When my daughter presented me with a wish list for her birthday, my first reaction was to be taken aback. Way aback.
Some things jumped right out at me.
- A pool — with hot tub. What?
- A fairy godmother. Um.
- Not being GF (gluten free). Ouch, my heart.
- A cat. I don’t even understand this — it has never once come up before. Plus, we are dog people.
- A SISTER. Oh, sweetie. We need to talk.
My mouth hung open a little and I wondered if I had raised a completely entitled child who expected wildly unrealistic things. I didn’t react outwardly at first, and then I read it again, slowly.
Nestled in between these crazy asks were nail polish, fidgets and a new Ariel night gown (hers has been worn to pieces). Now we’re talking. OH, and there it was — an iPod Touch. It was then that I understood the strategy at play. She has been asking for an iPod Touch for a year and my answer has been in the firmly negative camp. I know plenty of girls her age have one (believe me, their names are presented to me, in list form, accompanied by the colors of their respective devices, on an almost-daily basis; if the child could present it to me in PowerPoint, she would). And I’m not judging. But for us, it’s a no, for now.
And so she went and lodged this request in between a bunch of insane items to normalize it. Or maybe I was giving her too much credit — so I asked her, “Um, where would we put a pool — with hot tub — in our small yard, exactly?”
Her toothless grin expanded across her face, as if pleased with herself, as she shrugged and said, “What about the iPod Touch? It fits anywhere.”
Welcome to The Year of Eight.
There are times when you become distinctly aware that your child has grown significantly — and a look about them changes in some way or another. We’re currently in one of those phases when my husband and I see this in our daughter, with her limbs dangling longer in her bed seemingly every night. I can start to see how the more grown-up version of her might look and sound, and it’s really something. By something, I mean amazing and perhaps slightly terrifying because I didn’t sign up for things to move this quickly.
She has had quite a year, growing into her own friendships and hobbies, with a more solid sense of self-awareness.
A constant cartwheeler. Rainbow chaser. Itinerary planner. Social butterfly.
Dancer. Athlete. Pretender. Friend. Big sister. Little sister.
There is so much of her that is not me. She is fearless, confident, game for anything. This was always one of my biggest wishes for her — to be strong and adventurous where I am not. I see checklists of caution and she sees green lights and fun.
She sees everyone as a friend and enjoys being an extroverted social butterfly. I think maybe I was once like this, but it is surely a far cry from my far more introverted adult self. Who can come over? When? What can we plan? What songs will we sing? What dances will we create? How can we costume our act? It is like living in a community theater with a rotating cast of guest artists.
(Tactic #889393736 in asking for an iPod touch)
But, she cannot escape all of my DNA, for better or worse.
I’ll take responsibility for her propensity to be impatient and restless. That’s on me. A rule follower? Guilty (which balances out her adventurous trait nicely). Relentlessly willful? Ahem. But, I also passed on a little something to see the angle in situations, to read people quickly and accurately. It has always served me well, and I know it will do the same for her.
And, come on — let’s get to the really important stuff, like my Mint Chip Forever gene, as well as the ability to extend a birthday as long as possible. Because big life lessons can come in many forms.
I’ve written in the past about how having only one daughter is amazing and hard and fraught with all kinds of feelings. I get just this one chance to be the mom of a girl and do it right, as much as I can. At eight years old, my daughter is halfway to sixteen, even though most days that math doesn’t seem fair. Her will and drive are going to keep me on my toes forever, as I try to balance how much to hold on versus when to let her fly. I can already tell you that she will go on to teach me way more in my life than I could have imagined.
I’ve mentioned before that these birthday posts I write about my kids are for me. Most of the other pieces I write and share are more for everyone else, but these — loaded with photos and details that maybe nobody wants to endure about a kid they don’t know — are for my collective emotional time capsule, to indelibly capture the mementos of their childhood in my mind.
And there are so many. I wish I could remember them all before they change again.
Happy birthday to my sweet, sweet girl.
(Oh, and nice try, but still no iPod Touch. Or pool. Or sister.)
The Last Fourth Birthday
I have long held the belief that the concept of the terrible twos is a complete and total scam that serves to brace us for the insanity that follows: THREE.
Three has been a tough year around here and, last night, we said farewell to it for the last time. Today, my youngest is four. And, look, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that ushering in the age of four will flip a switch and deliver us a consistently flexible and mellow child. But I like four, even if it means he is less of a baby (let’s pretend that’s not true).
