I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.
“The van is dirty,” he says.
We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.
“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”
“Yes! It’s dirty!”
“Well…what do you think we should do?”
He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.
“You think so, huh?” I say.
“Yes! Car wash!”
“I don’t know…”
“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”
He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.
I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.
It’s pure joy.
A ritual we’ve discovered together.
An auntie thing.
He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover.
Our shared treasure.
They feel big and important.
My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.
When they were mine.
I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen.
These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.
It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.
All the love.
All the silliness.
All the tears.
All the firsts.
This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.
The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.
It feels different.
When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.
There you are.
The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.
Being a parent is like walking blindfolded into the wilderness. You have to use all your senses, listen to your natural instincts, surrender any idea you know what you’re doing, and you can’t call it quits.
Before the pandemic, my kids were involved in all kinds of activities and I felt the rushing movement like a giant truck I was simultaneously riding and driving. We would fight to get out the door and I’d yell. There were too many car meals, bathroom clothing changes, and exhausted tears. I felt overwhelmed and busy, but confident. I did my best, and at the end of the day, I felt good about the efforts I put in.
During the pandemic, all the things my kids claimed to hate but secretly loved, stopped. The life I’d helped them cultivate away from media and technology suddenly revolved around screens. I was here with them all the time, yet I felt like I didn’t really see what was happening. Our lives became a series of solitary moments in our rooms with our phones or computers, interspersed by nature walks and car drives to nowhere. It went on forever, yet it felt like a blip or a bump we’d get past. We expected it would return to normal, but it didn’t.
The pandemic has transformed me as a parent.
This is not what I expected my life to look like at this moment. I suspect some of you, perhaps all of you, can relate in some way.
For me, the fundamental shift is this; my belief my kids will be okay has been replaced with fear and anxiety.
I can trace how it happened.
Early in the pandemic, my son was in a skateboard accident. He got a road rash on his face and arms, knocked out his front teeth, and had a fairly serious concussion. Each first responder and hospital staff member took a moment to yell at him, and by extension me, for him not wearing a helmet. They rubbed it in thoroughly, and I felt their words chipping away the image I had of myself as a mother. I felt bruised and beaten as I nursed my son back to health in a dark room for several weeks, blaming myself for his accident.
A few months later my grandmother died of Covid. I tried to call her once at the hospital, but she was asleep. I didn’t try again. I was scared to talk to her. There’s was so much unsaid between us, and I wanted her to get better so I could say the things. The lost opportunity felt huge while bringing fears of Covid closer to home.
While I tried to convince myself my kids were strong and would fight Covid easily, I was terrified of unknowingly passing Covid onto my mom, who has bad asthma, or to my mother-in-law who is elderly and fighting cancer. Each time I had a tickle in my throat, I’d worry it would develop into something more, and I’d be one of those who weren’t so lucky to fight it off. It wasn’t a rabid fear, but rather a slow-simmering background of fear which chipped away at me bit by bit.
In addition to Covid, I began to fear how people were acting. The division of those who refused masks contrasted with those hoarding supplies and preparing for a sort of social war. All of these things made leaving my house feel risky and dangerous. I stockpiled dried beans, rice, and bottled water. My neighbor and I talked about his guns and how he could protect us; the conversation felt appropriate at the time.
I watched my kids implode in a way I didn’t understand, and still don’t. It wasn’t simply losing school and friends; it was a sort of reckoning of what kind of life they wanted to have. The trajectory of their accomplishments stopped, and they had nothing to be proud of. They had too much time to think about the world, to see all the ugliness of it, and it changed them.
Six months after his first accident, my son had a second one. This time he was hit by a car walking to the store to buy a soda. The police came to the door as I was doing the dinner dishes and I followed in a daze to the hospital. More scraps, another concussion, and a fresh batch of fears for me. The moments of that day play over and over in my head and it’s hard to let him out of my sight. I’m only truly comfortable when he’s home. I worry when he’s at school or with his friends. I obsessively track his phone throughout the day in an attempt to ease the anxiety. If his phone dies or I can’t get in touch with him, I panic.
My daughter, through the isolation from her peers and anxiety of the world, has developed some mental health struggles. I won’t share the specifics to maintain her privacy, but I missed the signs for too long. I felt another blow to my parenting ego, but worse; I felt a terrible sense I’d let her down in all the ways that matter. I had missed the big stuff. I felt selfish and scared.
All of this has changed me as a parent.
I find it hard to return to the way we were before because much of my mental energy has transformed into anxiety and fear.
My kids miss a lot of school and I don’t care about homework. I let them hang with their friends as much as they want, drive them to therapy and support groups. I’ve put thousands of miles on my car listening to their music and hoping they will feel better.
I want them to feel better.
I am also not requiring enough of them so that they can grow in the ways I know they need to. I’m scared to push and to hold them to the standard I did before. They are not falling short; I’ve simply grown fearful of requirements because I don’t want to lose them. I don’t push.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve been more worried about my kids dying in the last two years than I did the entire time they were little. I was all about letting them climb a tree, or take a risk. I thought it was good if they got hurt because it showed them a boundary and allowed them to grow.
