Yesterday, I went to talk to my son’s class about living in Germany. Liam’s social studies teacher asked any class parents who had lived in other countries to come talk about their experiences to the class.
I had such fun talking with the third graders about my six years out of the country. (My dad was stationed there for most of the 1980s, when I was in middle and high school.)
The kids were actually completely captivated, which may have been aided by the fact that I knew the crowd I was playing to. I talked a little bit of Cold War geopolitics at the beginning to explain why we were there, but mostly we talked about things like how much less sweet German desserts are; how when you order fish at restaurants, they bring it head-and-all; and how a bomb blew up outside our apartment building once (not everyone wanted American soldiers in their country, go figure). And they collapsed into peals of giggles when I read the words on my bus pass to them.
My son was clearly delighted that his mom was such a hit. So imagine his dismay when later that day, the class sociopath decided to ask Liam if he was going to have a baby brother or sister soon.
Let me make this quite clear: the kid who said this is as total and complete a creep as I have ever seen in this age group. I do not use the word sociopath lightly. He genuinely gives me the heebie-jeebies. So when he sneered to Liam, “Hey, is your mom having a baby or something?” — it was not in that innocent way that some kids have of stepping head-long into an unmeant insult. No, he was clearly trying to be nasty. He saw Liam — and everyone else, for that matter — enjoying a nice moment and decided to defecate on it.
My son was in tears for much of the afternoon. A few of his friends asked what was wrong, and he told them. And pretty soon the whole after-care program knew. And then an interesting thing happened. Every kid — and particularly the girls — ganged up on Sociopath, Jr. They chased him. They excluded him from their reindeer games. They shut him out.
Liam was anxious about talking to me about it last night. He was worried that my feelings would be hurt.
“Look, honey,” I said. “I am overweight…”
“No, you’re NOT!”
“… Well, yes, I am. But what I was going to say was, it’s OK. I take good care of myself, and I’m happy with who I am. And I’m not going to let what some little mean twit says about me ruin that happiness.”
“OK. I guess younger women worry about this stuff more than women your age do.”
Fair point. And one of the delights of being over 40.
I felt like this was one of those really significant moments in my son’s — and those kids’ — social development. According to my son, no one thought what Sociopath Jr. said was funny. They all shunned his behavior without mercy. And I got a chance to make clear to my son that self image is just that: self image. We can be strong enough to hold it sharp and clear in our minds, and not let the puny little creeps of the world nip it to death.
I have a truly lovely cousin whose maternity leave ends today and — as it does for so many of us — it’s kind of tearing her up a bit. So I’m writing this as a love letter to her and all the other parents who are facing that first day of work after being at home with a newborn.
Dear brave soul,
Here you are, on the eve of your first day back at work. I can’t presume to understand exactly how you feel, but I’ll tell you how I remember feeling. I suspect we’ll have a lot of those feelings in common.
Part of me couldn’t wait to go back to work, because DAMN BABIES ARE BORING. Especially newborns. As the one with the mammary glands (not to mention the one with the gigantic abdominal surgery to heal from), I understand why I got first shift on the family leave thing, but I really got the short end of that stick. Newborns don’t play with toys. They might lie there semi-quietly while you read a book to them, but you will get very few expressions of interest, let alone comprehension. They can barely focus their eyes, for crying out loud, let alone have an I-thou moment with you. And that fantasy that you can strap your baby on like a backpack and explore the world? Pfft.
Yes, I am not a baby person, and even so — that first day back to work was so hard. Dropping my son off at day care for the first time felt like someone driving a serrated knife into my gut and twisting it. He cried, of course… and cried. And clung to me. It was a terrible moment.
