The Future is in Good Hands

A few weeks into this school year, my first-grader came home talking about a boy. It was a boy she had never mentioned to me before, and she told me that she loved him.  Before long, every story she brought home from her day seemed to involve Daniel* in some way.

“Mommy,” my daughter would tell me, “Daniel is new and he is just sooo cute. I sat next to him at lunch today.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel loves Sponge Bob. It’s his favorite thing in the whole world. I’m going to draw him one and give it to him tomorrow.”

Or, “Mommy, sometimes Daniel has a hard time following the rules during recess, so I help him”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel has the cutest smile.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel is so lucky because he gets to have a teacher to play with him all the time.”

I was a bit bemused by her passion for Daniel.  As I have mentioned before, she already has a fiance, a backup fiance, and a back-up back-up fiance. She also has a best friend at school, who is the Diana to her Anne. And although she talks frequently about all of her friends, never before had one person dominated so many of our extracurricular conversations.

* * *

Then one day I finally met Daniel, the boy I thought I had come to know so well. It was during pick-up after school , which is always a crowded time of day. My daughter pointed toward the building and said, “Mommy, look! There’s Daniel! Isn’t he so cute?!” Looking around the group of children, I saw a blonde boy with a red shirt near the place she had indicated. I waved, and said hi, but my daughter just laughed. No, she told me, Daniel was the boy next to the building, who was holding his teacher’s hand.

And in that moment, I realized two things: First, that Daniel has Down Syndrome. And second, that my daughter has no clue.

My daughter has no idea — none — that there are many people in this world who view Daniel as being different, or slow, or limited. To her, Daniel is a boy who loves Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo, the one child in her entire class shorter than she is, the kid with the magnificent smile.

I don’t think I have ever been more in love with my daughter than I was in the moment when I had that realization, because it was such a powerful indication of the person she fundamentally is. When she was first diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I knew that she had superpowers. And one of those superpowers is the ability to see people without being distracted by the buzzing of social perceptions and prejudices that those of us who are neurotypical are so keen at picking up. My daughter sees what people show her, and in Daniel, she saw a friend.

* * *

The story could end here. It probably should, as far as good writing goes. But I went on a field trip with my daughter’s entire first grade class and I realized something else, something far more important, and I can’t end this post without mentioning it.

Those kids? They love Daniel. It’s not just my daughter, who is special in her own way. They all like him. They all wanted to spend time with him, to make him laugh, and to hold his hand and help him when he needed it. I can’t say whether they perceived Daniel’s differences or not. The point is, it didn’t matter. He was as much a part of their group identity as anyone else. And that, my friends, is beautiful.

My daughter doesn’t attend a private school. She isn’t in a rich school either — more than half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Our test scores aren’t fabulous, mainly because so many of our students are children of immigrants whose first exposure to English has been in their kindergarten classroom. GreatSchools.com rates us at a six out of ten.

But I don’t think I would want to send my daughter anywhere else. What her school offers goes far beyond what can be measured. There is a community there, an understanding that we are all in this together. She is being educated — and educated well — but more importantly, she and her classmates are learning what it means to be a part of a group, to value differences, and to respect what makes each of us unique.

So the next time you hear that our schools are in crisis, remember Daniel, and let yourself believe that the future is in good hands.

 

*We will call this young man Daniel, because I don’t like using real names, and Daniel is what I would have named a son if I’d had one.

 

Three Things I Learned on my Summer Vacation

Summer is over and fall has begun and I know this because people on Facebook are talking about pumpkin spice. But before I embrace sweaters and falling leaves and the extra holiday pounds, I would like to reflect a little on what I learned during my vacation under the sunny skies of Virginia Beach.

1. My Older Daughter Cannot Be Trusted Around Boys

One day I will write a post about my six-year-old’s romances. But for now, let me just say that she has a fiance, a boy who proposed to her when they were both three. And although she has remained steadfast in her plans to marry this boy for nearly three years, she also has a back-up fiance and a back-up back-up fiance. The girl likes boys, and boys like her.

