Deal With It, Kid

“Mom, do you want me to make a list of everything you do wrong?”

This question came from my son. Nothing provoked it. It was just something on his mind and he thought he would be helpful. I declined, and now I think we can add me declining his unsolicited assessment of my job performance to the list of things I’ve done wrong — feedback is good, right? It would be good to have my shortcomings itemized by the tiny human boss I gave life to.

However, I already have a critic inside my head that’s pretty good at telling me everything I do wrong, so maybe I don’t need her and my son comparing notes — can’t we all just laugh at me and get along?

This same son once told me when he grows up he wants to be a great man so I have to raise him right. When I asked how I was doing so far he shrugged and said, “Okay, I guess.” He’s a tough boss to please. I still have a lot to learn about parenting, like how to resist rolling my eyes when my son criticizes me. But every now and then I can add something relevant to the conversation.

A while back I (thought I) was a seasoned second-time mom in a mommy-and-me group surrounded by younger first-timers. One newbie asked what everyone thought was the best and worst parts of being a mom.

Now, there are a lot of priceless things, like source material for a blog, but that’s not what I said. I told the group the best thing about being a mom is the love — nothing compares to the love you feel for your child and the love you get in return. I don’t care how much you love your spouse/partner (and I do), every mom knows what I’m talking about and you’re all nodding your head.

As far as the worst thing goes, I skipped over lack of sleep, weight gain and accelerated aging and went straight to the truth. The worst thing is the worry — nothing prepares you for the absurd amount of time a mom spends worrying. About everything. I can’t even get started on this one. Worry consumed me even before my oldest son became ill with cancer. I wear worry like an accessory. It hangs around my neck like an ugly chain.

Nobody knows the future. That’s what is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. But as parents we learn from the past and each other. For example, I knew a mom who told me her three year-old son had an inconsolable crying and hyperventilating fit over something. “We had to shove his face in a mud puddle to get him to calm down,” she said. The mud puddle technique never got into my repertoire. I’m not clear on the logic — perhaps she thought if the baby couldn’t breathe he couldn’t cry? This story came from a mom from a different generation and it shows how much easier it was to get away with banana parenting techniques before cell phones.

Now let me tell you her kid turned out just fine. Most do regardless of our eccentric decisions — kids are the most durable thing on the planet. They go through so much turmoil on the road to adulthood yet (most) become productive grown humans.

I screw up every day and my son somehow makes it to bedtime unscathed and relatively happy. One day he will appreciate having a complicated mother. After all, he’ll need something to discuss with his therapist when he’s older.

Or material for a blog…








The Apple and the Tree

My mother was forty when she gave birth to me. This was in an era when women were generally finished with childbearing around thirty, rather than now when many women are just getting started at that age. When my mom was pregnant there was no such thing as genetic testing, no amniocentesis, no nucal-translucency test and no ultrasounds. It was widely assumed to be very risky for both mother and baby to be pregnant after forty.

Family legend goes my mother spent two years convincing my father they should add a fourth baby to the family. Then it was another couple years of trying until she finally became pregnant with me. My mother didn’t tell anyone she was expecting for the first six months. Instead, she let her friends and neighbors think she was getting fat. She refused to wear maternity clothes and bought larger sized normal clothes instead. My mother was a beautiful and vain woman who looked like Natalie Wood, but she was also superstitious and known to wear a splash of red to ward off the evil eye. Her vanity took a back seat to the combined pressure of her superstitions and intense need to be protective of herself and unborn me. (How my mother ended up with my father, who looked like Larry Fine, was a mystery to me — until she told me he was the nicest and funniest man she ever met, and when I got married I also chose the nicest and funniest man I ever met, but this is story for another time.)

So there my mom was, in all the glory of the late 60’s, the anomaly of being and old new mom. Granted she wasn’t quite pushing fifty, like me, but I find it interesting that we share the experience of having a baby late in life. Once I became a mom, I spent more time thinking about my own mother and trying to figure her out. She died of cancer when I was seventeen, during the normal rite of passage of adolescence that drew me further away from her and toward my own identity. She died before I got through that phase and would have the opportunity to go back to her as a young adult and form a mature relationship. Part of me is forever stuck in teenaged rebellion because of this, but another part is remarkably mature because I had to grow up fast and figure things out for myself.

