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.


It may have been a little unclear, but I was actually happily married until I posted Man Shopping a while back. Obviously, I did not paint a complete picture—I’m pretty sure everyone figured that out. Still, in the interest of domestic harmony, it probably wouldn’t hurt to throw a few compliments in my spouse’s direction right about now.

I would also like to mention my Undying Gratitude that he does not yet have his own blog. I hope he’s not in any hurry to get one, either. Over the years, I have unwittingly provided a great deal of fodder for retaliation.

What follows are just a few of the ways that he generously compensates for buying fröot juice on occasion.

Now that his parole papers are in order, he is the perfect travel companion.

That sounds WAY WORSE than it was. There must be two sorts of parole papers, because this was an INS thing; not a prison thing, as far as I know. Apparently, even if you are married to a US citizen, there is still a boatload of paperwork and a lot of wait time to endure before they let you come and go as you please–which is why I took my friend instead of my groom on our honeymoon.

Now that he has his paperwork in order, though, traveling with this guy is delightful. We are interested in many of the same sorts of places and adventures. More importantly, his attention span for lying around, traipsing about, or absorbing culture is almost exactly the same as mine. We can look and look and know precisely when to leave and get a tasty snack or go for a swim. Having traveled with a variety of other people, I know that this tidy alignment is not guaranteed. Not everyone knows when an intense experience on the streets of Phnom Penh might best be topped off with, say, a Richard Pryor movie and a little air conditioning.

I worried that children might mess with our travel groove, but now that they can tie their shoes and attend to their bowel movements independently, it is actually a joy to have them join us. Now, if only Mary Poppins could come along so we could have a date once in a while…

In truth, we might not be as well suited in terms of musical taste. But, over the years, we have learned that certain music should only be played in the others’ absence. Topping the audio blacklist: Bruce Springsteen, Cold Chisel, Joni Mitchell, and the soundtrack from Hair. I’ll let you sort out who likes which. Still, the fact remains that:

He appreciates good music, played well and played loudly.

Long before kids, my spouse worked in the audio industry, and consequently purchased a set of very, very nice speakers. He set up the living room so that the red velvet love seat was exactly centered between the speakers, facing them, with two more speakers behind. We put red light bulbs in the chandelier, turned the music up to 11, and voilà, the Red Room was born. The Red Room was awesome. It had a great run, too, though I suppose it caused its own demise by inadvertently producing our first kid. That was a particularly great night.

What followed were painful years spent listening to Sesame Street songs as quietly as possible, and struggling to find an inner zen-like happy place when Raffi songs were required. I’m surprised we survived that era.

Now that our oldest child is ten, however, with a blue streak in her hair and a pair of drumsticks to match, we have begun a practice of family karaoke night. I cannot begin to explain how charming it is to see our dainty seven-year-old belting out Hell’s Bells, while the spouse works the mixer and magically gets the lyrics to appear on the TV. He also wins for most enthusiastic musical performance. I might need to up my game a little, frankly.

Who knows, the full-fledged Red Room might even make a re-appearance, though I suspect we would have to cede some of the musical selection to the kids. There is probably a lot more Dev and Taylor Swift in our future than one might hope.

He has the ability to fix almost anything.

He has fixed the dryer, the dishwasher, the car, the shower…He is truly amazing. He can hook up any appliance, rewire the house, and frame a room.

There really isn’t anything amusing to say about this. It’s just awesome.

This has made me aim higher. I have been moved to unclog drains, mess around with the disposal, and even monkey with the color printer. Not always successfully, but still.

Now we get to the most important part.

On one particularly trying day, after many meltdowns, a lot of sass, and a series of eruptions of all sorts, one of my kids stuck a stuffed alligator in her pants at the dinner table. Since I was in a foul mood, I found the harmless incident much more annoying than necessary. My husband, on the other hand, took one thoughtful look and pronounced, “That’s a croc of shit.” It was impossible to stay grumpy.

This man has a knack for sanity-saving comments and for maintaining a sense of humor in the midst of parental hell.

Here is someone who suffered with me through one of the longest hours ever spent. We were watching a production of the Wizard of Oz for the second or third time–a production full of confused small people singing enthusiastically off-key, and mumbling endless and incomprehensible dialogue. To enhance our enjoyment, several lightly supervised boys in the row in front of us made fart noises and punched each other in the arm. Eyes politely fixed on the stage, my spouse leaned over and whispered: “Now we know the TRUE PRICE of unprotected sex.”

