The One Who Makes You A Mother

227890_1028354066305_4262_n

Every mother, no matter how many children she has, knows the enormity of the gift she has been given in the form of her first child. That first baby makes us mothers, and there is nothing more precious or more transformational. It’s a gift we share with our future children, who add to it and enhance it and who share equally in our love. But it is our first child who gives us the gift of motherhood.

My first baby, the one who made me a mother, turns 8 today.

I remember the first time I held her with remarkable clarity, and with the same welling up of emotions I felt then. She was tiny – full term, but only five pounds – and swaddled like a burrito.  She opened her eyes to me right away and as I met her gaze, her lower lip pushed out into a pout and an expression of bewilderment came over her face. I remember thinking that it must have been tough for her; that everything she had ever known had changed in an instant.

If I could distill my becoming a mother into one single moment, it would be that one. Not because it was the first time I held her in my arms, but because it was our first time experiencing the world together.

Looking back over the last eight years, the best moments of motherhood have been exactly that– sharing the experience of the world around us. And I have been so lucky to have such an incredibly cool person to share these moments with.

11392929_10206602548919620_2253319815369299607_n

My girl is deep. She’s complicated. She’s tough and persistent as hell and one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever known. She wakes up in the middle of the night worried about growing up and dying. Life can be a little too big for her sometimes. She is like me in so many ways that I can almost feel my own fears and insecurities within her. Sometimes, that scares me.

She is a one girl justice league, and if I have to tell her a dozen times a day that life is not and never will be fair, I’m proud that she has a strong sense of equity. She gets angry quickly and thoroughly, but her temper is matched many times over by the strength and fullness of her love.

11138500_10206604927379080_3966426333656539286_n

She tells us stories, with chapters and in series, but she doesn’t have the patience to write them down. There are times when her creativity astounds me.

She takes people as they are, for who they are, which is a rare and precious quality I hope she never loses. Over the years, I’ve imagined her growing up to fill a number of different exalted professions — a famous writer! a dolphin trainer! a CEO! — but as I come to know her better, I think she would change the world as a teacher of students with special needs.

She is a proud Hufflepuff and will not tolerate bullies, but she slayed as Cruella DeVil in her drama class play.

12115996_10207524441206351_3709521663725071667_n

 

I love this kid beyond words. She made me a mother and she gave me the gift of herself. She’s not my baby any more, but I am overwhelmingly grateful that she is my girl.

12308584_10207761722658239_1977710451311251037_n

 

 

Babies Don’t Keep

Last week, I had a little breakdown. And by “little breakdown” I mean I was sobbing, heavingly and uncontrollably, in my car in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. I cried so hard that my contact lens became unstuck from my iris and got lost in the back of my eyeball and I had to dig it out – bawling – then put it back in because I’m half blind and I still had to drive home.

It was one of those crying fits that took complete possession of me. I couldn’t stop the tears, and I could barely hold in the sobs as I drove home.  The only thing that tempered my shuddering wails was my paranoia that I’d be pulled over for driving erratically. And if that had happened, I would have had to explain to an officer of the law that it all started because of a tiny pair of pink underpants.

***

Probably the most frequent advice parents of young kids get from parents of older kids is that we should “cherish these moments” with them, when they are small and sweet and need us so much.

I know where those words come from. I can’t look at a mother with a newborn squished up against her chest without yearning to have that experience with my own babies again – even though the newborn days with both my girls were unrelentingly difficult. I already miss the days that have gone by and I know the time will come when I miss the days that seem so difficult now.

Michele Kindercrten

norah cake

I am so overwhelmingly aware of the passage of time that I – a grown woman – had a full-blown crying meltdown in a parking lot because I had just cleaned out my daughter’s preschool cubby for the last time and found a pair of underpants she will never wear again. My baby is starting kindergarten in the fall, and the girl who was in kindergarten just a second ago is moving up to third grade. Everything is going by so fast, and it just keeps getting faster.

easter

halloween

 

I know children grow up and babies don’t keep. I know what I am going to miss.

