The Invisibility of Mothering

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Credit: Volcan Olmez

Motherhood sometimes makes you feel like you’ve lost yourself and become invisible to the world you used to know.

We used to enjoy going to lunch together mid-week. Just my little toddler boy and me, while the older brother was at school. He brought his stuffed animal and a make-believe dragon toy and we sat in a booth together in the after-lunch time when there weren’t so many diners.

Our waitress was a young 20-something woman with a bright smile and an attentive, busy nature. She didn’t mind the ketchup mess he was making with his fries (extra tip money for that girl, I thought).

I listened to his three-year-old voice tell me his story about his dragon and his stuffed animal, and I watched his delicious face and his long eyelashes and all his amazing silly light.

I had to keep an eye on my watch – the older brother would be dropped off at the bus stop within the hour. But it was like time wasn’t passing anymore. I had learned to be in the moment with my kids, finally. You have to, or you’ll miss the really good stuff.

His favorite part was the ice cream, so of course, we stayed for that. And as he got himself all messy in birthday cake ice cream, we talked together about his favorite characters from his favorite PBS show. He even sang a little bit of the song from it for me right there. We both laughed and sang it together one more time.

The light from that boy’s eyes, and the lilt of his laughter. If I could have frozen time right then and there, I would have, and I’d still be there now.

It’s indescribable that sound of your own child’s laughter. Knowing that it’s fleeting makes it all the more precious. You know his laugh won’t sound exactly like that a year from now. He’s changing every single second. You can’t bear to miss ANY of it.

No one knew I was there that day. No one was watching. I was invisible. The world was moving on without me while I sat there with him and soaked up the hour and his laughter.

I’d been feeling so invisible. Not ungrateful — just as if my former identity and my “noticeable” life had disappeared, in a weird way. I was just “mom” for now and that was important, rewarding and wonderful. But it was sometimes sad and really hard for me, too. It was a really big part of me I left behind when I became a mom. It was surprising to me that I often felt invisible.

The waitress handed me the check, and as she placed it in front of me on the table, she looked at him and smiled. She turned to me, looked right in my eyes, and said, “You’re a really great mom.”

It was so surprising and unexpected, my breath caught a little bit and I forced out an awkward giggle. I smiled and said, “Oh, thank you. That’s so nice of you.”

She said, “No really, I’ve been watching you with him. You’re a great mom.

I smiled. I looked at him, with his smiling sticky face and long eyelashes. She smiled at us again and rushed away to another customer.

I was surprised at my tears, really. I had to just wipe ’em away before anyone even noticed.

To be noticed like that. When you’re resigned to feeling invisible.

It was a gift, what that young woman did for me that day. A lifelong gift. Every time I remember it, I stand firm in my belief that everything I gave up for this parenthood job was worth it.

He’s 14 years old now. My little man, with his voice already changing. Tall as me, with long slender fingers having replaced the little sticky ones. Same long eyelashes, though…

What I would give to go back to that day.

My Playroom Blues

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Where do YOU keep it all, parents?

That cache of objects and artifacts from your children’s baby years and toddlerhoods that you can’t bear to part with?

I have a room full of it in my basement. It’s a separate room down there that we call “the playroom.” When my sons, now 14 and 17, were small, they spent hours together in that room, playing with Legos, Playmobil, Matchbox and Imaginext toys …. I could hear them playing together and laughing uproariously while I was upstairs making dinner or cleaning.

Parents of small children, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS… You have no idea how fast things will change. It’s inevitable.

There was a subtle shift when my older son turned 13ish… the increased self-consciousness and onset of pubescence was almost imperceivable when he was 12 and still had a 9-year old sibling. They still laughed together, and the older brother still enjoyed playing and being silly with the younger one. He probably welcomed respite from the increasingly challenging and rapidly-maturing social culture he was encountering at school.

But when our younger one crossed that same threshold, we had already somehow crossed a seismic shift in their relationship.

There are miles of distance in the divide between the worlds of boys in 8th grade and 11th grade. Eighth grade is still silly boy-child goofiness and memes about unfortunately timed farts and Super Smash Bros Brawl Nintendo game characters. 11th grade is (holy heck, how did we get here?!) college tour season. Mini-adulthood. At the threshold of grown-up-ness. One freaking foot out the door, people. It’s hard. (Have you watched the scene in the movie “Boyhood” where the mom, played so authentically by Rosanna Arquette, says to her just-turned-adult son, “I just thought there’d be…. more.” Shit gets real.)

