“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” ~ Michelangelo
I took the girls to the dentist yesterday, and while Lexi was shuffling through an abundant sticker supply, wondering aloud where the princess stickers were, and while Caroline was meticulously comparing from the treasure chest the colors of two tiny superballs (whichever one picked destined to be lost forever beneath our refrigerator), the account manager from behind the desk sat staring at us. I figured I owed her money, but all she said as she looked at my girls was, “They are beautiful.”
When people say something nice about what my children look like, I don’t know whether to say, “Thank you” or “I agree.”
Besides the obvious initial part played in creating a child, the rest is accidental, arbitrary, crazily out of our hands.
As my girls grow, I see similarities between them and me. Lexi has my fine hair; they both have the blue eyes. I was helping out in Caroline’s art class yesterday and watched her get the giggles like I used to—the ones that bubble up, linger, sleep somewhat restlessly, then surface again. I remember the delight and desperation of those giggles. I was staring at me in Caroline’s art class. And Lexi (lordee!)–Youngest Sibling Sass swam directly from my gene pool to hers.
We are alike but of course different. Caroline’s chocolate hair is thick, curly when it’s short. She’s organized a folder full of plans for her 7th birthday party, key distinguishing feature there is the word, “organized.” And Lexi is a scrappy little athlete, unafraid of anything, it seems. Key distinguishing feature there is the word, “unafraid.” I will not argue—my children are beautiful. But I’ve got little to do with it. I didn’t craft them out of wood or sketch them in ink.
I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence.
I remember learning what Michelangelo said about his process: that he could see the shape of the sculpture in a slab of marble, that he only needed to chip away the walls imprisoning the form. He set David free, as he set free centaurs, Hercules, Cupid, Brutus, and a half dozen Madonnas.
The thing about David is though eventually becoming Michelangelo’s project, he was begun 25 years earlier by Agostino—and then Rossellino. After being roughly sculpted, David stayed stagnant in his slab of rock until Michelangelo convinced the Board of Works for the Cathedral of Florence that he was their guy. Michelangelo never had kids of his own, but after over two years of work, finally, he brought David to life.
I’m attempting to knit again. My mom taught me when I was a kid, and I remember liking the therapy of it: steady motion, something to distract me, the satisfaction of seeing immediate progress. My patient friend Betsy is helping me relearn, and when I get it, I am relaxed. But when I drop a stitch, I am stopped in my tracks. There is no vision. I see no potential scarf in that ball of yarn. I cannot improvise and by doing so, set the scarf free. I call Betsy.
I marvel at her skill. I do. Just like I look with complete admiration at Dave when he skis down a mountain. It’s the same with any artist—Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar, Cliff Lee from the pitcher’s mound, Marilynne Robinson as she sculpts her sentences. There’s vision and skill, and shaping and crafting. There’s so much involved, but to the artist it is natural.
A lot of parenting comes naturally but any vision I may have had about what my children would look like or be was just that–a vision, a rough sketch, an outline. As I see them now, what’s clear is that it’s not entirely my artist’s hand at work. There is a part of me that feels we were meant to be, that we came together after all of those years like Michelangelo and David. But I cannot predict what my children will do; I can hardly claim ownership even now that they are here with me. I do not think, They are mine, so Lexi will laugh like a machine gun while Caroline will speak extra slowly during nightly prayers in order to delay bedtime.
They are who they are, and much of my work is to sit back and appreciate them, like I would paintings on a museum wall. I have to just take them in, because eventually, I have to set them free. Much of my work is to spend this time, on a cushioned bench, gazing with good, long looks, as they stand before me.
It is spring: time to de-clutter. This is hard for me because when I do muster the energy to tackle the basement, I have to do so clandestinely because I have a 6-year-old who will not let me give or throw anything away. She still brings up the “Fish Mask Incident.” To this day I cannot tell you what the fish mask looked like, but apparently I threw it out and Caroline realized after-the-fact that one day the fish mask was in the trash bag, and the next day, the trash bag was gone. I told her a tale about the lucky little girl who had always wanted a fish mask and somehow magically acquired ours, but Caroline was unimpressed. The “FMI” still comes up, and I can’t handle it, so, I de-clutter alone, in the dark of night, like Jason Bourne.
Caroline is obviously too young to be featured on A & E’s Hoarders. She’s supposed to be collecting stuffed animals at her age. And mini Menchies spoons. And pine cones. And bits of cement and asphalt. Right? Her red winter coat is heavier on one side because of a pocket packed with rocks, dead leaves, and a plastic hippo head. She finds things all of the time, things she deems special and worthy-of-keeping, and I feel like that’s okay for right now.
We certainly spend enough time losing things. I misplace my keys daily. I still can’t find the cord to charge the camcorder. Just this past weekend, we lost an hour, the Magic Tree House Book #34, and Caroline’s tooth. The hour’s gone for good, but we found the book under a pile of yet-to-be-de-cluttered clutter, and Caroline’s tooth actually just finally fell out after dangling for days.
She’d recently lost—and I mean really lost—tooth #3 at school during PE class. She came home with an empty plastic tooth necklace, so we scripted a sincere note to the Tooth Fairy explaining the obvious absence. Next day Caroline got the goods from the Tooth Fairy, and, bonus, her PE teacher handed her the missing tooth. So she’d scored the cash and was able to keep her tooth. Because normal protocol had been disrupted, after losing tooth #4, Caroline drafted another heart-felt note to said Fairy, hoping again to keep both money and tooth. And the Fairy accommodated.
How will this end? Will our house teem with baby teeth, pink plastic spoons, and rock shavings? What if we ever need to sell this place? How readily available is Nate Berkus for home makeovers?
I joke, but I know how this will end. We hold onto things for our own reasons. I have kids ages 4 and 6, and I am just now gathering big items to consign, bulky items that have been taking up prime storage space: multiple strollers , a crib, a mattress, a booster seat, a pack-and-play.
Eventually, we agree to let things go.