But let me tell you something that I have learned over the years. Babies are like dogs. They are SO UPSET the moment you leave and it is but a matter of moments before something shiny or tasty or messy has distracted their attention and they are perfectly content until you come back and then they’re like OH YEAH, YOU LEFT SOME INDETERMINATE AMOUNT OF TIME AGO… HI HI HI (NEED NEED WANT WANT). And for all you know that sucking need was there the entire time you were gone and you are a horrible person for having left it all unfulfilled for that eight hours that you spent helplessly trying to catch up with your goddamn email. But that’s not what happened. Your baby was cared for and fed and entertained and got to watch other kids in action and now you’re back and that’s great.
For a while, every time you leave will be a GIANT TRAGEDY that will end as quickly as it began. Babies are not walking wounds waiting for you to drive them into therapy. They are emotionally resilient creatures that — again, think dogs — act like exposed nerves because no one has taught them yet how to keep their immediate feelings in check.
I also found going back to work hard because I found that my brain, which had once been this perfectly formed piece of rock candy, was now a glob of saltwater taffy being pulled in eight different directions simultaneously. I had trouble concentrating. I felt like an entire lobe was now devoted to thinking about my child and his needs, and it meant that I was a LOT less focused. I still haven’t gotten back to the rock candy state — I’m somewhere in the region of soft caramel these days. It’s incredibly irritating. And sometimes even embarrassing.
But you know what else? I also gained some perspective. The nice thing about devoting a lobe to a little person who needs your love, is that you realize how unimportant so much of that work crap was that you used to get so wrapped around the axle about. It might even lead you eventually to rethink the whole direction of your career — not necessarily to stay home with your kid full time (though that’s a great choice for many), but just in some way to make work time matter. If I’m going to be at work, I found myself thinking more and more, it had better be for something really, really, REALLY good.
I hope your day tomorrow is not too hard. I hope that in that moment when you feel the knife twist in your gut, that you will also feel my hand on your shoulder. I totally get it. You are so not alone. And she will be perfectly, perfectly fine in those hours you are gone. And increasingly, as she gets older, she will enjoy having the company of other kids and not just her parents. And you are allowed to have your life, too. Much love to all three of you.
My son is sleeping away in his room, literally unconscious of the fact that he turned eight half an hour ago.
There is no baby left, hardly even a little boy. This kid is a full-fledged kid with amazing superpowers — actual physical and mental muscles that surprise everyone — including himself — with what they can move.
It is the age of reading by himself, doing magic tricks, getting pretty good at basketball, trying desperately to play video games in a household that limits them severely, falling in love with math and science, paying attention sometimes to the news and being disturbed by what he finds there, developing best friends, having people start to cheat off of you on tests, not allowing his mom to buy him clothes unsupervised, and picking out (and dancing to) his own music.
Good god, my kid is funny. And in that really smart way, not just in the funny-sounding-farts or well-heeled-pratfalls kind of way. I need only direct you to earlier posts for examples of his wit. I used to laugh so as to humor him. Now he genuinely (and even intentionally) makes me laugh so hard that tears pour down my face.
He loves to swim laps — his record is 36 at one go — and given his long, thin frame, I think he could really go places with it — I mean go places other than back and forth across the pool.
Still on the table from last year: kung fu, reading chapter books that are a hybrid of text and comics, Legos, Pokemon, and the preferred daily uniform of t-shirt, basketball shorts, and flip flops.
If I had to name one development as my favorite, it’s my son’s newfound ability to empathize deeply with me — not to mention other people. He and I have butted heads on and off for years, but suddenly in the last year he understands why and when I get upset. And he tries not to upset me. And he voluntarily apologizes when he does. It’s nice. In this and many other ways, I feel like we are understanding each other more and more these days. There are times when I think there is no one on earth I would rather spend time with.
There are also times I want to chain him to a radiator. But those times are fewer and further between.
I’m sure there are times he wants to chain me to a radiator. And I’m sure I’d deserve it just as much.
I keep wondering if I’ll ever stop thinking, “This is my favorite age.” So far, I keep updating that award.
Happy birthday, sweetest boy. This is my favorite age.
