Monday, December 26, 2011

Exotic Trips Made Easy

Before we leave for Illinois this Christmas, I hit the library. It is a whirlwind trip. I slap Sophia on the computer for 15-minutes while I quickly gathered enough literature to sustain us for the 32-hour round trip excursion we’d be embarking upon the next day.

First, I mine the books-on-tape. I’ve pretty much sucked the few shelves of audio picture books dry, relying on them for a five-minute reprieve from Sophia asking me, “Can you please tell me a story about Sophia and Curious George [drive me completely insane]?” But, to the right, are the chapter books. The big guns. Charlotte’s Web. 101 Dalmatians. Mary Poppins. Not the Disneyed up versions. The originals. I look at the back. 275 minutes. Hello, my lovely. I pop them into my sack.

“Soph, are you okay?” I check in with her.

“Shhhh!” she scolds me. “I can’t hear when you talk to me!”

She’s fine.

Next, I cruise the new books, helping myself to three pristine tomes: a posthumously printed collection of little known Dr. Seuss stories, a truly fabulous spoof of pulp fiction entitled, Boy Saves World from Giant Octopus (any book in which the father is a meticulously rendered drawing of Gregory Peck at his finest is an excellent book, in my opinion), and the Big Book of Families.

Then I scanned the holiday section, which has a two-book limit. I hold up three, deliberating. Larry, one of our favorite librarians, comes up behind me. “You can have three,” he whispers. “You guys are special.”

Being a regular has its privileges.

“Okay, Sophy Wophy. Put the earphones down.” She pretends not to hear me. I’ve got to get home, make dinner, and start packing pronto. This kid doesn’t understand that we have a SCHEDULE to keep.

“I’ve got Charlotte’s Web on tape….” I sing, holding up the bait. The earphones come off in a flash.

“Let me see. I want to see it!” I let her fondle the package, while Larry checks us out.

She’s wiggling as I try to strap her into her car seat. “I want to listen to Charlotte’s Web right now!” We should have been five minutes ago. “Sorry, Charlie.”

“My name is not Charlie! It’s SOPHIA!” Yes. I know.

The next morning, I’m getting everything together in preparation for take off. I’m rushing around like a maniac while Sophia happily plays with her dollhouse people.

“Gotta go, Soph. I have a million things to do before we leave this afternoon.”

“No. I want to stay here. I want to play Cinderella with you.”

“I’m sorry, Sophia, but we don’t have time. Put your shoes on and grab what you want to take with you in the car.”

“No! I don’t want to go!” Sigh. I pop Sophia in the car and throw in The Great Big Book of Families after her. We go to the bank, and then head over to the car wash. I try two before I finally find one that seems to be open. But no one’s around. I’m perplexed. It’s Hanunkkah, not Christmas. Do Jews own carwashes? I glance down at my watch. I’ve got a half an hour before Sophia has to go down for the nap and I haven’t even fed her yet. I walk into the car wash calling out, “Hello? Anyone there?”

“Yeah. The pumps broke. Can you come back in 15 minutes?” Fifteen precious minutes?

“Sure.” I take Sophia out for a bagel, which we eat in the car listening to holiday tunes. I’m sweating. She looks happy and peaceful, cream cheese smeared under her nose.

When we get back to the car wash, it’s still a couple minutes before it’s up and running, “This might take a few minutes,” the guy tells me, “I’m the only one here.” Fabulous.

“How come none of the car washes are open today but yours?”

“People don’t usually get their cars washed in the rain.” It was raining. I hadn’t noticed. Oh well. The car is filthy. It had to be done.

I take the Big Book of Families out of the car to keep us occupied while Green Car has his spa treatment. “No! I don’t want to read that!”

“Fine. I’ll read it to myself.” I retort, and begin to read aloud, full of feeling. Sophia peeks at the page from behind the book. I pause. Come on. Ask me for it.

“Mommy. Keep reading.”

“Oh? You want me to read to you, now?”

“Yes! Read it to me now!”


“Read it to me right now please!”

And so I read. We come to a page about vacations. “Families take all kinds of vacations…some can afford to take exotic vacations….while others stay close to home.”

I snort.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Nothing. It’s just that I can’t wait for my vacation to be over.

That night we drive up to my mother’s, do Hanukkah, sleep, attend the preschool holiday show, and finally get on I-80, Illinois bound. To her credit, Sophie is a gem. Barely a peep out of her. She’s looking at books, listening to her music, chattering away.

For insurance, I’ve come armed with a bag of wrapped items. Small gifts to reward Sophie’s patience along the way. Each was specifically chosen for its portability and absorbing qualities: Fancy Nancy Colorforms, Disney Princess Color Wonders Coloring Book (proof that I do not practice complete princess deprivation), an Encyclopedia of Words sticker book (over 600 stickers!), Princess Mosaic sticker-by-number. The grab-bag items prove to be so engaging, we only have to give her two the first sixteen hours. Of course, we punctuate these activities with music, I Spy, 20 questions, word games, napping, snacks, and bouts of silliness. About halfway there, Sophie’s face lights up. Suddenly she asks,

“Daddy, are we on an exotic vacation?”

I think back to the exotic trips (albeit few) that I’ve taken in the past. Latvia. Prague. Jamaica. And line them up against this endless stretch of highway to our Midwest destination. I snicker.

But perhaps, compared to our brief jaunts to Philadelphia or North Jersey, in Sophia’s world this is exotic. We’ve seen a log cabin on the back of a truck. We’ve flown by acres of farmland and expansive sky. And tonight, we’re sleeping in a hotel. One with a pool. I can remember this as being the height of luxury. The pampering experience of eating chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP. Of waking up in a bed that’s not your own (which, now, skeeves me). Of having all the HBO your optic nerve can stand.

Finally, I’m ready. Ready to slow down and join Sophie on her exotic vacation.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Red Shirts for All

A friend recently asked me what was my take on holding children back a year from entering Kindergarten…. (This one’s for you, Stephan.)

Perhaps I should have been held back. Born in August, I was always the smallest, one of the most socially awkward students in my class. I cried every single morning from Kindergarten until third grade, when, I was either finally mature enough to be in school or had a teacher who was so engaging, I forgot to cry. (Thank you, Mr. O’Brien)

I remember, in Kindergarten, my teacher leaning over with me, pleading, “Melissa, if you keep crying, all the other children are going to drown in your tears.”

Another kindergartener had a gentler approach. She put her arm around my shoulders and said, sympathetically, “Don’t cry, honey.”

And in second grade I had a teacher so mean, so incensed by my tears she once hissed at me before we watched a movie, “you better cry through this entire movie. If you don’t, I’ll give you something to cry about.” And boy did I cry. I sobbed. I wailed. It was remarkable that the other children could hear the movie over the din of my blubbering. But when the movie was over she came over to me and said. “I didn’t hear you cry.”

“But I did cry!” I insisted, tears rolling down my face.

“No. You didn’t. You enjoyed the movie like every other rotten child in this room, and now you are going to be punished.” She dug her nails into my scalp, and led me, cackling, over to the chair in the corner, underneath the pencil sharpener. (F*** you, Mrs. Sable)

My friend Emily came over with a fistful of dull pencils, to keep me company and offer her sympathy.

But, because I was academically on par with my peers and an early reader, my parents believed that holding me back would only serve to hold me back, I started kindergarten when I was freshly five.

I’ll say this. At least I got out younger too. I think I’ve finally recovered.

But, it was uncommon to leave children back then. The times, they have a-changed. Now, it’s not only done without hesitation, it’s rampant. So much so there’s a name for it: red-shirting. (Redshirting has its etymological origins in the college practice of delaying an athlete’s participation in sports in order to extend his/her period of eligibility. Traditionally, these students wear a red jersey in scrimmages with the other, actively playing students.) Redshirting became more popular as demands increased for a higher level of school readiness…but in towns like mine, parents will also do it to give their child an edge in sports. So they can be bigger, stronger and more skilled then their no-so-same-aged peers.

To redshirt or not to redshirt? I have pondered this question from the other end of the spectrum—should I push Sophia into school early? Sophia, like anyone born after October 1 in my corner of the world, misses the cut-off date, which means, by the time she’s eligble for Kindergarten she’ll be almost six.

So, if I follow convention, she will start public school having attended my mother’s preschool for four years. How’s that for school readiness?

On the one hand, given the local tendency to hold kids back, she might just find herself on par with her peers—social-emotionally, intellectually, physically, and in actual years. But, in the meanwhile, I wonder if she get bored. Feel unchallenged. Start to act out.

I weigh the options. She’s not a shy child. Oh, she’ll bury her face in my leg for all of 60 seconds before getting thisclose to another child and demanding that he play “sick kitty” with her in our pediatrician’s waiting room: “Okay. Let’s pretend kitty has a banana stuck in her ear. No, a banana stuck in both her ears. No, no no. Wait. A banana stuck in both ears and her heart. And you’re the doctor.” She’s kind of a social vigilante. Forcing strange children to play with her.

Academically, she’s good.

As for maturity. She seems almost too independent for me, pushing me away on the escalator, “I can do this MYSELF mommy.” Ordering me from the back seat to drive, “Mom, the light is green. Just go.” Always walking away without a backwards glance.

