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.

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.

Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.

Sep 11 2011

This Mad World

All week I’ve been mad at the world. Blame it on the rentrée, which each year feels more brutal than the previous. There is the onslaught of work that I should have done over the summer, let alone the full-time job that is getting the kids back-to-school, with the long lists of books and supplies that must be acquired precisely as indicated and the organizing of their extra curricular calendars for the year. Mothers all over the city nod at each other knowingly; a friend with whom I had a rushed lunch answered the obligatory question how goes the rentrée? with a long sigh and an eye-roll. She didn’t have to say a word.

It’s not only what you have to do, it’s how long it takes to do it. I want to minimize Short-pants’ weekly trips to the conservatory, so I went over in person to try to schedule her classes back-to-back on the same day. But nobody there could help me. An hour later I left with an email address and no certain solution. Buddy-roo is begging to take tap-dancing classes (thanks to Ann Miller and Kit Kittredge) so I rearranged several appointments in order to arrive at the dance school early enough to assure her a place on the list. That’s when I learned I that the tap-dance teacher doesn’t participate in the standard inscription process, I needed only to phone him to sign up. (Thanks for putting that in the flyer.) Once again, a reminder that I’m an outsider here. No matter how long I’ve lived here or how much as I’ve figured out how to System D on some fairly challenging tasks, I’m still slapped in the face, each and every year, with some shrugging French person who explains, “C’est comme ça.” That’s just how it is.

Sent home in Buddy-roo’s cahier de correspondance, a letter from her new teacher outlines in detail the punishment system within the classroom; no mention is made of the learning objectives or the educational climate. Oui, but it’s a traditional French school, I tell myself, why should I expect anything different? And why am I in France? These are the geo-existentialist questions that come to mind every year about this time.

So I grumble about town, muttering under my breath while running inefficient errands and waiting in line to discover I didn’t need to, feeling like the clock is ticking away while I manage all these angry details of what I wish was somebody else’s life.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, my mother was visiting us in Paris when some crazy men flew those airplanes into the big office towers. Like most everyone, I can tell you exactly where I was that day; just like my parents could for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or my grandparents for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Short-pants was just shy of two months old, my mother had come over to meet her. She was so tickled to see and hold that little baby; I think she’d given up on me in the grandchildren department and it was a pleasant surprise to have a new little grand-daughter but also to see me with that child in my arms. I’d sworn off children in high school, after a particularly terrorizing babysitting incident. She’d begun to believe I really meant it.

That afternoon we strapped Short-pants into her stroller and ventured out to show my mother an artist’s squat on rue de Rivoli. I’m not sure that she was so curious about the squat, an old ceilings, ornate molding and marble fireplaces that had fallen into disuse and was then inhabited by artists who collectively managed the building. The city shrugged its shoulders and allowed them to stay, letting eccentric culture win over law-and-order and by-the-book. My mother was much amused by it, each room a working space of a different artist, some set up very typically as an artist’s studio, others more daring and whimsical, showing their eclectic work under black light or with rhythmic music to set a mood. The squat is still a working studio and public gallery; in those days it was open to the public only once or twice a week.

When we returned home, I went to my computer to check email, ignoring the news item that flashed on the welcome page, something about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I dismissed it as a light-craft error, and didn’t investigate further. Short-pants was still asleep from the walk home, I wanted to take maximize my time on-line. It was not until my sister, on a business trip in China, phoned and prompted me to turn on the television that we learned the severity of this “freak accident” which wasn’t a small plane and wasn’t an accident, either. It had all been done very much on purpose.

In the days that followed we sat, stupefied, around our television watching the crumbling towers, the jumpers, the ash and dust everywhere, the heroic fireman and rescue workers, the grieving families. It was all so horrible, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away, as if I had to see it repeatedly to believe it was true. While Short-pants nursed at my breast, I’d watch those two towers fall, again and again while her little paws beat against my chest. What kind of world had I brought this little child into? Listening to the new reports as events unfolded, and subsequent anthrax scares and the fear that gripped us all so fiercely, I thought to myself – and probably out loud to De-facto – that the world had gone completely mad and that this was the beginning of the end. Would we spiral down to dystopian religious wars and Short-pants won’t live to be ten years old? I remember caressing the soft flesh on her arm, touching the tip of her nose and fingers and toes and wondering what the world would be like in 2011. Would any of us survive? I really thought the world was about to implode in a series of well-timed terrorist plots. The outlook was pretty bleak.