After my mother died I had the idea I would be a young mom so I could spend as much time as possible with my children. To quote Al Capone in “Thrill Ride,” “Nothing ever goes how you plan.” Even though I met my husband in my 20’s it would be years before we’d start a family together. We thought we were done with babies after two beautiful boys, but we were wrong. Child loss fueled an intense desire in me to have one more, and we had no place else to turn except science.

Like my mother before me, we spent two years discussing whether having another child was the right decision, then another year trying to get pregnant.  And like my mother before me I didn’t tell anyone until nearly the sixth month. But unlike my mother before me I had every test under the sun and nearly constant monitoring to make certain both the baby and I remained healthy and without complications.

My son recently asked me to describe my mother — his grandmother — for him. I said she was beautiful, protective and loyal. I said there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her family. She knew what was best for others and sometimes herself. I said she was a good bargain shopper but had trouble making decisions so she wound up buying the same blouse in different colors. She liked health food but not exercise. She loved pecan pie. She wore Maybeline liquid eyeliner. She had a temper and was also extremely loving.

My son said she sounded exactly like me, except for the eyeliner.

I never thought about how I’d wind up resembling my mother because, truth is, I don’t know her that well. For years I couldn’t see the traits we shared. Only looking back and after talking with my older siblings do I see her as someone enormously strong and willful, who survived trauma, setbacks and a crazy family to eventually flourish later in life. This description fits me. It probably fits you, too.

And it will also probably fit my daughter.

The arc of a woman’s life isn’t set in stone but there are many things we all share. I’m happy the arc of my life has so much in common with my mother’s. I feel her willfulness and strength supporting me whenever I need it. And I feel her love every time my heart beats.

And so will my daughter.

Mommy’s Magic Eye

A great thing about little kids is they believe everything you say. They think a fat old man breaks into our homes once a year and leaves a pile of presents in the living room. They think a fairy flies all over the world collecting bloody, used teeth and in exchange leaves money under the pillow. (What could The Tooth Fairy possibly do with those teeth? It’s creepy.) They also think a giant bunny sneaks into the house every spring to leave a basket of chocolate on the kitchen table. Each of these scenarios takes place in the middle of the night — It’s a miracle children sleep soundly with the rash of break-ins going on.

I’m just as guilty as any parent who perpetuates the legends of Santa, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny, but I go even further. I doubled down against my kids’ gullibility and invented the myth of Mommy’s Magic Eye, an all-knowing and all-seeing superpower designed to keep my kids in line when I’m not around. For a good chunk of their childhood, my sons believed I’m part psychic and part wizard with the ability to know if they committed no-nos without me being present.

I’m pretty sure people behave better if we think our mother is watching. My idea was to instill a little dose of healthy paranoia, much like Elf on a Shelf tricks kids into believing the strangely dressed toy has a direct line to Santa and is filing numerous behavior reports prior to Christmas. The difference is Mommy’s Magic Eye works 24/7 and has a direct line to me, my kids’ ultimate boss.

You’d be surprised how effective this was, but eventually things took an unexpected turn. My second son believed in the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye so deeply that for him it evolved into a cross between a Magic Eight Ball and a personalized Google Search. He asked questions like, “Does your Magic Eye know if I’m getting a Happy Meal today?” or “Does your Magic Eye know if we’ll have outside recess?” Then, after losing his older brother, my little guy became anxious and relied on Mommy’s Magic Eye for reassurance. His questions became more existential and worrisome. He’d ask, “How long am I going to live?” or “Is anything bad going to happen today.”

For him, the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye went beyond what I originally intended and I realized it could have therapeutic potential to give him comfort. I used it to calm his fears, of which he had many. I assured him my Magic Eye knew there would be no car accidents, no diseases or tragedies, and everybody we love will be fine. He’d calm down and believe what Mommy’s Magic Eye saw.

