Dec 30, 2006


I was supposed to go spend five dollars in an office supply store today--instead I spent ten on the hands of the Korean man who either owns or just works in the nail salon on the corner.
I have come to discover that there is no object I want as much as I want the ten minutes of bliss I get from this slightly grubby but earnest man with the hands of gold.
Since becoming a mom, or maybe since becoming a mom of three, my only desires are time and escape. Time to escape.
I love my children--but I suspect I love thinking about them more than I love being with them. Can that be true? I love the anticipation of seeing them in the minutes before I walk in more than I love the reality of being with them in the minutes after. It’s almost too awful to admit and I know it’s not always true but I know it’s partly true because there’s almost nothing I love more than spying them from a distance. From a distance--the bench in the playground for example--I can see that they are tiny adorable creatures. I can see their fuzziness--their squidginess, their gestures, their true size.
Like when a roommate in college borrows a dress you’re not wild about and you catch a glimpse of it in the haze of booze and dim at the frat house and realize how awesome it is, or when a boyfriend becomes dazzlingly appealing only after you’ve let him go. Ten minutes with my children and I can’t see them anymore. They become huge, adult-sized personalities with adult-sized mood swings and adult-sized issues. When I’m with them they weigh as much as I do.
So once or twice a week, for ten dollars for ten minutes, I escape to the silly upright chair at the Charming nail salon on the corner (it’s not charming--that’s just it’s name). My face pressed into a paper towel-covered donut, the smell of acetone, the sounds of the five o’clock news. My eyes closed because when I open them I end up studying the white socks and black plastic sandals of my magic man and it distracts me.
There’s some embarrassment in the moment the whole thing is over, when I have to open my eyes directly onto a room full of women who have nowhere to look so they look at the newest thing in the room which is my raising-up head. I blink at them, at the fluorescence, at the reality of the face of the man, the sweet grubby man, who only moments before I was slightly in love with--as I fall a little bit in love with all of the people who help make living in this body a little more tolerable--the Jewish lady on Orchard Street who fits me for bras, the hispanic girl at the other nail salon who rubs her thumbs deep into the palm of my hands, and this sweet Korean guy pounding my back--pressing out the knots--pushing thumbs into the parts that allow me to truly escape, for ten minutes, and go gaga over my kids in my mind, and fall in love with my life all over again.

Dec 29, 2006

You Against Us

That was me. I was the mother with the crying baby on your flight from Oakland to JFK last week. And you know what? I was a wreck about her fussiness until you started to glare. Once I saw the nasty disapproving look on your face I really stopped caring. And I'm from Ohio--that's saying a lot. In fact, it turned out to be just about the best gift you could have given me because it changed my whole attitude. My fear that her crying might upset people turned into joy that it was upsetting you. I think I even laughed. Remember when I met your unhappy gaze with sparkly unbothered eyes? That was your fault. My eyes had been panicked until that moment. I was having detached feelings about my baby, actually wishing her away, until your decision to cast a disgusted glance my way turned us into a team. You against us. Person who could sit and read (and listen to live tv in your headphones for chrissakes!) vs. Madonna and child. Yes you heard that right. Jesus probably cried at some point when he was a baby, and you might have too.

What were you thinking? Were you thinking that a look in my direction would magically improve my parenting skills? Were you thinking my 17 month old baby would grow self-conscious under the weight of your stare and comply and sit quietly and eat tiny marshmallows and miraculously find peace with her cubic foot of space for the next 5 hours?

You might be thinking that it wasn’t a voluntary response, and that looking at me was sort of a knee-jerk response to an upsetting noise. If you’re thinking that giving us a mean look was just a way of releasing your steam then I’d like to invite you to consider that you’re not a whit more mature and in control than my steam-releasing, involuntarily knee-jerking unhappy baby girl.

