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.

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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.

Death on Facebook

Death on Facebook

As I was going through some unpublished drafts of things I meant to write, I came across a post I began almost a year ago, after the funeral of a friend who died at the age of 35.

It started like this:

“Today I attended the funeral of a friend from back in the day. She died on Saturday, at the age of 35. Her name was Sarah Higgins, and she was a good human.

When I say Sarah was a friend from back in the day, I mean she was a friend from way back in the day. Specifically, from elementary and middle school. I hadn’t seen her for 22 years.

I hadn’t seen her for 22 years, and yet her death has hit me hard. Harder than I thought would be possible — I miss her presence in my life, even though that presence existed only virtually, through the seemingly shallow channel of social media.”

And it ended here. I couldn’t get past this point. I was feeling too raw and too confused: I felt a deep sense of grief, and yet I didn’t feel entitled to that grief. I felt guilty for grieving someone whom I hadn’t seen face-to-face for over two decades, as if I were taking something away from those who truly knew and loved her.  I felt as though a Facebook friendship, even though it was based on a childhood friendship, didn’t measure up to the “real life” relationships she had with others.

But a year later, I still find myself thinking about Sarah, missing her quips and anticipating what she would comment on certain Facebook posts. She is still the first person I think of when I need advice on plants or have a story about backyard vermin. And the fact that I still miss someone I knew almost entirely from social media suggests that there is more to be said.

My friend Julie wrote an insightful piece on how much she values social media as a tool to maintain relationships. She talks about how people tend to scoff at the idea that there can be anything truly meaningful in our connections with others through Facebook or Twitter. But she disagrees with this notion, and so do I.

It is true that nothing can replace the connections we create through face-to-face communication. But that fact doesn’t take value away from other means of communication.

The origins of human interaction were intimate: we could only communicate when we were in each other’s presence. But from the moment our most ancient ancestors figured out how to scrawl drawings on the wall of a cave, our communications have constantly been evolving and expanding in scope.

And now we are able to pick up a tiny machine that contains our lives and have a real time conversation with someone as far away from us as the other side of the world, or as close to us as the room downstairs.

Even though our words pass soundlessly through cyberspace, the value of the connection between people is still there. We can get more than just news or updates: we can reach out to one another for advice and comfort and inspiration. We can unite behind a common cause. We can be present for those we care about, even if all we are doing is holding space in our hearts for someone we only ever see on a screen.

I still miss Sarah. Her wit, her quirky insights, her unfailing support for the LGBT community (and really for anyone who was marginalized by society), her compassion for animals, her prickly kindness filled my newsfeed and became part of my daily life. I missed her presence when she died, and I miss it still now.

Human connectedness is a sacred thing, and we like to hold it to traditional standards. But the way we connect with one another is changing. We can be devastated by the loss of a hero or icon we’ve never even met — think of the global heartbreak so many of us shared with the passing of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and Mohammad Ali. And we can grieve someone we haven’t seen in decades, but who was present in our lives nevertheless.

 

That Last Baby

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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.

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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.

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What Donald Has Done for Us

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Earlier this month, Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the Republican primary race, leaving Donald Trump the presumptive nominee.  The day Kasich made his announcement,  I turned the radio to my favorite NPR station, hoping to catch a little more news about his withdrawal. Instead, I tuned in just in time to catch the end of a news story about a man with stomach troubles who, frustrated with conventional medical treatments, attempted a DIY fecal matter transplant as some sort of homeopathic digestive cure-all.

I’m not a DIY fecal matter transplant expert, but from what the reporters said, the process involved soliciting donor poop samples, making gel caps from the sample selected, and consuming said capsule, thereby introducing “healing” bacteria from the donor poop into his guts. In other words, the guy ate someone else’s shit with the expectation that it would cure him of his ills.

Disgusting, yes. But it was also a remarkably apt story to hear on the day the world learned that a Donald Trump presidency could very well be in our future.  It’s a solid metaphor for what I perceive as the mindset behind those who support Trump: through dissatisfaction with the state of our country combined with mistrust of the establishment, people are ready to swallow Trump’s BS, fully believing — despite a total lack of evidence — that Donald Trump is the one man who can solve our problems.

I cannot fathom ever being inspired to perform a fecal matter transplant, DIY or otherwise, to treat my very real and persistent GI problems. I equally cannot fathom ever being inspired to support Donald Trump as a person who can lead our nation through our very real and persistent socio-political conflicts and economic turbulence. It is next to impossible for me to understand how any reasonable person could be inspired by the person or politics of Donald Trump.

To be perfectly frank, Trump supporters are an enigma to me. They appear in my imagination as gun-toting bogeymen, who are either ignorant hicks, racist xenophobes, or opportunistic arseholes (or some combination thereof). After all, only people who don’t know any better, or who really hate brown people, or who care more about the advancement of their own ideals than they do for democracy or peace could support a foul-mouthed, disrespectful, unstable narcissist like Donald Trump.

Right?

Maybe not.

It’s easy for people like me who live in progressive, diverse, and relatively economically secure communities to be dismissive of – or afraid of, or prejudiced against — those who find merit in Trump’s blustering confidence and so-called policies. In many ways, I come from a position of privilege. Society hasn’t failed me, or my family, and I don’t feel as though social changes have violated my core values: I don’t feel powerless in a system that is rigged against me. Donald Trump doesn’t appeal to me because I don’t need what he is selling.

Trump’s personality is a magnet for bullies and opportunists, for the Crabbes and Goyles of the world, and I feel no guilt in consigning a large number of his supporters to a category of people I cannot respect. But I also think there is more complexity among his followers than many of us would like to admit.

I was listening recently to an interview with a man who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary but who plans to vote for Trump over Hillary in the general election. To him, Hillary represents a corrupt status quo that has not and will never work for the benefit of the people.

In another interview, I heard a Trump supporter say that, although he did not agree with many of Trump’s policy proposals he did trust his strength of character. Trump’s brash self-confidence, and his fixedness of purpose were appealing to him, and they trumped whatever reservations the man had about the kinds of policies Donald would pursue.

Donald Trump’s popularity among so many people hasn’t come out of nowhere. We have been paving his road with gold for years now. The last few decades have been marked by upheaval on every level – in politics, in our economy, in technology, in communications, and in our social mores.

And as we have progressed through this upheaval, swaths of our citizens have become disaffected with our political system –  a system that, I think, many of us increasingly fail to understand. We have also  fallen into the habit of “otherizing” those who insist on taking a path that opposes our own. Rifts have become ravines, leaving a vacuum of space perfectly fitted to a person like Donald Trump.

And so, here we are, with a man despised by millions of people across the political spectrum dominating the American political stage. We tell ourselves that this guy is NOT American; that he does NOT represent who we really are; that he has vaulted into popularity in spite of us.

But, as much as I hate to admit it, Trump does represent us, and he is here because of us.

And that is what Donald has done for us: along with all his swaggering, all the cocksure, embarrassing BS he has brought to the forefront of national politics, he has brought something else too — he has given us himself as a mirror, and shown us that he is really nothing more than a reflection of who we are becoming. This is his gift to us.

It’s depressing for people like me to think that we have done anything to deserve Donald Trump as a candidate for president. It’s depressing as hell to think we might actually deserve him as a president.

But there is also a perverse sense of hope that arises when we accept responsibility for the Donald. It means that  Donald Trump (and everything he represents) hasn’t invaded our politics in some sort of hostile takeover– we invited him in. And if we invited him in, we can kick him out.

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Trump’s candidacy also gave us this image of him as Dolores Umbridge and it never fails at making me laugh. 

 

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.

 

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.

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Michele and Grandma