She might be a bit too into boys for my liking, but she has always picked the sweet, smart boys. Her fiance (the main one) first won her heart by offering to take one of the big-wheel bikes from their preschool and ride it to find me when she told him that she missed her mommy. Her back-up fiance was reading at a 3rd grade level and building DNA models in kindergarten. And her back-up back-up fiance stuck up for her when she was being bullied by a girl in their class who is bigger than both of them.

And then, we went on vacation. On our first day there, my husband took our girls to the beach while I went shopping for groceries. When I joined them later, I came upon this scene: my six-year old, bobbing neck-deep in the ocean, talking to an older boy with sun-kissed skin and shiny golden hair. When they came out of the water, I saw that he was not only handsome in the surfer-boy style but that he also wore an actual shark-tooth-on-hemp necklace. This child was the Benjamin-Buttoned version of my teenage fantasy and he was chatting up my baby girl.

She told me later that she was talking to him because he wanted to see her beautiful seashell. So, she gave it to him and they talked and then he gave it back and they just hung out in the water afterward.

I have to admit that after she told me this story — about how the strong and shiny surfer boy talked her into sharing her precious seashell, I was sorely tempted to grasp her by the shoulders and tell her that no boy — ever —  has the right to have her beautiful seashell if she doesn’t want to give it to him! But I resisted because maybe (just maybe) I was reading a little too much into the situation.

It's too soon for this!

It’s too soon for this!

2. If You Put a US Coast Guard Approved Flotation Device on my Younger Daughter She Will Swim ANYWHERE. 

My three-year-old is tiny. I weighed her today and, for the first time ever, she has broken 25 lbs. She is a small kid.

But if you put this little half-pint of a girl in a life vest, there is no body of water that she won’t try to conquer. She was wearing her Puddlejumpers out in the waves where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean and she was owning them. If you give her a boogie board along with that life vest, she will wrap her little arms around that thing and ride the waves like she was born in them. Not only is she unafraid of the bobbing of the water, but she was actually managing to propel herself through it. She was swimming in water that I was afraid to go in. In the wave pool at the water park, she positioned herself in the deepest water, where she could be sure that she would get hit by the waves at their most powerful.

There is a certain amount of pride that you feel when you see your own personal tiny person out in the world doing brave and difficult things. In fact, the feeling is almost overwhelming. I can’t stop myself from scrolling at random through the pictures I took of her, marveling at how my fierce little toddler is taming the ocean.

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3. Beauty Is in The Eye of the Person Who Believes She Will Find It

Like most beach vacations that take place with children in tow, I spent a good part of ours walking along the shore line looking for seashells. I focused on finding the ones that were whole, with the traditional opened fan shape. I was looking for the pretty, perfect ones. I only found a few.

My daughters, on the other hand, picked up shells indiscriminately, or so it seemed to me. Their buckets were full of the broken bits and pieces that were everywhere, the ones I overlooked when I was looking for my perfect specimens.

But when they were showing me their finds after we finished, they were as enthusiastic about them as if they had found true treasure.

My older daughter would hold up a battered-looking  piece of shell and say, “look, mommy, at how this one has bumps and holes all over it. Isn’t it beautiful?” And then she would grab another broken piece, saying “and look at this one! Do you see the color? It is so shiny. Isn’t this one so beautiful too?” And so it went, with each and every shell she found. They were all broken up bits and pieces, but to her they were all beautiful.

And they were beautiful not because of any intrinsic sign of hidden beauty she saw within them. They were beautiful to her because she had set out to find beautiful seashells and so — she did.

The magical thing is that when I was looking at the shells on my on later that night, I no longer saw their brokenness. All I saw was their beauty. And I realized that sometimes, finding beauty in life and looking for it are the same thing.

 

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And Off She Marched Again

This time last year, I was overcome with anxiety over my daughter starting kindergarten. I was worried for her because public school can be a big, scary place, and I was worried for myself because my mental balance was disturbed by the fact that my girl was growing up too darned fast.

