Tag Archives: Parenting

How Fast the Way Home

We departed in the dark. The kids spread blankets over their laps in the backseat. I clutched my coffee mug. An audiobook helped us pass the driving time, over roads that became increasingly crowded, until finally we rolled into an almost full museum parking lot. The museum sat on a large, flat field where families had already begun to lay out their picnic blankets and folding chairs.

The field was covered in dry yellow grass, and populated by shiny aircraft and lazy bees. We wandered around – on the playground, through the museum exhibits – to fill the hours before the big event, the total solar eclipse.

When we noticed a change in the quality of the light, we hurried back to our chairs. We passed people looking at the sky through glasses, cameras, even colanders. We walked as quickly as we could, kicking up clouds behind us, as we resisted the urge to look at the sky.

I gave out the glasses – three pairs, one each for the kids and me. We looked up, then, and saw a dull orange circle, like a copper penny, with the slightest interruption in its circumference. The moon had begun its intrusion.

The air was festive and chatty. Music played over loudspeakers, songs chosen for their kitsch factor – “Bad Moon Rising,” “Dancing in the Dark”- but a quiet rippled over all of us as we felt something shift. The color of the sky darkened to a twilight blue at the dome. The wind picked up, blowing my sweater around me. I shivered, and a thrill went through my belly.

The sun had but a crescent left. My daughter said the sun reminded her of the moon when it’s waning. A boy behind us called out, “The diamond ring!” Above us, a faint band of light circled the moon’s shadow, and a last, bright gasp of sunlight blazed for the blink of an eye.

A cheer went up as the moon covered the sun. The light was twilight dim. We pulled off our glasses and stared at the wildly hairy corona. Tears sprang into my eyes. I grabbed my kids’ hands. I know the eclipse is a truly scientific phenomenon, but the world miracle kept coming to mind.

I insist that it is miraculous and scientific, both. All of us people, brought by our curiosity to sit in the bee’s field on a summer morning, are miraculous. We orbit each other, sometimes touching, sometimes moving apart. Isn’t it miraculous when any two of us, among the millions that co-exist on Earth, share a moment?

The celestial bodies parted almost at the same moment they met. The unveiling of the sun was quick. Gone was the anticipation, the mystery. We knew where we would end up. The way home is always faster than the trip to the destination. Almost immediately, the sky brightened and we were warm again. There was no sign of the rare alignment that had just occurred. We turned ourselves toward home, and I still held two hands in mine.

Food and Memory

My phone rang, and I almost missed the call because my arms were buried to the elbows in a bowl of ground lamb.

My sister Parry was on the other end of the line, and I told her I was making lahmajun, a thin pizza-like dish made with lamb, onions, peppers, and tomato. Lahmajun was one of our favorite things to eat when we were kids, and we frequently begged our Nana to make them. Rolled up like skinny burritos, we’d easily scarf down three in one sitting.

Lately, I’ve been flipping through my Armenian recipes, looking for the most beloved foods of my youth. My Nana gave me her recipes to follow, but cooking her food is so much more than following the instructions. It’s remembering, thinking back to how the dish looked and felt and smelled to me as a child. I channel my grandmother’s practiced way of spreading the topping, hear her voice telling me to make the meat layer thin. Even thinner than that, my hokhis.

The recipes are a connection between my sister and me, too, because we’ve shared tips and advice for making these traditional foods. We’ve both attempted choereg, the sweet bread rolls that were our favorite snack. Nana would make a big batch and put it in the freezer. When I came home from school, I’d take the bag from the freezer, defrost one (or two or three) in the microwave, and eat it, plain, or with whatever I wanted slathered inside. I preferred them with jelly, Parry with cheese. I remember Nana braiding the dough. Parry says she knotted it.

When my kids and I made choereg recently, my daughter and I had a good laugh at our dough-knotting incompetence. Between the mixing and the rising and the shaping and the baking, it was a day-long adventure. And now we, too, have a big bag of choereg in our freezer. When my daughter comes home from school and defrosts her choereg (she takes hers with jelly), or when my kids have their first tastes of lahmajun, it makes me feel like I’ve done something good.

This food goes beyond sustenance. Cooking these dishes connects my kids and me to our Armenian heritage, especially to my Nana, who even now cooks up yalanchi and boereg when the family gathers. I love the feeling that I am carrying on her role, and sharing an important tradition with my children.

I’m giving them something that they will remember.

Lahmajum!

Lahmajun, almost like Nana makes. Yum.

