Why the %@$!! is baby crying? Coping with the gray area

treehouse

My oldest brother built a tree house nestled in the power lines, about twenty-five feet off the ground. It had glass windows, plus who knows what other amenities; I never went up there to see. By the time I was old enough to climb trees, his fort wasn’t in the best of shape anymore. Also, I was kind of a chicken.

But I would gaze up at it, and wonder how in the world our mother could watch her boy shimmy up that tree with hands full of nails and saws and glass. There he was, teetering outside her authority, outside her ability to keep him safe.

“How did you know he would be OK?” I asked her once, long before having kids of my own.

She thought for a while before answering.

“Being a parent is hard,” she said finally.

This was my first glimpse into the gray area of parenting, but it was years before I figured out that most of parenting is spent meandering around in the unknown.

There is a game called “Why is Baby Crying?” which consists of a set of dice printed with phrases like “dirty diaper” “sleepy,” and “hungry.” I didn’t understand the premise at all–let alone the humor of it–until I was holding my own wailing newborn, wondering what in the world was wrong.

“Why is she crying?” I asked my mother, since I had tried everything I could think to soothe her. My mom had had four kids, after all, and we were alive and well. She must know something.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Now what?

Maybe the dice should have said “I don’t know” on every side, or offered suggestions that frazzled, sleep-deprived parents might neglect to try. You know, such as:  “put baby down and take a deep breath,” or “have a glass of wine,” or, even better, “find a friend to watch the tiny tyrant for an hour.” There is no secret path around the gray area, just a few tools to clutch while you fumble through there.

Now that my kids are eight and ten, I’ve learned to tolerate some of the gray area with a little less anxiety. However, if I had the chance to sit someone down who KNEW ALL OF THE ANSWERS–someone like Dr. Spock was supposed to be–I would have a few questions.

Here are a few that have crossed my mind lately–feel free to add yours in the comments section.

*How do you know when to head to the emergency room, and when to say “walk it off?”

*How do you balance everyone’s needs so that your kids feel safe and loved, and you don’t lose your cool, identity, relationship, or mind?

*How do you quickly restore domestic harmony when your spouse gives your child three or four times the recommended dosage of Milk of Magnesia?

*What’s the nicest possible way to explain to your child that her favorite jacket and uncombed hair make her look like a homeless person?

*How do you guide your kids to make better decisions without them noticing and becoming resentful?

*What’s the best way to survive a child’s birthday party with a hangover?

*How do you keep your sense of humor when you get a flat tire, the brakes go out, the hot water heater spontaneously combusts, and you get a parking ticket all in the same weekend?

*How can you warn your kids about the dangers of the world without terrifying them or–worse–getting them excited to flirt with disaster?

And, last but not least:

*If child #1 has a fever of 104, has been crying and moaning for hours, but finally gets to sleep, and then her older sister leans over and vomits all over her bed, do you wake her up and change the sheets, or wait until morning?

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Firstborn

From ingaphotography.wordpress.com
From ingaphotography.wordpress.com

I was shell-shocked, sleepless,

mostly numb for three days straight.

On the fourth day, I was holding our tiny creation, mesmerized by her miniature, spastic gestures,

when I felt a sudden rush of sorrow and overwhelming futility.

Who am I to invite someone new into this crazy world?

Though fierce when provoked, I am so small, my shell hopelessly permeable.

What protection can I offer this perfect and vulnerable creature?

I wept for the confusion in store for her, for the first time she will be disappointed–perhaps by me–

And for the first time her heart will be broken.

Hold them very close, then drop them curbside

©2009/2013 Beret Olsen
©2009 Beret Olsen

The moment you announce that the free ride is over, that this parasite had better get out of your uterus, a tiny tyrant emerges, and you wonder if you might possibly cram it back inside, just to secure a few more moments of sanity and solitude.