I think if I sent her to kindergarten tomorrow, she’d tread water. She’d do what she always does. Try to usurp the teacher.

But on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind keeping her around for one more year. Enjoying this fleeting thing called childhood. Having the luxury of my mother popping into the storage room where I work to say, “Melissa…you’ve got to see this…she pretending she’s a miner… she’s practicing her part for the play…she’s in the kitchen with Marie…she just wrote her name….” Having one more year to play. One more year of freedom. One more year before the demands set in: To sit. To attend. To listen.

And then there’s the research, which says there’s no long term harm, and often short term good in holding kids back. Which makes me wonder: maybe we’re sending our kids to school too soon in general. What’s wrong with another year of childhood, before being swallowed up by the great machine that is school? Maybe everyone could stand to benefit from one more year in the school of life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

First Friendships

Walking out of her classroom at my mother’s school, Sophia hands me the 12th birthday invitation she has received since September. I slit it open. It’s from her friend Marie. She’s turning five.

“Please can I go mommy?” Sophie pleads, her brows knitted together hopefully, worried that I’ll say no. To be fair, Sophia rarely asks me to attend a party. If she doesn’t know the child well, she’s the one to suggest that we decline.

But Maria is special. Each week, at school, she greets Sophia effusively. Their faces light up when they see each other. They embrace and head straight for the trunk of dress-up clothes. Unchecked, they would play in the housekeeping all morning, dressed in discarded evening gowns, Maria cooking, Sophia serving plastic facsimiles of food.

I hesitate. “I don’t know sweetie. It’s not on a school day when we’re already up here. Marie lives really far away.” Four hours round trip, to be exact.

Sophie, dejected, instantly reacts with anger, “You aren’t allowed to say that! She’s not too far away! She lives close!”

Though I know better than to argue, I let a snotty little, “No, she doesn’t,” slip out. Sometimes, it’s hard to be the grownup.

We run into Marie on the way out the door. “Sophie’s Mom? Can Sophie come to my birthday party? Please?” She clearly did not hear the conversation that just took place between Sophie and me.

“I’m sorry, Marie. I don’t think so. We live really really far away.” Marie literally hung her head. She looked crestfallen. “Oh man!” she said.

Then, the two of them clung to each other as if they would never see the other again. And they kissed, just barely missing each other’s lips.

I watch, struck by this truth: their friendship matters.

I flash back to when I was six years old and best friends with Judy Kelly. We were as close as six-year-olds could be, playing exclusively together on the playground, visiting each other for play dates. Our teacher, Miss Stonehill, would put a cardboard box around my desk to try to keep me from talking to her in class. Judy had invited me to her seventh birthday. It was going to be a sleepover. We were so excited, we couldn’t stop talking about it. I got my first sleeping bag for the occasion.

Saturday, the morning of the sleepover, I got a phone call from Judy. Mom brought me the phone. “Where were you last night?” Judy asked me. She sounded really upset.

“What do you mean?”

“My party! Why didn’t you come to my party!”

“But it’s tonight!” I protested, an awful feeling rising up inside of me.

“No! It was last night! You missed it. Why didn’t you come?” I didn’t know what to say this. I was so overwhelmed with disappointment. I started to cry and dropped the phone. Judy’s party! My first sleepover! How did this happen?

I was too young to realize this was not my mistake. I blamed myself. Even when I think about now, thirty-five years later, I can feel the disappointment and shame.

Sophie was not going to miss this party.

I found a way to make it work, logistically, and then I told Sophie. She was elated. The next day, she told Marie. Marie was ecstatic. The two hugged each other and danced around.

My hope is not that Sophie will remember the party. I doubt that it had any great emotional salience for her. It was one good time among many. But I do wish that, no matter how many people she meets in her lifetime, no matter how many relationships she moves in an out of, this early friendship will hold a sweet place in her heart.

Love, in any size, at any age is the most important thing.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hanukkah v. Christmas Smack Down, Part III (Yes, Sophie, There Really Is a Santa Claus)

I have been avoiding the fat man in the red suit.

I hurry past the North Pole, whenever I pass it in the mall. I avert my eyes when I walk by the bell swinging Salvation Army recruit in front of the grocery store.

I am so conflicted about Santa.

Mind you, I have nothing against him. In fact, that’s my problem. I grew up with him. I love the idea of him. What is more magical than the idea of someone who travels the world in one night, his sole mission to bring you whatever you want most? To wake up and discover, yes, indeed he came. The proof is under the tree. What was barren is now laden with gifts. Everything seems to sparkle.

But I still want Sophie to feel the primacy of her Jewishness. It’s something I struggle with every year. But this year I have a new challenge.

This is the first year that Sophie gets the Santa thing.

We were in Pottery Barn Kids and I surreptitiously made a holiday purchase for Sophie while she trashed the joint with some friends. As we walked out of the store, Sophie asked, “What’s that, Mommy?” indicating my bag.

“A surprise…”

“What’s my surprise?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s for Hanukkah.”

“There are no surprises for Hanukkah! Santa brings surprises. You’re not Santa. You’re Melissa. I can know what you bring!”

Interesting logic, but what really struck me was that she knew Santa brings surprises. Where did she pick that up?


He’s on the radio. He’s on my neighbor’s front lawn. And most recently, he was in her nursery school. Apparently, one of the teachers had been warning another child that if he didn’t behave, Santa wasn’t going to bring him any gifts. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good,” she warned

Sophie, who would make an excellent spy if anyone could get her to do it on purpose, reported this tidbit back to me. I think she was looking to have me weigh in. The whole idea of it disturbed me. In general, I don’t like manipulating behavior via the whole “he sees you when you’re sleeping” thing. For one, it’s creepy. Secondly, it’s passing the buck. If you don’t like the kid’s behavior, say so. Don’t make Santa the heavy. And third, don’t threaten something you won’t make good on/have no control over. Really, what is this teacher going to do, tell the parents to cancel Christmas because their kid wouldn’t sit in his seat?

I assured Sophie that despite her inability to sit in a chair, Santa was not going to stiff her.

Yes, Santa will be coming. I can’t avoid him for too long. He’ll be visiting us at Grandpa’s house, not ours, because, as Sophia understands, Grandpa is Christian and celebrates Christmas. And, not so secretly, I will enjoy it. Just as I have enjoyed participating in Christmas every year as long as I can remember. Truth be told: I want Sophie to feel the magic too.

As for Hanukkah, which we’ll celebrate several days before, there may be no magic, no surprises...

...but at least I’ll get all the credit.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

There's a Gown for That

Headed out to the library? Confused about what to wear? Ask Sophie. There’s a gown for that.

Going up to Grandma’s and its freezing out? There’s a gown for that.

Need to pick up a forgotten ingredient at Wegmans, but your pink taffeta is in the wash? Don’t worry. There’s a gown for that too.

These days, I am either picking gowns up off the floor, prying dirty gowns off Sophia’s body, or arguing their inappropriateness. They are slowly, insidiously taking over her wardrobe.

It started fairly innocently. The first gown, a rainbow-tutued Cosco nightmare, was purchased by my mother. It came with matching wings. Sophie was delighted. So were the neighbor girls. Sophie would resort to fisticuffs if anyone lay a finger on it, and it was soon evident that if we didn’t stock up, there might be bloodshed.

My friend Emily came to the rescue, passing on several silken frocks that no longer fit her daughter. Peace was restored in the kingdom.

Then, in need of some new duds myself, Sophie and I went to TJ Maxx. As I piled a few garments into our shopping cart, Sophie said, “I want to try on something too!” Okay, fair enough. This might even be a good strategy—keep her occupied. I grabbed the first thing that I thought might appeal to her—a pink velour generic princess dress. Sophie grabbed it out of my hands, “OH I LOVE THIS MOM!” Inside the dressing room, as I tried to eye my butt from all angles in front of the mirror, Sophia pushed me aside, exclaiming, “I’m so BEAUTIFUL! Can I have it? Please? PLEASE?” She skipped out of our stall, prancing down a narrow hallway towards the three-way mirror at the far end. Other women heard her exclaiming over the dress and leaned out to see what all the fuss was about. “Oh look at you!” “Aren’t you the cutest!" "Oh mom, you have to get it for her.” Sophie mugged and grinned and posed, and I quickly realized that I was not getting out of TJ Maxx without this dress.

“We’ll see…” I said, drawing upon the rich tradition of evasiveness that exists in my maternal line. But, of course, I left with the dress.

Little did I know, it would become Sophie’s daily uniform, a major point of contention, and probably, the most appreciated thing I have ever given her.

When Sophie wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is don her princess dress, several necklaces, a headband or tiara, silver slippers and grab her magic wand. Then, she heads into my room to tap me awake. Were her magic as strong as caffeine, I might be able to roll with this program. But, alas, polyester and plastic do not confer any real powers, and the only effect this has is to make me very, very grumpy.

