Friday, December 18, 2009

Rage Against the Machine

Isaac has been at his new school for five weeks.

Earlier this school year, while my son was struggling desperately in public kindergarten, coming home every day exhausted and sullen, crying every morning and begging me not to take him to school, I was careful, very careful, about what I wrote here about my struggle to make things right for him there. So careful, in fact, that I nearly stopped writing here altogether out of fear that my emotions might overcome my logic and cause me to write something I might later regret.

My frustration with the bureaucracy standing between my son and the classroom accommodations and occupational therapy he clearly needed; my anger at a few particular school employees' and district officials' ignorance, ineptitude, lack of compassion toward my son, or lack of respect toward me; my righteous political indignation at the glaring cracks in state and local government regulations that my child with both special needs and a gifted intellect kept falling through again and again; my despair at failing, again and again, despite my best efforts, to surmount these difficulties to help my child: all these overwhelmed me and I longed to use this place as an outlet for my emotions. As a podium for my activism on his behalf. But I thought I could not.

Because I felt I had to work with these people. With this school. With this district. In this county in this state. I did not know whether I would be able to find a suitable private school situation; I did not know whether I would be able to afford an appropriate private school if I found one. I did not know how homeschooling, if we chose that route, would work out— I did not know whether I would have enough time to devote to it while also working, or whether my son, who loves people and enjoys the company of other children, would thrive shut up all day most days in the house just with me. I did not want to burn any bridges. I did not want to cause a group of people who seemed suspicious of my intentions from the moment I first questioned their methods and assumptions to become even more hostile toward me.

And I was also careful because I doubted myself and my emotions. I know teaching children is an extremely difficult job. I know that districts are underfunded and understaffed. I know that, as a mother, I am prone to bias in my child's favor. I know that, as a mother, I am very emotionally wrapped up in my child's day-to-day happiness. I was worried that maybe I was wrong about some things, and these professional educators were right. I was worried that my initial reactions toward the school were overly judgmental.

After seeing the drastic change in my son in this new, more understanding environment, I am beginning to think that before, I was not judgmental enough.

And I don't feel like being careful anymore.

One of the things Isaac finds most challenging about the school environment is all the fine motor activity. He has a documented motor skills delay. He has been diagnosed with serious motor planning problems— meaning he has difficulty thinking through motions ahead of time and telling the different parts of his body where to go— and when we had him tested extensively by the school district's own developmental testing team at the age of three, he scored significantly behind his peers. Now, at the age of five, his fine motor skills are about that of a three-year-old.

He grasps a pencil incorrectly, and colors with his whole arm instead of just moving his wrist. When he uses scissors, he has difficulty keeping them perpendicular to the paper, and often forgets to hold what he is cutting with his other hand. With intensive practice at home and with his private occupational therapist, he has learned to write most letters, but he is still slow at it, and his forms are shaky. Sometimes his numbers come out backwards. He struggles to write his own name.

It's not that he doesn't know what the letters are supposed to look like. He knew his alphabet by one and a half. He read his first word at the age of 21 months (and was reading whole phrases, and, ahem, certain proper names, just a few months later). Now he browses through my college intro planetary science textbook at the dinner table, trying to parse the big words, and asks me things like, "Mommy? What's a therm-o-nuclear explosion?"

(You may think I'm making that up to be funny. I'm not. Lock up your smoke detectors, people.)

But there's a disconnect somewhere in between the perfect image of the letters and numbers in his brain and the signals that tell his hand how to form them. He knows when his writing comes out wrong— he can tell you that he's just written a B backwards, or that he left off the silent E on the end of the word. But his slow hands just can't keep up with his quick brain, and so he inevitably winds up incredibly frustrated.

In public kindergarten, his in-class assignments and homework consisted almost entirely of worksheets that required coloring, cutting, and writing.

Letter recognition worksheets, where he had to color the big A and small a, trace the big A and small a, cut out several tiny paper apples, and paste them in neat order on a tree. Number recognition worksheets, where he had to copy this number, circle that number, draw a line from here to there.

These worksheets took him forever. He had to do them several times a day. He hated them.

Not only were they hard for him, but they were boring. Downright tedious. "They're still doing letter recognition for the kids in class who have never learned to read before," he'd tell me, sighing and rolling his eyes. I would explain to him that every kid is good at some things, and every kid struggles with other things. I would remind him that even though reading is easy for him, writing is hard, and he needed to practice, and this was a good way. I would sit with him, sometimes for an hour or more, at the end of each day, and help him push through homework that was meant to take ten minutes.

And in class, it was even worse— not only was he forced to do work that was simultaneously overwhelmingly difficult and mind-numbingly boring, but he also had a time limit, and was surrounded by distractions.

A child as sensitive to sensory stimuli as Isaac cannot not hear a child across the room whispering or rustling a paper. He can't not see the sudden movement of a another child's elbow out of the corner of his eye. Now imagine twenty children whispering and rustling and moving, all around him.

He has to fight constantly to forget the scent of lunch cooking down the hall or stop feeling the draft from the vent on his face or ignore the vibrations caused by the vacuum passing in the hallway.

So when he would color or write or cut in class, he would hum quietly to himself. Trying to drown out the noise so he could concentrate. He would fidget, trying not to feel the rivets in the back of his chair. He would sometimes get up altogether and walk around the room for a minute, trying to calm down get his mind back on his task.

And his teacher would scold him. And tell him to be quiet and sit still and stay in his seat.

And he would fail to finish his work as quickly as the other students. And be punished by having to sit and finish it while the other kids played at center time.

He was scolded, and punished, daily. When he would come home, he would say terrible things. About himself.

"I'm the slowest."

"I'm the worst."

"I was the only one who couldn't."

"I'm bad at writing."

"I didn't finish."

"I was afraid."

His teacher had access to his records— both the records of the school district, and the medical records I had added to his file. She knew he had a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. She knew he had a motor skills delay.

I asked her if she could take that into consideration when assigning him activities in class. She told me she didn't think his sensory problems could have anything to do with not wanting to write. She told me thought he just didn't want to do the work.

His teacher knew he could read. She knew he'd gotten advanced letter and number recognition scores and a nearly perfect report card in preschool. She knew his preschool teacher considered him gifted. She knew he had taken a standardized developmental test and received a verbal score in the 99th percentile.

I suggested that perhaps if she offered written work that would be more interesting to him, he might be engaged enough to focus on it despite his difficulties with writing. That if he didn't find his homework boring he might be inspired to finish it even if the fine motor aspect of it was hard.

She told me "We don't want him getting too far ahead of the other children."

When I asked if we could have him tested for the school's gifted program, that would have taken him out of class one day a week to a place with smaller class sizes, more one-on-one attention, and more interesting material, she said, "He would fail the drawing test. I could overrule that, but I'm not sure I would. I'm not sure his IQ is high enough."

Isaac has been at his new school for five weeks. The paper above is a sheet of math homework he did this week. First grade math homework.

He did it in ten minutes.

He did it without complaining.

In fact, he has done not one but two math homework worksheets four nights a week for four weeks now.

He almost never makes a mathematical mistake.

I want to mail his old teacher a copy of every damned page. Screw mailing them, actually. I want to march into her classroom carrying a sheaf of them and slap them down on her desk.

In fact, I want to hand-deliver copies of this homework to every damn person at the school and the district who closed ranks around this teacher and dutifully stood in my way when I dared to challenge her evaluation and treatment of my son.

Yesterday my son asked me if, after winter break, I could ask his new teacher for some multiplication problems to add to his homework. He says addition and subtraction are getting old.

His IQ wasn't high enough for the gifted program, Old Kindergarten Teacher? REALLY?

I don't care what I have to do. I don't care if I have to sell a kidney to keep him in private school for the next several years. I don't care if I have to homeschool. I don't care if I have to sell my house and move. As long as people who want to pound "different" children like mine down until they fit into neat little boxes are in charge, MY CHILD IS NEVER GOING BACK TO HIS OLD SCHOOL.

And when he's a astronomer, or a science teacher, or a Senator, or any of the other things he's been telling me lately he wants to be when he grows up— now that he's no longer so stressed by school that he could barely think about the next day of his life, let alone the next few decades— when he's such a successful adult that no one cares anymore that he sometimes fidgets and sometimes hums and has bad handwriting— his first Kindergarten teacher, the one who could not see past the disability to see the child— she will not be the teacher he will thank.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Isle of Misfit Parents

Two women sit together on a bench in a hallway in a school, chatting animatedly together as they wait for their children to be dismissed from class. With their subtle brown eyeliner and casual lipstick and fashionable-but-not-too-high-for-daytime heels and well-matched jewelry and designer handbags and perfectly highlighted hair they look very much like certain mothers I remember from the exclusive private high school I attended on scholarship, mothers of my friends, who seemed so different from my own mother, my hurried, serious, bespectacled mother in her short hair and khakis and sensible shoes.