I’ve lost that.
Now, I fear pushing them will result in dire consequences.
It’s a tightrope of wanting to require more so they feel proud of themselves and grow, but also holding back because I see them as fragile. I know they aren’t as fragile as I’ve made them out to be, but I am.
It feels perilous.
How do I become the right kind of hard while still protecting them and myself?
I don’t know.
There’s another component, a sort of social reckoning. What they have experienced has shifted the momentum of their lives. They see their life path, their goals, as something far different than I did at their age. It’s no longer as an individual, but rather how they will be in the world.
They are examining complex things: gender constructs, systematic racism, global warming. There’s a sort of punk rock attitude forming; a kind of new version of the “fuck the man” mentality. Instead of music and drugs, they want marches and social justice reform. They want the world to do better, to be better.
They aren’t going to sleepwalk through their lives, moving from one checked box to the next like I did; high school, college, career, house, kids.
I moved through each thing as if I had no say in the matter; as if all the decisions of my life were preordained and I was simply saying the lines written for me. After all the boxes were checked, I felt cheated and empty. I missed so much because I did what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t slow or pause to examine if the path was what I wanted or if the roles I’d cast myself in fit me anymore.
My kids aren’t doing that.
They think about the kind of lives they want, and although the images are still so unclear, I don’t think they will settle. They don’t believe the story my generation did, and they don’t want the same outcome. I see them looking at me and their father and shaking their heads at how much we don’t question things or fight for a better world. They check us on the language we use and talk about things it’s taken me over 40 years to recognize.
They are facing forward and not shrinking from it. While I see them as fragile, the evidence doesn’t support me. If they can look at the problems in the world with a sort of determined energy of change, how can I see them as weak?
I have hope that all this social awareness is leading to something amazing for their entire generation and, not to be too grandiose, the planet. This outward focus and the ability to accept and empathize with all kinds of people has to be leading to a better world for all of us.
None of this, however, makes it easy to be a mother right now. There are days, more than I care to admit, I wish I could hop into a time machine and do a better job of protecting and shielding my kids. I’d put them in a bubble and not let anything in.
I know that’s not actually true and it’s the fear and the pain talking.
It’s my desire for growth to not hurt, but that’s not how it works.
The story my kids are living, well…it’s their story. All the things they have been through are shaping and molding them. And they are incredible kids.
My challenge has become to support them, to love them, and to go slower. To continue to sit with them in the discomfort, to listen as they question things, and, most importantly, to see my fear as separate from their experience.
The last one has been the hardest for me.
I have to work on healing my own fears around losing them, and not let my decisions be based on either guilt for what they’ve lost or fear I’ll lose them permanently.
I’m trying my best.
Maybe the pushing will come when it feels right, but for now, I observe and I listen. I try and see the ways I can nudge and build on those. These kids have been through so much, and it’s made them strong.
They are freaking rock stars.
My daughter has started having friends over again and they laugh so much. She pours herself into her artwork. It’s for her, not for show or attention. She does art to express her feelings and she holds people accountable for their actions. She sets boundaries, even with me.
My son began working out at the gym and he plays basketball with his friends. He plays guitar in his room for the pure love of it, not caring to impress anyone or show off. He makes everyone laugh, can size up his teachers, and isn’t afraid to call them out when they are being unfair. He forgives me when I hold too tight or freak out, but doesn’t let me off without a fight.
My kids talk to each other all the time. It’s not fake. It’s not superficial. They talk about real stuff and lean on each other.
All of these things are beautiful and real.
My kids aren’t fragile.
I’m facing forward and I’m doing the best I can, and for that, I need to give myself grace.
No looking back.
I’ve come to realize, parenting doesn’t get easier, and maybe that’s part of the complexity of my own feelings. A bit of sadness my kisses and hugs aren’t magical anymore. A bit of the rose-colored glasses slipping as my kids enter the imperfect world-not the careful world of fairies and magic I crafted when they were little.
While this part of my life feels unsteady and hard, all I can do is keep loving them and trying to do better. As the Everly Brothers sang:
Love hurts, love scars Love wounds and mars Any heart, not tough Nor strong enough To take a lot of pain Take a lot of pain Love is like a cloud Holds a lot of rain
Sometimes my teenage daughter’s anxiety gets too big, and I pick her up early from school.
I know her education is important, but living through a pandemic has changed my priorities and perspective. When she calls me, I don’t hesitate and I don’t make her feel bad. I get her.
Last week I picked her up after a flurry of upsetting texts. She told me her mental health was bad again. It scared me. It scared her. She’d kept it from me for weeks because she didn’t want to make me sad. My heart broke she’d tried to protect me, and I felt I had to say the right thing.
“We face what is,” I said.
These four words felt important.
I repeated them.
“We face what is.”
This opened the door for her to share, and for me to listen. We made plans for her to get new kinds of help, and to pursue roads to healing we hadn’t considered before. I reminded her she isn’t alone, and I’m more interested in her truth than in feeling comfortable and happy.
The next day, I was sitting alone and spiraling out about my eyes.
