Friday, November 19, 2010

So That Happened

I don't really want to write about turning 30. Not in public! Not on the blog, anyway. Not where my friends will see it. Most of my friends already turned 30. Two or ten or 30 years ago. As someone who got her first job at 16, who moved out of her parents' house at age 17, who graduated college and became a paid professional writer at 21, who had a kid at 23, who started a blog at 24, I've spent much of my life as the youngest person in the room, and my friendships reflect that. Most of my friends have already survived their own inner crises about turning 30. (Or even celebrated turning 30 with no crisis at all.) Hell, some of them have even already written about turning 30 on their own blogs. They won't want to read about my issues with 30, will they? What if they find my anxieties about growing older insulting? Or silly? Or trite? What if they laugh at me?


Thirty is definitely too old to be worrying about whether people will laugh at me for things I write on my blog.


I told my husband that what I wanted for my birthday was a shirt that said I'M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT. He didn't buy me one.


In the days before my thirtieth birthday, my husband kept saying, "Thirty isn't so bad, you know." Sometimes it sounded like he was teasing me. Sometimes it sounded like genuine reassurance.


When I was just 21, an abnormally, dangerously large cyst that had silently grown on my left ovary for months without my knowledge suddenly and violently ruptured, causing massive internal bleeding. After I woke up from an emergency surgery that definitely saved my fertility and probably saved my life, the surgeon, who was a woman, a woman who seemed about 30, said, in a very sincere, serious, sympathetic voice, "The bleeding was severe. You will have extensive scar tissue. The effects of scar tissue on your fertility may well get worse over time, especially if you develop more cysts like this one. If you want to have children without expensive help, you should start as early as possible. If I were you, I would definitely try for pregnancy before 30."


When I got pregnant just two years later (while using contraceptive measures) it was by accident, at an exceedingly inconvenient time, and frankly terrifying. Nonetheless, as I stared at those positive lines on the stick, the surgeon's words echoed in my head, and I could not help but feel vague sense of triumph. Before 30.


My son has asked me "When can I have a little brother or sister?" at least once a month since he was old enough to ask the question. I never answer him directly but I always used to say, to myself, in my head, Not now. Not now. But surely before I'm 30.


Every doctor I talk to about my past surgery tells me rather gravely that my insides must be positively riddled with scars. Time after time, the mantra I hear from doctors has been the same, "If you want more children, try now. Or at least try before you are 30."


At various points in my life I have had no less than five English teachers mention to me their firm belief that most of the best writers peak before they are 30. Crane, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. "Write a novel before 30," more than one of them urged me. On the day I turned 29, I swore to myself I would finally finish one of the five or six books that keep rattling around, unwritten, in my head. I'll write a book by my thirtieth birthday, I promised. I didn't.


Maybe those doctors are wrong about my prospects, anyway. How would they know? How could anyone know if I'd really have trouble getting pregnant again when I haven't even been trying? I should say we. After all, it takes two people to make one. We, mutually, deliberately, have not been trying.  In a marriage, ideally, making a baby requires a set of two of matching plans for the future. Plans do not always match, you know.


Thirty is the age at which I always picture my mother, when I think of her, in my mind's eye. My platonic ideal of my mother is my mother at 30. I don't really remember what she looked like before she was 30, but I remember her face at 30 clear as day. I was 12 then. She was very young, for a twelve-year-old's mother.


Why do those babymaking expert doctors always say 30? Why 30? I know I'm not the only woman they are saying this to. When they say it it always sounds like they've said it a thousand times. That seems so blastedly arbitrary, that invisible 30-year line. Hey, I'm no scientist, but I did happen to ace the A.P. Biology exam when I was in high school, which wasn't that long ago, thankyouverymuch, and therefore I do know that the technical, scientific term for individual medical predictions based on general statistics is bullshit. Sure, it may be true that women on average become strikingly less fertile after 30, but you can't expect that rule to apply to every individual. And anyway someone's 30th birthday is a totally arbitrary point in time at which to draw a line. What if I'd tried to get pregnant at the age of 29 years, 364 days? How would that be so different than trying to get pregnant tomorrow? Of course not. Not really. It wouldn't be. Anyway, I haven't been trying at all. Maybe if I did try tonight I'd get knocked up with twins, just like that.


I don't think of 30 as old. I have plenty of friends who are 40 or 50, and I don't think they are anything remotely resembling "old." I do think of 30 as the end of youth, though. I always have. I always think it's weird when people call 30-something people young. Thirty used to be called middle-aged, not that long ago, remember? I don't really have a problem with that, being thought of as in the middle, immersed in life, in the thick of things. Part of me actually sort of resents the fact that fashionable people will probably keep calling me "young" until I'm 40, or 50. I've been to college. I'm married. I work. I have a son. Hell no, I'm not old, but I don't feel young, either. Haven't I done enough yet to be considered all grown up?


My mother was so much older than most 30-year-olds at 30. When my mother was 30, she had two kids already and a third on the way. She already had two marriages, two careers and a master's degree under her belt at 30. She had already helped organize marches on Washington and taught hundreds of students to write and taught herself to refinish old furniture and filled notepad upon yellow notepad with poetry at 30. 


If I don't try to write The Great American Novel, I can't fail.


In the week before my birthday, when my husband would say, "Thirty isn't so bad" I usually replied, "You know, I don't really think you're old." But a couple of times, instead, I snapped, "It's different for you. You're a man."


When I think of myself as 30, I can't help but feel rather strangely that I have somehow transformed, overnight, into my mother. When I look in the mirror now, I catch glimpses of her face.


I am so relieved to finally be 30. Twenty-nine, honestly, just felt like an entire year of almost-30. The anticipation of 30 is far more annoying than the actuality of 30. No one will ever ask me again "How do you feel about turning 30 this year?"  Also now I can stop asking my husband what it feels like to be 30. I am sure he is relieved.


I remember when my stepmother turned 30, I childishly asked her if getting older bothered her, and she said, "Actually, I'm thrilled to turn 30. To tell the truth I feel like I've been 30 my whole life, and my calendar age is only just now catching up."


People used to put black candles on your cake when you turned 30. They used to decorate your party with black balloons and paper tombstones. They used to call you Over the Hill. No one does that now, of course, unless they're doing it ironically. I blew up a couple of black balloons for a friend's party two years ago. Ironically, of course -- I mean, hell, over the hill? He'd only recently been married. He was just about to finally finish his PhD and get out of school. Thirty is just getting started, these days. Of course my friend knew I was joking. But lately I kind of feel like a jerk for those balloons.


When my mother was 30 she looked 25. When she was 35 she didn't look a day over 30. No, really. This one time I tried to pick up my little brother at kindergarten, and no one would believe I was his sister, because the teachers had seen my mother, and thought could not possibly have a daughter who was 17. They nearly called the police on me. Of course my mother was very proud that I'd nearly been arrested over her youthful face. The face that nearly launched a kidnapping investigation. She repeated that story for years.


At parks, I still regularly get mistaken for my son's babysitter. Not bad for someone my age, eh? I'm really only sort of bragging, though. It's sort of disconcerting, actually, to have people think I'm my own child's babysitter.


For my 30th birthday, my husband snagged a babysitter, got dressed to the nines, and took me out to the same club we went to on our very first date. I know, what a crazy romantic, right? The sushi was great; the cocktails, just as awesome and ridiculously strong as we remembered. But the music was lame, and the couches were worn, and the crowd seemed vapid, and the whole place was annoyingly smoky. We left at eleven.


For months now, I've been fibbing about my age. This summer a 70-something man at the local historical society meeting asked, "How did such a young thing like you get interested in history?" and I laughed carelessly and said, "But I'm nearly thirty!" A firefighter I met on a volunteer voter education stint said, not even flirting, "You can't be older than my daughter in college," and I retorted, "Oh, you flatter me! I'll be thirty in just days." A month ago a little boy at my son's school asked how old I was, right in front of his forty-something mother, and I outright lied. "I'm thirty," I said, and shot her a furtive glance, deeply relieved to see that she didn't raise her eyebrows and purse her lips in the way every mother at my son's school inevitably did last year whenever I mentioned my age. I felt guilty for lying. I felt like I was squandering the last year of my 20s, erasing 29, and yet, I kept doing it. I couldn't stop myself. It seemed to me that in most cases telling someone I was almost 30 had a totally different effect than telling them I was 29. There's something magic about 30. People take 30 seriously.  I haven't fibbed this much about my age since I was nine years old ("I'm nearly ten!").


