May 30 2013

In-Flight Etiquette

She side-stepped through the aisle with a young child in one hand, another child in her arms, both her shoulders burdened with multiple bags: a purse, a carry-on, a diaper pouch, a bag of toys and books. The standing child, maybe four years old, stared at me with round, brown eyes. The carried child was kicking wildly and had already started to fuss. The woman inched toward her designated seats just as these precariously perched bags fell to her elbow and the child in her arm began to cry.
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Like many people, I roll my eyes when a family with kids comes down the aisle, willing them to continue past my row and far beyond to the nether regions of the plane. A beat later I remind myself what it was like, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo were young babies and we toted them with us to the states to see family or to go on some wild adventure. Short-pants took her first consecutive steps – becoming an official toddler – in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge while waiting to board a flight to Johannesburg. De-facto and I were determined that having small children wouldn’t hamper our travel habit, so we were those parents, the ones dragging their children on flights to far-flung places, the source of many eye-rolls by many other passengers, I’m sure.

That’s how our girls learned to be good travelers. But even the best-behaved children reach a threshold on an airplane. I survived many long flights because of the kindness of strangers who’d entertain one child while I took the other back to the bathroom, or who just played peek-a-boo for five minutes so I could manage a few bites of my dinner. This is why, after I permit myself the inward groan with the rest of the passengers, I swallow hard and offer up a big smile that’s meant to entertain the child and reassure the parent. Or, as I did on last week’s flight when I discovered the woman with the two children in tow was seated behind me, I stand up and offer to help stow bags or distract the kids while the parents, already visibly exasperated, settle in.

~ ~ ~

The man sitting directly in front of me pushed his seat back so abruptly that my papers and books fell to the floor and I am certain that had my laptop been open on the tray, it would have snapped in half. My belongings spilled beneath the seat and across the aisle. He was oblivious to the chaos he’d created. I stood up to gather my things and tapped him on the arm.

“Sir,” I said, “You have every right to put your seat back, but it would be nice if you’d turn around and check with me first, so I could be prepared.”
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His grunted apology was half-hearted. But I’d won the respect of the passengers around us and after this I noticed several lovely social exchanges occurring, brief but civilized acknowledgments and non-verbal negotiation of your-space-and-mine prior to seats pushing back to a reclining position.

If I ran an airline I would make etiquette part of the flight attendant’s on-the-runway security announcements. I’d include a segment on how to share space in the overhead luggage racks, and how to remove bags from those compartments in a non-hazardous manner. It would include where to put your elbows and how to share a row with other passengers. It would also include extremely specific instructions about make eye contact with the passenger in the seat behind you before pushing your seat into a reclining position. I might also add this: Be nice to parents traveling with children; they feel worse about their crying child than you do.

(I’d also tell the pilot and the purser to be short and sharp with their intercom interruptions, especially if it has to happen in two languages. I don’t need a rundown of the duty free boutique specials, nor do I care to hear a long-winded explanation of our flight path. Just shut up please so I can get back to my in-flight movie.)

~ ~ ~

An Australian friend used to make a yearly trip back and forth between Perth and Paris with her young children. Once she and her husband were assigned three seats together and one solo seat ten rows further back. She’d asked a passenger if he would switch seats so they might sit in two pairs, one adult with one child. Her offer was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, and still, the young man refused to move.
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“Look at me.” She spoke politely, but insisted he make eye contact with her. “I understand that you don’t want to move, and that’s okay. But someday, if you ever have children of your own, I just want you to remember me.”

Ten minutes later he came up and tapped her on the shoulder and agreed to change seats.

I relish the lengthy, quiet privacy my trans-Atlantic flights permit, and I am so glad I don’t have to travel with toddlers anymore. But I open my heart to parents enduring long flights with their young children, and do my best to support them, even if it’s only with a smile to convey that I am not annoyed, even if maybe I would prefer not to have screaming kids nearby. It occurred to me too late on the last flight – but it might come in handy next time – I could help one of these frenzied moms by offering to take her fussing child on my lap, and let him kick away to his heart’s delight, right against the seat back reclined just in front of me.


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.
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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.
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“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.
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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.


Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.