My eye to be specific.
I’ve got one good eye and one lazy one. It’s been this way my entire life, and normally it’s not on my mind. But lately, I’ve had trouble seeing when I read, or when I’m on the phone. Things were blurry and I couldn’t read the instructions on a medicine bottle. I bought a pair of reading glasses, and it helped. This should have been the end of it.
However, my anxiety over the experience grew and grew. It became unruly, demanding more and more of my attention and emotional energy.
I’d convinced myself I must have some horrible disease, most likely brought on by my weight gain and laziness. I began to tally all the ways I’m failing at caring for myself. I don’t wear my sunglasses all the time. I spend too much time on screens. I don’t blink enough. I got bacon grease in my eye on Christmas morning, which was irresponsible and preventable if I’d paid better attention. I haven’t done enough research to see how to protect my eyesight. I don’t eat enough green leafy vegetables or omega-3 fatty acids. I’m going to lose my ability to see, and it will be my own fault.
As I sat still, berating myself, those four words I told my daughter came to me.
“We face what is.”
I looked up the number of an optometrist near me and made an appointment.
As I sat in the waiting room, all the anxiety and blame thick about me, I kept countering it with those four words. Whatever the eye doctor tells me, I will face. I have family and friends who will love and support me. I can’t face what I don’t know.
As I went through the exam, I made lots of self-deprecating jokes. I knew I had to keep the mood as light as possible, and I had to keep talking.
“Which is better? One or two? Three or four?”
Each question was scary. The letters I couldn’t see felt ominous, surely indicators of something serious. I kept trying to hear it in her voice, waiting for the bad news to drop.
My eye’s fine. I’m getting older. It’s normal.
She prescribed reading glasses, the same kind I’m already using. She told me I’m okay.
We face what is.
I have some other health things I have to face. I’ve put on too much weight. I have pains in my hips and back. I’m concerned I might be pre-diabetic, it runs in my family, or I could be putting too much strain on my heart. I’m taking steps to correct my health, which means facing things like the scale, a check-up at the doctor, and returning to the gym. All of these things feel hard, and damn, there’s a lot of judgment and guilt around them.
However, I can’t do anything without turning toward what is. I have to stop ignoring the truth for some pretend comfort. I have people who count on me, and I have a lot more I want to do with my life. There’s no reason to run from perceived scary things or to let myself build them up until they are monstrous. It’s far better to shine a light on them.
I see the headline for a moment, then set my phone on the counter and wash the dishes in the sink. I fold a load of laundry and vacuum the carpet. I drink another cup of coffee. I don’t want to read the details.
I read the details.
I read the news report from the safety of my living room while my kids are at school taking math tests, playing on the playground and writing about wombats.
They are so far away from me.
I hope they don’t feel alone today.
I hope they eat the vegetables in their lunch.
I hope they remember to be kind.
I hope they are safe.
Each school shooting drives a nail deeper into my chest. The fear and trauma these kids, parents, and teachers endure are incomprehensible.
Enough is enough.
My son, who is 13, and his fellow classmates participated in the walkout last week. We had talked about the shooting at Parkland High School, me doing my best to protect him from the details, but I didn’t think he gave it much thought.
He knows what the lockdown drills at his school are about.
He feels the fear and the uneasiness.
He believes those 17 minutes he sat in silence mattered.
He believes change can happen.
He has hope.
He is why I will participate in the March For Our Lives at the State Capitol on Saturday. I march because he, and his fellow students across the country, believe their voices matter and change can happen.
And I believe in them.
I’ve been surprised by the number of people insulting and putting down the Parkland kids, the sheer volume of charts and graphs about how more kids die from car accidents than gunshot wounds, the rationalizing of school shootings as a result of parents not spanking kids and the countless other ways people wanting to hold onto their guns try and spin it.
This isn’t about you and your guns.
It’s about them and their right to feel safe.
This is their moment.
I will march because it’s one action I can take against the insanity.
I will march because the Parkland kids have taken their anger and grief and channeled it into activism and power.
I will march because I believe in these kids and the world they want to create.
I will march.
*In case you missed it, please watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt singing a charity song they wrote called “Found/Tonight” to raise money for the March For Our Lives movement. Each download helps raise funds and awareness.
He wants to ride the carousel again. No. He wants to ride Brownie the Ostrich again, so nobody else will ride him. His round little face is red with anger and he pulls me with all his 3-year-old might back toward the only thing in the world he cares about in this moment.
I drag him along, quietly reasoning to him, while his baby sister nurses jerkily in my carrier. I’m not fast enough. We both see it at the same time. A little pig-tailed girl is lifted onto Brownie.
He falls on the ground and begins weeping. As I try soothing him and thinking about what I’m willing to promise to get us out of here, his sister unlatches and starts to fuss.
No. No. No.
Within a span of seconds, I have two humans screaming at me. I stand defeated and super sweaty. I can’t carry them both. For some reason I hated the idea of lugging the stroller around, and see clearly now what a mistake it was. I’m on the verge of tears when a woman taps me on the shoulder.
