October 10th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

You take the small triumphs of motherhood where you can get them.  Last night, for example, C. wolfed down three bowls of my garlic-tamari stir-fry, proclaiming with vigor: “Mommy, this tofu is yummier than candy!”

Yes, this is a victory to trumpet in Mothering magazine or post on an organic parenting blog.  It compensates for the breakfasts I’ve served of ramen or hot dogs, the last-minute frozen mac-n-cheese dinners, the bribes of gum and Oreos.  The comment may not atone for my impatience or occasional incidents of swearing at my children, but I let myself savor it a moment.

I cooked the yummy tofu on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time to take stock of the past twelve months and consider what we’ve done, who we are.  Being a slackerly half-Jew myself, I didn’t go to services but by evening regretted my decision, sitting on the front porch in late sunlight with two naked girls, dipping tart Cortland apples into a bowl of raw honey.  Both my girls will strip naked at any opportunity, and I’ve given up trying to enforce clothing in the front yard, where they might be glimpsed by neighbors or passing cars.

Is this naïve and neglectful of me?  At what age does a child’s innocent nudity become inappropriate? It’s probably a different age in Vermont than in Manhattan, say—but I choose to wait until A. (age 7) grows uncomfortable in her bare skin.

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday I don’t know how to share with my children. My father was an agnostic Jew who renounced religion at age 14; my mother eventually persuaded him to light candles on Hanukkah and play dreidel, but that’s about it.  No temple, no Hebrew School, no stories about Jewish ancestors, no sense of lineage running back beyond my grandparents, Ukrainian Jews who immigrated from Kiev. After having children, I felt the gaps in family knowledge as visceral emptiness, and wondered if I could reclaim my inner Jew, if she’s in there at all.

Munching on apples and honey, A. mused, “Mommy, if you’re half-Jewish and Carmen and I are both one-quarter Jewish, then together we make a whole!”

“That’s right,” I said.  “Nice math!”

This isn’t the first time A. has expressed desire to be all Jewish—her announcements coincide with the days her friend misses school for holidays or receives a present on eight nights of Hanukkah.  I ponder her clever equation but sadly recognize the flaw: there’s not one whole complete Jew in our family, not one whole anything. [Read more →]

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October 4th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

Late August brings relief:  golden evening sun pouring its honey over the horse farm where A. has her pony lesson.  We’ve made it through another day.

My daughter in her black velvet helmet and leather boots sits up tall on Buddy the pony, whose chocolate coat is glossy in the setting sun.  Each blade of grass is illuminated, verdant green sharp against shadow.  After the hot, terrible days of July when summer seemed to be suspended, endless fighting and humidity, insult and injury, the season has turned and I’ve felt a chill in the night air— the first chill that carries, as Elizabeth Strout puts it, “that subtle undercurrent of old longings and new chances that Autumn often brings.”

This evening my daughter, nearly 7, is poised on a gentle pony, and I have nothing to do but lounge in the grass and watch.  We ate our fat heirloom tomatoes for dinner with salt and olive oil, fresh pesto and corn on the cob.  Summer’s bounty overflows on the windowsills— sungolds and Romas, chili peppers and cucumbers, huge bushes of sweet basil, its green peppery scent intoxicating, begging to be devoured before frost.

Time plays tricks with the light.  Is this really my first child riding a large, four-legged animal, trotting on a lunge line, leaning forward into his mane? Her long hair hangs in a straight ponytail down her back, the mere sight of which fills me with tenderness for her, who is growing up at the speed of an August garden.  This summer A. learned to swim; she taught herself up at the pond, approaching the task with grave dedication.  She wanted to swim out to the dock like the other 6-year-old at the beach, and though the undertaking was neither fun nor easy, within two days she was doggy-paddling solo.  Soon she was trying to swim underwater, then attempting a dive, each new frontier requiring serious effort.

Of course C. (nearly 5) followed suit and managed a wild doggy-paddle of churning limbs, her round face barely staying above water.  “Controlled drowning,” her Dad called it. C. threw her body off the dock with total abandon, jumping hard from a running start, thrilled with the flight and immersion into another element without any thought of consequences.  I recognized and feared her reckless nature.  By her birthday she’d learned how to float– my baby, belly-up in the cold Maine ocean, vulnerable and soft as a fish.