There are little lies we tell ourselves to get through our day (this piece of dessert won’t matter, this shirt looks good on me). There are little lies we tell others to help them get through their day (that piece of dessert won’t matter, that shirt looks good on you). Then there are little lies we tell our kids designed to enhance their childhood or make them better people. I’m not sure exactly where Mommy’s Magic Eye fits into all of this, but I wonder — are lies always bad? Maybe not in the moment, but even the most well intentioned lie can boomerang years later.

My oldest son was four when we sat with him by the picture window at his grandparents farm on Christmas Eve to watch for Santa Claus. After a few minutes we saw a figure in a red suit with a large sack slung over his shoulder walk across the meadow and leave footprints in the snow. My son stared, his mouth open in disbelief, too overwhelmed to utter any words. He later told his friends at preschool about the Santa sighting. He was a firm believer for years — after all he saw him with his own eyes.

When he finally learned the truth — that “Santa” was actually his grandfather — the look on his face was devastating. Sure, he was upset to learn Santa wasn’t real, but he was more crushed that I lied to him. My heart sank as the little boy who believed everything I said now saw me in a different light.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I’m a slow learner.

My daughter is starting to potty train. I told her I’d get her anything she wants once she learns to pee and poo in the potty. Without hesitation she said she wants to fly. Now I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to pilot an airplane — she’s talking about full-on Peter Pan levitating. I told her she can start lessons as soon as she gives up her pull-ups. I consider this lie a necessary step in our negotiations. For a little while I will let her believe that learning to fly is a possibility, and then I will gracefully exit our agreement when I tell her the local Park District catalogue doesn’t offer flying lessons.

I haven’t yet told my daughter about Mommy’s Magic Eye, but I doubt she’ll believe me anyway. She surprises me each day with her outsized sense of self-assuredness and sass, so I’m guessing she’d just tell my Magic Eye to buzz off, and then do her own thing like count her teeth and plan what she’ll do with the money from The Tooth Fairy.

When my second son got older I decided it was time to fade out Mommy’s Magic Eye. I told him it got “tired” and couldn’t see the future anymore. Eventually, he caught on and confronted me. I asked if he was mad that I tricked him into believing I had a superpower and he said he wasn’t sure, he’d have to ask his Magic Eight Ball.



The Pineapple Tree

There’s a fat, squat palm tree that looks like a giant pineapple in the courtyard of the elementary school that my oldest son attended for most of his short life. He loved that tree. He ran endless laps around it to burn off his exuberant energy. He climbed up the knotty pieces that jutted out from its sides until a teacher chased him down. He balance walked all over the display of rocks set around the tree, and sometimes he simply stood beneath it and stared up at its miraculous starburst formation and let the golden sun shoot through the empty spaces and illuminate his curious face.

People took note of how much he loved that tree and started calling it “XX’s tree.” Kids told each other to meet at “XX’s tree” to play tag, and of course my son would play too. When we moved away I wondered if they’d still call the tree by his name. A few months after we moved, my son was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. We received a lot of support from my son’s teachers at his old school — XX had the gift of charm and was easy to fall in love with and hard to forget.

After he passed away I ordered a memorial plaque and the aide from his kindergarten class oversaw its installation. I was sent pictures from thousands of miles away. I’m told my son’s friends arranged rocks around the base of the stake for decoration and protection. I was deeply touched by everyone’s expression of love for my son.

Those friends moved on to Junior High and then High School. The kindergarten aide retired. After a while, only three of his teachers remained. The school changed Principals. The building underwent improvements. Years went by before I returned for a visit, and when I did I dropped by to finally see the plaque.

But it was gone.

It was after school when I snuck onto campus and the office was closed. I called the next day and left a detailed message for the Principal. She didn’t return my call. I called and spoke to the office secretary again. The Principal again didn’t return my call. Finally, she told me she’s never seen the plaque and never heard of my son. She’d ask around, but it’s likely gone.

One time when I was in the fifth grade the boy who lived across the street punched me in the stomach and literally knocked the breath out of me, so I know what it feels like to not be able to breath. The feeling I had when I hung up the phone was similar — fast, shocking and unexpected — my breath was gone.