 

My Girl

I am looking at a picture of my daughter. In this picture, we are on vacation in Mexico, and she is playing on the beach. The game she is playing is one that she made up, and she calls it “Beach Kung Fu.”

She is lying down in the sand. Her eyes are closed. Her arms are flung in opposite directions. Her legs are splayed. She looks as though she might be dancing, or practicing a swim stroke. Or simply making sure that there is sand stuck to every inch of her skin. Only she knows that what she is doing is practicing her “Kung Fu.” Though now that you know, I think you’ll agree that it’s really quite obvious.

My girl is content, and contentedly oblivious. She looks ridiculous, but she doesn’t care. She will certainly have sand lodged into the most uncomfortable places, but she doesn’t care. She will need to take a shower and people are probably looking at her. I’m not sure whether or not they were, because I didn’t care about them any more than she did.

When I read Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother, I noticed the many times that she talk about her children’s bodies. In particular, she talks about the “buttery” feel of her babies’ thighs. I thought that I probably should be annoyed, but I get it. Our children’s bodies are wonderful, wonderful things to touch and hold. I remember how Win’s body felt in my arms at every stage. The babies are buttery, all right, but I look at this picture and I know that my daughter is well past butter here. She’s steaky. Her legs are solid. Everything about the way the way her limbs look, feel, and move is confident and strong. Whether she is dancing or scooting or doing beach Kung Fu, she moves for the pleasure of the moment.

I hope she grows up with this certainty about her physical self intact, but I know that she probably will not. At some point, we all become aware of and concerned with how others perceive us. We think about the consequences of our actions, including whether or not the sand will be itchy and whether or not we’ll find it in our hair for days afterward.

But, this picture represents one of the many ways that I will remember my girl. I add it to the other memories like charms on a bracelet: the infant sleeping on her father’s chest, the toddler blowing out birthday candles, the kid going off to school for the first time, meeting her baby brother, drawing in her sketchbook, making friends. And beach Kung Fu.

Beach Kung Fu

Book Notes: Animal Family

Books call us. They find their ways into our lives when we need them, like children or friends, though we might not realize until later exactly why.

Several months ago, my sister the wondrous children’s librarian gave my family The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. I love her, love her taste in books, and loved the sweet small book. For some reason, though, I put the book on the shelf and left it there.

Then, on my way to bed a few nights ago, my eyes already at half mast, I reached for a book of poetry from the shelf. My hand veered of its own accord, traveled down a few spines, and came away with this instead.

I read it to myself over the next day, savoring the strange story of a lonely hunter who meets a mermaid. Jarrell does not writes of anything as typical as love or passion. Their mutual fascination comes through in the way that they learn bits of each other’s languages and histories, trying to understand the perceived oddities but, eventually, simply accepting them. “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.”

The hunter begins to long for a larger family. He brings home first a baby bear, then a baby lynx. Later, the lynx and the bear find a baby human. There is little sense of a typical family hierarchy; the bear, lynx, and boy don’t belong to the hunter and mermaid, even though the hunter and mermaid do typically parental things like make sure the young animals stay safe and fed. Jarrell only uses the word “father” once, on the second to last page of the book. Rather, all the characters belong to each other, and to the family. Somehow the family achieves a sense of absolute belonging and intimacy while still allowing all the members to lead their own lives and follow their own dreams. A bear needs a very different life than a mermaid. Yet, in this family, neither gives up what is important. The bear hibernates, the mermaid goes for visits to the sea. Being loved has nothing to do with being controlled in this family, which is an idea that is both strange and fascinating to me. I’m still mulling it over.

On the same day that I read this story, Maurice Sendak, who illustrated this text, passed away. His black-and-white drawings are spare and evocative, the perfect companion to Jarrell’s simple prose. Of course that is nothing more than coincidence, but Sendak’s death at that time contributed to the feeling that the book came to me via serendipity. As I said before, books often do feel this way to me. Or, at least, the best books do, because the writer manages to both tell a wonderful story and tell a truth that the reader recognizes and relates to. Jarrell’s homage to familial love is such a gift.

I noticed later that my sentiment was echoed in the quote on the back cover: “I had not known that I was waiting for The Animal Family, but when it came it was a though I had long been expecting it.” P.L Travers, The New York Times Book Review

Thank you, universe or book gods or fate or serendipity. Thank you, sister.

Making Do

I take pride in making do. As if it is a testament to my inner iron, or to my frontierswoman spirit, I proudly go without. Who needs a dishwasher? I’ve got hands, haven’t I? A car? An elevator? See, I’m just fine without all that stuff that other people think they need.