This wee, adorable creature demands all of your time, attention, energy, and soul. There is nothing and no one else that matters as much. This is why cherished friendships shrivel, marriages are raked over the coals, and newish parents become unbearable. You are suddenly up at all hours of the day and night. You cannot finish a sentence or focus on anything uttered by an adult. Worst of all, the things you smirked and said you would never do, you see and hear yourself doing without apology.

A little shame, perhaps, but no apology.

The boundaries blend. It is not possible to distinguish where you end and where the child begins. You anticipate their needs, and punish yourself when you can’t identify or remedy a discomfort. They are the center of your universe.

And they grow.

Imagine that you are beside yourself  because you are stuck playing Barbies yet again. Each minute stretches into an eternity. You can feel yourself devolving, while politically astute essays you composed in a past life unwrite themselves in your head. You parade a stupid piece of malformed plastic around, babbling the required perky gibberish–all while secretly wondering, “what is the meaning of my life?”

And then, the very next time the Barbies come out from under the bed, just as you are mentally muttering obscenities, your daughter turns to you, and from her lips come the most surprising news.

“Mom.” Accompanying eyeroll. “We are playing in here. Please shut the door.”

A lump forms in your throat. You were already gearing up to feel resentful for the next 45 minutes. What are you supposed to do now?

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–

Read this yesterday, and it snagged in my consciousness. Both sides speak well and truthfully. I think we have conflated strength and power with their cultural definitions, and it is helpful to step back and rethink. I had trouble posting this, though, and couldn’t get the youtube video to embed properly. The link to the poem’s performance is in there, and definitely worth a watch. It also provides the context for Rarasaur’s essay.

TO THE GIRL WITH THE “SHRINKING” MOTHER–

10/22/2013 · by  · in journals. ·

I listened to your poem last month, for the first time. I know, I’m a little late to the party. Your performance was in April.

It was sent my way via an article that said it explained the plight of women, who sacrifice for men. I’ll be honest. Activism that suggests someone is behind because someone else is ahead bothers me. Feminism along those lines is what makes me reject the label with a ferocity that would surprise most people– given that I am the “breadwinner” of my home, and in most ways live the feminist ideal. This type of activism suffocates me, and angers me, and limits my brothers and sisters alike– and though I didn’t intend to– I listened to that poem without a beginner’s mind. I sought offense, and I found it– even though your poem was great, and your performance was brilliant.

 

I wrote my own slam poetry response. The first parodied yours. Yours played on the idea that men of age are often significantly larger than their wives. Mine played off the idea that women live longer.

“Men of my family have been shaving away seconds of life, for women, for decades.”

The second poem I wrote was structured like yours as well, but along the way led into the idea that my mother is the strongest person I know.

This made me reassess my reaction to your poem, and create an alternate possibility that I’d like to share with you.

You see, I’m nearly 30, and it was just a smidge over a decade ago that I would have scoffed at the idea of my mother possessing any strength at all.

I could barely look her in the eye for a whole year of my teens.  She seemed like such a waste– this stunning, genius of a woman– reduced to a mother with a near broken back, working all the time for other people’s desires.  I don’t know if she’s ever slept more than 8 hours in a row.  As soon as she gains something, she gives it away– whether it was space, or knowledge, or money. Every time I saw her, I feared the same would happen to me.

I worried that I had been taught to drop my achievements at a moment’s notice– in the name of handcuffs created to hold women back– just because of my mom’s dedication to those same restrictions. I was worried that I was born into a kind of slavery.

squigg1And then there was the car accident.

You see, I have 5 brothers and sisters– so not everyone fits in one car.  My big brother had the baby seat, so he was following behind us with my baby sister.  The rest of us were with my mom.  It was a dark night and we were driving back from dropping my father at the airport– down a fast-moving, icy highway. There were black ice warnings out, and I was in the front seat because I could almost always spot the slippery stuff.