This year saw him change in endless ways, from making friendships of his own to chatting up any stranger at all, in any location. If you were on the receiving end of such an exchange — perhaps in Target, the grocery store or just strolling by our front yard on a leisurely walk — I’m pretty sure you received the entire history of our family, and maybe my Social Security number as well. Sorry about that. But it’s nice to see that his initial speech delay seems to be a distant memory.
In other four year-old news, I hate to admit that it seems Thomas and the Island of Sodor may be on their way out around here, after a solid ten-year run and seemingly endless dollars spent on their expanding merchandise inventory and horrible movies. I’ll miss you Percy and Gordon, and I hope you’ll listen to me when I say it’s time to rise up in a magnificent rebellion to fire Sir Topham Hatt once and for all. His management style is outdated and brash, at best. Direct him to collect his railway pension and be on his fucking way already. And don’t let anyone tell you you’re not useful engines.
Where Thomas may be fading away, my resident birthday boy will NOT be pushing Lightning McQueen out the door anytime soon. In fact, he pretty much thinks the upcoming Cars 3 film was made specifically for his birthday, and I may move into a white room with padded walls soon if we have to watch the trailer on YouTube one more time. I also want to go on the record as saying that the laws of stalking a fictitious character are pretty ambiguous, so I think my son has dodged any legal trouble. For now.
This child has also taught us that, when you have siblings who are six and four years older than you, you pick up a lot of things that maybe your parents weren’t anticipating. Ever eager to be in the mix with the older kids, it’s amazing to me how he can adapt to their interests and, uh, verbal choices. I’m starting to think his only friends in life will be others who are the youngest in their families as well.
In between his frenetic quest to keep up and grow up, I still hear plenty of “I just want Mommy,” or “I need you to pick me up.” He still lets me sit in the glider with him most nights and sing songs while his head rests in the same crook of my neck. And, many times, when we are alone in his chair with just a night light and sound machine on, there is something I think about.
I think about when I sat in a high-risk obstetrician’s office in 2013, because I was beyond advanced maternal age, pregnant at 40 (yes, on purpose). And in that position, you expect to hear a lot about the increased risks of delivering a child in what some people acted like was an outright geriatric state.
“Unfortunately, we are looking at one in twelve,” the doctor said to me.
I blinked a few times, as if my eyes would adjust my hearing.
“One in 12,000, you mean? Or one in 1,200?”
“One in twelve,” he repeated. “Those are the odds of this child having significant chromosomal abnormalities based on our testing.”
For my oldest child, six years earlier, those odds had been 1 in 36,000. Now, I was looking at one in twelve. One in twelve. One in twelve. One in twelve. It was all I could hear.
When I became pregnant with my third child at 40, I was all in for all of the pre-natal testing that I could get my hands on. Not because the results would change our decision to proceed with a pregnancy, but because I wanted every avenue possible to minimize potential medical surprises in the delivery room. If my child was going to be born with a chromosomal abnormality — be it Down Syndrome or another — I wanted to know in advance and prepare — mentally, financially and otherwise.
A nurse appeared with some tissues, and a genetic counselor also found her way in to sit down with us. I didn’t know genetic counselors existed and this stranger was assigned to talk me off of a ledge.
“For more serious abnormalities — ones that typically result in death upon or shortly after delivery — those odds are one in 36 for your child.”
I could not breathe.
I imagined a line of twelve children lined up. Or 36 children. One would be dealt a life-changing diagnosis. Would it be mine? Would my child be the one? It was unfathomable.
I like to gamble. Recreationally, that is. I don’t sit home and bet on fights or on the weather. But show me a roulette table and I can spend a few hours hanging out with a little cash, idly trying to defy the worst odds in the house while waiting for my beloved favorite numbers to come up. I never really minded the terrible odds of the little spinning ball in the wheel because I never have had that much riding on its outcome.
Real life odds are another matter entirely. And, when staring you in the eye, they can consume you. And I beat myself up endlessly, convinced I had been selfish to push my luck and have a third child at 40, when I already had a perfectly healthy boy and girl. Maybe it doesn’t sound sensible, but fear breeds all kinds of crazy.