Her first question is, “Can I wear my princess dress to breakfast?” to which, if this is a day when she has to go to school and I have to go to work, the answer is no. This frequently devolves into a wrestling match. Tuesdays are the worst, when she has gymnastics and, because there is tumbling involved, I insist on pants. Pants have become abhorrent to Sophia. It began with a hatred of jeans. If I tried to pull them on, she’d scream, “NO! They’re too scratchy! They’re too stiff!” This squared with her whole sensory-defensive thing, so I didn’t force the issue. No skin off my nose. She seemed okay with leggings for awhile. But, once she discovered gowns, she started rejecting anything that had a whiff of masculinity. Anything that wasn’t “beautiful.”

At first I was disturbed by her princess aesthetic—for one, it was alien to me. My mother likes to talk about how she used to have to steal my jeans to wash them once a week because otherwise, I would wear them every single day. “They could practically stand up and walk away by themselves,” she told each of my boyfriends.

I was a self-proclaimed tomboy. When I was four, I told my friend Christine that I wanted to have all the boy toys in the world. I also told her that I could push a nail into board with my bare hands.

I couldn’t.

But I really, really wanted to be able to. I don’t think pushing a nail into a board with her bare hands has ever occurred to Sophie.

And then there’s the whole feminist thing. I just don’t like her holding up princesses as a feminine ideal—the simpering, need-to-be-rescued, will-give-up-my-fishtail-to-be-with-the-man-I-love thing. Haven’t I supplied her with a better model than that? What happened to her aspirations of dentistry? Of all the things she thought she could and wanted to be—a daddy, a dance teacher, a bus driver?

But, then I unearthed my old copy of Grimm’s fairy tales. We were sitting in the doctor’s office when I read the “real” story of Cinderella to Sophia. It’s far more gruesome than the sanitized Disney version, e.g., when the stepsisters try on Cinderella’s slipper, they each slice off a section of their foot to make it fit. I hesitated over this part. I didn’t want to give the kid nightmares. But when I finished, Sophia exclaimed:

“Read the part about them cutting off their toes again!”

Ah! There are my genes!

The fact of the matter is, I really loved—love—fairytales. I love the drama of good triumphing over evil, of there being a reward for suffering. I love magical possibility. I love talking animals and kids who outsmart witches and wishes that come true. And so does Sophie. She wears her gowns, not to emulate Disney princesses, but to fully inhabit the world of pretend. At naptime, I prick her finger with a spindle so she’ll sleep deeply. Before dinner, I might suddenly cross the floor on all fours, my eyes round and threatening and Sophia will shriek with delight, “What are you? WHAT ARE YOU?” And after we’ve eaten, I might roast her arms and legs in the oven for dessert. Sophie offers up a piece to her father, “Daddy, would you like my tickle bone?”

The gowns are the vehicle. Not steering her toward a feminine ideal, but down the rabbit hole, into a world of fantasy. She manages to look stunning while retaining every bit of her wild, dark, vicious self.

Feeling sinister? There’s a gown for that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Sophia’s fourth birthday was somehow easier to stomach than her third. As I try to put my finger on why, the first thought that occurs to me is that the transition from two to three is a bit more dramatic. At two, children still retain some baby-like features. Though their temperaments are fairly evident, their personalities are still emerging. Language provides insight into their needs and desires, but not into their thoughts or perceptions. At two, you are still essential. They seek you out for entertainment, for soothing, for permission. They are still somewhat manageable. Still redirectable. Still pick-upable in their worst moments.

But then comes three rushing in, filled with opinions, curiosity and a drive to break away. They make friends, buck the system, tell you how it is. The transformation is remarkable. Dramatic. Dizzying.

They volunteer the emotionally salient information completely out of context: Sophie’s teacher told me one of the other parents, a state assemblyman, came in to talk about his job during Community Helpers month. In the midst of explaining voting to the children, Sophie raised her hand to say, “Last night, Mommy opened my car door and my balloon escaped. She was very sad as it floated away into the sky.”

They refuse to talk when you’re dying to know the information:
“How was your first day at school? What did you do? Did you eat your lunch? Did you make any friends? How did it go?”

“Fine, Mom. Now can you put on my Beauty and the Beast music?”

Though two is generally considered the first period of separation and individuation (the second occurring during the onset of adolescence), I disagree. I think it really begins to take shape at three, as the child really becomes a person, interacting with the world in complex ways, wanting a life of his or her own.

Four simply seems to be a continuation of this trajectory. A deepening of three. A blossoming of self. There is nothing to mourn. The babyhood is long gone, already fading from memory. Instead, there is a growing relationship, a fuller engagement with this person I have made, no longer an extension of myself, but an individual. I can make predictions about her, but I’m not always right. She surprises me with a sudden, “I love you.” A difficult question, “Are badgers scary? What is scary about them? What do they do?” A poignant wish, “Mommy, I want a twin so I can have a best friend who lives in my house forever.” An invented joke, “Mommy, what do mommy cows like to drink? Cow-fee!”

Staring into the face of four, there is nothing to be sad about. This is a joyful time. If I look back, I will not be able to train my eyes on what is happening right now. In front of me there is a brilliant chrysalis. A beating of wings. My girl, stretching out into world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cherishing Difference

In Expecting Adam, author Martha Beck tells her story of carrying and giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome and what she learned from this experience. The following is a post, inspired by the book. As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. I was not paid to write this piece. You can read other members posts inspired by Expecting Adam here.

If there is one thing I learned from teaching children with autism, it’s that there is no right way to be in this world. A good life is defined in infinite ways. There are many permutations of happiness. I had a sunny little boy who rarely spoke except to say, “Jungle Book,” but he often smiled. I had another student who lived in a cartoon world that merged seamlessly with our own. When I sat him down for a lesson, he would dangle an invisible pendulum in front of my eyes and say, “You are getting sleepier and sleepier. You are now to be scissors!” And I would run after him opening and closing my arms and legs as he giggled with glee. Yet another young man, brilliant beyond his five years, splattered paint onto his easel and said, “Look, Melissa, I’m Jackson Pollock!” (Though if he actually got the paint on his hands he would fall to the floor, burst into tears and exclaim, “I’m going to DIE!”) All three of these children were all blissfully unaware of their disability. They all experienced intense, daily joy unlike most of the “neurotypicals” I knew. They taught me patience, that great satisfaction can be derived from the smallest of accomplishments, and that it did not matter what everyone else thinks.

I don’t mean to paint an overly romantic portrait of what it’s like to be a person with autism. There are children who are self-abusive or aggressive or who experience the world as a series of impingements. And no child is blissful all the time. But I also don’t think of a diagnosis as a death knell. I know that there is a special joy that comes in having a child who lives in our world differently.

Now, as a psychologist, I frequently grapple with the question: what is illness? Who gets to decide? Are people only as sane as society perceives them to be? I once saw a movie about a man with Tourette’s Syndrome. He had corprolalia, the obsessive or uncontrolled use of obscene language that rarely accompanies Tourette’s, and tics so violent, they would take him to his knees. He found it hard to function in mainstream society, but he worked on a farm with horses, animals he adored. The horses were completely unaware of his disorder. They were not offended by his language. They did not judge him. He was deeply happy. He had found his place in the world.

I think the goal—of education, of therapy, of life—is to find this goodness-of-fit. A place where we can be ourselves, without having to conform to a social ideal of a life worth living. As parents, we are both charged with teaching this lesson and helping our children to identify their specialness. It’s a daunting task. How do you help your child to be one way, when there are so many forces demanding that they be another? What do you do if what is special is not something universally valued? How do you avoid the mantle of the impossible ideal of normal?

There is no recipe. It is a fine, intuitive dance of indulging interests without holding onto expectations, of modeling originality with causing embarrassment, being curious about our own judgments and preconceived notions. And, sometimes, just letting things be.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Apology

I struggle with whether or not to extract apologies from Sophia when she does something hurtful or naughty that has an impact on another person. Certainly, I want her to experience remorse and to express regret when she wounds another. At the same time, I know she isn’t quite developmentally there yet. She’s still moored in a very egocentric view of the world. She isn’t sorry, and making her say she is doesn’t make it so. Her prompted apologies sound hollow and false. They aren’t satisfying to me or to her victims.

Of course, I still do it. There is a part of me that hopes, simply by sheer modeling and repetition, she will come to understand that the right thing to do when you have erred is to apologize. If I teach it, she will learn. (Even if she never develops a conscience, perhaps she’ll be a polite psychopath.) But the real reason I stand over her and make her say the words, “I’m sorry,” is because I know other parents expect me to.

At this stage, direct, immediate consequences for aggressive behavior seems to me to be the only thing that evoke true feelings of regret. For example, the other night we were at the library for a family music event. Throughout the first half of the show, Sophie was blissful, turning back to look at me and share her enjoyment after each song. Eventually she warmed up, rose from her seat, and broke into a completely unselfconscious, hopping dance, her silver mardi gras beads swaying with every movement. When she went to sit back down, a slightly older girl spread herself across two seats, and told Sophie, “No. I’m sitting here.” Forbidding Sophia only made her want it more, and so she tried to force herself upon the girl. “Go sit somewhere else, Sophia,” I warned. But Sophie was already on edge. I could feel her mood had changed. After one last provocation, Sophie moved to another seat. The singer announced to the group that after another song, everyone could have pizza.