My kids are growing; my house is shrinking. I take the occasional pilgrimage to IKEA for the bigger bed or some sort of Swedish contraption that will help me keep my keepsakes: the school papers, the photo albums, the crayoned rainbows. How can I toss this stuff? I see pregnant women browsing in the nursery section and think, you’ll be back here next for the bunk bed. It doesn’t take long. Lexi’s new quilt now matches her sister’s since they share a room. How soon until she’s coordinating with a college roommate?
It’s a lot to carry—this acute awareness of time, this need to remember, these attempts to capture everything before it disappears.
Caroline had been nervous about losing tooth #4. On the night just before she lost her tooth, she didn’t even eat her dinner. She was anxious and irritated that her sister and the friends we had over were so oblivious to her plight. She wished that somebody else would lose a tooth. Finally, our toddler friend, Quinn, went in for a hug and head-butted that stubborn tooth right out. Caroline called me into the bathroom; her smile was broad and beautiful, her mood had immediately lifted. She was light and giggly, herself again.
At the end of the evening, Lexi in red puffy coat and pigtails, scooter poised, was hoping to escort Quinn and his family home. Before we reeled her in, she had a chance to breathe in some night air and check out the stars. She yelled, “Look, guys, it’s Ryan’s Belt!”
She’d made this awesome discovery and was ready to ride like Paul Revere, to share the news with the neighbors.
We find and we lose. We lose and we find.
We work so hard trying to carry it all with us, trying to get it all down. How much lighter would we feel just being happy that we get it at all?
published on patch.com March 2012
Because I’m married to a sports junkie, oftentimes, when I turn on the car radio, I am immersed in conversations about Peyton Manning, where he’ll sign next; or Albert Haynesworth, how he’s colossally let down the Redskins (and Patriots, and Titans. . .). It’s a lot of sports, a lot of the time, but I like it. Thom Loverro, the co-host of the ESPN radio program, The Sports Fix, has this scratchy, high-pitched, irresistible voice—he’s a helium-breathing Teddy Bear—and I can’t get enough of him, even when he’s slamming on my Phillies.
Professional athletes are subjected to obvious, intense scrutiny. To sweepingly generalize, they are bazillionaires so I don’t feel sorry for them. But while I was listening to sports radio the other day, I conjured a hideous day dream: that I, a professional mother-of-two, was the topic of discussion.
It went a little like this:
Tom Loverro: I mean, come on. Really?? You think Katie Lenehan deserves a contract extension??
Kevin Sheehan: I think we need to give her a break here.
Tom Loverro: A break? How much of a disappointment is she? I mean, how far down do you have to go on the list of most wasted potential and talent. How far??
Kevin Sheehan: Ok. Not far, I’ll admit. She’s a bad mom.
Tom Loverro: A BAD mom. She’s the WORST.
The conversation would continue. Loverro would spew statistics—percentage of dinosaur chicken meals over home-cooked meals during the last season; how many art projects attempted vs. completed. Fantasy Football goons would call in to smack-talk and commiserate with Sheehan who picked me for his team and couldn’t trade me.
The thing is I joined the National Mom League in decent shape. I come from a line of good mothers, so the training was there. And when I only had my first child, Caroline, I played hard and tough. Seventeen months later, however, little Lexi came along, and somehow I landed on Injured Reserve for fracturing multiple good intentions.
For instance, when I only had Caroline, we listened to kiddie sing-along songs in the car, like Wheels on the Bus and I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. When I only had Caroline, we ate organic everything.
Lexi sings Toby Keith’s Red Solo Cup at high volume. Her first words were “Chick-Fil-A.”
When I only had Caroline, we attended classes at My Gym, Maryland Hall, and Music Together.
Lexi goes to Target.
When I only had Caroline, our pediatrician told us what he wished for all first-time parents: that we would treat our first child as if she were our third. What he meant by this, of course, was that we should relax, be easy on ourselves and our kid. These days, in the morning, after Caroline has left for kindergarten, I allow Lexi to watch episodes of My Little Pony while I clean the kitchen and down coffee like it is Gatorade. I take our pediatrician’s advice too far: I parent as if I have no children.
I’m kidding, obviously. Apparently that’s what lastborns do. People (probably firstborns) study this stuff. Lastborns share certain characteristics: creativity, humor, persistence, lower self esteem. (No baby pictures of me exist—not a one—but that’s okay because lastborns are optimistic.) Some famous lastborns: Stephen Colbert, Mark Twain, Goldie Hawn.
And yes, firstborns are generally confident and organized. They become presidents and astronauts. Some famous firstborns: Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein.
My fear is because of my glom-on first-time parenting approach, Caroline’s going to be a lifelong people-pleasing perfectionist . . . unless Lexi rubs off on her a bit. I was all over Caroline when she was a baby. For whatever reason, I have always given Lexi more room. Smarter defense in football terms, right? If I get too close, they’ll blow right by me. I am learning…
As much as Loverro, Sheehan, and I like to highlight my weaknesses, I know I’m doing alright as a parent. My girls are fine. In fact, they’re wonderful. I hope I am blessed enough to see how all of this plays out. What choices will each daughter make: what career, what spouse, what place on the map?
I’ll plan on landing a second career in broadcasting after my playing-with-my-kids days are over. I’ll buy a home in West Palm Beach, one in Telluride, so my grandkids will have cool places to visit on school breaks.
And as for all this birth-order mumbo-jumbo: Peyton Manning’s a middle child.
I understand his little brother’s also had some success on the football field.
Ready, Sec, Go!
Mommy, are you old or are you new?
Whoop and Daisy Doo!
Mommy: This oatmeal is very watery for some reason.
Caroline: Maybe you put too much water in it.
I’m a doctor, so I can put her shoes on.
I’m not listening because I love you.
Are gloves the ones with separate rooms for fingers?
Come on, let’s run and jiggle!
I’m trying to secret you.
Lexi, don’t listen to yourself; listen to Mommy.
A 64 box of crayons is a “stadium” and tears are “sad dots.”