It started to snow, in torrents hard enough to push at the car, and then from the side mirror, I saw it. My brother’s car spun out of control and rolled off the road and down a hill. I screamed his name, and my mom– who witnessed the same thing– put her hand out on mine. She sang a song, to keep the kids in the back of the car asleep, and drove steadily on until there was a place to safely stop. There were tears running down her face, but her voice was clear. She parked the car on the side, put me in charge, took off her 2 inch heels, and walked into the dark snowstorm barefoot– bravely towards what could have been the mere bodies of her children.

squigg3I’m not sure on the details, but my brother’s car was started again, and pushed up the hill– and both he and my baby sister were fine.

When I saw my mom finally walking back to me, hours later, the sun was coming up– she was soaked through, and covered in dirt and blood.  She was holding her children– and a stranger– and she was smiling.

It occurred to me then that a passerbyer might see her as a woman down on her luck, in a position of weakness– but it was the most invulnerable thing I had ever seen. The sort of strength many people never get the chance to witness in a lifetime.

It sounds like you might have blessed by the benefit of an equally dedicated mother.

A dedication to sacrificing is such a brittle concept, and can look a lot like weakness– like late night trips to the fridge for yogurt and wine from a measuring cup– but it is more powerful than words or swords.
squigg5

I of course do not know your specific situation, but the next time you see her tucked away in a small space, consider the possibility that it is because she doesn’t need much space to live the life of her dreams, and that she has faith in your ability to do something brilliant with the extra room.

And next time you see worn hands, or a tired back, consider the idea that it is because she has made a priority out of carrying those who cannot move forward themselves.

When the people around her seem to grow at the cost of her loss, lookagain.  Their expansion is her battle cry.  She is victorious through nurture and sacrifice.

It is a power connected to the heart of the universe.  A strength that fueled a nun to care for lepers, and prompted a man to share a dream of equality.  It echoes through every positive change humans have ever seen, and grows every day under the protection of guardians like our moms.

Does that really sound like shrinking to you?  Because to me it sounds like something big enough to expand its way right past the hemmed edges of the galaxy.

squigg4I realize now that I wasn’t worried that I would becomemy mother. I was worried that I would never become the sort of person worth the sacrifices she made.

Snaps to you for showing off your power.  I hope you know that your mom is right to give to you: you are worthy of all the good this world has to offer.  If you can accept that truth, I think you’ll find you’ll stop apologizing for empowerment.  Just do good with it.

With love from a big sister born of the same big power,
Rara

_______________________________

I probably won’t respond to any comments about feminism, because it’s an issue that goes much deeper than my type of blog– but as always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts as long as you play nice.  This post has seen the light of day due to a Daily Post prompt, asking about the post I was most nervous to publish, and what it was like to set it free.  I’ll get back to you on that last part of the question depending on how scary my comment section ends up being.

Have you ever driven on black ice? It’s one of my top fears, even before this night.

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–.

Just Breathe

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

Though going to art school was inherently non-rational, I approached it in a methodical, uptight manner which might seem out of character. As a non-traditional, second-degree student and mother of two, I was not at a point in my life where it was acceptable to dabble and meander and find myself. I took the requisite courses, in the prescribed order, and checked them off my list.

But one summer, realizing I had a single elective to squander, I inexplicably found myself signing up for a sewing class in the Fashion Design department. I did not admit this to my classmates in photography, however. It seemed shallow and irresponsible. Maybe a tad shameful.

It was also ridiculously inconvenient. It met two evenings a week, from 6-10 pm, which meant that my husband had to rearrange his work schedule, and home life was turned upside-down for half of the summer. In order to get to the first class, I had to leave my family stranded and carless in Tahoe, drive three and a half hours, eat Taco Bell in the car, and change out of my sweats in the parking lot of Sports Basement. Then I drove back.

Meanwhile, I wondered…why would I invest so much time and money on this class when I already knew how to sew? I could sew on a button; I could hem pants. It wasn’t like I wanted to sit around and make homely, ill-fitting clothes in all of my ‘extra time.’ How would this help me in my art practice? How would this contribute to the world? What was I doing?

But I went anyway, and after covering everything I knew in the first twenty minutes, what unfolded thereafter was a complete surprise.

