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.
toothy_skull
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.
all_her_facets
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.


Sep 13 2012

What’s His Name

“I have to tell you something,” Short-pants said. “It’s about my life.”

She’d been waiting for hours for me to get home and she could hardly contain herself. I promised to give her my undivided attention – something about her life deserved at least that – if she could wait for me to set my big yellow bag down, put my keys on the shelf and take off my shoes. Her eyes remained fixed on my every move.

“Upstairs,” she said, lifting her chin upwards, towards her room.

I followed her up the narrow, curving stairway and sat beside her on the edge of her bed.

We’ve had a lot of talks these last few days; Short-pants is mindful of the gravity of her passage from primary school to collège – middle school – and she’s been expressing her enthusiasm and her trepidation in equal measure.

“There’s a boy. In my class. We hung out together a lot today,” she said. “I think he likes me.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

She looked at me, surprised. She shrugged.

“Well,” I said, trying to let her off the hook. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

She went on to tell me the context of their conversations, and how he’d asked her to have lunch with him, what they’d talked about and how his friend told her later, “I think there’s some dragging going on.”

I noticed her cheekbones seemed higher, more pronounced. Her eyebrows have started to frame her gray-blue eyes in a kind of glamorous way. It’s like her body had assumed a different stance, the poise of someone who is admired. She wasn’t the same girl I sent to school that morning.

“Do you like him?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she lied.

And so it begins.

The good news is, she wanted to tell me about it, and she claimed she’d told me more details than she told her sister. The good news is, somebody seems to like her before she likes him. The good news is, she could tell that he liked her. The bad news, well, there really isn’t any bad news, except that her indifference to boys meant one less element of drama in our household. Those days are over.

After dinner, Buddy-roo asked me if we could have a moment together, too. She keeps track of the time I spend alone with each of them, always keen to keep it even. I joined her upstairs in her little garret room, where she’d been setting up the Fisher Price dollhouse, the one that used to be mine.

“You know how I’ve been in love with…” she stopped and gestured with her hands, as though she’d been in love with Voldemort and didn’t dare to utter his name out loud.

“Well, there was this other boy in school today, a new boy,” she looked at me, straight on, “and he’s cuter.”

I can’t say I’m too disturbed that her last-year’s crush might be have run its course. I’m in no hurry for her to have a steady beau. Not that she’s had a deep relationship, let alone a formal date with the one who won’t be named. Remember these childhood romances? They’re just verbal agreements, made during recreation, to be in love. At the same time, I do want to discourage her from treating these little boys as dispensable, trading an old one in for a newer, cuter model. I tried to convey this to her but her eyes glazed over in the middle of my little lecture.

“My grandmother used to tell me that boys are like buses.” I said, trying a new tack. Buddy-roo likes family stories, and this kind of an opening gets her attention. “If you miss one, another one comes along in ten minutes.”

It’s true that my grandmother used to say this to me, rather often, though it wasn’t with a condescending or man-hating tone. She meant it in a matter-of-fact way, simply, don’t get too invested because at your age there’s a lot ahead of you. She just wanted me to keep my options open.

“But when you’re getting off the bus,” I added, “you still have to be polite.”

Buddy-roo considered this without looking at me, moving the furniture around in her dollhouse.

“And this new, cuter guy,” I said, “what’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, a little embarrassed.

“Well,” I said. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

I ought to tread carefully here, as my mental acuity isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and I have my own challenges remembering the names of people I’ve just met. It’s easy to get distracted when meeting someone new, thinking about what you want to say rather than listening and locking in on their name. I even get my own daughters wrong, calling them by each other’s names. But when I was the same age as Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I had glue between my ears. I heard and remembered everything, especially if it had to do with a boy I had a crush on. What’s up with my girls, who both seem to be infatuated with unnamed boys?

I know better than to tease them about this. It’s a surefire way to get them to stop talking to me about their burgeoning love lives. But it takes a certain amount of self-control.

On the way to school today, Buddy-roo grabbed my sleeve and pointed out the new boy.

“Oh,” I said, “That’s whats-his-name?”

She nodded.

I didn’t say it to her, but you know what? He is cuter.


Aug 19 2012

Street Music

It could be any summer afternoon – in fact it is every summer afternoon, just about lunchtime, when it starts. The morning street, empty and fresh, fills up with people. The locals, shoppers and tourists mix together and the neighborhood comes alive. In our garret apartment there is a gentle buzz from below: the background hum of people talking and laughing and the sounds of glasses and cutlery in use at the restaurant terrace beneath our windows. An occasional motorcycle or impatient car horn breaks the white noise. Otherwise, we cease to hear it.

