can expect in the future: wars over water or food, millions of people displaced by flood or drought or killed by fast-spreading disease. In The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide (2010), financial columnist and Florida father of two Sean Brodrick takes those scenarios to a more specific level.

Brodrick, who writes for the Uncommon Wisdom newsletter and contributes to the Dow Jones MarketWatch, argues that families should be prepared to face any or all of these calamities: an oil crisis; a food crisis; mass immigration; economic depression; natural disasters like wildfires, tornados and ice storms; the collapse of the U.S. energy grid; pandemic; terrorism; and civil unrest sparked by any or all of the above.

Families, he says, need the means to bargain for or provide their own food, water, medicine, education, and entertainment (download your favorite songs and videos now, he advises, before the Internet goes dark!), as well as have access to alternate sources of power (wood, wind or solar) and transportation (scooters or bicycles). And families need to be prepped to either hunker down in situ or evacuate on very short notice ahead of a crowd. (Especially alarming, or exciting, depending upon your point of view, is Brodrick’s list of nine signs you should hit the road—at the sound of explosions in the distance, for instance, or when the government sets a curfew or fires are spreading unchecked.)

The rising generation of American kids—who statistically are fatter, more wired, and less familiar with the outdoors than any generation before them—don’t on the surface seem particularly well prepared to cope with that kind of sudden lifestyle deceleration.

Even if they’re not overweight, the average American child’s life is measured by athletic achievement and academic excellence, neither of which may count for much when the shit hits the fan (or, as Brodrick politely prefers, WTSHTF).

My kids, like many middle- and upper-class children, are in better shape than the national average. They’re fit, and thanks to day camp, overnight camp, school programs, family vacations and an unusually large amount of open space in our hometown, they’ve spent plenty of time outdoors.

But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that their suburban upbringing would only take my kids part of the way toward where they might need to go. We recycle, of course, but we don’t actually make anything from the stuff we save from the trash; a truck hauls it off somewhere, and someone else turns it back into usable material. We buy a share in a community-support farm, so my kids at least know what vegetables look like and where they come from, but our yard is so shady we don’t actually grow anything of our own, which in turn means we compost—but that, too, gets hauled away to a nearby farm. We belong to a sustainable seafood group, so my guys see their father filet a couple of whole fish most Saturday mornings, but none of us could catch one ourselves, or not reliably enough to keep us alive over a long period of time, and not if everyone else were trying to fish the same waters simultaneously.

Thanks to my time with the Girl Scouts, I know how to light a wet-wood fire, but I’m the only one in the house who does. Connor gets off the grid for ten days every summer with the Appalachian Mountain Club, where he has learned all manner of wilderness survival skills, but, ironically, not fire-building. (The super-strict Leave No Trace program that the club has adopted discourages open fires.) Our property happens to abut a hunt club, but none of us has ever hunted, ever handled a gun, or ever killed an animal. Connor has a black belt in taekwondo, and Will is nearly there, but none of us has ever had to defend ourselves, not when someone’s really trying to do us harm. When the marauding hordes come for our stash of Dinty Moore, I’m afraid we’d be helpless to do much besides hand it over.

And then there’s the issue of character. Like lots of other parents, Tom and I want our children to be well-mannered, thoughtful, tolerant, considerate, respectful, empathetic, sympathetic, charitable, and all those other soft and squishy liberal ideals. A few weeks ago, after Will had done a favor for a friend of mine, she exclaimed to me, “Your boys are so kind. I think my kids are great, but I don’t know if anybody would describe them as kind.”  At the time, I took that as a huge compliment—for Will but also for the way Tom and I are trying to bring him up.

Now? I don’t know. In a crisis, wouldn’t a kind kid get his butt kicked? Tom and I have spent the last sixteen-and-a-half years busting our humps to raise a couple of nice guys. But in this Brave New World that may be coming down the pike, what if nice guys finish last?

With the exception of home-schooled children, most American kids over the age of five spend the bulk of their time in school or on school-related activities. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if those schools could be a first line of defense in prepping kids for a new kind of twenty-first century, one that’s hyper-local and hyper-hands-on?

That might happen in certain Montessori- or Waldorf-based schools that, during the early years of a child’s life at least, emphasize experience- and sensory-based learning through practical activities. Charter schools and private schools centered on outdoor education, environmental education, or green education are also already headed down that path.

