Jun 29 2011

The Sweet Spot

There were baby things everywhere. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this was a conference for mothers who blog, and many of them have little babies or toddlers. It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve been in the company of so many women with babies on their minds, let alone in their bellies, in their arms, or in strollers, being pushed around the exhibitor hall. Friendly people at every stand offered up freebies galore: baby bottles and thermometers, teething toys and toddler clothes. The swag at Cybermummy11 was definitely geared for the mums with younger children. I didn’t mind – it meant there was less to carry home – but it made me realize how many of these mothers are squeezing out posts during naps, patching together tiny portions of spare time to write their blogs and run their businesses. They’re pacing back and forth to soothe a sick child with a thousand thoughts running through their heads, juggling diapers and daycare, surviving and thriving despite sleep deprivation and the constant churn of mothering little ones. I looked around at all of them with their babies in tow and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

The night before the conference, I slipped down to the hotel bar, dreaming of a quiet dinner at the bar by myself, but it turns out I’d landed in a trendy boutique hotel and the place was rockin’. There were no stools at the bar, and the restaurant didn’t have the right ambiance for solo dining, so I returned to my room and ordered room service. Like any diligent blogger, I happily ate dinner in front of my computer. When @mummytips tweeted me to come down and join her in the bar with her friends (@bumpwearclaire and @Melaina25), I knew the scene I was getting myself into. But I’d come all this way to see and meet my blogging compatriots, so I ventured down into the world of exposed brick and designer cologne.

The bartenders weren’t particularly efficient, though it wasn’t easy for them because the place was packed with testosterone. We struggled to find an opening at the bar, surrounded by all the young men mulling about, aggressively getting their drinks and blocking our way. To add insult to injury, two young slicksters did a little divert through the crowd to put themselves in front of us.

I was clearly the oldest woman in this entire bar. And I was parched. These guys were boys, young enough to be my sons. They had fresh blemishes and peach fuzz. They hardly looked old enough to drink. I had no choice but to step forward and slip in between them. I scolded them, but with a smile: “I can’t believe that two young men like you would actually sneak ahead of a group of thirsty women. Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?”

Deep down, I suppose, they were good boys, because they stood aside and made way for me to advance to the bar. On the surface, they were clowns, trying so hard to get the bartender’s attention on my behalf that he ignored me longer than he would have without their attempted aide. They swarmed around, alternating between hitting on anything with breasts and then returning and engaging me in the most inane conversations. I will admit that certain young men can kindle the cougar in me, but these two were not of such stock. They conjured up the memory of my awkward early years of meeting and dating and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a conference like Cybermummy: networking and connecting with advertisers or sponsors, going to sessions for hints and tips from experienced bloggers, and of course, the swag. But the real reason: to be in the company of others who, finally, understand why you blog. Why you race through your day on skates so you can leave a little time to pound out a post. How you get a bit antsy when too many days have gone by without posting. Or as one of the crowd-sourced keynote speakers, who blogs at KateTakes5 put it, how you “get used to disapproving looks from other mothers when your child falls in the street and you scramble for the camera instead of picking her up.” When you go to a conference like this, there’s a huge sense of connectedness – and relief – when you think to yourself, that’s just like me and oh, I’m not alone.

More than four hundred women attended the Cybermummy conference, stating loud and clear that mothers – whether they stay at home, work part-time or do the full-time-job-mom-juggle – are a force to contend with. We have stories to tell, opinions to air and we can make a difference with our words. From the inspiring opening keynote by Sarah Brown, to the poignant or funny blogger keynotes that closed the meeting, the range of voices I heard made me proud to be among this group. Not to mention the Eden Fantasy sponsored dildo-decorating party hosted by @cosmicgirlie on Saturday night. Want to remove the sexual taboo of an object? Invite twenty women to decorate it with feathers and sequins. You’ll see.