Grow up. Be happy that soothing this baby isn’t your job. Be happy that you won’t have to find out whether or not it’s possible to change a poopy diaper in an airplane bathroom that doesn’t have a changing table. Be happy that you can respond to every flight delay or other thing that doesn’t go your way by diving deeper into your paperback. Take notes, doodle, order things from Skymall. Live it up.

This isn’t an ‘I left my kid home with a sitter to enjoy this movie so why should I have to listen to your kid cry’ kind of thing. This is air travel. It’s for everyone. Really.

Blue Skies

The problem with the questions my children ask is that it’s in my nature to try to answer them, even if I have no idea what the right answers are.

“Why is the sky blue Mommy?” my son asked me as we walked on a gravel road under a glorious blue sky upstate.

“’s something to do with water,” I start. And then I get an idea...”and water’s blue,” I add. “And then there’s so much water in the air,” I continue, adding the thing about H2O and how the O’s f or oxygen, “and since there’s so much water in the oxygen and the sky is so huge our eyes end up seeing all the blue in the water in the air.” I was on a roll. My answer had it’s own momentum, everything was falling into place. I was impressed.
Emboldened by the certainty of my own tone, and the math of the solution that seemed to be adding up perfectly: blue plus air equals sky...I remember the thing about purple mountain’s majesty and that the mountains are so far away they look purple and if you think about it it makes sense because you need blue to make purple and I explained that part too.
And my son nods along.
And my sister, who only has a baby who doesn’t ask these amazing questions yet, whispers to me out of the side of her mouth--”you know that’s not true, right?”
And I didn’t know it wasn’t true--it sounded so good after all. But my sister’s one of those phi beta kappa/high school quiz show geniuses who remembers everything--even though she’s younger than me. So I don’t even argue about it.
As she points out that H2O means water I realize--what was I thinking? And all the pieces of my neat answer shatter and crash out of the sky where they’d been fluttering happily seconds before.

Minutes before the discussion about the sky, I was being brilliant in a conversation with my sister about how I was seriously considering home-schooling my kids. A creative way to avoid the New York City school chaos, and how amazing would it be to eat a healthy breakfast and then visit a farm? Learn about eggs, and milk...and then hop on a plane to Florida to visit an orange grove, an orange juice processing plant. Plant a tree. How amazing would that be?

But my sky fumble humbled me and I realized that, while it’s not important that a homeschooling parent know everything, it is important that a homeschooling parent at least knows what it is she doesn’t know.

And that’s never been a strength of mine.

Dec 21, 2006

My Toddler's Turn

I wake up begging for Barney but you say you need to check the weather. You say Barney’s not on anyway now but I don’t understand because I can’t tell time. You turn on the news but it isn’t the weather and you say to wait because we all need to know if it’s going to rain and that reminds me of the Dora umbrella that I like to open in the car but I get in trouble because it’s Etta’s umbrella and Amos complains that we’re all going to have bad luck and you remind Amos that only the one opening the umbrella will have bad luck and the one opening the umbrella is me and I don’t know what bad luck is. But it doesn’t sound good.
I slide off the bed and run to the other rooms to yell “it’s eight o’clock!” They laugh at me because something like it’s not really eight o’clock but eight o’clock is the only clock I know and it wakes them up anyway so what’s the big deal.
It matters what everyone wears except me. It matters what everyone wants for breakfast except me. It matters what everyone wants to bring for lunch except for me. But I take a pudding and a juice box and some doritoes and put them in a plastic bag and put it somewhere just in case. Sometimes I bring two of everything one for me one for Zoe but whether or not I see Zoe is never up to me. But I pack them just in case.
I give a big kiss and a big hug and sometimes a high five to Daddy and Amos and Etta when it’s time for them to go. Sometimes they’re gone when I remember to do this, or they slip away when I’m taking care of my lunch and Zoe’s lunch and if I cry and scream loudly enough and if they’re still on the block they run back.
I’ll spend half the afternoon in the car when it’s time to get them. And it really matters what seat I sit in because I don’t want to be next to the door that used to have the gum stuck to it even though you finally cleaned it up, and I don’t want to sit in the other seat because a piece of plastic is missing from the handle on the back of it and sometimes this is important to me and sometimes I forget. And sometimes I want to buckle myself and sometimes I want you to buckle me in and sometimes it takes me a long time to decide and sometimes you get mad and say you’ll take something away but I don’t really understand because I’m two and a half and I usually get what I want when I really want it.

