The hard days

 

ImageThis is a photo I hesitate to publish, but I’m choosing to do it because there is a certain horror to the scene that I can’t convey in words, and it’s something I want to talk about. This is Anna, a few minutes into an interminable dentist appointment. She needed crowns — two consultations verified this — and her brittle teeth made the going especially rough. There is a body of research on how much pain medication is safe, or safe-ish, for a young child, and even more on nitrous oxide. I read it so that I would feel prepared, and I did, going in, but that quickly evaporated: nothing prepares you for those horrible moments when your child is writhing and choking and begging and you are choosing — CHOOSING — to do nothing more about it. Your reasons are sound, of course, and you hope hope hope you’re making the best call, but how the hell do you know that?

How do you know, in the middle of it, that she won’t be done more harm by the experience as it is, that she won’t come away thinking her mother is at best impotent and at worst callous in the face of her pain and her terror?

Please don’t tell me that all parents must go through this, that all kids survive the dentist, that it could have been so much worse, could  have been this or that. My brain knows all that. My heart never will.

Maybe now that I’ve written about this, I can shake it off. Maybe it won’t haunt me anymore and I won’t feel like crying every time I see that bright flash of silver in her smile.

Maybe I will move on to focus on her resiliency — the way, each time the dentist gave her a rest, she opened her mouth for more, because she knew she had to. The way she never let go of my hands, never took her eyes off of mine, curled up to sleep that night, in my bed, comforted at last.

Yes, maybe now we both will be.

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Published in: on July 25, 2012 at 2:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

For much of my adulthood, following a path very different from hers, the idea that there was more to learn from my mother rarely crossed my mind. I didn’t have kids. I had no garden, no house of my own, and I had never been married. I didn’t even have a dog. What I had instead was a life of study and travel and living alone and late nights and coffee-shop mornings. It was as foreign to her as her life was to me.

But no matter, I had plenty of company. My girlfriends and I figured it out together and everywhere we looked, there was advice and feedback, on everything from hairstyles to retirement savings to the right heel height for a night of dancing. Television and movies offered a smorgasbord of characters to identify with, whether I felt like sinking into a couch at the coffee shop or hanging out on the steps of the Met. Or, in my case, the Art Institute. Most of this was ridiculous, and I knew it, but it was there and I could cherry pick the good stuff.

My peers populated everything. Magazines. Novels. Jazz bars. My neighborhood. The beach. Airplanes. The gym. The faculty lounge. Singapore, Spain, San Diego. Everywhere, everyone was my age, living some version of my life. I couldn’t escape myself if I tried.

Now? Not so much.

One of the surreal aspects of becoming a mother in your forties is that it’s lonely territory. I’ve yet to see a news story or a magazine headline reading, say, “Your Preschooler and Your Perimenopause.” It’s rare as a topic of public conversation, and not because of squeamishness — listen to a group of women talking about their pregnancies and you’ll hear plenty — so I can only conclude that there aren’t that many of us out here.

But I’ve found help from the unlikeliest of sources: my mom, whose youngest child reached adulthood 20 years ago. I hear her again, in ways I haven’t since I was a teen, only without the sarcastic eye roll. I watch how she navigates her life, her friendships, her marriage. I need to hear about her experiences and follow her example.

Because this is heavy stuff, growing older. It isn’t easy and it’s not photogenic enough to warrant publicity. It isn’t for the faint of heart. The ‘firsts’ we have left in our lives are less than exciting, sometimes terrifying. I have friends, more than a few, people my very age, who are navigating terrible illnesses. How often I hear the story of waking up to a normal day and going to sleep facing a life that will never again be the same. By now we’ve racked up a couple of decades of adult living, and we don’t have the wiggle room anymore to wake up, pop an aspirin, and start over again.

My mom, she’s talked about this always: healthy habits, consequences, use sunscreen, yada yada. And I’ve listened, sort of. But our conversations now, there’s a gravitas to them. The choices I make now are less about a future too far away to grasp and more about an often unforgiving present. When my husband and I navigated a recent layoff, awful for anyone but especially terrifying in middle age, I heard what she said, about using the time off as a gift, a chance to be together more than our lives usually allow. A decade ago, when the life in front of me still felt long, her ‘time is precious’ message wouldn’t have landed so firmly. It did now, and helped us find joy in a very difficult time.