I found out this morning, when I sent her off to first grade, that letting her go off into the big wide world of school wasn’t really all that much easier this time around. Because it turns out that your first grade baby is still your baby, just a year older and even further removed from the tiny, helpless newborn she once was.

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, "ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown."

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, “ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown.”

In six years of parenthood, I can say with some authority that I have learned two things. First, I’ve learned that bringing your first child through her newborn phase will feel like the hardest thing you have ever done, and when people with older children tell you that it just gets harder you will want to stab them in the eyes with a fork. And second, I have learned that it just gets harder.

I used to think that, once my daughter could just tell me what was wrong, parenting her would be so much easier. It wasn’t. Because once your children start being able to tell you what is wrong and how you can make it better, they start demanding things that are impossible for you to give them. I will never forget the night my daughter, then two, begged me, sobbing, to make the sun rise up again after it had gone down. As much power as we parents have in our children’s lives, we cannot alter the functioning of the universe. My daughters still struggle to accept this fact.

As your children get older, their problems get far more complicated. They argue and defy you and do things that are bad for them. They struggle, and there is often nothing — nothing — that you can do to help them. The power you once had to tailor their world to fit them diminishes with every passing year.

For me, one of the hardest parts of parenting has been coming to terms with the overwhelmingly bittersweet feeling of watching my daughters grow up. I am awed by and in love with the people they are becoming. My girls are awesome, and their awesomeness just becomes more evident as they grow older. I’ve never experienced anything as satisfying as watching my daughters grow into the people they are meant to be — and the best part is that I have many more years to experience this phenomenon.

But as they move closer to the people they are becoming, they move further away from me. It is a distance that I feel, physically. My arms were once full of them; if they moved through the world it was because I was carrying them. And now they are moving through the world on their own, with my guidance and love behind them but not surrounding them. I love who they are, but I miss what they were.

I never knew that an adult could experience more angst about her children growing up than a teenager does who is in the throes of coming of age. But there you go. Parenthood is hard, and it is hard in so many ways.

Fortunately, as I struggle with letting go, my big first grader is delving into the new school year with her customary verve.

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She is pretty amazing, isn’t she?

 

 

 

 

Locker Room Bodies

Between my return to running and my daughters’ swim lessons, I have recently been spending a lot of time in women’s locker rooms. And during this time, I’ve observed a few things about the locker room subculture: Mainly, that the older women get, the more confident they seem to be in their own skin — and in nothing but their own skin. Also, women who exercise together talk to one another. We talk in the showers and in the toilet stalls. We talk while toweling off, while adjusting our undergarments, and while applying deodorant. We just talk.

Once, while I was dressing my three-year-old after her 11 am swim lesson, an elderly woman wearing nothing but beige underpants started a conversation with me about modern methods of preschool swim instruction.

“My granddaughter in Ohio puts life vests on my great-grandkids when they swim in their pool! I just don’t hold with that kind of nonsense,” she told me. “You just throw ‘em in. That’s the only way they learn! They don’t use those vest things here, do they?” She paused for a moment, and then continued talking. “Don’t mind me, now, I just have to blow dry under my bosom. I find that they get a bit chafed if I just let them air dry.” And sure enough, she lifted each breast, waving the hair dryer underneath and around it.

At that moment, the thinking part of my brain froze completely, leaving my socially awkward self without a working filter. Words came out of my mouth. I started describing in detail the horrible sores my daughter got as a newborn from her diapers and how we, too, had to blow dry her private bits whenever we changed her. My elderly friend just looked at me funny and finished her blow drying.

Why yes, I did just use the word bosom in a sentence. Does that make you uncomfortable?

“Why yes, I did just use the word bosom to refer to my breasts. Does that make you uncomfortable?”

* * *

I don’t do very well with locker room talk, mostly because I am shy around naked people. So when I find myself in a crowd of women in various stages of undress, I tend to do a lot of quiet observing. And in addition to noticing how freely other people seem to behave in a situation that makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I have noticed something else as well.