Three years later, when Short-pants fell sick and I was desperately searching for the reason, I wondered if breastfeeding in front of that repetitive, horrible news had put the mysterious abscess in her head.

There was, on a positive note, such a tremendous amount of good will shown toward the American community by the French on 9/11. Families opened up their homes to stranded air passengers, people in the neighborhood who knew I was American would stop me and ask if I knew anyone who’d been in the towers or at the pentagon or on any of the planes, expressing their condolences to our grieving nation. Despite the horror of what happened, it produced an element of hope from that outpouring of thoughtfulness and solidarity, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in France. It was probably safer here, and people were being awfully considerate.

~ ~ ~

I had the best intentions of taking the girls to the 9/11 memorial service at Place du Trocadéro. It rained steadily all day – and poured even harder at exactly the time we would have had to leave – so I opted to stay home and commemorate the somber occasion with the television news. Neither one of them could have any memory of the event and it’s not a subject we’ve talked about other than as an explanation for why it’s necessary to practically disrobe when we go through airport security. They fired questions at me as the coverage of the ceremonies droned on in the background: Why did the plane fly into the building? Why are those people covered in dust? Why are you crying, mama?

I couldn’t really explain why. I wasn’t trying to spare them any pain that might come from the knowledge of what happened that day. I simply couldn’t find any words, or enough words, or the right words to convey what was lost that day. All those lives, lost. All the potential memories that will never happen because a parent disappeared that day, lost. The dignity that accompanies liberty and privacy, the compassion for foreigners and (what I thought was) our signature religious tolerance – if not lost, is seriously diminished. I long for the optimism we knew prior to September 11, 2001. Even though life eventually returned to a normal rhythm, something I couldn’t imagine at all during those mad, panicked days immediately following the event – it’s still not the same. It never will be.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. If anything, I was given extra time with my mother, who was grounded in Paris, and with other close family friends who happened to be visiting France that week. We huddled together and comforted each other, watching the news, non-stop. With the exception of the nuissance of airport security, my day-to-day life is more or less unscathed by 9/11. Listening to the victims’ family members as they took turns reading out loud the names of those killed, one by one, I felt pretty silly. Silly for my exasperation about the rentrée and all its inconvenient errands. Silly and sorry for those harsh words I snapped at De-facto the other night or my impatience with the girls when they pick at each other. It all seems just plain silly when you think about what these families have endured. Just like Short-pants’ hospital scare put everything in perspective, so does this occasion give me pause to remember – and relish – how absolutely lucky I am, with all of my luxurious burdens, to be alive and breathing in this mad, mad world.

Jul 3 2011

Get out of Town

It’s never easy. The last days before leaving for a trip always get ugly. No matter how I try to plan ahead, think ahead, and even pack ahead, there is no avoiding the inevitable frenzy and departure stress. Finishing up work projects so the hanging threads are at least minimized. Getting De-facto and the girls packed in the car and on their way to the country house. Setting in order the details of the household: bills paid, last minute errands, picking up dry cleaning, running by the post to drop some birthday cards in the mail, baskets of white clothes to be washed and ironed, suitcase packed. Get that last invoice out, answer those emails sulking in the bottom of the inbox. Stop by the bank to get cash for the trip, find a moment to shop for a new pair of cheap shoes for trudging through the gray silt of the upcoming Pamplona party. The list would not end, and the series of bullet-pointed colored Post-it notes plastered over the kitchen island seemed to multiply despite the fact that I plowed through the list industriously, barely stopping to eat or sleep, let alone to put my feet up.

There was a pedicure – a must before any summer trip and of course the visit to the beauty nurse to deal with the hair you don’t want, but then to the coiffeur to deal with the hair you do want. If only there’d been time for a facial. De-facto laughs at me when I run around at pre-voyage pace, stressed about my to-do list, on which a third of the items are beauty treatments, which he considers lavish. But I’m telling you this not a luxury; at my age, it’s called maintenance.

My usual start-of-summer departure stress was compounded this year by the necessary packing or purging of all bottles, boxes, tubes and personal toiletry items on every shelf of our bathroom and our w.c. We have arranged for both to be gutted and renovated during our absence, which meant a last-minute consultation with the contractor, some dashing about to pick up the new shower fixture and special-order lamps which meant I completely spaced out about a conference call I was supposed to join.