Until it starts: the squawking tones of an alto saxophone in the hands of a not-so-polished street musician. The moment I hear the first notes of Bésame Mucho I groan. A beautiful Mexican love song, written by a young woman who claimed never to have kissed anyone before writing it, I used to love this song, especially the Beatles’ version. Now it grates on me.

His playlist is limited and predictable. Bésame Mucho is always followed by the same bleak song, a bad rendition of a brooding melody reminiscent of old eastern Europe. Once heard, the tune remains fixed in my head for the rest of the day. Equally annoying: its title escapes me. I’m left humming the song to myself, then wondering, what is the name of this damn song?

~ ~ ~

Paris offers a menu of street music to satisfy anyone, especially tourists. The locals are too busy getting somewhere; we skirt around the upturned hat filled with suggestive coins. One avoids, if possible, those places where the cacophony of competing musicians and encircling crowds impede swift passage. The streets beside the Pompidou Centre, for instance, and the Pont Saint-Louis, the bridge spanning from Île St. Louis to Île de la Cité with its view of the Seine and Notre Dame‘s flying buttresses, these are prime locations to circumvent if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for live music.

An unregulated métier such as this attracts a broad range of talent, from established orchestral groups with CDs for sale to a soloist accompanying music from a portable boom box by playing only the tambourine. In the summer it becomes so commonplace to see a musician or an ensemble set up on the street that it’s easy to ignore them, though harder to evade the crowd they might attract. Occasionally, though, there’s a gem. An accomplished violinist stands under the arches of the arcades surrounding Place des Vosges, her concerto echoes hauntingly and any passerby is compelled to stop and listen and watch her sway back and forth as she plays. An acoustic guitarist sits in a shaded doorway strumming you back to your best childhood memories.

Buddy-roo likes the guitarists the best, and has befriended several, somehow managing to win their favor and on occasion, finagle a free CD. She knows I’m a sucker for a good musician, so as we approach one she’ll turn to gauge my reaction. If the music makes me smile, she’ll beg me for a coin, and run over to put it in whatever basket or hat has been laid out to receive such appreciative donations. Sometimes we’ll linger, getting our money’s worth. Buddy-roo will sway beside me, or do a little dance if she’s feeling inspired.

“How do you decide which ones to give money to?” Short-pants once asked. She knows I struggle with whether or not to give money to people on the street. If I do, it’s usually to street musicians. Among these performers I have standards: some measure of talent, authenticity, and stage presence will motivate me to open my change purse.

“The ones whose music moves me the most,” I told her, “and the ones who seem really dedicated, who work the hardest.”

“Do you think I could make money playing my viola in the street?”

“Only if you keep practicing.”

~ ~ ~

It was almost eight years ago, when every morning and night for six weeks straight, De-facto and I traipsed across the Pont Saint-Louis on our way to and from the metro that took us to the children’s hospital, where we’d sit beside Short-pants for hours, waiting and watching for one of her doctors to come by and answer our questions. Each night on the way home, I’d call my brother, a doctor, to report the medical updates and he’d put them in layman’s terms for us. Once, he was describing the difference between meningitis and encephalitis, his explanation barely audible over an accordion playing La Vie en Rose.

My brother, hearing the music, stopped. “This is too surreal,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s also my sanity.”

The accordion player was there on that bridge nearly every morning and almost every night. It was December, cold and windy. And it was dark, not like the summer when daylight stretches way behind the dinner hour and crowds congregate on that same bridge eating ice-cream and watching street performers. Some nights we were the only people in sight, passing him on the bridge as his keypad swelled in and out, like it was breathing. Any coins I had in my pocket were left in the basket beside him, his earnest and constant commitment inspired my own; his music, as schmaltzy as it was, gave me hope for her recovery.

~ ~ ~

On rue Charlot, a small storefront window displays reed instruments of every type: clarinets, oboes, saxophones and other members of the woodwind family, and some flutes for good measure. The proprietor is a gentle-souled, soft-spoken man with a long face, appropriately solemn to suit the tone of the instruments he tends. I pass by often and I rarely see customers in the store, but he’s always there, diligently repairing the pads of an aging oboe or restoring the glory to an antique silver flute.

Short-pants and I walked by the other day, as he was removing the shutters from the window to open the shop. I told her I wanted to stop at the store to talk to him. He corrected me, in English. “Not a store, it’s a workshop.”

It is a workshop. Not only is the front window packed with instruments he’s repaired and refurbished for resale, there is every kind of saxophone hanging from the ceiling against every wall. Machines with clamps and fan-belts from the mid-twentieth century collect dust. Canisters of tools – some of them resembling those of a dentist – sit atop every workspace. The clutter of instruments, equipment, antique metronomes and loose sheet music is covered with a fine layer of dust. It is part factory, part studio, part museum.

