Sunday, May 27, 2012


A boy. 

They'd exchanged phone numbers at school. Ittybit promised to call later that night.

Which she did. After dinner and before homework.

It was a big deal. ...

To me.

The telephone was my first, tenuous, connection to independence. It offered my mind a mode of transportation and a mechanism for planning that started simply enough with a single universal question: "What are you doing?" followed by the closed-circle response: "Nothing. What are you doing?"

Boy? Girl? It didn't matter who was hanging on the line, it only mattered that the line existed and that it connected me to a disembodied voice.

For the primary school set -- too young for Twitter and Facebook -- Alexander Graham Bell's invention is as relevant as ever.

The rules of communication haven't changed much, either.

"Smile when you talk," I tell her. "They may not be able to see you, but they will be able to hear the smile in your voice.

"Remember to be polite: tell whoever answers your name; ask if you may speak to your friend; always say please and thank you."

Phone etiquette isn't innate. It takes practice, and recently we'd been having our share of practice.

Still, I couldn't listen as she dialed the boy's number and waited for someone to answer.

I clanked around the kitchen, trying to buffer the exchange.

It reminded me ... a little too much ... of my own first phone call to a boy.

I had been in second grade, too.  I didn't even know to be nervous. He was, after all, a friend I spoke to each day. A boy whose name happened to line up next to mine in the alphabet, as did his chair in our teacher's similarly ordered classroom.

To be able to continue the conversation at home, after school, is a strange magic not dissimilar to running into your first-grade teacher at the supermarket and feeling as if your world had been turned inside out. The first time it happens it's disorienting.

Some of that disorientation was happening as I ran through the script I'd practiced.

Hello, I am … , may I speak to … ?


The boy's mother wasn't impressed. Her voice, quick and sharp, told me all I needed to know about my mistake. And she wasn't going to let her son talk to any girl so forward as to call a boy at the age of eight.

More than three decades later, I have to wonder if David Sedaris' witty and scathing review of an elementary school nativity play wherein he writes: “6-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin,” could have been inspired by a similar experience.

Honestly, though, I hadn't thought of that moment until this one, in which my daughter was chirping away into the handset asking a boy questions I didn't get a chance to ask.

What are you doing?”

My stomach tightened even more as she charged my way with the phone.

Ok, I'm going to get my mom and you put your mom on the phone, too.”

I stretch a tight smile across my face, holding the phone and waiting for a stranger's voice to come on the line.

This is awkward.

Hello? Her smile is stretched, too. I can hear it.

Hi,” I inject a small laugh into my voice for effect. “I think our kids are interested in setting up a play date.”

Without much fanfare we set a date and exchange information. And within a few days a boy from school is playing in the backyard with our daughter, collecting specimens of rare weeds and putting them in an old umbrella for some convoluted purpose.

A broken bumper shoot is a typical centrifuge for whatever pseudoscience my daughter has devised.

Together they battle a rising wind and a meddling brother until the boy's mother comes to collect him a couple of hours later.

By all accounts it was a success. Plans are made to play some more another day.

He climbs into the car, she bounds into the house.

The phone is ringing.

I'll get it,” she hollers.

I open my mouth to holler back, but stop mid objection. It's probably for her, anyway.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mom, enough

Sh*t (Fill-In-The-Demographic) Say videos on YouTube are somewhat addictive, aren't they?

My favorite ones are about parenthood.

A woman or a man (sometimes both) breezes through a series of seemingly random statements while doing ordinary, mundane things such as eating cereal or pushing a stroller or watching TV. The scenes are stitched together to produce a stereotypical representation of whatever demographic filled in the blank.

Formulaic, sure, but funny all the same.

A site search shows virtually every nationality, geographic location and parenting style represented. For all intents and purposes, it's about people laughing at themselves.

I've often mused if I were more skilled with video I'd make one of my own and call it: Sh*t My Kids Say, and it would consist entirely of a single word: “Mommy.”

There would be the whiney “Mahhhhm,” the bored “Mo-ahm,” the “MOM” that signals some kind of imagined emergency and of course, the “Mom” that is repeated over and over again because a response was not satisfactorily immediate.

There is also the Mom that is not meant for me at all … the one that is merely a pretend game between siblings about which my inquiry will provoke ire: “MOM!”

It drives me crazy enough that I find myself screaming: “The next person who yells 'Mom' better need the services of an emergency room doctor … or at the very least a Band-Aid.”