I sit apart from them, alone on a chair across the room, like my mother used to sit apart. Despite my own subtle brown eyeliner and fashionable coat and Nine West (on clearance!) purse and cute, if sensible, shoes. All of which I wear like a semi-opaque lacquered sheen that I feel absurdly will crack and fall away the moment I speak.

They are talking about a charity fundraiser; they are talking about their husbands' jobs; and I find myself thinking how suddenly strange it can feel to me, still, after five years, to sit in a room full of mothers and be one of the mothers in that room. How strange it is, still! To think, here I sit, as my mother sat. Past tense.

And there are those mothers, still talking as if no one else were in the room and really, they might as well talk as if no one else were in the room because I am not talking to them, am I? I am instead sitting here alone thinking about how strange I feel sitting here alone thinking. I am a stranger precisely because I am sitting alone feeling strange.

I am sitting frozen in the conviction that if I speak to them I will intrude someplace I am not wanted.

And then one of the other mothers, the well-coiffed, magazine-cover mothers, says, with emotion, "I worry so much about her starting middle school. I mean, how will people treat her? How will she find her way around such a big place? How will she ever play sports? How will she even open her locker?"

And the other nods in sympathy.

And across the room, I do too.

And I realize I fit right in here. We all do.

Everyone raising a Misfit Child is welcome on the Isle of Misfit Parents.

Next time I'll have to say hello.

If you liked this post you'll probably also like Cocoon by Amalah. And no, she didn't pay me to say that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Private school tuition: More than some people's yearly salary dollars.

Private school tuition after lovely generous financial aid package from lovely generous foundation that has now earned itself a place in your will should you ever actually become a famous wealthy author: Still only slightly less each month than your mortgage payment.

Knowing that in his new school, no one will accuse your child with a medically documented fine motor skills delay of "just not wanting to do the work" when he struggles with writing, no one will confuse attention issues caused by a medically documented sensory disorder with willful misbehavior, no one will keep him from joining the second-grade reading class just because his delayed handwriting lags behind his advanced reading ability, and no one will call you "hostile" during a teacher meeting for very politely requesting basic accommodations that your child with a medical condition is technically entitled to by law?


There are some things money can buy. And I've realized I'd rather worry about how to afford my son's school than worry about whether my son's school is killing his love of learning. I'd rather swear off restaurants and new clothes for a year and live off of peanut butter sandwiches and live with the draft coming through my cracked basement window than fight daily against the urge to swear at the mechanical representatives of a soulless, broken bureaucracy who cannot ever seem to say anything to me about their continuing failure to effectively do the job my tax dollars pay them for other than endless variations on the phrase "We're sorry, we can't help you."

But have I given up on trying to fix my local public schools? Hell, no. Not every family has even our modest means to sacrifice to pay for private school.

If the public schools think I'm out of their hair for good, they have another thing coming. My goal has never been just to fix things for my kid with special needs. All kids with special needs deserve better treatment than the American school system and medical establishment currently offer. I feel compelled to do something big about this. I'm just not sure yet what.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Pinch of Love

Suppose, hypothetically, that you are visiting your husband's ailing grandmother in the hospital.

Suppose she is in her 90s, frail, and in recovery from a recent heart attack. Suppose she has just been diagnosed, in the hospital, with an advanced form of cancer.

Suppose this lovely, kind-hearted elderly lady -- who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, raised several children, grew her own vegetables, washed cloth diapers by hand, sewed her own babies' clothes, and continued to support a large family after being widowed much too soon -- who yet, now lies helpless and tethered under harsh lights in a hard and unfamiliar bed in a room with no windows -- tells you a story, while you are visiting her, about the near-magical powers of spiritual transportation possessed by her mother's legendary Christmas mincemeat pie, the mystic recipe for which has been tragically lost to time.

What can a granddaughter-in-law, universally known in her spouse's family for reliably producing cheesecakes, brownies, and holiday pies of several flavors do, under such a circumstance, but promise to return to the hospital with a home-baked mincemeat pie?

Even if said granddaughter-in-law has never before, in fact, cooked, or even tasted, mincemeat pie?

Indeed, it seemed such a logical and obvious notion that I hardly knew the words were leaving my mouth before I heard them hanging in the air: "Oh Grandma, I'll bring you a mincemeat pie! I'll make one."

I didn't really feel the pressure of this promise until later that night, when I got home.

A mincemeat pie?

A mincemeat pie?

What, exactly, goes in a mincemeat pie?

Specifically, what goes in to a mincemeat pie so powerfully good that the mere memory of its taste could transport an ailing woman 80 years back in time to a the heavenly aroma of a warm Christmas Eve kitchen?

I did what any Millennial housewife would do under such a circumstance; I consulted Google.

Do you know that there are approximately eleventy frillion different varieties of mincemeat pie?

Well, now you do.

There is mincemeat pie with meat.

There is mincemeat pie without meat.

There is mincemeat pie without meat, but with beef fat.

There is mincemeat pie with nuts. There is mincemeat pie without nuts. There are mincemeat pies made primarily of apples, and mincemeat pies made mostly of pears; there is mincemeat made with brandy or mincemeat with sherry or mincemeat with bourbon whisky. And there are mincemeat pies that are alcohol-free.

Trying to find some signpost that might point me in the direction of the One True Pie, I studied up on regional variations of mincemeat. On the history of mincemeat. The more I read, the more I realized I was chasing a culinary unicorn.

Mincemeat, you see, was essentially a fancy way for the medieval British lady (who was then, after all, still the Hlaf Dy -- the Giver of Loaves) to say, "It's the middle of winter. We're almost out of everything useful. And you're asking me for a holiday pie? Tell you what. Let's take what ever scraps we've got left in the larger, chop them up, douse it all in sugar, spices and enough alcohol to sterilize rot." It was the original Mom's Famous Leftover Casserole.


I was going to have to gamble on a random internet recipe, or make it up as I went.

When backed into a corner, do true baking heroes follow, or lead?

I decided to make it up as I went.

The only thing I knew for certain going in was that Grandma preferred nuts to meat, and sure as hell would not want me to omit the alcohol.

I went to the store to shop for ingredients. My husband, ever a hunter-style shopper (plan it grab it and go before you have time to realize you are shopping) , followed me, perplexed and annoyed, as I pulled things off shelves and put them back, squeezed and prodded and smelled fruits and nuts and spices, and considered bottles of bourbon with a critical air. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Can I get something? What's on your list?"

"I don't have a list," I said. "I'm making it up as I go depending on what strikes my fancy, and on what else is here in the store. I'm shopping. For the best stuff. Like a cook does. Don't you ever watch Food Network?"

He was not amused. He paced in a way I have seen fictitious fathers-to-be pace on television outside a hospital delivery room. My husband knew this business of Making The Pie for his grandmother was not to be trifled with, and yet, being, as he is, an utter novice to the mysteries of baking, he could do little but watch anxiously, second-guess me, and annoy me with questions.

I can't tell you exactly what I put in the pie.

Not because it's a secret, but because I really don't know. I didn't measure a damn thing. A pinch of this. A splash of that.

I used a base of prunes, raisins, and a shredded fresh Granny Smith apple my son hand-picked off a tree. I added orange and lemon zest I candied at home. I added nutmeg and cinnamon and cardamom and allspice in nebulous quantities. I soaked these things in a liquid mixture of bourbon, Triple Sec, apple cider and lemon juice for over a day. I poured it all over chopped pecans and wrapped it in a butter-based crust out of a 1950s cookbook. I guessed on the oven temperature and the baking time.

I was half-convinced the pie would overflow, or scorch, or melt, or catch on fire and cause my stove to explode.

But it came out looking like this:

Which is pretty much how a mincemeat pie is supposed to look.

When I bought it to my husband's grandmother to taste, resigned to the fact that, whatever it was, it almost certainly wasn't her mother's pie, she took one bite, and said, "Ah, I see you found the secret ingredient!"

"Copious quantities of bourbon?" I asked?

"No," she said. "A pinch of love.

"It's what my mother always put in her pies. It's what she always put into everything she cooked. That's what she taught me to do with my own cooking. That's what I missed. The food here, it's all right. But no one puts any love into any of it. I can tell you put love into the food you make, though. Who cares if your pie tastes like hers? "

Of course you've heard this cliche of a cooking proverb before -- this adding a pinch of love.

I'd heard it before, too.

But I've never heard someone mean it so much. She looked me in the eye as she said it, with the intensity of a sage trying to impart some sort of sacred knowledge to an untutored acolyte. And as she said it, a flood of taste memories returned to me. The impeccable fresh peach ice cream served shyly to me by a silent girl on a Mennonite farm during a feast made as thanks to a midwife. The wine-soaked, melt-in-your-mouth poached pears I made on a whim in a rusty old oven with my best friend in the world. The wedding cake I baked myself, because we had no money to buy one, that managed somehow to come out soft as velvet despite my mixer having broken. The soup my grandmother taught me to make with fresh vegetables out of her garden on the day I first saw beans on a vine. My great-grandmother's apricot preserves that seemed like captured sunlight in a jar. The first tomato of the season plucked off the vine I raised from seed. One thing tied them together: an ingredient that is never in the recipe.