I’d turned the corner from frenzied to flakey.

But wait, there’s more: I knew this was not the ideal moment to wipe out my hard-drive and upgrade to a new operating system, however my recently-sluggish computer decided to freeze, upgrading this task from would-be-nice-if-you-get-to-it to the must-do-it-now status. The installation was more complicated than it should have been, requiring a manual reassembly of my document files, photos, browser preferences and email accounts. The good news is I had a fresh backup from which to work. The bad news: it still took hours. I was up restructuring my library files until three a.m.

It would help if I wasn’t so hell-bent on leaving home with everything in order. I cannot leave the house with perishable food in the fridge. The laundry needs to be put away and the tables cleared and chairs pushed in, the dishwasher emptied. I want beds made and the shoes put away, papers and books and things put away and out of sight. I like to leave the house in such a way that it’s a relief to come home. This adds a number of possibly superfluous tasks to my cluster of Post-it notes, but it does pay off. The return home is always smoother for this painful frenzy of preparation.

Keep your eye on the prize. This is the mantra I kept repeating to myself all week. Soon I’d be in the green of the hills of the Basque country at a favorite little hotel, sipping rosé and eating asparagus de Navarra. Just a few days later, I’ll be clinking champagne flutes in a room full of friends dressed in white (with a splash of red) in the middle of an entire city full of people dressed in white (with a splash of red) where for exactly one week I will be lost in the revelry and reverie that is the fiesta of San Fermín. The days ahead are days I dream of all year long: when I am beholden to nobody, when there is no end-of-day-deadline because I have to pick up the kids, no promises to keep, no paperwork to submit, no phone call to forget. These are the days spent wandering with purposeful abandon in an non-stop-impromptu parade with a posse of good friends, days where I am free to float, un-tethered and in the moment, subject only to my own whim of iron. These are the days I’ve been waiting for all year, and oh yes, they’re just ahead – if I can just get out of town.

Jan 30 2011

The Auto-dictée

She was in a puddle on the floor. “I’ll never learn this!” The text Buddy-roo was trying to memorize had been in her assignment agenda all week, but somehow we hadn’t gotten to it. Her homework was already heavier than usual, it was all we could do to get through the obvious assignments, let alone a special one. With her 7-year-old level of knowledge, maturity and motor skills, writing out sentences and circling the subject and conjugating the verb takes a lot longer than you’d think. Add some math problems and spelling to that, and the night is shot. It’s a bit easier than it used to be, but it’s still a grind. De-facto and I take turns being firm but friendly about getting homework done, one of us taking over when we notice the other’s voice taking on that getting-to-the-end-of-my-rope edge.

An incoming email message coincided with our parental angst. A thoughtful father made an informal survey of some of the parents, wondering, “Is it just us, or has there been an increase in homework?” Within hours, a flurry of responses. I’m usually annoyed by group email conversations using reply-all, but this was different. I opened each message eagerly. Another parent drowning in homework. Another classmate of Buddy-roo’s spending two plus hours a night to get it done, like her. Another mother wonders why, with all this work, there’s also an auto-dictée. Another father wishes the time spent with his children in the evening wasn’t always spent dogging them to finish their assignments. What a relief to discover we’re not the only ones plunged into shock from the amped-up after-school workload. A few of the more experienced parents tempered the complaints, commenting gently that this particular year is a tough one for French school kids and we just have to gut it out. But the main message in this email string was clear: most of us are exasperated.

We’re not a tightly-wound gang bent on steering our children toward the grands écoles. Most of us (I think) are just trying to help our kids keep up. Or more important: not to be stressed out. And the message string wasn’t only a rant. The discussion was a heartening reflection on the parents, ultimately morphing into a back-and-forth of constructive solutions and possible responses. Do we approach the teacher and complain? If so how to do it? Individually? Collectively? What are the consequences? How do we understand her challenges? Will it make any difference? Or do we just persevere and wait for the year to finish?

Then a message from a harried mother, apologizing for hijacking the conversation, but could someone scan and send her a copy of the auto-dictée because her son forgot to bring it home. That was when it dawned on me, the way something can come to you too late, even though it’s been right in front of your eyes like a series of neon billboards. Auto-dictée? It’d been mentioned several times in the back-and-forth of parent emails. What was this auto-dictée?