Nobody wants their child forgotten. Nobody wants the memory of their child disrespected, especially in a place that gave him so much pleasure. My son was a friend to everyone who met him. He loved his school and felt love from his teachers.

I needed to find out what happened.

I flew home and waited. A month later I sent an e-mail. Finally seven days later (after a follow-up asking if she received my e-mail) the Principal finally responded.  She said she asked around and nobody knows what happened. Sorry, she said, she tried her best. I got the feeling she wanted me and the whole uncomfortable and inconvenient business about a plaque for a dead child she never knew to simply go away.

But I wasn’t going to go away.

I followed up and urged her to look in closets, boxes, cabinets, everywhere. I figured someone wrapped it up and put it somewhere during the improvements, and with all the staff changes it simply got misplaced. I figured it was somewhere and it could be found if someone looked for it. If I lived closer than 2,000 miles I’d do it myself. I offered to send friends to look, but she didn’t want that.

She did everything she could, she said. I told her — I understand it didn’t go missing on her watch, but it’s kinda her watch now and it falls to her to find it. She said she didn’t see it that way.

I get it that after my son died the world had the audacity to keep spinning. I get it that nobody probably meant to throw away a memorial plaque for my dead son. It’s likely missing because of thoughtlessness. But it’s a thoughtlessness that feels cruel.

If I close my eyes I can see my son’s pineapple tree. It was our meeting spot at the end of the school day. I’d park down the block and walk over to look for his shiny dark hair among the blush of boys, and finally spot him dancing and running around the giant base of his tree. I’d catch his bluish-greenish eyes that changed color depending on the color of the shirt he wore. My heart skipped a beat every time.

And I’d pause to catch my breath at the sight of my beautiful little boy.


Things I Say A Lot (With Exclamation Points)

  1. “I didn’t hear a flush!”
  2. “Stop licking that!”
  3. “Why did you draw on your face with marker?!”
  4. “Are those dried boogers on your shirt?!”
  5. “What’s that smell?!”
  6. “Boogers aren’t food!”
  7. “Don’t throw that away, I’ll eat it!”
  8. “You have two devices going, turn one off!”
  9. “Who’s going to clean this up?!”
  10. “How much longer do I have to stay awake?!”

God Bless America and Other Ironies

When my second son was in the first grade he sang God Bless America as the opening number in the elementary school talent show. He was adorable and when he finished singing he skipped off the stage to a standing ovation. It was one of my proudest moments of motherhood, made even more so by my additional delight from a confluence of ironies only I could appreciate — the Jewish son of progressive atheist parents sang God Bless America on stage at a public school and got a standing ovation.

I’ve written about how weird it is to be one of a few Jewish families in our community, but it’s even weirder being an atheist family at our Jewish temple. The temple we attend is the only one in the county. Not the only one in the neighborhood, or the only one in town  — it’s the only one in the entire county. And still the congregation is pretty small.

My husband was raised Presbyterian and gave up religion as an adult. I was raised a secular Jew in a Jewish community where some weekends I had multiple Bar Mitzvahs to attend. I grew up thinking it was normal to see Temples and delis all over the place. Anyway flash-forward to now, we currently celebrate “Christmukkah,” a made-up holiday that falls on a date most convenient for us, and with a few traditional elements taken from each of our religious and cultural backgrounds, plus the Seinfeld holiday of Festivus. It’s a great dinner party (usually Chinese food or crab legs) where our Feats of Strength are only topped by our Airing of Grievances.

Feats of Strength means something different in our family. When my son came off the stage after his performance he practically floated. The little boy with a severe stutter sang every word perfectly in front of hundreds of people. He experienced a moment of triumph in his little life after having been through so much turmoil. He learned the words to God Bless America at a church preschool my sister directs. He lived with her during the months my husband and I lived at Children’s Hospital with our oldest son during his treatment for brain cancer. God Bless America was the only song that my little guy knew all the words to. His performance at the talent show was quite a feat of strength.