Miles and hours away from London and the conference and a newly enlarged network of blogging friends, I returned, with some relief, to my family. I travel enough to be used to the ebb and flow of glad-to-be-gone but oh-I-miss-them, and still, on this trip, the longing for them was fiercer than usual. Maybe it was seeing all those babies and remembering how adorable Short-pants and Buddy-roo were at that age. Maybe it was stepping into that whole bar scene and wondering – worrying – if my girls will acquire what it takes to encounter, endure and exit (safely) from the company of doo-doo heads like those young guys. Or maybe I’m just getting soft.

At bedtime, Short-pants was reading in her own room while I sang a lullaby to Buddy-roo, who’d already shut the light and was drifting off to sleep. It’s the same lullaby my mother used to sing to me. It’s the same lullaby I used to sing to them when they were babies and toddlers. My girls are (nearly) ten and seven, they still ask for the song at bedtime. How much longer will they let me sing it to them?

I traced my hand along the length of Buddy-roo’s long leg, thinking about where I am now in my life, as a mother. I’m glad to have the baby part behind me. I’m dreading a bit what’s ahead: their adolescence and navigating the minefields of boys-to-men. But right now, in this phase: it’s pretty sweet. They’re old enough to be independent; they dress themselves, get their own juice from the fridge, conduct their business privately in the bathroom. But they’re still young enough to be truly excited when I come home from a weekend away. Is this the sweet spot of motherhood? It makes me think to myself, it’s a good time, right now, to be mom.

It’s a good time to be a Cybermummy, too.

Jun 23 2011

All that Noise

I stood at the curb, waving goodbye as Buddy-roo’s face pressed against the window in a crying grimace. That would be the very last image I’d ever have of her – this is what I told myself as I walked away – if they got in a car accident on their drive to or from the country house. This is a morbid thought, I know, but don’t we all have them occasionally? I think this is how you handle a suppressed fear – the one you know is irrational but somehow it’s still lurking there, just under the surface, polluting an otherwise optimistic view of life.

They were getting a late start, later than De-facto had hoped, and I knew that when they returned on Sunday he’d opt to leave even later to avoid the end-of-weekend traffic jam outside of Paris. But thinking of him driving by himself, so late at night, the two girls sleeping in the back, makes me just that little bit nervous – not enough to try to talk him out of going, but enough to let a few morbid thoughts squeeze their way into my colorful imagination.

I’d failed to pack Buddy-roo’s favorite doudou and pillow for her to have with her in the car, this was the original cause for her torrent of tears. The car was parked too far away from home to return to fetch the prized items, she’d have to do without. Then she realized that I wasn’t accompanying them to the country and this became her main beef. There was nothing I could do to console her; I knew the only answer was for De-facto to simply drive away. But that didn’t make it a very easy departure, for any of us.

Within a few blocks, however, the lump in my throat disintegrated and I regained my clarity and you could even say there was a little spring in my step: a contained enthusiasm about the idea of two nights – and full day in between them – to be all alone in my own home.

It’s not that I don’t get time to myself during the course of a regular day (though it never seems to be enough), but it’s impossible to get a long stretch of uninterrupted and unaccompanied hours in my own apartment. I have to be in my studio, or at a café, or away on business – and I do use that time to resource myself – but there’s nothing like a weekend of absolute solitude in the comfort of your very own home. If you live alone, you might not appreciate that sheer joy of this solitude – or maybe you do – but I can tell you with two children and a partner, I forget what tranquility is like, except perhaps late at night when I’m too tired to appreciate it fully.

I love how you walk in the door and it’s absolutely still. Everything is just as you’ve left it. There is no wooden train track encircling the kitchen island with tenuously-constructed bridges tipping over each time you try to move from the refrigerator to the sink. There are no coats left in the hall, no shoes by the couch, no upside-down-and-open books and thin strips of just-cut colored paper and partially-finished spontaneous art-projects left on the table, the floor, the stairs or anywhere in your sight. I know these are the accoutrements of a creative childhood, and I believe I indulge and encourage them sufficiently. But just once in a while, it’s nice to have the house left how I like it, without having to nag anyone to get it that way. This only happens when they’re gone.