As I struggled to keep my composure, he mimed a samurai maneuver, slicing open his torso and extracting an organ or two. That gesture has become a very reassuring symbol of solidarity, and is especially helpful in situations where passing a flask might be frowned upon.

Thanks, pal. You can bring home a fifty pound bag of rice whenever you want.

What happened to my jet-setting lifestyle?

Not me. Also, not my photo.

It recently occurred to me that I might never step onto a plane with perfectly coifed hair, a single leather bag, and jaw-dropping heels. Women like that never bump into anyone or drop anything.  They are never running to make connections, a bit sweaty and wild-eyed, with plastic bags dangling from their forearms.  They are never hit on the head with something poorly stowed in the overhead compartment.

No, they simply glide onto their flight, murmuring amiably with the attractive stranger seated beside them, perhaps gesturing with an adult beverage.

For years, I kept hoping I would evolve, so the moment of my epiphany hit me pretty hard. After boarding a cross-country flight not long ago, I heard myself hailing a flight attendant because I had forgotten my special back pillow in the airport lounge. Egads. Have I really gone straight from new, incompetent travel mom to pre-geriatric without stopping? That hardly seems fair.

For the record, I took ballet for years, followed by modern dance and a long stint of yoga. I can stand on one foot for an eternity. I can ride a bike, do an elbow stand, a head stand, and a cartwheel, though none of the above is advised after a glass of wine. So how come when I enter an airport I look as if I were cast in my own personal slapstick comedy?

I imagine this is largely due to a variety of personal failings, but there are a number of forces conspiring against me.

1.  Security.

Though I have settled down considerably since my teenage years, authority figures continue to make me very, very nervous.  I even get a little clammy when asked for ID in the grocery store, so imagine my demeanor as I go through security.  No doubt this is why I am often the target of ‘random’ searches, and have had dangerous items like artichoke paste, Chapstick, and electrical tape seized. Thank goodness someone is looking out for wily people like me, though.  You probably didn’t even know that world domination was possible, armed with soft lips and duct tape’s travel-sized cousin.

And where exactly are you supposed to put your ID and boarding passes between checkpoints? It’s nerve-wracking (and feels foolish) to stow them in my carry-on and let them roll through security without me.  If I hold them, I’m afraid I’ll set them down and forget them when I tie my shoes and re-stow my laptop. Please don’t suggest pockets. Girl pockets are stupid. They are for show only. No decent wallet fits in a girl pants pocket, and even if you manage to squeeze the ID card in solo, it’s not like you can sit down afterwards.

2.  The age of carry ons vs. the world’s tiniest bladder.

Is it possible to remain properly hydrated without anxiously boring a hole in the seatbelt sign, waiting to make a break for the toilet? Sure, I go before I board the plane, but everything about using the airport restroom is a nightmare. Oh, how I miss my bag-checking days. How can I squeeze into the ludicrously undersized stall and close the door without dropping something in the toilet?  My latest trick is to set my backpack atop my top-heavy roll-y bag while dropping my trousers, only to topple the tower with my knees when I sit down. Everything scoots out from under the door, ramming some irritable/delayed/altitude-assed traveller on the shin. Nobody likes that. If you have ever seen a bride-to-be trying to use the facilities in full regalia, you might have some inkling of what is happening behind my door.  But brides have attendants, so there the similarity ends. Not that I want an extra person in there with me; I just want the disabled stall. Or iron kidneys.

3.  Annoying dietary restraints.

As a gluten-intolerant person unable to digest red meat, food is also an issue. I should mention that things are better these days, thank goodness, and I feel privileged to be able to purchase the $12 packet of hummus so I won’t starve en route. But that’s not going to help me when I land in South Dakota at 11 pm. I need to bring a loaf of my sad cardboard bread or a bag of rice cakes wherever I go, which is hard to squeeze into my carry-ons after laptop, camera, clothing, reading material, journal, toiletries, and bottle of water.  My bags are so over-stuffed that looking for a set of headphones could take twenty minutes and a complete reorg. How do you cram stuff in so it is possible to access what you need–without revealing your entire personal life to the folks sandwiched on either side? Oh, well. They probably saw it all when my bag was searched at security. Nothing will surprise them now.

4.  A bad back.

Never mind that I have a few good stories–including breaking up a fight and ‘exercising’ in an ‘unorthodox position.’  A bad back is a poor traveling companion, no matter how it happened. I simply can’t survive a long flight without my orthopedic pillow.  Wish that thing deflated, or somehow collapsed to fit in one of my bags. No can do.