All day on my birthday, I couldn't stop thinking, again and again, I really, really, really must finish writing a book before I turn 31.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Five Reasons for Apathetic Voters to Vote

Hey you. Person who is planning to skip voting today? DON'T. Let me tell you why.

5.) There is more than one question on the ballot. So you don't like either of the candidates for U.S. Senate, or you think the choices for U.S. Representative all suck and you're sick of their negative ads. So what? Your local ballot will most likely feature important local initiatives that could change your daily life in key ways. Tax legislation. Bond issues. Regulatory laws that may affect local businesses. There may also be good candidates running for city council or school board -- these might even be people you personally know from your neighborhood. If you don't vote today, you won't get to make your voice heard on local issues.

You don't have to answer every question on a ballot when you vote. If you hate your national level candidates, you can skip them. Cross them out. Vote for yourself as a write-in candidate, if it gives you a thrill. But don't let your distaste for a single political race keep you from casting your vote on other issues in your community.

4.) Seriously, it doesn't take that long. No, SERIOUSLY. It does NOT take that long. Your polling place is probably a five minute drive from your house. It might well be on your way home from work tonight. If you don't know where it is, you can find it in moments using Google or your state's Secretary of State website. I know you have heard horror stories of people standing in line for hours to vote. But those incidents are isolated. Long lines at the polls pretty much happen when there are problems with voting machines, problems with ballots, or extremely high turnout. In a midterm election, long lines are unlikely. In most elections I have voted in, I have been in and out in 15 minutes or less.

3.) Your vote actually does matter. In 2008, Al Franken won the race for U.S. Senate in Minnesota by 312 votes. If just 312 of his supporters had decided voting wasn't worth the trouble, he would have lost. If just 313 of his opponent's supporters had shown up, Norm Coleman would be Minnesota's Senator. Every vote counts.

2.) If you don't vote your complaints about bad government lose their force. You of course, can complain about your elected government officials even though you refused to participate in choosing them, but people who actually bother vote can also logically refuse to take your complaints seriously.

1.) Not everyone in the world has the right to vote. Good people fought and died to win you that right. For their sake, please: don't waste it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Paying Attention

This evening while we were eating dinner, with the television news speaking softly in the next room about a pastor who wants to publicly burn a sacred text, my six-year-old son said to me, suddenly:

"Hey, remember a while ago on The Daily Show when they were talking about that mosque in New York, and they made the Bank of America logo change to Death to America, and they turned Burger King into Burger Sheik, and Church Street into Mosque Street? That was sooo funny."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Municipal Land-Use Update - Ground Zero Mosque
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

And in the space of about three seconds, these are the thoughts that flew through my head:

Wait. My kid was paying attention to that news about people burning a religious text? At dinner? Crud.

Wait. My kid actually pays attention to The Daily Show reruns I sometimes watch while the he is supposedly distracted by homework or video games? The reruns he always complains about us watching when, according to him it would be "more educational" to watch Mythbusters?

How much attention is he paying to, um, er, all those penis jokes they tell on TDS? Um. Hmm. Erm. Note to self.

Wait. My six-year-old has been paying so much attention to the news in general that he not only knows enough about the supposed "Ground Zero Mosque"* to have correctly interpreted that Daily Show segment as pertaining to it, but also knew immediately to associate the furor over the Islamic community center with Dove World Outreach's Quran-burning publicity stunt?

WAIT! I haven't even really talked to him about the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in New York yet, or about Pastor Crazypants' planned burning of the Quran. I haven't talked about how when the Founders put freedom of religion in the American Constitution, they did in fact mean all religions not just Christian ones. I haven't explained to him how wrong I think it is that some people in this country are persecuting all Muslims because of the actions of a deranged few. I haven't told him about all the moderate American Muslims I went to high school and college with, who were just as appalled by 9/11 as any other sane human being, and who yet live even now with harassment and profiling. I haven't talked to him about how fear and pain and loss can sometimes cause even good-hearted people to make bad decisions and hurt their neighbors.  I haven't explained well enough, have I, about people sometimes being afraid of people who are different from they are, just because of the difference? I haven't had a real discussion with him yet about how politicians and members of the media sometimes purposefully stoke public fear and anger in order to gain attention and power, and how that seems to me to be happening now every time someone brings up any news story remotely involving Islam.

Agh! I am totally unprepared for this discussion!

I mean, he's six.

And then the six-year-old said, "People think that mosque is at Ground Zero, but it's two blocks away." He shook his head.

"Oh," I said, "You've really been paying attention to the news, huh?"

"Yeah," he said. "People should pay attention. So they know what is true."

And he went back to his dinner.

*Park 51 is, for the record, folks, NOT at ground zero, or, in fact, even technically a mosque — it's an Islamic community center. Plans include a basketball court and space for cooking classes as well as a small prayer room. Thank you very little, 24 hour cable news, for your clarity on this issue!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Straight green stalks rose almost twice my height. I ran my fingers along the grooved green husk leaves tight-wrapped around one ear, and touched the spilling silk. It was prettier than the corn-husk doll at home on my mother's shelf.

Pick one, she said. And she helped me twist the ear until it snapped. In the kitchen she showed me how the husk peels back to reveal the golden kernels in their stately rows, how to pull out the last stubborn threads of silk. And I asked, how does this get in a can? And with a knife she sliced off the kernels, neatly. Oh please, I begged, can't we make something with it?

And she pulled a step stool up to the stove, and she taught me to make garden vegetable soup. And when I tasted that corn it was like a revelation of corn, a Platonic ideal of the Original Corn. But of course I didn't know those words like Platonic then. Platonic is what I think now, when I remember that taste. On that day I just knew that despite eating canned corn at least twice a week for dinner at home, I had never really tasted corn before. 


She came to pick us up in her blue Ford Cordoba, the car with impeccably clean seats. My younger sister, the sweet one, the pretty one, like always, simpered and batted her eyes for shotgun, pointing pitifully at her once-broken leg (the leg that had already healed perfectly almost year ago— the leg that posed her absolutely no problem, thank you very much, when climbing trees or running on the playground). But the charm that almost unfailingly moved my mother and father rolled off this tiny, twinkle-eyed woman like rain off a duck.

"She's older. She has longer legs."  And I sat in the front seat of a car for the first time in over a year, marveling at my good fortune, while my sister, who would have cried fat crocodile tears in any other person's car, pouted silently in the backseat, wondering how her spell had been broken.

At the Piggly Wiggly, as we marveled at porcelain figurines of ballerinas, she bought us each a Sprite. "Don't tell your mother," she said. My sister drank hers in conspiratorial glee, but I, ever the Puritan, took tiny sips. Everyone knew my mother had secret, invisible, almost-all-seeing eyes in the back of her head.

I didn't know, then, about the universal Soda and Candy Exception that is granted to grandmothers.

I should have drunk that soda.


We heard third-hand that she was riding through Vegas on the back of a motorcycle. A few weeks later, we heard she'd gotten a tattoo.

My mother was still furious at her for selling the family house. I was a little mad too, considering we'd been staying there at the time and had needed to move on short notice.

Secretly, though, I was thrilled by the image of her speeding past the neon lights, the wind ruffling her cropped grey hair. When I told my the kids at school, "My grandmother rides motorcycles in the desert and has a tattoo," they didn't believe me. Of course, I never told them the tattoo was of a panda. That made the whole picture seem somewhat less daring.


Last month, my aunt emailed to tell me that my grandmother was slowly, stealthily turning the entire grassy landscape of her assisted living community into a decorative food garden. "I try to tell her to save her money for a new computer," she wrote, "but she just keeps buying plants." Her neighbors, my aunt reported, had been recruited, and were now in cahoots in my grandmother's revolt against the grass. There were fruit trees and bean plants popping up everywhere.

In response I emailed my aunt a picture of my son standing in a tomato jungle twice his height, and said, "Grandma might like this picture." And I asked my aunt to show my grandmother my new blog on sustainable food.

A few days later I received in the mail a handwritten note on a scrap of blue paper, in my grandmother's familiar stilted left-hander-forced-to-be-a-right-hander scrawl, announcing my uncle's wedding. The last line, squeezed at the bottom like an afterthought, read, "Love your internet stuff."


Yesterday evening I was standing in my vegetable garden, tending to my overgrown tomatoes, when my husband brought the cordless phone out to me. And I stood still pruning and tying tomato branches in an automatic motion like a prayer on a rosary even as I heard the tremble in my mother's voice, and asked, "What's wrong?"