“It gets better,” she says.
I turn and look at her. She is smiling and gesturing to her two perfectly dressed school-aged kids who are looking at the spectacle in front of them with a kind of smugness I didn’t know kids could have.
“Thanks,” I say.
I’m not sure she heard me over the screams.
She looks down at my breast, which I now realize is hanging completely out of my shirt, and then gives me one last look of pity before walking away.
I watch her go, she is holding hands with her sweet little offspring, and I swear I hear them softly singing kumbaya.
“Fuck her,” I say to myself.
I sit down on the carpeted floor, take the baby out of the carrier and begin nursing her, right in the walkway. My boy continues to wail and thrash around on the ground crying and yelling about his beloved Brownie.
Many, many people walk by shaking their heads or sighing loudly. All avoid eye contact and not one person offers to help.
I do my best to pretend they are not killing me with their sideways glares.
But each one hurts.
I am doing my best here people. I’m tired. I’m hot. I just wanted to get out of the house for a few hours. I just wanted to feel like a real adult again.
Eventually the baby is satisfied and the 3-year-old has screamed himself out. He comes in for a hug and I tell him we should go home and paint. He agrees and we walk out holding hands.
I’m certain we sang kumbaya.
Seriously, how stinking cute are they?
My kids are now 11 and 9.
Gone are the days of tantrums in the store, exploding diapers, car seat refusals and constant nursing. I generally run my errands alone now.
To those of you struggling, this might sound blissful, and sometimes it is. But when I see you in the store with your little ones, I miss it.
All of it.
I see you chasing your toddler through Target because he refused to sit in the cart and now thinks it hilarious to dart in and out of the clothing racks while you slowly lose your patience.
I remember and it is funny.
I see you in tears as your sweet newborn begins to wail right as you make it to the checkout line and you just need to pay.
I can almost feel my milk drop.
I see you struggling to keep up as your toddler darts down the aisle with his own little Trader Joe’s cart filling it with everything he can.
I hate those carts for you, but your kid looks adorable with his cart full of cookies and his huge proud smile.
I know none of this is consolation when you are in it and I’m sorry. But I do see you and I want to tell you something.
I wish I could help you, but I can’t. There is nothing I can do but smile at you in solidarity.
I smile because I was you. I smile because your kids are really cute. And I smile because I miss it.
I promise you, I am not judging you.
I actually wish I could find the words to tell you all the things I think as I watch you.
I want to tell you how much I miss every single moment of my kids being small.
How even the hard times, when I thought we just might not make it, the sweetness of their breath and the weight of their bodies in my arms would bring me back.
I look back at the pictures and I remember all the singing in the car, the snails on the back door, the naked running through the house, the screaming in the bathtub, the tiny clothes and dirty hands.
I miss it all.
I don’t want to diminish the struggle, because I’m sweaty just thinking about it. Nor do I want to repeat the pompous attitude of the woman who told me it will all get better.
Because I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t.
It will be easier when they sleep through the night.
It will be easier when they are potty trained.
It will be easier when they are weaned.
It will be easier when they stop throwing fits for no reason.
Some things get easier.
But some get harder.
Yes they will sleep through the night, but they will have bad dreams you can’t protect them from.
Yes they will be potty trained, but some asshole will tell your daughter she has thick thighs and you will hold her as she cries.
Yes they will be weaned, but then you will worry they are eating the right foods and fight them to eat their damn vegetables.
Yes they will stop throwing fits for no reason, but they will throw fits for good reasons and you have to teach them how to be a decent person in a world full of bad, awful, no-good people.
Nothing ever “gets better.”
The struggle is always there, as it is in everything we do as humans, it just changes in complexity and your ability to actually help.
We are trying to raise our kids to understand complex things like empathy, perseverance, patience and fear.
Of course it is hard.
Some days you are all reading books in the same room, sipping hot drinks, and it is calm and beautiful and perfect.
Some days you all say mean things you later regret, you cry and get impatient and doors are slammed and everything is stupidly horrible.
It is always just different.
So I will say this.
I see you.
I know it is hard.
I know you are doing your best.
Remember, sometimes they give you kisses and hug you so tight you can’t breathe.
Remember, sometimes all they need is your arms to feel the world is safe and they can be themselves and you will always love them and protect them.
Remember, they are only tiny humans doing the best they can to figure out a world filled with ugliness and beauty. And you are only the parent doing your best in the moment with what you got.
So if you see me staring at you, it isn’t out of judgment or pity. It isn’t because I want to see how you are going to handle yourself.
I’m just looking back fondly at the struggles behind me and missing when my tiny humans would lose it in the store.
But I am glad it isn’t my boob hanging out this time.
Parent after parent walk to the table and say the same thing.
“I don’t have time to volunteer.”
They spit the words at me like I’m a viper about to attack them.
I smile and hand them a schedule of activities for the year. I offer them a cookie and a cup of coffee.
“If you had your meetings at night I would come, but I work during the day.”
They say this angry too and look at me like I’m trying to sell them a shitty used car.
I smile again and point out the activities we have planned for evenings. They look around agitated and I can see they want to bolt.