So here I am, dragging a suitcase, a backpack, my ID and boarding pass, a pillow, a bag of rice cakes, and usually a couple of kids as well. I’m probably looking for the restroom. Maybe you could think kind thoughts, and try not to stare.


Charlie work for parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Charlie work, it originated on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and refers to the crappy jobs that no one wants to do–like cleaning toilets.

As parents, there are endless rewards and inspiring moments, and you can read all about them in a stack of Hallmark cards, or in one of those Chicken Soup-y books.

Then, there are the boring moments, like when your child is not quite sick enough–when pulling the shades and administrating tylenol is not sufficient–and you are forced to read Rainbow Magic Fairy books aloud all day long.

What remains after all the inspiration and the boredom is the Charlie work.  This category includes diaper duty, of course, but the bad jobs continue long past potty-training days.  Here’s the very tip top of my current list of Charlie work for parents.  Feel free to add to my list.

Attending assemblies.  Weirdly, I’ve heard some parents dig these.  I don’t know why.  They are always scheduled smack in the middle of the day, so you get to hunt for parking at drop off, pick up, AND assembly, but don’t have time to do anything useful in between except lament having to go.  You are funneled into a malodorous multi-purpose room, where the floor clings to your shoes with the lingering remains of corn dogs and barf.  Time to choose:  scrunch onto the end of one of those long clammy tables, or duel for one of the last rusty folding chairs in the back?   Choose wisely, because assemblies start late–REALLY late–providing ample time to reflect on “chicken fried steak” and canned peas.  An eternity passes.

The room swells with more and more children that are NOT YOURS and are consequently far less tolerable.  Someone is being gleefully squashed by their neighbors on the bench.  As the collisions escalate, crying starts, triggering an endless lecture.  Someone is making fart noises, and at least one or two small people have a sticky appendage lodged in a nostril at any given moment.  Make a mental note to use hand sanitizer at the next opportunity.  At last, the Principal waves awkwardly, taps the shrieking microphone, and makes the sign for “silent fox.”

Ears open; mouth closed.

The show commences.

Time grinds to a halt while everyone else’s kids do impossibly boring things that you can’t hear anyway. Then, when your own darling child finally lurches onto stage and does the most amazing thing ever, some asshole with a ten-inch lens elbows you out of the way and you miss the shot.

I’d like to see a greeting card for that mess.



The Party

A few weeks ago, my youngest turned seven.  Normally, I have a conniption before hosting birthday parties, but Josie had decided months in advance to have a cooking party.  I had plenty of time to track down aprons, chef hats, and mini-rolling pins.  I ordered cookie cutters, too, to flesh out the goodie bags.  Even the menu was decided well in advance:  pizza and chocolate soufflés.  This shindig was going to be a breeze.

I asked my husband that morning, “Should I be worried about something?  Because I’m not.”  He just shrugged at me, confused.  He doesn’t worry about kid parties.

Cherubic guests arrived, smiling shyly.

Suddenly I realized I had skipped lunch while cleaning house.  There was no way my celiac-self would survive a house full of pizza without eating something.  While the girls chatted politely, I rummaged in the freezer and found a chunk of a gluten-free pizza crust, about the size of a single, large slice.  I topped it and tossed it in the oven.  All was well.

Then we started cooking with the girls.  Holy crap.

I have repressed most of that pizza-making extravaganza, but I do vaguely recall a boatload of whining and yelling and hogging cheese.  Leon and I finally shoved the pizzas in the oven and began to deal with the aftermath left in the wake of ten small chefs.

Suddenly a new guest arrived.  I got all of the ingredients out again and helped her make a pizza while Leon took care of criers and looked for bandaids.  We sort of forgot about the pizzas in the oven.

“It’s burnt!” one child announced with disdain.  I looked down at her pizza and had to admit it was pretty unappetizing.  Man.  I asked a few kids if they would share.  As expected, they would not.  I sighed and took the sullen child back to the kitchen.  I got out all of the ingredients for a third time, and we made her another pizza.  This time, I set two timers.

She moped at the table, so I got out extra tasty things to share around and keep her busy. The chorus of whining and yelling for drink, napkin, new cup, a different seat, went on relentlessly.

“Do you want to eat now?” my husband asked.