And for posterity, some quick stats: today you are 4’7″ tall, weigh 74 lbs., and wear a size 5 shoe.
“Mom, what do people look like when they’re about to kiss each other?”
“Well, like this,” and then I plant one on him.
“NO. I mean, when they’re about to kiss each other.”
“Oh, you mean like romantically?”
“I don’t know. They just look at each other kind of googly-eyed.”
“Oh, come on. Just show me.”
“Um. No. You’re my kid. Can’t do it.”
“Is it like this?” (Does his best pouty lips and rakish eyebrow waggle. I crack up.)
“Yeah, something like that. You might want to tone it down a little if you’re really going to use it, though.”
There are these moments where you realize that your kid is SO your kid — these funny moments when the distance between you and your child collapses like a long, collapsey-kind telescope.
Today, my son and I were talking about some funny stop-motion videos we were making with Playmobils, when he said, “It’s extremely hard to get all the guys to line up just right so the next frame looks like it came just after the first one.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
After a few seconds’ silence as we keep editing the little movie, he said, “Two X’s.”
And, weirdly, I immediately knew what he meant. He meant there were two X’s in the sentence he had just said.
No, this is not a game we play. It’s just that he’s an obsessively weird language person just like I am, and he flips words around and around in his brain before, during, and after he says them. So he noticed, as he was saying it, that the sentence he was uttering, unusually, had two X’s in it.
Once, when I was in college, my parents and sister came to visit and as I got into their car that evening, my mom turned around, all faux-exasperated, and said, “Mull foon.”
I replied, “Yup, mull foon,” and looked out the window at the bright, full moon.
My mom breathed a sigh of relief, turned back around in her seat, and said, “I knew you’d understand.” She had been in the car for hours with two people who had no idea what she was talking about. My dad and sister and I share many things, but the flipping-the-words-around-in-the-brain thing isn’t one of them.
When you’re weird like us, it’s a delight to discover — and later reaffirm — all those bizarre little ways that you really are family.
Actually, let me start with:
What do you tell people who are considering having children — well, quite frankly, they’ve already decided they’re going to do it, but they just want you to bolster their nerves. But what do you say when they ask you, “Would you do it all again… honestly?”
Do you have a moment where you wonder, Should I tell them? Should I tell them how hard it is? Because really, what good does that do? Like the blogger says, they’re going to do it anyway; why take away this moment of happy anticipation? Maybe I should just smile and say, Sure. I’d do it again in an instant.
Not me, kids. I can’t lie to them. I smile wanly and say, “You know, I’m just not sure.”
Which invokes the recoil of horror. Which prompts me to self-correct: “Don’t get me wrong. I love my kid. I really, really love him, and I can’t imagine not having him in my life. It’s just that if I were right back at that moment, before he was a real flesh-and-blood human being, back when s/he was just an abstraction, and you told me — really told me — about what this was going to do to me…. Well, I just don’t know.”
When I was 11 years old and approaching my twelfth birthday, my mom asked me what I would like as a present. I asked her if I could get a hysterectomy. Also, I said, I would like steak, a baked potato, and asparagus for a birthday dinner.
But back to the hysterectomy.
I don’t quite recall exactly what was going through my mind when I asked for this gift, but I’m pretty sure it was some combination of knowing (or thinking I knew) that I didn’t want children and having endured a junior-high health class where we talked through the realities of menstruation. Good lord, I remember thinking, I’m not going through all that if I don’t even need the equipment.
Yeah, I was a weird child.
To her credit, my mother responded with her usual respectful sagacity that this was a serious decision, and we should think it over for a while. If I was still interested on my 13th birthday, we could discuss it again.
Yeah, I love my mom.
It never came up again, except as a funny story. By the time I was in my twenties, I was sure I wanted at least one child, possibly two. I went into pregnancy with near-total confidence that this was the right thing to do.