I know her guidance has made me a better mother, and not just in the usual ways. I’ve learned from her that nurturing friendships with the mothers of my daughter’s friends isn’t only good for me but for my daughter as well. I’ve learned from her what “80% of the work for 20% of the credit” looks like, and that such calculations are, in the end, pretty unimportant. I’ve learned from her that prioritizing my daughter’s childhood is a valid choice, no matter how much education or work experience I got first. That it’s not a consolation prize, and the enjoyment I find in her little girls’ world is real. I’ve learned from her the power of accepting limitations — mine, my husband’s, others’ — a lesson I wasn’t at all ready for 20 years ago. Recently I asked her a question about my difficult in-laws; she said she pretty much just accepts what people have to give and doesn’t worry about the rest. There was a time when this sounded mealy-mouthed to me but now it just sounds … peaceful. This can’t be anything but good for all of us.

We’ve lived long enough now, both of us, for me to see that the discipline she instilled in me as a kid not only got me through my nutty teens and turbulent twenties but helps me now that I have 100 balls in the air all the time, and will, if I keep it up, take care of me for decades to come. It is exactly this understanding that makes me so disciplined with my daughter.

For a very long time I thought this discipline meant I was completely self-sufficient, until motherhood knocked me off my pins. I fell apart, terribly and completely. All I knew to do then was ask for help, and the vulnerability of that nearly killed me and that’s when it all finally clicked. That ultimately the greatest gift any mother can give her child is how to live with these vulnerabilities, with the limits of our bodies, of time, of control over the universe. That while a good night’s sleep, a hug, or a walk on the beach will improve much of what I am in charge of, most everything else is God’s to worry about. It is this very awareness that makes life so beautiful and so worth cherishing, so worth preserving and so worth sharing, minute by precious minute, with my child.

I’m deeply aware of how lucky I am, that we are close, that she’s healthy, that she’s bossy and loquacious and funny. That she loves the world as she does, and is so willing to share. I’m lucky she’s still teaching me, as late-in-life motherhood mashes together growing up with growing older. I’m lucky she’s here. And today I’m lucky to be able to thank her.

Published in: on May 12, 2012 at 2:55 PM  Comments (3)  
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Back

We’re back to work, as in REALLY back to work. As in 60-hour workweeks. I’m not complaining. It’s actually been a while, almost a month, and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about it. It’s as if I don’t know what to say, you know?

I’m only writing now, really, to get past this and on to what I WANT to write about.

And yet I relish the words I’ve generated here, because they lend permanence to the experience; they stick around for when I need help to remember. Because remembering times like this is the only way I know of to do honor to such experiences, to appreciate the value of what we lost here, and of what we gained.

Right now I feel like someone recently rescued, awash in colors and sounds and sensations, overwhelmed, still unsure when I close my eyes each night what, exactly, I’ll find when I wake up. But soon the days will accumulate, and these feelings will pass, and something akin to normalcy will set back in. But normal? Whatever that is? We won’t ever quite be there again (if we ever were). And that’s okay.

Of all the things I’ve learned through this, an understanding of that, that right there, that very point, might be the most important one of all.

Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 12:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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No explanation necessary

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Published in: on March 15, 2012 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  

To let go

She sneaks into my bed while I am sleeping, and we wake jumbled like puppies. We dress side-by-side; she brushes her teeth in my husband’s sink. (Don’t judge; it’s faster that way.) When I indulge in a bubble bath, she lines up her princesses on the side of the tub. If I turn the lock, she curls by the threshold, shoving acorns and Legos under the door.

We’re close. And we’ve worked for this closeness, battled for it.

