A Place to Land

Not so long ago, maybe a generation or two back, all things were black or white. There was no middle ground. Expectations were clear. One either fell on one side of an issue or the other. The thing was – there were people who fell in the middle. People who had no defined spot. They were neither here nor there – so they were nowhere.

No one deserves to be no where.

Nowadays, in our generation, those children desperately coming of age as parents of their own children, everywhere we look there are different shades of gray. Fifty is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many nuanced pitfalls to navigate.

Body image. Nurturing healthy sexuality without encouraging oversexualization. Self-concept. Independence with a modicum of obedience. Utilization of technology while maintaining human interaction. . . .

Instead of yes or no, everything is up for discussion. We don’t want our children to do a particular thing, make a particular decision, live a particular lifestyle, but we cannot condemn it – for we run the risk of offending someone. We do not want our children to condemn others or other points of view – so we skirt around topics instead of facing them head-on. We live in a constant haze of gray.

But if everything goes, everything is everywhere – does that not leave all of us nowhere?

Our children will not know where to stand if we place everything in front of them with no guidance, no discussion, no sense of right and wrong. There is a difference between open, informed dialogue and an all-you-can-eat buffet of sociology.

If the pendulum trended toward the restrictive threat of ostracization before, it has now swung toward the promiscuous promise of floating in the wind. There must be somewhere in the middle.

Floating in the wind is nice – until you tire of it and realize you’ve nowhere to land. A place to land – we owe the next generation at least that.

from nuji.com

                from nuji.com

Mom – that’s enough

A couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of calling in to a radio talk show.  Stupidly enough, I thought the host, a contemporary of mine in age and many ideas, and I would be able to have an intelligent dialogue.  I had forgotten the talent that radio hosts have to turn every conversation on its ear until it follows the tack they had intended for that evening’s show.

I called to counter that ridiculously inflammatory article ‘timed’ to coincide with Mothers’ Day.  I said that the issue was not whether this woman should be breastfeeding her child, but that this magazine had the chutzpah to title their article in such a way.  As if mothering isn’t a hard enough job on its own, as if women don’t constantly question themselves, and as if some of us don’t already feel tempted to attack others’ decisions to validate our own.  There is no need to create divisiveness where there should only be support and camaraderie.  For when it all comes down to it, aren’t we all just struggling to make it through as best we know how?

The topic of blogging came up, the host wondering about the now infamous woman from the cover photo’s own blog.  I said that while I hadn’t read it, blogs can be an enormous help to other readers going through similar experiences.  He said, yes, I can see if you or a loved one are suffering from some rare disease and there is a support group or information on a blog, but a blog on mothering?  Sharing your ‘fresh’ experiences on something that has been done down through the millennia?

I felt the fire rise up the back of my neck, but I knew the conversation was over.

This man does not know I am a mother.  Who blogs.  Who receives enormous benefit from it as I come to grips with the person left in the wake of postpartum.  Who has felt like less of a woman because I didn’t do X, Y, Z with my babies and children like I knew other moms were doing.  Who has suffered in misery thinking I was so completely and totally alone.  Like a failure.  Who shares my story in the hopes that other women will not suffer as I did.

And he could never possibly understand.

And that, I understand.  This post is not about attacking him.  Everything’s relative, this I know.  My own husband said, Jen, when he’s a father and watches his wife go through it, he’ll know.

But there are many people who already know.  The women – my aunts, my grandmother, my friends, my cousins, women wrangling their children at the grocery store, women struggling to drop their kids at daycare and get to work, women all around the world – with whom I’ve shared my struggles.  It took me a long time to admit I wasn’t the perfect mom I tried to portray.  But when I did, my confessions were met with nods, knowing smiles, affirmations, similar stories. There is a special bond with these women.  A comfort.  An unspoken feeling that they’ve got my back – if for no other reason that they’re not going to judge me because they’ve been in my same position.

That’s what women need to share – not the stepping on each other in the struggle for perfection, but the imperfection.  That’s the only way we can shatter the idea of ‘the perfect mom’ and end the war for our self-esteem and self-image.  Because who the hell are people trying to sell magazines and get radio ratings to tell us if we’re mom enough?  That’s up to us and our fellow moms, the women who are all in this together.

Oblivion is Bliss

Sometimes I wish I were oblivious.