As I hold the blue note in my hand, staring at the last words my grandmother wrote to me, knowing there will never be another note, never any more words from her to me, to anyone, I can taste that corn.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Days Before Yesterday

On the day of your party, playing baseball in the yard with bigger boys, your friend took a wrong swing and, smack— the bat hit your face. There I was ready to run and scoop you immediately into my already open arms to hide your tears in my embrace, but I didn't have to. Because you blinked and you blinked and you shook your head and checked your nose with your hands to make sure it wasn't broken and you squared your skinny shoulders and screwed your face into a stone mask and you didn't cry. Not a single tear.

Not in front of your friend, who, after all, hadn't meant it. 

On your real birthday, which this year came on Mother's Day, just like the day you were born, I heard you say to your grandfather, over the phone, "I am planning to visit the science center. Did you know they have a new exhibit on Charles Darwin?" and it occurred to me that I couldn't remember ever telling you Darwin's first name. Like so many things you know these days, and didn't learn from me. You read it somewhere, when I wasn't looking.

At the museum you did not want to hold my hand while we walked across the bridge above the highway, and in fact when we came to the plexiglass cutouts in the floor that offer a dizzying view of rushing cars and pavement far below, you, grinning, jumped on one, hard, to show off for a pretty little girl who was scared to look down.

This week, suddenly, as if given unspoken permission by the calendar, you have become a child who runs out the back door without asking me to come with you and watch you play. I watch you anyway, from the window. You sidle, head high, shoulders back, toward the older boys next door, brandishing your yellow plastic gun by way of invitation to a game of Space Police (a game you have invented, and lead with the assurance of a director giving instructions to actors on a stage).

But yesterday you were home sick and you sat with me for nearly an hour on the couch, leaning your head against my shoulder while I wrote. When I finished working you said, "Mommy?" I said, "What?" And you said, "Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?" Smiling slyly like it was a silly joke.

Still I knew what question you were really asking. The one you suddenly feel too old, at the ancient age of six, to ask.

And the answer is yes. This year and next year and the year after that and even when you're 100 years old and I am 123, yes.

As long as I have breath to say the word, yes. Whenever you need me, I will be here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Open Letter to Oppressive Humorist Mommybloggers

Dear Kelcey Kintner of The Mama Bird Diaries (and all other Mommybloggers Who Would Dare Lead Impressionable Women Astray),

Greetings from a suburban mother, housewife and blogger from a flyover state! I don't believe we have met before (Though, some fancy sophisticated East Coast bloggers who ought to have been setting an example for me did convince me to get a little drunk at my last BlogHer, and my memory of subsequent events is a little fuzzy. So who can say for certain?).

I am writing you a letter because I hear that you are apparently oppressing me with humor.

I suppose my female mind has been poisoned by all of the amusing anecdotes about motherhood that I have recently read on the internet, because I cannot, for the life of me, figure out just how it is that you are managing to kill feminism and force misguided Midwestern women like me to be mediocre with your humorous posts about wearing pants.

But now that I have been informed about how dangerous women writers like you are, before I go and try to write another post over at that political blog I write along with a bunch of other mommybloggers (by the way, that blogger who is telling the whole internet that women like you who write about funny stories about parenting are ruining humanity for the next generation of women might want to check our little mom-run political blog out, actually — the First Lady once posted there — I certainly hope we humble mommybloggers didn't corrupt her accomplishments by association), I think that perhaps I ought to cleanse my mind of the evil influence of women who dare to write publicly about the dirty, drudgerly work of raising children by contemplating some dead male social pundits' ridiculous bloviations on the supposed intrinsic inferiority of women:
The man who fights for two or more in the struggle for existence, who has all the responsibility, and the cares of tomorrow, who is constantly active in combating the environment and human rivals, needs more brain than the woman whom he must protect and nourish, the sedentary woman, lacking any interior occupations, whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive.- -Paul Topinard
Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow chests, and broad hips, to the end that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children. -Martin Luther
Women are directly adapted to act as the nurses and educators of our early childhood, for the simple reason that they themselves are childish, foolish, and short-sighted — in a word, are big children all their lives, something intermediate between the child and the man, who is a man in the strict sense of the word. Consider how a young girl will toy day after day with a child, dance with it and sing to it; and then consider what a man, with the very best intentions in the world, could do in her place.  -Arthur Schopenhaeur
Well, that was certainly an effective washing of my mommyblog-addled brain! A bracing reminder of —

Wait a minute.

I just noticed something.

All those men. Those unevolved, sexist, influential historical men who believed that women were inherently inferior. In all those quotes I just quoted, they weren't just talking about the inferiority of women, were they? 

No, it seems to me that all those sexist men I just quoted mentioned that inferior women were made inferior on purpose so that they would be perfectly suited to the inferior work of raising children. Which is obviously inferior work, because it is done by inferior women, who are inferior!


Could it be that labeling the work of raising children as an inferior occupation that women should avoid talking about so as not to be seen as inferior actually sets back feminism?

Because you know what? I'm pretty sure all those men I just quoted would be really pissed off by a bunch of women writers having the gumption to assume that their stories about motherhood might actually be wortth publishing in public.

Well, Kelcey. I guess you're not really oppressing me at all, are you? In fact, since the rise of blogging, women like you have been successfully subversively pissing off not just certain self-hating feminists, but also the patriarchy. Fancy that!

Carry on, mommybloggers who write humorous stories about pants.

Carry the revolution right on.

Friday, April 09, 2010

We Didn't Have a Choice

When my little brother was six years old, he set our house on fire. While my sister, my mother and I were all inside it.

He found a discarded disposable cigarette lighter in a neighbor's yard. No fuel left in it, really, but it still sparked when he spun the little metal wheel with his thumb. It was the weekend, and my mother had been out earlier that day raking leaves in the back yard. She'd stacked several paper yard waste bags full of dry leaves against the back of the house, leaning up against the cedar siding.

We knew better than to leave my brother unsupervised, anywhere, for very long. But it only took a minute. Flick. Flick. Flick. Whoosh.

He stood and watched as the bags caught fire. He stood and watched as the flames licked up the cedar siding. He stood and watched as the entire back side of the house, with his family inside it, burst into flames.

My six-year-old brother was still standing there, watching, silent, when a neighbor who lived behind us happened to glance out his kitchen window, saw our house on fire, and ran outside, grabbed his garden hose, vaulted over our fence, and started screaming, "Do you know? Your house is on fire!"

And still my brother stood, seemingly unaffected, as our neighbor, and the fire department, saved our house.

This wasn't the first time my brother had started a dangerous fire. The first time, actually, he was only four years old. While my mother was taking a shower, and my sister and I were at school, he unlocked the child safety gate to the kitchen, pushed a chair up to the refrigerator, stacked two phone books on the chair, climbed on his makeshift stepping stool, and retrieved a can of charcoal lighter fluid from a high cabinet over the fridge. Then he went out to the front yard, doused a live oak tree (and, by accident, his own clothes) in the fluid, and used a discarded lighter (collecting discarded disposable lighters was a habit of his, you see), and lit the tree.

When my mother found him, the fireball had very slightly singed his eyebrows. But by some miracle, his lighter-fluid-soaked t-shirt, and the child inside it, were perfectly unharmed. 

As a young child, it seemed that my brother had no sense of danger, to himself, or to others. He was defiant, persistent, and angry. He hated being told what to do. He flung toys across rooms and broke them. He threw cats across the room, and hurt them. He climbed too high and jumped too far and pushed too hard and screamed too loud. He hit people. He bit people.

If you think this had anything to do with my mother's parenting skills, think again. She had raised me, after all — a straight-A student who showed proper manners at the dinner table, helped elderly neighbors shovel snow, cleaned her room (eventually) when asked, and never once earned a high school detention.

And keep in mind, she raised me when she was a struggling teenage mother. When my brother was born, she was 30, and much more financially stable. He was her third child. She was experienced at handling kids. She was one of those moms who could make rowdy neighbor kids shut up and stand up straight just by giving them a look.

And yet, she could not control my brother.

She took him to various specialists, of course. And while everyone could agree there was something Not Right With This Child, no one could agree on a diagnosis. Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Childhood Bi-Polar Disorder? Impulse Control Disorder? Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Child Sociopath?

The experts didn't know. We didn't know.

I'll admit it. We were afraid of him.