August teems with cricket-song and goldenrod, the late light drenching me like liquid amber I’d drink if I could, store in my cells for the dark months ahead.  School starts in a week and my children are another year older, and suddenly it seems I’m staring down the barrel of the rest of my life, the calendar pages turning, more endings and beginnings, Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade…

The years tick by like mile markers on the Interstate, like the wise, older parents promised they would when we were deep in The Baby Cave, cuddled up with barely enough air for four beings to breathe—caught in the timeless cycle of nursing and napping. Now we’re standing beyond the mouth of the Cave and another summer is gone and sometimes I leap forward a decade and the girls are 15 and 17, going to parties, taking Drivers Ed, visiting colleges.  I have to stop myself before I drown in nostalgia for the life passing before my eyes. [Read more →]

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September 25th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

The girls find the bird huddled inside the chicken enclosure.  C. comes sprinting into the house like a miniature superhero in her spangled blue velour leotard.

“Mommy, Mommy!  A bird!  A bird is sleeping in the chicken pen!”

I’m lying face-down on the living room rug with a bag of ice on my back.

“Are you sure it’s not dead?” I ask.

“No! I saw its beak move.  Come on!” C’s body literally vibrates with impatience.

“In five minutes.”


“Carmen,” I warn, “I’ll come in five minutes, when I’m done icing.”

This summer has taught my children about waiting.  Our family has had to adjust to the vagaries and demands of my injury, while I’ve learned (again) about the solitary nature of pain—how it isolates you, cuts you off from the present moment.  I cringe when the girls rough-house around me; they’ve become more careful with my body, which fed them for years and once served as their jungle-gym.  Used to being waited on, they’ve had to manage more tasks for themselves, and even attended to my needs—bringing me the phone or a glass of water.

A. is perched in the cherry tree above the chicken house when I come to appraise the bird.  She drapes her arms around a limb, an elven child among the pendant leaves, at once familiar as my own hand and strange in her long-haired, coltish grace.  C. jumps up and down like she might bust out of her leotard.

“Mommy, look!”

Sure enough, a small gray bird is nestled down in the dirt, shuddering, surrounded by nine curious hens.

“Maybe it fell out of the tree,” suggests A.

“Or maybe one of the cats got it,” I say grimly.  I spy Nomar, the black tom, cleaning himself in the grass not far from the chickens, pretending to be oblivious to the unfolding drama.  A red chicken sticks out her scrawny neck and launches a swift, brutal peck at the bird.

“STOP IT!” yells A.

“BAD CHICKEN!” shrieks C.

“Keep them away from it,” I call, limping off as fast as I can.  I fetch a shoebox from the recycling bin and manage to hoist myself over the fence.  With two hands, I cup the trembling bird and ease it into the box.  One wing is torqued back, its feathers dark with dark red blood.  The bird’s gray down feels smooth and slippery on my skin, a forbidden sensation, something you know you’re not supposed to touch. [Read more →]

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September 25th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

I just wrote a guest post for my friend Desha Peacock’s fabulous blog!  Click HERE to read it. And be sure to check out Desha’s keen fashion and design tips while you’re on her site.

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September 23rd, 2012 by alisonkolesar

I picked up my children on the last day of school humming with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  Summer!  The other moms bore platters of celebratory cupcakes, overjoyed to bring home their offspring for nearly three months. But I was reluctant to give up our precious routine, the one we’d worked all year to establish, the hard-earned harmony in preschool and 1st grade that gave me breathing space for myself.  Inevitably the calendar turned, the space collapsed, and we all tumbled on top of each other, suffocating in the black hole of summer.

The morning after school ended, A. moped over to me in the kitchen at 7 am.  “I’m bored,” she moaned.

She was going through withdrawal, missing her friends, her beloved teacher, art class, writers’ workshop, games at recess.  Within days, she and her sister were at each other’s throats, teasing and tussling like feral cats until I screamed at them to take it outside.  I wish I could say that summer brings out the best in me, that I thrive on hours of unstructured time with my children, but that would be a lie.

