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 cafĂ© 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).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The following post is inspired by the memoir In Stitches by Anthony Youn and Alan Eisenstock. The book chronicles Youn’s path to becoming a plastic surgeon from his high school years when he dealt with a disfiguring underbite to his apprenticeship with a celebrity surgeon in Beverly Hills. I received a copy from the publisher, gratis, as a member of the online book club, From Left to Write. I was not paid to write this article. You can read other blogs inspired by the book here, on August 9th.

This has absolutely nothing to do with Sophia.

I have great teeth. That sounds like a brag. It’s not. I earned these teeth. My mother calls it “the million dollar smile.” And she’s not kidding. Like Youn, I had a vicious underbite and years of orthodontia.

In my early years, my underbite was considered cute. My parents will still imitate my primate smile with an expression that conveys how adorable they thought it was. But, as my jaw outpaced the rest of my diminutive frame, they grew alarmed. At least, I surmise that they did based on the sheer amount of dollars and time they invested in my mouth.

I received my first contraption when I was about nine or ten. Contraption, not braces. Oh, I would have braces, for four long years I would have braces, but they were to come much later. First, I had a retainer that was cemented into the roof of my mouth.
This medieval device came with a little key, kept in a small pocket in my mother’s apron. Alright, I made up the last bit about the apron. But she did have a key that she periodically used to tighten the medieval device at my sadistic orthodontist’s whim. Of course, I hated it. I would pick at the metallic parts that were wrapped around my incisors, until one day, when my mother was on the phone, I finally dislodged it. Well, I half-dislodged it. The other half remained affixed to the other side of my mouth so that it hung askew making it impossible to close my mouth. “MAHRM,” came my garbled cry. With an exasperated, “You kids!” my mother hung up with her friend and took me on an emergency trip to the Drs. Vella.

I went to not one but two orthodontists. Husband and wife who plied their evil trade side-by-side. Mrs. Dr. Vella was very proper and all business. Her manner was brusque, her adjustments less than gentle. Mr. Dr. Vella was her polar opposite. He looked like Buddy Hackett from the Tuscan dairy popsicle commercials. He was silly, kind and gentle. Whenever we went for a checkup, I prayed that I would get Mr. Dr. V.

The two conferred about my case. I heard them tell my mother that if we didn’t comply with the preventative work, when I was a teenager I would have to have my jaw broken. That was sufficient motivation for me to keep my retainer in my mouth from that day forward. They added a chin cup to the mix. It fit like a cap over my advancing mandible, attaching to head gear with little rubber bands. Sweat would pool in the chin cup creating the perfect ecosystem for zits to grow and flourish. Before donning my orthodontic crown each night, I’d slather my chin with Clearasil in a futile attempt to keep the pimples at bay.

After two years, when I was released from the iron grasp of my retainer, I was rewired with the latest in brace technology. They were clear and meant to be invisible, however, within hours of eating, they adopted a yellow stain that remained for the next four years. There was no key this time, but I had to wear increasingly tight rubber bands that hooked my upper and lower decks together and would shoot out of my mouth at the most inopportune moments.

When, at last, I was cut free at 16, my braces left behind a memento of sixteen perfectly symmetrical cavities, my first ever. I was drilled, filled and presented with The Positioner. It was to be my last, and perhaps most vexing, appliance. The Positioner was much like a boxer’s mouthpiece—a large silicone mold of my mouth that I was to chew into for four hours each day. With a piece of plastic this large in your mouth, it is impossible to swallow. My saliva would pool in my mouth, inducing nausea and leaking down the sides of my face. I would sit in front of the television for hours with a hand towel to soak up the effluvia. Ultimately, it was too gross for me to tolerate and I stopped using it altogether. My orthodontist threatened me (Mrs. Dr.) that I would go right back to the way I started...but by some miracle this did not come to pass. My teeth stayed put, no trace of an underbite.

I wish I could say that it inspired me to take excellent care of my teeth. That I flossed and brushed and pampered my mouth with a newfound respect. But I didn’t. As soon as I had a beautiful smile, I began to take it for granted. I reveled in the blissful relief that I didn’t have to think about my mouth. That it wasn’t in constant pain. That it looked like other people’s mouths. Freed of my dental shackles, I walked away and didn't look back.

Reflecting on this experience, I wonder, what past afflictions others have walked away from, shed selves, now-invisible experiences that paved the path towards today. What hides behind the pretty little smiles?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You Can Mix and Match

This morning, coming home from the pool, Sophia announced, “I’m going to wear my bride hat at the dinosaurs.” By “the dinosaurs” she meant the memorial that was erected by a local eagle scout in honor of the dinosaur that was discovered several blocks away from our home. There’s a plaque, a picnic table, and a rag tag set team of plastic dinosaurs, which on-your-honor you can play with and leave behind for the next visitor. By “bride hat” she meant the veil that was in the bag of hand-me-down goodies dropped off by Aunt Emily yesterday.

“Oh? Who are you going to marry?” I asked, bemused.

“Daddy,” Sophie said, without hesitation. And then, as an afterthought, “or Jan [Emily’s charming, silly, sunny boy with whom Sophie is enamored]. He’s a really nice boy.”

I was hurt. Jan I can understand. But why daddy? Why not me? I’m a catch. I cook. I clean. I arrange splendid playdates and outings.

I was afraid I already knew the answer. Still I had to ask: “Why don’t you want to marry me?”

“Because, Mom-Moms, I have to marry a boy. Girls marry boys. Daddy is a boy.”

Just as I suspected.

Kevin and I have been very careful not to articulate expectations that she will date, fall in love with, marry or grow up to be with a person of one sex with the other. We wanted to avoid transmitting the message that a heterosexual relationship is the only kind of relationship. Should it so happen that she’s gay, we want her to look back and know that the only thing we ever cared about was that she would wind up with someone who loves her, edifies her, and with whom she is happy.

My own parents did a good job of this. Gay was normal. Our neighbors were a same-sex couple who ran a kennel for miniature schnauzers. We’d go over to their house at Christmastime—their home was built during the American Revolution and had slits in the walls where you could hide behind and stick a gun through. It was always beautifully decorated and they served us hot cocoa and had little gifts for us. And every summer we went to Cape Cod. We spent our nights in Provicetown where we watched transvestite parades and hung out in feminist bookstores and vacationed alongside families of a variety of configurations.

Thus, I try to speak in general terms, if at all, when I talk to Sophie about a romantic future “one day, when you meet someone you fall in love with….blah blah blah.” She knows male-female couples as well as male-male couples and female-female couples. Still, somehow, she has picked up on the hetero-dominant model.

I blame the princesses. Cinderella mooning over Prince Charming, Aurora waiting for Prince Phillip to ride in on his steed, Ariel sacrificing her fish tail to be with landlubber Prince Eric. Where are the lesbian princesses? The gay princes? Surely they are out there. Certainly there are stories where the princess ditches the prince (The Paper Bag Princess), and stories where princesses eschew their dainty image (The Princesses have a Ball, Atalanta in Free to Be You and Me), and even where princesses kick some royal butt (The Princess Knight), but none that I know of that propose a same-sex romantic path.

Which means it’s up to us. “Sophia.” I reply, “You know, not every girl marries a boy. And not every boy marries a girl. Some girls marry girls. Some boys marry boys.”

“Oh,” responds Sophie, “You can mix and match. Boys with girls. Girls with boys.”

Not my point.

I can see that this is only the beginning of a long conversation we will have over time.