“Can I have pizza, Mama?” Sophie asked, eyebrows raised in hope.

“No, Soph. We’re going home to have dinner with daddy. He’s coming home tonight!” Kevin had been in DC on business and we hadn’t seen him in three days.

“I want PIZZA!” Sophia whined.

“We’re not having pizza.” I said definitively

And then she did the unthinkable. She turned around and popped a toddler in the stomach.

The punch was fairly low energy and the toddler looked unphased, but I was livid. “Oh we are so out of here.” And I plucked Sophia up from the ground and forcibly carried her out. I imagine I may have left a parent in my wake, awaiting an apology for her two-year old son, who had already forgotten the incident. But I knew it was far more effective to punish Sophie by removing her from the event than to stay and say, “I’m sorry.”

“You are NOT allowed to hit people. If you are angry, you tell me ‘I’m ANGRY! You don’t hurt others. And you never NEVER lay a hand on a younger child.” I was pissed. I kept going, “That is NOT the way we handle problems. Have you ever seen me or daddy hit another person? NO. We might yell. But we DON”T HIT PEOPLE.”

“Can I listen to my music?”


The next evening, Sophie and I were out at Wegmans, having pizza. I am often loathe to take Sophia out to dinner because she cannot sit still. She is so highly distracted by everything going on, so overstimulated that it’s almost impossible to eat. I have three restaurant rules that I try to practice with her on brief outings in places where she won’t cause a disturbance or fatally trip a waitperson:

1. Sit in your seat.
2. Keep a low voice.
3. Eat your food.

Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but for Sophia, it’s a Herculean task. I have tried everything. Social reinforcement (Good! You’ve been sitting in your seat for one second!), guided imagery (Imagine that a snake has wrapped each one of your limbs to the chair and you can’t move.), threats, (If you get up from your seat one more time, I’m going to put you in a high chair), and tangible rewards (Follow your rules and we’ll have mini-ice cream cones when we get home). Nothing has worked, because much like her inability to experience remorse, she has not yet developed the internal controls to sit still in exciting environments. Still, I rehearse the skill with the hope that one day, she’ll get it without needing me on top of her.

This was not to be the day. The dining area in Wegmans is on the second floor, looking over the prepared foods section. Sophie was trying to scale the iron railing that was the only thing preventing her from falling 20 feet into the hot soup. I repeatedly ask her to sit down.

“What if I dropped my shoe down there mommy?” She asked, while I tried to shove a few bites into my mouth.

“Well, for one, you might hurt someone with it.” This possibility seemed to delight her. “Or it might fall into the soups and you’d have no more shoes.” She laughed at this, got out of her seat, and ran over to hug me, one of her ploys to avoid eating. I was already on my second slice, and she hadn’t even had her second bite. “I love you Sophia, but I don’t love your behavior. Please sit down and take a bite.” She turned around and hopped over the cracks from tile to tile until she reached a row of fake plants. She gave one a tug. “Sophia! Come here and take a bite!” This time I held up the pizza to her mouth. She took a big bite, bigger than I expected, and bit my pointer finger with it.

“YOW!” I screamed in pain. When someone bites down with the intent of severing a mouthful of pizza from the rest of the slice, she bites hard. I felt the full force of her little jaw close onto my nail and the tender pad of my fingertip. I sat back down, holding onto my finger, waiting for my brain to release some goddamn endorphins.

Sophie looked stricken. “Mama, are you okay?”

“I’ll be okay, Sophia. I know it was an accident, but you bit me really hard. It hurts.” She ran up to me and kissed me on the hand.

“Don’t worry, Soph. I’ll be fine. It was an accident.” I repeated. Within a minute or so, my body worked a chemical miracle and the pain drifted away. Sophie and I resumed our struggle. Two thousand prompts later, she had finished a slice.

“Okay. It doesn’t look like we’re having dessert tonight. You didn’t follow your rules.”

“But I still get a book, right?”

“Yes,” I sighed, “you still get a book. I’m not taking anything away from you. You just aren’t getting anything extra-good tonight. Maybe next time.”

The next morning, Sophie woke me and then disappeared back in her room to don her princess gown. On my way to the shower, I leaned my head into the room and said, “you can wear the gown until I get out. But when I’m out of the shower you need to get dressed.”

“Okay, Mommy.” Sophie replied, adjusting her crown.

I climbed into the shower, mentally rehearsing what I had to do that day, the hot water coaxing me into consciousness, when Sophia drew back the curtain part-way.

She was completely dressed. Not as a princess. In clothes.

“Look Mommy, I’m completely dressed. Before you even got out of the shower.”

“Oh Sophie! That’s fantastic. I’m so proud of you. You put your tights on by yourself and everything.” I was in shock. This was a first.

Then it happened. Unprompted and real.

“And Mommy. I’m sorry I was naughty last night.”

Sophia, apology accepted.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


In Lost Edens, author Jamie Patterson struggles to save her marriage which may or may not be already over. Keeping her attempts a secret from her family, she attempts to mold herself into the wife her husband wants her to be. As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book for review. You can read other members posts inspired by Lost Edens by Jamie Patterson on book club day, October 27 at From Left to Write.

Though Jamie Patterson didn’t quite anthropomorphize her car, I was struck by how frequently and fondly she wrote of it. To me, her car became as much of a character as her abusive husband. In fact, it seemed to carry an aura of protection, which got me thinking about my own tendency to anthropomorphize, and the role of inanimate objects in my (and Sophia’s) life.

“Look mommy! There’s Green Car. He’s over there. Oh look he’s talking to his friend, Blue car.” Sure enough, our car was nose to nose with the same make and model, different color. And yes, they did look like they might be engrossed in conversation. Since we were at the JCC, it might have been along the lines of a little kvetching, “Oy! Are my gaskets leaking!” And, “You should see the color of my oil. Do you think she takes me to dealership for a regular change? NO! She’s too busy. Always on the run, this one.” I even felt bad for a moment at the prospect of dragging Green Car away from his new friend. Who was he going to bitch to about me at home?

I am a great anthropomorphizer, giving life to the inanimate, attributing thoughts and feelings to all things without a consciousness, and interacting with these objects as if they were real. Thus, Sophie lives in a world where, at any moment, say, while apple picking, the trees might snatch their apples back, give her a tap on the wrist and assert “Don’t you touch my apples!” Sophie reacts with surprise and giggles, still unable to separate reality from fantasy, she disregards that the voice of the tree is actually coming from my mouth. I love this.

Kevin just rolls his eyes and sighs whenever I endow the non-living with animate features. But there is a reason I do this.

My special things have gotten me through some pretty tough times. When I was a child, Doggy Dear, my life-sized stuffed animal was my protector. I made him sign a contract when I was in elementary school.

“I, Doggy Dear, promise to stay awake and watch over Melissa while she sleeps. I will not allow any harm to come to her—will fight off any monsters, intruders or otherwise unwelcome guests. In exchange, Melissa promises to let me sleep during the day and go everywhere with her. Forever.” Or something like that. At any rate, he still resides in my room, stretched out across the window seat, ready to jump to life when it really matters. I know he will.

And my cars have always has a personhood in my eyes. I gave them names, thanked them for delivering me safely, empathized with them when they got hurt. Granted, I never gone so far as to confide in my cars (can I really trust them not to share my business with other cars), but there is this tiny part of me that thinks they are listening. Believes that what I say to them matters.

And now, my daughter, who emulates all that I say and do, believes too. “Mommy, be snakey,” she begs, holding up her six-foot orange python. Using my best vampire voice Snakey says, “Sophia, my princess, dance with me,” and Sophia dances with the snake that has become her protector, her pal, her confidant. And I know that one day soon, I may be drafting the most important, most reassuring of contracts between the two of them.

I am very much in favor of whatever gets us through.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You Are Not My Best Friend

I have just refused to buy Sophia a cheap, plastic, single-use Disney Princess Tea Set.

Right after I say no, she’s running away from me, past racks of discounted designer clothing and handbags in colors nobody wants, toward the front door. I have to make chase because outside is a very busy parking lot and the doors are automatic. I catch up to her just as she makes her way into the vestibule, pick her up airplane style, and carry her straight out to the car. All the while, she is protesting, flailing, and threatening. “I’m going to hit you, if you don’t let me go, Mommy.”

“I would keep your hands to yourself if you want any chance of getting to listen to music in the car.”

She hits me.

“That’s it. No music.”

“Can I please have a book instead?” she asks, full of false sweetness.

I don’t answer her until I’ve got her strapped in. (It is essential that she is strapped in before I say this. She holds on to a shred of hope and offers up a modicum of compliance while uttering this last request.) “No, you may not.” I inform her. My denial sends her into paroxysms of rage.


The insult is new, and it is a strange thing to hear this playground threat—something that has clearly been said to her—aimed at me. The words must have hurt her, a barb that, a week ago, she hadn’t known existed, is now tucked way in her own arsenal of anger. I have the sense that it will become her go to phrase when denied. She’ll level it at me, her father, even her grandmother.

