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.