Then there’s the quiet. But don’t you love the sound of their feet pounding down the stairs, shouts of “Mama!” delivered with the same enthusiasm as if they hadn’t seen you for weeks, even though you walked them to school this morning? Yes. And. The fact that what’s usually playing in the background at home is the constant chatter of children, the talking and telling and an occasional tantrum, the sound of a hundred plastic pieces being dumped out of a bin onto the floor; it’s all one continuous loop of noise. I get that it’s good noise, it’s the noise of a happy family. But sometimes, it’s just nice to be happy without it, too.

The weekend was all mine. I did go out with some friends, knowing that if I had too much to drink, the following morning’s discomfort could be slept away without having to negotiate the manufacturing of pancakes. Yet I exercised discipline, because I was so excited to have a day to myself to do things alone in my own home, that I didn’t want to spoil this precious opportunity by being even the least bit hungover.

I went for hours without talking with anyone. I talked to myself, out loud, without anyone thinking I was nuts. I worked a little, but not too much. I wrote a little. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted. A little slice-a-heaven.

This weekend coming up, it turns out, I’ll get another break from all that noise. This time I’m the one going away: I’ll slide through the Chunnel to London to attend Cybermummy, a conference for British mums who blog. I didn’t plan these consecutive escapes from the girls (and there’s even another one coming up) and I know I should take advantage of another noiseless weekend without remorse. I should be more excited about going. I am looking forward to the reunion with several of the fab femmes I met last year at the BlogHer conference. But packing my suitcase tonight, I looked out at the mess of shoes and books and toys strewn about my living room, and I heard the girls upstairs opening and closing drawers, changing in and out of play-dresses and costumes, acting out the wild stories or singing songs they’ve made up on the spot, and I thought, I don’t mind it so much their precious, playful noise.

I might even miss it.

Jun 13 2011

Behind the Curtain

“The tricky part is right here, after the storm in Kansas,” De-facto said, pointing to the creased sheet of paper that had been folded and stuffed in his back pocket, removed and unfolded, again and again. These were the set change instructions and they looked relatively simple, which was what worried me. He was in charge of the sets for the performance; he’d crafted and painted many of them, built the stage extension and choreographed the scene changes with the director. His crib notes made sense, to him.

I’d been in the audience the night before, the opening night of the school’s English section performance of The Wizard of Oz. I know it’s easy for proud parents to crescendo their praise to a distorted level, but I think I am not exaggerating when I report that the production was a first class piece of children’s theater.

A truly dedicated group of parents, affectionately named the Yellow Brick Road Crew, started the engine on this production way back in March. The director of the play, a multi-dexterous woman with talent and tact motored it forward with a professionalism that far exceeded her volunteer status. The rehearsals started as a Saturday morning activity. Then Sundays were added, then Wednesday afternoons, too, as the dates of the performance drew near. Lines were memorized by small, elastic brains, songs transposed and rehearsed until they could be sung by heart. Dance steps were choreographed, even practiced by adults in the café, trying to figure out how four kids might skip together arm-in-arm on a narrow stage. A week earlier, the dress rehearsal for their classmates was chaotic and choppy – as a first full run-through in costume with sets usually is – and even then, the teachers and peers were seriously impressed. But the real test was opening night, in front of a (paying) audience of adults, teachers and family members. The debut was a glowing success, acclaimed by all the spectators who were present, many I suspect, who had come with modest expectations. It was, after all, just a primary school play.