Dec 20, 2006

Bowlful of Mush

I’m the kind of person who reads to my children. I’m a reader. I’m a teacher. I’m an English major. I’m involved.

I’m the kind of person who reads to my children. But I don’t.

I’ve tried to read to my children. I’d like to be able to read to my children. I read articles about reading to my children. But when it comes down to it, it’s not something I do.

The book in my hand might as well be a tranquilizer on my tongue. It’s a narcotic--it knocks me out. I struggle to keep my focus, my eyes water, I become resentful and impatient.

The pages multiply. Time slows to a swamplike standstill. I’m never going to make it to the end. I fidget as I attempt to shift my body into more wakeful positions. The tiny black on white marks play tricks on my retinas. They shift, they hypnotize, they lull me to sleep.

It's not that the books I'm trying to read are bad books. I’m trying to read books I know I like--books with humor, and interesting plots. The classics.

In theory, I adore everything by William Steig--The Amazing Bone, Amos and Boris, the giggle-inducing and potentially quick Pete’s a Pizza). In practice, I find them wordy and full of time-consuming twists and diversions.

In theory, I love Dr. Seuss--but when the Onceler lets down his bucket for the fifteen cents and the nail and something about a snail in exchange for telling the tale of The Lorax, I find myself hoping that this time the boy will realize he doesn’t have the right change and go home instead.

Twenty twenty twenty four hours ago, I was absolutely sedated as I struggled to get through Where the Wild Things Are. During the first few pages which must be read and considered even though they’re no where near the fun monsters (which is the only reason we bother with this neglected kid Max), several enormous yawns swell up in my ears. I end up creating more inflection in my voice from stifling and/or recovering from yawns than I do from enthusiastic and dramatic reading.

The length of the book is irrelevant. Goodnight Moon is a simple book with a mind-numbing repetiveness and a reasonable hundred and twenty-six words. But when I read it aloud to my daughter it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r and I start to hate it. Goodnight to the old lady whispering hush. The old lady’s creepy, why is she in the room, why do we only find out about her in the end, and what’s up with the bowl full of mush? What is mush? Why is the bowl still full? Why do I feel like a bowl full of mush? These are the things I think once I’ve read my seven words, while I wait for my two year old to finish cataloging every item she recognizes --moon? cow? kitty? bed? brush?.

My children will never be among the ranks of kids whose parents brag that they have entire books memorized. My kids have never heard the same book read the same way twice. A dedicated fan of the ‘skip a few pages’ trick, I tend to shave all of the unnecessary parts of the journey in the timeless classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. In my haste to get to the end, I sum up an entire adventurous passage in one boring dismissive phrase “and then he saw some other things”--anything just to get the reward of turning the page. I feel bad that my kids are missing out, but not so bad that I don’t take advantage of every opportunity to get to that last page as quickly as possible.

Gimmick books can keep me awake, but not because of riveting writing. Accordion-fold books aren’t practical in any situation (especially in lying down situations). Pop-up books don’t last and usually end up in tears (rips) and tears (sad water) and rousing trips to the drawer for tape. Our lift-the-flap alphabet book is frustrating and demanding--akin to opening the wrappers on twenty-six CDs.

We have a monster book that has two big water-filled balls that serve as the same set of eyes for the monster we meet on each new page. The kids love it but I am consumed by the fact that the book should, ideally, be read flat on the ground. Holding the book upright causes the monsters’ eyeballs to float to the top and all of the monsters end up looking like Don Knotts. Drunken eyes fix firmly on some spot on the ceiling, infuriating me. Not exactly soothing bedtime material.

