Jan 28 2013

Push Me Pull You

It was going to be a slow morning, the way weekend mornings should be. Little feet pattered about in the hallway and the kitchen, but ostensibly my assistance was not required. There was nowhere to go, no rushing to get up and out for school, no running to an appointment. I snuck into the kitchen to make a coffee – my second cup, since Short-pants had already brought me the first – and slipped back into bed. I puffed the pillows upright against the wall and surveyed the towering stack of books beside my bed table, wondering which one to choose for a leisurely morning read.

“Who drank the milk I left in the glass?” Short-pants yelled from the kitchen. Maybe not so much a yell as a cry, and it was followed by angry tears.

I could picture it: a tumbler, its glass discolored from years of dishwasher wear, filled halfway with milk. It’d been on the counter, next to an empty bowl. I’ve seen that glass of milk a hundred times, after just as many breakfasts, left on the counter unfinished. We try not to waste food in our family, so I always set the glass aside and use the milk in my coffee. It’s regularly the source of milk for my second cup of the morning.
Just moments before her forlorn cry, I’d dumped that very glass of milk into the frother and used it to to top off the cup of coffee I’d re-heated in the microwave. It was in the cup I’d brought back to bed with me.

“I think I used it, sweetie.”

Short-pants stormed into the bedroom. Her face was red, her lips turned down. “I was going to use that to make hot chocolate for Papa!”

I apologized and did my best to assure her that it was okay, her papa could live without it. De-facto didn’t protest. This did not assuage her anger. Remembering that I’d seen some light cream in the fridge, I suggested we could mix that with a little water and froth it up for him and it’d be perfect, maybe even better than milk.

“Really?” She wiped the tears running down her cheek. “Will you help me?”

Would I make the lazy mother’s choice? Having just put myself back in bed for a few moments of peace, that was my first instinct. I tried to explain where the cream was and how much water to mix in, but this only resulted in a blank stare from a girl on the verge of more tears. Since I’d profited from what was apparently the last drop of milk in our home, I felt obliged to help with the situation. I flipped back that cozy comforter, pushed myself out of bed and followed her to the kitchen. We found what was left in the small carton of cream and mixed it with a little water to thin it. The frother whipped it up into a cloud of warm foam, allowing her to achieve her objective of serving her papa a cup of hot chocolate in bed.

While I was in the kitchen, Buddy-roo called to me, asking for help with some research for her school presentation. I’d been nagging her to do it for three days, she was finally starting. I figured I could make a quick detour to the table where she was working, point her in the right direction and then return to the warmth of my bed and the pile of books beside it. As I worked with Buddy-roo – which wasn’t as quick a detour as I’d hoped – Short-pants returned to the kitchen and exploded into tears, again.
“I didn’t get any milk this morning.”

I wanted to strangle her for making such a big fuss out of this shortage. We could all live one morning without dairy in our drinks. Except she’d made a milky beverage for everyone in the family before making one for herself. Selfless, some might say.

After a discussion about the nature of this crisis and whether it merited such outbursts, then a quick brainstorming about how the problem might be solved, it was decided that she could get dressed and go to the store to buy some milk. A glance at the clock shocked me into the realization of what time it was; my Saturday errands ought to be run sooner rather than later when the stores get crowded. So much for my thirty minutes of peaceful reading in bed.

We both dressed and headed out together. The plan was to go to the little Arab store and get a bottle of milk, then she’d take it back home and I’d go off and do the rest of my errands. Her mood brightened as we descended the four flights of stairs and opened the door to the street. Sometimes just getting out of the house can make you feel better about anything. At the little shop, we selected a bottle of milk and I paid the shopkeeper, a man who used to watch me navigate (precariously) the narrow aisles of his store with Short-pants in her baby-stroller. He made a comment about how she’s grown. I nodded with a dual expression of pride and bewilderment.

Outside the store, I offered her the change he’d given me. “Buy some pain-au-chocolate for you and your sister.”

“That’s what I was already planning to do.” She opened her palm. It held several coins she’d taken from her own piggy-bank.

“Here,” I gave her my coins anyway. “Use mine. Get one for Papa, too.”

Smiling, Short-pants reached up and kissed me, turned around and walked – almost running but not quite – down the street toward the patisserie. She has a signature gait, it’s a little off center, pronounced because of her lengthening legs. I watched until she disappeared into the bakery. Tears in my eyes, now, my heart hurt from the morning’s mix of angst and awe. She’s oh so sensitive, but at the same time so very strong.
That’s it, isn’t it? The push-me-pull-you of parenting. It’s the fiercest can’t-you-just-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment juxtaposed with a desperate please-don’t-grow-up-and-go-away-yet. Both feelings rushing at you in the span of thirty minutes, thirty quiet minutes that you thought you’d have for yourself, but instead thirty minutes of full-throttle parenting, dancing to the highs and lows of little people inhabiting your life, ultimately marveling at the size and breadth of their hearts, little hearts that push and pull at every string in yours.