Minutes later a message from someone’s father who’d typed in the text. “I’m sending it to you from memory,” he wrote. There was a weary tone to his words. “After working on it for hours with my son, I’m afraid I know it by heart.”

I called the mother of one of Buddy-roo’s classmates. Even while I was dialing the phone, I had a bad feeling this had something to do with that folded piece of paper in the agenda we’d been ignoring. She confirmed this, and explained the task: Unlike the usual memorization assignments where you have to recite a poem by heart in front of the class (I find this charming), the auto-dictée means to write out the passage from memory, without being prompted or having it read out loud first, as in a standard dictation. This would be a challenging assignment for Buddy-roo if we had started preparing earlier in the week. To begin to memorize it so she could write it unaided, on the night before it was due, left us little hope for success.

Buddy-roo stomped and cried, insisted that we were wrong, that the teacher said she only had to learn the poem, she didn’t have to write it from memory. Rather than fight her, especially this late on a Thursday night, I said, “Okay, let’s just learn it by heart.” I started to work with her, line by line, but it’d been a long day. I was tired. I was angry. It wasn’t going well.

“Hey Buddy-roo,” said De-facto, “Why don’t you teach it to me?”

She handed him the paper. He read the passage a few times and handed it back. Then he started, “Alors, les source…” and he hesitated. She prompted him. Each time he missed a word, she corrected him. She transformed into the teacher, guiding him through the poem. And when he’d finished, he said to her, “Now see if you can do it better than I did.” And she did. It wasn’t perfect, but she had the basics. We had no idea if she could write it from memory, but it was ten o’clock and you know what? That was good enough.

I did write a note to her teacher in the cahier de correspondance, explaining that we had understood the instructions of the auto-dictée too late, wondering if in the future she might give us more specific guidance on new types of assignments so we could help Buddy-roo to be prepared. In the end I wished I hadn’t. The note she sent back to me wasn’t very empathetic. She started with how I had incorrectly referred to the text of the auto-dictée as a poem. Had it been a poem, she wrote, it would have been in the cahier de poesie. (It was downhill from there.)

But hey, Buddy-roo managed to eke out a minimum grade on her auto-dictée, and even got a few words of praise from the teacher, despite her lack of preparation. She also volunteered, in a sheepishly sweet way, that I’d been right about the assignment. (That’s a first!) As for De-facto, he has no recall of the text he’d learned. But at least now he knows it’s not a poem.

Oct 9 2010

The Appointment

The fluorescent light flickered on and off in the dingy stairwell. I climbed five flights to the top floor, pushed open the heavy metal door and walked down the narrow corridor. I could see into the classroom at the end of the hallway, its rows of tiny school desks with equally scaled chairs lined up in order, like prisoners tied together in a chain gang.

Earlier that morning – I had to rally the girls to get out the door to be on time for my 8:30 am meeting with the maitresseBuddy-roo stopped on the landing just outside our apartment door and looked out the window. From the top floors of our building, you can see the courtyard and into the classrooms of her old school, a place that represents the oasis of songs, crayons, painting and games that are the first years of l’école maternelle. “Mama, look,” she said, the longing palpable in her voice, “those kids – that’s my old class!” She called out the names of her old classmates, shouting to them even though they could not hear her. She heeded reluctantly when I called her to follow me down the stairs.

I stuck my head in the classroom door, peeked around to see the teacher, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties whom I’ve viewed only from a distance each afternoon as she escorts the children through the school doors at the end of the day. Madame Deville sat motionless behind her desk. She raised her eyebrows, coolly, and twisted her lips into a smug smirk.

Asseyez-vous madame.” She pointed to a small chair, one suitable for one of her 7-year-old students, facing the desk. My footsteps awkwardly audible in the tomb-like silence of the room, I approached the chair. Slowly I lowered myself into a crouch. The chair was still lower than I expected; I fought to keep my balance as I dropped into the tiny seat. Already, the status had been established.

Je vous attends,” she said, a cruel way of saying and I’m waiting for you to start. I began to make my case as Buddy-roo’s defender and protector. She smiled and her teeth gleamed. Her short brown hair lengthened in an instant and turned into curly writhing serpents. A deep and diabolical laugh welled up from the back of her throat.