The good news is that my kids aren’t bored with books. They love to make their own. They crave storytime in school and at playgroup, and are great listeners. My husband reads to them pretty regularly, and they seem to know which way is up when they look at books on their own.

But I do feel guilty about my inability to give them the gift of hearing their favorite books read aloud in their mother’s voice. I try to make up for it in other ways, some of which might even pass as being word-based and educational.

I draw letters with my finger on their soapy backs at bathtime. I describe the ups and downs while I make them, and they try to guess what I’m writing. Bathtime immediately precedes bedtime so I am certain this belongs in the bedtime academics category.

And we have a rhyming back-and-forth game that we use to sum up our day. The other night I said “Mosquito mosquito don’t dare bite, my sweet chil-der-en tonight.”

My four year old responded with his own sophisticated slant rhyme “Bug bug bug don’t eat us up up up.”

We lie in bed staring up at the ceiling in the quiet dark (that can’t be savored when there’s a book to read) and exchanged different kinds of rhymes about our lives “Sister Helen eats watermelon,” “Batman’s in a trashcan.” Important things like that.

Surely these wordplays are as worthy as a reading of The Very Hungry Caterpiller. (And on Sunday he ate this, and on Monday he ate that, and on Tuesday he...Good God! *yawn* how many days are there in a bloody week?). I guess we’ll find out in the long run--in therapy, or test scores, or in slim envelope responses from college admissions departments. I’ll accept my limitations for the time being. But with Harry Potter and other pictureless chapter adventures on the horizon, I’m going to have to figure something out. I love the idea of narrating Narnia. I’d just like to be awake when we step through the wardrobe.

The Mom Card

Turns out March is the month to sign up for summer camp. I learned this while having lunch at a better mom’s house. She mentioned camp, I asked when do we have to get that sorted out?, and she reached behind her phone and produced a manilla file folder--stuffed with brochures, a marked up calendar, the works.

Within a week I seemed set (having inherited many of the aforementioned brochures). I put Amos in a two-week program in Soho and, after much deliberating about dates on the phone with the head of a drama camp, I decided that Etta would do week #4 of drama--in addition to a week at the Aquarium.

At school I became one of the only moms who could boast of a spot in the coveted week #4. A few early birds had their kids there--including some neighbors we could carpool with...but by the time I was announcing she was doing week #4 it was full up and no new moms could get their kids in. How lucky were we?

In June I started to fill out the obligatory forms. Release, consent, important numbers, doctor stuff, sign here--sign there...Checklists arrived in the mail and, ultra-organized, I magnetted them to the fridge.

Soho summer camp went well as did Etta’s fish-finding week in Coney Island. Then on Sunday night I called my neighbor to finalize the carpool arrangements for the morning--the first morning week #4. She mentioned an elaborate list of items that her daughter was bringing. I was stumped. I’d filled out Aquarium stuff--poured more details than you’d think a 6 year old would have onto paper--but here on drama camp eve, I couldn’t place my hands on the drama stuff.

After the kids went to bed I set about finding proof that I’d enrolled Etta in this drama camp at all. E-mails? Nothing after an initial query. Credit card statements? Nothing. Checks written to White Bird Productions? Nada.

I was sick of the lack of evidence and also at the helplessness of the timing of the discovery. There wouldn’t even be time to call in the morning--the woman would be at the registration desk already--handing out color-coded name tags.

I tossed and turned all night. Was Etta about to suffer the greatest disappointment of her young life? Would this be her first crystal clear memory? Would she make careless decisions for the rest of her life that would all be traced back to this Monday morning? The one that hadn’t even happened yet?