Caroline at her 4-year “wellness” visit after having had four shots is screaming. Mommy tries to calm her: “That’s it, that’s it–just 4 shots. You’re 4 years old and you get 4 shots!” Caroline: “What’s going to happen when I’m 100?!”
I just want to say to God, thanks for drawing us.
After our trip to Quebec City: “Now the only castle I know that we have NOT been to is Dis-i-nee World.”
At breakfast, Caroline says, “Lexi, did I tell you the monsters were going to eat us today?” Lexi watches her half-interested, like she’s just looked up from reading the paper: “No.”
I spy something grey—Daddy’s hair.
You say ‘I love you’ and I’ll say ‘I love you, too’ because that’s my favorite line.
“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
This morning I left the dishes in the sink longer than usual, in order to set up the painting table and let the girls loose on unsuspecting construction paper. Sitting side-by-side wearing only princess underwear, Caroline and Lexi painted at least 15 pictures each. I had them title their pieces (“Pictures don’t have names!” said Caroline), and after the girls got into it, works of art, including “Doggy, Froggy, Turtle, Duck” and “Funny Daddy” by Lexi; “Beautiful Stone Wall” and “Bamba!” by Caroline, lay drying on all available counter space. Our house is the Barnes Collection: pictures hang on walls above sofas, under tables, climbing stairwells. Caroline can now dispense scotch tape, so no place is safe from masterpieces. I could go upstairs to vacuum a hallway (hypothetical here) and come down to three new displays: two on the sliding glass door and one taped just below the stove’s front, left burner.
The girls love painting. I love watching them love painting. This morning I stood staring at them from the kitchen sink, grateful and happy.
The fact that Painting Pictures Day at home coincided with Picture Day at preschool was not a surprise to me. I was fully aware that the girls needed to be especially clean and presentable by 12:30, when I would drop them off. A bright orange post-it with “Picture Day!!!” had been stuck to my desk all week, like one of Caroline’s paintings. I had chosen outfits the night before— pink and brown jumpers in coordinating colors because I had paid 5 extra dollars to get a sibling shot—but what I had not anticipated was mutiny. Picasso’s Blue Period ran from autumn 1902 to spring 1904; Caroline’s Rainbow Period has been going full-tilt since March; her palette not confined to paper. At 11:45, both girls’ bodies were clear of paint, but the brown and pink of Caroline’s potential outfit was not speaking to her as loudly as the rainbow of colors on her long-sleeved striped shirt. I began to panic. I jogged down two flights in search of storage bins, rummaging for a solid-colored jumper that would match. The green just a notch next to “puke” on the color scale, was the only jumper she’d allow, so instead, I insisted she pick out a pair of pants (“NOOOOOOOO!) or a skirt to match the rainbow shirt, since the dark blue jumper that would have looked great, had constricted her breathing upon impact—I saw ribs. The blue jumper removal tousled Caroline’s hair dramatically; then a voice rang from the adjacent room. It was Lexi: “I want my poople (purple) dress! I don’t want go school!” Her cherub song skipped and repeated like a record turning, needle over scratched vinyl again, and again, and again. My girls were going to Picture Day, damn it, and they were going to look cute. This was Guernica.
At 12:10, when Lexi caught on that I could not find the car keys, she pretended that she’d hidden them. I asked, “Where are they keys, love?”
She answered, “Upstairs.”
I looked all around the upstairs and asked, “WHERE ARE THE KEYS, LOVE!”
She answered, “Downstairs.”
After searching the house twice, I wised up, grabbed the extra set of keys, and then found the initial set in the backseat of the car, where I’d left them all night. By the time I pulled out of the driveway, I was exhausted from having chased Lexi around the kitchen, a smidge concerned that new neighbors might have called Social Services as I stuffed my sobbing 3-year-old into her car seat, and ticked-off that we had not one tissue in the car, since both girls’ cheeks were tear-streaked. Caroline wore her striped shirt with grey skirt and tights. Lexi wore her purple dress with pink cardigan. We were so late, I had to walk them into their respective classrooms. One perk of car-line drop-off is that fewer people notice that you are jittery, your hair is unkempt, and your voice is hoarse from yelling.
Minutes later, when I went to Safeway to buy milk, I also picked up a couple of four-color ballpoint pens and two spiral notebooks—blue for Lexi and red for Caroline. They’d been writing a lot in Mommy’s notebook, so I thought this might be a nice time to give them their own, since I was feeling generous and completely debilitated by gnawing guilt. I happened to stand in line behind a parent I had seen minutes before in Lexi’s classroom. I introduced myself to her. She looked at me as if she’d never before seen me and then her eyes registered and she said: “Oh, you’re the one who asked if they clean faces before pictures.”
“Oh, ha…yeah. We had a little trouble getting there today.”
“For an afternoon class?” She slid her fingers through what looked to have been recently brushed hair, and then she turned slightly towards the checkout. The conveyor belt moved; the placed divider, a line drawn, separated her toilet paper from my retractable pens.
I’ve swum in the Atlantic and dipped my toes into the Pacific on the same day. I’ve sat in a movie theater, seen a two-hour film, and as credits rolled, I’ve had to think about it: “Where am I? What state am I in—Pennsylvania? Virginia? Florida?” Just this morning, soft sun slowly gathered around the colors in our kitchen. I sat in pjs squeezing light and dark blue, purple, and orange into empty egg containers. The girls and I were fresh and blending. But in the earliest turn of the afternoon, I was suddenly rabid and sweaty, dumping folded turtlenecks from storage containers onto our basement floor. What state was I in and how did I get there on that very same day?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once she grows up.” Pablo Picasso
It wasn’t even one of those days. Today was an okay one: we hit the playground in the morning because it was below 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Then to the gym for a swim, and I was feeling good as triathlete-in-training. The girls and I went home for some PB& Js, some watermelon, some cheese crackers. They watched Barbie Fairytopia while I did laundry, but we read books before I popped in the movie, so I was feeling good as parent. I recruited Jordan to come over close to happy hour (it was approaching 5 p.m.) in order to help finish off the bucket of margaritas that’d been taking up space in the freezer—we accomplished that. Dave came home from work, and we chatted with friends in the courtyard. Not bad for a Monday. Then two things happened: The flat bread pizza we had for dinner started to feel a little wobbly in my stomach (or was it the tequila?), and when I went to stretch out a shrunken shirt I’d mistakenly put in the dryer, I pulled a back muscle so severely I felt it twinge and pop like a busted guitar string. I had to abandon family and go lie down on the floor upstairs, leaving Dave with the girls as they played Musketeers with pointy sticks they’d picked up from a tree flattened by a recent storm.
