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.
September 23rd, 2012 by
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 →]
September 13th, 2012 by
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.
“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 →]
August 23rd, 2012 by
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 →]
June 18th, 2012 by
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!”
“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?”
“WHO CARES 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 →]
May 31st, 2012 by
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 →]
May 30th, 2012 by
The summer I was 21 I traveled west of the Mississippi for the first time. I boarded that plane from Boston to San Francisco with a camping backpack full of sundresses and a beat-up mountain bike in a box. California! I was a New England girl at an Ivy League school, born of East Coast parents in Oxford, England— and the West promised a frontier of openness and counter-culture, sixties-era freedoms around every corner.
That summer I lived in Berkeley with my best friend from high school, and six of us crammed into a sublet on the edge of campus. The last to arrive, I slept on a mattress on the floor but couldn’t have cared less. I woke to rain-laced air and the sharp scent of eucalyptus through the open window, that new fragrance washing me clean of the old stories I’d known all my life.
Ripe avocadoes were three for a dollar at the local market. A neighbor’s plum tree spilled indigo fruit over the fence. We ran up the Strawberry Canyon Fire Trail and gazed out at the bay sparkling below us like a tapestry, dotted with white boats, criss-crossed with bridges, all leading to the golden city of San Francisco.
Maybe everyone falls in love with a city when they’re young. For Joan Didion it was New York and for me it was San Francisco. I like to think we went dancing every night, but in truth it was probably a handful of times. Sarah and I bought silver dresses on sale at Macy’s in Union Square and got lost driving a maze of underpasses en route to some hot club we’d found in our faithful Rough Guide to San Fran. This was before the era of GPS and Smartphones. We were beholden to our guidebook and to a laminated city map; we never ventured out the door without them. We’d dance and dance until 2 am and then drive home, spent and exhilarated, over the deserted Bay Bridge. [Read more →]
May 29th, 2012 by
I confess, I haven’t actually read the parenting books that have shot up bestseller lists in recent months. I’ve heard sound bytes about Chinese moms and French moms and all the moms from other cultures who are doing it better than we are, but haven’t curled up with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
Frankly, I’d rather read fiction. Instead of enduring yet another anxiety-producing parenting tome, I prefer to get lost in a historical novel or lull my girls to sleep with a classic children’s chapter book.
Which gets me to thinking… What parenting advice have I picked up from the fictional mothers I’ve met on the page? The lessons aren’t quite what you’d expect.
MRS. QUIMBY: Ramona’s mother is a no-nonsense kind of mom. She rules the household with a firm hand and doesn’t hesitate to send naughty 4-year-old Ramona to her room for repeated time-outs. Once she starts working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, Mrs. Quimby is far too busy to bake homemade cookies or get down on the floor to play dolls or checkers. She doesn’t try to be a friend to her girls, and seems never to suffer from maternal guilt or angst about her role. Instead, her goal is to raise two thoughtful, well-mannered, and independent children. By the time Ramona is six, Mrs. Quimby expects her youngest to give herself a bath and prepare for bed alone each night. Only then does she come in to bestow a motherly bedtime kiss.
LESSON: Less coddling, more limits. Less guilt, more confidence. Don’t be afraid to challenge your children rather than doing everything for them. Of course, it helps if you live on friendly Klickitat Street in the 1960s and 70s, where a kindergarten child can walk to school alone through a neighborhood of friends.
MRS. WELSCH: The socialite mother of Harriet the Spy (written by Louise Fitzhugh in 1964) leaves her daughter’s care entirely to a nanny and an Irish cook. Like other Upper East Side mothers, Mrs. Welsch enjoys playing bridge and going shopping and never so much as fixes a sandwich for 11-year-old Harriet. When the nanny leaves and Harriet falls apart, Mrs. Welsch takes her child to see a psychiatrist, but that is the extent of her motherly care. Harriet’s parents exist in a remote adult universe that rarely intersects their daughter’s sixth-grade world; they are like two distant, well-dressed planets orbiting a foreign sun.
LESSON: Share your children’s life experiences, but also find a good babysitter. Enjoy your adult time and nurture your relationship with your partner as well as your children. Trust your kids will survive, or even thrive, in your occasional absence. [Read more →]
May 29th, 2012 by
I had a flashback to my former life this morning at Hannafords. A hugely pregnant mom was wrangling her 2-year-old in the coveted, blue racing car cart (how I used to pray we would get that cart!), plying him with Goldfish while she finished her shop. Besides her trendy blonde bob and enviably kind, patient manner, I saw myself in this woman. Five years ago I too was hunkered deep in the Baby Cave, buying bulk diapers and navigating nap-time, anticipating a second round of newborn nursing and chronic sleep deprivation.
And today I was there shopping alone, in peace, enjoying my efficiency the way I’d enjoyed NPR in a quiet car en route to the store. I felt almost ashamed to pass the blonde mother on my way to the YoKids strawberry 4-packs. She looked reasonably well-rested and at ease with life, but still I wanted to tell her, “Look, it gets easier.”
I wanted to say, “More sleep is in your future.” I wanted to promise her, “One day you will tuck your children into their beds and they will sleep all night, for 11 or even 12 hours, and you will tiptoe, cautiously at first, into the wide world beyond the Baby Cave, where you’ll rediscover your identity, where you’ll get lost in a long book or dive into a creative project, where the father of your kids will transform from your weary comrade-in-arms (an ally in the ongoing battle against domestic entropy) into a hungry-eyed paramour.
All of you mothers of babies, I promise you— there is juice beyond the Baby Cave. Not a sippy cup of apple juice thrown on the floor, but your own inner juice, your vital essence, that sweet taste of selfhood which can get sucked dry in the exhausting early years of parenting. You know, of course, that I’m not condemning the Cave as a prison of suffering. The Cave is a milky, snuggly nest of love and some days I miss it with a fierce longing, a palpable ache to nurse a baby again, maybe a contented, rosy 4-month-old baby. How I long to be grounded by that warm 15-pound bundle!
But when I ask myself if I really want a third child, I realize I just want the chance to go back to when my girls were babies, knowing everything I know now.