We’d just come from a café up the street. A musician there, this one a trumpeter – or trying to be – had taken it upon himself to entertain the customers on its terrace. He had a little boom box with him, providing a cheesy synthesizer accompaniment. The last song he played before he was shooed away by our annoyed waiter was the very same haunting tune the alto-saxophonist beneath my window always plays after Bésame Mucho, the ear worm I can’t name.

I stepped inside the woodwind workshop, cleared my throat and hummed the melody to the craftsmen. I asked him if he knew the title.

Right away he nodded. “Shostakovich, the second waltz.”

I knew he’d know it. I thanked him profusely for answering the riddle that had been plaguing me, and quietly left a two-euro coin on his desk before slipping out the door. I hummed that waltz all the way home. It sounded different when hummed through a smiling mouth, not as melancholy – it was nearly triumphant.


Aug 2 2012

Tough Discussions

We had a rendezvous-vous at the discussion bench at 3:00, Short-pants and I. This is a designated space in what she refers to as her forest. It was built by her uncle, an artist whose work involves constructing objects as much as painting them. He visited us at the country house a few years ago and cleared some winding paths in the woods behind the house. At the end of one of these trails, he built a bench out of wooden planks he found in our barn. Short-pants decided she wanted to name it the discussion bench.

Her forest is her escape zone at the country house. She will invite Buddy-roo there to play and they have all sorts of stories that take place in those trees, but it’s mostly a place for Short-pants to find the solace and privacy she requires. And each summer, it seems, there are several moments when the two of us retire to the discussion bench to have a little talk. Sometimes it’s a discussion about how to handle her sister. Sometimes it’s just about reflecting on the events of the summer or anticipating the events we have ahead. This is my father coming through me; he had a strong connection to the seasonal rhythms and the passing of time and often summarized for us what we’d had the privilege of experiencing and what was still in store. “It’s always important,” he’d say, “to have something to look forward to.”

De-facto and many other friends agreed it was time for the talk. Short-pants is going into 6eme at the collège next year – that’d be middle school in North America – she shouldn’t be caught unaware and subject to the teasing of her school mates. We needed to tell her the truth, and the discussion bench was the place to do so.

~ ~ ~

Sometime in mid January, last winter, Short-pants came to me and told me she was ready to learn how babies were made. A few months earlier I’d given her a book – that is the most comfortable way for her to learn – called The Care and Keeping of You, and after she read it we sat down to talk about it and I asked her if she had any questions, which I answered, all of them about how a girl’s body will change and why.

“Do you want to learn how babies are made?” I asked, “Or do you want to wait a while and digest all this first?” I didn’t want to overload her with too much data at once.

“I’ll wait,” she said, looking almost relieved. “I’m not quite ready yet.”

But after Christmas she must have changed her mind, so we made a date one afternoon to meet upstairs in her bedroom while her sister was away at a friend’s house. I had another book, First Comes Love, given to us by a friend who understands Short-pants’ penchant for reading, and we read it together with my color commentary on every page.

We talked about what we’d read. Then I added a few last words about how sex is for grown-ups, there’s no reason to rush into it because with it comes responsibility and consequences. And how when she gets older and feels ready to try it, I hope she’ll always feel like she can talk to me about it. It was a pretty good spiel, an even blend of don’t-even-think-of-going-there-yet with when-you-do-let-me-help-you-do-it-smart. I had to restrain myself, though, from blurting out a closing phrase: “Oh and by the way, there’s no Santa Claus.”

~ ~ ~

The pathway to the discussion bench is a bit leafy these days, we had to hack our way through the some overgrown brush to get there. Once we were seated, we exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about how the summer was going, the weather, how the bench was holding up. I danced toward the subject at hand, reminding Short-pants of a conversation we’d had a couple of months ago about the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. The seed of doubt had been planted by an episode of the TV show Jane and the Dragon, giving me the opportunity to come clean and wipe this maternal responsibility off of my plate. Coins may still make their way under pillows in exchange for lost teeth, but the fairy ruse is over.

She’d taken it well. I thought this left the door nicely ajar for the next big conversation: about Santa Claus. Buddy-roo had extracted the truth from me last Christmas and I’d made her promise not to tell Short-pants until after the holiday. Remarkably, seven months later, she still hadn’t spilled the beans, though she frequently asked me when I planned to tell her sister.

“Now that you know there’s no Tooth Fairy, what do you think about Santa Claus?”

She contemplated this for a while – maybe 20 seconds. I waited, focusing on my breathing.

“Is it you?” she asked.