Without belaboring the details here — that’s a story for another day — suffice it to say that childbirth and the first four years of my son’s life were hard. I went from being a physically and mentally healthy person to being clinically depressed and 60 pounds overweight. Things have slowly gotten better, especially with the depression, but I feel permanently altered.
Again, granted, this permanent alteration has also brought with it a truly lovely, loving child whom I adore with every fiber of my being. OK, sometimes I want to strangle him, but sometimes I want to strangle everybody, and that’s people I don’t even have to see that often. So really, he’s fine.
But still, I find myself thinking often these days about that 12-year-old wish of mine. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. But I’m in it now and there’s nothing for it but to muddle ahead through this strange mixed-up soup of anger and unconditional love.
One of my favorite parts of being a parent is reading books with my kid. How glorious to be able to revisit old favorites and discover unknown delicacies. And I love reading aloud. Someday someone is going to hire me to narrate audiobooks. Until such time, I happily read to my child.
And yet, some of the books, they baffle me, and today’s pick is one of those head scratchers. That’s the book pictured above: Jason and the Golden Fleece, a 1990 book by Leonard Everett Fisher that I checked out of the library recently because Liam loves Greek mythology.
Do all children love Greek myths? (At least, all of them who grow up in a culture that cares about it?) I suspect so, and I have a theory about why: it’s a great metaphor for their own life. The gods (their parents) rule with the utmost arbitrariness. If you don’t thank them for every blasted thing — if you don’t fall in line — you will be torn apart by storms, transformed into lions, forced to wander aimlessly for a decade, frozen to stone by your mother’s deathly glare.
So like life.
We have read nearly every conceivable book of Greek myths, so I was delighted recently to find one we hadn’t read. The book went along pleasantly enough at first: the illustrations are somehow spare and lush at the same time; the story vividly told.
There’s a moment in the middle that gives one pause: Heracles’ servant falls off the Argo (their ship) into the sea, and Heracles (in a fit of noblesse oblige) jumps in to save him. Jason’s all like, “Hey, we’ve gotta get a move on, Heracles. Can you hurry this up?” And when Heracles’ servant insists on sinking to the bottom, Jason’s all: “Yeah, I gotta go,” and leaves them both stranded in the middle of the Black Sea.
I may have misquoted the text a little, but you get the idea. What exactly is the reader supposed to think about this act by our hero? We are left to wonder for ourselves, which I suppose is fine.
But the most startling moment comes at the end. In the final paragraph — in a spare, matter-of-fact few sentences — we are told that Medea (Jason’s wife) kills their kids, then tries to kill Jason, commits suicide, and then Jason wanders the earth for the rest of his life alone and homeless.
The end. Yes, just that abruptly.
OK, now perhaps this is a sign of my deprived high school education that I have never read Medea. A better-read person would have already known how this story ends.
But let’s just presume for the moment that not everyone knows/recalls that the Jason story is a tragedy. Could the author maybe, just perhaps, think about giving a teensy-weensy heads up to the unsuspecting parent reading dust jackets at the library or bookstore?
Something like this: “WARNING: In case, you have forgotten, Greek myths are seriously messed up. People die in all kinds of horrible ways, and in the end, there’s no good way to sugar-coat that for your precious, precious buttercup of a child. So make your choice now: are you up for discussing full-on gore and existential pain with your kid? Or should you just move on to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid shelves?”
You have been warned.
Remember that conversation with my son that I told you about recently? The one where I took the high road and told my son to shut his piehole, while he took the low road and told me I was “the nicest mom in the world”?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because his response was such a funny, unexpected reaction. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. My first thought was that he was being sarcastic. Would the nicest mom in the world ever use the word “piehole” anywhere near her seven-year-old’s delicate ears? No, no, she would not.
But later, I had a stunning realization. What if he actually meant it?
Right after he said I was the nicest mom in the world, I laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t think so.”
“Well, who’s a nicer mom than you?” he says with utterly sincere incredulity.