The house is a lot quieter these days. My sons are not mean to one another, they simply co-exist in their own spheres. On their separate screens. For their father and me, it’s hard to watch. We know this is another developmental phase along a continuum. We both remember times when we experienced similar separateness from our own siblings — it’s perfectly normal development. It’s still hard to watch.

My husband decided to clean up the basement last week, to get rid of the “stuff” we no longer use or need in it, and he targeted the playroom first. He seemed mystified that I’d let all that stuff sit in there for so long, gathering dust. I looked at him squarely in the eyes and said, “Good luck with that.” He looked at me, confused by the answer. I said, “You’ll see.”

“The playroom” has been the bane of my existence for the past several years. I gather up my strength, determined that I’ll make headway and clear it all out into boxes headed to Goodwill. Within an hour, I’m wallowing in nostalgic melancholy about the years when they were small.

I can’t bear to put into the Goodwill boxes the Imaginext castle set with the knights and the dragon they used to fly around the house, the Wall-E movie plastic “Eve” with the little compartment in her belly to hold the little plastic shoe-plant she protected, or the R2-D2 robot they learned how to make dance to the cantina scene song by telling it in their little-boy voices, “R2! Dance time!”… it feels too much like closing the door on their childhood. It’s too hard to acknowledge that their “little selves” are both gone. I know they’re turning into wonderful young adults, but it still feels like loss. And you grieve losses.

Would it help to hire someone to cart it all away while I cover my eyes and pretend it’s not happening? Absolutely. But I can’t bring myself to do that, either.

My husband emerged upstairs from the playroom after two hours of his attempted clearing. Seated at my desk, I paused my work, and turned to look at him. His expression looked more like someone who’s just been told his dog is dying than a man who triumphantly cleared a roomful of clutter. He said, “Oh, my goodness…That room.” I nodded my head slowly. “Yep,” I said.

Now he understands. Will there come a day when we can muster the strength? The option of hiring someone to do the job for us is looking better and better.

Our Kids Are Not In a Race

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[This piece was originally published by Parent.co on March 30, 2016.]

The call came from my son’s math teacher (I’ll call her “Ms. W”). She wanted to discuss her recommendation for his freshman math class placement next year in high school.

I could hear the nervousness in her voice as she described her perception of his performance in her honors-level math class this year.

“He’s smart and very capable, and his test scores put him just above the line for a recommendation for Honors Geometry next year.” This was not news to me. My son had transitioned from elementary school to middle school fairly seamlessly, and was placed in honors-level math and language arts classes in 7th and 8th grade. He was earning all A’s in his classes every marking period. Maybe an occasional B+ in science or math.

Math is the only subject my son has always described as the one he “hates.”

Although he’s capable of learning every concept taught, it doesn’t come naturally for him. He has to work hard in math to get A’s and B’s. It’s the only subject that has, on many occasions, brought him to angry tears of frustration. He’s told me that math simply makes him feel stupid.

He is, by nature, a “creative.” He draws, he cartoons, he makes videos and he writes amazingly well. He will not be a doctor, a scientist or an engineer. Those professions, and others that require heavy hard science and math, just don’t appeal to him.

Ms. W continued on, “In 9th grade, the intensity really ramps up in honors math. I know he doesn’t like math, although he works really hard at it. I would love to see him in a situation where he’s comfortably performing well and he feels really good about himself.”

Bingo. It was a no brainer for me to agree with her recommendation that he be placed in the “academic” level geometry class next year.

When I instantly agreed with her recommendation, her sigh of relief was audible. The tension in her voice evaporated. She had prepared herself for the inevitable parent pushback. The pushback that comes instinctively from a parent who fears their child is falling behind in the race. About my decision, she said, “That’s so refreshing. Parents just don’t do that in this town.”

The following week, I told a group of my mom friends about my decision over coffee. One friend with a daughter in her junior year at our high school had an expression of shock on her face, and looked at me like I’d sprouted a second nose. She asked, “But aren’t you worried he’ll be a year behind?”

I smiled as kindly as I could and said, “Behind what? It’s not a race.” She’s still not convinced. She thinks I’m closing a door of opportunity for my son.