Was he really insane?

Would he seriously hurt someone?

We knew something was wrong. And we didn't know what it was. And we were afraid.

But we never, ever, ever, ever seriously thought, not even for a second, about giving him away. He was my mother's son. He was my brother. He was part of our family. He was permanent. He was ours.

And if there was something terribly wrong with him? Well, that was our problem to solve.

When he couldn't handle school, my mother homeschooled him. When she couldn't stop him from throwing rocks at neighbors' windows, she moved to the county, to a farm. When she caught him drinking beer and smoking well, well underage, she didn't kick him out of the house.

She kept trying. She just kept trying. She's his mother, after all.

She had no choice.

My brother is a teenager now. He's obsessed with Avatar, and Star Wars. He likes to play board games. He's an excellent reader, and wickedly smart. He has lots of friends. He's not always great about doing chores on time, but he helps my mother a lot, raising chickens and rabbits and horses on the farm. When my family came to visit last year, he insisted on carrying my mother's luggage out of the trunk of the car so she wouldn't have to lift it.

He goes hunting deer sometimes, with my stepfather. With a rifle.

Because he's the kind of kid you can actually trust with a gun.

He wants to be an auto mechanic, or maybe a construction foreman, or maybe an electrical engineer. Some job where he can use power tools and build things with his hands. (And yes, maybe occasionally set something on fire.)

He's a really awesome kid, my little brother.

* * *

I did everything right during my pregnancy. I stopped drinking alcohol the day I saw the plus sign on the test stick. And not only that — I cut out caffeine. Entirely. I cut out soft cheese and bean sprouts and sushi. I didn't smoke. I didn't even hang out around smokers. I ate a very carefully balanced diet.

I exercised. I made my husband change the cat litter. I avoided gasoline fumes. I read seven different reference books on how to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery. I arrived at every OB-GYN checkup ten minutes early.

Apparently, none of that mattered a whit when it came to the small tumor that formed on my son's skull while he was still in my ridiculously healthy womb.

* * *

My son didn't sleep through the night on a regular basis until he was two years old. From the time he was a newborn, until the time he was about eight or nine months old, he actually never slept more than three hours together at a time, and some nights, he would wake up just about every hour.

Which meant that I had to wake up, every hour.
By the fifth month or so of this I was such an exhausted mess that I stared to hallucinate, sometimes. I'd see weird shadows morph into monsters at the corners of my eyes. It was not good. I knew it was dangerous. What if I fell asleep sometime, holding him? What if I dropped him?

But what could I do?

I tried everything to get him to sleep. Co-sleeping. Not co-sleeping. Gentle training. Gradual sleep training.  Ferber. It didn't matter. Nothing worked. If I tried to leave him alone in his crib when he woke up at night, he would just cry more and more loudly, until his cry turned into bloodcurdling screams, and he would hyperventilate until I thought he might vomit.

Whenever I turned on the vacuum cleaner, or the food processor, or a power screwdriver, or anything else that made a certain pitch of whrrrrr, my son used to widen his eyes, arch his back, turn bright red, and scream as though he were being flayed alive. Even after I turned off the offending machine, he would shudder and whimper for several minutes afterward. Like the noise had horribly, physically hurt him.

My floors got very dirty.

As a toddler, whenever people sang or clapped in unison, my son used to cry and shiver like he'd just seen a ghost. I found it necessary for us to excuse ourselves from the singing portions of birthday parties. We could not take him to church services or weddings or children's events involving clapping or singing, or even restaurants where people might sing, without risking a meltdown.

Until the age of three my son could not stand blankets. As an infant, whenever I would try to nurse him under a blanket, he would tear it off. If I put it back on again, he would cry or stop eating. If I kept on trying to cover him, he would bite me.

At night, he would not sleep under a blanket no matter how cold it was.  I could only sneak blankets on him after he was already sleeping.

Which was easy enough to do during the two years I almost never slept. 

All of these problems paled, of course, in comparison to the eating issues. After the surgery to remove his tumor, he stopped eating. He was terrified of trying new foods. He would spit and gag and act like he was choking on a spoonful of soft stewed peas. There were some days when I spent hours and hours just trying to get him to take a single bite of a single cracker.

I spent thousands of dollars taking him to doctors. An endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, a food allergist, a nutritionist. I didn't care how much it cost. I just wanted them to fix him.

At his thinnest, you could see every rib and every knob of his spine, and legs were like sticks and his belly curved inward. Like a starving child in a public service poster. Every time I changed his clothes, I fought back tears.

There were so many times when I thought "Why me?" or "I didn't expect this. I didn't ask for this." There were times, especially late, late times during yet another night of too little sleep, when I fantasized about running away.

But did I ever think, really, about giving him away? Hell no. He was my child. His problems were my problems. I would fix them or I would die trying.

I had no choice.

* * *

So forgive me if I cannot understand this:

How can a parent who has a adopted a child who has turned out to have special needs feel that she has a choice about whether or not to continue to care for that child?

How does one justify returning a child like a piece of defective or mislabled merchandise?

"I'm sorry. This box said PERFECT FAMILY ADDITION! on the label. There was nothing, nothing at all in the ingredient list about EXTREME SEPARATION ANXIETY or DEVELOPMENTAL DELAYS or EXPLOSIVE ANGER. I demand you make this right!"

The very idea of someone returning a child they have chosen because that child turned out to be difficult to parent makes me so angry I shake.

Do not, for a moment, misunderstand me.

I understand how it feels to be told you're about to have one kind of change in your life, only to realize you are faced with something entirely other. I understand how headbashingly difficult parenting a child with special needs can be. I understand how utterly terrifying lifeshakingly hard it can feel when you realize that instead of that nice trip to Italy you planned, you just got a one-way ticket to Holland. Or Swaziland. Or, hell. Antarctica.   

I've seen families torn apart by the strain of raising children with serious health or mental problems. I've seen happy couples get divorced. Healthy children get neglected or hurt. I've seen people lose jobs, homes, dreams. Years of their lives.

I've stood in a house that was set on fire. 

I understand feeling desperate. I understand feeling scared. I understand feeling like you just can't live this way anymore. Like it's not fair. Like you shouldn't have to face this. Like you're going crazy. Like you're at the end of your rope.

What I cannot understand — what I do not think I, as the mother of a child with special needs, will ever understand — is how you can feel that you have a choice about being a parent to a child you have already chosen and claimed as your own.

Those of us who choose to bring children into our lives through our own wombs do not get to totally abdicate responsibility for those children just because they, at some point, turn out to be less healthy than we hoped for or expected.

I when I was going into labor, I didn't get to check a box on some form saying "Not willing to give birth to a child with special needs."

It was my choice to have a child.

I didn't have a choice about having a child with special needs.

It just happened that way. 

No matter how you become a parent, you cannot, ever, fully control how your life with your child will turn out. Every child will have problems. Every child will cost money you don't have. Every child will exhaust and hurt you and make you secretly dream, at some point, about running away. And some children will make you have that dream more often than others. 

But the point of being a real parent (no matter whether your child was born into your arms or crossed an ocean to come home to you) is that, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how tired you are, no matter how much help you have to ask for, you don't abandon a sick, hurting child who needs you.

Real parents don't allow themselves that choice.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Break That Wasn't

Last week, my son was home with me all day every day for spring break. And despite the fact that I knew that would mean I would get a lot less work done (especially since my husband had a Big Work Project planned that would keep him very busy and not so much available on the parenting front), at the beginning of last week, I was very happy about the prospect of hours and hours alone with my kid.

Since he has started full-day school (and moved to a school all the way across town), I've missed having him around. There are days now when I literally don't see him for more than an hour or two before bedtime. I had grand plans for all the wonderful things we would do in a whole week together.

We would go to the zoo! We would have a play date with another blogger and her daughter! We would bake bread, and cookies (all peanut-free) and plant broccoli seedlings in the garden. I would play all of his favorite board games (all the ones I got so sick of before he was in school, that I now sheepishly admit miss).

Yeah, no.

Tuesday morning at 3 a.m. I was awakened by excruciating, burning abdominal pain, from my left hip straight up to my bottom left rib. A few hours later, after various tests and consultations with two doctors, I found out I'd had an abnormal ovarian cyst rupture. (More on the interesting medical saga related to that discovery later, when I feel well enough to write it.)

If you've never had this happen before, either because you are one of my ovary-less readers, or because, unlike unfortunate me, your womanly parts have all always functioned beautifully and harmoniously as nature intended, allow me to describe the pain:

1.) Less painful than natural childbirth.

