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 —

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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

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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.

 

The Smart One and the Pretty One

A few months ago, I was shopping at the local dollar store with my three-year-old daughter. As we went through the store, row by row, my daughter asked for everything she set her eyes on, as she always does.

I usually let my kids pick out one “prize” when we go to the dollar store. I steer them to the craft section, where they can pick stickers, craft supplies, or books — stuff we use.

That day, the craft aisle was overflowing with tempting offerings. Some were on my approved prize list; others were not. We spent a long time negotiating over what  constitutes a prize, and after that we spent an even longer time going through the arduous decision-making process. After changing her mind about a zillion times, she finally settled on the stickers. My body sagged with relief; we had passed through the minefield unscathed.

So you can imagine how I felt when we hit the housewares aisle and my daughter experienced a profound case of buyer’s regret. She really, really, really, really wanted the glitter paint. She needed it. I told her we could trade the stickers for the glitter, but by that point she had grown so attached to the stickers that the only way I could possible satisfy her soul was to buy her both. I said no; she cried.

My daughter is really good with the crying thing. She lets the tears stream down her face, while aiming big, sad, disappointed eyes right at you. She says things like “you broke my heart when you said no, mommy” and “I will never be happy again.”

She was right in the middle of a pretty magnificent expression of pathos when an older man came up to me and said, “Aw, come on. Let her have it. She is too pretty to say no to.”

I’d like to say that I gave the guy a piece of my mind. But I didn’t. I am far too conflict-shy. I just gave him a fake smile and walked away.

There was a lot about that little episode that pissed me off. First of all, I really don’t like it when people contradict my parenting in front of my kids in a matter of discipline. You just don’t do that.

But what really got me going that day was the whole, “she is too pretty to say no to” part. I mean, my daughter is gorgeous, so I get where he was coming from. People are constantly commenting on how pretty she is. They especially rave over her bright blue eyes, which are pretty stunning. And I appreciate the compliments.  I really do. After all, I made her.

I mean, I get it but...

I get it…

But here is where it  gets problematic. First of all, I really don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that it is her prettiness that gets her recognition and appreciation from people outside her family. I desperately don’t want her to feel like when she is out in the world she is defined by how she looks. Sometimes I think we grownups forget how watchful our children are, or how much they observe from life as it goes on around them. And even though she is only three, I can tell that this little girl is aware of how her looks influence other people.

Secondly, I have another daughter. Another gorgeous daughter with brown eyes you can get lost in. And all she ever hears when we are all out together is how beautiful her little sister is. People notice the little one because she is at the peak of her cuteness. But they always seem to miss the older one, the brown one, the one who is as pretty as she is smart.

This one.

This one.

The one who told me the other day that she is ugly. That her eyes are the color of poop and dirt. That her sister is prettier than she is. The six-year-old who is unhappy with the way she looks because “the pretty one” gets all the attention.

I know that, as much as we wish they didn’t, looks do matter in our society.  And I know that when people compliment little girls on how they look, they are doing it out of kindness, with only the best of intentions. I’ve done it myself often enough. There are times when it is biologically impossible not to rave over how cute a small child is. I also know there are times when people need to be told that they are pretty, or attractive. There are times when it is welcome and appropriate.

I just wish that when people engage with little girls out in the world, they notice more about them than just their pretty faces.

And I wish we had a better understanding of the subtle ways our words and actions shape a world that puts far too much value in the way women and girls look.

I also wish that when people see two little girls together, they notice them both.

Because they are both awesome!

Because they are both awesome!

What Are 24 Years?

For the last 23 years, on January 6th, I have written. I’ve written journal entries, poems (some good, some terrible), letters, and, more recently, posts on social media.

I started writing when I passed that most challenging of milestones, the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Writing has always been my way of processing emotions that are bigger than I am, and back then, it was the only resource I had to absorb the excesses of my grief.

So I am writing again today, because I have to.  I’m not about to break a tradition that I have kept up for more than two-thirds of my lifetime. But also, even after 24 years, the grief of losing my mother is still bigger than I am, and I still struggle to process the meaning of what I lost so long ago.

* * *

When you lose someone you love early in life, you grow up measuring your time on earth based on how far removed you are from the loss of that person. In my early 20’s, I reached the point where I had spent half of my life without my mother. Two years ago, it was two-thirds of my life. And in 10 years, three-quarters of my life with have been lived without my mom.

And yet, after all this time, with so many more years under my belt without her than with her, I still miss her. I still miss her so much that it can be hard to understand how it is possible to long for someone who has been gone from your life several times longer than she was a part of it. It can be hard to understand how you can miss the presence of a person whose presence you barely remember.

But I do miss her. I do wish she was still a part of my life. My mom was amazing in so many ways. She loved generously, she fought bravely, and she was always there — even when she was hurting, even when she was dying. She never let cancer steal the life she was determined to provide for her family. Even in the end, when it was so clear that her body was ready to rest, she still held on until she just couldn’t hold on any longer.

She didn’t deserve to die, and we didn’t deserve to lose her. It breaks my heart that with every passing year I grow farther away from the time when I had her. It breaks my heart to think about how much I have forgotten and what I will never have.