Except it was so much more. Yes, the sets were low budget, sheets of calico painted by harried (but artistic) parents and a few exceptionally obedient children. The lights (operated by a father in oven-mitts) and mikes were borrowed and jerry-rigged. The costumes were puzzled together on a shoestring budget (though brilliantly executed). But it was the actors who really brought the stage to life: twenty-some kids under the age of eleven, who’d learned not only their lines, songs and dances, but also memorized their cues for entering and exiting – no small feat because in order to give more children parts in the play, there were multiple actors for many of the roles: five Dorothys, three Scarecrows, three Tin-men, two Wizards. One actor would exit stage left, her replacement would appear through the center of the curtain at the start of the next act. Short-pants was Glinda in act two, after the house lands in Oz, and then the Scarecrow in act three. This called for a high-speed costume change during the song “We’re off to see the Wizard,” as Dorothy (played at that point by Buddy-roo) and the munchkins (played by a gaggle of kindergartners and first graders) danced on the yellow brick road.

Short-pants has a natural temperament to be the Good Witch of the North and there was a sweet and special chemistry on stage with her sister (who was truly lovely as Dorothy), but it was in the role of Scarecrow that she really found her stride. It was like she able to access the part of her that really is the Scarecrow, that slightly clumsy, brainy, loyal, lovable friend. During her solo number, as she side-stepped across the stage singing “I could think of things I never thunk before,” my throat got all lumpy and choked up and my eyes got a little teary.

The casting had been handled marvelously, every child had a chance to try every role (although we learned only recently that Buddy-roo refused to read for any part other than Dorothy). Then the kids were seriously coached. They weren’t just reciting their lines, the director had drawn each actor into his character. She’d guided, suggested and cajoled to help them breathe life into their parts. But she also got out of the way to let each child interpret the characters on their own, and let their creativity come out. The children were clearly having a great time. This was observable and palatable; you could feel how much fun they were having on stage.

I think most of us in the audience were in awe: of the actors, of the director and the transformation she’d alchemized, of the world-class musical parents, who did more than accompany the performance; their music was like a soft blanket underneath, supporting the kids without ever upstaging them. We were in awe of the people behind the scenes, committed parents who were sorting costumes and props, working lights and projectors. (De-facto even donned a green wardrobe to blend in with the cast while hanging scenery.) This was a real show.

With a good performance under their belt, a bit of feedback (speak louder, project to the back of the room), the kids seemed confident and excited to have another go for the final show. My role, on night two, was to sit with the littler actors and help to keep them quiet between their munchkin scene and at the point when they’d all wrap themselves in green satiny capes to become the citizens of the Emerald city. But the guy who’d partnered with De-facto on the sets the night before expressed a desire to see his child in the performance, so I volunteered to switch duties with him. He briefed me and it seemed clear enough. Besides, I was working with De-facto. We work together all the time.

“After shaking the curtains for the storm,” De-facto said, “put out the props and then you have to run to blow the bubbles for Glinda.” My eyes were glazing over as I was reading through his set instructions, trying to make sense of the timing. Much of what we had to do happened between acts: changing the background scenery, placing or turning a painted cardboard tree on the stage, putting the witches legs out under the house; but it had to happen quickly and at the right time. In some cases, the only cue to help me was the previous line in the script, so I knew what I had to do, I just wasn’t always sure exactly how long before I had to do it.

The curtain shaking (“shake them hard,” he’d said, “but not so hard that you knock over the sets,”) went well and before I knew it we were blowing bubbles, a pointless act, really, as my little bubbles hardly flew far enough on to the stage to be seen and the giant-bubble releaser he was blowing through only seemed to work when he was practicing with it backstage. It was a minute later that our friend, the guy who’d worked with De-facto the night before, snuck backstage and said, “where are the legs?”

The legs! I ran for them, slipping and falling, toppling Dorothy’s suitcase under the prop table. We managed to push the legs out under the set of the fallen house, fortunately in time for the moment when the wicked witch turns to them and tries to pull the ruby slippers off and they recoil back under the house.