My anger is muted by sadness. A little more of the real world, of how people treat each other, has crept into her awareness. And it’s not just the fact that I know she has been mistreated that bothers me, but that she’ll use these words to mistreat others.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Make Room for Daddy

I am a parenting hog. I want all the control. I want to make all the decisions. And I want my husband to do exactly what I do. I would hate being married to me.

Fortunately, I unwittingly picked a guy who is pretty much willing to go with this program. Despite the fact that I have more masculine traits than he does, (we once took a test that we found in a paperback book in a used book store, the quasi-scientific equivalent of a Cosmo Quiz—I came out leaning towards the masculine side, and Kevin the feminine) we have settled into very traditional gender roles. Kevin takes the morning train. He works from 9-5 and then, he takes another home again to find me waiting for him. (Lines totally stolen from Sheena Easton, but, alas, true. Please don’t sue me, Sheena.) Meanwhile, I take care of all things Sophie—from baths to doctor’s appointments, from laundry to preschool drop-off. This is not to say that Kevin doesn’t pitch in. He does. We do her bedtime routine together almost every night. He plays with her while I cook dinner. And in the mornings, whenever possible, he’ll help with her shoes or brush her teeth or make sure she eats.

There is a price to pay for this—for the control. For one, if I want it done in a particular way (say, I want her to sit in her chair while she eats and she wants to sit in daddy’s lap, stroke his beard, and chew each bite with glacial slowness) I need to either 1) leave the room and what will be will be or 2) do it myself. If I stay and watch, the tension builds up inside my body and becomes so great that I say something I regret, or I have to take over.

I wish this wasn’t true. I wish I could let it go. Parenting together is the hardest thing.

The other morning, we were all sitting around the breakfast table and Sophie told us about a negative interaction she had with a peer at school. The other child had told her she didn’t want to be her friend anymore—she wanted another girl to be her friend. Sophie tilted her chin to her neck and looking downtrodden, said, “I felt left out.” It is a phrase I taught her in an attempt to give words to her emotions during a similar incident. Though I believe her feelings were hurt in this instance, there was also something melodramatic about the presentation. It seemed to me that she was trying to evoke a particular response from Kevin and me.

So, I tried to treat this admission with lightness. Sophie has a tendency to get locked into routines. I could see this becoming a daily drama. I took a very problem-focused approach: “Well, if she says something like that, just go find someone else to play with. She gets moody sometimes. So do you. It will blow over.” I saw a look in Kevin’s eye that led me to believe he didn’t agree with my approach.

Then, Kevin, who is very attuned and takes great care to ensure that Sophie’s feelings are acknowledged, leaned in and said, empathically, “it really hurts your feelings when a friend says something like that to you.” Sophie nodded.

I felt that twinge, the discomfort that arises from disagreement. A tightness in my chest. But then, I overrode it. It was almost as though I had stepped out of my body and was watching the three of us having this complex interaction. I saw Kevin’s intent, his sweet parenting style, his very different way of conceptualizing this moment, and I stopped judging it.

I let it go.

And, since that conversation, she hasn’t said another word about it. Maybe all that she needed was a father’s feminine touch.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beautiful (Day) Dreamer

Sophie has been silent for awhile, her head cast to the side of her car seat, her mouth working steadily on her thumb (likely shriveled and white, as if she has sucked the life and blood out of it), listening to the infernal soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast Jr. I know all the nuances of this album. I know the subtle ways in which a cast member will pull his face wide and tight to draw forth a different voice for a villager or accent it heavily to become the clock. I know how the wardrobe rushes through her lines at one point, and the pathos with which Beauty will plead with the Beast not to die at the end. Sometimes, before I realize that I’ve begun singing along, Sophie will shush me from the back.

I am not allowed to talk. Or sing. Or even hum along.

Which is fine with me. One of the things I love about driving is how boring it is, providing me with ample opportunity for my mind to wander. Whole fabricated conversations, possible (and impossible) futures, and occasionally morbid flashes of how I will die bloom in the emptiness of my mind. The banal highway landscape disappears for chunks of time. And, when I come to, I’m surprised to find how far I’ve traveled while my thoughts have drifted, anxiously wondering how it is that we haven’t crashed.

Now, I am startled out of my reverie, when Sophia suddenly exclaims, “Mom! I’ve got a great idea!” I look into the rearview mirror. Her blue eyes are round and wide. “What if we invite the entire neighborhood to put on the play of Beauty and the Beast in our basement?!?” She’s gesticulating wildly, her hands, palms-up, drawing large ovals in the air as she speaks. If it wasn’t completely unconscious, I’d think she was mocking me. I’m lost for a moment in the thought that Sophie is a caricature of me, just as I must be a caricature of my own mother. How many generations back does this gesture go, I wonder?

“Mom?” she’s checking to see if I’m listening. I kind of wasn’t.

“Yes, that’s an interesting idea,” I say, one corner of my mouth turned up, bemused.

“We could have all the girlies from the block. And my friend Lexi….” She pauses. “Lexi doesn’t know Beauty and the Beast,” she frowns for a moment, considering this assumption (which may very well be false. I, for one, have no idea if Lexi is or isn’t familiar with Beauty and the Beast). “I’ve GOT ANOTHER IDEA. We can invite everyone to LISTEN to Beauty and the Beast in our basement. That way, everyone will know it!!!” She says this like she has discovered the cure for cancer or how to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. This is my daughter’s mission: to spread the gospel of Beauty and the Beast.

I find it charming that she has no idea that Disney has beat her to it. Her desire to share her love of this musical extravaganza, of recruiting everyone she knows to participate in her very own Spectacular Spectacular a la Moulin Rouge reminds me of my own younger self. I was older, probably about nine or so, when my best friend Christine and I had dreams of bringing the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour to the kids on the block. We spent months perfecting dances (flitting across a floor covered in strawberries and then hula dancing to the flute music at the end of Strawberry Fields), making tickets, creating marketing materials, imagining how we might build a stage. In reality, it never happened. The joy was in the possibility and the vision—the hours spent in joint imagination.

I feel a small thrill when I hear Sophie speak so passionately about her fantasy. I want her to be a dreamer and dream big.

In my youth, daydreaming saved me.

It offered me an escape from the oppressive tedium of school. Hours spent listening to teachers drone on about something easily read in a book. The constant waiting. Waiting for books, papers, tests to be passed out. Waiting for the film strip to be loaded into the projector. Waiting for the bell to ring.

All my elementary teachers said the same thing. She’s a good student, but she spends too much time daydreaming. As if it was my fault.

It offered me an escape from my bedridden state—constantly ill, often absent, frequently alone. In the absence of real relationships, I fabricated virtual ones. I would dress myself in clothes I didn’t own for dates I’d never go on to places I’ve never been. I feel sad now, reflecting on it. But at the time, it was all so beautiful, like the splendor of The Little Princess’ attic, decorated with imagination. The images in my mind were sustaining. They gave me hope.

It offered me an escape while my parents fought—eyes turned inward are blind to one’s surroundings, ears attune to an inner voice are deaf to shouting. My fertile inner life delivered me from my dismal “real” life. Books helped. The provided a window, opened the doors. They supplied endless friends and travel to exotic locales. They kept the fire of my imagination stoked.

Even now, if I don’t want to be here, I don’t have to stay. My bag is always packed.

I owe boredom my gratitude. I have read that the availability of information, the phenomenon of everything “on demand,” the constant stimulation of the digital world has all but eradicated boredom—and that this bodes poorly for creativity. It is in the moments of nothingness that something is created—whether its dramatic play or scientific advancement. Boredom necessitates change. It creates frustration. It begs filling.

These empty hours in the car have perhaps, unwittingly, become one my greatest gifts to Sophie as her parent.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sweet but Sassy

It happened.

I knew that one day it would. And so I shouldn’t have been shocked, or hurt. I tell other people not to be shocked or hurt when it happens to them. It’s developmental, I say.

I had just taken Sophia to her ballet class with Miss Marissa. It is one of the highlights of our week. She goes with two of the girls from our block. I watch them, stealthily through the cracked door (Miss Marissa shuts it to keep out the distracting moms who point their ipads at their kids and instantly upload images of their budding ballerinas to Facebook or those who wave manically at their child, like me.)

Sophie is holding hands with her BFF, Leah, their free hands in surprisingly graceful arcs over their heads, and walking across the floor on their tippy toes. They are dressed in almost identical leotards and tutus. Sophie’s has rhinestone ballet slippers on the front and Leah’s has a rhinestone heart and a variety of mysterious stains that result from daily wear. Both are beaming. I get that tight feeling in my chest, tears sting my eyes, and I am choked up with the pleasure that I am able to give her this.

Afterwards, we meet up with her other friend, her sister and mom at a local café for dinner. We arrive first, as they are on a post-ballet diaper run to CVS. Knowing that Sophie is napless and likely to break down soon, I put in our order. I run the options by Sophie first. Turkey salad trail mix, with walnuts and cranberries sound good to both of us. I get a wildberry smoothie to wash it down. We sit in a comfy chair, reading and waiting for our friends to arrive. I am relieved that the place is empty. It takes the heat off of me, knowing that there are no strangers whose judgment I fear. Just me, the other mom, and our kids. Our friends arrive and put in an order for chicken nuggets and a bagel.