I nodded. “And Papa.”

She stretched her mouth into a wide smile, a forced smile, a smile with tears backed up against it like a dam about to burst. She wouldn’t stop grinning at me, every piece of metal on her teeth entirely visible, while I explained how Santa Claus is a beautiful myth, a metaphor for the generosity that we’re all capable of, how Santa exists in each one of us, he is the Christmas spirit, where we give gifts to the people we love, without thinking about getting anything in return.

“Except cookies and milk,” she said. And then, after some consideration, “Do you eat the cookie, too?”

“Sometimes I let Papa have a bite.”

She held her smile firmly in place. I asked if she’d been wondering about Santa, maybe she’d already guessed. Her yes wasn’t very convincing. We sat side-by-side on the discussion bench, quietly, letting it all sink in.

“I think I’d like some time on my own now,” she said, on the edge of tears.

I kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand and stood up and walked away, silently cursing at myself as I made my way out her forest. By the time I crossed the road and went to my equivalent of the discussion bench, a shady spot in a grove of trees beside three rogue grapevines, I was crying, too. I felt like I had stolen something magical and marvelous from her, that in my attempt to protect her from the presumed cruelty of her comrades at school, I’d injured her innocence. Why shouldn’t she believe in Santa Claus as long as possible? Why did I ruin her Christmas reverie? I could have at least waited for her school mates to ruin it, and been there to pick up the pieces. Except somehow, with Short-pants, I felt like that would be too hurtful; it’d be better to hear it from me. But was it?

Later, I found her in the kitchen. She was composed, though her eyes were still a little red.

“Did I do the wrong thing, by telling you?” I asked.

“I wish you hadn’t told me,” she said, “but I am glad to know.”

Little by little, the truth trickles in and myths of childhood fall by the wayside. My young girls keep growing, soon enough they’ll be little women with far more complicated preoccupations than Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Certainly there are more tough discussions to come, much tougher than this one. I suspect there are also some very interesting discussions ahead. All this, I guess, is what I have to look forward to.


Mar 16 2012

Memory Tricks

“Wiseacre,” said Short-pants, “W-I-S-E-A-C-R-E. Wiseacre.”

She’d gotten it wrong the first time she tried to spell it, not surprisingly, as it’s a word she’d never heard before. But now that we’re on our third tour through her study list, she can pronounce each letter confidently. Most of the words she missed on that first go were instantly corrected the second time I asked her to spell them. Occasionally I’d offer a mnemonic device to help, like finesse has two s’s like the feminine form in French, because women finesse things better than men. But mostly she just remembers, once she’s learned how to spell the word correctly. Her mind, at age 10, is a sponge.

Both girls signed up for this year’s English spelling competition. I was surprised at Buddy-roo’s interest, and not surprised when her enthusiasm waned. She struggled with the words that her sister memorized effortlessly, partially because she’s two years younger, but mostly because when confronted with the work to prepare for it, the spelling bee lost its appeal. But since we want to help her learn about keeping commitments, we didn’t let her drop out. De-facto, especially, pushed her to learn as many words as she could, quizzing her relentlessly, despite her protests, on the walks to and from school, dangling a ½-hour of television in front of her as a reward for getting 20 correct words in a row. By the time the first round of the competition – a written test – came along, I couldn’t wait for him to stop badgering her.

Not that Buddy-roo isn’t a pro at memorizing. She can hear the words to a song once and sing them back, with sass and vibrato. At school she has to learn poems by heart and recite them in front of her class. She does this easily, and orates with aplomb. But if she doesn’t like something – and spelling is now on that list – the magic brain glue disappears. So even though she stuck it out for the first round of the spelling bee, she didn’t make the cut to continue.

When the results were published, we told Buddy-roo first. She seemed only mildly disappointed – more likely relieved – which changed to delight when we asked her if she wanted to be the one to tell her sister the good news: that Short-pants had finished in the top twenty and would compete in the final oral competition.

It was poignant: the two of them cheering and hugging until Short-pants stopped to ask Buddy-roo if she, too, would go to the next round, and then, after hearing the answer, wrapping her arms around her little sister and consoling her. It’s a moment I won’t forget.

Or will I? I don’t remember things the way I used to. I suppose the emotional impact of seeing my two daughters celebrating and consoling each other helps to embed it in my gray matter. But other things, day-to-day pieces of data like phone numbers, the amount of that check I just wrote and sealed in an envelope before registering it in my checkbook, the code for a neighbor’s door – my brain won’t hold it anymore. De-facto’s taken to sending me emails about appointments and obligations, because he’ll tell me and I honestly won’t remember. The information sifts through my brain like it’s a sieve.