Our early summer has been a struggle, punctuated by moments of joy.  The fighting has worn down my patience to rice-paper consistency, my sense of humor has gone on vacation, and I repeatedly choose the path of least resistance.  Breakfast?  C. wolfs down two hot dogs with ketchup while A. picks, birdlike, at some cereal.  When the squabbling starts at the kitchen table, I leave the room and tell them they need to work it out on their own.

“I have complete confidence that you two girls are smart enough to figure this out.  When you’re ready, come tell me what you decide,” I say, quoting Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Except I’m never as perky or calm as the parents in that book, always an edge of irritation in my voice, like a sting of lemon in a glass of spring water. [Read more →]

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September 13th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

In the tragicomedy of modern parenthood, most important conversations occur in the car.  This time we were en route to Price Chopper, two squabbling sisters and one bored mother who could not bear to listen to “Stink and the Super-Galactic Jawbreaker” for another chirpy minute.  So I turned off their CD and blasted mine– the Rolling Stones,“Brown Sugar”—those first defiant guitar licks transporting me to another world.

“Mommy, what’s this song about?” asked C, who, as she approaches five, grows ever more curious and articulate.

“What do you think it’s about?” I replied, stalling.

“Hmmmm… Candy?  Sugar and candy and stuff?”

“That’s right!” I said.  “’Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?’  These guys in the band really love their sweet treats.”

The girls nod emphatically.  They’ve been living in a sugar haze at the end of the school year, each day bringing another summer birthday celebrated, another platter of brownies or chocolate-dipped donuts, another snack of popsicles, a giant ice cream sundae party.  My little fib about the Stones slips out as easily as a soap bubble.  What are my options?  To explain Mick Jagger’s dirty lyrics?

They sense excitement in the song, though, something beyond a sugar high.  They’ve watched me dancing in the studio, hands criss-crossed over my head— A. will even imitate me now, tossing her blonde hair, sashaying her hips.  It’s frightening.

The Stones always take me back to a family trip to Eaglesmere, Pennsylvania when I was in 4th grade.  My parents drove me and my two little brothers from DC to the rambling Victorian house of their dear Macrobiotic friends, Teddy and Melissa.  We may have only gone to Eaglesmere once, for a long weekend in the fall, but the eerie house recurs in my dreams and our time there is etched in my mind, a pivotal memory of childhood.

The Eaglesmere house was all nooks and crannies, creaky porches and three staircases, closets smelling of cedar and mothballs.  I showed off my gymnastics tricks and did the Russian splits on a rock by the lake.

One evening we all walked down the sleepy main street— four parents and five little kids—to an old fashioned ice cream parlor with a big jukebox.  We were the only customers.  The grown-ups perched us on the red counter stools, slid in quarters, and played “Call Me” by Blondie and “Under My Thumb” by the Stones.  I watched my mother dancing, my beautiful, young, red-haired mother, younger than I am now—dancing and laughing with my Dad and then by herself—looking different than I’d ever seen her, somehow entranced.  I recognized a longing in her even though I didn’t have the language to describe it. [Read more →]

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August 23rd, 2012 by alisonkolesar

Thunderstorms again, pouring heavy sheets of rain off the roof.  All week we were caught in a low-pressure cycle:  building, building, release.  I drove the highway home from work slow and careful as a granny, my small car shuddering as the semis roared past, not listening to the seductive, honeyed voice of Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace, not talking on my cell as usual, but driving in silence with two hands on the wheel, aware of my warm body moving through the elements.

At home the girls had already eaten with Daddy.  C ran naked onto the wet porch to greet me.

“Mommy, Mommy!  We have an animal hospital!” she shrieked.  I blanched, thinking of our two roaming cats or the old dog in trouble.

In the living room, stuffed animals lay ailing under blankets on the couch.  Ducky had a hole in his beak, Penguin had a torn wing and both required emergency surgery.  Forgoing dinner, I grabbed my sewing kit and sat down on the floor to be Doctor while A readied the patients for their procedures. C was the ambulance driver, running through the house with a basket to transport every worn-out, well-loved stuffy to medical treatment.

“What’s wrong with Leo?” I asked, as C carried her enormous, tawny lion, the size of a young golden retriever, into the waiting room.

“He has a bone stuck in his throat. He can’t breathe very well,” explained A.  “It’s because he’s a predator.”

“So, what should we do, Doctor?” I conferred.