What I don’t know, and what I need to hear, is that there is something to be treasured in the future.

So if you read this, and you have a child that has grown up, tell me what I have to look forward to. Remind me that each new stage is a beautiful journey, that with the accumulation of time together I will have more, not less, of them when they get older.  

Let us parents of children who are growing up way too quickly know that there will be moments of joy and pride and closeness and beauty that we will want to bottle up and save as much as we wish we could have bottled up the moments that have already passed.

 

 

 

Birthday Joy

Last week I wrote about my youngest turning five. Her birthday has come and gone and I have to say this: I wish I could rekindle within myself the wholehearted joy of a small child on her birthday. There’s really nothing like it.

Except, maybe, for the joy you get as a parent watching your child experience that complete, perfect happiness. It is a vicarious joy, but even so it’s not diluted.

As parents, our minds are usually distracted, by deadlines and finances and leaky roofs; often we lack the ability to experience happiness without our worries niggling behind it. But I’ve noticed there is a sense of deep fulfillment, along with a feeling of powerful gratitude, when we know that we are able to give our children these moments of pure, unmarred joy.

So maybe I wouldn’t trade being 37 for being 5 after all.

In any case, our now-five-year-old had a wonderful birthday. She was excessively adorable —

img_1865-1IMG_1920 (1)IMG_1922
But my favorite picture of the day is one of her with her sister —

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an image that sums up the feelings of the sister having the birthday and the sister NOT having the birthday quite as well as this one does.

Guess we can’t give all our kids pure joy all the time.

That Last Baby

sweet newborn norah

There is something bittersweet about a last baby.

When any baby arrives, you know that she – and no other – was the person your family needed. Each child of any family, no matter the number, adds a new dimension, filling a space that was empty. But your last baby completes your family. She draws the final line of the cube; she is the last missing piece.

And while there is joy – and a measure of relief — to be found in this completion of your unit there is also a feeling of loss. Each milestone your last baby passes is the last milestone your family passes. Knowing this brings you a constant, often irritating, urge to feel the fullness of your time with your child: to burn the magical moments into your memory so that you never lose them.

On the other hand, that same urge to brand moments into your brain is also there when you are waking up every hour to nurse that last baby for seemingly endless months. It helps you “treasure” those less pleasant moments, like when that last baby turns two and finds the Sharpie you thought you hid, or when she turns three and you are carrying her kicking and screaming out of a store. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing you will never have to buy diapers again.

*  *  *

Today, my last baby turns five and the yearning to be able to bring back her babyhood, to revive the time when I was everything to her has been strong.

But I’m not giving in to it. Because this last baby of mine is becoming a person I want to know better. The depth and beauty of her personality are just beginning to show.

norah 5 post

She has spirit and charm and an irresistible spark of impishness. Her voice is cartoonishly cute: sweet, with a hint of rasp, and she uses it all the time. She notices things that other people don’t. She craves the comfort of her parents’ arms, and she hugs her sister with crushing love. She does nothing by halves. She is kind and curious and spectacularly bright. She growls when she is angry. She has brilliant blue eyes, but it’s in her smile that you can see her soul.

She is my last baby, and today she is five. In a few short months, she will start kindergarten, where the path to independence begins. The heartstring connecting us will stretch, steadily, irreversibly, as she comes into herself.

The urge to etch moments into my memory won’t go away. I don’t want it to. There are years of last moments — precious and painful and irritating and fun – ahead of us.

norah horse 2

Bath Time is Crazy Time

Bath Time (3).png

There is something about warm, unchlorinated water in a porcelain tub that brings out my kids’ inner Kraken. I don’t know what it is.  Maybe the opportunity to be fully, freely nude releases inhibitions along with common sense. Maybe, like a lion tracking its prey, they can sense that a long day has weakened my defenses. Maybe they just really enjoy the thrill of saving their wildest antics for the one place in the house in which they could drown.