“Don’t you remember I told you I was going to watch the rugby today?”

“No.” I answered him with disdain, as if to say I’m always the last one to know these things. But then I wondered if he had mentioned this rugby arrangement to me and I just didn’t remember. Or was I not listening?

It is easy to tune out and stop paying attention with so much data buzzing around. Documents and links to click through and read for professional edification, news of the US elections or the French presidential contest. Social networking, though not imperative, provides amusement and connections with far-flung friends. Two children squawking at me in stereo. All this contributes to the sense of information overload that seems to be taxing my memory.

I used to have a good mind. I thought of myself as relatively quick-witted. Maybe not as sharp as a West Wing staffer, but I could hold my own when it came to banter and part of this was an ability to summon key details and facts with some immediacy. Occasionally I still get a zinger in – it feels like, wow, that’s the old me – but mostly I’m experiencing a mental thickening. I can pretty much pinpoint the start of this deficiency in mental acuity to my pregnancies. Further decline might be attributed to the normal deterioration that takes place with aging, or perhaps one too many glasses of wine, too often.

I know that Google tracks a lot of things that I don’t even know about, but I hope they aren’t monitoring the number of times I receive an automatically generated email with the subject title: Reset your forgotten password. Between multiple email accounts, websites, dashboards, memberships, newsletters and on-line communities, I’ve got way too many passwords to remember.

One of those newsletters, A.Word.A.Day – which thankfully doesn’t require a password – dutifully drops into my inbox each day, as promised, an interesting word, like preantepenultimate (fourth from the end) or gedankenexperiment (something carried out only in the imagination). At least once a week I say to myself, I like that word, I want to use it in a post some day. Within hours it’s vanished from my memory. Maybe it was never there.

Is there anything to be done about it? More crossword puzzles? Memory games? A friend mentioned to me the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, in which author Joshua Foer recounts his experience turbo-charging his recall capacity to compete in the Memory Championships. The gist of it: memory is not related to intelligence, it’s a skill that if practiced can be enhanced. And there are tricks to help, like visualizing what you want to remember in a familiar place, or making associations with something particularly salacious in order to freeze an unforgettable image in your mind.

Short-pants isn’t the only one benefiting from the spelling practice. Her study list hosts some rather obscure words that I’d never met before: homburg, kavya, geta, Kabuki, so we’re both getting a vocabulary boost. There’s also a page of easily confused words that includes a pair I’ve always mixed up and misspelled: biannual and biennial. Well, up until now, that is. In my imagination I’ve conjured up the most unlikely people having sex with each other twice a year, and another odd couple doing it every other year. It seems like this gedankenexperiment (hey, I used it!) may work after all. I haven’t mentioned this to her, of course. The little wiseacre, with her recall intact, can come up with her own tricks.


Feb 5 2012

A Mid Crisis

I’m typing away at my computer. It’s 3:45 in the afternoon and I’ve just hit my stride. The fits-and-starts of my own creative process now oiled and operating, I’m thinking crisply and spitting out maximum-words-per-minute. It feels like I could cruise in this productive lane for hours, but for the hands of the clock, sweeping in on the witching hour. De-facto, best co-parent known to womankind, volunteers to fetch the kids at school. I’m grateful for an extra thirty minutes to profit from my momentum, falling back into my flow as soon has he’s out the door.

Until I hear their cherubic voices in the stairwell. It should fill me with anticipation – if I were a good mom – but instead I feel dread. Here comes the hell storm of the evening grind. The door bursts open with the blast of post-school fatigue. Both girls, in high volume screams, run to me crying, each with her unique sob story. I have one too, but I know I’m supposed to swallow mine.

I wait without comment until the home-from-school-crisis fades, the screeching ceases and the tears dry. We agree to homework before dinner, which is when we discover that Buddy-roo’s new water bottle has leaked all over her cartable. Her schoolbooks are more than damp, her pencil case drenched, after sitting in the bottom of the bag with ¼-inch of water. I know I should be coolly pulling things out and laying them on a towel, but now I’m ticked off. It’s just another damn thing to do, another project for the evening that isn’t fun, restful or even interesting. It’s probably only fifteen minutes to lay out all her notebooks to air and blow-dry the interior of the bag, but there are a half-dozen other unexpected tasks just like this that result from being a mom to 8 and 10 year old girls, creatures old enough to be independent, but not at all autonomous.