Cliche or not, I have tasted that pinch of love. But I've tasted it less and less often as I've grown older. The bustle of life has, more and more, habituated me to the life of a hurried, distracted cook and a hurried, distracted eater. Once I used to savor an hour spent over the stove, creating some alchemical reaction in my pot; now more often than not, I pop in and out of the kitchen, watching the clock impatiently. Someone or something else always wants my attention. To grant full mental focus to the food I'm creating seems like an indulgence I no longer have time for. After all, I'm a busy woman. I'm somebody's mother!

Which is all the more reason why I need to remember more often to add that pinch of love.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Open Letter to Every Teacher of a Child with a Sensory Disorder

Trust me, I really, truly do want my kid to learn to follow the rules we adults set for children in school about sitting still, sitting up straight, being quiet, paying attention, waiting in line, waiting one's turn, following directions in order, focusing on the task at hand, putting things away in their proper place, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, before I became a parent to this particular child, I had very firm notions about how, through the application of strict (but not too strict), rational (but not too rigid), consistent, enlightened, loving discipline at home, I would produce a superior school citizen, who unfailingly said please and thank you, shared playdough equanimously, lettered his own name neatly in crayon at the top of each paper, bussed his own tray at lunchtime, and could pronounce words like equanimously on the first try.

Well, at least I succeeded with that last one.

You see, I am a good parent, with good intentions. I do believe in discipline and in hard work and respect. I understand that most, at least, of your classroom rules exist for a reason. And I sure would like for my child to be able to follow them.

My kid is smart. Really smart. Gifted-smart. He's playful. He's funny. He's kind to other people. He sure does look like a typical child. And heaven knows, I have prayed since the moment I first noticed there was something amiss in reactions to the world that he would just act like what he looks like. A normal kid.

But since his diagnosis, I've had to learn to accept that sometimes he literally can't.

It's not his fault his brain doesn't work in an ordinary way. It's not his fault that when he hears a vacuum cleaner start up in a distant hallway, his nervous system triggers the same alert response that a fire engine siren would cause in another child, and he suddenly can no longer concentrate on his writing lesson. It's not his fault that in a bustling room full of chattering children, he can't always filter signal from noise enough to hear your directions, and sometimes fails to follow them.

It's not his fault that when faulty messages from his vestibular sense leave him with a poor understanding of where his body is in space, he has difficulty figuring out how to hold a pair of scissors properly, or where to direct his crayon on the paper. It's not his fault that his nervous system gets confused and tells him he's off balance when he's climbing a ladder, causing him to freeze halfway up to the slide.

It's not his fault that after running around on the playground or in gym class, trying to keep up with children whose motor planning skills are literally years ahead of his, his compromised senses are so confused that he feels compelled to spin around or shake his head before he can sit still. It's not his fault that he fidgets when he does sit, because he can feel the rivets in the back of his school chair the entire time he is sitting.

It's not his fault that he can't eat well or quickly in a crowded lunchroom where he can't not hear every single conversation happening around him, and can't not smell every last ingredient in everyone else's food.

I know that people can't see, on the surface, just what is different about him when they first meet him. Not in the way you would see a difference of ability in a child who was wearing a hearing aid or sitting in a wheelchair. But that doesn't mean the difference isn't there.

And when you, as a teacher, fail to acknowledge that difference, you are failing him.

And the last thing I want is for a brilliant child to feel like there's no point in trying at school because, in your eyes, he can't do any of the little things right.

It's not that I want him to get some sort of extra-special consideration. I just want him to get the same consideration any child with a professionally diagnosed medical problem would get.

I put my child in a mainstream school despite the fact that I knew he would have difficulties in a typical classroom — despite the fact that I had been told by competent medical professionals that he would have difficulties in a typical classroom — precisely because I DON'T want to coddle him. Because I know that the world won't coddle him.

I want him to understand that if something is harder for him than it is for everyone else, that means he'll just have to try harder. He's a smart kid — really smart, gifted-smart — and I know he can do really well in school, eventually, if we all try.

But that's just it — we all have to try. He has to and I have to and you have to try, too. You have to try to see that he is trying. That he wants to learn. That he loves learning. That he wants to behave. That he wants to show respect. That he wants to get along well with you, and with the other children in his class.

That he knows he is different. That he wants, more than anything else in the world, to be able to act like a typical child. And the effort he expends, every day, to do just that — to do it for himself, for me, for you — is exhausting him.

I know your job is hard. But so is his.

Cut him some slack.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


In August, I lost my voice.

I don't mean figuratively. I mean literally.

I caught a bad respiratory infection. (The Swine Flu? The Bird Flu? A cold? Who knows.) And then a secondary bacterial infection. Bronchitis. Laryngitis. I developed a fiery sore throat and a hacking cough. My voice grew gravelly, and then it went whispery, and then it started cutting out altogether, without warning, mid-word, and I could no longer make myself understood.

That same week, the week I lost my voice, my son started kindergarten.

There were things, many things, I wanted to tell his teacher. About his sensory disorder. About his difficulty properly holding a crayon, about his inability to sit still for long periods of time, about his inability to concentrate in the presence of certain types of noise. About his facility with language, about his ability to multiply single digit numbers and read chapter books. About his sensitivity — about the time he cried because a girl didn't want to take a card he had made for her. About the fact that he not only knows the names of all the eight planets (and poor demoted dwarf Pluto) but also is capable of explaining that a black hole warps time itself with extreme gravity — that once caught in the trap of a black hole, nothing, not even light, can escape.

I wanted to tell her these things, but I couldn't tell her all of these things, because I had no voice. On Meet the Teacher Night, hopped up on medication, I rasped vaguely and asked whether she had had a chance yet to look over his preschool records.

On the second morning of school he cried and asked not to go. He cried and begged for me not to take him to class on the third and the fourth and the fifth day of school. And the sixth. And the seventh. And the eighth. And on the ninth and tenth days of school the boy who used to hop happily onto the bus for preschool without so much as a wave goodbye refused to eat his breakfast and cried so hard he almost vomited.

And still I could barely speak. I could barely eat. I was prescribed a second round of antibiotics. A chest X-ray.

I left barely audible messages on my son's teacher's voice mail, and received formulaic responses.

During the second week of school, my son did not want to eat dinner, or take baths, or go to sleep. One night, as I sat beside him in a dark room, he asked me to estimate the likelihood of the Earth and everyone on it being swallowed up by a black hole before dawn.

And so when my voice came back, it could only say one thing. And that thing was, help him. Help him. Help him.

It's practically all I've been able to say for almost two months now.

I am not being well listened to.

I'm about to get louder.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Conversations with a Five-Year-Old: Life, the Universe, and Everything

"Why are we here?" he asks from the back seat of the car.

Because this is the road we need to be on to get where we need to go, we say. We are going to the ice cream store, like you asked us to, and this is the road that leads to it.

"No, no no no, no no NO," he says. "Not why are we here, on the road. This has nothing to do with ice cream. Why are we living? Why are we here?" And then before we can even begin to think of an answer, he adds, confidently, "That's a hard question."

It is, we say. Philosophers, we say — philosophers, those are people who study hard questions — and scientists, and writers, and all sorts of people have thought and thought and thought about that question and not found an answer.

Then I think for a minute and I ask him, "Why do you think we are here?"

"Maybe we are here to help animals," he muses. "But then, what are the animals here for?"

"Maybe we are here to help each other," his father and I say, at the same time.

"Maybe," I add, "We're here just to learn as much as we can about the universe."

"I'll go with that one," the child says. "Or maybe the other. Or maybe a different one. Hmm."

As we drive down the road to the ice cream store in silence, I think: I used to wonder, too. But now I think I know. I'm here because this is the road I need to travel on to get where I need to go. I'm here because of you, child. Because of your father, too. I'm here because of you.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Still Recovering from BlogHer

I came home from BlogHer to a garden overflowing with green beans and wax beans and Juliet tomatoes and watermelon vines overgrowing into my garden fence in a way I'd decidedly discouraged them from doing just before I left town. (But you know, I was gone, and their Dad was watching them, and so I guess they thought they could get away with anything.)

I came home to an inbox overflowing with email from people I'd met and people I'd re-met and old friends I'd made plans with.

I came home to a husband who was just finally, thankfully getting over a terrible respiratory virus (that the doctor insists is Not Swine Flu) when I left and overdid it playing SuperDad while I was gone by taking the kid to the pool and the mall and a birthday party and is now coughing rather pitifully again.

I came home to a kid who DIDN'T MISS ME and ISN'T WORRIED ABOUT STARTING KINDERGARTEN IN TWO WEEKS and REALLY, REALLY ISN'T TERRIFIED OR IN ANY WAY SENSORY OVERLOADED RIGHT NOW BY SWIM CLASS and is showing all this lack of worry or concern about anything by attaching himself firmly to my hip and glaring at me whenever I get near a computer.