Jan 24 2013

A Little Bit Selfish

“Mama,” she said, “when you’re being selfish it’s really hard on me.”

This was Buddy-roo‘s pronouncement of the morning. You could say it’s the pot calling the kettle black, but I didn’t. She’d already launched into a long list of my faults over the last few days: forcing her to do a “forgotten” homework assignment at breakfast, not giving her permission to play video games on my iPhone, refusing to build a pretend oven for her school presentation (she’d asked me at 9:30 the night before it was due) or working on my computer instead of playing with her.

“Sounds like it’s been a rough couple of days for you.” I said.
She nodded.

“So what do you think you might do about it?” I asked.

~ ~ ~

Like a knife in the gut, selfish. And then that taunting voice in the back of my head, snickering. It’s the old tape about not being a good enough mom, not living up to the pressure to be supermom: to be nurturing and nourishing, efficiently organizing their lives and getting them to rehearsals, classes and lessons while effortlessly juggling my own professional projects, looking sleek in a pilates-carved body, lighting the candle on a elegant table as the perfectly timed meal comes out of the oven. All this while penning the next great expatriate novel of our time. For the record I gave up trying to be supermom a long time ago, but some kernel of that illusion always remains, buried, despite regularly attempted exorcisms.

I recovered from the accusation quickly enough to throw the ball back in Buddy-roo’s court. We talked about how she might do a better job of looking ahead at her homework assignments so she could get “special pass” for access to my iPhone. We talked about how you can ask for help from other people, but you can’t always expect it to come on your own terms. We talked about if homework involved less fussing and thrashing about, there’s be more time to do fun things, together.

But it made me wonder. Do my daughters see me as selfish? Am I?

~ ~ ~

The English language is missing a word, a word that’s poised, in meaning, between selfish and selfless. Self-ful. A word that would convey the sense of how to take care of yourself so that you are better equipped to support others in the same pursuit. Self-ful wouldn’t be self-absorbed like selfish, nor would it carry the martyrdom or pliability of selfless. It’s the solid stance in between the two. It’s thoughtful self-reliance. It’s being concerned with the needs of others – family, friends, colleagues – but not at the expense of your own mental health or happiness. It might be epitomized by the classic flight attendant’s instruction: Secure your own oxygen mask first, before assisting anyone else. Maybe self-ful is being just a little bit selfish.
As a young girl, I watched my mother organize her briefcase and dress for work. She also lent her professional skills to many causes, which meant she was often on the telephone in the evenings or going off to meetings after dinner. She was a busy woman, engaged in her work, involved in her community. She was also pretty good to me; she helped me, drove me, loved me. But she did all that while doing all those other interesting things. In this way, she was good model for me. And she forced me, inadvertently – or possibly deliberately – to be self-ful. I spent a good amount of time home alone after school, doing things on my own. I had to learn to be content with my own company. I had to learn to take care of myself.

I never got mad at my mom for being selfish, I got mad at her for not letting me do what I wanted to do. Which is really what Buddy-roo was mad about, and I know that. But this reminds me that I want to transmit to my daughters this notion of being self-ful. I suppose it starts by modeling it – not by being supermom, but just by doing my thing. And that might mean, from time to time, being a little bit selfish.

Jan 7 2013

Finding Out

We stepped one foot at a time into the harnesses and pulled the bulky belts high around our waists. The tall men buckled us in, pulling straps tight, double-checking that the fit was snug. Everyone was handed a helmet and a pair of suede gloves, worn from use by many hands pressing down on wire cables. Because the electricity was out, we couldn’t watch the introductory video. Instead a guide, who spoke English fluently but with a dark velvet accent, did his best to show and tell us what would happen. hiking_in

We piled into a safari truck, wearing all our gear, helmets already a necessary protection from knocking our heads against the roof during the bumpy ride that took us to from the lodge to the drop-off point. A 15-minute hike brought us out to a cliff overlooking the ravine. We climbed on to the first wooden platform, where the ropes connected to our harnesses were clipped to the guide wire at our feet.

Never at any moment was anyone not fastened on to something, either to a line on the ground, attached to the rocks by giant pins, or, in the moment we’d come to experience, on to the long wire that stretched over the open gorge. A large pulley unit was the primary device, that’s how you rolled along the cable to the platform at the other side of the ravine. But there were always two other clips in place, for security. We’d been told this was one of the safest places for Canopy Touring, and that seemed to be the case.