I slam each of the books on the floor, not cursing with words but cursing with gestures. Short-pants slips around me and upstairs to avoid my mood. Buddy-roo has no choice but to witness it; she knows she can’t abandon me to dry out her schoolbag on my own. I turn toward the backsplash and breathe deeply, pursing my lips so I don’t utter a word that will be irretractable. I reach for a water glass to give purpose to this moment’s removal from the chaos of their presence in my life, and these few seconds taken to fill the glass and quench my angry thirst and calm me down so that I can be civil toward my offspring. I grab two towels, hand one to Buddy-roo, and we dry off the books as best we can, spreading them out, open to the air. We lay all the pens, erasers and other paraphernalia of her pencil case on another towel to dry overnight.

“Don’t be mad, mama,” she says, “I didn’t know the water bottle would leak all over.”

I’m not mad about the water bottle. I’m mad about the train wreck of my life every day after 4:30, and how I can’t manage my time better so that I’m poised and ready for them after school. Mad that I don’t have what it takes to be more compartmentalized, more together, more agile about the juggling act that is my life. I’m mad about the Sisyphean list of child-oriented household tasks, the laundry, the hang-up-your-clothes and wash-your-hands and do-your-homework-for-your-humorless-French-teacher and did-you-practice-your-viola grind, the acquisition of school supplies that have run out, the purchase of birthday presents for upcoming parties and the orchestrating of who-goes-where-and-how whenever De-facto and I are both out of town on the same days, the day-in-day-out-to-do-list that by the time they are in jammies and stories read and lights out, leaves me ready only to collapse into bed, falling asleep before even one page of my book is turned, wrung out from the last four hours of the day.

“I won’t be mad anymore,” I answer, assuring her with a gentler voice and my open arms, inviting her to an embrace. “Now we know not to use that water bottle in your school bag.”

She wraps her arms around me and squeezes. Is it a hug of appreciation, or relief? I really wish I hadn’t lost my temper; this gives me no leg to stand on when they start screeching. But what to do when everything you’re supposed to do, being on time, being conscientious, cheerful, responsible, reliable and all such hobgoblin behavior, is heavy on your shoulders when all you want to do is escape and run away, as far away as you can?

There is, for some, a point in a marriage where he buys a red sports car and has an affair, or she joins a book club or takes a pole-dancing class and has an affair. It’s the midway, midlife doldrums, when the grind of the day-to-day bears down one day too long, too hard, too much. The routine that was once cozily reassuring becomes relentlessly tiresome, compelling us to rebel and misbehave.

Is there such a point in parenting? A mid-parenting crisis? If there were, wouldn’t it settle in about now, halfway through their childhood, at age eight or ten with as many years left to go before the promise of an empty nest? The sleep-deprived diaper-changing infant and toddler years behind, you’d think it should be easier now. Supervision is still required, but at a diminished level from those formative years, which are as full-on as it gets but somehow that baby smell, the sweet odor emitted by newborns and small children, acts like a drug, seducing you to think that it’s really okay that your life has been turned totally upside down. The scent has worn off by now (replaced by the smell of lice shampoo) but the work is far from over. Even if you’re the best kind of limit-setting French-styled parent, it’s still a lot of work to keep up with your mid-childhood aged kids, no matter how well behaved they are.

I’ve had contact, very recently, with two of my college friends who have children in the midst of their junior-year-abroad. While remote mothering is still necessary, the relationships have shifted. They’re already speaking with pride about their nearly-adult children. I suspect, eventually, you turn some corner and you get to stand back and observe the success of your offspring, and relish the result of nearly two decades of parenting labor. Like you get to retire from intensive parenting and become a parent emeritus.

I’m in between the nascent parent and the at-the-finish-line parent. Halfway through the job of raising little souls, a balancing act between honoring their nature and enriching them by nurture, even though their nature’s starting to wear on me, the day-in-day out of dragging them out of bed and getting them out the door with the right coat on and their teeth brushed, and acting as PA with an entirely different schedule of pick-up-and-take-there every day of the week, all of this exacerbated by my attempts to continue to nourish myself and my own career. And I have an equal partner in parenting. I can’t even imagine the daily existence for parents with spouses who can’t or won’t help as much, or most of all, for the single-parents, moms or dads, who do it all without a sympathetic cohort.

It’s about now that I reach back and try to grab hold of the faded drama of our bleak hospital days, when Short-pants was in the ICU and we didn’t know if she’d reach her fourth birthday. I made no shortage of bargaining promises to any and all omniscient gods and higher powers who’d hear us, pleading against an unimaginable outcome that would remove her from our family and our lives. It feels petty to rail about being at the end of my rope in a mid-parenting crisis in light of that experience, a true and bonafide crisis. I know my current problems are little and luxurious. My children are healthy, creatively-tempered yet obedient-in-the-right-doses. They give abundant love, and all those gifts, expected and unexpected, that children deliver to their parents. I’m told, again and again, that it all goes by so fast and I should cherish these days, because soon I’ll long for them. But I know the days I’m longing for now, and they aren’t these.