My very face seems to make them cringe inside.
I put the gold star on their registration card, the only reason they stopped at my table, and they move away.
I am their guilt personified. They can’t stand me.
I am just a mom who volunteers to coordinate things at the school. I didn’t want this role and I almost burst into tears.
Luckily, this isn’t all the parents. Some are excited to hear about the speakers, crafts and events we have planned for the school year. Others are just grateful.
But the glaring, agitated moms are the one’s that get to me. I turn to my co-chair.
“What can we do to make them not feel guilty,” I say. “I haven’t volunteered every year. This is just our turn.”
She doesn’t know.
I don’t either.
I go from being upset to angry. Stop pushing your guilt onto me. I am not the fucking bad guy. I’m not pushing my religion or trying to sell you a vacuum cleaner. I’m a mom at your school telling you about things you can be involved in. I’m giving you options, not obligations.
I am not to blame for the bad feelings you have. Those are all yours. Take them back.
I’m at the verge of losing it when a father walks up and talks to me. He doesn’t shrink away or spit angry excuses at me. He listens, gets his sticker and walks away with a cookie.
I know he won’t be able to attend meetings and so does he, but he isn’t an asshole about it. He doesn’t take my very presence as a personal affront to him. He doesn’t make excuses or make me feel bad. He takes the damn flyer and acts grateful that I brought snacks.
But I get it.
I have been on both ends of this exchange and I know what those moms are feeling.
When my depression was at its worst, walking up to the parent volunteer table felt like a punishment. Go talk to the ladies and tell them you suck, I would tell myself. Tell them you can barely get out of bed. Tell them they can’t count on you for anything.
All my self-hatred bubbled up and I didn’t want to even make eye contact.
I get it.
I just hate it.
I hate it for both of us.
I hate that you look at me and think I have my shit together, which I don’t by the way. I made those flyers last minute and I want to quit. I’m not as excited about the school year as I’m pretending to be, but somebody has be the cheerleader and it’s my turn.
I hate that you see me and it makes you feel all the bad things. All the lies you tell yourself about how inadequate and failing you are as a mother. It’s all so stupid.
So just stop it. Stop feeling bad about not doing enough. Stop punishing yourself and comparing. Stop thinking I am the bad guy.
The laughter drew me to them from my bedroom, where I was folding laundry with my morning coffee. I walk down the stairs and find them sitting on the living room floor with a paper between them. They are taking turns drawing on it and bursting into hysterics, their entire bodies literally shaking from the power of their giggles.
“What’s going on?” I say.
They don’t hear me at first.
“Hey guys,” I try again, attempting to sound casual and not at all like I’m about to start making them clean up. “Whatcha doin?”
They both look up at me like I’m an alien trying to invade their tiny planet.
“Nothing,” they say together and resume whatever nonsense this is, erupting into new fits of laughter as I walk away.
My children have a club. I’m guessing they call it “CoopLa” as I see it scrawled all over the place, but I’m not privy to the information. It looks like a pretty fun club. Their mission seems to be along the lines of:
*Cut up as many things as possible and use all the tape and aluminum foil in the house.
*Be really loud and make sure to laugh and scream out random words frequently, like Moo and Noodles.
*Move around the furniture often and in a dramatic fashion.
*Name every stuffed animal you can find and cover every surface in the house with fluffy cuteness.
They are enthusiastic about everything they do. They fight sometimes, but generally find resolution without intervention. They are tight, like peas and carrots.
There are days when I try hard to join in their fun, but I will never be in the club. I’m the bouncer and owner, but I’ll never quite belong.
They are exclusively exclusive.
Which is as it should be, I tell myself.
Childhood belongs to children.
Right? It’s how I’m supposed to feel. This is their time, not mine. I didn’t give birth to them so I could have friends and comfort.
But fuck. I miss it.
When they were very little, I was everything to them. Comfort. Food. Friendship. Playmate.
I was the sun, the moon and the stars.
But now I am not the only thing in the world filling those needs. They have each other, friends, grandparents, teachers and themselves. They have discovered inner strength and often find contentment in being alone.
All this is what is supposed to happen. This is the parenting process.
It’s beautiful and natural.
But I fucking hate it.
I feel myself being pushed away and pulled back on a daily basis. Give me space, but you better be there for me when I need you. Ask me what I’m doing, but don’t expect me to answer you. I need to know you care, but I don’t want you with me. Give me what I want, but don’t really because I’ll change my mind in five minutes.
The teenage years are still far away, but I feel them coming. This is the sweet spot of parenting right now and I know it. They are somewhat independent, but not disillusioned yet. They want stuff, but it is not their primary focus. They still ask questions and actually listen to the answers.
This is supposed to be the easy part.
There isn’t one.
I walk into my boy’s room and find him listening to the iPod with earbuds in. He is singing and tapping his toes while flipping through an animal magazine.
“Mom, there is this new song on the radio I think you will like,” he says pulling out just one earbud. “You have to hear this.”
I put the earbud in and sit close to him and my heart feels all kinds of confusing shit.