By 8:55 p.m. when a nice sounding, stuttery young guy called from some pseudo-research center under the guise of seeing what I knew of Maryland politics but really to get me to vote for his candidate, I was tuckered out. Lexi was still awake, whining, actually, from her crib; and when she does that, all things cute vanish and what is left is a crushing desire to scream at the top of my lungs, stifled only by the fact that we live in a townhouse and that noise would carry. By 9:10 p.m. when we got another call, this time from #555-000-0000, the jig was up, and even though this guy sounded even more sincere, even though he asked politely for me to answer just a few questions, even though I said, “No, really, it’s awfully late, please take me off the list,” even though he paused and then said, “Please, M’am,” I hung up on him.
Karma. Someone I don’t know is going to be mean to me tomorrow.
Today at the gym, my girls were running to the childcare room. I was preoccupied and didn’t really think about the fact that my girls may not seem as adorable to another mother who is arriving at the door of the childcare room at approximately the same time. I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I followed my girls into the room and left that mother to wait behind us…until I heard her laugh to herself in disbelief, a little grunt of surprise at my behavior. I quickly signed the girls in and apologized to her on the way out: “I wasn’t thinking,” I said, and she didn’t look at me.
Karma. I may get my ass kicked.
Last Saturday morning I left Dave with the girls so I could go to my favorite spin instructor’s class. Though I have few comparatives, this guy’s the best, I can tell. He motivates. Near the end when we’re all just bone tired, he’ll turn off the lights and yell stuff like, “Why are you here? Who are you riding for?” and I’ll want to sob. I’m physically exhausted but elated when I finish—at peace and ready for a shower and then maybe some ice cream. But my favorite spin instructor (we’ll call him “Bob”) wasn’t there last Saturday. There was a substitute. She was a lot of things, but her biggest problem was that she was not Bob. She also wore a visor and what looked to be a fanny pack. And she divided the room into three sections and made us pick team names and asked us excruciatingly detailed trivia questions about the Tour de France—none of which I knew, which didn’t bother me at all, but her voice did, a little, and her peppiness, and the fact that I was not getting any kind of a workout because she paused so often to flip through tiny pieces of paper to check facts or tally team points with a golf pencil. I was in a Seinfeld episode, and more than once, I bent over my bike far enough to bang my head against the bars. I said out loud to no one, “Is this really happening?” but no one heard me because by the end of class, half of Team USA, ¾ of Team Italy, and several riders from Team South Africa had walked out. I stayed because I felt sorry for her. I also stayed because I knew I’d have something to write about.
I stayed a while in the locker room afterwards because I bumped into a friend and we got to talking about spin instructors, about the greatness of Bob, and of course about the sub. My friend had taken her class earlier in the week, so we were chuckling about the intensity level of the class—how afterwards we felt like we’d gotten off a couch and walked slowly to a refrigerator. Then a moment came when I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a visor. My friend was stuck, literally, half-dressed, but I was fully clothed, and what I did was—I ran. I darted into a bathroom stall like there were hot coals beneath me. I stood facing the toilet, grabbed a piece of toilet paper and rubbed it against my nose, as if to convince myself that I had a purpose for being there, and then I forced myself out of the stall and back onto the hot coals, sputtering something to the smiling visor about answering every question with “Lance Armstrong,” as if I’d never left the conversation. Somehow, at some point, I left the locker room. The drive home was awkward: I was the only one in the car, but I gave myself a talking-to. I mean, the poor sub was doing her best. And what if my friend had actually been in danger? My knee-jerk reaction was to flee. Is that how I would handle things in front of my children? What kind of a person was I?
Karma. In my next life I will be a red-lipped batfish.
Except maybe not. The pimply kid working the deli counter at the supermarket sliced the Lebanon bologna paper thin the other day, but I didn’t complain. He was new at the job, nervous and chatty. Also, I was “live-chatting” with Sankrishna at Snapfish a few nights ago, feeling like I’d really found someone I could count on because we’d gone back and forth at least three times in 30 minutes about an issue with my checkout cart. I had only run downstairs to make a cup of tea and check the Phillies’ score, but when I arrived back at the computer to find that he had signed off because he “hadn’t heard from me” in a while, I didn’t collapse in despair. He was gone, but I understood. He’d found someone else; it was time for him to move on.
People are decent, I do believe it—that guy at Safeway who looked into my cart and said, “Holy Vegetable!” That woman at Starbucks who said I looked good in red. I don’t have a lot of adult interaction these days, so why not make eye-contact with the cashier at Target and ask him about that elbow tattoo? Why not talk the little sports I know with the pretzel guy in front of Home Depot? And why not forgive folks for their bad days. Even if it’s not of those days, we all could use a little forgiving.
These days, when Caroline says, “Mommy, I have to go potty,” what Lexi does is drop whatever she is doing, shout “No! No!” and tear into the direction of our only downstairs bathroom. Mind you, Lexi is not really potty-trained. She will take off her diaper, sit herself down for hours, shed toilet paper into the bowl, flush, wash hands and dry, but she hardly ever goes. Going to the bathroom is all about timing for Lexi, all about when it’s least convenient for those around her—just before naptime, just before leaving to drive her sister to school, long after bed time, and right when Caroline announces that she needs to use the potty.
“Lexi, why do you do this?” My outside voice cried this morning as Lexi hurled herself by her sister, slicing herself between me and the Archie Bunker chair. Caroline had been slowly moving off of the couch, when I saw her sit back to patiently wait her turn. She said, “Maybe God painted her this way?”