I have some serious thoughts on BlogHer, and some interesting stories to tell. But I've been busy the past few days picking up the pieces of my trip. I hope to have time to write much more here tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Girl Trouble, Part Two

He was reading, silently. As he read, it seemed, he came across the word "bell." I heard him whisper.

"Bell. Like Bella. Bella. That's what Isabella likes to be called."

"Did you say something? Are you talking to me?" I said, pretending I hadn't heard him, in case he hadn't meant me to.

"Oh, I just said something about-- about--"

Then he leaned toward me, and whispered in my ear, "About Isabella."

"Isabella?" I said. "You mean your friend Isabella, who you met in summer school? The one who likes to sit next to you on the bus? The one who taught you how to do a jump shot with a basketball?"

"Yes," he whispered.

"But why are you whispering about her?"

"Because Grant said girls are bad."

"What? A boy in your class said girls are bad?"

He nodded.

"Why did he say that?" I asked.

"I don't know. He just did. He said girls are bad, and no fun to play with. He said they're boring, and they can't play sports. And he said boys couldn't be friends with girls."

"But you don't think that, do you?"


"You have lots of friends who are girls, right?"


"And I'm a girl. You don't think I'm bad, do you?"

"Oh, Mommy. Of course you're not bad."

"Well, that kid doesn't know what he's talking about. It's okay to be friends with girls," I said. "Don't let anyone stop you from being friends with a girl if she's nice to you and you like playing with her. Girls aren't bad. Girls are just as good as boys are."

But I wondered, how many times will I have to say it to him?

And I wondered, even if I convince him he is right to treat women and girls with respect, how will all the other boys who have been taught otherwise treat him if he acts the way I teach him to?

And I wondered, with so many voices fighting for his attention, will mine, one day, be drowned out?

Friday, July 17, 2009


As a crowd flowed from the surrounding neighborhood, past the bright red municipal fire truck specially buffed and polished for the occasion, into a park already filling with picnic blankets and lawn chairs and children waving glow-sticks and flags, two families who had never met before spotted each other across the crowd, and began moving toward one another subtly, inexorably, through the sea of people. One family party was composed of a mother, a father, and a five-year-old child; the other, two parents and twins aged two or three.

Sharing only the briefest of glances, the two groups moved without any overt appearance of intention until both families settled, side by side, in a little grassy hollow to just the side of the main crowd, an island to themselves.

The newly formed circle remained silent while unpacking their camp chairs and blankets and snacks. Then, once everyone was seated, the father of the twins said, joking, "Boys, that's not your brother over there." The parents of the older child laughed.

All three of the children had ivory skin and brilliant, copper-colored hair.

And as the stranger families sat together, isolated, together, as they were, in anticipation of the fireworks, no one asked the blond and brown-haired parents of these redheaded children "Where on Earth did that red hair come from?"

No one half-jokingly accused the children's mothers of dallying with a milkman (and really, who has a milkman to dally with these days?) .

No one gushed loudly and incessantly about taking the children's hair color and bottling it. No one insisted upon rubbing the head of a child they had never met for good luck. No one threatened to play connect-the-dots with freckles.

No one called the boys fairy changeling children, or brought up elves, or attempted a bad Irish joke. No one confused the boys by winkingly insisting they must have been left out in the rain to rust.

No one made a crack, in front of the children, about the parents being guilty of kidnapping.

No one asked, in front of the children, quite seriously, whether they had been adopted.

No strained, compressed explanations of the rules of basic Mendelian genetics or vague references to Scottish great aunts or lamely delivered jokey replies or cold stares were necessary.

No, indeed -- after that first remark acknowledging the reason for their sudden compainionship, the two families sat in amiable silence, quietly admiring their children's similarity.

Two families who had never met sat together on the Fourth of July, applying the old adage of safety in numbers, and gained two hours of rare, blessed silence from strangers about their children's red hair.

It was nice.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Conversations with a Husband: BlogHer Bacchanal

WIFE: So, I think I might get my tattoo recolored while I'm at the BlogHer conference. Or maybe get a new one. I don't know. I bet lots of people will be getting tattoos there. I heard there's even a tattoo place giving a discount.

HUSBAND: What kind of conference gets you a discount on tattoos?

WIFE: My kind of conference.

HUSBAND: What else will you be doing up there? Who are you driving with again?

WIFE: I'm going with Kelli. And Kelly. In a convertible. We've agreed to wear Thelma and Louise shades and headscarves. Oh, and there's this other blogger who is going with us not for the conference but just for the parties . . .

HUSBAND: There are people going to Chicago just for the parties?

WIFE: Oh, sure.

HUSBAND: . . .

WIFE: I intend to engage in all manner of drunken debauchery. It's really too bad you can't come along. Maybe I should bring you next year.

HUSBAND: . . .

WIFE: You'd have fun! You'd be surrounded by hordes of hot geeky chicks with laptops.

HUSBAND: Are you sure that would be . . . safe?

WIFE: Are you afraid we'll go into a frenzy and tear you limb from limb as a sacrifice to Dionysus?


WIFE: You'd still have fun.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Girl Trouble

When Isaac came home today from his fourth day of a summer kindergarten prep program provided by his school, he looked tired and reserved. Given the long ride he'd just had on a crowded school bus without air conditioning on a day with a heat index of 105, I figured he was just overheated. So I brought him inside and let him rest on the couch while I got him a drink of water.

Then I opened his backpack to find a note stapled shut, my last name written on it in careful schoolteacher script. My son's very first Handwritten Note Home from the Teacher. Uh oh. What had he done?

I pulled out the staple and opened it up. It read:

Mrs. J,

I just wanted to let you know Isaac had a bit of a sad day at school today. After some comforting and a drink of water he seemed to be OK. Have a great weekend!

-Mrs. H.

Well, that was a kind note.

And vexatiously cryptic.

Had he been overcome by a sudden bout of homesickness? That seemed unlikely. He'd never been seriously homesick during preschool. In fact he'd been rather upset when his preschool term ended that he would not get to see his friends on a thrice-weekly basis anymore, and then thrilled to discover that his best friend from preschool would in fact be in his class in the summer program.

Had he experienced a sensory-disorder-related meltdown? Had he been suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of fingerpaint and unable to wash his hands? Had there been a loud sound, like a floor buffer or a vacuum, echoing in the hallway? He's gotten so much better lately at coping with such things. I hoped it wasn't that.

Had another child teased him? Hit him? Taken a toy from him? Had he somehow bothered or hurt another child? I didn't think it could be that last one. I figured he must not have broken any rules in the midst of whatever event had triggered the note, or the teacher would have outlined a specific infraction.

So I asked him. I said, "Your teacher sent me a note today saying that you were sad. Could you tell me what happened?"

"But I wasn't on red!" he protested. "I wasn't even on yellow! I was green."

"Do you mean there is a chart at school where kids who get in trouble get a yellow card or a red card?"

"Yes," he said. "If you get a red card you get a note home."

"I don't think you were in trouble," I said. "I think your teacher just sent this note home because she wanted to be nice and let me know you'd had a hard day."

"Oh," he sighed in relief.

"So what happened to make you sad today?"

"I'm too tired to tell you."

"Oh," I said. "Let me get you some more water. Maybe you can tell me later."

In a few minutes I asked him again, "What happened today to make you sad? Do you feel like talking about it?"

"It happened at the writing center," he said. "I cried and they gave me water."

Oh, so that's it, I thought. Isaac's motor skills delay, a product of his sensory disorder, makes writing hard for him. He can read at the third grade level, and yet he struggles to write his own name. This was starting to make sense to me.

"Why did you cry? Did the teacher ask you to write something that was hard for you to write?"

"No," he scoffed, as though that were a ridiculous question. "It was free writing time. I could write whatever I wanted to." He doesn't like to admit he has trouble writing. Was he holding out on me?

"So what happened, then?" I said. "Did another kid take your crayon?"

"We were using pencils." He folded his arms and looked away.

"Did you punch through your paper by accident?"


"Did you get frustrated trying to write what you wanted to?"

"No. I don't remember," he said. "I'm too tired to remember what happened."

"Was there an earthquake at the school that caused you to drop your paper?"

That disarmed him. He relaxed his defensive pose and started giggling. "We haven't even had an earthquake drill yet, Mommy. Only fire drills. And I know all about those."

"So, what happened. Did a kid say something mean to you?"


He paused. Then he said, "She wouldn't take it."

"Who wouldn't take what?"

"The girl. I made a card for her. It was a thank you card, but she wouldn't take it. She thought it was a Valentine. She said it wasn't Valentine's Day." He turned his face toward mine and his wide, chocolate-brown eyes brimmed with tears. "I made it for her, and she didn't want it."

"Ohhhhhhh." I said. "So, you like this girl? And you wanted to do something nice for her? And then she said no?"

"Yes," he said, despondent. His lip quivered. He was trying not to cry.