Ah, but I’m not bragging. There’s danger in all that pride I take in my own (perceived) virtue. See, sometimes I go without things like sleep. Or time to myself. Or the help that I can’t bring myself to request. And who does that serve? No one. Sometimes I’m so busy being fine that I forget that being fine is not the point. The point is to flourish.

And, in order to flourish, I need to give myself permission to want and need and dream and demand. To be the happy and creative and balanced person that I am at my best, making do won’t do at all. The list of things that I need is not long, but it’s also not negotiable: Time. Space. Sun. Rest. People (the right ones, of course).

Starting this month, I have been attempting the radical. Instead of being so busy and put-upon that I can’t engage in anything exceptional or creative, I’m going to prioritize my creativity and let the rest slide.  I’m making fast, simple food. I’m dropping off the laundry. I’m turning off my internet connection more often. Rather than making do, I’m making myself do.

The other day, I walked in the park and couldn’t stop noticing the trees. They are a gorgeous sight this time of year, with bright green leaves unfurling and buds of every hue opening like eyes waking to the new morning. The branches reminded me of a particular hand position that a yoga teacher taught me a long while ago. The palms face up and fingers extend, signaling openness and readiness for giving and receiving. As I walked I felt my fingers mimicking the trees’ gestures, turning toward the sky, opening to possibility.

So far, I’ve been surprised how even the slightest shift in attention and effort reaps rewards. I’ve arranged for some additional child-free hours, which frees my schedule to focus on my creative projects. I’ve joined with an excellent writer and awesome person in a writing critique partnership, which gives me the motivation to work on my book every day. Time, space, sun, rest, and people. Opportunities abound, and my palms face the sky.

New Baby Boy

How very small my world is just now. A rocking chair, a bassinet, a bed. I mark time by listening to the world outside. Through my window, I hear the store gates open, the car radios blaring, the children laughing and racing ahead of their parents on the way to school.

But, here, just above the raucous world that exists on the sidewalks below, my only wish is to make you happy, my new baby boy, largely because it is so easy. Nuzzle you, rock you, feed you well, sing you to sleep, and you reward me with a contented burp or a sigh, the sweet heaviness of your body melting against my chest.

The mornings are my favorite, when you are finally sound asleep. Your sister comes in like a hurricane, then settles on the bed between your dad and me. She snuggles her body into mine, into the spot that, to be fair, was hers first. I feel so exhausted that I can’t raise my head. For a few moments, no one has to move.

I can smell my children, hear them breathing. I can touch my husband’s face. Those dearest to me in the world are within these four walls, and it feels like being inside a present.

Book Notes: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Ever since I began creating lists of good books for girls like this one, people have been recommending that I read Lauren Tarshis’ book Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. I finally got around to it, and I’m so glad that I did. This book now figures among my favorites for upper grade and middle school girls. In fact, this treasure of a book makes me wish I could get in my time machine and go back to my 5th grade classroom so I could ensure that some of the girls in that room received their dose of Emma-Jean.

Alas, I can’t remember where I parked my time machine. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emma-Jean. She’s socially clueless in all the best ways, plus has a great mix of intelligence, curiosity, caring, and precociousness. The character harkens back to Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy – which puts her in rarefied company, indeed.

In this story, Emma-Jean seems to be content with her social circle, which mostly consists of her mother, her teacher, the school janitor, and the grad student who rents out their spare room. She observes and analyzes her peers with a sense of curiosity bordering on fascination, much as a scientist might examine animals in an experiment. But, no matter how curious, she’s content not to be involved in their senseless and often confusing social customs and rituals. Emma-Jean manages to maintain this remove until the day when she encounters a girl named Colleen Pomerantz crying in the bathroom. Because she is a girl who likes to solve a problem, Emma-Jean offers to help solve Colleen’s problem, which has to do with a “mean girl” type who wields so much social power that she scares the girls who surround her into submission and obedience.

Somehow, Tarshis creates a character in Emma-Jean who is naive, but not pitiable. What she lacks in social graces she makes up for with her intellect, honesty, and what Colleen refers to (with awe) as not caring what others think. Tarshis also successfully writes a book for kids that doesn’t feel like it talks down to them. I tend to assume that books for upper grade children will be mostly predictable but, in this case, I found myself wondering how it would all turn out in the end. Would Emma-Jean learn how to have friends her own age? Would Colleen and the others learn from Emma-Jean how to think for themselves?

My only complaint about the story is the character of Emma-Jean’s mother. As a single mother (Emma-Jean’s father died some time before the start of the story), Emma-Jean’s mother never shows an ounce of impatience or frustration. She always knows exactly the right thing to say to soothe her quirky daughter’s doubts and answer her questions. Even when she demonstrates grief over losing her husband – crying just twice a year – it seems a very controlled and reasoned sort of outburst.

