My Girls and Music

Last night, my husband was at a meeting, leaving me home alone with our girls. Because they were both entirely too devastated by the reality of having to spend an evening without their beloved, all-knowing, all-powerful daddy, I decided to be the cool mom and have a dance party with them. (I mean really, it was kind of insulting that they both professed the desire to go to a boring, childless preschool meeting rather than staying home with me.)

First, we danced to some CCR, because how can you have a living room dance party without Down on the Corner? Then I played Hesitating Beauty by Wilco, because I love that song and I have a Norah, and what kid doesn’t want to dance to a song with her name in it?

Of course, after playing a song about a Nora for my Norah, I had to play a song about a Michelle for my Michele. So I went online to find a video of Michelle, by the Beatles, and came across My Michelle by Guns N Roses.

Somehow, even though I have liked (the softer side of) Guns N Roses since I was a preteen, and even though I am both the daughter and the mother of a Michele, I had no idea that GNR had a song about a Michelle. So, of course, I decided to click on the video, just to see, because the band who gave us Sweet Child of Mine surely could not produce anything un-kid-friendly. Right?

So I played the video.

At 0:49, my 3-year-old looks at Slash, whose face is covered by his long, black, insanely curly hair, and she says, “Mommy, is dat YOU? When you played your gwuitar?”

“Yes.” I replied, deadpan. “Yes. That is exactly what I looked like in 1988. You have a gift my child.”

As the guitar intro continued, it became clear to me that my girls were doubting whether this video would ever turn into “real” music. I could see the look of doubt dawning on my Michele’s face. Things were not going in the direction she expected them to go. But then, Axel Rose himself appeared at 1:25, and her sweet little face lit up.

Ok, actually, she collapsed into helpless giggles. Our boy Axel was dancing shirtless across the stage with a microphone and my girl thought it was probably the funniest thing she had ever seen in her whole 6 years of life.

Mommy!” She howled. “Why is that NAKED GUY dancing with a microphone? He looks so silly!” So of course, I started to laugh too, because he really does look kind of ridiculous.

We gave up on Guns N Roses and we moved onto the more certain classic. I pulled up a video of Paul McCartney playing Michelle at the White House for our President and his wife (and their daughters, who look distinctly embarrassed  at the way their dad is singing along) and I showed it to my own Michele.

“This is the real song sweetie. The one I always sing to you,” I told her as I started the video.

She took one look at it and said, “Mommy… why is that guy so OLD?”

All in all, it was not a very good moment for classic rock and roll gods in our household last night. And I have come to the realization that, if Axel Rose and Paul McCartney seem totally lame to my young children, there is absolutely no hope that they will ever see me as anything but lame. Except for that time when I used to be Slash.

 

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.

IMG_8256

IMG_8244

20140917-135715-50235316.jpg

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.

 

20140917-142059-51659790.jpg

20140917-142101-51661465.jpg

20140917-142100-51660613.jpg

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.

IMG_8285

 

IMG_8286

 

IMG_8306

She is pretty amazing, isn’t she?

 

 

 

 

Secrets and Pedophiles

I got you with that title, didn’t I? It’s bold, but this post isn’t about making a statement; it’s more about asking questions.

Last Friday, I found myself in a situation that got me thinking, and wondering what other people would think  or do if they had been in similar circumstances. Here is what happened.

I took my daughters to a local playground that is situated right across from a lake. The view is beautiful and it always feels peaceful to me there, so I take my girls whenever I can.

My daughters were the only children on the playground, although there were several other adults sitting at the picnic tables between the playground and the water. One of those people was an older man with long, sort of shaggy white hair and a baseball hat shading his face. He sat with his back to the lake, facing the playground and he was watching my kids the whole time we were there.

At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. It felt odd that he was looking in the direction of the playground and the street behind it instead of at the much more attractive view of the water. And whenever I looked in his direction, his head seemed to be turned toward my children. I was picking up child molester vibes and my mommy genes kicked in. I instinctively began hovering around my girls far more than I usually do. I showed obvious and exaggerated affection. I found myself thinking — this guy is going to know that these girls are loved, and watched, and protected and there is no way any creepy old men are going to lure them away from this mama bear.