At least I’d messed up on the scene with my own kids. But I didn’t want to mess it up for any others. My confidence shattered, I pestered De-facto for the rest of the show, “Now? Do I do it now?” It was comical, how the two of us were running around changing sets and props. At one point we were holding the curtain back to create a great-and-powerful shadow effect for the wizard and I noticed the heavy (and possibly dangerous) canister of helium at the edge of the prop table, on the verge of falling onto the floor where it very easily could have rolled out on to the stage. I couldn’t reach to move it, the shadow of my arm would have been visible to the audience. I pointed to the table and mouthed to him, “the helium” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “What?” he mouthed back, fumbling over the table, touching every item on it but the helium can. Mouthing unintelligible words back and forth, our faces wrinkled in masks of confusion and frustration. If we could have spoken, we’d surely have been screaming at each other. “What?” “Grab the helium can for Christ’s sake!”

A frenzy of activity between each act, and then the lull before the next set or prop change, during which we’d stand around laughing hysterically at ourselves. I mean, we’ve produced some complicated events for our clients, but here we were scrambling to keep up. It was the Wizard of Oz, after all, a story we both knew by heart. How hard could it be? Then all of a sudden, the act would finish and we’d be scrambling again. At one point a costume crisis – key elements of the wizard’s garb went missing – had us running around like chickens with our heads cut off in search of a turban hat and the sequined cape, a panic which made De-facto late for one of his cues.

Having been in the audience the night before, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d missed the cue on the legs. If you weren’t seated in one of the front rows, you couldn’t even see them. At least they appeared in time for the moment they were most needed. I think our crazy panic during most of the show was contained back stage. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew what was happening on stage was another fantastic performance. The kids were awesome, each one of them giving something of themselves to the audience, in a poignant song, a creative gesture, a comical dance or an ear-piercing scream. What a gift they gave us, our little thespians.

What a gift, from the Yellow Brick Road Crew, all the time and attention given to our children so they could have a real theater experience, filled with all the hard work and risk and exhilaration that come with acting.

What a gift, to the parents. Despite occasional complaints about lost weekends and schlepping to all the rehearsals – even for those of us who were involved only on the periphery, it felt like it took a lot of time – this production brought us closer together. We bonded. I got to know people I didn’t know before, and the ones I knew, now I know them more. I have developed a deeper respect and affection for the other parents at the school; all it took was a make-believe storm in Kansas to help me see that all these amazing people have been there all along, right in my own back yard.

Jun 2 2011


It was the sound of birds, chirping and singing – not just cooing pigeons – that woke us. The bright sun streamed in through the square skylight, hinting at the beautiful day ahead. No school. No clients. No phone. No rush. I do love waking up at the country house.

Buddy-roo, who’d opted last night for a sleeping bag at the foot of our bed rather than sharing a bed in the other room with Short-pants, slithered out of her nylon nest and climbed in between De-facto and me. She was still half-asleep, and the three of us hovered in that barely-awake state.

“Do you know how amazing it is – what’s happening in the French Open?” asked De-facto. (Okay, I’d thought we were all mostly asleep.)


“Do you know who’s in the semi-finals?”

“No,” I said, into my pillow.

“Not one name?”


“Come on, you can’t name one well-known tennis player?

“André Agassi.”

“No, a current champion. Can you name one?”

I couldn’t. I am not an avid spectator of sporting events, tennis and golf least of all. Since I don’t care, I don’t track on the names. My brain is so far from sticky and there’s already too much data that I’m trying to hold on to with my maternally-challenged mind, I have to push out all non-essential pieces of information. I put tennis in this category.

“You’ve never even heard of Federer?” I detected more than a hint of disdain in De-facto’s voice.

“Yes, I’ve heard of him.” This was true. I’ve heard this name volleyed about in the company of real tennis fans or on the sporting news. De-facto gave me the synopsis of his career, how he holds the record for major titles and if he wins the Open that would give him the second grand slam of his career.