Yes. Caroline at age 4 has more poetry and logic than I ever dared to dream of having. Poor thing went to the doctor last month to check vision, hearing, and to get the appropriate vaccines. When two nurses entered wearing gloves, bearing needles, it was all a little too James-Bondy the way they slid into the room in clandestine fashion, and I, in cahoots, felt awful about it. Caroline’s eyes widened and she started to scream. Afterwards I was babbling away trying to calm her, and I said, “That’s it, that’s it–just 4 shots. You’re 4 years old and you get 4 shots!” Without any hesitation she responded: “What’s going to happen when I’m 100?!”
During all of the snow this winter, we missed one then another day of gymnastics. The first week I said we could go to a make-up class. The next week, I said we were going to miss again and Caroline said, “It’s okay; we can go to the lipstick class.”
She sat at her art table flipping a sticker around and around then asked me, “Do you know what this square is doing?” “What?” I answered. “Trying to be a diamond.”
Eating an apple she said, “Mommy, look—I made a footprint with my teeth!”
We’re not homebodies; we’re “little inside butts.” It’s not a graveyard, but a “garden of stone.”
The girls were sitting on the couch and Caroline leaned over to hug her sister: “You’re so expensive, Lexi!” Once she advised, “Lexi, don’t listen to yourself; listen to Mommy.”
Just a few mornings ago, we were all a bit blind and groggy. I was feeling around for my coffee mug as the girls sat at the kitchen table. It’s always quiet when I first get food in front of them. (In fact, at a recent birthday party, I mused about how peaceful our house would be if around-the-clock we fed the girls cake and ice cream.) Lexi’s face was still red from lying on it, hair disheveled. She was crouch-sitting on account of a recently scraped knee. Caroline was at her own seat, back to me, and I had full view of Lexi’s crazy-cute profile. Caroline said calmly, “Hey, Lexi, did I tell you the monsters were going to eat us today?” Lexi looked at her, blank-faced, un-phased, like a dad looking up from the sports page, and all she said was: “No.”
These days turn quickly. My eyes are heavy at 10:45 pm, and each room upstairs holds a laundry basket brimming with dirty clothes. There is a pile of old electronics on my basement floor, waiting for recycling, next to a pile of children’s clothing waiting for consigning. My saintly friend took it upon herself to complete my wedding album—a project now five and ½ years in the making—because I confessed to her that I’d organized the photos but never managed to get them in a book. Idling in cyber-Snapfish-space is a year’s worth of backlogged pictures of the girls. Thanks to book club, I’m reading on occasion. Thanks to friends and 24 Hour Fitness, I’m sane . . . with sore muscles.
I spend half a Sunday planning a menu, writing a shopping list, skipping from store to store, but it seems by Thursday, berries have gone bad and all that’s left is applesauce. Friday is always pizza night.
I keep a journal for each of my girls, and when they were even younger than they are now, I wrote to them often. I’ve been meaning to write to Caroline about her Princess and Pirate birthday party for exactly 76 days.
When I was younger, single, teaching high-schoolers, waiting tables, waiting for things to come, the impermanence of the days was obvious (but also a little impossible). There was always a place to go—a road ahead—a something to do beyond what I was doing at the time. Now, impermanence is an annoyance, a song I can’t get out of my head, the devil on one side, tapping me on the shoulder, snickering in my ear. I know they’re only young for so long. Do you think I can’t see how far Lexi’s legs stretch down from the baby swing? Do you think I can’t hear Caroline one day say “puddle” when she, each day before, had always said “pubble”?
When I get antsy about not getting something done, I step back and think about what I have done: I’ve spent some time with Caroline and Lexi. These days turn so quickly, I thought to myself tonight as I snuck outside in my pajamas to close the car windows. Their room was dark above me, shades drawn, and I couldn’t wait to get back inside, just to share the house with them again.
Caroline once while eating toast and jelly said, “I used to remember that I had this before.”
Caroline once told me: “You love us better than purple.” Yes I do.
“Caroline, do you want strawberry or blueberry yogurt?”
“I would like strawberry yogurt and blueberry yogurt, please.”
My pediatrician suggested that I give my kids choices. Ask them if they want to leave the playground in two minutes or five—they’ll feel empowered, and I can take off whenever I like because they really don’t understand the concept of time. When someone wants to dress herself, give her options I can tolerate, and then let her make the call. She is wearing polka-dot leggings with a striped shirt, but at least she’s not naked and I can get to the gymnastics class once this session without missing the introductory bubble song. I have gotten out of a few jams by giving my girls choices, but sometimes, when I am at the supermarket negotiating for five more minutes of solid behavior, promising fruit snacks, I think with dismay that I am that mom, the one in the supermarket promising fruit snacks. Sure, my parents gave us choices, but the list was limited: You hurl a basketball through a pane of glass as your brother stands on the other side, pressing his face against the window–Belt or bare hand? You curse–Irish Spring or Cashmere Bouquet? Clean your room or get locked up in it for a week and half?
Choices. I once went on a research-vacation-adventure to British Columbia. I was teaching at a school where the administration encouraged us to spend summers broadening ourselves, in or out of our subject matter, so I played scientist, studying the migrating patterns of the grey whales. I was in a gorgeous part of the world and saw numerous whales, but I desperately wanted to see one breaching. One day out of the ten I was there, I was below the deck helping chef-up some chicken quesadillas when “Kate Moss,” one of the thinner whales, jumped high out of the water (this is second-hand storytelling), falling back on a beautiful angle, covering the observers with a wondrous wave. I heard the splash and gasps from below. It was one moment, one decision to sprinkle shredded cheddar on a sizzling tortilla. Talk about road less traveled: I was a three hour boat ride from a one hour puddle jump to Vancouver. I’d been living in a temperate rain forest: wearing knee-high rubber boots, forgoing showers, peeing from a makeshift toilet seat into a deep and narrow hole, sleeping solo in a tent, waking to the sound of sputtering whales idling by the shore. But I’d missed the breach, the big show.