What is this fear that is driving parents to crack the whip behind their kids and push them until they crumble?

How many news headlines about teens being exhausted, depressed and suicidal do we have to read before we get it?

This isn’t a race.

Parenting is an opportunity to raise happy, self-confident, well-adjusted human beings who understand they have strengths and gifts to offer the world, but that not everyone excels at everything. That’s just life. Our job is to help them find their strengths and gifts, and to nurture those. To support them when they put effort into mastering areas in which they naturally excel.

I talked with my son about the discussion I had with Ms. W and the decision I made. He feels really good (and relieved!) about it. He’ll take honors-level English and Science and he’ll audition for the a capella choir (he’s a talented singer and it’s something he really enjoys).

He’s looking forward to his freshman year. Many of his classmates are already nervous and worried that the academic pressure in high school will be too great.

Sadly, for many of them, it will be.

Shifting Gears to Fully Appreciate the Gift

IMG_3184Smack in the middle of editing a piece that’s due to a client by noon tomorrow, I get the school district robocall to my cell phone telling me my boys are being released early from school due to the snow storm that is becoming heavier than expected.

Drat. Just as I was getting into my writing groove.

I begin the mental shifting of gears that every part-time work-from-home mom knows so well. Did I seriously expect to finish what I’d started? Time to put my “Mom” hat back on.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it sometimes makes me angry and irritable to have to shift gears from work to family. It’s frustrating to have my progress interrupted and to reset my expectations about how the rest of my day will be spent.

This is how I shift those gears:

I sit for a few minutes before they walk in the door from their buses, I close my eyes, and I focus. I focus on the way their little faces looked when they were just two and five years old. I focus on how my younger son’s lisp used to sound and how he replaced the phrase “what happens if” with his own unique “whunsif”. I remember how my older son used to sing the chorus to “Leaving on a Jetplane” whenever we were headed on a trip to visit his grandfather in Florida.

I think about my younger boy’s classmate, now in 5th grade, still courageously fighting an inoperable brain cancer she’s had since she was just five years old. I think about a former coworker who lost her son when he was just 21, two weeks before his college graduation, when he was in the back seat of a car that was struck by a drunk driver.

In just four short years, my older son will leave for college. Four years?! That’s the blink of an eye. My younger son still snuggles with his two favorite blankets (his “cozies”) when we watch TV. I tell myself, “Momma, stop being such an idiot. These days are numbered, and your babies are leaving you.”

Gear shifting now fully completed, I hear my boys clambering in through the front door, dropping their backpacks on the floor, shaking the snow off their jackets, kicking their wet boots off and laughing about something someone said to one of them on the bus ride home.

I walk to them, grinning from ear to ear at their bemused faces, and I tell them we need to grab a quick bite and then head out to the nearby golf course to go sledding. They agree it’s an excellent idea.

The goal of parenthood is to raise independent humans. Simple, really. Tweet: The goal of parenthood is to raise independent humans. Simple, really. http://ctt.ec/fmBaf+

Teach them how to negotiate their paths through life, how to make good decisions and be kind to others. And to pick up after themselves and make their own food.

You’re teaching them how to leave you. That’s why I find parenting so difficult. You’re teaching these little creatures that you love more than life itself how to be so independent, they will not only be able to leave you, they will want to leave you. Pure and utter heartbreak, isn’t it?

As the years pass, if things go as planned (I know, they sometimes don’t), you watch your kids make these astounding leaps forward. They’re growing. They’re maturing. They’re getting it right. They’re cutting the strings loose, one by one. And it’s happening much, much too fast.

I’m now fully able to recognize that this unexpected shortened school day and interruption of my work progress is nothing less than a sparkling, glorious gift from the universe. I’m determined to gratefully soak up every single second of it.


Originally published by Parent.co: http://www.parent.co/shifting-gears-to-fully-appreciate-the-gift/

My Kids Don’t Love Nature Like I Do

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These guys are so darned CUTE!

I’ve always had an unusual fascination with wildlife. Growing up, I not only had multiple dogs and cats, but also birds, hamsters, gerbils and mice.