I know in that moment that I’m about to have a problem. Sophie will not want to sit and eat turkey trail mix when her friends are consuming a carbolicious meal. Still. I’m used to asserting my parental will in front of others, and I figure the die is cast. She’ll eat the turkey.

Sophie is wild, an edge of hysteria to her voice as she shouts nonsense words and rolls around on the pre-owned overstuffed chairs. The girls organize a game of house, but are far more interested in assigning and reassigning roles than actually playing the roles. “You be the mommy and I’ll your little girl. No No NO. I’ll be the mommy and you be the little girl and I’ll be your older sister. No No NO.” Sophie’s voice rises above the others, and I am disturbed by her bossiness. I sit there, talking to the other mom and trying to figure out if it is my voice I hear coming from Sophie’s mouth. If that is the way I talk to her.

I give her a couple verbal warnings: for her voice rising, for her bossiness, and when she steps into the back office and says, “Let’s play in here.” I turn to the other Mom and say, sarcastically, “If there’s a boundary she’ll cross it.” As soon as the words leave my mouth I feel badly, as though I have betrayed Sophie, speaking ill of her this way to another parent, just a few feet away.

Soon after, the food arrives. Sophie is galled to watch her friends be served kiddie culinary delights and a turkey wrap (light on the mayo) to be set before her. She runs to a couch, buries her face it in and says:

“I don’t want you as a mother. I want another mother.”

I understand what she was feeling. She was exhausted. I was being particularly negative. And, to add insult to injury, I had insisted that she eat what I had purchased—not a bagel and not chicken nuggets. Still, the words cut deep.

I try not to reveal my hurt, growing sterner instead. I demand that she comes to the table and takes a bite. She does, reluctantly, and then spits out the mouthful onto the plate, her face twisted with disgust.

The other mom offers Sophia part of her daughter’s bagel. I let Sophie have it because I don’t want the situation to escalate. Because I don’t want a scene. And, secretly, because I don’t want Sophie to want her over me as her mother. Sophie eats it happily and peace, for the most part, is restored. She still has difficulty staying at the table, and occasionally lures her friends away from their dinners, but I manage to keep bringing her back and keep her eating.

Throughout dinner her words continue to echo in my head. They perturb me and so, in turn, I am more curt than usual. The sharper I become, the worse Sophie behaves. Refusing to listen. Refusing to leave. Refusing to hold my hand as we cross the street. I feel like we’re caught in a downward spiral of reinforcing each other’s poor behavior.

Later, in the car, I try to explain the impact that her words had on me. “You really hurt my feelings, Sophia. If you’re mad at me, that’s okay. You can tell me that. But telling me that you want a different mother is mean and hurtful.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” she says, a little too sing-songy to sound truly sincere. But, I’ve made my point. I try to let it go. Cognitively, I recognize that she had to say it, that it’s part of the process of her separating from me and individuating as a human being. That this is only the beginning, and I will hear much worse from her over the course of my life time. I realize our relationship, my love, has to be strong enough to tolerate her anger. I have to watch my sarcasm and the dangers of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t dismiss her rude comments; I need to let her know that they are not acceptable. At the same time, I can’t give them too much power.

Still, hearing these words for the first time felt a little like a chip in the wedding china. The first scratch on a new car. It may not look like much. I may even forget it tomorrow. But in a small way, it has changed the thing forever.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

She Said It So Well

Tonight, after Sophia went to sleep, I sat down with Kevin and enumerated the many reasons I'm feeling totally stressed out at the moment (looming deadline for work, the untimely demise of my father's beloved budgies, gotta write the blog, anxiety about Sophie's inability to nap at Montessori, etc., etc.). When I was fiinally finished, he paused and offered, "Do you want me to guest blog for you this week? Would that help?"

"Really? You would do that for me?" I was more than mildly surprised. Sure, he edits my work every week (and always offers something that elevates the piece), but this was above and beyond.

He lifted his eyebrows in an expression I know by now conveys utter sincerity. And so, this week, with gratitude and pleasure, I'd like to present a guest blog by Sophie's dad, Kevin:

Sophie said it so very well.

I brought Melissa and Sophie down South to attend a family reunion. I had been looking forward to visiting my Georgia cousins who I rarely see. The occasion allowed Sophie to play with one of her only two first cousins. One year apart, they merrily chased each other. Tickles, giggles, and hugs abounded in a several hour spate.

Sophie was uncharacteristically quiet and serious when returning to our car. Sucking her thumb and looking forward in a distant stare, she seemed to be thinking very hard. She popped her thumb from her mouth and in a high-pitched, dreamy-tone shared, “We give our hearts away to other people and get new ones. That’s love.”

My own heart melted. I was awe-struck. With a tear in my eye, I made eye contact with Sophia who smiled slightly as she reinserted her thumb. I looked over to Melissa and we exchanged looks of parental wonderment and pride.

Sophie plays often and well with other children, so I wasn’t surprised when she had fun with her cousin. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t seen her cousin in a full year, which for a 3-year-old is almost the same as never having played together. What surprised me was she seemed to have a special emotional attachment to playing with this child, because he was her cousin. Moreover, she articulated this special emotional attachment in that pure, clear-vision of a child feeling something for the first time.

I have some warm memories of playing with my Georgia cousins when I was a child. Most of my life was lived elsewhere and I struggle with the odd experience of both loving and not really knowing my cousins. Love is generally talked about in the context of romantic love or familial love for one’s parents, siblings, and children. The kind of love I feel for my cousins is a connective love: a shared bloodline, cultural background, and longitudinal view of someone across their life span. Similar to a leap of faith, this kind of love requires me to find a way for my feelings to jump over the unknown. Staying in touch with them involves the risk that I may endure apathy and lack of reciprocation.

Luckily for me, the reunion was well-attend and I had dozens of happy conversations, including sharing memories of my deceased mother, learning about my family member’s lives now, and reminiscing about our playful childhoods. I enjoyed several heart-to-heart conversations with a beloved aunt. After the weekend, I feel rejuvenated in that unique way that visiting family can best remind you who you are and where you come from.

My precocious daughter distilled all of these complex and subtle feelings into a clarion two-liner. First, we give our hearts away by risking staying connected. Then, having risked, we receive the love of others and renew our self-love by acting in accordance to our values. These things are love.

Sophie said it so very well.

Thank you, Kevin.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Facing Race

We are in the bathroom of a gourmet pizza restaurant—the kind that has offerings like shrimp and goat cheese and whole wheat crusts—in Atlanta, GA. We’re here for a family reunion on Kevin’s side, and tonight we’re visiting with some of his cousins he hasn’t seen in years.

Towards the end of the meal, Sophie announces her panicked, “Bathroom!” which she does every night at some point during dinner. Then she says, “Mommy, come with me.”

Looks like I’m up.

On the way to the bathroom, we pass some live music, two teenagers, one on keyboards, singing, and the other accompanying him on the base. Sophie pauses to stick out her butt and shake it a little before I remind her of where we were so desperately headed.

She reluctantly drags her feet toward the bathroom. Inside there is a full length mirror, and with the music loud enough to penetrate the door, Sophie breaks into a dance watching herself with delight. As she does, another little girl enters with her mother. She is slight—I take her to be newly three—with creamy coffee-colored skin, perfect tight, black braids, shining eyes, a purple tutu, and bejeweled, flashing sneakers. She sees Sophie, squeaks a greeting and immediately joins her. Sophie is charmed to have someone join her dance party and the two shake their tails and chatter away about the live music. The other mom and I exchange smiles, touched by the sight of our daughters dancing in the bathroom.

But, wary of an accident, I remind Sophie, once again, of the purpose of our trip. “Okay, okay, Mom,” she says. We are in the stall and Sophie announces, loud enough for the entire bathroom to hear, “That girl has brown skin, Mom!”

I wince, but say, “Yes, she does.” Pause, and then add matter-of-factly, “We all come in different colors.”

Of course, Sophie was just noting the difference. It was hardly a comment along the lines of, “Mommy, why is that woman’s stomach so big?” which she asked a couple weeks ago in the library, pointing to one of the librarians. I tried to hustle her out the door so I could talk to her in private about making comments about other people’s bodies, but thinking I hadn’t heard her she said it again only this time, MUCH LOUDER.

No, I was only embarrassed because I would have liked to respond to Sophie the way in which the other girl’s mother would want me to respond to Sophie, and I wasn’t sure what that was. There’s no playbook for this. No way to know if the other mother was annoyed that of all the observations my daughter could have made about hers (she’s friendly, a good dancer, adorable, had cool shoes), it had to be about skin color, and now she (and her child) were being subjected to a conversation about the color of their skin. Or, whether she appreciated what I had to say, and the casual tone with which I said it. Or was she in the other stall wondering about the expression my face wore, where the conversation would be headed, or how she would talk to her own daughter about this interaction.

Was it the first time that she was confronted by a comment made by a “white” child about her child, or the millionth? I note that I have never heard a black child say of Sophia, “Mommy, her skin is all pinky-orange!” and I wonder why not.