Mary Anne Evans wrote, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” I read Adam Bede in college, and it just about killed me, but it’s likely I wouldn’t have read a thing by Mary Anne Evans if she hadn’t chosen the pen name George Eliot. She changed her name in order to be taken more seriously as a writer, among other reasons, and she did well by it. We choose, and often we grow. Ask Adam (friend-of-Eve…not Bede)—it is what sets us apart from the rest of Wild Kingdom. We can make bad decisions: James Cameron probably shouldn’t have worn his hair like that at the Oscars. But also we can make what we see to be our best decisions: switching from Sony to Canon, going on an Australian lifestyle retreat, buying a 2007Volkswagen Eos, placing a child in the Education Center in Little Elm Texas; adopting a vegan diet; surrendering to Christ; retiring to Mexico. Some of us are remembered for a particular decision. Chris Webber in the 1993 NCAA match-up against North Carolina, with seconds left on the clock, University of Michigan trailing by 2, called a time-out his team didn’t have. North Carolina hit two free throws. Webber’s team lost the game, and basketball fans remember his mistake—not the 23 points and 11 rebounds he had in that same game—like political junkies remember Harold Dean’s scream in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Most of us, though, do what we do, making decisions, living the consequences, without the world remembering, and often, without even remembering ourselves. I have no earthly idea what I made for dinner last Tuesday.
I do remember going to the gym last Friday. It was one of the best decisions I could have made because it had been a long week. I swam. I lounged in the steam room, then the hot tub. I was on that Australian retreat, minus the Gold Coast and the cattle stations. It was an hour just for me, and by the end of the hour, I missed the girls and was ready to retrieve them from the childcare room. They were both leaning on primary-colored cushions watching a show when I arrived, and right after I called their names, Caroline came towards me with arms open, a big smile. Lexi stayed put. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me? I called her sweet little nickname in my sweet mommy voice, but again, no response. Not even a head turn. Maybe we should get her hearing checked? Or maybe, just maybe, this bundle of love was completely ignoring her mother?
She was, in fact. It was the Backyardigans or me, and she had made her choice. She would not budge. She, the most obstinate of all creatures, would not allow me to put on her socks or boots without battling back with kicks and shrill, brash, guttural yawls. Her face turned flame-red; her eyes rolled to show only white. I picked her up—me Tarzan, she Jane—and tossed her over my shoulder, bracing Caroline for what was to come: “Get ready to run!” and we took off down the long hallway, past the basketball court, the bench press, the manager’s office, the water fountains, the lockers, and finally the front desk, where Denise, who usually provides a fresh towel and mildly-approving comments about the girls’ cherub faces or their matching Hello Kitty boots, looked at me in complete horror. I was sweating more at that moment than I’d ever sweat on a treadmill. I’d left the Australian retreat for the cattle station where feral pigs were devouring dead cows and man-eating ants were nibbling away at my toes. I put my screaming mass of a child down between soundproof doors and somehow talked her into putting boots on feet. We made our way home.
Lexi had made a decision and stuck to it. She does this often. Caroline calls it “independent” while her dad and I call it something altogether different. I will put Lexi in a pair of pants, and she will take them off just to put them on again. I will take her out of the car when it is pouring rain, in order to hurry the process along, and she will cry and squiggle in protest until I let her stand, and then she will crawl back into the car—those awkward Hello Kitty boots just in the way—so she can turn around and drop, dribble, or tumble out alone. My little Eve, willing and able to take the Fall all on her own.
I saw a documentary called This Emotional Life a few months back, and the segment that stuck with me had to do with making choices as it relates to happiness. There were two groups of people. One group sat in a room, looking at artwork lined on a wall. These people were told that they could each choose one poster and take it home. Members of the second group were also told they could take a poster home, but if they changed their minds, they could exchange one poster for another. The researchers found that the individuals who had only one choice—to take a poster home—were far happier with their decisions as compared to the members of the second group. A no-brainer, really. (Maybe I should be a scientist?) With choosing can come insecurity, worry, and doubt, but if you go to all of that trouble to pick one thing over another, just to turn around and trade it in, then you’re not going anywhere. I sometimes fantasize about shopping at the only supermarket in town, buying the only available brand of toothpaste. Life could be easier. But there are strip malls and walls of toothpaste. Yes, with choosing comes angst, but with a firm decision and a step in the slightest direction, comes potential growth and maybe even happiness—a brand new poster, whiter teeth, fresher breath.
I want my girls to have it all, but when I’m real, and when they are at the age when we can talk about these things, I will tell them to make a decision, as best they can, and stick with it. Lexi, do it with a yawl if you have to. Caroline, do it with manners, I don’t care. But once you make your choice, don’t waste time wondering what other life you might have led. What if you had gone to that school? Taken that job? Boarded that plane? I cannot lead you down a particular road, and as best I can, I will honor your decision-making. But whatever you do—after you have thought it through, after it’s done—I hope you choose happiness. I hope the only looking back brings you what is good about remembering.
I didn’t see the breach, but I tasted fresh salmon caught and cooked on a fire by a native fisherman. Each night a gathering of luminescent little organisms shimmered in the water as I brushed my teeth at its edge, while stars showered behind shadows of trees. Heavy morning fog sometimes broke into bright blue, sometimes not. I didn’t see the breach, but I stood on a sailboat, head-to-toe soaked with rain and sea, squinting to see what I could of the two humpback whales racing beside me. And I spent time in a kayak, waiting quietly for a grey whale to surface, holding my breath, looking around at the smooth water beneath me until—there—an echoing pop! and thundering show of water through a blow hole. Up that whale rose just inches away; I could nearly touch the scars and barnacles with my hand. My very own grey whale, slowly diving, just to resurface again and again and again.