Okay, that’s not what really happened.

The day before, I had an appointment with my dermatologist for an annual look-over. It is humiliating to strip and stand exposed as she examines every mole and freckle on my body, making comparisons with the photographs she took on my first visit years ago. But after too much teenaged basking-in-the-sun-with-baby-oil, and subsequent sunning habits that I didn’t cease until the last decade, it’s a necessary medical precaution for me.

The doctor found nothing pre-cancerous but furled her brow at my hairline, which is red and flaky, a mild kind of eczema that flares up from time to time. “Stress?” she asked. I nodded. “C’est la rentrée,” she answered for me. I wonder how long can we blame the rentrée? In France, you’re allowed to say “Happy New Year” only until the end of January. Does the post-summer-start-of-school-and-work transition get to bleed into October?

I made a joke about how we’ve been terrorized by my youngest daughter’s teacher. The doctor started spewing advice, whole story about how a teacher refused to recommend her daughter for a medical-school track, a daughter who is now an accomplished doctor. “You know what’s right for your child. Change classes.” I made the mistake of trying to explain how this is easier said than done. All the Anglo-bilingual kids are in one class with a rather complex schedule to accommodate the hours of English instruction; if she changed classes, she couldn’t take English. “But why does she need to learn English at school? You speak it at home, don’t you?”

What I wanted to say was, “Hey, you’re my dermatologist, not my psychologist. Go back back to my moles.” Instead, I let her blather on, her voice morphing into the muted-horn sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher while I stared out the window. But then it all became crystal clear: I’ve been trying to buffer Buddy-roo from the angst created by Madame Deville – the false enthusiasm and remaining upbeat despite my own discouragement and frustration, trying to keep my bias in check so as not to make things even heavier for my daughter – I’ve taken it on myself. I’m absorbing the stress, and this isn’t good for anyone.

No matter what comes out of this meeting, I told myself, the most important thing I can do is to be more lighthearted about it all. Buddy-roo will pick up on that, and maybe that’s the key to helping her relax and find her stride at school. (sigh)

Leaving the dermatologist’s opinion aside, I was otherwise well-consulted as I prepared for the meeting with Madame Deville. Readers made suggestions in the comments and in private emails. Friends talked about it with their friends, and phoned with me with advice. Other mothers – some who’ve already met with the teacher and some who haven’t – empathized and advised. I realized, once again, the absolute necessity of a support network. Especially when you’re in foreign territory, it’s crucial. (Thanks everyone!)

My strategy, in the end, was to go in with an open mind and an open heart, armed with questions and ultimately to ask for her help about how I could best support Buddy-roo. I was counseled by natives not to let her bully me; if the asking questions routine didn’t produce results, they said, I should put my foot down and be firm about my concerns. For this I was prepared, too.

When I entered the classroom, Madame Deville jumped up to greet me and escorted me to a desk where we both sat together, equally uncomfortable in two child-size chairs. It was not a contentious encounter; she was warm and friendly.

I was able to convey to her our philosophy at home: how we see mistakes as opportunities to learn; how when Buddy-roo gets an answer wrong we’ll say, “Hmm, I didn’t get the same answer, let’s both try it again” rather than issuing a harsh rebuke; how we’ve tried to reinforce a growth mindset, which means we praise our children not for being smart or having talent, but for working at something and taking on a challenge. But that even though we are encouraging Buddy-roo to keep at it, she’s overwhelmed by the challenge of all this homework. I wondered if other children in the class were suffering the same way and if so would it be possible to slow down even a wee bit and give us a chance to get used to it and develop some study habits before piling on more?

Non, because there’s a big fat test, mandated by the state, at the end of the year, and already it’s a stretch to get the class prepared for it. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the teachers to make sure the kids will perform. Hmm. Now I understand the demands on her.

But you shouldn’t worry, she said. All the children at this level have a hard time adjusting. It just takes time. And they all come around. (At what price, I wonder?)

Madame Deville went on to describe Buddy-roo as an absolute delight in the classroom: jovial, enthusiastic and among the most participative students in the class. The big challenge: she’s too easily distracted by the friends around her. She’s a bavardeuse, a chatterbox, only unlike other children who can bavarder and still pay attention, Buddy-roo is entirely distracted by her secondary conversations.

She’s not telling me anything I don’t know.