I majored in Biology (of course). I have excellent memories of camping with my Mammalogy 101 class right outside the mouth of a bat cave in northern Vermont. Junior year, my Evolutionary Biology professor noticed my overzealousness and invited me to spend a few summer weeks in the Arizona desert catching geckos by the tail (he was gathering data on tail-regeneration). I declined, because my boyfriend would be in Connecticut all summer (Stupid! I should have chosen the geckos.).

You get the picture. I was really into weird nature stuff that most girls don’t like.

So, naturally, I assumed my kids would be just as fascinated as I am. I have two boys, and boys are supposed to get into that kind of thing, right? What I’ve come to realize is that you can’t convince someone to be a nature lover. But God help me, I’ve tried.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gleefully purchased wildlife-lover items for my kids hoping they’ll find bugs and nature as compelling as I do. Without fail, after half-heartedly feigning interest, my kids cease to notice these “projects” and go back to their Legos, Nintendo DS’s and iPods. Sadly, I’m saddled with keeping these creatures alive while they languish in their various containers (“habitat” is a cruel distortion of the truth in every instance I’m about to describe).

The African Dwarf Frogs lasted almost two godforsaken years in their little self-contained aquatic cube/prison. You only needed to feed them once every few days, so when the first one finally died, I found it afloat on the surface with the other frog shooting daggers at me with its eyes. The second one gave up hope immediately afterwards and died within a week. No one was upset (not even me). I’m not sure the kids even remembered we had frogs after the first week they’d been in our house.

The praying mantis egg case in the little netted cube habitat was, seemingly, a dud. I glued it onto a stick as instructed, and we checked on that damned thing every two or three hours for two weeks. Even I had given up hope. Then, on the day I’d resigned myself to admitting defeat and tossing it into the garbage, I awoke to find – I kid you not – about 300 newborn centimeter-long mantises crawling around in that container. The kids found it fascinating for exactly 6.5 minutes and then ran off to claim their Pop-Tarts.

The praying mantis episode sort of ran me ragged. I had to get rid of all but one of the teeny tiny mantises within a day, unless we wanted to witness them killing and eating each other (in retrospect, maybe that would’ve captured the kids’ interest). I released them into the yard, and the one I kept became my every-waking-moment obsession for the next three months.

Mantises grow slowly, and they ONLY. EAT. LIVE. FOOD. Each morning, my husband giggled and smirked through the window at me as I traipsed around the yard, cursing and swatting mosquitoes away from my face as I searched for tiny aphids and baby inchworms. Finally, I resorted to purchasing flightless fruit flies from Petco.

Yes, this is the explanation for why a person would actually shell out cash for a small container full of maggots.  Tweet: Yes, this is the explanation for why someone would actually shell out cash for a small container full of maggots. http://ctt.ec/d1ybp+

The mantis only grew to about an inch long before he was accidentally murdered by a friend to whom I’d entrusted his care while we vacationed on Cape Cod (In truth, his death was likely due to a change in environment. That’s what I told her anyway – she was riddled with guilt.). Thank God that was over.

I end this diatribe with my current dismal situation. Christmas before last, I purchased a “self-cleaning” fish tank made by those damned “As Seen On TV” people. You can already see where this is going, can’t you? When the algae on the sides of the tank began to obstruct the view of the colorful Betta fish inside, I did some googling and purchased a couple of Inca Gold snails. I now must not only feed the fish its pellets, but must remember to throw in occasional bits of blanched cucumber to keep the snails happy (because, of course, snails don’t survive on algae alone).

self clean tank
“Self-cleaning” fish tank.

The system isn’t exactly working. For some reason, the snails are now slacking off on their algae cleaning jobs (too fat and happy on the cucumber bits?), and I can’t really even see the fish unless I look down into the tank from above. Why do these damned things live so long???

My husband is totally mortified that we even have this green-slimed container in the house, and he keeps pleading, “Just get rid of the fish for God’s sake! Put it outside!” (it’s 20 degrees today). But I can’t. At heart, I’m still a lover of all living things and it’s my duty to keep this guy swimming until his natural death.

Betta fish are pretty hardy though. I’m thinking he can probably make it just fine while we’re gone on vacation next week and the house is lowered to 50 degrees.

Much to the horror of my husband, my younger son just asked for a bearded dragon for his next birthday. I am in serious and dire need of an intervention, friends.. Please remind me about how this will end badly, because I’ve already caught myself perusing bearded dragon care and feeding sites online.


 

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