Losing a parent at a very young age means that you spend the majority of your life as a person who has lost a part of herself. You become motherless — or fatherless, or sisterless, or brotherless — in your very definition of yourself. And the child that you were when you lost  that person becomes a permanent segment of your soul as well. It’s impossible to let go of the part of you that once had what you so deeply miss.

That’s not to say that you don’t grow up, or mature, or come to grips with your grief. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience or appreciate the joys and the richness your life brings you. You do grow up. I have grown up, and my life so far has been good. Really, really good.

But the 11-year-old girl who lost more than she thought she could ever regain is still with me. And the adult who has lived without for so long still grieves the emptiness.

Twenty-four years is everything and it is nothing.

* * *

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Mom loved giraffes.

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

And she adored her children.

And she adored her children.

My Two Moms

The other day in the grocery store, my daughter asked me to tell her, again, how it is that I have two moms. This question is hard to explain to a six-year-old even in the best of circumstances. But in an extremely crowded Wegman’s on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while trying to maneuver a cart and a child through the turkey aisle, it was damn near impossible. But still, I endeavored.

In what was probably the most crowded location in our entire town at that particular moment, I stopped to explain one of the most complicated aspects of my existence.

“The mommy who carried me in her belly, your Nana,” I told her “was too young to take care of a baby. And the mommy who raised me, Grandma Michele, who is in heaven, was old enough to take care of me, but she couldn’t have babies of her own. So your Nana gave me to your Grandma and Grandpa, so that they could take care of me instead. But they all loved me very much.”

That story is about as deep as you can go with an elementary schooler. But even in the midst of the chaos and my own distraction, I was very aware of what I was leaving out.

I didn’t mention how hard I always knew it was for the woman who gave birth to me to have had to let me go. I didn’t tell her how the only time I came close to crying right after she was born was when I thought about what it would have felt like if I’d had to give her up to be raised by another woman.

I couldn’t tell her how, although I always saw my birth mother as a hero, there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder how she could possibly have left me behind. And I couldn’t tell her how, despite the incredible  love I have for the family I know as my own, I still wondered — just sometimes —  what it would have been like to be a part of a family of people who were related to me by blood.

I couldn’t tell her how fiercely angry I feel when people suggest that the mother who made me her own wasn’t my “real” mom. And I couldn’t explain how the joy I felt when I met the mother I’d lost at birth didn’t lessen the grief I will always feel for the mother I lost forever.

I couldn’t explain how incredibly fortunate I felt when the mother who gave me life was one of the first people to meet my daughter after her own birth. And I couldn’t explain how much it sometimes breaks my heart to see the genetic stamp of my adoptive mother on my cousin’s kids and not my own.

And I don’t think I will ever be able to explain to her how, even though I have been blessed with the love of two mothers, there have been moments in my life when I have felt motherless.

There is so much that I can’t explain to my children right now about the reality of my family history. Adoption stories are always complicated, and the fact that I lost the mother who raised me just muddles things further.

But in spite of the complications, it is a story I like to tell, and one that I think is beautiful.

Because even though there is so much I can’t explain, there is so much more that I won’t have to explain.

I won’t have to explain how aware and deeply appreciative I am of the love my mothers had for me and of the sacrifices they both made on my behalf. Because those gifts, which came to me doubled, are now mine to grow and to give to my own children.

I won’t have to explain that family is so much more than sharing a genetic bond, because by the time they understand what it means to be related by blood, they will already know how little those ties matter when it comes to love.

And I won’t have to explain how much love is capable of overcoming, how time and distance and loss and sacrifice only make it more powerful, because the one thing that is clear from my story is that love was behind it all.

This is love.

This is love.

* * *

November is National Adoption Month. Although I tend to shy away from Awareness months in general, I’m glad adoption is something people are talking about.

I have heard people describe adoption as something that always comes from loss. And in a sense, this is undeniably true. People who are adopting are often, though not always, doing so because they cannot have a child any other way. And people who are giving away a child are always losing a part of themselves. Adoption is not an easy option.

But adoption is also a gift of love, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t always the best choice, but when it is, adoption enriches the lives of everyone it touches and it creates a legacy that lasts for generations.

* * *

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Above all, as I am every year, I am thankful for the story of how I came to be, for where I was planted, and especially for the love that made me who I am.

And if anyone who is contemplating adoption reads this, let me share one final story with you, one that my grandmother told me many times over the years.

My grandmother had a terrible time when she was in labor with my father. The birth was so difficult, in fact, that her doctors told her she would probably die if she tried to have another child. She was devastated because she’d always wanted at least four children. So she asked my grandfather if he would consider adopting. He said no, because he just couldn’t fathom being able to love a child that wasn’t his own, especially after having a child that was.

30-some years later, after my parents had adopted me as a six-week-old infant, my grandmother came across my grandfather holding me. She used to say that he looked up from me to her and said, with awe in his voice, that he couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than he loved that baby in his arms.

Adoption is easier than you think it might be.