Oct 13 2012

They’re Becoming

The two shadow-like figures hovered beside the bed, standing still, waiting in the dark for me to take notice. I’d been curled in a fetal position facing the center of the bed. Nobody talked or touched me, but their lurking presence was enough to stir me from my pre-dawn sleep. I turned and lifted my head, squinting in the dark, squinting without my glasses.

“We’re ready for school,” one of them said. It was too dark and too early for me to distinguish their voices.

“What time is it?” My head raised off the pillow, an alertness emerging as I realized I might have overslept. I reached for my phone on the bedside table – it doubles as my alarm – and pressed the center button. The small screen illuminated the room and showed me the time: 6:45 am.

“We’re all dressed,” said Short-pants.

I wanted to be pleased, but they didn’t have to leave for school for another 90 minutes.

“So can we watch a movie?” said Buddy-roo.

“I’ll make breakfast myself,” said Short-pants.

How did this happen, this spurt of maturity and self-reliance? Just yesterday I was spooning yogurt and bananas off of their chins and into their mouths, holding their hands as they took those first foal-like steps, celebrating the first diaper-less dry nights. Now they’re dressing themselves and negotiating video time by preparing their own breakfast. I groaned.

“Would you like me to make you coffee?” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

I wasn’t a particularly pleasant pregnant woman. I know some women love it; they glow, nest and rub their Buddha bellies. I wasn’t among that tribe and I did not pretend to be. Once the children moved out of my womb – the first of many times they would leave a mess behind them – I enjoyed them as butterballs with fine tiny fingers, but to a point. I struggled with the adjustment. And if someone made the mistake of assuming my fervor for motherhood, this happened a lot, with “Isn’t it wonderful, being a mom?” I would answer truthfully that despite my grand affection for the babies, I didn’t find the day-to-day of mothering so wonderful.

These conversations, filled with admonishment for my lack of enthusiasm, always ended with the clichéd “but it goes by so fast!” Eventually I learned to shake my ahead and agree, lest my protests would prolong an already tiresome conversation, or get me reported to child services.

But indeed, it has sped by and now those babies have grown into young girls, with a decade of stories to tell. They’ve survived broken bones and brain surgery and broken hearts and ex-best friends. Along the way, they’ve taught me how much I love having them close, just in time to turn around and start teaching me how to let go.

~ ~ ~

Now that my mother is gone, my memories of her seem precious. When she was alive they were just flashes of the past, vignettes of her standing on the back porch, seated at the head of the table, in the car beside me, driving home after my piano lesson. Now, there’s something much more deliberate about these memories. I’m calling upon my brain to use extra ink to embed these nostalgic images of her so I don’t lose them. I’m afraid I’ll forget the details about her, the things that for so long I took for granted.

Not just the images. Her words also have extra ballast, too.

“I never thought you’d be such a good mother,” she told me once. This could be construed as a backhanded compliment, but it wasn’t. I knew what she meant. Given the ambitions I expressed as a young woman, mothering wasn’t on the list of things she expected me to be good at. She wasn’t being mean-spirited; she was actually expressing her delight.

“My only regret,” she said to me, in those final cocooned days just before she slipped away from consciousness, “is that I won’t get to see who your children will become.”

This was one of last coherent things she ever said to me. Sitting at her bedside, my imagination rushed ahead to future graduations and weddings, milestone events she wouldn’t get to see. In this case, I supposed, it didn’t go by fast enough.

Well, mom, Short-pants has become long and lean and lovely. She’s supremely conscientious and creative; her homework is always completed, her room is always a mess. She cooks scrambled eggs and French toast all by herself and operates my coffee press like a barista. She’s sage beyond her years, yet there’s a poignant innocence about her wisdom. She reads books like a fiend, draws mandalas for fun and knits without dropping a stitch. De-facto is a going to get a beautiful scarf for Christmas.

Buddy-roo is becoming a force. She has the best day of her life and the worst day of her life in the span of an hour. She sings to herself in the shower. She purrs like a cat when you scratch her back, just like I did. She likes to straighten her room before she goes to bed at night. Despite the necessary nudging on her homework, she’s also rising to the task, surprising us occasionally with her initiative to do tomorrow’s assignments tonight. She has her own fashion style – leggings with everything – and she wants a typewriter for her birthday.