We were a small and motley crew: a paralegal, a woman from student affairs, a RISD student in the Bay Area for the summer, a chipper, chatty nineteen-year-old obsessed with lingerie, and a tough guy who worked in the wood shop. Plus me.

Outside, it was freezing in the San Francisco summer way. The fog would roll in right at the start of class, casting a gloomy pall over our fair city as I hunted for parking. Inside the sewing room, however, it was eternally close and sweaty. We hunched over our commercial machines wearing as little as socially acceptable. We lingered long after the official class ended–often staying until midnight–sewing an imaginary world made of fabric and thread.

We talked, ate picnic dinners on the cutting tables, and commiserated over the evil overlock machine, but mostly we just sewed in a zen-like stupor. Fans oscillating, music cranked, we listened to an endless loop of loud, meditative dance music selected by the club-hopping RISD kid.

I made a skirt I sort of like, an ugly, uncomfortable shirt, and two princess dresses–the last of which was my masterpiece. Including the muslin mock-up, I must have spent thirty or forty hours on that thing. But when I brought it home for my five-year-old, she wore it once and let it languish in the back of the closet. A little peeved, I asked her about it. “I’m not really into princesses anymore,” she said. “I’ve started my rock star phase.”

First of all, #$%*()@!

Second of all, what five-year-old talks like that?

Still, it doesn’t really matter. That class gave me endless joy.

To this day, when I hear the first couple of bars of Breathe by Telepopmusik, I am immediately transported to those long, hot, unstructured stretches of happy time. If something important is due, if I am frustrated or inconsolable, if I have 30 seconds to sit in the car before picking up my kids, I pop in my headphones, and there I am in the sewing studio again: feeding fabric, clipping threads, watching the needle go up and down. I let thoughts float and disperse like clouds, fixing on nothing in particular. Just breathing.

personhood vs. parenthood

Last year, I was feeling so smug, because I watered my orchid stick for six months and it bloomed on Mothers' Day. This year, it's just a stick.
@2012 Beret Olsen     Last year, I was feeling so smug because I watered my orchid stick for six months, and it magically bloomed on Mothers’ Day. Sadly, this year it’s just a stick. Oh well. Happy Mother’s Day anyway.

One summer day in my early teens, my parents and I went on a long drive from our woodsy cabin to Lands’ End.

Though we had hoped for a sunny day on the coast, the fog was so thick we could barely see the sea from the shore. We meandered along the water’s edge in our own little pocket of cloud, quite separate from the world beyond. I thought I would say something nice for a change–perhaps even express some filial gratitude–when I noticed an odd look on my mother’s face.

She raised her arms, laughed out loud, and launched her sprawled limbs into a cartwheel in the sand. It was so astonishing, so completely unexpected, that I suddenly realized how little I knew about her beyond the character she played at home. Now I might consider her as more than my mother, someone whose inner life might be rich and complicated, someone who had lived a lifetime before she made me.

Not that she ever turned another cartwheel, but still. I continued to wonder about her, too Scandinavian to pry.

The only clue I had to her younger days was a doll she called Judy, which she had lovingly arranged in a child-sized rocker facing my bed. She was eerily beautiful, despite a crack across her cheek, a worn petticoat, and misshapen, yellowed socks. Judy had stared at me tight-lipped for years, never spilling the secrets of my mother’s childhood or beyond.

I imagined my mother quarantined on her parents’ plastic-covered couch, hands folded primly, dreaming of play; dreaming of siblings.

Did her parents have the same ancient hard candies back then–the ones at which I stared during my visits to Grandma’s– arranged in the same fancy china dish?

As an adult I get little glimpses of her as a non-mom. Like the night my spouse got her a little tipsy, and she dropped the f-bomb telling a joke. How lucky for me, that there are still opportunities to hear my mother’s stories.  Now, to find the time and the courage to ask.

I look at my kids and wonder: when will I suddenly appear to them as more than a purveyor of fine snacks, a laundress, a driver, a shoulder to cry upon? What will I do or say that will alert them that there is an actual person in my shoes? Chances are, they’re already clued in. I haven’t played the role quite so gracefully as my mother.