A good friend likes to remind me that my children will be a comfort to me in my old age. But right now, I’m middle-aged and only midway through their childhood. It’s still my job to comfort them. I know this is a sob-story, my tiny mid-parenting crisis, but swallowing it hasn’t made it go away, and the idea taking up pole-dancing seems more appealing every day.


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.


Dec 28 2011

Revelation

It didn’t help that I was horizontal, trapped in bed by a gastro that’s been going around. De-facto and Short-pants were out on the last of the Christmas-eve day errands: buying bread for the foie gras, tabasco for the Christmas Day Bloody Marys and paper for the last few unwrapped boxes. Drifting in and out of sleep, I heard Buddy-roo occupying herself around the apartment, singing to her Pet-Shop animals (those Fisher Price toys have, maddeningly, still not yet arrived), pushing the baby-doll stroller around the kitchen island, or shaking the presents already placed under the tree.

I was on the mend, but I still couldn’t sit or stand upright for too long. She’d come in every fifteen minutes or so, climbing up on the bed to check on me. She’d brush my hair away from my forehead, give me an I’m-sorry-you’re-sick look; she was caressing me, I imagine, exactly as I have tended her maladies. I was grateful for her quiet company, until she broke the silence.

“Does Santa Claus really come, or is it you who gets up in the night to put his presents under the tree?”

Were I standing in the kitchen, attending to any household task, I could have looked the other way and made a light-hearted of-course-it’s Santa kind of comment to brush it away. But I was pinned like a wrestler beneath her, and she was looking me square in the eye.

“What do you think?” I said.

I’ve been conflicted about the continuation of the Santa Claus myth. The excitement he conjures up is charming, but it’s fatiguing to keep the charade going: wrapping his presents in special paper and making sure no trace is left, remembering which presents are from Santa and which are from us, the required oblique responses to questions about him, his elves and his reindeer. I’m eager for a time when the girls are non-believers and we can exchange the dozens of parcels under the tree for a family trip to somewhere warm with sand, surf and spa. Here it was, the moment to start turning this Christmas train around, and I was chicken.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

Up until now, they’ve both appeared to be believers. Short-pants diligently wrote her letter to Santa and warned her younger sister about the spying elves. When we baked and decorated my mother’s Christmas cut-out cookies, she worried out loud about which one to leave for Santa on Christmas eve. Buddy-roo seemed less devout. It was harder to get her to scribe anything to Santa; she even seemed a bit aloof. But then she told De-facto that “the best thing about Christmas is you can ask for whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anything.” She compared this with her birthday, when you didn’t know what you were going to get and somebody had to pay for the presents. So, it seemed, she still believed, too.

“Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” I told her, “he represents the magic of giving gifts without thinking about what you get back.”

I was stalling. I wanted her to find out from someone other than me, like a classmate or a cousin. Perhaps that’s what had happened and now she was coming to me for the ultimate truth.

“But who puts the presents from Santa under the tree?”

Her question was too direct. It was time to answer. Besides, I justified, this might lay the foundation for the dialogue between us in the years to come; how I handled this could be a precedent for future honest answers from her.

I told her. The truth. Then I braced myself for her response: a backlash of angry betrayal or tears of disappointment that all this magic was just a myth.

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “It’s you?

“And Papa, too.” I had to give him some credit.

She inched herself up closer to me, her smile widening. She threw her arms around my shoulders.

I wanted to say: You’re not mad at us? Instead I said: “It doesn’t mean that Santa doesn’t exist. He’s in all of us, at anytime of the year. He just comes out more generously at Christmas.”

“Who eats the cookie we leave out?” she asked.
“I do.”
“And the carrot, for the reindeer, who eats that?”
“Papa.”
“How come you get the cookie?”
“That’s how we roll.”

Now I wondered about Short-pants. She’d been doing such a fine job of believing – almost too good a job for her age – that I’d started to think maybe she was playing along to humor us. I did this: for three years I was well aware who was really putting those big-ticket gifts under the tree, but I didn’t fess up. The booty Santa brings is always more interesting. How do you think I got so many of those Fisher Price toys?

I asked her if Short-pants still believed.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “She still believes.”

“Will you give me a present, then?” I asked. She nodded solemnly, to match the tone of my request.

“Please. Don’t. Tell. Her.”

I remembered how crushed she’d been, running to her room in tears when she learned that the Bastille Day fireworks weren’t really in honor of her birthday, something De-facto and I had perpetuated as a charming story – we thought – as the fireworks in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she was born, started just a few moments after she was born.