“Are you ready?” the guide would ask when you were sufficiently latched on and secure for your ride across the abyss. “Enjoy!”

All you had to do was step off the edge of the platform and gravity would take over. A flight through the air, only the sound of the mechanism driving along the wire and the water cascading over the rocks below. Fifteen seconds of flying freedom.

~ ~ ~

Our friends had been to Swaziland before; it’s an easy weekend trip from where they live in Maputo. Things change almost immediately after crossing the border from Mozambique. The hills and mountains rise around you, and the land shifts from dusty brown to a palette of greens. A house just outside of Mbabane, the capital, was offered to us from a friend of a friend, one with many bedrooms that easily accommodated our two families of four. We did a big shop on the way there, the kind when you buy way too much food that you never eat because you end up going to restaurants for more meals than you expected. We spent the week taking hikes, visiting various tourist attractions, like a revived glass factory or an eccentric candle-making workshop, and then, of course: zip-lining at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
Our friends’ kids had already tried zip-lining, and loved it, so we knew the activity was child-friendly. But our girls have a different appetite for adventure, and it’s not as vigorous as ours. A little cajoling is almost always required. I knew for this to work it had to be well positioned to garner their enthusiasm.

It was Short-pants I was most worried about. She is thin and spindle-like, slightly uncoordinated. She’s aware of her lesser athleticism and though we work hard to keep her moving and confident, it’s her nature to avoid physical activity. I fully expected her to resist, until I thought of her role as Grandpa Joe in last year’s school play, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. After drinking the fizzy lifting drink Grandpa Joe sings a duet with Charlie called, “I’m Flying.” This was my entry point. We talked about how zip-lining might be a bit like that scene in the story, when they’re flying through the air. She said she was game. I couldn’t tell if she was truly interested in this adventure, or if she was just humoring me. Or maybe she was afraid of disappointing me. I worry about that, sometimes.

That morning, as we donned sunscreen and sneakers, it was Buddy-roo, though she’d been instantly enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed, who came to me with her head bowed.

“I don’t want to go.” She can make her voice so little and glum when she wants to.

“It’s natural to feel nervous before you do something new,” I told her, “I bet you’re going to love it.” I was wondering, myself, if I was going to love it.

“I’m worried about my sister,” she said, trying to think of another excuse. “What if she gets scared and freaks out?”

“You just worry about yourself,” I told her, though I wondered, myself, about the very same thing.

~ ~ ~

There were eleven zip-lines zig-zagging along and across the ravine, eleven chances to sail through the air. This meant it wasn’t a one-time shot. Once you started, you were committed. There was no way to turn back.

While Buddy-roo masked her fears by whining about her sister, Short-pants stoically adjusted her harness and her helmet, listened attentively to the guide as he reminded us of where to place our hands – and where not to put them – while gliding along the cable. We’d all gotten a lot quieter as we approached the first wire. I looked over at Short-pants and she bared her braces in a broad smile. If she was feeling frightened, she wasn’t letting on.

De-facto went first and I followed; we both had cameras and were charged with capturing images of the kids and cheering them in as they came across the ravine after us. Our friends stayed to the rear, ready to coach the youngest members of our squad as each one took their turn. The first zip-lines were shorter and the drop below them not too steep – like having two starter flights to get used to the feeling and to figure out how to use your glove, with its leather palm, to slow down at the end for a good landing.
It wasn’t hard to get a feel for how to speed and slow yourself along the cable. The guide at the receiving end was there to catch you if you barreled in too fast, or to coax you if you’d slowed too soon to make it all the way to the platform. He unfastened and quickly re-fastened my ropes to the ground cable and I quickly turned to snap shots of each child, as they came into view, one at a time. Short-pants, long and lanky even with her knees bent, glided and landed effortlessly on the platform. She raised her arms in a jubilant victory pose. Buddy-roo sped in a few minutes later, smaller and more compact, but fast and confident and just as exhilarated by the ride.

As we followed the rest of the course, the cables got longer, stretching over the wider, steeper parts of the gorge. The hurdle of how-to-do-it had been cleared, and both girls were beaming. Much like our family hike last summer, the self-esteem of both daughters expanded, visibly, after two hours and eleven rides dangling from a cable strung out over a deep ravine. I’ll never know if they really wanted to try zip-lining, or if they were just afraid not to. But I’m reminded of how important it is to encourage our children to try to do new things they might not (at first) believe they can do. How else will they find out?