2.) More painful than anything else that has ever happened to me (besides, of course, the last time I had a dangerously large cyst.)(Oh yes. Did I mention this has happened before?)

3.) If you are still not understanding this description of pain because you're one of those humans who bear their reproductive parts outside the body, just imagine one half of one of your testicles exploding.

(You're welcome.)

So, yeah. That sucked.

Later that same day, as I lay in bed really starting to regret my decision to not take the prescription for heavy narcotics the GYN who confirmed my diagnosis had sympathetically proffered, my son started complaining of a headache.

The next day, he developed a full-blown miserable, snot-nosed head cold from Hades.

And so it came to pass that, instead of "resting for a few days, limiting physical activity and monitoring body temperature for any signs of infection until the pain subsides" as a doctor had oh-so-helpfully suggested, I spent the next few days trying not to yelp in pain every time I hauled my sad sorry, busted-lady-bits-bearing self up off the couch to get my feverish, exhausted, kid with a sinus headache and a hacking cough a cup of water or a tissue or another dose of medicine, while we both sighed and muttered and whined and watched bad TV.

Leaving the house, at all, was pretty much out of the question.

By Monday we were both feeling a bit better. By Tuesday morning, he was well enough to go to school.

And me? Well, I could finally take the stairs down to the basement without wanting to cry.

But I'd caught my son's cold.

I need a vacation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Conversations with a Five-Year-Old: The Pain and the Pedant

MOTHER: Please go wash your hands before dinner. Your fingers are covered in marker. I don't think you want ink in your food.

CHILD: Aw, man.


CHILD: I have to wash my hands again? I just washed my hands at lunch time.

MOTHER: Yes, you need to wash your hands more than once in a day. Go wash your hands.

CHILD: Hmph.

CHILD stalks slowly off toward the bathroom, muttering to himself.

MOTHER: Oh, there she goes again. Your mother. Always trying to take care of you and keep you safe and healthy. Always trying to keep you from doing things like eating food flavored with ink from a marker. She's such a pain.

CHILD (whispers): In the B-U-T.

MOTHER: What did you just say, young man?

CHILD: Nothing.

MOTHER: You're missing a T.

CHILD: What?

MOTHER: Butt, as in your bottom, rear, posterior, that thing you sit upon, is spelled B-U-T-T. You mean to say I am a pain in the B-U-T-T.

CHILD: Oh, right! I always get those confused.

MOTHER to FATHER: We need to work on his ability to spell insults.

More conversations.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To My Friends Who Work Outside the Home

To my friends who are mothers who work professionally full time (or more than full time), and often must leave their children:

I have told this story before many times in various ways on various comment sections on various working mothers' blogs, so I apologize if you have heard this before, but it I think it bears repeating.

When I was a poor college student putting myself through school, one of my three jobs was being a part-time nanny, for several years, for a busy professional couple with two little girls. The girls' mother, who loved her children deeply, was a professional writer and small business owner. She sometimes worked from home in her office while I watched the kids, but sometimes her business meant she had to leave, for hours, or for whole days at a time.

When the girls' mother had to leave for work, sometimes, they would cry. They would throw their arms around her and beg her not to leave. As they got older, and could articulate their feelings, they would say things like, "Don't leave me Mommy! You leave too much! I miss you when you're gone."

I could see the guilt and longing in their mother's eyes, on those days, as I pulled her tearful, clinging children away, and she walked out the door to the sounds of their sobs. Not yet having a child of my own, I did not then understand her pain as fully as I do now, but so I could sense that these moments weighed on her — that echoes of her daughters' cries would linger somewhere in a corner of her mind all day.

Five or ten minutes after she left, the kids would recover completely, and start laughing and playing with me just as they did on the days when their mother was in the next room.

Sometimes, the older girl would get out a box and pretend to type on it as if it were a computer.

"I'm a Mommy. I'm working," she would say. "I'm a writer writing things."

And that little girl would sound so proud.

Your children miss you when you cannot be with them. Of course they do. And they miss their Dad when he isn't around (or their other Mom, or their Grandma). And when they're home alone with you, I bet they miss their favorite babysitters and teachers, too. All kids would prefer to have all of their favorite people available 24 hours a day, to be summoned or dismissed at childish whim.

But they love you, the whole of you, more than anything, and even at an early age, they understand that your career — your drive to create things of value with your skills and your mind, not just at home, but out in the wider world — is part of who you are.

And because they know that about you, they also know that one day they can also be great parents AND great workers. They are the girls who will play games of "Office" alongside their games of "House." They are the boys who will see no problem with Daddies who push strollers or Mommies who get invited to speak at conferences.

And they will be women and men who, one day, I hope, will come to understand how you felt (how I've sometimes felt, too) about having to walk out the door on those certain hard days, as your children cried. Who will realize that even on those days you walked away, you were doing it, as you did everything, for them — to support them, to build a better life for them, to change the world, for them.

And I do not think they will hold those times against you.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Point of Clarification

When I was in fifth grade, a new student at a new school, a popular girl in my class took a dislike to me on my first day, according to her, because I "played kickball wrong,"" talked "too smart, like a book or something," and "had a weird name."

My response was to ignore and deflect. She called me ugly. I would respond with a phrase I'd heard my mother say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." She called me stupid. I would roll my eyes and head down the hallway to my gifted enrichment class. She called me clumsy. Well, I was clumsy. There was no point in arguing there.

But I didn't attack her back, in the way she was attacking me. I didn't call her names. Even as she called me a coward and spat in my face while the other students, cowed by her, laughed.

I wasn't a coward. I wasn't a doormat. I was a Christian (then, at least in name), and I had been taught by what I had read about Jesus to turn the other cheek. I was a book addict. I had read Tolkien, and Lewis, and L'Engle. At ten, I plucked my personal morals from fantasy worlds where heroes triumphed by sticking to their values, and the high road always led, eventually, to victory.

And perhaps more importantly, once, a few years earlier, I had let a visiting step-cousin of mine pressure me into joining her and some friends in publicly mocking a kid in our neighborhood who everyone thought was a little quirky. As I had seen the tears well up in that little girl's eyes, and seen her turn and run away to her mother's house while the circle of children I stood in laughed, I suddenly had to suppress an overwhelming urge to vomit.

I apologized later that day. But the hurt in that girl's eyes didn't disappear with my apology. I had broken a trust between us. It was irreparable.

We would never be friends.

And that day, I vowed never again to join in a mocking circle meant to destroy another person's self-worth.

So, I deflected, and avoided, and ignored. My refusal to be goaded into a petty reaction by that popular girl in my fifth grade class infuriated her. She tore my books. She stole my homework. She wrote fake love letters to boys in my name. She lied to the teacher to try to get me in trouble. She lied to my friends and told them I had done terrible things.

The more I refused to fight back, the more I refused to run and cry-- the more I just stood there and took it, the angrier that girl became. "You're jealous of me," she would scream. "You wish you could be just like me."

I didn't.

I really didn't.

Maybe I should have fought back. Maybe I should have insulted her in front of everyone, or spread a rumor about her, or smacked her in the face. This was, after all, the real world, the real, savage world of human children, all jockeying for position in a social hierarchy, playacting at a very serious game they had watched their parents play. In the real world, sometimes turning the other cheek turns out badly.

In the real world, sometimes you have to hit back.

But I hadn't read Lord of the Flies yet.

So one day, when that girl, antagonized beyond words by my simple refusal to fuel her drama fire, icily informed me that she had scheduled a fight between the two of us on the playground at recess, and that if I didn't show up, her enforcers would find me and make me pay for the insult?

I showed up. I stood tall and faced her livid face as two of her lackeys distracted a teacher and the schoolchildren gathered around in a tiny circular mob, whispering their chant, "Fight! Fight!"

And I said, "Hit me."

The girl sputtered. "What?"

I repeated it. "Hit me. Go ahead. Hit me as hard as you can. Hit me if you want to, but I won't hit you back. I'm not like you. I don't hit people just because I don't like them. So go ahead. Hit me."

"But it's a fight! You have to fight!" She rocked back on her heels and whipped her head back and forth, searching the little crowd, which had gone silent.

"No, I don't. You're the only one who wants to fight. I didn't ask you for a fight. You asked me for one."

A few of the kids in the crowd giggled.

They weren't giggling at me.