I laughed, a little maniacally.  “Are you kidding?”  I asked.  “Now is the time to maintain vigilance.”  I looked longingly at my little nub of gluten free pizza, though.  Someday we would be united.

Finally, late girl and sullen girl’s pizzas were ready.  They looked perfect.  Late girl was full from snacking, though, and ran off to play.  Sullen girl wanted the pieces cut a certain way.  A fresh napkin.  More to drink.  Then she called me over.  “I forgot I can’t eat pizza,” she said.  I stared at her.  I may have narrowed my eyes a little.  I picked up her plate and inserted it directly into the compost while maintaining stern eye contact.  “Go play,” I ordered. It was the nicest thing I could think of to say.

What followed was another round of herding cats in order to whip up the soufflés and get them in the oven.

I accidentally said yes when Josie asked to open a couple of presents.  I really meant to wait until after dessert, but who knew when that would be done, anyway?  The girls crowded around her and fought to see first, to grab card, to foist gift.  I was losing track of who gave what.  At this point, the party was actually supposed to be over, but who was going to leave before soufflé?

Parents started to arrive.  Leon had quaffed our last two beers trying to survive the party, so he sent me to retrieve the magnum of scotch from the living room.  Mostly to be funny, I think, but we got a few takers and then one of the dads went on a beer run.  It was a mercy mission.  The chaos continued.

I found myself completely overcome for a minute.  I took a swig from a giant wine glass and stared blankly out the window until I realized a parent was standing directly on the other side of it, frowning at me and gesturing toward the door.  I wonder how long she’d been there.  By this time, it was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think, so no one had heard her pounding.

I wish this had been a parent I knew better.  Instead, it was basically a stranger, eyeing the gigantic bottle of scotch on the kitchen counter, empty beer bottles, dirty dishes piled to oblivion.  Feisty folks were talking smack about annoying children and teetering marriages.  I felt like the whole scene was a neon sign reading:  “We’d have looked after your kid if we weren’t so busy getting soused.”

In the living room, things were much worse.  Inappropriate songs–think ‘Teenage Dreams’ and ‘Love Game’–were blaring while my oldest was sashaying around in what looked like hot pants, a bra, and thigh high black boots.  It was actually her swim suit and a pair of my boots, I swear, but it looked terribly risqué.  To add to the effect, she was sporting Jackie O-type sunglasses and an eight-foot stuffed snake wrapped around her like a boa.  I don’t know where she learned her moves, either, but I was glad all of the dads were in the kitchen.  Meanwhile, a critical mass of the younger girls had shoved all of the furniture out of the way and were beating each other to a pulp with every single pillow in the house.  Half were screaming in delirium, half pain, with a couple of criers here and there.

The unknown mom sank onto the stairs while I hunted around for her kid and her belongings.  “I know she’s here somewhere,” I reassured her. When I finally got them out the door, I turned to the folks in the kitchen and gestured toward the living room.  “Don’t even think of going in there,” I advised firmly, refilling my glass.

“Party’s over!”  Leon yelled.  “If your parents aren’t here, you can wait on the curb.”

No one paid any mind–except the adult guests, who laughed.  Frankly, I was only 50% sure that Leon was joking.

About this time, I decided I absolutely must eat before becoming completely delirious.  I looked at the stovetop, from which my pizza had beckoned all evening.  Empty.  I looked at Leon.  “Where’s my pizza?”

He shrugged.  “Where’d you put it?”  So helpful.

Then I noticed the dish towel over his arm.  I turned to look at the sink and saw a tower of dirty dishes under the running faucet, and three or four levels down I found my pizza slice, literally swimming in the run off.  I took a long swig from my glass.  I punched Leon half-heartedly and stared at the soggy remains.  Then I reached in, shook it off, and put it back in the oven to dry.

An hour or two later, when we finally had a moment of silence, I ate that thing, too.  It wasn’t so bad.  Next year we’ll order out, though.  Happy Birthday, Josie!

How I ruined my kids’ chances of becoming President by microwaving their food in plastic containers before I knew better (plus a million other parenting mistakes)

Parenting was always hard work.

Except, perhaps, in Betty Draper’s world, where you hired someone to cook, clean, and raise your kids while you mooned about in your house dress.