"Oh, sweetheart," I said, throwing my arms around him. "I think that would have made me cry, too."

I don't think I'm ready for this.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mother Mythology

My mother was a feminist activist. She was a liberated, liberal professor with a master's degree who taught Women's Studies courses at a local university. She was a card-carrying member of NOW. She dressed me in jean overalls and sensible shoes and allowed me to choose Little Boy Blue as the color of my bedroom and encouraged me to play with toy trucks in the mud and banned Barbies from our home. She took me to an Equal Rights Amendment march on Washington when I was eight years old.

My mother was an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. A troubled high-school dropout from a dysfunctional and abusive home who found escape from her alcoholic father and her Valium-and-electroshock-therapy-dazed mother in a marriage on her seventeenth birthday, and gave birth to me eleven months later, just before she turned eighteen. Who had another baby before she fully figured out that her charming knight in knight in dented armor was a pathological narcissist with an addiction to lies who was only really capable of the sort of love that is not love of another at all but instead a reflection of love for oneself. The sort of person who would give a homeless man the coat off his back in a show of virtue, but would also disappear for a weekend leaving his family with no money and nothing in the pantry but crackers and peanut butter.

My mother was an uneducated, unemployed, homeless divorcee living with two dirty, hungry kids and a new lover in a car.

My mother was neglectful. She was an ambitious working college student who dreamed of becoming a professor and was willing to put her education ahead of time with her kids. She was an essentially single parent who supported two kids on work-study wages, student loans and sometimes welfare (but never child support from their father, because at that time, she got none). She had no time to make real dinners. She forgot to do laundry. She did not throw elaborate birthday parties, or take her children to playgroups, or ballet lessons. She did not teach her children to swim, or even show them how to ride a bike. She did not help with homework; she had her own homework to do. She sometimes left her two young daughters to wander the university library unsupervised during her classes. At times she left her children for extended periods with unhappy, unbalanced relatives, or with their father despite the fact that she knew their father was selfish, inept at parenting, and incapable of keeping a clean, safe home. Sometimes she did this because she had to. Other times she did it because she was tired of us and wanted a break.

My mother was amazing. She once spent an entire weekend hand painting paper fish to decorate my little sister's room. Each fish was different. When she finished, walking into the room was like walking into an exotic aquarium. It took a moment to remember you could breathe. My mother once convinced my sister and me that chunks of asphalt she had painted gold were really dragons' eggs, and that if we cared for them enough and waited long enough, one day they would hatch. When she was home and we were home with her, my mother read to my sister and me for at least twenty minutes every night, without fail, no matter how tired she was, or how much work she had to do. She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Narnia series, and Lord of the Rings, and all of the books about the Boxcar Children, and everything she could get her hands on by Roald Dahl. She taught us how to make bread from scratch, and explained how trees made oxygen, and took us to poetry readings. When she was in school and her kids were in school, every once in a while, she would wake up and say, "Let's play hooky." And she would call in sick for everyone and we would spend an entire day at the zoo.

My mother was an advocate. When she moved to a new school district and the school her daughters wound up in turned out to be a crumbling building with screaming, overworked teachers, disintegrating textbooks, roaches in the lunchroom and classrooms so overcrowded the students had to climb over desks to cross a room, and an administration that refused to listen to her demands for reform, she went to every private school in town and demanded an audience with each school's admissions staff. Eventually she decided that the most expensive school in the city should give her children scholarships. So she made the school do it. (I am still not sure how.)

My mother was a Bad Mother.

She was not just a bad mother-- she was a stereotype of a bad mother. The kind of too-young, too-poor, too-selfish, dependent-on-the-state bad mother you hear politicians railing about on the evening news.

My mother was a Good Mother.

And I mean the saintly, archetypal Good Mother. A Holy Mary Mother of God sort of mother. A sacrifice-your-life-for-your-kids-and-don't-think-twice-or-expect-any-glory-or-thanks sort of mother.

My mother was a Bad-Ass Mutha.

A take-no-prisoners, fuck convention, down with the patriarchy, up with my kids, let's conquer the world while wearing sparkly purple face paint and then go out for ice cream sort of mother.

My mother was old-fashioned and before her time and a product of the times and a trendsetter and a trendbucker and trendy and all-out-of-style.

My mother was all of these things and more and which part of her you might encounter depended on what day it was and how much caffeine she'd had and which way the wind was blowing in Argentina.

Because above all else, my mother was a human being. Imperfect and devastatingly, unbelievably perfect, all at once, just like the rest of us.

It's the most obvious thing in the world that mothers are human, that each of our own mothers are human, and were human, were people, with their own lives and emotions and dreams and flaws and strengths before they were mothers. And yet somehow this incontrovertible, in-your-face fact that mothers are ordinary people is not always acknowledged when people in our society talk or think about mothers.

We place impossible expectations on mothers. And when I say we I do not just mean "21st century Western culture" or "North Americans" or "the media." In we I include myself, and I include you, and I include your hairdresser and the President of the United States (whose mother, incidentally, seems to have been a hell of a lot like mine) and street children in Africa and Angelina Jolie and the Pope. When I say we I mean all those who have had a mother, which is to say everyone.

I know that some thoughtful, intelligent people, some who are mothers themselves in fact, disagree with me. I know that some say they do not feel intense pressure put upon them by the people around them, or our culture itself, to be superhuman and meet impossible goals. When I first encountered this opinion I must admit I was partly convinced that people who hold this opinion must live in an alternate universe and must in fact be communicating with me through some warp in the time-space continuum (which really was a rather exciting scenario to contemplate). But I think that what people who say they feel no pressure to be perfect mothers actually mean is just that -- that they feel no pressure, not that it does not exist. I believe that on some level, they are aware that it exists but, consciously or unconsciously, they mostly ignore it.

Our own culture's particular history of holding mothers to impossible standards is well-documented. It has been downright fashionable in academic and medical circles for centuries to blame mothers when children develop social issues or mental problems or mysterious medical ailments that cannot otherwise be easily explained.

Autism was thought until just a few decades ago to be caused by "refrigerator mothers" who were too distant and cold; anorexia, to be the result of a mother who hovered too much.

Freud contended that if a mother nursed a child too often on demand, the child would become gullible and needy, but if a child was nursed too infrequently, he or she would turn into a bitter, sarcastic pessimist. And forget about bottle feeding. (As far as I know, the man never did provide a clear guideline for just precisely how many times a day a mother ought to nurse her baby to prevent it from growing into a totally neurotic wreck. But then again, he never nursed a baby himself, so how the hell would he know?)

Now we've relegated the term "refrigerator mother" to the linguistic dustbin and admitted that Freud's theories were perhaps somewhat negatively affected by his unhealthy obsession with his own mother and his habit of snorting coke.

But, if you read this century's news, you'll soon find that mothers who co-sleep are KILLING THEIR BABIES WITH SIDS, and mothers who don't co-sleep are CAUSING ATTACHMENT DISORDERS. Mothers who feed their child peanuts too early are causing peanut allergies and mothers who feed their children peanuts too late are also causing peanut allergies. And mothers who keep their houses too clean are causing seasonal allergies but mothers whose houses are dirty are subjecting their children to MRSA.

Mothers who work all day are causing their children to be more aggressive in school. Mothers who stay home are putting their kids at a disadvantage in math class and betraying their daughters and/or ruining sons that someone else's daughter will marry, by setting back the women's movement.

Mothers who breastfeed in public are either doing a beautiful, natural, environmentally friendly thing and bolstering their infant's IQ and immune system, or they are perverted exhibitionists who exploit their children and should be banned from restaurants and run out of grocery stores and kicked off of airplanes.

I myself was blamed by no fewer than five doctors for my own son's failure to thrive before he finally got a medical diagnosis. Of course, these doctors couldn't agree on precisely how I had caused it. I had caused it by nursing him too often (Ah, paging Dr. Freud!) or by feeding him solid foods too early (when he was six months old) or by helping him too much when he ate or by not helping him enough when he ate or by being too nervous around him when he ate or by letting him manipulate me. I was an overprotective mother or an underprotective mother or a clingy mother or a "refrigerator mother," by another name. (Until of course they discovered the actual medical problem. Then I was just unfortunate.)

The lyrics may have changed, but it's the same old tune.

Why do so many of us continue to sing along?

Any mother, every mother, is sometimes bad at mothering and sometimes good at mothering and most of the time something in between, and every mother makes mistakes and every mother feels uncertainty and every mother has moments of selfishness. And yet, somehow, by the grace of God or fate or the universe, humanity has survived. And in fact, not only has humanity survived, but most people raised by human, imperfect mothers are perfectly sane.

But a strong taboo lingers against mothers in our society actually, publicly admitting that not only do they fail, daily, at achieving the impossible, conflicted ideal of perfect motherhood, but they have no wish to meet that ideal. That in fact, they would prefer very much for that ideal to fuck off.