Public schools show some bright spots of innovation here and there, to be sure. For example, the National Farm to School Network, a grant-funded collaborative program administered by eight regional centers, promotes gardening and composting on school property. So far the network supports 2,224 programs nationwide. The Leave No Child Inside movement, inspired by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, promotes nature-based learning and outdoor classrooms in schools. And many schools, particularly middle schools, participate in adventure programs like Outward Bound and Project Adventure, designed to challenge students physically while promoting leadership and team-building skills.

But for the most part, public schools are overwhelmed just trying to deliver the old kind of twenty-first-century education, the one where students need to be knowledge workers in a wired, interconnected, global economy. In fact, thanks to chronic underfunding only made worse by the recession and an ever-increasing list of state and federal mandates, many schools are having a hard time hitting the mark for last century’s curriculum standards.

Consider the Common Core State Standards, an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association to establish a uniform set of expectations for students anywhere in the country. Thirty states (including my own, Massachusetts) have signed on, and yet, to educators and others who follow trends in education, the standards, which cover only English language and math, seem depressingly out of touch with either vision of twenty-first-century life—wired or wild.

My boys both have a class called Life Skills, but it’s about good nutrition and staying off drugs and avoiding STDs. That’s fine as far as it goes—God knows you don’t want to be trying to survive an apocalypse and contending with venereal disease at the same time—but I wish they had more of what we used to call, in the dark ages when I was in public school, Shop and Home Ec (the latter now more snazzily known as Family and Consumer Sciences).

Those disciplines are being dropped from curriculae across the country in favor of keyboarding, Power Point 101 and so forth. (Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is a lament for the loss of what he calls the “useful arts” from our schools and our society.) At our regional high school, shop and home ec (well, their better-named equivalents) are offered only as electives, but kids vying for top-tier colleges don’t take them seriously in any case; they’re too busy trying to pack their schedules with the AP classes that we’re repeatedly told are like catnip to admissions officers.

Last year, Will’s middle school replaced a popular engineering class that had kids designing bridges and building mini racecars with a public speaking class. The move was partly due to budget cuts—the engineering teacher, who had tenure, was expensive, and the speech teacher was not—but also due to the conviction that public speaking was a more useful modern-day skill than building things with your hands. Me, I didn’t agree.

What should the role of education be in a climate-changed, crisis-prone world? I put in a phone call to McKibben, who is both a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and father to a seventeen-year-old daughter.

“When education started in this country, the goal was to round off people who were already practically skilled,” McKibben says. “Most people grew up knowing how to do things like raise their own food and an astonishing number of tasks that we no longer know how to do. You went to school to read the classics and get some polish.

“We’re now kind of in the opposite situation, where kids spend one-hundred percent of their time in a mediated environment. We learn about the world through one school or another. So we might need to be thinking more about using school to introduce us to those practical things that we don’t know how to do anymore.”

Suburban survival guy Sean Brodrick lists in his book new careers that adults should be prepared to adopt should they find themselves in a world where the economy has collapsed or fuel has disappeared, jobs like bike mechanic, tool maker, cobbler, acoustic musician, or (my favorite) beer maker.

On the phone, I point out to him that, with the exception of music, none of those is a skill commonly picked up by kids, either in school or at their myriad enrichment activities.

“I’m not saying you should run out and apprentice your kid to a tailor,” Brodrick says. “Just pick a skill that can be done in the absence of electricity, something they can do with their hands where they can pitch in.” His own son takes archery, for example; his daughter rides horses (which counts, I suppose, as an alternative source of transportation). Brodrick himself makes beer, for the fun of it now, he says, but also because, as he writes in his book, “Everybody is going to be stressed after a collapse. You might be able to make a good living thinking outside the box on how you can relieve [that] stress.”

Beyond the homemade brewskis, he makes sure that his kids are learning more than one language, that they can do basic calculations in their heads, not just on a calculator, and that they learn how to haggle, a skill he believes will become invaluable when resources run scarce.

In short, when it comes to preparing your kids for the worst, he says, “I wouldn’t tell them you’re going to die early and they’ll be left in the world on their own, but you do want to raise them to be able to survive without you.”

Other than the unimaginably sorrowful assertion that we—twentieth-century humans—have broken the planet pretty much permanently, the other big takeaway from McKibben’s Eaarth is that climate-change disasters are and will be happening everywhere, simultaneously.

Thanks to our world-is-flat connectedness, there isn’t and won’t be any place to go where you won’t be affected in some way, he contends. In 2008, when an over-enthusiastic United States suddenly decided to keep a slightly larger portion of its corn crop home, for use as biofuel, rather than exporting it, the move caused food riots in thirty-seven countries, McKibben writes. Oops.