At home, Buddy-roo moans and gripes about going to school, how hard it is, how she wishes she didn’t have to go. At school, she is – allegedly – jovial and participative, one of the happiest students, according to her teacher. Am I getting played here? And by whom?

When the bell rang, we put on our coats and walked down the stairway together, making our way through the wave of students coming up to their classrooms. I thought about what it must have been like for Buddy-roo and Short-pants on their very first day of school, climbing up this dimly-lit, dystopian stairway surrounded by throngs of strange children. How much we ask of them, at this young age, and how little control they have.

My last point to the teacher when we reached the bottom of the stairs: Buddy-roo has started to say things like “I’m not good at French.” I don’t want this belief to be embedded in her brain. Not that this calls for disingenuous praise (and everybody gets a medal), but I don’t want her to get discouraged. Madame Deville seemed to understand my concern. I’m just not sure if the system that supports her will allow her to give Buddy-roo the support I’m asking for.

At least I know she’s not an evil Medusa, and she’s not a witch. (She does, oddly, bear a slight physical resemblance to Christine O’Donnell, but let’s not go there.) She’s a nice lady. She seems to like my daughter very much, and wants her to do well in school. As for the posturing I heard about at the class meeting, this was not apparent during our conversation. Maybe she’s more comfortable one-on-one. Or it could be that she’s had a number of individual parent meetings in the last two weeks and little by little our appeals have softened her.

In front of the school, we shook hands and I watched her walk toward the courtyard to pick up her class. Nothing was really resolved, but I felt better. Not because of anything she said, but because at least she seemed human; she was warmer and more reasonable than I’d expected. I lingered in front of the school, talking to other parents, filling them in on the meeting. “Maman!” I heard Buddy-roo call out. She was walking in line behind her teacher, holding hands with one of her classmates. She waved at me vigorously, beaming ear-to-ear like the happiest student in the world, and disappeared into the school.

Oct 2 2010

La Maîtresse

My children go to Hogwarts. You wouldn’t think so just looking at the primary school building, a fairly nondescript 20th century construction. But just across the street, adjacent to the courtyard where children clamor uncontrollably during the récré, there’s an imposing, majestic building that houses the school’s cantine and the classrooms for the older students. Classified as historic by the city of Paris, it screams of Hogwarts. Standing before it at dusk on a blustery autumn evening, its façade is severe and intimidating; Harry Potter could easily be sweeping by you in his invisibility cloak, escaping the punitive snarl of Professor Snape.

France’s education system is known for its severe and intimidating structure, one that places academic performance above things extracurricular or social. Short-pants and Buddy-roo’s school feels particularly rigorous; they have homework every night, the book-bags that they carry home each day weigh as much as they do, they are tested often and their class ranking is public.
I have the sinking feeling that the girls have learned far too early to see mistakes as something to fear rather than to learn from. At the same time, they are getting a solid education. I’ve heard too many troubling stories about US schools passing students just to move them along. That won’t be happening here, at least not at our beloved Hogwarts.

This stern ambiance is palliated somewhat by their participation in the English section, led by two creative and ambitious teachers who also care about the learning climate and the community. They invite feedback, they ask us to help plan a Halloween party or a holiday celebration so that the kids get a feeling about the culture, not just the structure of their parents’ language. The English teachers are accessible and willing to engage easily with parents. They even use email. How modern.

This is a stark contrast to many of the French teachers in the school, in particular the new teacher assigned to Buddy-roo’s class, whom I’m call Madame Deville. She’s replacing a teacher who was a bit of a cold fish, so when we first saw that there was a new, younger teacher, many parents rejoiced. Not for long. The homework assignments those first days were barely cloaked barbs at the adults for not assembling the full complement of school supplies or turning in the paperwork in a timely fashion. The homework the next week was daunting, with explicit and rather complicated instructions about which cahier and in what order to learn twenty random words that appeared to have little in common, plus the “house of 10” multiplication table and also this week’s poem to illustrate and memorize so that it can be recited in front of the class. To a second grade child who’s all of a sudden terrified of making a mistake, this is overwhelming.