I see that taboo right now rearing its ugly head in a sudden moral panic about good mothers who are calling themselves Bad.

Brave women who have previously challenged the ideal of the Good Mother have been smacked down before. When scientist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy contended that the "maternal instinct" in primates could occasionally be overridden by a mother's desire to tend to her own needs, negative reaction to her affront to the ideal of motherhood was so strong that one of her male colleagues apparently thought he was actually being clever when he quipped, "My own view is that Sarah ought to devote more time and study and thought to raising a healthy daughter. That way misery won't keep traveling down the generations."

When bored, lonely, exhausted mothers began taking to the internet in droves and writing publicly about how motherhood made them exhausted and lonely and bored, the backlash was swift and intense. These women were exploiting their children for money and fame! They were putting photos of their kids on the internet, where any evil person might see those innocent cherubic faces and THINK BAD THINGS. (Never mind that, given the ubiquity of cameras in this day and age, that sort of logic can only lead to keeping children permanently locked in the house.)

And, perhaps worst of all, all these women who were writing about the dull side, about the drudgery of motherhood-- all these women openly discussing low-class, scataloglical, Women's Work, were presumptuously assuming that someone might actually want to read about such things. Which, obviously, no one would.

Except it turned out that a large number of people -- even in fact some of those people who are not themselves mothers -- did want to read about those things.

And suddenly visions of dollar signs spread like a tranquilizer and quelled the indignant roar.

But now Ayelet Waldman (yes, that woman, the one who issued that disturbing declaration that she loved her husband more than her children in The New York Times) has gone and published a book with the words "Bad Mother" right there on the cover. With the word "Good" crossed out, in fact. A book, not a blog? Written by a "real" author?

Now Certain People suddenly seem to be afraid that if mothers who are really rather decent parents despite the fact that they allow their children to eat Cheetos and watch More Than the Recommended Amount of TV go around calling themselves "Bad Mothers" in brazen defiance of the Good Mother ideal, then mothers who allow their children to play in meth labs will suddenly, somehow, be entitled to a free pass.

Though plenty of reasonable people have recently signed on to this argument, I fail to find the argument to be anything resembling reasonable.

If a writer published a book called "Bad Wife," in which she detailed her refusal to cook dinner, ever, for her husband, outlined her tendency to micromanage home improvement projects, and admitted that she forsakes sex in favor of blogging at least twice a week, would a rash of articles and op-eds appear warning that such a dangerous book might legitimize Bad Wivery, thereby causing a trend of Increasingly Irreponsible Wives, and ruining scores of marriages?

Sure there would!

If this were the year 1933.

Others argue that the good mothers who embrace the Bad Mother label only legitimize the criticism of those who are overly judgmental of mothers.

But the good mothers who call themselves Bad Mothers in unabashed tones are not capitulating to the ideal. They are flouting it. They are defying it. They are looking it full in the face and telling it that they do not care to be judged by it.

They will change it.

My mother was a feminist activist. My mother started motherhood as an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. My mother was neglectful. My mother is amazing. My mother is an advocate. My mother is a sinner and a saint.

And if there had been blogs when I was a child, my mother would have had one.

And I'm pretty sure, if I asked her why she was blogging instead of cooking dinner, that she would have told me that Bad Mothers with blogs were saving the world.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Loving Because

Good mothers love despite.

From the first day we hold our children in our arms, we love them despite.

We love them despite their waking us in the night, again and again, until we are ill and crazed with sleeplessness.

We love them despite their crying for no obvious reason.

We love them despite their tendency to piss in our clothes and vomit in our hair.

We love them despite their lack of understanding of so many things that make the world work, like rules and laws and social conventions and polite replies and locks on doors and traffic lights and sidewalks.

We love them despite their all-too canny understanding of how to annoy and provoke us.

We love them despite their biting us, or hitting us with tiny fists. We love them despite tantrums. We love them despite broken picture frames, and broken dishes, and toys flung across a room. We love them despite their anger.

We love them despite their taking of our time and our attention. We love them despite their desire to have what they want right now. We love them despite their constant, constant need of us that brooks no respite and very little compromise. We love them despite their selfishness.

We love them despite.

This is the Mother Love, the instinctive love, the love that has the power to turn ordinary women into saints in the face of adversity and tigers in the face of danger. This is the love that halts a hand about to slap and mutes a voice about to scream more times than anyone who has not felt it could know.

It is not infallible. But it is incredibly powerful. It strengthens us. It shakes our sense of self, violently, and flips our concentration outward, giving us a sudden vision of the world as a place peopled by people who once were children like our own.

There is no other feeling quite like this feeling of loving our children despite.

But oh, to love them because is so much sweeter.

When my son was less than two years old, he once pushed his tiny way between two much larger children who were fighting viciously over a toy, and firmly held them apart, saying "Stop! Share!"

When he was two and a half, he once tried to put the falling autumn leaves back on the trees, scared that the trees might be sick.

He reaches out patiently, gently to touch animals, never pulling fur or tails, never chasing them just to chase something. Even cranky cats who hate children like him.

He thinks worms and spiders are cute.

He likes books.

He says hello and smiles to people we don't know in stores and restaurants, or on the street.

He'll play the piano for hours at a time, just trying out the sounds of different notes, making up songs. Sometimes I have to remind him to stop and eat. He's not a virtuoso. He can barely read music. He just likes to play. Sometimes his play songs sound like real songs these days, though.

He wants to know everything. Like where people came from. And where the Earth came from. And where the Sun came from and where the stars came from and where the universe came from. And what an electron is. And how nuclear fusion works.

I'd love this boy no matter whose child he was.

I always have loved, and I always will love my child despite. But as the years go by, I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to find I love him more and more because.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kids at Play

There has apparently been some controversy lately in a local suburb, a suburb right next to mine, in fact, over kids playing basketball in the street.

People complain that the sound of the ball hitting the street again and again is too noisy. They say the hoops are an eyesore, and degrade property values.

I can certainly empathize with the people who find the presence of kids playing outside to be annoying.

The neighborhood kids play soccer in my yard. It's a really good yard for soccer — no trees in the middle, great turf thanks to the zoysia.

I work from home every day, and the kids are noisy, especially in the summertime when they're out of school. Sometimes their laughter carries right through a closed window.

I'm an avid gardener, and I care about my property. And the kids broke one of my little solar lights once, and once they knocked over a potted plant and broke the pot and killed the plant.

So I bought a little garden fence to protect my lights, and my plants, from errant balls.

And I let the neighborhood kids keep playing soccer in my yard.

Sometimes, when their laughter distracts me from my work, I go outside and bring them lemonade.

From time to time, I kick the ball around myself.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Two weekends ago, my husband had a birthday. When he complained only half-jokingly about getting older, I said to him, "What? You're not a year older today. You're only a day older than you were yesterday."

I made a mental note to remind myself of this brilliant device in six short months when I earn the same number of birthday candles as my husband.

Last weekend my son turned five years old.

When he awoke on the morning of his birthday, he asked me, puzzled, "Why am I not bigger? I thought turning five meant I would be bigger." He stretched his arms wide, until his wrists poked out of his fleece pajamas, and he studied the length of his limbs. "I don't look any bigger."

"Having a birthday doesn't mean you're bigger exactly -- it means you're older," I said. "Turning five today just means it has been five years today since the day you were born. That doesn't mean you're any bigger than you were yesterday."

"Oh," he said, looking a little disappointed.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Every Day: My Story, Part II

This is part of the Mother's Day blog event to support Mother's Day Every Day, CARE, and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. See my previous post for Part I of my story.

There was no room at the hospital.

That is to say, at the hospital where I had signed up to have my baby, which was the only hospital anywhere near my home where the team of doctors I'd been going to throughout my pregnancy for prenatal care delivered, all of the labor and delivery rooms were full. All of the overflow rooms were full. As I struggled to fill out insurance paperwork (Thinking, more paperwork? I thought I'd preregistered so I would not have to fill out all of this paperwork while ACTUALLY IN LABOR) while breathing through contractions in a wheelchair, a hospital attendant cheerfully informed me that the softly lighted, softly-furnished, hotel-like private maternity ward rooms I'd seen on the hospital tour were not available, and that I would in fact be sent to a curtained-off corner of the decidedly NOT private pre-term labor evaluation room.

"We're just having so many Mother's Day babies," she beamed. "Now, please try to stay quiet during those contractions. We wouldn't want to scare any of the pre-term women who are in for evaluations!"

I am really, really amazed that this particular person has avoided being murdered by an enraged pregnant woman during her ignorant, condescending service as a maternity ward attendee. If I weren't such a peaceful, nonviolent -- all right, if I hadn't been in the middle of a stop-your-breath contraction at that very moment -- I might have ended her incredible streak of luck.

Later, in the pre-term delivery room, as I struggled to get comfortable on a barely-padded gurney, a nurse adjusted the baby monitor straps around my belly, and said, "Woah. Your contractions are really intense. Off the chart. They must hurt a lot. I'll tell the attending to call anaesthesia up soon so you can get your epidural."