The women I see in the locker rooms are fit. They work out. They swim. They pump their bodies and they Zumba and they lift. They are active, and they are real.

But none of them – not one of them — possess a body that would be featured as is, with no retouching, in a fitness magazine. There are curves, and lots of them. There are smooth and generous curves, wrinkled curves, and lumpy curves. There are bodies with angles and planes, and there are bodies with definition and obvious strength.

These are beautiful bodies, but not one of them resembles in every particular the tanned, toned, impossibly long and lean examples our media gives us of what women who are “in shape” look like. And yet, these women are the most genuine examples of what it means to be living a healthy, active lifestyle.

It would be easy for me to give in to the temptation right now to rant about how the media flaunts utterly unattainable standards of what women’s bodies should look like. There is no question that the images of what is perceived as the definition of feminine beauty that we see in print and on screens are rarely anything other than airbrushed, elongated, and enhanced images of women whose profession is looking beautiful. It is hard not to get angry that these false images have so much power in our society.

But I am not going to go that route. Because we women are smarter than that. We are stronger than that. We are better than that.

We don’t need the glossy pages of magazines to tell us where our beauty lies. We have the power to decide for ourselves what it means to be fit and healthy — and beautiful.

Images are just that – images. They are as deep as the paper they are printed on, and last as long as the time it takes to scroll past them on your computer screen. But we are real. We run, and walk, and dance, and lift, and stretch, and we have careers and we mother children and we tend to relationships and we live. Above all, we live.

Some of the women I see in the locker room are marathon runners who wear double digit sizes. Others are tiny and toned, with a padding of extra skin around their stomachs as a reminder of the fact that they made another person. Many of the women are elderly, with bodies that will never be firm and young again. All of these women inspire me. And even though they probably don’t realize it, all of these women are beautiful, in their realness and in their strength.

 

Flaunting Failure: My Messy Beautiful

Like most people, I don’t really enjoy bragging about my failures. I recognize them, and feel what is probably an excessive amount of guilt for having them (I’m not Catholic for nothing), but I prefer to keep them on the down low. They are not my favorite topic of conversation.

So it was as astounding to me as it would be to anyone else when, a few weeks ago, I found myself emphatically, almost eagerly, telling my daughter that I make bad choices and really big mistakes every single day of my life.

“Mommy is, like, a huge failure, sweetie!” I told her brightly. “I mean, I told Daddy to shut up this morning! That was really bad! And I yelled at the dog because he ate grass and puked on the new carpet, and then I yelled at Daddy again because I had to clean it up! And I forgot to pack your lunch that one time — remember?! I forgot it and I didn’t bring it until lunchtime was almost over and when I got there, you were crying in the cafeteria line? That was a really bad choice that mommy made.”

There was that time when my house looked like this.

There was that time when my house looked like this.

I stopped there, because the flow of my thought process was moving toward previous boyfriends and hangovers and tattoos obtained in foreign countries, and that whole lunch incident really was blemish enough on our mother-daughter relationship. We have plenty of time for all of mommy’s more spectacular failures to make themselves known.

This overflow of honesty might have been excessive, but it was not without purpose. Because it was in response to my baby girl sitting in the bathtub sobbing, wailing that she “wanted to be good ALL DAY and not just SOME of the day because you, Mommy, ALWAYS make good choices and NEVER make bad choices.”

How else could I answer her? I don’t always make good choices. I do make really big mistakes. I am never, ever perfect ALL DAY.

My daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. For the most part, her differences manifest as odd but charming quirks. However, there are times when the world becomes too much for her.  She has a certain rigidity to her expectations from life, and when life doesn’t conform to those expectations, she becomes overwhelmed. When she becomes overwhelmed, she becomes defiant and angry. And when she becomes defiant and angry, she begins to feel guilty, which leads to more defiance and anger until it all comes crashing down and she is empty but also somehow devastated by what she sees as her failure to be good.

That’s a lot of feeling for a five-year-old.