As a parent myself, I prefer characters like Colleen Pomerantz’s mother, who almost never knows what to say to her daughter. It’s not that I want to be a clueless parent. It’s just that I know I mostly am. And, like Colleen’s mother, I try very hard even if my efforts are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Ultimately, Colleen’s mother does help her daughter get the guidance and support that she needs, and I thought it very wise of her to know that she could not be the one to provide it.

Tarshis’ first book is an impressive mix of smarts and heart, just like Emma-Jean herself. The book’s sensitivity to the complicated relationships that young people have in middle school, plus the lovely writing and metaphors, make it an easy recommendation for upper grade readers, and it wouldn’t hurt for their parents to read it, either. Sometimes, it’s good to remember.

One More Makes Four

When I was pregnant with my daughter, people often told me, “It goes by so quickly!” Several times a day I heard this, so frequently that I got a little tired of it. I know now how true the sentiment is, and also how many different things that simple phrase can mean.

It can mean how hard it is to see your sweet baby pass through phases that she will never visit again. These days, I linger over photos of my girl when she was just a baby, and my heart swells with love, along with a bevy of other emotions – nostalgia, sadness, joy, pride. I can not believe that she will never be that size again. Each day that passes is too short, and she changes so quickly in each. Each day she grows up more and more, and she needs me less and less. It makes me want to weep, freeze time, push on her head… anything to slow it all down.

Meanwhile, another voice in my head shouts, “Thank heaven that the time passes so quickly!” Because the truth about parenting is that, while those early days are precious, they certainly don’t leave much time for one’s own pursuits. That the neediness of her infancy is finite means that I get to enjoy parts of me that I’ve sorely missed over the last couple of years. I get to go back to being a creative, social, working, WHOLE person again. And it feels really, really good.

Our little family is pretty sweet right now. The fact that we big people have little people outnumbered means that the dude and I can easily tag team parenting duties, and help each other make time for the things we love and need to do. Living with one child, which used to feel so overwhelming, now feels quite manageable. In fact, living with Winnie has become a little like living with a foreign exchange student. (Not a hot French one, but more like a slightly geeky one from Poland.) We have to explain absolutely everything to her and put up with her hanging around us all the time, but she also says hilarious things because of her limited English skills, and she helps me to see the world in a new and more expansive way.

There are a million reasons to be glad for what we’ve got, and not mess with a good thing. And, yet, messing with it is exactly what we’re doing. We’re having number two.

Deciding to have a second child means signing up for exhaustion, physical and emotional upheaval, dirty diapers, and mountains of laundry, not to mention the strain on our relationships and the cost to our professional lives. But we’re doing it anyway. Why? Are we gluttons for punishment?

Perhaps. But we also know now, better than we did before, how fast these days, weeks, months, and years will fly. How the drudgery will be sprinkled with delicious moments of laughter and delight. How those moments will rush around us like water, buoying us up (and sometimes threatening to pull us under).

I need the miracle and mystery of parenthood in our lives. When our second is born this summer, I know that our hearts will crack open in a million painful and beautiful ways, just as they did when Winnie was born. Only now Winnie will be here, with us. It will also be her world that is shaken and rattled. We will each – all three of us – miraculously become more than we were before. The dude and I will grow to adjust to the new challenges of parenting two children, and our little girl will become a big sister. She’ll face her challenges, too, I’m certain. She’ll be forced to practice patience and compassion, and sometimes she will fail. She will love and protect her sibling, even while she resents and even dislikes him or her at times.

As she accommodates – or not – the newest member of our family, she’ll learn her first lessons about love and all its mysteries. Loving someone when you hate him. Loving someone when you’d rather not. Loving someone, and being in awe of the hugeness and complexity of your feelings. We’ll try to explain it to her, and I’m sure she’ll have plenty to teach us, too. I hear it’s different in Poland.

Dust Off Your Intuition

Some people know what needs to be done. They go forward confidently, not second-guessing their choices, actions, behaviors, or motives. They don’t vacillate wildly between items on the menu, outfits to wear, or names for their children. They might not claim to know the best way, but they know their way, and they proceed decisively and competently.

I am not one of those people.

For example, when I married the dude, I couldn’t decide whether or not to change my last name. My mother acted like it was a no brainer. Why wouldn’t I? My friends looked at my a little funny. Why would I? I read articles and essays about the history of women taking men’s names. I noticed everywhere which women had and which women hadn’t, trying to discern which club I most wanted to join. In the end, I made no decision at all. I did not change my name, but I do – sometimes – use my married name. I do this more or less willy-nilly, as I do many things.