We just completed our first photo shoot as family. We’ve seen the sun shining on the changing leaves maybe once on a Sunday this fall, but today was the day—we finagled good weather on a weekend. The colors were stunning. Caroline posed like a professional, which was a tad alarming since she has surely acquired a relaxed relationship with the camera by celestial means. Neither Dave nor I take to cameras with anything resembling ease, but Caroline was a natural, and Lexi, naturally, had no interest in looking at anything but the pine needles blanketing the path. We wouldn’t have been out there by a dilapidated barn in the middle of a Maryland field, had it not been for baby Oliver, our painfully cute soon-to-be-one-year-old neighbor. Dave and I saw black and white photos of Oliver, and even though Oliver himself is picture perfect, we could not believe how well the shots highlighted his adorableness. “Did Liz take these?”
“Yes, she’s great,” said Mom-of-Oliver (named Corrie), which now leads me to a thoroughly researched, earth-shatteringly thought-provoking thesis: Some moms got mad skills. But, who would know it when all we talk about are these darn kids????
It could not have been raining heavier last Thursday when Caroline, Lexi and Mom-of-Caroline and Lexi (that would be me), struck out on our own, two of us donning matching Hello Kitty rain boots, and three wearing gear appropriate for the temperate rain forest in which we’re apparently now residing. After exactly 1 and ½ minutes of complete dousing, we arrived at the house of Mom-of-Hayden (named Susanne) for playgroup. She had been all worked up about hosting because some of our kids are toddlers. She worried that Hayden—a wee babe—might not have the appropriate toys to keep the three-year-olds entertained. Hanging like monkeys on newly cleaned drapery, oddly enough, kept the kids happy and the moms refilling the wine glasses. We attempted conversations, as three-year-olds pin-balled across the living room, tripping over two-year-olds with babies cushioning their falls. “So, how was New York?” Mom-of-Charlotte and Jacqueline (named Lee) screamed to me from across the room.
“Oh it was—hey, Caroline, leave Austin alone.”
“But we’re having fun!”
“Well, no, actually, I don’t think Austin is having fun. You’re cackling in his ear. Step away. Anyway, what I was saying?”
Mom-of-Hayden had baked some serious banana bread, and because fruit is good for me, I was well into my third piece when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron (named Jordan) released into the air a few words about her own pending trip to NYC. Something about a girls’ weekend and something about—well, I didn’t catch the rest as aforementioned toddlers speed-skated into the kitchen to discover that the unique spill proof system on the DrinkMoreWater water cooler was not, in fact, spill proof. Zamboni required. And a quick exit. “Sorry, Susanne. We’ve been a little cooped up.” It’s not only that I want to have a complete conversation with friends in the neighborhood, but I’d like to do so without a child pole-dancing around my legs. And that banana bread. Susanne makes a mean banana bread. What other magical foods of hers might I sample, if only we had more time?
The following Monday, I had just finished consulting the treadmill about three slices of banana bread and had then taken the girls to the playground, when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron drove by. I asked her how she did in the race she’d run over the weekend. “Did you win it?” I joked.
“Well, actually, yea, I did,” she said. “First in my age group.”
“What???!!!” I didn’t know she was a runner. “What was your time?” She told me. “That’s a 7 minute mile! I had no idea!”
“I ran track in high school,” she said as Owen began his sit-down-strike against the Subaru safety feature that prevents a complete window roll down. He couldn’t get a clear visual of Caroline and Lexi, so he gave us all a clear audio. “Gotta run!” said his mom. “Owen’s tired.”
And so am I—of sometimes feeling that I know more about my friend’s parenting strategies than I know about my friends. Jordan and I spend at least 42 hours a week together and I was pretty secure in the knowledge that she was a volleyball player. For all I know, Robyn is recognized in other circles for her translations of Petrarchan sonnets from Italian into English. Cheryl may have swum the 50 meter free in the 2000 Olympics. Though it is helpful at times to discuss potty training techniques or vent about a child’s penchant for cheap-shotting the neighbor’s Chihuahua, it is helpful also to talk about other things. That’s how I made friends in the past. That’s how, presumably, I’ll make friends in the future. I must continue to practice basic social etiquette. When I meet someone, I must avoid asking how old her child is in months.
Caroline, Lexi, and I made it to story time at the mall a few months back. The woman reading was soliciting audience participation as she paged through a cutesy animal tale. “What does a cow say?” All of the mothers looked lovingly at their little ones, saying, “Moooooooo.” There was lot of “Meowwwwwing” and “Oinking” going on between respective parents and children. Pottery Barn Kids is a bit cleaner than my house and is a short walk to Starbucks, but other than that, I might as well have been in my own home since I was only interacting with my own children. Oftentimes it really is hard to communicate with other mothers because I get worried that my kid is going to fall off a chair, disappear, or –god forbid—yell out “QUACK!” when the reader asks what an elephant says. So I was trumpeting emotively into Lexi’s face when, suddenly, beside me, a mother who’d been sitting quietly with her infant throughout most of the reading, made the most realistic elephant noise I have ever heard from a non-elephant. It was miraculous. It was exquisite. I cannot over-emphasize how remarkable this elephant sound was. All I wanted to do at that moment was congratulate her. I would have asked her, “Is there a class for that?” I would have insisted that we become friends, but in an instant, the woman reading was closing up shop and doling out stickers. In an instant, Lexi was yelling “QUACK!” while falling off of her chair, as Caroline disappeared into a sea of pink pastel kitchen utensils. In an instant, the elephant mom was gone.
Staying home with Caroline and Lexi can be lonely work. I have been known to lose my sense of humor, especially after three full days of rain. I’ve lost my sense of self on occasion during the last three years, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. People often say that this time is short—when your kids are young—and that the rest of your life will happen soon enough. Believe me, I’ve waited a long time to have these gorgeous girls, and I refuse to rush into any next stage, but I’d like to avoid pushing the pause button altogether. It’s possible to raise and love your kids, while also maintaining past friendships and creating new ones. It’s possible for a mother of three to bake muffins for a new friend when that new friend has a child in the hospital. It’s possible to hire a sitter and then spend a couple of hours talking to someone about all the cool jobs she’s had—all the wonderful places she’s traveled. It’s possible to raise two rowdy boys during the week and then win a fun run on the weekend. It’s possible to drive carpool on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, in your few free moments, take beautiful photographs. Mad Skills.