Hurtling through our first night together, huddled on a tiny Russian train bunk in the pitch black dark, she screamed and fought and kicked at me as I curled my body around hers, enfolding her furious fear, her wild terror. I caught the bruises and stroked her sweaty hair and felt maternal stirrings for the first time ever and I let them command me: Don’t let go. No matter what, don’t let go. The neverending ride did, as they all do, come to a stop. After we’d been removed from the train and packed into a van and deposited at our tiny walk-up bed-sit — bliss — I scraped off our soiled clothes and slid us into the deep soaking tub — an unexpected luxury — and she slept, she slept at last, tiny limbs softening, at long long last, as she relaxed against me in the warm water.

It was the first time she trusted me, and she was simply too depleted to do anything else.

I haven’t always earned that trust, in the four years since, but she’s always given it, deeply, and now it’s something I covet. It shapes how I treat her, hurry to be on time, struggle to keep my word, to explain the world. I need her to trust me, just like this, always.

But of course, I know I won’t always be able to trust her. She’ll lie to me. She’ll hide things, maybe small things, maybe big ones. I have no way of knowing now. I’ll be the enemy from time to time, and this is necessary for her to grow up, to go away, to be fully her.

The truth is that every minute since that first night, I’ve had to Let Go, some days in microscopic ways, some days, huge, but always, and that the great irony of motherhood is that this my whole job, helping her get ready for me to LET GO.

And embedded in that irony is how much she fights to NOT let go, these days. She abhors a closed door, begs me to play with her, troops after me as I move around the house, always close, always always always. When I turn away to settle my mind on something else, a book, a phone conversation, a crossword puzzle, grabbing a few moments to be only me, like the magazines tell me to do, her face crumples and falls. It’s not an act.

I know that look; I’ve given it to too many backs, mostly belonging to men or disenchanted friends, as they left. It’s a sadness, a being-left look.

I can’t help in these moments but to pitch forward a decade, when I’m the one, again, with that look, when I am desperate for a conversation she’s too busy to have, when her phone is more important than me, when she’s the one turning the lock.

I wonder how I’ll feel; no, I know how I’ll feel. It’s unfair that motherhood has to have this built-in sadness, this feeling of loss when one or the other of us does what we’re supposed to do and steps away from the us to be her or to be me. This is healthy, all the psychologists say so. And it’s easy, sometimes, lovely even, when she’s with a friend or I am at work or her dad takes her to the beach. These times, it’s not hard to be away, there’s no longing, no sense of abandon, no loss.

It’s the tiny other moments that slice like papercuts, when I pull away from a hug too soon, when I end the game, when I leave her alone so that I can … be alone.

I see her face, then, as I walk away, and I know: my turn is coming.

Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 6:54 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Re-size that baby: ours is five.

Re-size that baby: ours is five.

We all go to bed in our own places, but somehow, in the middle of the night, she migrates.

Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 5:36 AM  Leave a Comment  

Dilemmas

“But Mom, I have to marry Zachary. He said if I don’t, he’ll be mean to me every day at school and he’ll bring a gun and I’ll be in jail. This is serious, Mom. Stop laughing!”

Published in: on February 18, 2012 at 6:52 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Lady of the Flies

In Lord of the Flies, after wandering aimlessly for a time the shell-shocked boys begin to drift into two directions. Some turn savage, adapting to life alone on a desolate island, a life sustained by killing wild pigs and sleeping In trees. Others cling to a belief in rescue, maintaining the habits to which they’ll return, wearing clothes and sipping tea, even if it really was only drops of rainwater in coconut-shell teacups.

It’s the third month of unemployment, and I’m considering going savage. For the first month, beyond not buying things or going out to eat or getting a sitter — none of which was that much of a stretch — things seem relatively unchanged. Some down time. It was kinda nice to have him around. Things would pick up again in January.

January came and went.

We’re now in full-on joblessness. I’ve learned more of the story at the company, which explains things a bit better but which wouldn’t have changed our decision to move here. We gambled. There’s a reason I don’t gamble, and this is it.

It’s tight around here.The grocery is a chore, all the comparing and measuring and searching for value packs and discerning needs from wants. Sleepytime out, generic chamomile in. Soon that may go, too. I eat at school as much as I can — it’s covered — and I don’t drive much. We only go to free events, except for the school play, and we had to wait for Friday to buy even those tickets.