I was also taken a bit off guard by Sophia’s comment because she is frequently around people-of-color. It’s not like she’s never seen someone a different shade or hue. Her teacher is West Indian. My mother’s nursery school is very diverse. We have friends and, albeit a few, neighbors who are black. We have a bunch of books featuring characters of a variety of skin tones. And she’s frequently in Philly where we encounter people of all races.

I think perhaps she said it because I’ve tried to make race a part of the conversation. Early on I read a summary of the research on children and race in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock. One of the points the authors make is that white people who want their children to be raised without bias often make the mistake of not talking about race. They don’t want to draw attention to the difference, so they don’t mention the difference. This reticence has the effect of making it an uncomfortable topic. And, because children just tend to gravitate towards people who look similarly to themselves, children will start to divide themselves into subgroups by race very early on. What white parents should do, they posit, is talk to their children about the fact that people come in all different colors and that you can be friends with someone who is a different color from you as easily as someone who is the same color as you. So, though it has felt awkward to do it, I’ve talked about the color of her friends—hair, eyes and skin—and pointed out how mommy and daddy have friends of different colors too.

Hence the comment. Sophie was just doing what (I hope) I’ve made it okay to do. I realize that not everyone is going to react in the same way to her comments. As Kevin later said to me, part of why race is so hard to talk about is that when you don’t know someone, you don’t know what they do and don’t believe. A simple observation could be loaded with bias, or it could be just that, an innocent noticing of the difference. It is the thing that makes social space so charged.

The other mother emerged from the stall with her daughter, smiling. If she was offended, I could not read it on her face. We waved goodbye and headed back to our table. A moment later Sophie saw them moving towards the table next to ours, “Look, Mom, it’s my new friend. Can I go over and talk to her?” I wasn’t sure that it would be welcome, and I was aware that I agreed, in part, because I was overcompensating. I didn’t want the other mom to think ill of Sophie’s comment (or my response). So I followed her over to the table, where the girl was drawing. They had a happy reunion, exchanging names and ages. Sophie complimented her on her coloring. We returned to our table and moments later, Sophie’s friend appeared, her picture in hand. “It’s for you,” she said to Sophie, handing her a picture of a star and her name written in a colorful mix of capital and lower case letters. Sophie took the sheet of paper and beamed as if she had just been given one of the greatest gifts she had ever received.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Death-defying Dreams

The other night, I woke from a nightmare. It was so vivid, so real, I had to write it down to purge myself of it so that I could return to sleep:

I was doing therapy in an old, sprawling, Victorian house with a woman going through a divorce. Initially, she was there to share some concerns about her child, but she wound up talking about herself. I had the sense that walking would put her at ease, so we wandering from room to room, still talking.

In the kitchen we encountered her ex-husband. After a brief exchange, he left. The woman and I stayed and talked a bit, until I noticed her ex-husband’s outline through a frosted glass door and realized he was eavesdropping. I was reluctant to leave the space, thinking to myself, "there's something so intimate about kitchens.” But, I wanted to protect her confidentiality, so we walked on. Suddenly, Sophie was in my arms in that inexplicable dream-like way. I carried her as we walked through an area that had a high, slanted, leaded glass ceiling. Golden, fiery balls were falling from the sky, crashing through the roof, shattering the glass all around us, setting the ground aflame. "Oh." I thought, "it's the golden balls of hail," as if recalling a weather report or a prophecy I had previously heard. I shielded Sophie with my body, as I tried to find my way out of the room. Sophie was fascinated by the balls, staring up at them, pointing to one that was aglow with several different colors. I, on the other hand, was terrified. Everywhere there was splintering glass. I had to run, holding Sophie while looking up to avoid being hit. One golden ball of hail grazed her back. I panicked. We, Sophie, my client, and I, headed outside, quickly determining it was safer than being in the glass-ceiling room. Seeking shelter, we headed back towards the front door of the building, dodging the hail as we went. We could hear the screams of other people in the street, wounded, dying. Just as we finally reached the front door, the hail let up. We had made it through. A woman lay on the steps, moaning. There were bits of blood and what looked like brains on the ground. "What happened?" I cried stupidly, alarmed. "She's been hit." said my client, trying to comfort the woman in her last moments. I couldn't shield Sophie from this awful sight. And then, I woke up.

Since the recent earthquake and floods, my dreams have been morbid. Full of death and destruction. Apocalyptic. Now, more than ever, I am acutely aware that my time on this Earth is limited.

Just days later, three-year-old Sophia shared this dream with me:

“I was in grandma’s kitchen, saving a piece of my pizza crust. I leaned back in my chair and fell down. It made a big hole in the floor. Blood came out of my head. It felt like it had wood chunks inside. Grandma put me in bed in my room. Blood came out on the pillow. I sat up. And grandma put a Band-Aid on it. I felt better.” Which is, presumably, when I walked into the room and found her sitting up in bed, bewildered, but calm.

As she recounted the events of her dream, what I found most remarkable about it was how completely unperturbed she was. I listened, hoping my face didn’t betray my shock that this was the stuff of her dreams—violent and sanguinary as my own.

Sophie talks a lot about death, now. Just today, we were looking at a photograph of her classmates from her first year in nursery school. “They’re not dead,” she remarked. “I just don’t see them any more.” Again, I tried not to miss a beat. “That’s right,” I said, “they’re not dead. They’re in kindergarten.”

She’s working on the concept. Trying to make sense of what becomes of the dead. Her first encounter with death occurred a year ago. It was in a field, while we were picking raspberries. A rat lay lifeless on the ground. She stood over it, wondering at his still form. “It’s not alive anymore,” I told her, avoiding the word dead. My explanation seemed to satisfy her. She enjoyed recalling the story, of finding the rat that was no longer alive.

About a month ago, the grandfather of one of her friends died. She caught me off guard with the inevitable question, “What does it mean to be dead?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “it’s like the rat. His body is no longer alive. He’s not with us anymore. His body stopped working. But even after a person is dead you can keep him alive in your mind, by thinking about him.”

Again, she seemed satisfied. I followed the psychological guideline of discussing difficult subjects…sex…divorce…death…with young ones: when they stop asking, stop offering.

Still, she continues to grapple with the concept of mortality. In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston gives the war whoop, “Kill the beast!” And later, the beast lies dying in Belle’s arms, only to be resurrected by her love. Sophia recycles this storyline over and over again in her play. As if through the enactment, she will gain some mastery over it. “Daddy, you be the beast,” she instructs. “But be a nice beast.” When Kevin treads on delicate ground, baring his teeth and growling at her, she squeals, half fearful/half delighted, “No! Don’t kill me! Be a nice beast!”

Sophie, with her egocentric orientation to the world, is the boss of death.

For me, the impetus to reflect on my mortality (outside of all of the natural disasters of late), is this no-mans-land of middle age. The recognition that my life may, in fact, be half over. Time is now measured in what I have left, not what I have ahead of me. Suddenly it feels short, time borrowed. I am at death’s mercy:

Death is the boss of me.

Last night, I was having dinner with my family at a soda shop that caters to kids. I took a bite of my salad, swallowed, and felt something hard lodge in my chest. I suddenly lost the ability to breathe. Panicked and choking, I stood. A cranberry shot out of me, from somewhere deep within my trachea. I felt it scratch the raw interior of my airway as a cough propelled it out of my body. As I sat back down all I could think was: what if that had been it? In front of my daughter. My husband. And my mother, who had joined us for dinner.

Life is that tenuous. Or at least it seems so to me. My existence is not special. I have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but I could be taken down by a cranberry. In a soda shop. In front of my kid.

Our dreams can offer us the illusion of control. In my case, not only can I dodge death, but I can shield my daughter from it. In Sophie’s case, she can confront it and emerge the victor. Graceful, but futile attempts at either end of the spectrum to extend our limited time together.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Poopy Eyeball

My plan to engage in toilet talk along side my daughter, thus eliminating the taboo and decreasing the desire to engage in it has TOTALLY BACKFIRED.

When I was in my junior year of high school, I went to Ohio to check out Oberlin College. We stayed with my father’s twin brother, his wife, and their three little girls. Two of them were in or around preschool age. Giggly, curly-haired, silly little girls, they loved toilet-talk as much as the next three-year-old. What stands out in my mind about this visit is that they had invented a truly unique expletive that sent them into peals of laughter every time it was uttered:

Poopy eyeball.

There was something particularly irreverent about the combination of naughty word “poop” with the inherently goofy word “eyeball” that made the phrase worth repeating over and over and over again.

Needless to say, it left an impression. And twenty-five years later, I found myself uttering it in a moment of playful toilet banter with Sophie. Mind you, it’s not something I said more than once or twice, but Sophie immediately found it to have lexical appeal.

“Poopy eyeball?” she said grinning broadly, her own eyes rolling in her head with excitement.

I rue the moment it passed my lips. Sophie manages to work it into every conversation we have. Apparently, it’s a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an exclamation. As in, “Poopy eyeball! I poopy eyeball on my poopy eyeball. It’s very poopy eyeball.”

Despite my determination not to “limit” her toilet talk and to kill it with permissiveness, I’ve had to enact the rule: no toilet talk while we’re eating. It’s really annoying to dine with someone who feels compelled to repeatedly drop the phrase “poopy eyeball,” the way teenagers pepper their sentences with, “like.” My rule has been poorly observed.