"I'm not doing an epidural," I said, through clenched teeth. "I'm doing no-drugs, assuming everything goes well. It's in my birth plan. The one I submitted with my pre-registration. My doctor knows all about it."

"Oh. You are, are you?" She gave me a skeptical look. "Hmph. I wouldn't do it without drugs, myself. But you can always reconsider, dear." She patted my arm in a motherly way.

I was used to this attitude by now. Throughout my pregnancy, few doctors or nurses had taken me or my birth plans very seriously. I was 23, and apparently in this day and age of educated women waiting until 30 or 35 to have children, pregnancy at 23 is considered practically the equivalent of pregnancy at 17. If I'd had a nickel for every time someone had told me, "But you're so young!" I would have been able to pay for a doula to argue my birth plan for me.

"Well," the nurse continued,"Your regular doctor isn't coming today. She's not on call this weekend. You know, it's a holiday. Let's see . . . if we can get a hold of him, it will be . . . Dr. Z from your practice. But he's delivering at a hospital across town. We might have to get a resident."

Dr. Z was the one doctor of four who I had managed not to meet once during my entire pregnancy. I had been assured by my OB that one of the doctors I had met and discussed my delivery plans with would attend my birth. And now it turned out that even he might not even make it.

Just then, the resident assigned to attend me until "my" doctor who I had never met did or did not come, ducked her head into the curtain and barked, "Turn onto your left side and stay there. Don't get out of the bed."

"Um, why?" I asked. "The contractions hurt more when I'm on my side. I can handle them much more easily if I sit up a bit, like this."

"That baby monitor is old and it doesn't get a good reading unless you lay on your side."

"But, there's nothing wrong with the baby, right?" I said. "I mean, I haven't had any complications besides some pre-term labor symptoms, and the nurses say the baby's heartbeat is fine. Do I need to be on the monitor all the time?"

"Lay on your side!" the resident repeated. "If it hurts, we can get you some drugs." And she stalked out.

Great. This resident, who incidentally, didn't look much older than I was, and who had somehow managed to acquire the attitiude of some mid-twentieth century strap-em-to-the-bed-and-cut-that-baby-out stereotype straight out of a '70s Lamaze handbook despite being both young and female, MIGHT BE DELIVERING MY BABY.

"I do NOT want this person delivering our child," I said to my husband. He nodded and said something vague and supportive that I can't remember. His eyes had been glazed and saucery pretty much since we walked through the hospital door. Great, I thought. There's my advocate.

"You're not going to be one of those dads who passes out are you? You told me you weren't going to be one of those dads who passes out," I said.

"Of course I won't pass out," he said.

Suddenly, I really, really wanted my mother. She had scheduled a flight to arrive just before the baby's due date. But the baby was coming two weeks early.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. None of it was supposed to be this way. I didn't even want to give birth in a hospital -- I'd wanted to give birth in a birthing center, with a midwife. But there weren't any birthing centers in St. Louis. And at the time, midwives were illegal in Missouri. My own mother had broken the law by deliberately giving birth to me and my siblings at home, with an OLD-old-fashioned, still-makes-housecalls sort of doctor and a midwife who had teamed up and abetted her crimes. I might have considered doing the same, but not in our ridiculously cramped one-bedroom apartment in a building with paper-thin walls. Besides, I wanted serious medical support at my disposal if it became a necessity.

So I'd resigned myself to a hospital birth, but not to this -- not to giving birth practically strapped to a hard gurney in what was essentially a curtained-off hallway with condescending nurses shushing me so I wouldn't "scare" the other patients and a rude doctor who kept barking at me not to move (I was, incidentally, even at that moment ignoring her instructions to stay stiff on my side, which I was sure would piss her off, but I did not care).

My mother was supposed to be there. Or failing my mother, at least my sister, who was in town but was not answering her phone. None of my family were answering their phones. My husband's entire family was out at a party for Mother's Day.

"I want my mother," I said to no one in particular.

I knew I sounded now like the pathetic child the nurses thought I was. I didn't care. I was in pain. I was SUPPOSED to be in pain. I was SUPPOSED to be annoyed. I was giving birth, right? Weren't people supposed to be kind and accomodating to women in labor?

Eventually pain and instinct and the rhythm of labor took over my thoughts and pushed aside my fearing and wanting. I would have this baby, hallway or not, rude doctors or not. I would have the baby whether or not my husband ran away or passed out. I would have this baby if I had to walk out into the parking lot and catch him myself. It was ME having the baby, and not them, and everyone else was just there to help me if something went wrong, and if they failed to help me, so help me, I would COMMAND them to help me and they would listen because they would see in my eyes that I was capable of anything.

Eventually I got a fancy hotel-like room and I really barely noticed the room because the room didn't matter now; I was in a prison of my laboring body, but it wasn't a bad prison. I felt like I had the bright light of an interrogator in my face, and yet was laughing.

And then after twelve hours of labor, (or maybe it was really a month and a half) and NO drugs, thank you very little condescending nurse-lady, my son was born, just an hour and a half before the end of Mother's Day. And immediately after the cord was cut, the nurses snatched him up and took him away and I hadn't even seen his face. And I asked the doctor I didn't know (who HAD come, and had been blessedly competent, but practically silent), "Was it a boy? Like the ultrasound said?" and he said "Yes."

And I said, "What's wrong? Why did they take him away?"

And a nurse shouted over, "Nothing's wrong. He has an APGAR score of nine." Another nurse chimed in, "Oh, he's perfect. His face is perfect. Adorable. He has red hair! Red hair!" And suddenly I realized that the damned nurses who had treated me like an infant had now taken my baby who I had not yet even seen and were passing him around and calling in other nurses from the hallway, to show off his red hair. "Can I see this red hair?" I said. They ignored me.

As the doctor sewed up a minor tear, and the nurses cooed over my healthy baby, I pulled my cell phone out of the purse near my bed and called my mother, who finally answered her phone. "Happy Mother's Day," I said. "You have a grandson."

"He just had to make a dramatic entrance, didn't he?" my mother said approvingly. "Coming on Mother's Day. Well, he certainly is your child."

When I hung up the phone, I said, "GIVE ME MY BABY."

When they finally complied, I had to admit that the nurses were right about one thing. He was perfect.

As you can see from my story, I might actually have been more comfortable having my baby trapped in an elevator than in this particular overcrowded hospital. But that's because nothing went wrong during my son's birth. If something had, I would have been grateful for the presence of a doctor. Even the rude resident.

Many other women
are sadly not so lucky as I was. Please visit the Mother's Day Every Day site to learn how you can help women in developing countries get access to prenatal care, skilled midwives or doctors, and a safe, clean place to give birth.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Mother's Day Every Day: My Story, Part I

Over at, we're asking our readers to participate in a blog event for Mother's Day to promote Mother's Day Every Day, a campaign by the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and CARE to raise public awareness about maternal mortality worldwide.

Every minute, somewhere in the world, another woman dies due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. But it doesn't have to be that way. Many of these deaths could be prevented with the most basic medical prenatal care, or with the assistance of a skilled midwife, nurse or doctor during delivery.

To help promote safe motherhood worldwide, MOMocrats is asking readers to share birth or adoption stories that have meaning to them in honor of Mother's Day, and link back to the Mother's Day Every Day site. For more information on this event, please read my post at MOMocrats.

This is part one of my contribution to Mother's Day Every Day. I'll be posting the second half of my birth story tomorrow.

Seven months into my pregnancy with my son, I started having contractions that were strong enough to stop me in my tracks. They would come every couple of hours, every day; at times they would wake me up at night. My doctor dismissed them at first, saying they were "just" Braxton-Hicks contractions -- practice for labor. But they didn't feel like "just" anything. They felt like someone was squeezing my entire midsection with iron bands.

Then one morning, at about seven and a half months, I woke up in the morning with contractions ten minutes apart. By the middle of the day, I was headed to the hospital for a pre-term labor evaluation.

Up until that point, during my entire pregnancy, I has been working more than 50 hours a week at two different jobs. Many mornings I walked to my full-time job, two miles from my house, and then stood or walked for much of the day. I worked for a small business that served customers in-person in a store at the front of the building while simultaneously running an international internet and telephone operation out of the stockroom in the back. As a low-level manager, I was expected to supervise employees, sell merchandise to people inside the store while simultaneously taking shipping orders over the phone, track orders that came in through the website, and answer company email. There wasn't much time to sit down and put my feet up. After eight hours of this, I sometimes walked to my second job another two miles away to stand for another three or four hours.

That's a lot of walking and standing for a pregnant woman, and in the weeks I'd been having contractions, I'd noticed that walking and standing for hours at a time made the contractions worse.

But working so much was what I felt I had to do. I had discovered that I was pregnant (Surprise!) one month after my husband had lost his job to a company bankruptcy so severe his last paycheck had bounced. Now he was working two part-time jobs while he looked for a new employer, and I was staying at a job I'd meant to quit, and working a second job to try to save enough money that we could move out of our one-bedroom apartment with the leaky sink and broken door to a place that looked something more like a home for a baby.