It was a hot afternoon and I already felt uncomfortable with the situation so we didn’t stay at the playground for long. We headed out to Trader Joe’s to pick up some summer essentials, like ice cream and tortilla chips, and as they usually do, the girls were attracting attention from other shoppers. (They can be very cute together when they aren’t being rotten to each other.) As lined up to check out, my younger daughter was playing peek-a-boo with an older couple behind us, and then they were both smiling and blushing for the teenage boy working at the register.

As the young gentleman was ringing up my groceries, I overheard him say to my three-year-old, “Don’t tell your mother. It will be our secret.” I saw him smile and I smiled and laughed back, assuming that I had just missed what he had said before that. But then, maybe because I already had a case of the creeps, I thought to myself — that is exactly the kind of thing pedophiles say to the children they are abusing. Don’t tell. It’s our special secret. So I stopped smiling.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, holy cow, is this woman off her meds? These are perfectly normal social interactions. The guy at the park probably wasn’t even looking at your kids. Or maybe he was someone’s grandfather, missing his own grandkids and feeling closer to them by watching other small children play. Who knows? The poor kid at the check out was just trying to make a joke. There’s nothing to be seen here; nothing at all to worry about.

I was thinking the same things as I was reflecting on the events of the day and my own internal reaction to them. But I still couldn’t silence that nagging voice in the back of my mind, the one that seems always to be echoing the words, “constant vigilance!” Vigilance of my surroundings, yes, but also vigilance over myself as I react to the things that I see as representing potential danger for my children.

I want to instill a healthy sense of security in my children, but I also need them to know that the world isn’t always a safe place. So basically, I guess what I am saying is that I want them to not be afraid, but also to be afraid. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? And I know that my own reactions to life are the model they are following.

Since I actually am on much-needed (and moderately effective) anti-anxiety medication, trusting myself and the way I perceive the world as it affects my children is difficult.  I don’t want to overreact, because I don’t want my children to become fearful, but I also don’t want to laugh off circumstances that could lead them into real danger. The question of how to strike that balance between healthy confidence and healthy wariness is a challenging one for me.

So if you are another parent reading this post, I must as you this:  How have you have been able to nurture both of these qualities in your children? Have you faced circumstances similar to mine — where you perceived danger in a situation that could have been (and probably was) perfectly innocent? And how did you react if you did? And for those of you with older children — have you managed to teach them how to discern a safe situation from an unsafe situation? How? What do you suggest parents of young children do to help them navigate a world that can be both so wonderful and so terribly frightening?

 

 

 

 

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!

messy-beautiful-700b

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Country Western Kind of Day

Today has been a country-western song kind of day, but the stay-at-home mom version. It goes a little somethin’ like this:

“It’s Friday night and I’m home alone with my kids. They’re havin’ a screaming contest in the bathroom. (I’m hidin’ in the closet.)

I stepped on my brand-new glasses and I broke ’em. Super glued my fingers together when I tried to fix ’em. (I lost some skin on that one boys.)

I went to the store for eggs and milk. I forgot the milk. (And now the kids are cryin’)

I let the dog out and he ate some grass. It came back up and now it’s all over my carpet. (I’m savin’ that mess for my ole man! Ain’t that right, ladies?!) ”

That’s it. I know, it’s a work in progress. And I never said it would be a good country-western song. I didn’t even say that it would be a not-horrible country-western song. All I’m saying, is that as I was going through my litany of woes in my head tonight, they  were accompanied by a banjo and they came to me in a Toby Keith kind of voice. And yes, my inner thoughts are frequently voiced by celebrities with musical scores in the background. Aren’t yours?

On that note, let me finish my masterpiece with the following photo series:

I put a coat on my girl, and she pouted.

I put a coat on my girl, and she pouted.

She took it off and laughed in my face!

She took it off and laughed in my face!

 

I strapped her in her car seat and won the battle.

I strapped her in her car seat and won the battle.

And now it’s bedtime! TGIF, Folks!

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

* * *

Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.