My girl and I go school shopping, just the two of us. She picks out clothes she likes and goes into the dressing room all by herself. Hanging the sign on the door, like she has seen me do a thousand times, and then coming out and modeling the clothes.
I stand there, outside the door, and I don’t even know what to feel.
I make eye contact with a mother of a teenage girl and she looks exhausted. She smiles at me encouragingly, but it looks forced. It is forced.
This shit is hard.
Not the kind of hard babyhood is. Not the sleep deprived, please don’t choke on something small and die. No. More like, my heart breaks every day to see you figure out how fucked up things can be and please don’t let you have the same depression I have.
That kind of hard.
Sometimes I just wander the house, not knowing what to do with myself. I am drawn to them, but also pulled away by a million things always needing to get done. I rush around cleaning, making plans, paying bills, writing and working. I see them slip by me and I reach out, but then they are gone.
I walk into my daughter’s room to deliver laundry and there they are. My boy is reading to his sister. They are snuggled and happy. My girl looks up and gives me the smile she always does and I want to join them. But I don’t. I smile back and walk out of the room.
This bowl of teeth lives in the back of my closet.
It’s a mixture of both kids’ teeth and there is no reason for them to be there. None. Except I can’t throw them out and I have no plan.
I never really thought this whole Tooth Fairy job out.
It just sort of happened.
I can remember when my son had his first wiggly tooth.
“Shit!?! That is happening already,” I remember thinking. Guess I need to figure out what I’m going to do.
I typed “Tooth Fairy ideas” into Google (this was before Pinterest was big, if you can imagine such a time). There were some wonderful ideas that I was absolutely going to make. I remember this organizer that had little pockets that you sew and then you embroidered the tooth location and date it was lost. It rolled up and was just perfect.
I was going to be the best Tooth Fairy ever.
In a way, it’s precious how cute I was. I was all excited about baby teeth and thought it was going to be a lovely memento of their childhood I’d cherish forever.
While that clearly didn’t happen, I did manage to make a little pillow to hold the tooth. I sewed it by hand out of an old wool sweater and needle-felted a fairy on the front. It’s just darling. I wanted to take a picture of it to show you, but it’s lost in my son’s room.
It was replaced with something he crafted out of Lego’s several teeth ago anyway.
Who needs that pillow mom took 200 hours crafting?
Luckily the first teeth are loose for some time and I got the pillow made before the first baby tooth left the mouth.
However, that is as far as my planning went.
We were at the State Fair and my boy’s tooth fell out while he was eating a hot dog.
It was such an exciting moment for him. He was so happy and kept telling everyone we met.
Me? I was screaming inside, “oh no!! I don’t have anything ready and we are going to get home late from the fair and I’m so TIRED!”
Did I just give him a quarter and call it a day?
I put his tooth into a little jar in my closet, promising myself that I’d figure out something great before the next tooth.
Then I stayed up until well after midnight needle-felting a little cow (since he was obsessed with cows at the time). I wrote a lengthy letter to him in teensy-tiny writing about how happy I was he finally lost his first tooth. It might even have rhymed. I sprinkled glitter all over his bed.
Basically, I set the bar WAY too high folks.
Way. Too. High.
I established the expectation that the Tooth Fairy crafts you little things AND writes you heartfelt letters.
You’d think after making such a bold decision, that I’d use all my spare time to stock up on some little handcrafted gifts for when the next tooth fell out.
Every single time I am handed a blooded stump of tooth, I’m caught off guard. As if I have no idea that they are going to keep losing teeth.
The Tooth Fairy would then stay up all night trying to pull together something amazing.
Needle felted dragons.
Hand sewn hearts stuffed with lavender.
Ridiculously tiny letters gushing about how beautiful they are inside and out.
But lately, my boy has started losing his molars. I don’t remember losing teeth at 10-years-old, but his dentist assures me this is a real thing and he is not just yanking them out.
I actually asked that.
The first molar fell out at the most inconvenient of times. Dad was out-of-town, mom had crafted all day and he was supposed to be sleeping.
“My tooth fell out,” he screams as I finally settle in to watch an old episode of “Saturday Night Live” with a beer in hand at 9 p.m.
“I thought you were asleep,” I mutter and usher him back to bed.
I had no creative juices left. Nothing.
After scouring the house for 10 minutes, I shoved $5 in his Lego contraption, made a trail of little gems around it and called it a night.
“Mom,” my boy says crawling into bed the next morning. “The Tooth Fairy left me money and no note. That’s the first time she didn’t write me.”
He seemed disappointed and let down.
I was too.
So the next night, right at bedtime, he pulled out another tooth.
I’m not kidding.
Dad was still out-of-town and I had no cash left.
I scoured my craft supplies for something to make and I had nothing.
Not a single idea.
So I gathered up some quarters and wrote him a long note about how much the Tooth Fairy can’t believe he has grown and that it was time she gave him a “Fairy Kiss.”
I sprinkled glitter all over his face and his bed.
“Mom!” he came running in the next morning. “The Fairy left me a kiss. Look! It’s on my cheek.”
I patted myself on the back and basked in his happiness.