Airing of Grievances has more to do with our grievances with God rather than each other. How can an atheist have a grievance with God, you wonder? It’s because I have grievances with God that I’m an atheist. My second son is very comfortable telling the new Rabbi at Hebrew school that he’s an atheist and argues that the ancient biblical stories defy all reason. The new Rabbi loves these conversations and encourages my son the keep questioning everything and stay engaged. I, in turn, love the new Rabbi for not shaming my son for expressing his religious rebellion.

One day the new Rabbi asked me the obvious question — why did I send my son to Hebrew school? I felt I could be honest with him. I want my son to know the beautiful heritage and culture of Judaism. I want him to respect other people’s religion, and to do so he must first understand his own. I want him to appreciate that he was born into a minority religion and no matter where life takes him he shares a connection with other Jews. And I want to give him a solid foundation from which he could then reject religion when he’s older.

For a long time I felt like Winona Ryder in Realty Bites where she can’t define irony but knows it when she sees it. Irony, in my opinion, exists to remind me of the absurdities and contradictions in life. It tickles and confuses me. I know something is up, but I might not be able to put my finger on it exactly. Irony is defined as a state of affairs or events that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result (I looked it up). My whole life is contrary to what I expect, but unless I’m amused by it it’s not technically ironic.

Nonetheless, I like finding moments of irony because they remind me the universe has a sense of humor. And despite everything that’s happened so should I.



How To Not Win Friends And Influence People

We all sat crosslegged on the floor in the playroom of the local library and held our drooly, wobbly babies on our laps. Miss Mary led us in animated baby songs. I looked at this group and was relieved to see several other mommies my age. When we got up to do the hokey-pokey I wasn’t the only one whose joints creaked. A few other mommies looked like they had just recently exited adolescence, which isn’t unusual in the town where we live now. However, it didn’t take long to figure out my contemporaries in this circle were actually grandparents carving out some special time with their grand babies.

I went to mommy-and-me for only one reason, and it wasn’t to enrich my baby’s social and emotional development. I didn’t need to learn another silly song or have my daughter make another sloppy gluey art project with things she’d rather put in her mouth. I came to mommy-and-me for me — I came to find friends.

I had great luck before when I had my first son and joined a mommy-and-me group at a local temple. I clicked with some smart, funny and wonderful women who are still in my heart as I am in theirs, after years and miles apart, and the loss of my son who was the reason I found them in the first place. Those mommies became very close to me. We shared birthdays, playdates, holidays, food, clothes, swimming pools, babysitters, laughs, secrets, advice, tears, you name it. They anchored me in a sprawling city of millions and became my village.

I found that again on a smaller scale with my second son, and I hoped to find it with my daughter in my new, tiny town. Making friends at any age is hard, but making friends after moving across the country and experiencing the loss of a child is extremely difficult. Other mommies who know my story hang back politely, or once they learn my story they don’t know what to say and they hang back politely. I get it — I am the walking embodiment of their worst nightmare. Before I became a bereaved mother I wondered how someone like me even survived.

I don’t know what made me decide I needed new mommy friends. Maybe nostalgia. Maybe self-preservation. All I know is it’s a slow and shaky process to rejoin the world after a tremendous loss and this seemed like a good baby step. I made an effort. I wore actual pants instead of sweats. I even showered before the weekly class. I had high hopes but after a couple of ring-around-the-rosies I realized I wasn’t going to find my tribe in a sunny playroom at the library.

It’s difficult to relate to me. Not many people have a baby in their late forties. I personally don’t know anyone, maybe a few celebrities, but nobody in real life except me. Despite the odds and risks and the tests and the constant doctors appointments (they called it a geriatric pregnancy of all things), I had a baby when other people have grand babies. I don’t know what I have in common with the millennial moms at circle time, I figure they look at me while we sing twinkle twinkle for the millionth time and think that old showered and dressed lady seems pretty cool but I’m not sure we can hang out and eat goldfish crackers together. 

I want to clarify — I have met some terrific mommies since moving here. My second son is great at making friends and I hang out with their parents who are only about one decade younger than me instead of two. These moms are awesome — an artist and a therapist — whom I adore and we love to drink canned wine from Trader Joe’s together, even if we have to drive forty-five minutes to get it.

But middle-aged ladies getting drunk on long-distance canned wine is a story for another day.