To which they always laugh, “Mah-em.”

I thought about all of this as TIME magazine's cover story touched off small fires in the ever-smoldering Mommy Wars last week with a provocative picture and a taunting hammer head, “Are You Mom Enough.”

I'm Mom too much, I chortled.

Seriously though, the TIME piece wondered why Attachment Parenting leads mothers to extremes: Baby wearing, extended breastfeeding (past the age of one) and co-sleeping.

The sparks that flew around the peanut gallery that is the ethosphere were pretty standard: People felt sorry for the three-year-old boy pictured standing on a chair, nursing at his mother's breast. They lamented the gaggle of coddled youngsters, whom, they believed would, no doubt, grow up to be horribly warped adults unable to detach from their mothers' apron strings.

I didn't take the bait.

Even though I was one of those mothers who wore her babies (it was easier for me than a stroller) and who allowed her children to self wean (one at two, the other a four) and who found co-sleeping helpful with one child but not the other (one slept better with us, the other slept better alone) I didn't rush into Twitterverse to defend my decisions or try to convert the disbelievers.

I didn't think what I was doing was a style, necessarily, I just thought of it as something that worked for me. And I can be honest: It was mostly about me.

If Mama Isn't Happy, Nobody's Happy,” was my motto. Even wore it on a t-shirt.

Whether meeting their needs in infancy with minimal tears has made my children more secure in their understanding of their place in the world, I can't tell you. I wouldn't expect you'd believe me anyway if I thought it had. How can anyone make such a correlation?

I don't presume to think that the choice of a baby carrier or a stroller could determine a person's whole life outcome. Nor would I be willing to bet a child left to cry it out would be irreparably harmed.

Yet I wonder how we get sidetracked into this narrow media gauntlet time and time again.

Maybe it's easier to point fingers than ask questions. It's certainly easier to yell and rant and rave than it is to let go and assume people other than ourselves are doing their best.

Which, is probably why I can't keep myself from laughing when my son stops himself after his second “MOM!”

I mean … Siobhan,” he says, addressing me in his big-boy voice and then going silent.

You can't call her that,” Ittybit chastises her brother.

But she hates when we call her Mom,” he responds, confused.

No. She hates when you call her 'MOM MOM MOM MOM MOM MOM' but never say anything else.”

As she usually does, Ittybit wants me to weigh in on the appropriateness of a child calling their mother by her first name.

I honestly think I'm mom enough. You can call me by my first name sometimes so long as you aren't repeating it like a broken record.

Like this: Siobhan Siobhan Siobhan siobhan shifawn shibong sifon,” he smiles with his best Sh*t Kids Say grin.

I take that back. Maybe too much Mom is just enough.”

They just looked at me like they usually do: as if I'd grown another head.

I won't hold my breath waiting for the t-shirt.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Off the clock

It's evening. Twenty past nine to be exact, and I'm trying to ignore the sounds coming from across the hall.


Their voices call to one-another as if they weren't sleeping in the same room. She says something. He answers. She tells him why he's wrong. He tells her she smells. Both of them laugh. They are happy and enjoying each other's company. It's not exactly rare. In fact, it's almost predictable at this time of night.

Before-bedtime bedlam morphs a into an up-too-late euphoria.

You'd think they'd be tired with all that preceded this moment:

Chasing the dog around the house.
Getting ready for school.
Chasing the dog around the house.
Did you comb your hair?
Brush your teeth?
Wash your face?
Running after the bus.
School ….
More school …
Did I mention school?
Not to mention getting home from school.
Measuring the garden we planted yesterday to see if it grew any.
Rummaging through the kitchen for food.
Chasing the dog around the house.
Dance class.
Chasing other dance students around the studio.
Complaining about dinner – and how you hate vegetable-chicken-meatloaf-steak-spaghetti-tacos – and why can't we just eat from the four REAL food groups: Ice cream, candy, cookies and pie?
Chasing the dog around the house.
Keeping the dog from eating your homework.
Bath time.
Did you comb your hair?
Brush your teeth?
Wash your face?
Chasing the dog around your …
Oh look, it's bed time.

It's bedtime? Already? No fair!

Even after the last page is turned, hugs are hugged, kisses kissed and the lights snapped off they are not ready to sleep.

Each night it seems their routine becomes more of an improvisation.