While this Tooth Fairy isn’t perfect, sometimes she pulls it off. There are moments of magic that I’ve been lucky enough to create for my children that I will forever cherish.
No, I am not as organized as I’d like to be.
I don’t know what I’m going to do with that mixed jar of teeth. I don’t know what I’m doing the next time a tooth falls out. I’m not even sure what we are having for dinner tonight.
My body won’t go fast enough and I’m angry at myself for being so weak. As I crest each dune, I have to stop and catch my breath.
“Please let him be OK. Please.”
Dark thoughts circle and I try to push them away, but they scream out at me.
“What kind of mother are you to let this happen? What is wrong with you?”
My eyes scan constantly looking for him. I call his name occasionally, but that causes the panic to rise too much.
“He is fine. He is fine. He is fine.”
When I finally climb over the last dune, the entire beach stretches out before me.
My eyes search for signs of him, but he isn’t there.
My heart drops.
I was sure he would be right here.
Certain of it.
The tears that I’ve been holding back begin to flow and I walk as quickly as I can to the first two people I see. It’s an older couple cuddling on a blanket.
“Have you seen a little boy? He has brown hair, orange and black glasses and was wearing his pajamas?”
The words rush out and I fight back a sob in my throat. I search their faces as they look back and forth between each other.
“No englash,” one finally says.
In frustration, I march away from them and pull myself together. There is no reason to panic. Nothing to be gained by that.
As I walk down the beach, stopping to ask everyone I see, it becomes clear to me that he isn’t here and hasn’t been here.
Where could he be?
I spot two lifeguards at the top of the pier and start walking that direction. It is time for reinforcements and that realization frightens me. As I walk, I replay the entire morning in my head.
I spent about an hour after breakfast writing some poetry and a short story in the tent while the children explored. I did not know exactly where they were, but I knew they were fine. We have been to the Bodega Dunes campground about a dozen times now and I feel very comfortable there. Each time we go, I extend the boundaries a bit more.
Camping is one of the few times I feel my kids get to experience that true feeling of adventure and freedom. But it is a tricky balancing act between trusting they will be fine and knowing that it is my duty to protect them from harm. I might always seem very calm on the outside, but I’m often waging a war in my head.
“He is getting really high in that tree. A fall now might be fatal, but he is a good climber. I should trust that, but I’m scared. I can’t watch.”
“The kids have been gone too long. I know they are having fun and they are together. I’m certain they are fine, but what if they are not? How would I know when to look for them? Maybe I’m trusting them too much.”
“She is swimming pretty far out in the water, if she starts to drown now I won’t be able to make it in time. I should call her back…but I want her to be confident. She is doing really good.”
That morning, they came back on their own to check in and I felt very good about the day. We decided to spend the afternoon at the beach, so I needed to pack up some food, sunscreen and towels. I tell my boy to stay nearby and to get dressed for the beach.
“I don’t want to go to the beach right now,” he says.
“Well, that’s not an option. We are all going together, so don’t go too far.”
I busy myself with packing and then realize he is gone. We wait about 30 minutes for him to return and he does not. That’s when I start circling the campground looking for him.
That was nearly three hours ago, and the calm is fading away. The darkness is taking over.
I reach the pier and walk up to the life guards.
“My son is missing,” I tell them without tears. All business.
One man asks me a series of questions and I answer them. He writes details about my boy on his hand.
9 years old
missing 3 hours
It’s all so casual, as if I’m ordering up tacos or making a grocery list.
It’s all so slow and calm.
I want to scream.
I want to cry.
I want my boy.
The other man is scanning the beach as we talk.
“Is that him?” he asks.
“Where?” I say.
“Over there, by the water. Looks to be a nine-year-old boy.”
“I can’t tell this far away, looks like an adult to me.”
“Nope. Definitely a kid.”
He jumps off the pier and runs in the direction of the shadowy figure walking with a stick. When he reaches him, he waves at me. It’s my boy.
Thank you God. Thank you.
We walk toward each other. When I reach him, he has been crying, he is covered in sweat and we both hug each other.
“Don’t you EVER do that again! What where you thinking?” I begin.
He stops crying and explains. While our friends planned to drive all the stuff to the beach, the kids and I were going to make the long hike there. He made the decision to just go on his own, so he could explore and continue the game he was playing. He made it there, but couldn’t find us and tried to hike back. That’s when he got lost. He wandered the dunes for a long time and had just made it back to the beach. His plan was now to get help.
“Did you learn a lesson?” I ask him.
“I’m sorry mommy. I love you.”
I want to be mad and scream, but I can’t. I’m so grateful he is safe that I just want to love on him. While we wait for friends to arrive with food and water for us both, I playfully bury him in the sand with only his head and feet sticking out.
“You’re never leaving my side again,” I tell him.
We play at the beach for a short time, but we are getting sunburned. All our beach supplies are back at the campground. Our friends are driving back, but my boy wants to take the trail and see where he made the wrong turns. I think it could be good closure, so I agree.