Now I was in the hospital, a month and a half pre-term, wheezing in pain every ten minutes, with a beeping monitor strapped to my belly, and a pleasant also-pregnant nurse beside me clucking wordlessly over printouts I did not understand. And guilt was choking me. Was I about to go into labor six weeks early because I hadn't been able to slow down and take care of myself -- take care of the child inside me, my child?

And that was when I started really talking to my unborn baby for the first time. "Stay in there," I said loudly, sternly, to my belly, ignoring passing doctors' odd stares. The baby started kicking in response to my voice. "This is your mother speaking," I continued, "and I am telling you, you need to stay inside. I know it's probably very boring stuck floating in the dark, and I know I've been working too much and I haven't been resting enough for you, and I'm sorry. But we're just not ready for you to come out yet. I haven't even gotten your crib. And I don't have any preemie clothes. I've only bought newborn outfits. If you come out today, you'll have to be naked. Naked! Naked and cold. Did I mention it's cold out here? And bright. Very bright. And it's loud. So you'd better just stay in there for a while yet. At least stay in there until I have your crib set up."

The contractions slowed over the next hour. After instructing me to drink half a gallon of water and rest, the hospital sent me home.

And my doctor told me to cut my work hours in half, start taking breaks at work every couple of hours, sit down whenever possible, stop climbing on ladders to retrieve merchandise, and stop carrying around heavy things. He also told me to lay down as much as possible while at home, and leave all my housework to my husband. I brought my doctor's instructions into my male employer, who somewhat reluctantly complied. He had never had a pregnant employee before.

("Why doesn't he want you climbing ladders anymore?" my boss asked, genuinely perplexed.

"Because I'm having contractions on a regular basis and might fall?" I replied. "And anyway, have you ever tried climbing a ladder with a baby strapped to your stomach? It's not an easy task."

"Well, I just hope everyone else doesn't start wanting a chair behind the counter," he grumbled as he brought in my new stool.)

The contractions never stopped, but they stayed half an hour to an hour apart, and I stayed out of labor.

Several weeks later, early in the morning on Mother's Day, two weeks before my due date, I spent the morning helping my husband finish the assembly of our new crib. Fierce contractions gripped me every 20 minutes or so, but I'd grown so used to them at that point that I continued working through them. I wasn't supposed to be lifting heavy things, but there were no restrictions on my use of screwdrivers, and my husband being rather infamously incapable of hanging curtains in a straight line (despite his uncannily good skill at wiring outlets, fixing broken computers and saving dead cell phones), I felt my oversight of this project was necessary.

Once we had the crib built and in the right spot, I felt a sudden, overwhelming, irresitable urge to buy a crib mattress cover. It was the one part of the crib bedding we didn't yet have, and I suddenly felt that not having one was a serious emergency. "We're going to Babies R Us now. I want the cover today," I said to my husband. It was not a request.

(Those experienced with childbirth will realize that this was the moment I should have realized that I was really in labor. But after a month of daily intense contractions, I had no idea.)

So my husband drove me to the baby store, and as I walked through the aisles snatching things that I suddenly realized I must have and have immediately with the all the deadly calm intensity of an Olympic sprinter, stopping every several minutes to double over in silence breathe through another painful contraction, other people in the store stopped to stare at the woman who was CLEARLY SHOPPING WHILE IN LABOR. When I got to the checkout, the woman behind the counter took one look at me and turned a sickly shade of imminent-insurance-disaster green.

"Are you . . . all right?" she asked me as I breathed Lamaze-style while calmly piling my purchases on the counter.

"I'm fine, thank you. And I also need this hairbrush," I said, practically tearing it from an endcap display.

And then I went home and calmly put all of the crib bedding together. The moment I had the crib assembled and ready, my contractions moved to five minutes apart.

My son always has had a habit of taking my instructions literally.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Busy Signal

I've been ridiculously busy the past few weeks, growing plants in my basement (no, not THAT kind — organic tomatoes and basil), putting in my new, second vegetable garden bed (and battling sewer beavers) and supporting women's rights in Afghanistan and opposing torture and asking the government to help parents stay home with their sick kids if they catch swine flu and putting on an SEO webinar with Parent Bloggers Network and taking on three brand new SEO clients and, you know, generally plotting to take over the world.

But I haven't forgotten this little blog. My first little blog that could. I have lots of things I'd like to write here, things that don't fit very well in the other, more heavily-trafficked places on the internet I've lately moved into. Things about parenting, about philosophy, about life.

I hope I'll have more time, soon, to write them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Racist Comments in St. Louis Post-Dispatch Get National Attention

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a post about how the racist comments regularly posted to and occasionally left unmoderated on the St. Louis Post Dispatch website are hurting St. Louis?

I wrote that post even before the Post-Dispatch featured an image of a bi-racial couple kissing on both the front page of the website and its weekend print entertainment magazine, Go, to promote an article titled "The 7 Best Places to Smooch," all about the best romantic places in the area for couples to visit for some inexpensive fun. The resident STLtoday race trolls responded with a veritable torrent of lovely, insightful comments like this one (from the locally infamous regular STLtoday comments section poster Taxpayer, who to me seems like the sort of person the ban feature was invented for, but hey, I don't work at the Post):
This doesn’t surprise me at all. Libs take every opportunity they can to shove miscegnation in our faces. Now that TV has to show blacks in every commercial, notice that they are always posed beside a blonde woman. Not a brunette, a blonde. Its done for shock value. Sickening that a once proud newspaper would resort ot this. Joe Pulitzer is turning over in his grave in shame.
(Apparently "Taxpayer" was born in or before 1905. That's the only reasonable explanation I can come up with for why he still uses antiquated terms like "miscegenation" in ordinary conversation without irony. That, or perhaps he lives a very lonely, isolated life in a cave.)

The flood of racist comments in response to the image prompted the Post-Dispatch to post about the reaction to the photo on their blog about racial issues, A Conversation About Race.

Several local bloggers have responded to the flap over the photo with criticism of the Post-Dispatch comment moderation policies. Shark-Fu of Shakesville and Angry Black Bitch has weighed in on the situation; Show Me Progress has also recently featured several posts on the subject.

ArchPundit has started a feature on Blog St. Louis called "Post-Dispatch Racist Comment of the Day" to highlight some of the most extreme and ridiculous violations of morality, common sense and good taste that appear on the site.

Post-Dispatch Director of Social Media Kurt Greenbaum has responded on his personal blog to local blogger reaction over the racist comments. In a post rather euphemistically titled,
"In further defense of uncomfortable comments," Greenbaum explains:
[Post-Dispatch] guidelines ask readers to be civil, to avoid personal attacks, profanity and racist language. We ask readers to be on topic. That leaves a lot of wiggle room. It also means that we have to make some hard decisions about whether a comment actually crosses the line. We don’t delete a comment just because we disagree with it. Or because it’s angry. Or even if it expresses a point of view that makes us uncomfortable. That means ideas that some might consider racist may be allowed.
I've a quibble with Greenbaums' phrase, "ideas that some might consider racist may be allowed." Some? May? I would argue that ideas that most people would consider racist have been and continue to be allowed on the site.

Unlike Greenbaum, who is a transplant to the region, I have lived in the St. Louis area my whole life; I grew up here; I've gone to different schools here, I've worked in many different neighborhoods here, and in the course of a lifetime, I've met many, many other St. Louisans from all walks of life. So I know a bit about what people around here are likely to think.

And as a life-long resident of the region, though I am aware that we have a serious, deep-rooted problem with race relations in this community, I am pretty certain that most (not some) people in the St. Louis region would find comments like Taxpayer's above-quoted treatise racist.

I'm pretty sure that many people here find such extreme comments not only racist, but offensive.

And I would wager that the vast majority of educated, thoughtful St. Louisans — those most likely to want to regularly read, or maybe even subscribe to, a newspaper — would consider comments like these inappropriate, distracting from intellectual conversation about real issues (including and especially issues related to race), and not worthy of being given a national platform on a newspaper website that, by virtue of its very name, represents our community to the country at large.

In fact, as I predicted in my previous post, the presence of so many over-the-top racist comments in the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch really is distorting our city's image on the national stage. The popular New-York-based gossip and news blog Gawker recently published a post titled "Five Arguments Against Interracial Dating, From Missouri Rednecks." And tagged the post "Too Easy." From Gawker:
What's this, the weekend magazine of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has pictured miscegenation in action, and the locals are outraged! Imagine this photo, where your kids could see.
Imagine, indeed. Imagine, a diverse, cosmopolitan, metropolitan area of more than two million people, caricatured in the national (new) media on the basis of the comments of a few racist internet trolls. Imagine, thousands upon thousands of people who have never even visited, let alone lived in, St. Louis forming their opinions of our community based on the comments of people like Taxpayer.

Imagine that.