All I know is that bath time is crazy time.

My sweet little water monsters insist on bathing together. They are terrified of the shower, so they bathe exclusively in the tub. I let them, despite the havoc they wreak, because honestly you have to choose your battles.

They use this shared bath time as an opportunity to do things they can’t do anywhere else, like fight over whose side of the tub has more water, or who is stealing whose bubbles. They take advantage of the bathroom acoustics to practice their most blood-curdling, bone piercing screams, joining their voices into a wail like the death omen of a banshee.

I say things like, “don’t drink that! Why are you drinking that?! Bath water is butt water.” And “stop laughing at your sister drinking butt – I mean bath – water. It’s not funny. Seriously, it’s not funny.” Or, “God made our bodies beautiful but please let’s keep our private parts to ourselves.”

By the time they get out, I am done – but the bath time/bedtime marathon is not. They still need to get dried and into pajamas. And it is at this point, when I am at my feeblest, that my younger daughter unleashes the full power of her inner demon.

Released from the confines of the tub, she moves to the second phase of her bath time ritual: the escape. Yesterday, I turned my back on her for two seconds and she was gone. I followed her soggy footprints into her sister’s room, where I found her hiding behind the curtains, her little butt pressed up against the floor to ceiling window.

It’s a cat and mouse chase of Tom and Jerry proportions, and by the time I finally catch and clothe her, I am spent. I am nothing more than a shell of myself.

But then this happens.

Norah Sleeping

 

And I am overwhelmed with love and in awe of the fact that these little Krakens are mine.

 

Mother’s Day

My youngest daughter woke me up this morning with a whisper – “Mommy! Is it morning time yet?”

I answered yes, groaning just a little as she climbed over my ribs, wincing as the dog took my opened eyes as an invitation to sit on my hair. “Ok,” she told me, “now you can go back to sleep,” and she slammed the door shut to give me some privacy.

Some twenty minutes later, she returned with my husband, her sister, and a plate of pancakes swimming in syrup. I ate a sticky breakfast in bed while my girls showed me their hand-made cards and the dog pierced my soul with his hungry gaze. It was—if not quite bliss – a moment in which I felt blessed.

* * *

Mother’s Day is not a day of simple emotions – not for me, and, I imagine, not for many others. There are so many struggles when it comes to the relationship between mothers and children. We are all children of a mother and cohorts of a society with a rigidly idealized definition of what motherhood should be. Rarely does the reality fulfill the expectation.

And then there are the women who wish they could become mothers, but can’t, and those who can become mothers, but can’t mother the children to whom they gave life. There are the mothers who have had to give a child back to the earth, and the children whose mothers have left the world too soon.

As the adopted daughter of a mother who died young, the celebration of Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet. When I was a child, it was a day when I felt the pull of my connection with the mother I had never met. It was a day when I honored the mother of my heart – and as I grew older while she grew sicker, it was a day when I wondered what would happen to me if she – when she – died.

After my mother’s death, the day was searingly painful. I had eyes only for what others possessed, but I had lost – twice.

As the years passed, my grief mellowed and so did the pain of Mother’s Day. I became a mother myself, which magnified everything good about the day. And I came to understand that the loss of a mother gives a gift of its own – the experience of being loved by the women who mother the motherless.

These women represent the best of what humanity has to offer. They are the grandmothers, the aunts, the neighbors, the sisters, the friends who love where love is needed. I’ve known these women in my own family, and I have met them in many other contexts, in every part of the world.

Mother’s Day is an easy holiday to celebrate. As children of mothers, it is easy to see their value in our lives. As mothers of children, it is easy to see the gifts motherhood has given us — the weight of a tiny person on your chest, the softness of a cheek, the comfort of a small body still warm with sleep, the fierce strength of a child’s embrace.

It’s easy to celebrate the beauty of idealized motherhood.