I hold both my children’s hands as we head up the first dune. Right away I know this is a mistake. I almost cry when I get to the top as my lungs scream out in protest. My daughter decides to take this moment to fight with her brother about who is going to be second in line. My son then complains that he is hot. They both then start a barrage of whining that makes me vibrate with anger.
I grab the walking stick my boy has been using and bang it against a rock as hard as I can until it breaks into tiny pieces.
“This day is complete and utter bullshit.”
“Mom you just said…” my boy begins.
“I know what I said. It’s true. Today has been a bullshit day. I hate today. This is not how I wanted things to go. It’s BULLSHIT!”
I scream it loud and the kids giggle and look nervously at each other.
“Say it,” I tell them. “Scream it!”
“Really?” they both ask.
“Yes, scream bullshit. I think you will feel better.”
We all yell together.
We start hiking in silence and occasionally the kids mutter bullshit under their breath. I start to feel bad about this outburst and realize I need to change it. We have lived with that feeling enough.
I stop and turn to them both.
“You know what?” I say. “Today was bullshit, but let’s change it. We are strong. Do you know how much we hiked today? What we have overcome? We are strong. Let’s say that.”
They have skeptical looks, but we do it.
“I AM STRONG!”
It takes some time to hike back and we get turned around. It really is an impossibly complicated maze of trails. But we laugh, have fun and feel strong together.
We turn bullshit into strength.
It’s not perfect and it might seem insane to some, but I’m feeling proud of myself for how I handled things.
Life is filled with so many moments that will just bury you if you let them. You have to dig deep and find it within yourself to focus on the strength.
I could have chosen to spend that hike yelling at my boy and punishing him. I could have made him feel terrible or filled him with shame and fear. I could have allowed my pain to envelope all of us and cloud everything after that.
But I made another choice and for that I am truly proud.
As we walk around the blacktop, her little hand in mine, I can feel her body tense up.
She was fine all morning, but the reality is here.
We stop and she looks at me. Her new haircut frames her face in the light perfectly and it hits me how completely I know her, how intimate we are without words.
Her eyes tell me all the fears she carries right below the surface.
“Nobody will be my friend.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“I don’t like this.”
I smile at her and then squeeze her hand gently three times in mine.
“I love you.”
She squeezes back four.
“I love you too.”
We walk more. Both of us look forward, lost in our own thoughts and emotions.
Does she know how I feel, I wonder? Are my eyes telling her all the fears I carry close?
“I don’t want to be alone all day.”
“I’m going to miss you.”
“I don’t like this.”
Before I know it, her teacher is playing a harmonica and signaling it is time to lineup. I stand back with all the other parents.
She stares at me from the line and I ask if she wants a kiss. She makes fishy lips and we both laugh.
I walk over, give her a quick hug and kiss, and then stand back to watch her walk to her new classroom.
I follow her like a lost puppy and then I’m temporarily struck.
My little sidekick is going away.
She won’t be with me most of the day anymore.
I’m going to be alone.
I really, really don’t like this.
When we get to the door, I watch her teacher. He stands on his knees so he is at eye level, he takes her hand into his and he welcomes her with so much kindness and genuine love.
His words from an e-mail the night before pop into my head: “I will do my best to take good care of your hearts, and then you will come and pick them up at the end of day.”
I take a deep breath and I let it go slowly.
I don’t cry. I don’t even feel sad anymore.
Before I have time to really examine my feelings, this wonderful teacher invites all the parents to walk in and see the children at their desks.
My girl is in the front row, paying attention to him talking and she is perfectly at home there. The classroom is warm, inviting and feels so right.
This is good.
If you’re unfamiliar with Waldorf school, entering first grade is huge. This class will be together until they leave the school in eighth grade. I really couldn’t have asked for a better environment for my sweet, sensitive girl.
This is going to be wonderful.
I walk out and actually feel excited.
For us both.
She will learn to read.
I will learn to run.
She will learn to knit.
I will learn to write a book.
She will learn how to be out in the world and make friends.
I will learn how to have goals and reach for them again.
It’s going to be a good year for us both and I’m really happy.
The first day of Waldorf school includes an opening day ceremony where the eighth graders welcome the first graders with a rose. We are at a new campus this year that only goes up to fourth grade, my son’s class.
When I found out my boy would be handing his sister a rose, it was as if the universe was giving me a gigantic hug.
We all head to the tiny outdoor amphitheater. So many familiar faces, hugs and smiles. The ceremony begins with the teachers and staff singing a lovely song about harmony and unity.
Then my son’s gorgeous teacher, who I adore beyond words, strums the guitar and leads the entire school in singing:
“From you I receive
To you I give
Together we share
By this we live”
As we all sing, my sweet boy hands his sister a beautiful white rose and they walk together across the stage. I feel giddy, silly and almost break into hysterical laughter.
My life is shifting in so many ways right now and this one moment, one rose given to another, seems to symbolize all that is good and wonderful in my life.
The ceremony is over and I get in my car. I have friends to see, errands to run and freedom to feel.
I’m opening myself up to what might be. I’m saying yes to opportunities, allowing myself to be vulnerable and releasing all the anxieties that hold me back.