I waited two agonizing days to get definitive results back, during which time I mentally role played both possible outcomes in my head millions of times. I was not prepared for the third outcome, which was an extremely apologetic OB on the phone saying the sample they got was not sufficient and we needed to come back in and REPEAT THE TEST. So it had to be re-done, and we had to re-wait for two additional agonizing days. And when I got the call that the test was negative for any abnormality, I was so light-headed that I only realized in that moment just how much I had been bracing myself for life-changing news. The doctors still felt there may be a reason for the initial flags, and so there were other areas to test — cardiac, more genetic possibilities, and others — one by one, like hurdles that were individually cleared well into my sixth month of pregnancy. When there were no tests left to do and no answers about what caused the initial scary results, my OB said it was “very likely” an inaccuracy, but there was still a 10% chance something else we couldn’t test for would present itself after delivery.
But when he arrived, evicted by induction, just like my other two stubborn children, he was perfect. And to be clear, I didn’t need for him to be perfect. I don’t doubt for a minute that children born with some of these conditions I feared live very rich, long and wonderful lives. But the fear of the unknown can be a beast. And I make it a point to remember those times as often as I can when I hold this sweet child in his chair at bedtime.
And now he’s four.
I am admittedly bad at being present, feeling grateful and recognizing all of the good around me. I have a mind that reels around its to-do list and a pretty cynical view of things. But those days of testing, of waiting for results, of preparing for an unknown outcome stay with me.
My youngest isn’t really a baby anymore, but he must know by now that I’ll probably refer to him as one forever. I challenge you to find him without a car in his hand or a pretend story coming out of his mouth, gesturing wildly as if he’s a jaded man in his 70s, wise beyond his years, mumbling “Unbelievable” when things don’t go his way. He wants so much to be big and know what his siblings know, but he’ll crawl into my bed in the morning and insist without words on a full-body hug in his footie pajamas, hoping it will be a pancake day.
The threes weren’t always easy, and yet sometimes they were the sweetest thing in the world. I can’t wait to see what four looks like on this child.
Happy birthday to my sweet, sweet baby.
But Did You Die?
Ah, parental advice. We’ve given it, we’ve received it, we’ve fucked it right up on both ends.
Am I right?
I have been distinctly far less prolific on my blog over the last few months than I had hoped to be. And so, when my friend and self-publishing queen Jen Mann sent out a call for essays to include in her new anthology, I made it my mission to get my act together and produce a clearly uncrappy piece of writing for her on the topic of parental advice.
After all, I have given some truly bad advice. There were so many ways I could ridicule my own parenting mis-steps and properly chronicle them for my kids to have in print always and forever.
And then it hit me.
Why would I do that when I could instead throw my own mother under the bus?
OK, that wasn’t my exact thought.
I love my mom. She has been very good to me and has given me some very solid, lifelong advice. But I’d be lying if I said that one particular gem of wisdom didn’t continue to resurface as a family joke on a semi-regular basis. It’s the kind of thing that has taken on a life of its own over the years.
And since it was on topic for the new book, I went for it.
I typed it up, revised and re-edited it several times. I took some creative license (but not much) for dramatic effect. Once pleased with the final product — on the day of the submission deadline — I sent it to my mom with a quick message along the lines of “Please don’t hate me but this is mostly true and by the way it’s not just for my blog but going in a book if Jen accepts it and I have like 12 minutes left before the deadline so please let me know if it’s no OK with you but honestly I might have to submit it anyway OK thanks love you talk to you later.”
Thankfully, she called me five minutes later and was laughing. She loved it and found, interestingly, that I didn’t even have to exaggerate the story very much.
And so goes the tale of how I embarrassed my mom in a book and she loves me anyway. Isn’t she a good sport?
So, what was this legendary, book-worthy advice she gave me? One hint: It has to do with the one place in New York City where she forbade my sisters and I to ever go, under any circumstances. To this day, the fear of this place remains with us.
Want to know more? There’s only one way to find out, my friends.
But Did You Die? is officially on sale today, and is the fifth in the NY Times best selling series, I Just Want to Pee Alone. I’m incredibly grateful to be included yet again with the fabulously funny writers who appear in this new anthology.
Here’s where you can buy this exceptional Father’s Day present, or your beach reading to make you feel like less of a parental failure:
And because my mom cares about all of you, too, make sure you read and heed her advice before your next trip to Manhattan.
The Peony Days
I do not plant or garden anything. It’s not in my wheelhouse to grow and cultivate life from the ground to bloomed fruition. I’ll admit, in the last few years, right around this time, I sometimes feel regret for not having tried to harvest a modest vegetable garden where my daughter and I could go outside with a nice little basket and pick a pepper or tomato to add to a dinner recipe. But, alas, I am not only weeks-to-months late with this semi-serious urge each year, but also unrealistic in thinking I could set up some sort of rabbit and deer-proof fortress when my outdoorsy-ness level is around a firmly consistent zero.