It’s harder to embrace the darker side, where mistakes, regrets, and loss reside. But I think it is in this side of motherhood where we find its deepest and most powerful meaning. Because it is here where we find the forgiveness, the persistence, the tenacity of a love that transcends everything, even the grave. It’s here where we find the women whose hearts are the deepest wells, who fill the world with their nurturing grace.

For my mothers, for all the women who stood in a mother’s place in my life, and for my children who have given me more than they know, I am filled with gratitude. And for those we have lost, I will mourn.

mom and me

 

20131223-122737.jpg

Michele and Grandma

In Honor of Our Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so it seems like a good time to put into words a post I have been writing in my head for weeks.

The state of our schools is on the minds of parents across the country. We hear about oppressive testing regimens, disinterested teachers, the much-maligned common core.  We hear far more complaints and criticism than gratitude and praise. More than that, we hear about a system that is broken, in which excellence is the exception to the rule.

***

On paper, our local school does not look promising. Our Great Schools rating has dropped from an eight to a four. Sixty percent of our students receive free or reduced price lunches – the highest percentage in our (wealthy) county. We have a significant population of parents whose first language is not English, so many of our students enter Kindergarten unable to understand their teachers.

If you look at just the numbers, ours is a school that some people would choose to avoid.

Some people would, but thankfully, we didn’t. Because numbers and metrics and the problems so many people like to discuss don’t tell the whole story.

***

For me, the story begins with our teachers.

When my daughter started Kindergarten last year, I was worried. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was three. Since then, different doctors have agreed and disagreed with that diagnosis, but on one thing there is a clear consensus: she has some quirks. School, with its many transitions and social challenges had the potential of being really tough for her. Full-day Kindergarten looked, to me, like a minefield.

It wasn’t. My daughter’s teacher seemed to have an intuitive understanding of exactly what she needed to thrive. She made their daily routine clear and guided my daughter through transitions. She recognized the triggers that made my daughter especially anxious, and she made sure to work around them.

And she did all that while dealing with a class of 17 other children, who were all over the developmental spectrum. Some were struggling with the basics of reading, others were reading chapter books. Some came to school barely understanding English. Some had never been in a school environment, and several struggled with the restrictions of being in a classroom all day.   Her special understanding of my daughter wasn’t even special – because she had the same commitment to meeting the unique needs of each and every other student in her classroom.

And this teacher, as good as she is, is not an anomaly.

Back in December I had a meeting at our school to talk about my daughter’s handwriting, which was terrible.

Because her fine motor skill development was concerned, the meeting included her first grade teacher, the lead special education teacher, the school psychologist, an occupational therapist, and her principal.

I began the conversation discussing some of my daughter’s history, expecting to have to explain her quirks and how they affect her in the classroom. But I didn’t have to, because her teacher had such insight into her personality, her anxieties, and the way she learns that she was able to contribute more to the conversation than I was.

The special education teacher picked right up on what her teacher was saying, and put together a plan that was not only tailored exactly to my daughter’s needs, but which was creative and empowering.

Her principal looked over her handwriting samples, and understood immediately what our concerns were, adding in his own interpretations and recommendations.

Everyone in that room cared. They cared about my daughter as a person, not just as a student. They liked her. They wanted her to succeed in becoming her best self. It’s a gift beyond value — beyond any kind of measurement —  to have people like these in your child’s life.

***

Our teachers have an incredibly difficult job, especially at the elementary level. They aren’t just imparting knowledge. They are teaching our kids the basic skills that form the foundation of all the learning they will do in the future. And they are doing so for a classroom full of children with vastly different learning styles, family backgrounds, social statuses, and personalities.

My family is fortunate to be part of an exceptionally good school district and to be assigned to a school with excellent teachers and a strong community. I know how vastly unequal school districts across the nation are. I know that we are privileged.

But the story of our education system starts with our teachers. And if we want that system to be great we need give our teachers the support, the gratitude, and the respect they deserve.

So to all the teachers in my life: Thank You.

S