Since I couldn’t come up with any other modern tennis greats, he filled me in on the other three of the four top-seeded players who’ve made it to this year’s semi-finals: Nadal, who’s aiming to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles, Djokovic, who broke the winning streak record shared by MacEnroe and Lendl, two tennis players I have heard of – and the underdog Murray, who just wants to win a French Open after three near-misses. I can see why Roland Garros is the place to be this weekend, though I’m very glad to be here at the country house instead.

“Am I supposed to be listening to you guys talk,” Buddy-roo protested, “or are we going to have a morning cuddle?”

It wasn’t her admonishment that quieted us, but that De-facto and I were trying not to laugh at her irritation. I didn’t mind, though, the end of my little tennis lesson.

This weekend is a long one, due to school and bank holidays. France is famous for its pont weekends, when an official day-off falls on a Thursday, so people take the Friday off to bridge it into a long weekend. These usually happen in May; the Ascension and Pentecost guarantee two long weekends, and if labor day falls propitiously, there can be three pont weekends in one month. This year, because Easter fell so late in the year and labor day was on a Sunday, May was holiday-free and all the long weekends have been pushed into June.

We decided to take advantage of the extra days off to see how the garden we planted last April has fared in this spring’s drought. It’s a 4-hour drive to the country house, not worth it for a regular weekend but by sneaking out of Paris on Wednesday afternoon (with every other Parisian, ergo the slog of traffic we endured) we get at least four sleeps in the country air.

Short-pants hobbled in to our bedroom, her long, lean bones still creaky with morning stiffness. She slipped under the covers beside me so that I was now sandwiched between my two daughters.

“Why is there no school today?” she broke the silence that had ensued after the abrupt end to the tennis talk.

“It’s the Ascension,” I said, “or the Assumption, or some religious holiday that starts with an A.”

“The Ascension,” Buddy-roo clarified. “Because it’s when Jesus went up, like in an ascenseur.” (That’s the French word for elevator.) She went on to tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead. “He looked around and he said, ‘My work here is done, people,’ and then he went up to see his father.”

“And Murray, he’s really funny,” said De-facto. “He says, ‘if I win a tennis match, then I’m English. But if I lose, then I’m Scottish.'”

“I’m talking about Jesus,” said Buddy-roo, irritated, “I don’t want to talk about tennis.”

“What do you mean?” he said, “Jesus was a huge tennis fan!”

“Papa, they didn’t have tennis back then.”

“Are you kidding? Jesus loved tennis.” De-facto flattened his voice like a sportscaster: “Jesus goes into the corner, skidding on the clay, and he loses his sandal!”

“You’re right about one thing,” she said, “he did wear sandals. And a dress.”

“He had a wrathful backhand,” said De-facto.

“Stop!” Buddy-roo screamed. “Jesus didn’t play tennis. I’m the one who goes to Éveil Chrétien. None of you go. I’m the one who knows.” You can tell she’s still a little angry that her sister is excused from the class to go to her viola lesson.

“I used to go to Catholic religious classes, too,” I said, “and I even had to go on Saturday mornings!”

“I thought we were Jewish,” said Short-pants, “because of Grammy.”

“According to the Jewish religion you are,” said De-facto, “but your mom only celebrates when it’s convenient.”

“I grew up going to church every Sunday,” I said, “but it’s your Papa who went to a Jesuit high school, where he had priests for teachers! He knows something about Jesus.”

“How come there are so many religions?” Short-pants asked.

I explained how, over time, different people came up with different ways to believe in God, and how some people even believed that there was more than one God, and how maybe all the Gods were the same God, just with a different name – nobody knew for sure, and how unfortunately a lot of wars were fought because people thought their God should be the only one. It’s like fighting over who’s the best tennis player. They’re all good. You could just take all the top-seeded Gods and send them to Roland Garros each year to see who wins the title. It’ll always be an exciting match.

“That’s ridonculous,” Short-pants said.

“What? Fighting a war over God, or getting the Gods to play tennis?”


“I’m telling you,” Buddy-roo said, “Jesus did not play tennis.

Oh, but if he did.