Years ago, as my husband and I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean we were paying entirely too much for, the couple at the table next to us broke out into a quite heated and quite loud conversation.  She had used a French term to describe something and he’d corrected her pronunciation, irritating her and derailing her whole story and subsequently the whole meal – for all within earshot.  Except my husband.  He had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned it.  While I stewed about their inconsiderate behavior toward all those gathered in this hushed dining room, he told me to ignore it and enjoy our nice food and each other’s company.

He was right.  I, however, could not acquiesce.  Not because I’m nosy.  Not because I can’t mind my own Ps and Qs.  Not because I feel like an authority on proper etiquette.  Because I chose two of the worst professions for one who wishes to be oblivious – even if only for some of the time.

Years in the classroom as an English teacher developed both my ears and the eyes in the back of my head.  Multitasking is an understatement.  I needed to address a large group, scan for questions, read body language, catch the note being passed at the back of the class, hear the tiny whisper above the rustle of papers.  I had to ‘put my roller skates on’ as one of my colleagues used to say and move about the room facilitating group work, attending to one group while still monitoring the sounds of work and/or inactivity from others’.  I had to be the fly on the wall, the all-seeing eye.  Front and center and everywhere.  Attendant to all even while listening to one.

All of which does not make for a pleasant dining experience when one cannot tune out.  Or even a trip to the mall.  One time, I had to bite my tongue in order not to scold some kids down from a raised barrier around a flowing fountain.

Then I took on writing.  Early on in this venture, I heard Jack Gantos speak, saying that to be a writer, one has to notice everything, even if only for a little bit each day.  I saw stories at the bus stop, on the sides of trucks, in snippets of conversation.  Most of them stayed observations, never switching to story, but boy, did I notice.  Now I’ve fine-tuned my observational skills and cull what I know I can truly use.  But that’s not to say I don’t still hear it all – like last night.

My writers’ group convened at a cozy booth on the upper level of a restaurant surprisingly boisterous for a Wednesday night.  Next to us was a booth twice our size and packed to the gills.  The group was mixed so I had trouble imagining what might have brought them together, but the tone and volume of their conversations suggested celebration.  My group layered our conversation in amongst the din and started our critiques.  All was fine until our talks wound to a close and theirs up to a fevered pitch, perhaps in direct relation to their intake of wine as the night wore on.

I heard them lamenting MCA’s death, which I did, too, when I heard (not on a personal level, but for the loss of a hugely talented contributor to the music world), but they said how it freaked them out because he was the first of that generation to die of natural causes.  Last I checked cancer was not a natural cause of death.  And these people were too young to consider themselves part of his generation.

The fragment that most got me, though, was when a woman who, by my estimation, is at least ten years younger than I am waxed philosophical on her decision to dye her hair.  At first, she said, she wanted the grey to add to her esteem, her perceived wisdom.  But as more and more grew in, she decided it was making her look too old.  I’d venture to guess she had ten grey hairs hidden beneath that black dye.  I wanted to call across the bench seat, you want to see greys?  I’ll show you greys – and with no hair dye to cover them up.

Maybe I’m bitter because I went grey at an early age (which may have been her case, but I toughed it out, chica, and didn’t use it as an accessory to my image first).  Maybe I’m pissed off by clueless people.  Maybe I just wanted them to be quiet.

Maybe I just wish I could tune out all external stimuli.  That would help with a whole lot more than dinner conversation, now wouldn’t it?  It’s not something that’s easily turned off, though.  Sometimes, I really do think oblivion would be nice.

Story Time

It’s a good thing I believe in the power of reading – because if I didn’t, there’s no way I’d take my kids to the library.  Time after time, it proves to be a taxing experience – one I’m not sure is balanced by the benefits of the books we obtain.

The kids, however, love it.  So much, in fact, that they burst through the doors like an invading army, one running this way, one the other.  Unfortunately, the front doors deposit us right into the “quiet” section of the library.  While I try to corral them towards the book drop, they dodge and weave, this last time with Julia lighting upon the stack of rolling bins “just like the ones at the grocery store, Mama” to tote books around in – even though I can’t get her to carry our tote bag.

After numerous shushes on the way to the reserves where Mommy’s book is waiting, it’s time to commandeer the children’s section.  They rush to the stairs with renewed vigor, Angela’s voice reverberating through all the levels as we ascend.