“Mommy’s got to ride along this morning,” I explained all singsong like when Etta came down to breakfast. “I have to straighten some paperwork out.” She shrugged, not realizing what an expert job she’d done dressing herself--how important her decision to put on a white eyelet pinafore over a heather-prairie sundress with a matching white sun bonnet had been (I didn’t know she even had an outfit like this). She’d spent the day before wearing boys swimtrunks, unlaced at the top, with a white tank top that revealed hard-looking temporary tattoos. She’d had streaks of mud on her cheeks and she’d made all of us call her ‘Johnson.’ This morning’s outfit looked like something Lizzy Borden’s lawyers would have chosen for her trial. Sweetness and innocence personified. Hallelujah.

We piled into Betsy’s minivan. I had to bring Piper with us. The other little girls in the van looked like chosen ones--like the kids on the bleachers at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade who don’t realize how lucky they are that they didn’t have to fight for a spot on the curb at 5 am only to watch the backs of the performers who are really performing for the benefit of the kids on the bleachers.

Betsy said all the right things in the car on the way there. My stomach ached at the possibility that we’d be dropping her kids off, and returning with a dejected Etta. How would I make it ok? The ‘and they’ll tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and so on, and so on, and so on...’ Breck commercial ran on a loop in my head. This would spread like wildfire. ‘Hey did you guys hear about Robin? Turns out three kids was too much for her to handle after all. Got Etta all the way to summer camp and learned that she hadn’t signed her up. Poor child, to have a mom like that.’ Throw in some brownie patches that I’d be unable to sew onto a sash and the picture would be complete.

The picnic house glimmered in the morning sunshine. Sounds of young-child happiness filled the place and spilled out into the surrounding hilltop. Cartoon blue birds flew in circles above the place and draped garlands of cartoon daisies from the gables. Etta and I approached the registration desk. I was carrying Piper on my hip.

The lady/owner-woman looked up at me and her face fell--”you look like you’re going to cry,” she said.

“I feel like I’m going to cry,” I answered (this was not my original plan).

“I searched all night but I can’t find proof that I ever signed Etta up for camp this week, even though it’s been in my calendar since April.” I managed.

The lady’s face turned dark. “Etta...[insert last name here]?”


“You never called me back. We talked about the dates on the phone, but you never registered her. She’s not signed up for this week.”

I should say right here that I hate the mom card. I hate the whole entitled/harried/pleading/but-this-is-a-special-case kind of mom thing. But I don’t ever turn it down when I stand to benefit. Drive-up service at stores all over Brooklyn? Just call from the car and say ‘the baby’s asleep but I’m right in front.’ Need faster service at a restaurant? Just point out that the kids are really hungry and imply that that’s a dangerous thing. Long line? It helps if you’re actually holding the baby, and it really helps if the baby’s arching her back and screaming.

It sickens me even while I’m taking advantage of it. But I did it.

Instead of apologizing and turning around to leave, I hitched Piper higher up on my hip (Erin Brockovich-style) and then turned and looked at Etta--whose cheeks were particularly rosy and whose eyes were particularly shiny--I looked at her long enough to make sure the lady had to look at her too. Then I looked back at the lady and said “well....” and made like I was going to ask something but didn’t.

She interrupted my non-question with a sigh.

“I’ll keep her,” she said.

“Wow thanks” I said. “Umm, should I fill out some forms or something?”

She handed me the forms and I dropped to my knees to start in on them. “I really appreciate this,” I said, letting Piper run off into the mix (her services were no longer needed). But the woman was done with me. Fed up. She turned to help the next mom in line.

The lady behind me inhaled deeply before launching into some sob story--in a perfectly devised tone that implied apology and superiority all at once--about some form she hadn’t filled out, some release she hadn’t signed, some complication she needed special help with.

And I hated her for it.

Dec 19, 2006

A is for Awful

If you didn’t know me and you saw me on the subway today--the A train from Canal to Hoyt Schemmerhorn, around 4:30, last car--you’d have thought I was one of those horrible moms.
I was furious with my two and a half year old daughter. To you, she probably looked sweet and innocent. Like a baby. To me she was an uncontrollable beast--a juvenile delinquent, unrestrainable, the kind Sally Jesse Raphael used to kidnap and send to bootcamp.