That extreme interconnection is unique to our generation, and it’s scary. But if you can look beyond it—or, more accurately, before it—the human race has a long and storied history of disasters, calamities, and catastrophes, and through it all, at least some people have managed to beg, borrow, and barter their way toward survival. I wanted to know: What skills did these survivors have, what actions did they take, what qualities did they possess, besides luck, that saw them through?

Mucking around online, I found a study done by a team of researchers from the International Centre for Migration and Health in Geneva on mental health and coping in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was intriguing, because before the Yugoslav wars, Sarajevo and other cities in the region were modern, cosmopolitan municipalities, ones that went very quickly downhill in the war. That rapid change might be roughly analogous to what Americans might be confronted with if, say, a water war broke out between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The report, which looked at the impact of civilian uprooting, displacement, and family disruption during war, found that “there was an overwhelming loss of perceived power and self-esteem. Over twenty-five percent of displaced people…said they no longer felt they were able to play a useful role; even in non-displaced populations approximately eleven percent of those interviewed said that they had lost a sense of worth. Widespread depression and feelings of fatigue and listlessness were common and may have prevented people from taking steps to improve their situation.”

This plays into what Brodrick asserts: In a prolonged crisis, when schools are shut and people aren’t able to go to their twenty-first-century jobs, we’ll still need something to do—not just to obtain the basic necessities of life, though we’ll need that, but also for our mental health. More important, history shows that we need to do these hands-on, take-action kinds of things not alone, or not even hunkered down with just our immediate relatives, but in larger groups.

That can be a thorny concept for Americans to embrace, what with our long-standing national tendency to exalt the virtues of the rugged individual, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“When we think of the Wild West, we admire the rugged loner, but what really helped the West succeed was community cooperation—barn raisings and so on—and government assistance with things like irrigation, transportation and electrification,” Coontz points out.

That natural tension between loner and community is still with us, she says: “The things that allow you to succeed as an individual in a competitive society—pursuing your goal with tunnel vision, being the very best—those things are unhelpful in a real crisis like war or depression.”

In researching her forthcoming book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz interviewed women who had lived through the Depression. Rather than stockpiling food and resolving to go it alone, families cooperated. “If they had an opportunity to buy flour, they bought more than they needed and gave it to other people, counting that those families would return the favor when they could. It was relationship-based survival.”

In fact, as far back as prehistoric times, says Coontz, foraging and hoarding never guaranteed that a family would have enough to eat. Instead, a hunter who’d had a successful kill would share with the group, with the understanding that his family would have a share of future kills. “From earliest times, the best chance you have of increasing your fitness as an individual is to share and cooperate with the group,” she says.

All that made me feel a bit better about long-term crises like another depression or a currency collapse. I picture my little family banding together with our neighbors, us with our stash of canned stew, them with the big generators they fired up after the storm that kept their house warm and their lamps lit as we shivered in the dark.

But what about more urgent, if shorter-term, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina? Haven’t we all absorbed the horror stories of people looting, shooting, and leaving their fellow humans to die?

As it turns out, the people who were a danger in New Orleans were not looters: They were people who thought other people were out to loot them. So explains Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), examines how people behaved in five North American disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires; the 1917 Halifax cargo ship explosion; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; September 11, 2001; and Hurricane Katrina.

In New Orleans, where Solnit spent time interviewing survivors, “elite panic” was the big danger once the floodwaters stopped rising. Wealthier (usually white) people, falsely believing that looting was rampant in the city, organized and began firing upon and sometimes killing unarmed African Americans. The second group of “elites,” Solnit contends, were those in power—the law enforcement and other government officials whose edicts imprisoned and endangered residents, in essence treating victims as if they were criminals.

Those who managed to avoid both the vigilantes and the official blockades behaved admirably, often overcoming their own suspicions and prejudices to do so. (As she puts it in her book, these volunteer rescuers were “armed, often, but also armed with compassion.”) In fact, from all the disasters she studied, Solnit concludes, “The prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic and brave.” I perked up a bit, reading this, because it sounded more than a bit like my list of squishy liberal values. Maybe there was some hope for my boys after all?

In her research, Solnit discovered a quality linking all these disasters: In the midst of catastrophe, survivors experienced an unexpected relief, even joy, when their worlds were turned upside down and their complex, pressured lives were reduced back to the basics. “Sometimes disaster provides a remarkable reprieve,” she writes, citing “a sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”

On the phone, she sums it up this way: “You know the way machines reset after a blackout? In a disaster, it’s as if people revert to their original settings. They’re resourceful; they’re able to improvise.”