“Squeeze him until the bone comes out,” she ordered.  I administered the Heimlich while A stroked the lion’s mane.  Then C covered Leo with a fleece and placed a bunny on his back for company.

Soon the waiting room was jam-packed with sick creatures, all lined up in a pathetic row.  Hello Kitty had eczema, and the penguin chicks suffered from severe cases of stomach flu and needed shots to their fuzzy backsides.  After treatment they recovered on throw pillows while A made rounds, checking their vitals.  She told me Sarah Donkey and Cuddly Bunny had cancer, but they were taking their medicine and would be better tomorrow.  If only it were that simple.  My mind flashed to my aunt, buying her wig in the city, anticipating chemo, and my yoga student who’d just died after four grueling months. [Read more →]

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June 18th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

My articulate children have much to say on the subject of maternal failing.  A (age 6) has written twice in her journal, “Daddy’s the easy one.  Mommy’s the hard one.”

This may be true when it comes to the enforcing of rules, but I suspect she’s also referring to my tendency towards impatience and volatility.  When I read her words, I got a heartsick dropping feeling, like discovering your best friend passing critical notes about you in seventh-grade.

Not that A’s my best friend, nor I hers, but at times I still yearn to be everything to my first child, the way I was during our sweet, early months of nursing.  Back then we were a dyad, enmeshed body and even soul. I was fragile with exhaustion, but I understood my role.  Life in the Cave was distilled to our most basic needs: getting sleep was my prime struggle, not navigating conflict and setting boundaries.

Last night A turned to me in a tearful huff:

“Mommy, you think there are no problems with you, and only problems with me, but you’re wrong!”

“Hmmm,” I mused.  “Like what problems, honey?”

“You yell at us sometimes.  And you always make me do things I don’t want to do!”

“What things?”

“Like stop doing flips on the bed and go take a bath!”  She stared at me with palpable outrage, nostrils flaring like a filly.

I took a breath before reacting, swallowing the inclination to deliver a lecture about the health value of good sleep and the importance of sticking to a soothing evening routine.  I didn’t reveal my nighttime intolerance for stalling children, how I’m ready to clock out of active mom duty at 8 pm– how I literally hate having to wrangle my feral kids into bath and bed.

“Well, what do you think I should do instead?” I asked her.

“Just let me play and do flips until I get tired and I’m ready to stop!”

“But what about bedtime?”


Exactly.  Who cares about bedtime and dinnertime and after-school snack time and all the confining structures of our orderly days?  If I’m the hard one, it’s because I tow the straight line, rarely softening to allow spontaneity and delight.  The guilt about my insufficient mothering prevents me from trusting my own instincts, makes me compare myself to other mothers, pit our family against other families, sends me in confusion to parenting blogs and advice books searching for concrete answers. [Read more →]

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June 1st, 2012 by alisonkolesar

Let’s talk about guilt.  Let’s talk about the knife twist in the heart, bitter taste in the mouth, dull ache in the joints of chronic, relentless guilt.  When I was 25 my housemate stuck a yellow magnet on the fridge that read “GIVE UP GUILT” and we all pledged over communal tofu stir-fry to live by that philosophy.  I’ve read that psychotherapists consider guilt to be a “useless emotion,” which perhaps means that it is unproductive, helping no one—not the guilty sufferer, nor the objects of her ruminating mind.

But how can we simply be free of it?  Today’s mothers, especially, are at the mercy of impossibly high standards for the love and care of their children.  “Natural parenting” in particular—which promotes drug-free, holistic childbirth, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and extreme child-centeredness at every turn— can feel like a set-up for failure.  French feminist philosopher Elizabeth Badinter has criticized this trend of “the natural” in her provocative new book The Conflict:  How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. French women, says Badinter, take a “nonchalant approach to motherhood.”  They reject the view that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” and she applauds this attitude as healthy for both women and society.

Maybe I need to relax and light up a Gauloise, a la francaise.  Because for five years I was enmeshed with my children and now those silken maternal threads are becoming more spacious.  New opportunities for guilt abound.

I came home from work one night last week to find my girls reeling from a BBC Nature Special they’d watched with their Dad.  Their eyes shone bright as if they’d eaten a chocolate cake.  The show’s theme was “Baby Animals,” and they’d witnessed astounding sights:  a mother hippopotamus giving birth, her calf’s huge head crowning, then a fat jungle frog hatching her babies through pores in her skin, and…

“Mommy!” C shouted.  “The baby spiders ate their mother!”