I know it’s not Pearl Harbor Day, but I’m thinking about my mom anyway

I stole this photo. As far as I know, no photograph exists to accompany this story.
I stole this photo from http://www.plasticsoldiers.webs.com/.  They didn’t even put up a fight.

I try to be a nice person. I certainly want to be one. Unfortunately, I’m starting to believe I might not be genetically wired for punctuality and thoughtfulness. If I have missed your birthday, it’s not because I don’t care about you; I just plain forgot. Like my brothers, whose birthdays are lost somewhere in the sad, endy bits of summer, the problem is that your birthday doesn’t automatically appear on my calendar. Apologies to all of you.

Fortunately, my father’s birthday falls during the Thanksgiving season, and my sister’s is on or around the first day of spring, so even if I don’t write them down, there is always something on the calendar to magically remind me.

Easiest of all to remember is my mother’s.

My mother turned ten the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

That must have been a memorable birthday, with everyone huddled around the radio, speechless and shaken. Probably not the best one, mind you, but remarkable, nonetheless.

Over the years, my mother has championed everyone else’s special days, but on hers she lays low, no doubt hoping someone might step up and do a little something for her for a change.  We have tried.

We learned early on that Dad was good for a Hallmark card and a nice little gifty item, but he was not to be entrusted with the cake. In his defense, he did attempt to make one from a box once, but was so flummoxed by the words “ten-inch tube pan,” that he gave up and drove to Piggly Wiggly.

It’s worth mentioning that in our house, store-bought baked goods were a sign of approaching moral turpitude.

After that mini debacle, we siblings started juggling responsibility for the cake amongst ourselves, usually ironing out the details the morning of December 7.

One year, though, my medium brother decided to make an Angel Food Cake. He even started the project the DAY BEFORE. Impressive. We were all reasonably decent cooks, but we had some respect for his ambition. If you’ve made an angel food cake, you know what I mean.

Out came the ancient Betty Crocker cookbook, heavily thumbed and coated with a light dusting of flour from decades of use.

My brother looked so serious, meticulously pouring over Betty’s good book. We thought everything was under control, and gave him a little space to work his magic.

It’s uncertain exactly what went wrong. The reigning theory is that he must have combined elements from a couple of different tricky recipes arranged on the same page.

All I know is that it looked beautiful when he pulled it out of the oven. Betty said to cool the cake by flipping the whole pan upside down and sliding it onto the neck of a wine bottle. That way, the cake would cool but still stay light and airy. Trust me, if you’ve whipped 12 room temperature egg whites into a heavenly cloud, if you’ve sifted the cake flour four or five times, and spun the superfine sugar, you want that cake to be FLUFFY.

Medium brother flipped the pan, only to have a half-baked cake carcass collapse onto the counter.

Sad.

After a minute or two of reverential silence, he scooped the remains right back into the pan and tossed it into the oven for another thirty minutes or so.

Then, the cake and my brother mysteriously disappeared for several hours.

Nothing more was said about the cake that day. We like to sweep things like this under the rug. I figured he had made the shameful Piggly Wiggly run, and was off somewhere, nursing his culinary wounds.

The next day was a Sunday. Everything proceeded normally: fried eggs for breakfast, followed by church, then dinner in the dining room. Sunday was the one day a week that the mail was cleared off the table. My father presented the card, the gift. It was time to sing.

Medium brother thumped down to the basement and emerged with the most astonishing sweet mess I’ve ever seen.

The cake mass had been roughly sculpted into some sort of landform and half-sunk battle ship. These were situated on a homemade wooden platform, which was covered with Reynold’s wrap and an ungodly amount of blue icing. There were American flags, tiny plastic boats and planes, and little soldiers everywhere.

It was, hands-down, the most impressive birthday cake I’ve ever seen, and to top it off, surprisingly tasty. Not like an angel food cake, perhaps–more like an epic Pearl Harbor Day cake reenactment would taste. But not too shabby.