The popular girl screamed a terrible, primal scream of frustration. And ran. She pushed through that little crowd of children, and ran away from me.

I write about this incident from my childhood today because that moment changed me. It made me, in many ways, who I am.

I'm wise enough now to know the high road may not always lead to victory. I also know myself well enough to know that, try as I may, I don't always succeed in taking it. I'm a terribly imperfect person, as easily ruled by fear and emotion as anyone else. I sometimes say things I don't mean out of anger, and later regret them. I sometimes fail to say things I should, out of fear.

But know this: every time someone responds to an honest disagreement I have with them by lobbing a petty insult at me, or telling a lie, or spreading false rumors, or demanding that I fight, (or censoring my posts on a community site for political reasons, or blocking me on Twitter, or defriending me on Facebook, or any of the other hundreds of petty ways people slight one another on the internet these days) I am inevitably drawn back to that day on the playground, and the peace and strength that suffused my whole being in that one moment of triumph, when I said, "Go ahead. Hit me."

So, go ahead.

Hit me.

I'm not like you.

And no, actually, I'm not jealous.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What I've Been Writing Lately Elsewhere

Earlier this week I posted about my favorite Indian cookbook on my lovely friend Debbie's blog for the vintage-obsessed, Did You Buy That New.

On Sustenance, I put up some beginner's tips for starting seeds indoors.

And today I posted to MOMocrats about the 21st century American phenomenon of health-insurance-based marriages of convenience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Which I Resume Chronicling My Gardening Addiction

Readers of the backyard food growerly persuasion take note:

Sustenance is back in action.

Oh, and that's broccoli.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Writing, Parenting, and Sensory Disorders

I write fairly often about my son's struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder. About his eating issues. About the way his motor skills delay affects him on the playground. About his problems concentrating in a noisy environment at school. I write about how these issues affect me as a parent, about my own struggle to smooth a path through this world for a child with a developmental delay.

I worry, sometimes, about writing publicly about these things, because I don't want to embarrass my child by revealing too much about his personal struggles. I don't want to unreasonably skew the way others who have never met him in person might see him. I don't want to label him permanently as a person with a problem. I want the world to see him as a child with a disorder, not as a disorder attached to a child.

So I worry. And I censor myself, sometimes. And sometimes I freeze up altogether, unsure of how much to write.

I think carefully about what I do write. I weigh the costs and benefits of telling a story about my child, carefully, before I push the publish button. If I write this story, will it help me think through a problem? If I share it, will that help me find advice from others who may have had similar experiences — advice that may help me help my son? Will it help raise awareness about sensory disorders? Will it help another parent of a child with sensory issues feel a little less utterly alone?

I like to think that by writing publicly about my family's experiences with my son's sensory problems, I am helping to create a future world in which those problems will be better understood. I hope that one day, the acronym SPD will be as familiar and commonly understood as ADHD, and that the label will carry as little mystery as an ADHD label, and no stigma.

I hope that ten years from now, when my son explains to someone why trying new foods unsettles him and the sound of a vacuum bothers him and climbing a staircase makes him nervous (and also why he can memorize the drum track of a song after hearing it just a few times, and why he never fails to notice a friend's new haircut, and why he can tell you what precisely seasonings went into a sauce, and why he can tell from across the house when cookies in an oven are finished baking, just by the slight shift in their smell) that instead of "You have a sensory disorder? What on earth is that?" he will hear "You have a sensory disorder? Oh, that makes sense!"

And I hope, too, that one day, when my son is grown, he will understand that is why I wrote about him. To pave his way.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Backstage, Center Stage

When I was in high school, all of my best friends were in theater. The boy I went to prom with Junior year and the boy I didn't go to prom with Senior year and the boy I went with instead of that other boy I didn't go with were all actors, who had taken more than one turn under the bright lights on our battered school stage. My friends went to acting workshops out of school, and sang musical theater songs at the tops of their lungs while driving with all the windows open down the highway, and worked at The Muny or The Fox in the summertime just to be near the stage.

I was never an actress. As a teenager, I had terrible stage fright. I took Drama one year in eighth grade as an elective, and I would freeze up so badly just acting in front of a twenty-person class of my friends — stammering my lines out, my whole body shaking — that my teacher took pity on me and found an excuse to declare me her "Assistant Director" for the rest of the year so that I could hide in a corner with a binder and a pen, taking notes on blocking and lighting and whispering my friends' forgotten lines.

Later, in high school, I worked backstage. I learned how to saw wood and paint shadows and hang lights and program a sound board and make an empty black box look like castle courtyard or a Manhattan living room or a submarine or a one-room schoolhouse or a forest in June. While my friends took the spotlight, and the applause, I dressed in black to better blend in with the shadows and made sure their cues came on time.

And I liked it that way.

These days, I don't stammer or shake when speaking in public. I can give a presentation to a room of 50 bloggers without breaking a sweat. I can meet famous people I admire without swooning (okay, except for Alice Bradley). I can speak on TV or a radio show without butterflies. I can interview members of Congress without blinking an eye.

But I still don't like the spotlight. I'll stand under it when I need to, because it helps me meet people I need to meet, or reach people I need to reach, or get the word out on issues that are important to me. I'll take center stage, because it helps me get things done. But I don't seek it for its own sake.

What can I say? I'm still an introvert. An introvert who has learned to play extrovert fairly effectively when need be, but still feels an uncomfortable twinge at the idea of seeing her name in lights.

After all these years, I find I still prefer to be the one behind the scenes.

Last week I learned my son's school will be having a talent show. I asked him if he'd signed up to be in it. He said no.

"I had a choice to be on stage or in the audience, and said I would just be in the audience," he explained. "I couldn't really think of any talents I have."

No talents? My child? No talents?

No way.

"Everyone has talents," I responded. "Everyone has something special they are good at. There is not a person in this world who is not talented at at least one thing. And you are talented at many things. I've seen you show lots of talent. Don't tell me you don't have any talents!"

But then, mid-stage-mother-encouragement speech, I suddenly wondered: What if he didn't want to be in the talent show? Not because he thought he was not talented, but because he had no interest in performing in front of a crowd? I mean, I want to encourage my kid to believe he can achieve great things in life and all that, but he is five years old.

What if the idea of performing in front of the whole school made him nervous? What if he was just genuinely excited at the idea of watching his friends?

It's not like there could even actually be a talent show if every kid in the school were fighting for a spot on stage.

In every theater, someone has to be in the audience.

And someone has to work backstage.

So I said, "I want you to know, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in the audience — the audience is just as important as the people on stage. Without an audience there would be no one to see a performance. So if you want to be in the audience this time, so you can watch and support your friends, I think that's a very good and very kind thing to do. Or if you would like to help your friends get ready for their performances, that would be a good thing to do, too. But I want you to remember that you do have talent, and you do know how to do lots of things that other people might like to see. So I'm happy that you want to watch your friends perform this year. And maybe next year, if you feel like it, you can take your own turn on stage . . ."

"Oh, wait!" he suddenly shouted, interrupting what was surely about to turn into a very exciting lecture from his mother on dramatic theory, "I forgot. I can play the piano!"

(He forgot he can play the piano? Seriously? How much money have I spent in the past two years on those weekly piano lessons?)

"I will play a song on the piano!" he continued. "I'll play it and everyone will watch me and it will be great."

And every day since he has been talking excitedly about how he will play the piano, in front of the whole school, and they will all see how good he is at playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Is he nervous? No. Not a whit.

Just excited as all get-out that he'll be in the spotlight.

I get the feeling this may be the only first of several performances in his future.

And I'll be so proud to support my little performer, as usual, from backstage.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Literary Overflow

The gods of literature and learning may strike me down, but this morning, while putting things away in my son's room, I had the thought, "My child has too many books."

One of the first things I bought for him before he was even born was a set of board books. My uncle sent me an Amazon gift card with instructions to use it to buy "things the baby will need," and my very first thought was, The baby will need books!

At my baby shower I was disappointed to receive only two children's books as gifts. When he was born I lamented the fact that only one small shelf on the bookcase in his nursery was actually occupied by books, the rest being filled with clothes and toys. For the first few months of his life I scoured used book sales. When people asked what he wanted for his first birthday, I slyly hinted that due to the generosity of his several sets of grandparents, he already had far too many toys for our small apartment, but a book — a book we would have room for. I repeated this message at his second birthday. And his third. And I kept using this excuse even after we moved to a bigger house.