Should we be spending emergency money on entertainment of any kind? I haven’t time to entertain such existential questions.

Last weekend we were invited as guests to a benefit for our school, a dinner auction where bids were cast for art and trips and jewelry, none of it trinkets. I was thrilled but Allan refused so I took a girlfriend and it wasn’t until I got there that I understood what he meant by the disorienting feeling that came with pasting a smile on and chatting over a plate of risotto that my host had paid $150 for. It felt like nausea and I couldn’t count-my-blessings the discomfort away, no matter how many happy thoughts I forced up.

But mostly, like always, it’s the unknown that yawns and swallows. I have faith that we will be okay, somehow, i really do, but I don’t know what that ‘okay’ will look like, where it will take us, what it will demand of us. What adjustments and alterations. Our house is threatened, and this is real, and we can talk of little else. Ugly, awful words we once heard only on the news now apply to us.

I will stop here, and I will first recognize our own culpability, how deeply flawed our money management was, the many ways this might have been avoided. I know this, it wakes me every single night, and it will forever change my financial habits, and this is important but right now I have to encourage my despondent husband and protect my little daughter and feed two dogs and make Valentines and that’s what occupies my waking hours.

If I had been in that plane, I have no doubt which camp I would have joined. I’d have kept my handkerchief in my pocket and brushed my hair and looked to the horizon.

And sipped my ‘tea.’ Even when there was nothing in my coconut-shell cup.

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 8:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Birthday dinner

Anna in her new dress, cooking birthday dinner.

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Published in: on February 2, 2012 at 5:47 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The measure of a day

We’re back to walking the dogs three times a day, which gives us the opportunity to soak up the new-morning sun, to bid the neighborhood goodnight, and to wander these cul-de-sacs all afternoon long. Yesterday we were out for an hour, never further than a couple of blocks away from home. We investigated squirrel nests, corralled our hounds when other dogs walked by, tested a dozen different ways to hula-hoop. Anna built a fairy village of sticks and leaves and grasses, with acorns for fairies and seed pods for boats and little beds made out of moss. She narrated an elaborate tale of a fairy mommy and her fairy babies, of unseen monsters chased away with magic and storms roaring outside the fairies’ cozy hole. She leapt and twirled and recited, as the dogs curled in the neighbor’s grass and snoozed.

It was, by any measure, a lovely afternoon. And we get to do this every day.

So I wish I knew why, then, I couldn’t sleep last night for fretting over all I hadn’t done. The neglected second job, the thank-you cards still piled on the counter. None of this should matter.

Hemmed in by chores, finances and the uncertainty of our future, we have every right to essentialize, to tuck in and make the most of that rare commodity we actually have at the moment: time. Time to play. Time to dance. Time to sing and to talk and to make it up as we go. Time to enjoy.

And yet I fretted because I wasn’t cooking from scratch. I thought about the unfolded laundry. I wondered if she’d remember this afternoon, long into her life, when she could have been … learning Spanish, I suppose, or soccer or t-ball or swimming.

I nearly ruined it, this happy memory, and that’s such a shame. How many of us do that? Every day? I do. I do. I do.

It’s so difficult for me to evaluate a day by what went right, and so natural to look for what went wrong. It’s just the two of us and the dogs.

Our shepherd, Tuco, assumes the role of deputy pack leader, patrolling, guarding, keeping us safe. He takes this so seriously that it’s almost comical, but I can’t laugh at him; he’s working so hard. (Of course, should I ever cry or get upset at anything in the house, he slinks into the shower. This does challenge his tough-dog image.) Rosa, the female dog, never quite lets me parent alone; she’s always on hand to help manage the puppy.

Who is managing quite well, thank you very much. When Allan is away, she sleeps in my bed and brushes her teeth in my sink and bathes in my tub. Much of this is sheer practicality; it takes half the time to supervise her if she’s right with me. But I like it, too, if I’m truthful, having her cozy-close, sharing a bath, singing while we dress.

We have as much of that as we want, these few days. What a treasure it is, this thing we have, so precious and so fleeting. I know this, really I do, and I won’t forget.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 10:23 PM  Leave a Comment  
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