So what message is there in all of this for people raising kids?

Beyond the obvious basics (children in earthquake- and flood-prone areas should practice the appropriate evacuation techniques; everyone should have practiced what to do in a fast-moving fire), Solnit says children and parents alike should know the people in their physical communities and be ready to work with them, whether they feel fully akin to them or not. “In a disaster, your wealth is going to be the people around you,” she points out. “Your Facebook friend list is not going to get you out of a burning building.”

This sense of physical community is where the middle and upper classes are sometimes at a deficit.  “People who are poor often live closer to the edge, so their wealth is each other, their survival is each other,” she says. “Middle-class, white people have liberated themselves from that. In the course of that, we’ve sometimes lost those networks of affinity and trust and knowledge, of knowing the way around a city.”

That message resonates with McKibben. “The real skill for survival doesn’t have to do with whether you can start a fire,” he says. “It has to do with whether you can get along with the people around you. In some ways, this has become the skill we’re least good at—building societies and building contact with each other.”

Brodrick puts this same sentiment a bit more bluntly: “If you think you can get through a disaster by defending just your own turf, here’s something to think about. These crises will come in waves, and in between, civilization is going to return. Order will be restored, and when it does, you don’t want to have been the biggest asshole on the block. People will remember that.”

Trust me on this: It messes with your head to think too much about The End of the World As We Know It. After reading and talking nothing but Armageddon for weeks on end, I found myself pricing solar panels and making mental space in our yard for a flock of chickens and perhaps a private well, while all around me in our affluent little suburb people continued gassing up their SUVs, edging their lawns, and cranking the AC as if nothing at all were wrong with the cosmos.

When I try to sort out how I feel about all this, I’m not at all sure the altruistic, joyful response to crisis that Solnit talks of would kick in for my family, at least not right away. Sure, we connected with our community during our blackout—neighbors checked on senior citizens, residents with chainsaws helped clear driveways and side roads, and the library, which had its power restored early, quickly turned into a kind of rowdy, indoor town square, with people swapping news and damage reports while re-charging their drained cell phones and tapping into the building’s free Wi-Fi via their laptops.

That said, my chief recollection of our three days without power is of deep cold and deep crankiness. And I was a little shocked to see how many people high-tailed it out of town, and how quickly—to relatives, to hotels, or, most commonly, to their ski houses in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Gee, I wondered, do I have to add “buy a second home” to my disaster to-do list? All in all, I’m not looking forward to coping with catastrophe, even if there may be an unexpected state of grace included as a side dish.

Still, there is a kind of twisted comfort in thinking about the kind of “powered-down” society that McKibben says we’ll have to adopt if we’re going to continue to live on Eaarth, “holding on against the storm,” he writes, by living “lightly, carefully, and gracefully.” I know I’m being naïve, but it’s not completely distressing to picture my family making a quiet life amidst this kind of long-term societal collapse—bartering with our neighbors, hoeing our small plot, homeschooling and hauling firewood, no longer concerned with any modern definition of success.

Bringing a child into the world is an act of optimism, and while nobody reads you the fine print in the delivery room, the unstated implication is that as a parent you’re expected to hold up your end of the bargain—that is, to keep on being optimistic, even when the evidence is to the contrary.

I started out worrying that we’d all have to learn how to shoot a gun or build a barricade around our four-bedroom colonial, and, while it’s true we all need to have something we can do with our hands, I’m at least a little bit comforted to know that thing can be fishing, or tailoring, or repairing a bicycle.

As for the community piece, well, there’s a bit of a vindication there as well: Tom and I have long second-guessed our decision to risk financial ruin by moving to our close-knit but expensive community. Now it makes some sense to have invested in a kind of living arrangement—which, to be fair, can happen in cities and towns of all sizes and income brackets—where you’re forced to get along with your neighbors, or at minimum tolerate them politely, because those are the people you see over and over every day, every season of every year.

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.

If that doesn’t work, and the shit really does hit the fan, I’m teaching them to brew beer.

Author’s Note:  I had planned on using this space to try to lighten things up a bit—say, make a joke about not having to pay for college now that the End of the World is nigh—but the fact is, having paid full attention for six weeks to the state our planet is in, I’m not really feeling the funny. Instead, a request: Please read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth. (It’s short, you can make it through, even with a baby at your breast or a toddler at your knee.) Then share it with a friend.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.