My heart breaks for her when she starts to fall down the Autism rabbit hole, and when I found her crying in the bathtub that night it was shattering to see that, this time, she was tumbling down because she was comparing herself — negatively! — to me. And it made me think.

I don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to the world at large, and I really don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to my children. As parents, we feel compelled to serve as an example of the kind of people we want our children to become. We want to be their heroes. And I think a lot of times, we strive to hide our faults from our children in order to meet the expectations we set for ourselves.

But the thing is, I don’t want, or expect,  my children to be perfect, or even almost perfect. And I don’t want them to grow up to become the kind of person who feels that perfection is expected from her. I want my girls to try new things, to succeed sometimes and to fail sometimes. I want them to know how to own up to their mistakes and to try to make things right. I want them to be able to forgive themselves for not being what it is impossible to be. Above all, I want them to know that they are both messy and beautiful, and wholly — overwhelmingly — loved. And they will never learn any of those things if I don’t teach them.

* * *

I have written before about losing my mother at a young age. It was hard to lose her. It is still hard to not have her. These things are true for anyone who has lost a parent. But one of the things that makes losing a parent when you are young especially difficult is the fact that you never get to know her.  She is always as she was to you when you were a child: perfection, and everything.

My mom would have been a hard act to follow, no matter what. One summer, she spent 6-hour days at the pool with a portable chemo pump delivering toxins directly into her bloodstream so my brother and I could enjoy our summer. She once fell and broke her neck in the morning one day, and that evening she showed up, neck brace and all, at a fashion show where I was modeling First Communion dresses. I have to bite my tongue on the F-word when I stub a toe, but breast-turned-bone cancer never even elicited a “damn my life” from my mother.

As far as I can remember, my mom was as close to perfection as a person can be. She never had the chance to prove otherwise.  I have spent much of my life feeling as though I will never, ever measure up to her — and now that I am a mother, I know that’s not what she wanted for me. It isn’t what I want for my own children.

* * *

So many of my parenting decisions have been made based on my desire to have the mother-daughter relationship with my girls that cancer stole from me and my own mother. Mostly, these decisions have had to do with being together — just existing in the world with them —  as they go through life’s big and small moments.

But behind all that is also my desire to be real for them. For us to grow together as a family, and to know that we love each other always, unconditionally.

And that night with my daughter, when her world was crashing down around her because she wasn’t good all day long, reminded me that sometimes, showing your children your failures also means that you are teaching them how to love themselves and others.

* * *

 This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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The World Belongs to Such as These

Last Sunday, my five-year-old and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon together, just the two of us, at a local indoor pool. With a younger sibling at home and a full day at school, time spent one-on-one has been rare this year. I’ve missed her.

My girl has a prolific imagination and spends most of her unoccupied time making up or enacting stories. As she has been learning so many new things this year, I have had the gratifying pleasure to observe how she weaves the new facts and ideas percolating in her brain into her stories and play.

So when we packed up go to the pool, I was interested to see her stash three princess figurines, three plastic cupcakes and a baby doll into her toy bag. I never really know where she will go with things.

When we got to the swim center, she headed straight for the baby pool, where she began setting up a scene. First, she brought out the three princesses and lined them up along the side of the pool. She placed a plastic cupcake in front of each. Then she went to her bag and brought out her baby. She carefully cradled it in her arm and carried it into the pool.

And then she baptized that baby, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen, using water consecrated with chlorine and the contents of a half-dozen swim diapers.

When I asked her about it, she explained to me that she had learned about baptism in her religious education class that morning. She told me that baptism is how we become a part of God’s family. And because she loves her baby doll, she wants her to become a part of our family. Therefore, a baptism was clearly in order.

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It was an achingly sweet moment, the kind that reminds parents that bringing their child into the world really was the best thing they have ever done. It made me proud of her. It also made me reflect on and appreciate the best thing children do for us — allowing us grown ups to witness the fertility of their minds and the largess of their imaginations.