It’s been many nights now that I’ve gone to bed worrying about the flu and what effect it could have on my little girls if they should get sick with it. Unsettled doesn’t quite describe how I’ve been feeling, especially at night. (I can get dark when it’s dark outside.) I woke up the other morning mildly refreshed. The light was breaking through our bedroom blinds, and with that came a brighter outlook, but I’d had a dream about disease, and I just couldn’t completely shake it off. Dave had had a dream, as well. A “nightmare” he called it—that the Phillies were down by 7 in the bottom of the 1st during Game One of the World Series.
And there it is: The basic difference between Dave and me. I worry. I imagine the worst and wallow in it. Dave does have serious concerns (not that Phillies versus Yankees isn’t serious!), and he of course loves our kids and thinks about them as much as I do, but he doesn’t allow himself to go down the hideous roads. He stops and turns around, back to the busy places, populated by friends and family, activity and positivity.
I’ve been an over-thinker all of my life; that gene came directly from my mom. My dad is the optimist—feet planted firmly in the clouds, he says. I’ve tried often during these last few years to imagine my mom and dad as young parents. They obviously had different approaches and concerns than we do. They laid babes on their tummies not their backs. They wrapped them in cloth diapers. I’m sure there were issues to debate and products to buy, but it just seems like today there is so much out there to trip us up as new parents: milk vs. formula, work vs. stay-at-home, vaccines, mercury, bpa-free, advanced degrees in car seat installation.
I didn’t even have a baby yet, when Dave and I took a forty-five minute trip to Great Beginnings in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in order to buy, among other things, a … chair. We walked into the store, new initiates into a secret club, one I never before imagined existed. There were pregnant women everywhere, some with presumed husbands by their sides, some aiming scanning guns at strollers, cribs and matching bumpers. I wondered, Did I really just drive an hour for—not a “rocking chair,” but— a “glider”? At the same time, everything around me looked so . . . little, so . . . pastel, so darn cute (everything I could identify, that is).
Shopping for a glider was akin to test-driving cars, and believe me, it was the right thing to be doing while I was eight months pregnant. It was a testament to each rocker how comfortable it was, how smoothly it handled, and how its foundation didn’t instantaneously collapse under my weight. I could get up from each chair, too, which felt miraculous at the time. We went with blue and white, and that blue and white glider and I spent quality time together during the girls’ first months. I remember sitting in the chair, often at 4 a.m., nursing a baby while looking outside the window. All the neighbors’ homes were dark. I was sleepy, and though everyone in the world was, in fact, sleeping, I was okay with that. I felt a bit lonely, but at peace, and strangely safe there with a new little life in my arms. Not a lot of questions or worries swirled around in my head at that hour or stage. It was all I could do at the time, to sit on a rocker at 4 am.
Lexi’s now two and Caroline, three. The glider is now a spot for reading while snuggling. It is something for the girls to fight over, giggle on, and hide under. And just the other day, for Caroline it became a “thinking chair.” I was trying to persuade her to get off of the rocker, find her princess underwear and put on, well, anything, so we could go down for breakfast when she said, “Just a minute, Mom, I need to think about something.” I was in Lexi’s room, wishing for a spare jaws-of-life so I could extricate “Pink Doggie” from her grasp long enough to put her strong little arms through her shirt sleeves.
Caroline said, “Mom? How do tattoos go away?” We’d gone to a fireman-themed birthday party the previous weekend, and both girls still had remnants of a red truck stamped on their right hands. I explained that her tattoo rubbed off and then went into a short vocabulary lesson comparing “permanent” to “impermanent,” and she seemed satisfied with the answer. “Mom? How does water move?” I went with the ice-atop-mountains approach, mentioning the word “gravity” just for kicks, wondering if what I had said was confusing or even wrong, but she gave me that one as well. “Mom, I’m going to think some more.”
Lexi has an old man laugh, like she’s been smoking for years, a sputtering engine. I had finished wrestling her into a clean diaper and outfit, and I had her in prime tickling position when Caroline asked from the other room, “Mom? How do we talk?” Little sister chuckled at me from her purple pillowed perspective.
So it seems Caroline and I have entered a new phase. There’s a give and take that wasn’t there before, as I await her next question more and more eagerly, not even attempting to guess what will come next, but rather, taking life in from her funny little perspective. Though I will never know all of the answers, I am now going to be asked all of the questions. Every single one of them.
These days I do have the opportunity to sleep about eight hours a night. But, worries and questions branch and multiply like a family tree, now that the girls are getting older. It’s not just about feeding them every four hours; it’s about raising them. It’s about squashing bad manners, teaching concern for others. It’s about using good grammar, nurturing interests, providing safety, getting outside. And the irony is, as opposed to my teaching days, I’ve got nary a lesson planned. Each day in the classroom, I knew what I was doing. Each day in the home seems off-the-cuff and improvised. I ask big questions wanting big answers: How do I get my kids vaccinated if there’s no vaccine? When will I go back to work, and what will I do? Is Caroline sometimes shy because I’m overprotective? Do I give Lexi enough attention? Can I, please, keep them safe, forever?
The Phillies are down three games to one in the World Series. All I can do is watch them play. But it feels like the right thing to be doing, wine glass in hand, lucky blanket wrapped around my perennially cold feet. Though I have the opportunity to sleep eight hours a night, I’ve been depriving myself of it during the last few weeks, not because of parenting concerns swirling around in my head, but because of baseball. It’s been nice to shift focus. I still have questions and concerns as I sit there in front of the television—“Shane looks tense. Did Ryan touch the bag? How clutch is Jason Werth? (But why the facial hair?) Did that really just happen?” I am Caroline, blurting out what’s on my mind, commenting on the here and now—on what is right in front of me.
There may not be a lot I can do to save the Phillies, but I think I’ll have Dave bring down the glider tonight for Game 5. That chair’s brought us nothing but good fortune since we brought it home. I’ll just toss a red throw over it (to cover up the blue and white) and hope for the best.