“At least not until after this Christmas.”

Buddy-roo promised, and it was a promise she kept. In fact, she played along so well with the entire ruse that I realized that I’ve set no precedent whatsoever for any honest answers in the coming years. But we had peace at Christmas, in a festive kind of way, which is what I needed, and what I wish for all of you for the remainder of the holiday season.


Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.


Nov 30 2011

Departure Stress

It wasn’t as bad as usual, this time. I even spent a few hours, the day before leaving, no less, wandering through the brocante on the rue de Bretagne with De-facto and the girls. We combed through the stalls of faux-antiques, furniture and junk in search of bookshelves and a dresser for the girls’ bedrooms, stopping midway for a chocolate chaud before hunting some more and heading home without a bookshelf or a chest-of-drawers, but instead with a desk for Buddy-roo that we hope will inspire her to do her homework.

Such a leisurely, familial break could have set me back, but it didn’t. I managed, somehow, to be packed and in bed with the (most of) the list checked-off by midnight. This is highly unusual. There were also fewer incidents of dragging my hands through my hair with the exasperated how will I ever get it all done? that too often accompanies my preparations for a journey. I’m a chronic sufferer of departure stress, but for this trip it was less torturous than usual.

Not that there was a total absence of angst. I lamented out loud, more than once, what was I thinking? I must have lost my sanity to agree to these projects that would take me away from Paris for such an extended period of time, and just before Christmas. I’ve been traveling too much, I moaned to De-facto, I can’t do it like this anymore.

Which is a load of crap, because I love to travel, it’s my drug of choice. I like to be on the road. I am most invigorated standing on a train platform with my valise beside me, or dragging my suitcase through a long airport corridor. Standing in a long queue at passport control can indeed be frustrating, but it can also breed a fierce anticipation of the adventures ahead. It’s all how you look at it. This trait I inherited from my mother, who in turn learned it from hers.

The problem is my obsession to put things doubly in order (also inherited). There’s the preparation to go away: packing, assembling supplies and the fairly mindless yet remarkably time-consuming task of booking tickets and checking-in on line. Then there’s the preparation to be gone for such a long time: paying bills, leaving notes and cash for the cleaner, anticipating babysitter coverage for the complicated moments in the girls’ schedules. It doesn’t help that De-facto has his own week-long trip during my three week absence, so a detailed calendar is required for the two babysitters who manage the girls days and nights when we’re both gone, including pick-up from two different birthday parties and dropping Buddy-roo with one of her friends while Short-pants goes to her music lesson. This is not just organization; it’s choreography.

I catch myself whinging about it and I think of the longing moments I spent on my back porch, growing up, dreaming of traveling in the manner that I do now, and I want to slap myself across the face and shout snap out of it! Because once I’m on the plane – or even before, once I’ve cleared security and I’m in duty-free land – and there’s nothing else to attend to and only the voyage ahead, I’m in a state of bliss. Two long-haul flights to get to New Zealand? No problem. That’s a full day of absolutely uninterruptable time, which can also be described as several movies, two New Yorkers, a novel and still plenty of sleep. I’ll wake up as the plane landed in a far-away place with the familiar tickle: who knows what adventures are ahead?

Guilt is part of it. Even though De-facto is super about taking on the kids and never once complained (to me) about the duration of this trip, I know what it’s like to be the sole parent at home – I do it for him when he travels. The girls don’t like it when I’m gone; their sweet pleading voices tug at me. Worse, I’m missing several important events-of-the-season: the school marché de Noël, the Christmas carol concert and Short-pants’ first viola recital. I know how it meant so much to me that my parents sat through all my orchestra and chorus performances. I feel a bit guilty to be missing theirs.

But guilt is part of parenting. A constant stream of media and societal messages harp on us about how to parent; it’s easy to get caught up in it. I’m always unwinding myself from this tangle, remembering that I don’t have to be the perfect parent, I just have to be a good one. Being true to myself is part of that recipe; mothering by example.

Now I am halfway around the world after 24 tranquil flight-hours of travel that followed 24 hours of frenzied preparation. I do miss my family, but without drama. I also know that this is an important part of me: to be on a trip with a grip, and I can’t deny it. Traveling may seem like a hassle when managing a life around kids, but if I didn’t get to do it at all, I’d shrivel up.

So I endure the pain of preparing to go away, and I find a reasonably sized receptacle in which to place my guilt about being gone. I focus not on the morning cuddles that I’m missing, but on those that will be all the more succulent when I return. And I hope that when it’s time for Short-pants and Buddy-roo to go out and grab the world, they’ll know just how to do it: without stress, without guilt, instead with a wide-angle view on the horizon, and all it has to offer.