I digress. There is, after all, one effortless blooming phenomenon that occurs on my property every year. The beautiful peony bush in my front yard. I can take no credit for it but I love to admire its gorgeous colors each May. The downside is that the peony days are few. They have an avocado-like quality of wait-wait-wait-wait-wait-no-you’re-too-late. Seemingly overnight, they go from nearly bloomed to gigantic and, inevitably, knocked to the ground by a May rain storm before I’ve had a chance to cut them.
The peony days represent a distinct time of year for me. It’s the soggy season of unpredictable May weather. When I don’t know how many layers to wear and am usually wrong in my estimate. When I realize that my kids have outgrown most of their summer clothes and I am behind, again, in sizing up for them. When I am entrenched in what we call birthday season here, as I prepare my kids’ parties and cakes. When I stop and think, more than usual, about my friend Jen as the anniversary of her passing nears. When I start to mentally pivot from being entrenched in the school year to seeing its end on the horizon. When I allow myself to begin anticipating summer vacation while also dreading that my kids will soon be another grade older.
The peony days are a small and sort of magical window of perennial change — an unmarked mini-holiday on my calendar that remains formally unrecognized but still distinct.
And every year, of course, other things happen that make the peony days different from one year to the next.
This year, the peony days brought both their usual grind and their unfathomable changes. As these giant blooms grew larger and heavier before fully opening and my three year-old’s spring jacket was too short for his arms, I found myself driving in my car without music on the radio. For the first time in my life, I listened to news stations in the only place that I had previously considered a safe haven from current events. Because in these peony days, we somehow live in a country where the headlines change and escalate at a breathlessly incessant pace and point to unimaginable events in our own government. Most of us walk around and go about our lives — the PTO obligations, the groceries, the bills — and suppress in our small talk the growing division we are all feeling. It’s an acquired skill that, for me, is both necessary and terrifying.
These peony days also found me on the phone with my sister living in Manchester, shortly after her adopted city was attacked last week — just four days after she moved out of the building across the street from the arena. My anxiety for her and her friends and neighbors was both shared and palpable. The age we live in dictates that we tell the residents of these cities in such an aftermath to simultaneously be careful and live their lives. We say this, they echo it, and we are awash with gratitude and grief.
This year’s peony days brought strange, life-affirming kismet literally to my front door after a recent morning walk, when an elderly couple stopped by out of the blue to say the gentleman had grown up in our home. My husband and I were standing right in front of the peony bush when Don and Mary turned up on their drive from Florida to Connecticut in the hopes of catching a quick photo of his old home. We invited him inside and I grinned more sincerely and effortlessly than I had in ages as I listened to him reminisce about how he loved this house in the 1940s. When he turned down my farewell handshake in my front yard, and insisted on a hug instead, the peonies were very close to fully bloomed. When his lovely letter arrived a week later to thank us, it was closely followed — days later — by a letter from another man who had lived in the house just after Don. Truly amazing, if not begging for a Lifetime mini-series. (The details, including the actual letters and photos, are all here.)
As I saw the forecast last week for heavy rain, I worried about the peony days ending with their usual fall to the ground. I made a mental note to extend these days, to remember to cut the flowers and bring them inside. My neighbor told me that more would bloom where I cut them. I had no idea I could orchestrate more peony days into my calendar.
And then I forgot — but my husband didn’t. He heard me issue myself an out-loud reminder to cut the peonies and, when he noticed at 11:30pm one night that the pounding rain was coming momentarily, he went outside with a flashlight and a scissor, in his pajamas, and cut the most gorgeous bunch for our kitchen counter.
And when the rain was over and some of the remaining blooms were still upright, he cut those too and gave them to my neighbors. Another neighbor cut a few more for her floral business. And still a few more are standing, despite the rain. And the new blooms from where we cut them look like they’ll be coming up in a bit.
I’ve never made a secret of being bad with change and transitions. Maybe I wasn’t giving the peony days their due. Some of their moments this year have been made of the stuff I like to cling to — like kids on the cusp of summer vacation and the sweet unexpected visit from Don and Mary — and others that blare from the news on my radio and TV and social media channels just beg for the blooms to hit the ground so we can start over next year see what that season brings to us.