They do comment on a few books on display en route to the play area, Julia picking one on various modes of transportation throughout the ages.  Story time must have just ended because there are many little people and their parents hovering about.  Julia and Angela dive into the crowd, playing with the puppet theatre and puzzles; making friends more easily than I.  Julia sits on a low-slung kid couch near another mother and starts a conversation with the Tyrannosaurus she’s operating.  Angela giggles at the parrot another mother has squawking.  I smile and mill about.  These two must already know each other because a few minutes later, I can’t help but overhear one relay the story of her husband’s possible adultery to other.  One father with a preschooler and an infant looks up in surprise when he sees his baby smiling through a gap in a bookshelf, playing peek-a-boo with me – maybe he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself either.  A grandmother plops in a chair after depositing her toddler into the play area, looking worn out.  I want to tell her I feel her pain.

Today, as with nearly every visit here, I’m having flashbacks to when Julia was an infant.  So exhausted as a new mother, yet determined to keep my active two and a half year-old busy, I would strap Julia to the front of me and take Bella to story-time.  I think I was trying a passive-aggressive attempt at keeping some semblance of pre-baby # 2.  I figured if I couldn’t sleep when she slept and lie around all day in my pajamas, I may as well be out and about to distract myself from my misery.  I’m still not sure which was worse: a mom who could hustle around two of them, her harried mania bubbling just below the surface, or a mom drooling in delirium with a stir-crazy kid.  I was so desperate to latch on to something, I rushed the kids to story time without realizing there is an etiquette to such events.  I was lucky enough to attend the first meeting of a new session, at which there would be arts and crafts and for which advanced registration was required.  The most dour-looking librarian of the staff came over to me with her clipboard, pointing to my daughter, and asked, “And who might this be?”  After introductions, she said, “Ok, I’ll add her to the list for next time as she’s not signed up.”  I stammered some statement/question about pre-registration and she assured me it was fine; she had extra materials for the craft.  She had moved on to the next child, who was on her list, before I could thank her.  We went home with our contraband craft and never returned.

I guess I’m not much of a joiner.  One of the things I love about reading is getting lost in one’s own little world, a world that changes from chapter to chapter, book to book.  The solitary, quiet joy of it.  Although, I do love sharing and discussing the juicy details of a book I’ve just finished with someone else.  It has to be someone I know will enjoy it equally though.  Someone who loves a good story for the pure, unadulterated joy of it; the thrill of figuring out a mystery; the ache of a loss as if it were your own.  Not someone who will rebuff me because I wasn’t playing by a set of rules I didn’t even know existed.

I still take my kids to the library.  Though I’d much rather get my books and run, I let them say hello to the fish in the aquarium; put together puzzles that are missing a few pieces; pluck books from the shelf not by their merit, but because they’re at eye-level.  I let them scan the books at the self-check station even though their squeals as they push each other off the stool they’re sharing make me cringe – never mind the other patrons.  I take them to the library because they need to create their own experiences in the world of reading.  I can’t force them to operate under a set of rules made by someone else; they need to be afforded the same opportunities as those kids whose names are on the list.

Plus, it always makes for a really good story.

My Lifesaver

“I save you.”

My two-year-old daughter said this to me one morning as I dressed her.  She reached up from the changing table and grasped my arm, hugging me to her.

“You save me?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, a smile lighting her sweet little face.

She’s been playing games of chase, tag, and intrigue with her older sisters, which is no doubt where this line came from, as they ran from imagined assailants.  But these three small words held a much deeper meaning for me.

If it weren’t for Angela’s love – and my love for Angela – I might not have survived the three years that have elapsed since the news of her coming.

I read recently that humans have an evolutionary predisposition to always think the worst.  If we did not anticipate danger, we would get eaten by the wooly mammoth hanging around the corner.  If we didn’t worry constantly about starvation, we wouldn’t feel compelled to gather berries for the coming winter.  If it were always sunshine and roses, the species as we know it would not exist.

However, in the modern age, where thankfully we do not have to parry with wooly mammoth, this predisposition makes living a life of gratitude really hard.  Being genetically wired to pay attention to the negative, the positives of our life fade into the background without a concerted effort on our part.

And, sadly, I can say that I let that happen throughout my pregnancy and postpartum with Angela.  Letting the blessing of a child be outweighed by the unexpected timing of it.  Letting myself be buried by the drudgery of day-to-day rather than being uplifted by the wonder in her eyes.  Letting myself founder instead of accepting the help I needed.

There were times when I could pull those positives back into the foreground.  Little arms wrapped tightly around my neck.  Sitting in the living room, surrounded by my husband and the girls.  Watching the three of them splash in the bathtub.  I even started a gratitude journal as a concrete reminder of the blessings all around me on a daily basis, especially helpful on those days when the clouds made it impossible to see them.