Just getting Buddy-roo to sit down and concentrate has always been a bit tricky, but now there is a particular angoisse to her procrastination. She constantly has a reason to interrupt her work; to sharpen and re-sharpen her pencil or get the right pen or re-arrange her papers or to double check the cahier for the length of the assignment or get a drink of water. I know nagging will not help and I don’t want to add to her stress, but my best efforts to remain cheerful and encouraging have already been stretched to the max. Make it fun, I keep telling myself, inventing a game to inspire her to put those words in alphabetical order. But who am I kidding? That’s not her idea of fun. Not for hours every night.

(The other night at a neighborhood bar, a friend of ours who’s son is also in Buddy-roo’s class performed an hysterical monologue demonstrating how he’s ready to hang himself after helping his 7-year-old son do homework for two hours one night. We’re not the only ones who are suffering.)

I don’t expect Buddy-roo to display a seamless scholastic-competence at the young age of seven. But I do want to help her avoid getting stereotyped in an education system where your reputation gets cemented rather early, where teachers are inclined to point out your weaknesses and hold you to them. It makes me wonder if this school is right for her, for both of them. But if not here, where? Where can they get this rich bilingual, bicultural experience and strong academics plus the social and emotional support?
Does any school offer all that? Any school we can afford, that is?

At the class meeting, Madame Deville counseled the assembled parents complaining about the homework to set their worries aside, citing a French law that states it is illegal to force school children of this age do written homework. The children won’t be graded on their homework, she assured them. But if they don’t do the homework, will they be able to keep up in class? She shrugged.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meeting – I was away on business – but I feel as if I was there because it has become the talk of the school, especially this particular moment: “Veuillez avoir de la bienveillance,” Madame Deville scolded, warning that when notes in the cahier de correspondance don’t use the formal French politesse, our “aggressive words” put her in a bad mood and she’ll it take out on our children. Stunned parents are still hashing this over as they cluster together at morning coffee klatches and the afternoon sortie d’école. One father asked me if I thought this meant that if he wasn’t polite enough it would cause the teacher to be more punitive to his son in particular, or to the class in general? In general, one hopes. But no-one is sure. Everyone is reeling from this.

De-facto, bless his soul, steps empathetically into her shoes and reminds me how much we dreaded hosting a dozen kids for not even three hours at Short-pants’ birthday party. It’s not an easy job to spend the entire day, every day, with 31 young children. If she receives a scribbled, annoyed note from even a handful of the parents on any given day, that would certainly put her in a bad mood and impact her ability to tolerate the antics of the children. He has a point, I suppose, but I don’t think it calls for a pronouncement to the parents in such a finger-wagging way.

I should go on record: not all the French teachers at Hogwarts are so persnickety. Buddy-roo’s teacher last year was absolutely lovely. At a meeting this week, Short-pants’ teacher praised the class and told us she wouldn’t test the children on their reading assignments because she wanted them to experience reading as something one does for pleasure. So they’re not all prickly.

I am attempting, against the tide of tirades about Madame Deville, to keep my mind open. I cautiously address her each time I write a note in the cahier de correspondance (she mandated the parents, at the aforementioned meeting, to use her surname; the salutation of “Madame,” without her last name was insufficient). I use all the little flowery phrases from my book about how to write French letters. It’s already a challenge for Buddy-roo to like school. She doesn’t need an overzealous schoolmarm bearing down on her because her mother is too proud to play along.

Last week I politely requested a private meeting with the Madame Deville; I have been granted a ½-hour appointment with her next Thursday morning before school starts. I’m eager to see her close up. Is she the wicked witch of Hogwarts-Paris as everyone has begun to believe? Or is she just trying to get her “I-may-be-young-but-I’m-strict” stake in the ground so she doesn’t get pushed around? That’s what I hope to find out.

Any tips on a good strategy for this meeting?

Sep 10 2010


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.

Jan 23 2010

All Blue

Her entire mouth was blue. Lips, chin, cheeks, and tongue – all blue. The initial shock (Is it blood? What is it?) was replaced too quickly with anger when I realized what it was. Ink. It’s always ink. Why her school insists the kids use a stylo plume is beyond me. It’s not easy to write with – especially if you’re a lefty, like Short-pants. It makes a huge mess on the paper and covers her hands with ink every time she does her homework. But it is required.

I looked down at the floor. The beige carpet, selected for neutrality and alleged durability, colored with huge blotches of blue. There were blue stains everywhere, on her bed sheets, on the comforter cover. The final punctuation on the wall: a perfect handprint, in indigo.