They’re becoming extraordinary, these granddaughters that you wondered about. They’re becoming real characters, good little people with big hearts. They’ve become everything you could have imagined – and as you might have imagined – they’re becoming even more than that. And for the record, it’s just not the same without you here to marvel at it.


Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.


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.


Oct 29 2011

That Part

“Is this the marriage part?” Buddy-roo asked. We were congregated on the beach, greenish hills in front of us, the Pacific ocean at our backs. A few white folding chairs created a half moon, upon these chairs sat the elder family and friends while the rest of us stood behind them, making a tight circle in the sand before the couple. The vows were completely customized, except for an occasional dearly beloved and by the power vested in me, inserted for charm and humor rather than tradition. The barefoot bride, my sister-in-love, wore a dark pumpkin orange dress, her groom sported a similarly orange tie with a black suit, the trousers of which would later be folded up as he trampled around the surf with their two little boys, tow-headed like their uncles had been, tow-headed like my daughters once were, still young enough to have no clear idea about the meaning of the ceremony their parents had just constructed, more interested in the piles of sand than the people assembled.

The weekend was filled with wedding party and extended wedding party activities, dinners and picnic lunches, family football challenges on the beach, informal gatherings of cousins and friends of the bride and groom. Each occasion prompted the question from Buddy-roo, who was eager to witness the marriage part and didn’t quite understand all of the other moments of revelry leading up to it.

These are always a bit sticky, these wedding moments, as the nature of our non-wedded status becomes a topic of conversation that has its tender touch points. I brace myself for the inevitable and impertinent question, “so when will the two of you tie the knot?” It’s posed by loving and curious family or friends who aren’t privy to the quiet discussions that De-facto and I have had about the subject. We have morphed in and out of agreement and disagreement on our status, a negotiation which is moot given the inextricable intertwining that results naturally from having children while engaged in pre-marital coitus.

There’s an argument in favor of maintaining this unmarried position, railing against the conspiracy of marriage. Allegedly we are not lulled into the convenient malaise that comes with the “security” of a legal union. When there is no official agreement to rely upon to hold you together, there is no relaxing of the vigilance to the relationship. No lazy couples survive; we’re here facing each other every day, on purpose.

Still, some days I ache because we have not crossed a threshold of ritualizing our feelings for each other. It’s not the big wedding or the formal doo-dah, I know the headaches that accompany the planning and production of such an affair. It’s about stating deliberately to each other: I am here, on purpose, and I mean it, and doing so with a few family and friends not only to witness such proclamations, but to celebrate them, too.

Standing in the sand with the sun upon my back I recalled my failed marriage and the mild embarrassment I carry for having entered into such a public contract only to break it four years later. I take some pride in the amicability of that parting, not that there weren’t arguments and angry words launched between us during the height of its unraveling, but that ultimately, once the threads of our couple were untangled, my ex-husband and I were civil and caring toward each other. Elegant is how I’ve often described my divorce but I’m probably framing it with an aura of revisionist history. But okay, if that makes it easier, so be it: elegant.

There are a number of reasons De-facto and I aren’t married, most of them a defense against some fear that each of us harbors. Me, perhaps, that I will fail again and be twice divorced. Him, that such a traditional label of wife will push me away rather than draw me to him, that the formalization of our commitment would serve only to eat way at the commitment which has organically taken shape as our initial attraction and affection led to a couple in residence, which created one child and then another. Not by accident, the children part: we deliberately pulled the goalie for Short-pants and though Buddy-roo was a surprise, it was only the timing of her arrival and not the fact of it. We knew we wanted to parent together, although I can not for the life of me imagine why he would want me to mother his children as I surely exhibited no maternal finesse whatsoever while we were courting.

What cycles we have been through: one of us resisting, both of us inclined, then more resistance, or apathy. It should not be taken as a sign of rejection that we are not united in holy matrimony, but more an ambivalence about the institution itself and by whom we are given permission to be official. Having said that, the disappointment of having not chosen that path seems to rise out of its invisible resting place from time to time, usually when there is somebody else’s wedding to attend, and it falls upon me like an soft, worn blanket, that old throw that ought to be given away to the good will but for some reason it stays draped on the armchair. Why do we keep that old ratty thing around? Familiarity, perhaps. It wraps around me as I stand there in the sand, with all the others who celebrate the beautiful union of these two awesomely lovely, in-love-with-each-other people face to face before us, poignantly itemizing their life promises to each other. The tears that tip-toe down my cheeks are tears of joy for their happiness, and also tears of disappointment at my own, that I have everything they have – indeed – except the marriage part.