It was through the filter of Angela’s unconditional love that I began to see the world differently.

If at the end of the day, chaos ruled, but our kids were safe and happy, all was right with the world.  If things didn’t go according to plan, maybe that was because God had a better one.  And if we weren’t happy, maybe that meant we were supposed to be doing something different anyway.

I decided to do a lot of things differently.  Acutely aware that there were some things in life that would choose me with no regard to my misery, I decided to only choose things that would bring me joy.  I found myself contemplating risks I never would have taken pre-partum.  With newly opened eyes, there were new possibilities.

It was Angela who gave me eyes to see.  She gave me back my life.  If her birth – and the resulting struggles – hadn’t happened, my serious examination of my life and place in this world wouldn’t have happened.  And every time I got lost or distracted by the discouraging things around me, her two little arms around my neck reminded me to come back to center – to the heart of what truly matters.

Angela returned the wonder to my eyes.  Watching her find her way in the world inspired me to find mine.  She is the ultimate gift of love – and isn’t that the greatest blessing of all?

Shut the Front Door

I now know why my grandmother used to shoo her children outside – and lock the door. Her kids, of course, would object.  According to family lore, my two aunts would hover on the landing of their third-floor apartment waiting for her to let them back in.  My father, the only boy, would wander outside to find his friends.  In any event, it didn’t seem that any amount of begging or pleading would alter my grandmother’s decision or when she deemed it acceptable to return home.

I always appreciated this story and found it quite humorous (my grandmother had that certain amount of pluck that allowed her to get away with it), but now I can fully relate.

Last Tuesday was gorgeous; the last day in January, yet feeling more like a fine day in spring.  When I was able to bring my scraps to the compost bin in my shirtsleeves and not freeze, I went back in for the recyclables and lingered outside for a moment.  Angela abandoned the last of her lunch and joined me.  Encouraged by the weather, we began a joint effort to rid the yard of broken-off branches from winter windstorms.  A few minutes later, Julia, who had heretofore been deeply involved in a serious reenactment of Cars 2 in miniature, wandered out as well.

I tidied twigs.  Julia decided to play school.  Angela followed along.  If I had planned an afternoon outside, it couldn’t have gone any better.  The thing was, I hadn’t planned an afternoon outside.  Angela’s naptime was in ten minutes.  That meant Julia’s quiet time in ten minutes.  And Mommy’s chance for ‘me’ time.

“Ok, a few more minutes and then we’re going in,” I warned.  To which both girls objected, of course.

After wrestling Angela inside and into a new diaper while Julia bopped alongside the changing table telling me her plans for playtime, I realized resistance was futile.  If they were so invested in playing outside, maybe that was my best chance at uninterrupted work time.  This is why assumptions are so dangerous.

With the girls safely ensconced in the fenced backyard, I stationed myself by the window that looked directly onto their play area with my papers.  Maybe five minutes passed before I heard the first plaintive call by the door.  Once that issue was resolved, another five minutes passed before I heard the squeak of the screen door.  Then the stomp of feet.  The desperate plea for some indoor toy that was absolutely essential for their play outside.  Then a cry.  Another squeak.  A snack.

I could feel my blood pressure going up with each interruption.

“In or out,” I bellowed.

For kids who not so long ago were completely invested in playing outside, their actions were certainly not showing it.  Then Big Sister got home from school and a third set of feet beat a path back and forth.

“My God,” I thought.  “Now I know where Grandma got her motivation.”

Any mother knows it’s easier to get things done when there are no children under foot.  Unfortunately, society and culture have changed just enough that it’s no longer acceptable to boot our kids out the door for the day and welcome them home for dinner.  It’s no longer safe for our kids to play unsupervised in the open areas around our homes.  It’s no longer acceptable or expected for them to fill their own time with their own imaginings; we’re supposed to do it for them.

Not only does this culture shift take accountability and creativity away from our children, it makes the job of a mother a hell of a lot harder.

Now, please understand me, I’m not advocating for mothers across the world to lock their children out of the house.  It just seems to me that while the tension and tenderness between mothers and children is the same as in previous generations, the expected goals and duties of mothers have swelled with no subtractions from our job descriptions.

Kind of makes one want to lock the door and hide.  But, like my grandmother, I will always open my door to my children and welcome them in with open arms – even if I let them sit on the landing for a little while first.

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