We’d had a lovely day in Manhattan. Me and Joe and the blonde team--our phrase for our oldest and youngest children. There’s the Big 2 (Amos who’s 8 and Etta’s who’s 6), the girls’ team (Etta and Piper, two and a half), and the blonde team--who could also be called the bookends. Things are usually pretty blissful when it’s just the blonde team. No sensitive middle child to put upon, offend, annoy. We’d dropped her off at a birthday party of the subway-to-Manhattan-to-high-tea-at-the-American-Girl-Place variety and wouldn’t be seeing her til dark. We had an amazing afternoon planned.
So it was with great despair that I pulled the car over by a fire hydrant on a slick cobblestone street in Soho to yank the screaming toddler from the midsection of the minivan. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.
She’d just had enough I guess. Her brother had birthday money to spend and we’d bounced from one funky east village shop to another one in Soho. She did well in the dusty cluttered place but the brightly lit shop was a bit much for her--all the figures lined up behind glass against a brightly lit white wall. It was exactly like being IN a website--linear, cool, and completely inhuman. So she and I went next door to get a tea and a cookie and sat at the base of the statue with all the rows of boobs.
We sat there enjoying the funky Soho vibe, albeit the increasingly crowded and touristy funky Soho vibe, and when the KidRobot crew wrapped things up by buying a creature with a British flag on its belly and a bullet hole in its hat, we made our way back to the car. Time to go from this exotic and wonderful afternoon to our loving and peaceful home.
And then? She refused to sit in her seat. We tried several things that ought to have worked but didn’t. It bores me to list them so I won’t.
Joe eventually got her strapped in well-enough and I started to drive but she was crying and crying and it’s hard to describe but it’s like my brain turned black.
In that moment I stopped being a happy mom with a great life who just happened to have a baby who didn’t want to be in a car seat for fifteen minutes (which is, seriously, what it takes to get to our Brooklyn neighborhood on a Saturday). This roaring and refusing child was all there was, and I needed for her to disappear.
I wanted Joe to offer to just take her out of the car but he wasn’t receiving the thoughts I was sending (or he was but he was pretending he wasn’t), and it’s not really in his nature to think of something like that anyway, because, really what I wanted didn’t make much sense.
I just needed her to NOT be crying in the car.
My black brain took over and I pulled the car over and announced that if she kept crying she’d have to take the subway home (she hates the subway, which makes me mad because if I’d had the chance to be a city-toddler I would have loved the subway).
She kept crying so that’s what we did.
Metrocard, stroller, crying baby (and the tea, I still had the tea). She and I got out of the car and stormed off, lurching lopsided (I was holding the tea) down the sidewalk for the train. I didn’t look back at the car but I know I would have seen Joe and Amos staring out the window in stunned silence. I found out later that Joe stayed there for a few minutes, wondering if I was faking.

So that’s why I was giving Piper the silent treatment on the train. And that’s why she looked sort of vacant and wiped out. And you probably thought I was one of those kinds of moms who doesn’t make eye contact with her own kid; who just stares off into the distance looking pissed and impatient.
There are such awful moms out there--I see them all the time. I can tell just by looking at them that their poor kid deserves better. And I know that you thought Iwas one of them today on the A train--but it was just a low moment. I got myself trapped in something that just didn’t make sense but it became something I needed to do.
And I softened as I stared at the back of her head--the part of her that makes her seem most vulnerable. And I softened a bit more as I watched her yawn and rub her eyes with her chubby baby hands. And by the time I got onto the G train with her things were back to normal.
So if you didn’t know me and you saw me on the G train today, around 4:45, Hoyt Schemmerhorn to Clinton Washington, first car, you saw the real thing; a mother and daughter all sparkley and engaged, and you’d know that little girl was lucky to have a mom like me.