So he acquired books about cars, books in about pets, the Thomas the Tank Engine books, the Little Bear books, and the Dr. Seuss books. Then his youngest uncles outgrew their books, and he wound up with a series of hand-me-downs.

We bought a bigger bookcase.

Then we joined the library storytime club and once a week while he listened to the librarians read books I looked over the library book sale table (Used Children's Hardbacks for Only 50 Cents!) for kids' science books that weren't too outdated. Suddenly his shelf bloomed with gently worn books about fish and birds and trees and honeybees and butterflies and the solar system.

Now he's in school and we get the Scholastic catalogs and we go to the school book fairs and his teachers send home free donated books.

And his bookcase shelves are bowed with the weight of his books. And his nightstand is covered in books. And he has books creeping onto my own overflowing bookshelf, and books on the coffee table in the living room, and books on the floor.

Last night he brought home a free book from school and this morning I realized I had literally no place to put it.

His room is already so packed with books and toys that there is certainly no room for a new shelf. He has outgrown so many of his books. Maybe it's now time to give some of them away? I mean, we'll have to make room, someday soon, for Little House on the Prairie and The Chronicles of Narnia.

But what to give away?

Sometimes, even now, when he's sad or scared at night or he's not feeling well, he still asks me to read him The Runaway Bunny or Goodnight Moon.

And I can't give away Moo Baa La La La. That's the first book he ever read all by himself! I should frame it or something.

And Green Eggs and Ham is a classic. Come on. Kids never outgrow that book. (Especially kids who are picky eaters.) So what if I have it memorized? Tossing out Green Eggs and Ham is like tossing out Chaucer.

Of course he needs two Mother Goose collections. They each have different versions of the poems. What better way to demonstrate to a five-year-old how regional variations develop in oral poetry?

A Color of His Own cannot go. That's the first book I ever read to him. And anyway I keep thinking it's sort of an allegory about exceptional people not fitting in to society and he'll probably appreciate that when he's older given his giftedness and his sensory disorder and all that.

Gatos? Hell no I am not getting rid of that little battered Baby Einstein board book about cats. It's not just the first book I ever read to him in Spanish — it's also the book I took to comfort him when he had surgery and he clutched it all night long. GATOS HAS TO STAY.


Perhaps we need a bigger house.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Things I Have Recently Learned

I have recently learned that teachers who can tell the difference between a picky eater saying a food tastes weird because he's picky and a picky eater saying a food tastes weird because he's suddenly and totally unexpectedly developed an allergy to it and is about to go into anaphylaxis are worth their weight in gold. Especially when that teacher tells you later that she is so sorry this reaction happened under her watch. (Sorry? For jumping in and making my kid toss out the Cookie of Death when lesser classroom heroes may have told him to shut up and eat? Seriously, that action earned you possible naming rights to my next kid.)

I have recently learned that yes, despite his eventual total recovery from his allergic reaction after a double dose of Benadryl, my son did in fact show several bright waving red flags indicating anaphylaxis during his allergy attack, and the emergency room doctor who treated him should have given him a child-sized shot of epinephrine immediately instead of a second dose of Benadryl, and in fact took a big fat unnecessary risk by not doing so.

(So, if your small child ever eats something and then immediately complains of an itchy tongue, breaks out in hives, develops facial swelling, flushes red all over, complains of stomach cramps, and then starts coughing without cease, and you take him to the hospital and some stonefaced overtired ER doctor who seems irked at having to even speak to you tells you to just give your kid a little more Children's Benadryl, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE STICK HIM WITH HIS OWN NEEDLES make sure you politely insist that the doctor give your child an age-appropriate dose of epinephrine.)

I have recently learned that if your primary care doctor's office staff, who are normally quite competent, call the wrong phone number to tell you the results of a key blood test indicating the possible severity of your son's brand new peanut allergy, even though you had called the office just one hour prior to confirm with the staff which number they could reach you at to give you the results, and then they leave a useless message on your answering machine saying that the results have come in without actually telling you what those results are, even though you've officially authorized the doctor's office to leave a message with the actual test results if you don't answer the phone, and then they close their office phones ten minutes early on a Friday, so that even when you miraculously manage to arrive home and hear the useless misdirected message just in time to call the doctor's office staff back according to their publicly stated phone hours, you still can't get a hold of anyone to give you the damn blood test results, and you realize you won't be able reach anyone at the doctor's office at all until Monday, and so you track down the number of the blood lab that did the test to call the lab yourself, by God — when that happens, some really nice guy at the blood lab named Pete, when he hears you trying not to cry with frustration as you relate this story to him on the phone, will totally bend protocol and fax you a fast-tracked application form so you can get the test results faxed straight to your house from the lab. (Thank you, Nice Blood Test Lab Guy Named Pete.)

I have recently learned that all those parents of kids with serious food allergies were totally right when they told me about so many people, smart people, good people, even medically trained people, not taking food allergies at all as seriously as they take other serious, potentially life-threatening health problems.

That it's really difficult even for me to wrap my mind around the idea that my child could theoretically now be as seriously endangered by a large bag of peanuts as a loaded unlocked gun, because that idea just feels so patently absurd.

That many people will ask you what medical steps you are taking to deal with a brand new food allergy, and many people will try to help you find information about food allergies, and many people will tell you all about how happy hearing about your experience makes them that their kids don't have food allergies, and many people will remind you how lucky you are because "it could be worse!"

But only a few very kind and thoughtful people will think to ask you how you feel about having just a few days ago watched your child narrowly escape death by cookie. By a #&@!& @!*&%!!! cookie!

I have recently learned that I feel pretty awful about that whole experience of holding my kid's hand in a speeding car and feeling totally helpless while he flushed redder and redder and his lips swelled and he coughed uncontrollably and I tried to stay totally calm and comfort him by talking to him about innocuous things in a cheerful voice all while wondering whether he might stop breathing at any moment, and what I would do if he did, all because he had taken two bites of a cookie.

That if I think too hard about it now, I can relive it in excruciating detail. That the whole watching your child have a bad allergic reaction thing is wretched, actually. That it sucks. That I really don't recommend panicked trips to the hospital as a regular family excursion.

I have recently learned that those really thoughtful people I mentioned, those people who take the time to ask a parent who has just experienced her child having a serious allergic reaction how she feels about what just happened, can make that parent feel a whole lot better.

I have learned that I am lucky, that it could have been worse.

I have learned that my five-year-old does not cry when I tell him he can't eat the fries at his favorite restaurant, or when I say he can't always have the same treats other children are having school. That when he sees other children eating what he no longer can. right in front of him, he does not scowl at them or mutter about how life isn't fair.

That he did not throw a fit when I took the bag of candy his grandmother sent him, and gave it away to the kids next door.

That instead of getting angry or upset about the long, long list of restrictions he now suddenly faces due to his allergy, he will instead (usually) tell me that chips are just as nice as fries, that he doesn't mind asking his teacher first before trying a cookie, that we can always buy more candy, that EpiPens aren't quite as scary as vaccine shots, that he doesn't want me to worry about him.

I have recently learned that my son is braver than I am.

That stylish, durable, comfortable, affordable, boyish medical alert bracelets for brave little boys that are not made of mystery metal or mystery plastic or some cheap nickel alloy are nearly impossible to find locally in St. Louis, but are available on the internet.

That your friend with a daughter with diabetes will not only answer your middle-of-the-night emails about where to find nice kids' medical bracelets, but ask her Twitter friends to help you out.

That I find having to wait several days for my kid's medical ID bracelet to arrive in the mail really, really, really annoying. Like, annoying enough to consider buying myself an engraving machine and making my own.

That my son's favorite kind of candy, that he wanted to give out on Valentine's Day, plain M&Ms, are now totally forbidden to him, because Mars does not segregate its production lines and Peanut M&Ms sometimes slip into the plain M&M package.

That I can order nut-free candy-coated chocolate pieces that theoretically also melt in your mouth and not in your hand on the internet. At double the price of the regular kind. Plus shipping.

That I am willing to pay double the price of the regular kind plus shipping. Not just for my kid, but, if necessary, for his whole elementary school class. Just so he can feel normal on Valentine's Day.

That Chipotle and Cici's Pizza and Burger King are peanut-free restaurants. That Chick-fil-A and Chili's are not.

That I am channeling so much ridiculous energy into things like getting my kid a decent ID bracelet and finding some nut-safe candy before Valentine's Day and making spreadsheets of restaurant nutrition information because those are problems I can fix. I can fix those things. I need to do things I can fix right now.

