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

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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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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

What Grief Has Taught Me

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It’s January 6th again, the day that I dread. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t dread this day, and I think I will continue to dread it as long as my memory is intact. I’ve been dreading it more than usual this year, because January 6, 2016 is kind of a big deal.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer. I don’t know why this number seems so significant. There is something about a quarter of a century that feels substantial.

And I don’t know why measuring the time that has passed is so important to me. It’s something I just do, automatically. I can say with certainty, though, that these 25 years have changed me. Looking back to 1991 from 2016 feels like looking from one world to another. To me, it is a different world. I’ve grown up.

I’ve grown up, and I’ve grown in understanding. The roles that cancer and loss have played in my life have never been far from my mind. I’m a thinker (and an over-thinker), and I’ve never stopped thinking about the parts of my life that have so fundamentally shaped the person I’ve become.

So, small though my pool of knowledge might be, I do know this:

Cancer is a family disease.

I’ve never had cancer, but cancer is a part of me.

My mother was first diagnosed when I was four. I was young, but I was very aware of the fear gripping my family. I used to have this nightmare, over and over and over, so often that 32 years later I can still remember it in near-perfect detail. I was in my parents’ bedroom – pale blue walls, bed covered with a white, tufted chenille bedspread. My mother was standing at the foot of the bed packing a suitcase. My father was in the corner of the room crying. I was squeezed between the bed and the wall, watching, hidden. Behind my mother a bear hovered — it wanted to take her away. I knew my mother was scared but didn’t want to show it, and I knew that my father was crying because he was helpless.  This scene would repeat itself in a loop, and it scared me stiff.

Chronic illness — when it carries with it the potential of a death sentence — is terrifying for the person fighting it. It is also terrifying for those who love and need that person. During the long seven years of my mother’s illness, in my heart I was fighting alongside her. The time that has passed since her death has done nothing to diminish my sense of having battled and lost to cancer.

Sharing death with someone is an intimate, profoundly affecting act and everyone should do it once.

My mother died at Christmas. Technically, she died on the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. But really, her death began on the 26th when she fell into a coma that only broke when her pain became uncontrollable.

I was there the whole time. I was with her when she lost consciousness. I heard her when she emerged only to moan in pain. I learned what dying breaths sound like and I stood beside her as those breaths ebbed to a stop. I could almost see her soul depart her body.

Four years ago, when I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I sat in another room with another person I loved as cancer took his life away too. This time, it was my uncle – one of the best humans I’ve ever known – who was making his surrender. With my aunt and my cousins, I held his hand through a death that was not peaceful.

The memories of my mother and my uncle dying are among my most painful. But I also treasure them. There was an inexplicable beauty in those moments, a sense of connectedness and love. I’m better because of them.

Grief grows as one body.

When you first experience grief – not just great sadness, grief – it creates a sort of nerve in you with the cause of your grief at its core. And once that nerve exists within you, you can’t experience loss without it being touched.

Shortly after my mother died, my grandfather died, also of cancer. I grieved my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, but his death renewed my grief for my mother. As death took more of the people I loved, an uncle, my grandmothers, an uncle again, I grieved each individually and all of them together.

When my second uncle died four years ago, I felt the loss of everyone who had gone before him. But oddly enough, the grief I felt was also a kind of resurrection. Grieving them together somehow brought them back to me individually. For a time they were all with me again.

People die, but grief doesn’t.

Grief is a gut punch like no other. It shatters you absolutely. People tell you that it goes away with time, but it doesn’t.

And as much as you wish in the early days that it will go away, that it will release you and let you go back to being the person you were before it took over your life, you end up not wanting it to go away.

Time makes living with your grief more bearable, but it also takes you further away from the person you have lost. Eventually, grief becomes the strongest connection you have with them.

In 25 years, the world has changed. I’ve changed. And with every year that passes, it’s as though time has taken my mother further away from me. I don’t feel her presence anymore. The memories I have of her are pitifully few. I take them out like treasures now, cherishing them, guarding them, but lacking a sense of their relevance in my daily life.

And now that the grief of missing her in every moment has lessened, a new grief has taken its place – the grief of not missing her in every moment. It’s a quieter grief — and more bearable — but it’s grief all the same.

After 25 years, what I know above all things is that grief never dies.

Mom

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Twelve Rules for Owning an Independent Preschooler

Those of us with young children who have entered into the “I do it MYSELF” phase have come to understand a great irony of life. We spend the first few years of parenthood imagining a future in which we don’t have to do every little thing for our children. We long for the day when butts will be wiped by hands other than our own, when we no longer have to force limp limbs into coats or kicking feet into shoes. We say things like, “life will just be so much easier when she starts getting dressed herself.”

Then one day, your child will decide to get dressed all by herself. And on that day, you will come to know the true agony of watching a three-year-old trying to remove her day clothes and put on underpants and a pair of footed, zippered pajamas with no help. At all.

And woe betide you if you do try to help. In fact, offering to help is such a rookie mistake that, if made a second time, you really do deserve the wrath your offer will ignite.

Unfortunately for us parents, surviving a preschooler’s attempts at independence isn’t as easy as just withholding your assistance. Oh no. There is a host of rules that you must follow in order to survive your day unscathed. I have broken these rules more times than I can count, and I have suffered accordingly.

Rule #1: Do not offer to help. This is the most basic rule, and really should go without saying. But I am saying it anyway.

Rule #2: Do not attempt to provide child with items necessary for task completion. Don’t you dare give her those socks!

Rule #3: Do not look directly at items necessary for task completion.

Rule #4: Do not think about items necessary for task completion. They read minds.

Rule #5: Do not compliment child. They can sense an unspoken offer for help.

Rule #6: Do not provide suggestions or advice of any kind. Even though there is a nearly 100% chance that she will drop the entire bowl of Cheez-its into the toilet if she brings them into the bathroom with her.

Rule #7: Do not speak to child.

Rule #8 Do not make eye contact with child. Again, they read minds.

Rule #9: Do not look in child’s general direction.

Rule #10: Do not attempt even the smallest tug of the child’s shirt, even though her head is stuck and she is about to fall of the bed.

Rule #11: Do not breathe the same air as child. She can hear your frustration in every sharp intake of breath.

Rule #12: Do not exist in near proximity to child.

The consequences of breaking any of these rules will be that she has to do it. all. over. again. Including the part where she gets her head stuck in the shirt.

Basically, just leave the room with your eyes closed and your ears covered. Stand with your back toward the general direction of your child. Do not think about your child until she has completed the task and given you express permission to address her. Unless, of course, the child with her head stuck in her shirt does fall of the bed, in which case why didn’t you offer to help you terrible, neglectful parent?!

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See? She can do it all. by. herself. (It was 80 degrees and sunny.)