Becoming a parent exacerbated the problem many times over. Before giving my kid Tylenol, I had to read three different books so I could get a handle on what the experts advise. When it came time for solid food, I spent countless hours trolling sites about baby food. Should I follow a prescribed method of slowly introducing mild foods? Or, should I follow a more organic, child-led philosophy? Should we wear sunscreen? Should I go back to work? Should we leave Brooklyn? Should I let Winnie wear pink? How will we stay connected as a couple? Does this bathing suit look awful on me?

For decisions great and small, I found myself turning to “experts” – writers of blogs and books who are peddling their philosophies on every topic under the sun to wishy-washy types like myself. There are so many resources out there – a great, wide, Internet-sized sea of resources! – that it’s hard not to defer to expert opinions. Parents, in particular, are under so much pressure to do things right that we often seek advice from those who claim to have the answers. This kind of dependence on expert advice, I’ve found, is habit-forming. When I did my week of reading deprivation, there were many times when I caught myself reaching for a parenting book or turning on my computer to consult WebMD. Surely it didn’t count as reading if I just needed a little guidance. Right?

I decided that even my well-intentioned (and, I thought, much-needed) searches for advice were off-limits during the reading deprivation. I would have to seek guidance elsewhere. Surprisingly, I found this guidance in a little-known but intelligent person named me. Turns out, I have these qualities called intellect, intuition, and reason. Imagine! Plus, I actually know myself, my family, and our circumstances better than anyone else. So, as it turns out, I usually land on decisions that suit us and don’t feel so much like we’re following someone else’s recipe for life.

So even now that the reading deprivation is over, I’m trying to break my dependence on consulting the experts. One bonus of thinking for myself is that it’s a lot quicker than trolling Google, so I have more time on my hands (time to change my mind later if I want). Plus, if I really, really, really can’t figure something out I have this other awesome thing I can use: Moms (between the kind I got the old-fashioned way, and the two I acquired later on, I’ve got plenty). They were doling out advice centuries before anyone knew of WebMD. They know some good stuff, and they feel real happy when I ask them to share.

Sweet Nostalgia

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When you were a wee baby, we wrapped you in an orange blanket.

Is there anything more lovely than hearing stories of when we were little? Even though Winnie is just two, she repeatedly asks to hear stories from when she was newly born.

When you were a brand new baby, your grandparents and your aunties and uncles came to see you. Everyone held you and kissed you while you smiled, or cried, or slept. And everyone loved you.

When you were our teeny tiny baby, you loved to lie on Daddy’s chest. When you finally fell asleep, he would lie back on the couch and fall asleep, too. When I woke up, I would come to the living room and smile at you both.

When you were an itty little baby, Mommy used to wrap you up tight tight tight in a blanket. I’d dance and sway with you, and whisper, “Shush shush.”

I swaddled Winnie’s stuffed bear in one of her soft, orange baby blankets, showing her how I used to wrap her up.  She pulled the blanket off the bear and insisted, “Wrap me up, Mommy!  I’m a little baby!” The blanket that used to envelope her like a cocoon now doesn’t even come down to her wrists.  I tucked the blanket as snugly as I could around her torso, and I walked around the room while I gently bobbed her up and down. She calmed down and listened, just as she did when she was an infant.

She still likes to play the game once in a while. “Wrap me up,” she says.  And I do, and I tell her about how loved she has always been.  I indulge this baby game because we both enjoy it. Goodness knows, it won’t be long before cuddling with Mommy loses its appeal.

I wonder if this is my daughter’s first experience with nostalgia.  Maybe she realizes – in her toddler way – that some quality of time has passed, and is unavailable to her now. I’ve spent quite a lot of energy over my 30+ years feeling nostalgic about whichever phase in my life happens to have just passed me by: the school years, the single years, the childless years… I have to remind myself that, if we didn’t grow and change, there would be nothing for which to feel nostalgic. So, feeling nostalgic means that we have grown. We are doing what we’re supposed to do: traveling along on this rolling, dipping, dizzying journey of a life.

And, yet, I  believe that there’s nothing wrong with looking back, reaching out to touch those especially sweet moments we have lived. We all do this, some of us through daydreaming, some of us through writing, some of us through hearing the stories of our lives from the people who have lived it right along with us. And me, I wrap up my too-big baby in her orange blanket, and I whisper, “Shush shush.”