Because I can't fix him.

I can't fix the peanut allergy.

Not right now.

Maybe not ever.


Bonus Thing I Have Recently Learned:

That, according to the long-awaited results of his allergy blood test, my son, who has been begging me for a pet cat almost every day since the day he spoke his second word (which was "Kit-tee-cat!" which later changed, adorably, to the inventive Spanglish hybrid,"Gato-ki!" a joyous cry I heard sung out daily, for years, to real cats toy cats and pictures of cats and shadows that sorta looked like cats, with more enthusiasm than "Mama," until he was somehow suddenly old enough to hand me written explanations of Why We Should Have Cats instead) is apparently not only suddenly allergic to peanuts but also suddenly allergic to cats.

Nice one, universe. Nice.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Things I Need To Know

How do I transition from, "I know your sensory disorder sometimes makes trying new things harder for you than for other people, but remember, new foods are not going to actually hurt you. If something tastes bad you can just spit it out. It won't kill you. Please try new foods. Try everything!" to "Always ask an adult before you take a bite out of anything you haven't had before. Read labels on food packages. Don't eat or even touch anything that says PEANUTS or PEANUT BUTTER or PEANUT FLAVOR or MAY CONTAIN NUTS or MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF NUTS. Don't allow other kids to share food with you. Don't eat at a restaurant, ever, unless I am there with you and I've brought your Epi-Pen."?

How do I do this? How do I tell a child who once spent an entire year of his life starving himself nearly to the point of mandatory feeding tube insertion because he was afraid of eating food that certain foods he could eat without trouble a week ago can now, suddenly, KILL HIM, without sending four years' worth of constant effort to get him to eat well careening back to square one?

How do I convince a child for whom certain shirt tags feel like little knives constantly stabbing his back, a child who can feel a tiny crease in his sock as though it were a rock in his shoe, a child who is terrified of needles, that he must now carry an Epi-Pen with him at all times, and practice repeatedly with a dummy pen to learn how to inject himself with it, and that if he feels a severe reaction coming on and there is no one around to help, he must use it, he must stab himself with a needle, and he must hold it there on his leg, and he must hold still and let the medicine flow, no matter how much it hurts him, no matter how scared he is?

How do I protect a child who was already quirky, skinny, short, bookish, nerdy, dreamy, uncoordinated, red-haired, and dangerously smart from getting teased by children or excluded by adults even more than he already was before, because he now has an allergy that many people seem to find so inconvenient to deal with that they'd like to isolate the children who have it entirely from other kids at school?

How do I convince not-so-medically-savvy family friends and relatives who have seen my kid eat peanuts before without trouble that no, he can't have just a little, and yes, in fact, three bites of a peanut butter cookie could actually, now, kill my son?

How do I make myself really believe the words of our brand new allergist, that my child probably won't die from this, that he may even outgrow it, that there are treatments down the line that could help him overcome this entirely in five years, or ten, that this won't change his life to terribly, that really, truly, everything will be okay?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Reaction

When Isaac was eight months old, he had emergency surgery to remove a periorbital dermoid cyst — a sort of benign tumor on his skull, next to his eye — after a CT scan had determined it was less than a millimeter away from infiltrating his brain.

After the surgery, my son, who had already proven himself quite a finicky eater in my early attempts at introducing table foods, became extremely orally defensive, and began to refuse solid food almost entirely. I did not know, at the time, that he had sensory processing disorder, and had no idea what was causing him to refuse food, or what sort of therapy might help him.

In the months that followed, his weight dropped lower and lower on the growth chart, and his growth slowed, until he finally met the criteria of failure to thrive. We took him to see several pediatric medical specialists without a successful diagnosis. During our months-long search for answers and help, we had him tested for common food allergies with a simple blood test, but the test came back negative.

We were advised at one point by a pediatric dietician to introduce peanut butter into his diet, because of its high nutrient and calorie content. (It is, after all, what doctors feed starving children.)

I was skeptical of this advice. Back then, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents delay introduction of peanut products until age 3 to reduce the chance of allergy (this advice has since been shown to be not only totally scientifically inaccurate but in fact detrimental — think the "All those doctors who have been telling parents for decades to put babies to sleep on their stomachs to prevent SIDS have just been scientifically proven to be totally talking out of their posteriors! Because they've been actually CAUSING SIDS with that unscientific, unproven advice! Who knew?"sort of wrong and detrimental — but of course I did not know that in 2005).

Plus, having seen his strong gag reaction to other really sticky foods, I wasn't optimistic that he would appreciate the finer points of peanut butter. But at this point I was desperate. And we had already had him tested for allergies once, hadn't we? So I took the dietician's advice. And at the age of 14 months, I fed my son a spoonful of peanut butter for the first time.

He promptly spit it out. And gagged. And made a face. And cried. And refused to eat or even touch anything else on his plate, apparently on the grounds that it might have been tainted with the Horror That Was Peanut Butter.

Fifteen minutes later, his eyelids puffed, and his cheeks swelled to twice their normal size.

And. I. freaked. out.

I was home alone with him, without a car. My husband was at work several minutes away. I called 911. Two burly EMTs from the fire department down the street showed up with the fire ambulance.

And they laughed at me.

"I don't see anything wrong with that baby," one said. "You're overreacting, I'm sure he's fine," said the other. "I don't see this swelling you're talking about."

I realized with horror that because my son was so thin for a toddler — he was in the third percentile for weight — the EMTs could not tell his face was swollen at all. They thought he looked like a normal baby. He did look like a normal baby. But not my baby.

They took my child's temperature and then left, refusing to take me to the hospital. I gave my son a dose of liquid Benadryl, scooped him up, and ran to our family doctor's office, which, thankfully, only was a mile and a half down the street. As soon as I walked in the door the receptionist, who had seen my son before, could tell there was a problem.

By that time, the swelling was already going down, and my annoyed and itchy toddler was returning to his normal cheerful self. But our doctor ordered a series of allergy tests at Children's Hospital just to confirm that peanuts, which seemed the obvious culprit, had truly been the cause.

For days, waiting for the testing appointment, I worried, convinced my child had a peanut allergy. I rounded up all the food in our house that was not clearly labeled peanut-free — including several of my son's few accepted foods — and despaired at the thought of throwing it all away. I already had an underweight child who was afraid of food for no apparent good reason. How many orders of magnitude more difficult would it be to try to help that child overcome his fear of food if he now had a legitimate reason to be afraid?

In those few days I lived the afflicted life of a parent who has just discovered her child has a food allergy. And then came the tests.

And they all came back negative. Every single one. Including the one for peanuts.

"He's not allergic," the allergist said. "There is no way he would have a total lack of reaction to peanut protein in a skin test if he had just had serious a reaction a couple of days before. It's something else in your house. Maybe he put his hands on a counter right after you cleaned it and then rubbed his eyes and got cleaner in his eyes, right before lunch? Kids this age have sensitive skin. We see mysterious reactions like this fairly often. You might never know what it was. Just hope it doesn't happen again."

So I threw out all my synthetic household cleaners. And a few weeks later, I tried peanut butter again. He still didn't like it. But his face didn't swell up.

In the four years since then, he has never taken a liking to peanut butter sandwiches. But he's certainly had the occasional Reese's Peanut Butter cup, and Peanut M&Ms. He's had trail mix with peanuts, and chocolate sundaes with peanuts, and peanuts in granola. He's eaten french fries cooked in peanut oil more times than I can count (Before you judge that junk food list, Judgy McJudger parents: remember — picky eater! Who needs to gain weight).

He certainly doesn't eat peanut products daily, or even weekly. But he has had them at least a couple of times a month for years.

Two days ago, at a school assembly, he tried a peanut butter cookie. And he made a face. And he spit it out.

And he broke out in hives.

And flushed bright red. And developed a blister on his upper lip. And he started itching all over, and complaining that his stomach hurt.

And then he started coughing and he couldn't stop even after a Benadryl Fastmelt and we had to take him to the emergency room. Where a doctor with a bedside manner about as warm and friendly as an avalanche falling on you gave him a double dose of Benadryl, prescribed us an Epi-Pen, terrified my five-year-old by jabbing a dummy demonstration pen into his thigh just to show us how it worked, without explaining to my son what it was first or warning him (and without telling him it had no needle in it) and then charged us $200 for ten minutes of his time.

And now I'm waiting. Waiting for an appointment at the allergist's office. To find out whether my son is allergic to peanuts.