(The last image in this post is artwork by RubySpam.)


Sep 22 2010

In Between

Listening to the French passengers waiting to board the airplane, I feel a kinship with them. They are leaving the land of large portions and loud talkers to return to the subtler world of degrees of humor and real cheese. It sounds like they’ve all had a pleasant holiday, but most of them look relieved to be returning to more familiar soil.

I love the lyrical sound of the banter between them. French is a language I can understand, but only if I am listening deliberately. If I choose to zone out, conversations can swirl around me without penetrating my consciousness. This is impossible in my mother tongue of American English; I am too easily distracted by peripheral conversations which, in French, are more like background music.

Each time I visit the United States, I am initially assaulted by this capacity to understand everything I hear. I become an unwilling eavesdropper. I don’t want to hear how much that guy had to drink last night or how much she spent on her Manolo Blahniks but I am obliged, not only because of the volume of these not-necessarily-nearby discussions but due to the fact that I understand them instantly: it’s all in my mother tongue.

Yet back in France, surrounded by the less optimistic language of French with its more subtle nuances and accompanying gestures of skepticism – the French shrug for one – I tire of never-quite-fully understanding everything, or on the other hand, the need of certain French speakers to explain things to me so thoroughly without noticing that I got the point a whole paragraph ago. In France, I feel other and yet sitting in this American airport lounge, waiting to board an overnight flight, I feel a solidarity. I’m one of them and we are going home.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo have their unique appreciation of the two languages. Passport carrying Americans they are, but they move between French and English with ease, just as they navigate the cultural nuances. Short-pants’ command of the language is correct, this becomes more apparent each year as her automatic capacity to align nouns with their feminine or masculine articles puts me to shame. She and I have reached an agreement: I am delighted for her corrections as long as they are gentle admonishments offered privately in the spirit of assistance rather than in public with embarrassed disdain. She’ll touch my arm softly and whisper, “Mama, you said un and it should be une.” I am honestly grateful for her assistance when offered in this fashion. I’m pretty sure Buddy-roo will not follow suit. My charming little mistakes will be the cause of eye-rolls and giggling behind cupped-hands with all of her French-speaking friends.

Our girls are native speakers, even with English as their mother tongue. Since it’s not the primary language spoken in our home, their French vocabulary is a bit behind that of their classmates, but their pronunciation is native. This assured by attending French schools since the tender-eared age of three. What a gift we give them. Even if we were to leave France next week to live somewhere else (a new adventure is always in our minds, but to where?) they will always be able to speak French like a local. Twenty years on it might require a small amount of study to recall the sentence structure and vocabulary, but the accent has been embedded. They will always sound French.

Beyond language, though, what nationality are they? Born on French soil, but of American blood, they ultimately get the right to be both, if they choose. I once asked Buddy-roo if she felt more American or French. “Française,” she said, turning on her toes and sauntering out of the room. (She seems to have mastered the French art of being a coquette.)

Having lived outside my own country for eighteen years, I find myself in the occasionally awkward stance of feeling in between cultures. I am an American. At the core of my beliefs is the idea that you can do whatever you dream if you set yourself to it, that one is not bound by class or caste to any destiny, that a little ingenuity and perseverance will get you where you need to go. Americans don’t own this mindset uniquely (nor is it a truth for everyone in our country), but perhaps we aspire to it more organically than other cultures. But I think I’ve become an American of another generation, that having left the county a week before Bill Clinton was elected President (though I did vote, absentee), I feel out of touch with a lot of what’s happening now in the United States. I don’t understand the vitriol of our political discourse. I can’t believe the problem with obesity or the number of drug stores per capita. I’m stunned by the absolute consumerism and dismayed by the circus that is television news. It’s not the America I pledged allegiance to every morning in school, when I was growing up, and I’m not entirely sure it’s the America I’d want the girls to call their home.