I’d like to tell you I laughed out loud and took her over to the mirror and showed her how silly she looked, like a creature from an Avatar tribe. I’d like to tell you I calmly asked her about the blue ink covering face and hands and clothes and most of her bedroom floor, inquiring, gathering data, seeking to understand what had happened. I’d even like to tell you I counted to ten, releasing my anger so that if I had to scold her, at least I could do it in a sensible, thoughtful way before asking her to disrobe for an impromptu bath.

But no. It’s a classic parenting scenario. And I blew it.

I yelled at her. Sharp, angry, questions: “What’s on your face? How did it get all over your hands? What were you doing?” And when I saw the blue on the carpet, I started firing ballistic missiles.

She exploded, of course, into tears. Repeating, again and again, I’m sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry. Breathless crying. I didn’t spank or hit her, but I suppose I struck her with the violence of my words. It took an entire bath for her to settle down.

“I hate myself,” I said later, tossing in bed, unable to sleep, “I should know better.” De-facto turned and spooned with me, wrapping his arm around me, pulling me close. “You have a lot on your plate right now,” he said, “don’t add this.”

There’s always a bit of stress when we have a job, but this week put me in a spin. To get the kids fed and dressed – let alone to get myself prepared to get out the door – and scurry them to school and sprint to the metro to make it to the meeting in time was a real grind. I only have to do this once or twice a month. I’m in awe of mothers with regular jobs who handle this every day, week-in-week-out. Three days in a row floored me.

That I am going away for two weeks (or more?) adds fuel to the fire. It’s less about getting ready to go and more about getting ready to be gone. Lots of little details: paying bills, organizing child-care, anticipating school assignments, leaving little notes for De-facto. The unspoken stress about the trip ahead, well, that just gets folded and packed in the suitcase with the rest of my clothes – all of which really could use an ironing out but I’ll deal with that – with all of it – when I get there.

I’m too often stretched to the max like this, squeezing in to the short days all the things that must be done so that when 4:30 rolls around, honestly, I’m not ready for them to be out of school. I want a few more hours of solitude. I’m not ready to scramble off and get one and take her here and go back to get the other and take her there and have you done your homework or please finish your dinner or get in the bath or brush your teeth. It’s not like they just take orders and say “yes, ma’am.” There is a fantastic production of lollygagging and goldbricking and stretching out of tasks on their part. I may need to move the night along chop-chop – so I can finish that project or prepare for tomorrow’s meeting or write the post that’s been seeding in my brain all day, or hell, just have a few minutes to sit quietly, read, watch a movie, or simply collapse into bed – but that doesn’t mean they will comply.

It’s not that they are so terribly misbehaved. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do! They’re playing. They are marvelously distracted by the present, by the current thought that just crossed their mind or by the toy they just happened to see in front of them on their way up the stairs to do something else, like, for example, that fascinating coloring book – the one with the ink on the pages and a stencil to scratch it off, and wow, look what happens to it when it gets wet. (The source of all that blue, we find, was not the stylo plume, but a high-tech coloring book.)

In order to let them play, I have to juggle what role I want to play.

I did not audition to be a nagging, scolding parent. I idealized a version of me: firm but friendly, rigorous but respectful. Strict but sassy. I usually start out that way: questioning, encouraging, firmly polite rather than barking orders. But sometimes things spiral down. There are those days when I just don’t have the patience, or the feelings are simply too strong, when I hear my own voice shift from being stern and admonishing to just plain hollering. The momentary release brings a very temporary satisfaction, but then it feels worse. And it doesn’t solve the problem the way I’d hope for my girls to learn to solve problems. I’m willing to “talk hard” as we say, but I hate it when I have to yell.

So we sit down to sort it out. I ask questions and listen. I tell them how I feel and what I need. There are tears. Some half-hearted smiles stretching into honest-to-goodness ones. Apologies extended all around. Hugs. Promises. Resolutions.

Then later, when it’s quiet, I go upstairs to check on them, leaning close to sweep the hair off their sleeping foreheads and to plant kisses on their spongy cheeks. Each has her own distinct smell, one like cookie-dough, the other like corn silk. In their slumber, they are oblivious to me and to the world outside their cozy attic bedrooms. They breathe rhythmically – even snoring lightly – sleeping still and sweet and I see how perfect they are, blue fingers and all.