Most of us recognize the story from the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus urges his disciples to bring the children to him, because “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” It is a story that tends to be linked to the idea that what is most valuable in children is their innocence and unworldliness. It seems to imply that children, in their dearth of experience, are better able to absorb the teachings of faith, and indeed of the world around them. I don’t believe that this is a strictly religious way of thinking. There is a common tendency to think of children as blank slates waiting to be written upon.

Children are certainly unworldly. There is necessarily an innocence to the way they approach their world. They have no basis of comparison. They have no prejudice. Their minds are open. They are open, but I don’t think they are waiting, passively, for us to shape them. 

If I have learned anything about children and the way they approach life, it is that they do so through constant questioning and experimenting. They are endlessly pushing the boundaries of their universe. And these attributes apply equally to the way they understand faith and the way they process new facts.

When I think of my daughter, who is at that perfectly ripe age when the concepts of faith and fact are just coming within her intellectual grasp, I see nothing passive about her approach to the world. All I see is activity – a dynamic, unrestrained pursuit for more knowledge, a constant pushing and stretching of the limits of her understanding.

I hear her asking why, and no matter how thorough an answer I give, I hear her asking why again. I see her acting out, and re-enacting, what she is learning so that, through interpretation and experience, it becomes a part of who she is.

When I think of the idea that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” I don’t see it as a calling to submissiveness or innocence. I see it as a calling for us to approach faith — and reason — like children do – with flexibility, enthusiasm, ceaseless questioning, and a mind with ever-expanding boundaries. Those are the best things that children have to offer the world, and we adults should not forget that.

After my daughter finished her charming baptism by pool water, as I was thinking about the profundity of what her mind, and the minds of all children like her, will bring to our future, she reminded me of something else.

She tossed her baby to the side of the pool and, splashing, shouted, “Mommy, that boy FARTED! He made BUBBLES in the WATER!” While I blushed and suppressed my silent laughter, I reflected on the next best thing children have to offer the world: their uninhibited appreciation for bathroom humor.

Life is best lived with curiosity, questioning, a mind without boundaries, and the ability to laugh at our bodily functions.

Modern Elementary

Last Friday we went to my daughter’s first elementary school event, a PTA-sponsored ice cream social. I figured that we would go there, eat some ice cream and, you know, be social. My main goal was to meet the parents of the boys (yes, boyS) who, according to my daughter, have been trying to kiss her during recess. I expected a tame, grade school event that was no different or more exciting than all of the other events I went to when I was a kid in school.

What I did not expect was a dance party in the gym with an actual DJ. I didn’t expect to see a bunch of grade school kids dancing to “Cha Cha Slide” or “Gagnam Style” or “I’m Sexy and I Know It.” And I really didn’t expect them to be good — like, really good. The older girls seemed to know all the hip-hop moves, and some of the boys were actually breakdancing. Even my preschooler’s 2-year-old classmate was putting the grownups to shame with her skills.

Apparently, public school events in the 21st century are way different from the kind we had at Catholic school in the 1980’s. For starters, the principal was in attendance — and bobbing his head appreciatively — while music that included the word “sexy” was being played (loudly). Sister Madonna, my elementary school principal, was one of the loveliest women I have ever known, but I shudder to think what would have happened if any of her students had even whispered the lyrics to “Gagnam Style” within her hearing.

In fact, throughout most of the event I found myself either staring at the scene like an anthropologist who has just discovered an unknown tribal ritual (“what is that cha-cha thing they’re doing?”) or reminding myself that this was not 1999, I was not in college (there was no G&T at the drinks table), and it would be HUGELY embarrassing for me to break out my Elaine dance during “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in front of my daughter’s principal.

Yeah, that’s right, I said my “Elaine dance.” Because I’m old and I used to watch Seinfeld and, it would seem, I am totally unprepared for modern parenthood.

Because she is my child, my daughter spent the entire dance party running in circles around the gym. AS IT SHOULD BE. ;-)

Because she is my child, my daughter spent the entire dance party running in circles around the gym. AS IT SHOULD BE. 😉