That Mad Men model of parenting never appealed to me, though.  I like being involved–hearing what my kids are thinking, helping them solve problems, exploring the world together.  I’m certainly not advocating for a hands-off experience.  Still, when did parenting become so fraught with pressure and competition?  When did my goal to raise happy, healthy children devolve into sheer panic that my children will never achieve their full potential because I failed to be the perfect parent.  I admit:

a) I didn’t wait list my children for a competitive nursery school before they were born.

b) Those eighteen-dollar, über green metal sippy cups from Switzerland that I gave my toddlers contained bisphenol A.

c)  I’m monolingual.  Mostly.

e)  I avoid PTA meetings like the plague.

f) The robotics workshops for 3rd graders were completely booked up before I figured out how to log onto the registration site.

What’s going on here?

Am I really stressing out that my kids’ summer day camp might not be academically rigorous enough?  Do I really believe that a single parenting misstep will impede their potential progress forever?

Worst of all, I worry about their school.  Why is that?  The basics are completely covered, and my kids are doing well.  They have amazing gardening, art, dance, and computer classes.  They have science fairs, field trips, carnivals, committed teachers and parents.  Yet, whenever I talk with parents of children at other schools, I feel my blood pressure start to rise.  I get school envy.  Your kid’s class has launched a website?  They are learning Italian?  They went on a field trip to China?  I am driving myself crazy.  I keep losing sight of what is important here.  These are kids.  They are learning.  They are creative.  They are happy and growing confident.

At the end of the day, isn’t it more important to teach them to think for themselves and enjoy life?  Isn’t that a greater gift than a childhood resume cooked up by parents hell-bent on making sure their child has no leisure time whatsoever?  Play is important, too. Extended periods of unstructured time formed the basis of my childhood, and those were the times that I could choose my direction of inquiry; I could develop as the author of my own creative world.

Last year, I was weirdly elated when I dropped my girls off at a camp I like to call:  “Lord of the Flies.”  It’s just a hundred kids running amok, loosely supervised by pre-teens sporting color-coded bandanas.  Campers are singing inane and vaguely inappropriate songs, making endless lanyards, and building forts out of fallen branches.

I think it’s fabulous when children are immersed in another language, taken on a trip, introduced to science, opera, and history.  We seek those opportunities and seize them when we can.  But in the meantime, let’s not forget to take some time to play and enjoy each other’s company.  Life is good.

Ill-advised Double Features

Long, long ago, when I was allowed near the remote now and then…

It was possible to rent movies, but a person had to actually walk to the store to do so.  I lived in a funkier part of town then, one with decent public transportation, cheap, interesting restaurants, and a movie Mecca called Leather Tongue Video.  That place had just about anything you could imagine–from the craptastic to the inscrutable and obscure.

Every Tuesday, the painfully hip folks at Leather Tongue offered a double feature deal. They rubber-banded two VHS tapes together and you could rent them both for the price of one.  The catch was, you had to take them both.  I probably only made it there once on a Tuesday–I also had a regular paying job and a life in those days– but I will never forget the first pairing I randomly picked up:  Joe Piscopo Live and Misery.

I didn’t rent them, of course.  Is it really necessary to see if you can survive those two back to back?  I went home empty-handed, opened a few beers, and spent the entire evening making up equally hilarious pairings with a pile of my beloved housemates.  It was one of those magical times when you laugh so hard you weep and hiccough, and the next morning your abs are mysteriously sore.


A couple of days ago, I had the good fortune to see a few of those former housemates, and it was delightful to hang out once again.  An hour or two in, I mentioned the doomed double feature night.  “Remember?”  I asked them.  “I want to write about those mythic double features in my blog, but I can’t for the life of me recall any of our inspired pairings.  Help me brainstorm a few to get me going on the post.”

They looked at me blankly as we sat in silence for an awkward couple of minutes.

“I think it was really about the beer,” one woman finally offered.

Damn!  Is that why I used to think I was funnier?

Now that we are on a cleanse, pregnant, ill, gluten-free, living in the suburbs, and/or trying to keep the wee ones regular, it’s rare to see us really let loose.  It’s not like grown-ups are always boring or even necessarily sober, and parenting itself can be goofy delirium on a fairly regular basis.  Still, I have some mighty fond memories from a time when everyone was single-ish, childless, and too broke to go out.  We all just lurked on the sofa and amused ourselves night after night.

So here I am sitting here at a coffee house chain, sucking down a lame-ass decaf latte and racking my brain for a couple of decently ridiculous double features, to no avail.

Dead Ringers with episodes of Saved by the Bell?

Bigger, Longer, and Uncut with Yentl?


Maybe you’ll have better luck.  Ping me if you do.