“Lots of people.” And I start naming them. Whole legions of nicer moms. “I’m cranky. And irritable. But I do love you a lot.”
And he hugged me.
And it occurred to me in a flash of blinding, glorious insight days later that my son doesn’t love me despite the fact that I’m cranky and irritable. He loves me partly because I am those things. The word “piehole” is just inherently funny. So is a mom who tells you to shut yours. Most people don’t get to have moms who say shit like that. If you’re lucky, you get a mom who is kind and loving and cuts the crusts off your PB&J and smiles at you warmly while you fart in her lap.
And if you’re really, really lucky, you get a mom who is a bit rude and inappropriate, tells you to make your own lunch some mornings, and flies off the handle sometimes when you ask her to wipe your nearly-eight-year-old butt. And loves you insanely muchly.
The scene: little dude and I are lying in his bed earlier tonight, lights off, and I’m getting exasperated because he won’t be still or quiet while I’m singing him his usual lullabies.
Finally, feeling 80% irritated, 20% joking around, I say, “Liam. Shut. Your. Piehole.”
Peals of giggles from his side of the bed. He replies, 80% sincere, 20% teasing: “Mommy, you’re the nicest mom in the whole wide world.” And then I got a kiss.
And he shut his piehole.
I’m just going to say this right off the bat: I am a terrible mother.
All right, actually I’m a pretty amazing mother in some very specific ways: I am funny and imaginative and in a weird sort of way I get kids and I take them seriously in ways that most adults don’t.
But with very little provocation, I can also be as mean as a snake. And even less patient. I feel terrible about it mere seconds later, but by then, the damage is already done.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not abusive. In fact, one of the reasons that I’m writing this blog is that I suspect a lot of you fellow parents out there know exactly what I’m talking about, and you’re thankful to know someone else who will admit to it.
Welcome; stick around. Let’s be asshole parents together. Asshole parents who love our kids but sometimes wish we could send them off to Hogwarts so we could have the whole Dursley house to ourselves.
* * *
I used to be a historian by trade, so I will usually speak by way of example.
Let’s take Mother’s Day. It was yesterday, and it was one of the worst days I’ve had in a long time.
Things started beautifully enough. A few days beforehand, my son (who’s 7) brought home the most amazingly sweet Mother’s Day card, filled with such charming sentiments as this (the teacher’s prompts are in bold, my son’s responses in plain text):
- I like it when my Mom sings, it fills my heart with love.
- I’d like to tell my Mom how much I love her, which is to much for me to explain.
- My Mom has a pretty smile! I like to make her smile by saying “I’m sexy & I know it.”
Adorable, right? Funny and sincere and utterly tear-worthy. I wept. Which pleased him.
Then on Saturday, he had a sleepover at a friend’s house. I got to go see a movie and go out for a cocktail with my husband. They had squirt-gun fights and stayed up late.
And it’s that last thing that turned the whole of Mother’s Day on its ear. The boy was about five hours short of his usual sleep quota when he came home that morning. A good mother would recognize this and dial up her patience meter to 11. A perceptive but bad mother like me would recognize this but still fly off the handle when her 7-year-old son comes butt-naked into her home office, says he needs his ass wiped, and then proceeds to sit down on her office chair.
In his defense, he says, as I angrily wipe poop stains off my office chair, “you’ve never really taught me how to wipe. So it’s not my fault.”
Yeah. It all went downhill from there. An hour later, when my husband returned from church, we were both seething and Mother’s Day brunch wasn’t going to be happening.
* * *
It got better. Later.
But my point — in this first blog post — is this: motherhood is some seriously exhausting shit that will never completely wipe off of your office chair, no matter how much you scrub it and spray it with Febreze. There are profoundly redeeming qualities to being a parent, but those gorgeous moments we experience with our kids also come at great cost.
I’m done with pretending it’s all sweetness and light. It is bittersweet — a flavor that frankly is less cloying.