So I am in between. Often in transit.
I can take advantage of my American passport to enter my home country more swiftly than international tourists. But once beyond the customs agent, I do sometimes feel other. This is not an angst-ridden other; I enjoy visiting and I appreciate my home country as much as I’m perplexed by it. But it means I’m not entirely rooted anywhere, which is a bit liberating. I’m hoping our girls can absorb this, to see the benefits and drawbacks of both of their cultures – of any culture they hope to visit – and to study them as interesting rather than judging them as superior or inferior. This is the opportunity of living in between, the capacity to observe and appreciate everything: French, American, or other.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Jun 18 2010

Worry Beads

I look at them and I marvel at their innocence. They live in the present, enthusiastically responding to the stimulus of this moment. I can say one short phrase, and Short-pants eyes’ brighten and she runs upstairs with glee to get her notebook and pens to draw a picture that corresponds. On her way up the stairs, Buddy-roo finds a toy she left there this morning and forgets why she was following her sister to begin with, folding into the fascination of that thing in front of her now. They are vibrant beings, open-minded and open-hearted, eager to please, eager to learn what the world is about. They are natural and not yet self-conscious. They act on impulse and without editing. This is exactly how they should be.

It makes me wonder: What will they become? And how on earth will they get there in one piece?

I don’t think of myself as a worrywart, and any of you who knew me in my younger years could easily recall to me my relatively cavalier level of risk-taking. That I escaped my teenage and college years – even my twenties – without being assaulted or abducted is beyond me. My father used to say that I was naïve enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but clever enough to get myself out of them. I’d shrug and think to myself, what’s life for, anyway? Sitting around on the back porch playing it safe?

Now I nod my head heavenward at both my parents and with profound understanding. These two little girls in my charge have so much life ahead of them, so many interesting, incredible experiences and adventures and opportunities. So much to learn. So much to do.

So much that could go wrong.

Rainy days with strangers offering them a lift in a dry car. Candy anyone? Mean-spirited classmates. Sloppy, arrogant boys in stone-washed jeans who’ll break their hearts and lie to them in hopes of physical affection. Will they do well in school, so that later they can more choices in their lives? If we push them too hard, there’s too much pressure; if we’re too lax, then we don’t give them enough of a nudge to inspire them take on life’s challenges. When will they decide to give up their virginity and how and with whom and will it be lovely and respectful or will it be stolen from them with deceit? Will they resist the temptation to try drugs? Will they ignore our advice and try anyway? If so, will it be just a brief sampling or occasional recreational treat? Or will they fall into the habit and join another culture that we’d hoped to help them avoid? Will they make many stupid mistakes? Will they recover from them? Will they be cool enough not to get picked on, but not so cool that they’re intolerable to live with? Will they grow to resent us? Will they be nice to us? Will they be nice to each other? Will they succeed? Will they find love? Will they be happy?

A friend whom I admire for her very zen, chill attitude wrote to me about her 27-year old son who went hiking with her just-beyond-teenage son and together they drank a bottle of wine and the oldest one came down with heat stroke. She received a semi-coherent call from his cell-phone; he was overheated and unable to sweat, shaking, confused. Fortunately friendly locals and other hikers helped until the help she sent could arrive. In the end, she wrote, “Everyone is all ‘phew, disaster averted, guess they learned their lesson,’ etc. But me, I’m still shaken.” She went on:

“The next night there was a tremendous thunderstorm, a real deluge with cracking thunder, and I woke up imagining him still lost on the mountain in the rain, and realized that although my babies were all okay, the whole notion of keeping them safe is hopeless.”

Does this mean it never ends, the worry, the gnawing feeling that these little creatures we introduced to the world will always need a little looking after? Motherhood – I suppose parenthood – is a perpetual lesson in surrendering, isn’t it? Surrendering to the 24/7 experience, to the inextricable commitment, a pact for forever that began the moment sperm met egg, a relentless job that is as depleting as it is fulfilling (and still not carbon neutral). I know I must surrender to the fact that ultimately I will have done all that I can possibly do for them: offering guidance and guidelines, steering them toward the good things I was steered toward. Once the foundation is set, they will build the walls and the roof of their lives they way they choose. Maybe they’ll follow our design, if we model it well. Maybe not. Ultimately, it is not my life they are living; each has her own life – to thrive in, to fail in, gloriously – to live.

They are not mine to keep. They are merely guests in my life.

And still. I worry.