Yes, apparently the newborn orb spiders—hundreds of tiny translucent creatures, like hungry crawling pearls— swarm over their mother’s body and feed on her in order to survive.  It is the ultimate sacrifice.  My girls seemed casual about the act, but I latched on to the metaphor.  If I were an orb spider, could I sit there and let my offspring devour me?  Is anything less acceptable?

Not a day goes by I don’t suffer some twinge of guilt over a motherly failure.  From the primal c-section guilt that left my girls a legacy of “birth trauma” to the mundane not-chaperoning-the-field-trip guilt, my insides are consumed with it.  Then there’s the lack-of-arts-and-crafts-projects guilt and the perennial frozen-pizza-for-dinner guilt.  Not to mention the “crap, my kids aren’t doing enough activities” guilt.  Even on good days, there’s some low-level sense of maternal inadequacy running beneath the surface, invasive as goutweed, that horrible species which propagates itself in healthy gardens, spreading in three ways: by root system, spore, and seed. [Read more →]

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May 31st, 2012 by alisonkolesar

The cliché is true, we discovered:  people are happier in California.

Our first day in San Francisco, the girls woke before dawn, all of us snuggled in a strange bed.  The plane journey had been a mind-numbing blur of uncomfortable tedium, but it disappeared into the past like a stone dropped in a dark pool.

We’d made it.  From our bathroom window, we could see the orange-red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of the fog.  My sister arrived to drive us into the Mission, the sunniest neighborhood in the city.  Huge fan palms lined the boulevards and sweet-smelling blossoms dropped from trees I didn’t recognize.  We passed creamy calla lilies the size of C’s face.  Everything seemed super-sized:  the flaming bridge, the blue sweep of the Pacific, the giant banana slugs that appeared after the rain.

People were smiling on the sidewalks, smiling in cafes and smiling in Mission Dolores Park, sunning themselves on a grassy hillside with views of the bay.  A and C zoomed down a three-story slide on the art-deco playground, then played the outdoor xylophone, low chimes echoing beneath a melody of shrieks.  We spun, swung, rock-climbed and finally claimed a spot on the green slope among throngs of Sunday picnickers.

Some large, tattooed women were trying on sparkly wigs, sitting in a circle in the shade.  A slender man in a gold G-string sat like a god in their midst, everyone talking and laughing.  It was a wig party in the park.  I watched happily, thinking, “Toto, we’re not in Vermont anymore.”  The girls frolicked and made friends with some well-groomed city dogs, and we talked about ice cream, which we planned to get eventually.

“Is that a boy or a girl?” I mouthed to my sister, eyeing the cute skateboarder who’d sauntered up behind us— rolled jeans, white thrasher tee, well-defined biceps, Converse sneakers.

“Girl,” she whispered.

I couldn’t stop staring— at the skater girl, and the brunette in the fedora and the fire-engine red lipstick, sporting a black bikini over tight white jeans.  A phrase was tattooed in an arc above her navel, black script across tanned skin.  I squinted.  What did it say?  “BORN TO…?” Born to what?  Born to dance, born to run, born to be a beautiful gypsy in San Francisco and mesmerize pale Vermont tourists still hazy from jet lag?

Sweet herbal smells wafted on the breeze.  The sun was hot but the air felt cool.  I imagined joining one of eccentric picnic parties ramping up around us, and this might have happened when I was 21.  But this time I had two overtired girls in my charge, and we ditched the park for the Bi-Rite Creamery.  After waiting on line 25 minutes, we savored cones of rhubarb–vanilla and ginger-caramel ice cream, letting the sugar high carry us back to the Presidio.

When you’re on vacation with your kids, you enjoy them in a way that doesn’t happen at home, where you’re endlessly distracted by work and domesticity, a thousand auxiliary tasks.  My girls were excellent travelers, showing reserves of unexpected stamina.  We explored the Japanese Tea Garden at the Golden Gate Park, traversing arched footbridges, admiring the red pagoda and the giant bronze Buddha.  Fatigue threatened, but C wanted to push on to the aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences and see the sharks. [Read more →]

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