On this night, Ittybit calls the dog. The Champ shoos the dog away. Ittybit calls her again, peeling back the blanket to make room. Champ throws one of Ittybit's toys so she will give chase. And so it goes for a while: Up. … Down … Up. … Down. Each time the dog scrabbles across the bed, rustling the covers as she launches and hitting the floor with a thud as she's dismissed. Her collar jewelry jingling no matter which direction she's heading.

Their voices, low at first, build a wall of noise that imprisons my thoughts.

“Be quiet! I can't hear myself think,” I yell, feeling the sting of my own irony slapping me in the face. It's TIME for BED!!!

No more dispute. Only admonished silence followed by the gradual overtaking of sleep.

The dog is the only one still stirring.

I hear her nails clicking across the floor. The lapping of water. And the groaning thud that I've come to expect before she finally settles.

She's not tired either, though she's give up her plaintive, daytime bark and settles into her nighttime chatty banter, which clearly emphasizes her displeasure that her people aren't polyphasic sleepers, too. Soon she falls silent.

I start to relax in this moment of reprieve.

Motherhood, off-duty but on-call.

I don't want to make a move until little bodies settle and I hear the deepening of breath.

Instead I hear the unmistakable sound of teeth shredding what I can only presume is a toy.


I don't know for sure, you see, because I'm trying to stay off the clock, which I can manage if I just ignore the sounds coming from across the hall.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Good grief

It was quiet, as it usually is this time of day. Mid-morning on Saturday can be surprisingly slow at the library.

The Champ clamors into the children's reading room, headed straight for the computer. He is pleased to find it ready and waiting for him. In no time he is scrolling through the programs, looking for his favorite: an anatomy game where you can place organs inside a skeleton.

He's already a font of knowledge when it comes to connecting leg bones to the hip bones, and placing the brain is a no-brainer. Even the librarian whistles under her breath when he drags and drops the spleen in the upper left side of the abdomen. “I didn't even know what that was,” she marvels.

His sister thumbs through the stacks of books, looking for just the right one. School has upped the ante. Pictures books aren't enough of a challenge anymore. They're too easy. No danger. She needs to find something with meat and teeth.

She doesn't want my help. The books I suggest lack a certain spark.

I make my way to the well-worn leather chair by the window and take a load off. I put my feet up on the ottoman and just sink in. There's nothing for me to do but wait.

We all know the drill: Eventually the boy will tire of placing innards where they belong and the girl will find a book to end all books. Of course, there's always the possibility that stomachs grumbling for lunch will make short work of such decisions. Only time will tell.

Practice has made me better at waiting.

“Don't rush them,” I remind myself. “There's no place we need to be.”

I watch as she takes a book from the shelf and slips it back. Another. And another.

Before too long she appears before me and hands a yellow hard-cover to me.

My hand floats along its spine, unable to get a firm grasp. The title repels it. It's a book about cancer.

She flips through the pages excitedly. “This is important stuff,” she says with a maturity I always mistake for misunderstanding. “This is stuff I will need to know.”

I take a deep breath … and fall apart.

“That's not for us,” I say. “Put it back. Get something about the solar system. There must be a nice book on black holes or asteroid storms. … Or avoidance. There must be a book on avoidance. How to keep from getting caught in an asteroid storm. Now that would be useful information.”

Truth is, I'd scanned the new books when we'd first walked in the room and noticed the abundance of children's books dedicated to serious diseases and death. I'd averted my eyes.

“We don't need this book,” I begged, hoping that leaving the book where she found it (and performing a complicated ritual based entirely on superstition) instead of bringing it into our house would keep heartbreak from ever stepping over our threshold.

But it wasn't about me, and she knew it.

Talk was all over town.

The primary school principal was recently diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and announced to the school-family that she would remain a presence in our children's lives for as long as she was able. She planned on waging a public fight. She was in it to win.

Parents were quietly upset. They want to protect their children from heartbreak. They wanted to have the right to tell their kids their beloved principal had taken a job on a farm, should the unspeakable happen.

I understood that fear even as I tried to renounce it, spinning on my heel three times and throwing salt over my left shoulder (and then my right just in case I'd muddled the old-wives-tales I was trying to wash down with my anxiety).

Not that it helped. Burying one's head in the sand rarely does.

I wanted to pretend we didn't need to do anything, and Ittybit needed to understand if there was anything she could do.

“Hey, what about this stuff you always say about knowledge and power?” Ittybit asks, thrusting the book into my hand.

She was right. And as usual she was using my own words to prove I was wrong.