Thus, I’ve resorted to more desperate measures. I tried super-saturating her in the car one afternoon, saying “poopy eyeball” in response to everything she said.

She thought it was hilarious.

Today, for the first time, I saw signs of her weakening. After her nap, in a moment of extreme crankiness, I responded to her request to watch Mary Poppins with, “Poopy Eyeball.”


Oh yeah. Take that. In your eyeball, baby.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

In Praise of Older Motherhood

My mother and father had me when they were 26 and 27, respectively, which means by the time they were my age, they had a fifteen-year-old. A sad, sulking, sarcastic teenager. I try to imagine having a teenager at this point in my life, and I am very glad I don’t.

I worry less that I’ll be too tired to keep up with her, and more that her experience of life will be so removed from my own, that it will hard for me to relate. I can remember making a solemn oath to myself as a teenager, that I would never forget what it felt like to be fifteen. It was probably after some emotional injury that sent me reeling into a black mood—unrequited love, parental blowout, peer group weirdness. I was probably scrawling bad poetry in my journal, tears falling on the page, letting the ink run, the words blur. I can conjure some reconstructed image of myself: part memory, part what I know of myself from my journals. Despondant, lonely, full of yearning.

But the truth is, viscerally-speaking, I’ve forgotten.

I feel a bit ashamed of this. As if I have failed my teenage self. Somehow, I’ve become an adult suffering from adolescent amnesia.

I turned forty-one this week. It hardly seems possible that I could be that old. When I am playing with Sophia, I can inhabit the giddiness of three. Playing hide-and-go-seek, crouching in the bathtub, waiting for her to find me, the effervescent giggles I am stifling are circa 1973. But there are other times, perhaps when she asks me be her baby and lie down in her bed while she covers me with a blanket and reads me a story (that she doesn’t actually read, but rather, silently leafs through) that I am gripped by boredom, longing to check my email and I realize, with some disappointment, that I am a grown-up.

I can’t say, though, that I would have been better off having her any younger, in my tumultuous twenties. Before I knew how to be a partner to another person, before I had made peace with my own parents, before I came to believe that my relationships take precedence over my vocational aspirations. I think she would have suffered as I stumbled my way through early adulthood, a casualty of my divided attention and self-absorption.

I think, now in my forties, I am truly ready to parent. I feel more able to be present for others than I have at any other point in my life. I am more patient, more attune, more sure of myself. I am encouraged by this, and, for the first time, entertaining the possibility that it only gets better. That by the time Sophia is fifteen, perhaps I will not need to remember what it feels like to be fifteen to be an effective, empathic parent.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It Happens

Sometimes in the quest to get it all done, a ball gets dropped. Thanks for checking in. Stay tuned for this week's installment of Life with Sophia--Middle-Aged Mom....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Mixed Diet

I love being a stay-at-home mom. I also love to work. So, I’m feeling truly blessed that I have the option and opportunity to do both. But now that I am doing both, I often feel completely overwhelmed.

On Friday morning, I had the ridiculous plan to wake up, shower, bathe Sophia, print out a report for a client, get us both fed, brushed, and packed up for our day, drop Sophia off at the babysitter and make it to work in time for an early meeting

I imagine there are some people who would read this and think to themselves, “Oh, is that all?” And others who are still shuddering. In truth, it wouldn’t have been so bad if:

1. My daughter didn’t hate baths and wasn’t accustomed to receiving 15 minutes of play time before I deigned to scrub her, and,
2. We didn’t have a temperamental, 7-year old computer that performs very poorly under pressure.

But she does and I do, which is where the best laid plans of this woman went very, very astray.

I managed to get myself bathed, and, knowing better than to try to get dressed for a meeting before bathing Sophia, I didn’t.

I drew the bath and Sophia compliantly disrobed, grabbed Bath Baby, ripped off her head, and threw her decapitated doll into the tub. An excellent start.

“I’ll wash myself,” Sophia proclaimed. Ut oh.

“Not today, Soph,” I sang, “I’m in a real hurry, so I’m just going to do a ‘quick bath.’”

“NO! I don’t want a ‘quick bath’! I want to wash myself.”

“Well, why don’t we wash you together? I’ll give you a squirt of soap and you can wash your belly while I wash your back.”

“NO! I want the whole soap to myself.” I take a deep breath and say a short, silent prayer for a higher power to send me some patience, though not quite in those words.

Thinking fast, I pull a scrap of soap from the bottom of the soap dish. “You can have this.”

“Gee, thanks!”

Whew. I start to wash her back.

“NO! You can’t wash me! I’m washing myself.”

“Sophia. I am going to wash you. You can fight me all you want and we can do this the hard way, or you can let me do it and I’ll be very, very quick.”

Sophie selected the first option. She kicked furiously, churning the water, and instantly soaking me (not getting dressed - excellent call). I grabbed her legs amid her protests: “Ow! Stop pulling my leg! You’re hurting me!”

“If you don’t pull away, it won’t hurt,” I said in my best Buddha-grinding-his-teeth voice. She continued to thrash about so I dumped water over her head and proceeded to scrub, working the soap from her scalp, downward. She reached up and scratched at my face. I held her hands down with one hand and washed her face with my other. “ARRRGGGH! There’s soap in my eyes. THERE’S SOAP IN MY EYES!” I handed her a clean washcloth. She wiped her face and then whipped it at me.

Now it’s war.

I grabbed the wash cloth away and tossed it behind me, into the sink. This gave her just enough time to grab Bath Baby’s head and pitch it at me.

I caught the head mid air. I grabbed Bath Baby’s body before that could be commandeered as a weapon of maternal destruction. As quick as was humanly possible, I finished scrubbing her, plucked her from the bath and threw a towel over her head.

“You can dry yourself. I’m getting dressed.”

I walked out of the room as she began her next protest, “No, I’m not going to dry myself…I’m going to…..”

I turned and held up my hand, “Your clothes are hanging on your chair. If you’re not dressed by the time I come back in here, I’m going to dress you.” I start to walk out, then I turn around and add, “And it won’t be pretty.” I walked out of the room.

She came running into my room and threw her panties at me. “I don’t want to wear these underwear.” They were non-princess underwear, all we had left. The wet wash was sitting in the dryer that I forgot to run last night. I sighed. Some battles are not worth fighting. “Then go downstairs without underwear. I’ll dry another pair for you.”

“Okay!” said Sophie, suddenly cheerful again. I dressed and she returned to my room, fully clothed (except for the underwear).

“Ready for breakfast?”

“Yes!” We headed downstairs.

“I want waffles.”

“I don’t have time to make waffles. I’m making oatmeal.” Was this going to set off tantrum number three?

“Okay.” No, I felt awash with relief. Not today, it wouldn’t. I said a silent prayer, thanking the higher power.

I started the oatmeal and went to print out my report. Kevin had turned on the computer for me a half an hour ago, which is the amount of time the gerbils need to be running in the CPU for it to work. I brought up my document, went to turn on the printer. No paper.

Not a problem. Kevin had bought some the other day. I gently placed it in our cranky printer and hit print.

The paper instantly jammed. I pulled it out. Put it back in even more delicately and resent the document to the printer. A horrible grinding sound emanated from the machinery and the green light on top started blinking wildly.

That’s when I broke down crying.

Kevin came in to my rescue. “Let me deal with this. Go in and take care of Sophie.” Grateful, but still sobbing, I returned from the kitchen.

“Mommy,” said Sophie, studying me with great concern, “you need to take a deep breath.”

So she does listen to me.

I inhaled. I stopped crying. I did feel better. “Thank you, Sophie. That really helped.” I served us the oatmeal. We were eating and I was reading to Sophie when Kevin walked in. “I think I got it to work.” He kissed us goodbye and left.

I went back into the study and tried, once again, to print. A message flashed on the screen: “The printer has lost communication with the computer.” I glanced skyward. Please?

Somehow, I managed to unplug everything, reboot, ultimately print my document, convince Sophia to put on her underwear, and get out of the house only five minutes later than usual. I arrived for my meeting, totally stressed-out and really needing to go to the bathroom, but otherwise intact.

It was an honest-to-goodness miracle.

How do people with multiple kids, full time jobs, and other assorted life challenges do this? How do they manage to sleep, find time for themselves, nurture their couplehood, be a dynamo at work, engage their children, cook meals and exercise? Penelope Leach’s reassuring advice about feeding children comes to mind: “A ‘mixed diet’ is one in which some of each of a wide variety of foods are eaten in different combinations every day. Its virtue lies in the fact than an individual who east that diet over a long time will get everything her body requires under all circumstances (Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five).”

I can hang on, knowing that at least one day/week I’ll work from home and won’t be racing to get to the office. Or that I’ll get to work from a sidewalk café while Sophia takes a dance class down the street for a few hours. Or that we’ll do something really fun with a friend another afternoon. Or on the weekend, Kevin will pretend to be Sophia’s oversized baby while I get to go on a run. A mixed diet. It’s easy to forget, when I’m just eating peas that in a day or a couple hours I’ll be eating ice cream (even if it’s followed by another helping of peas that I'll force down until midnight).