But the blooms are still standing, even after more rain. And so I’ll take this year’s extended peony days and remember next May that cutting those flowers was just as important to me as admiring them outside.
A decade ago, I was rooting against science.
Not for any dire reasons. But when you are seven days overdue with your first child and your doctor estimates that said child weighs more than nine pounds, you kind of want her to be wrong. Because you’ve never given birth but you’ve heard and read allllll about it — and don’t physics just work against a giant baby being delivered without splitting the mother in half?
My OB decided it was time to induce me, but she looked me in the eyes and issued a stern warning.
“Look, this isn’t going to be easy. You’re not the least bit dilated. This is a huge baby and it’s your first. An induction probably just won’t work but if it does, it’s going to be exhausting. You need to go to sleep right now before things get intense.”
Well, holy shit. Look who was the probable recipient of the Worst Bedside Manner Ever Medal in her medical school class. Truly, a less soothing bedtime tale had never been told. I hated her, and not just in that moment. I knew I should’ve switched doctors months ago but now it seemed, well, a tad late — as I was admitted to the hospital and administered Pitocin for the herculean feat before me. The nurses came and went, assuring me that the weight estimates are never right. Don’t worry, they said. Your son won’t be as big as they say.
“Say hello to your one-month old,” the other, nicer OB on shift — the one with a normal ability to talk to patients — said with a laugh as she successfully delivered my child some 16 hours later. All nine pounds and four ounces of him.
How that was ten years ago utterly escapes any concept of time and space to me. How that butterball newborn is now a lean fourth grader defies all logic and makes my eyes well up with disbelief.
I’m told by friends with older kids that I’m not totally insane to have the onset of double digits hit me particularly hard. It seems like a distinct corner to turn, knowing he is closer to adulthood than he is to birth at this point. And that’s remarkably hard for me to swallow.
This oldest child of mine has taught me far more than I realized. Not just about how to change a diaper, burp an infant or buy a Halloween costume before October 15. Sure, the lessons about bathing slippery newborns and breastfeeding and managing toddler tantrums and sending them off to kindergarten were all new to me and learned at his expense. The oldest bears this experimentation impact in every family for all new parents, as we inevitably consider more options than we ever knew were possible at every crossroads, often choosing poorly and always beating ourselves up for it. Our mishaps in raising them become the fables for their siblings, the cautionary tales shared among friends.
And the stakes get higher every year.
My newly-minted ten year-old, like most his age, is desperately between wanting more freedom and depending on us for his needs. I have seen him mature so much in the last few years, but he’s still a young boy who needs us. What a line to walk — for him, for me, for our collective sanity.
He equally loves facts and fantasy — his brain waffling constantly between his deep knowledge of history and the intangible surrealism of Harry Potter. His firm grasp of WWII has tested and surpassed the boundaries of my own education (Why did I not pay more attention in high school? Whyyy?) — with books about battles, both infamous and obscure, opened daily at the breakfast table.
He has little to no interest in sports, which are often the social currency of a fourth grade lunch table and playdates. When I say he’d rather have his nose in a book, it’s not some ill-disguised humble-brag or because I think he’s smarter than his peers. In fact, I’ve been met with more than one eyeroll in response. Oh, poor you — your kid is always in a book.
They don’t understand, the eye rollers.
They don’t understand that it’s easier for my child to have his nose in a book. That a world he can control — a world of reliable, historical facts — is easier for him than having a casual conversation. That a world of pure fiction with wizards and spells is sometimes more appealing than the rules of socializing.
This child will give you his heart and soul to make you laugh. He will relish the chance to recap for you what he has read about on any given day. And he will spontaneously tell his parents that he loves them. He is endlessly curious and carries an enviable sense of confidence. But a lot does not come easy for him, and knowing that has both broken and stretched my heart a million times.
People talk about how parenting changes you — sometimes in tired, clichéd ways and sometimes in ways so heartfelt and true that you can’t believe the words didn’t come from your own mouth. I’m only a fraction of the way through this job and I know this change is sometimes sudden and defining, and other times it’s gradual and nearly imperceptible. But it’s there and it’s born of fierce protection, love, frustration and hope.
A decade has somehow gone by, and in exchange for the Pitocin and fear of the unknown, I now have this amazing, blue-eyed eldest of three children celebrating his tenth birthday. There are presents that he’ll open today, and then there are the ones that he has given me — the ones he can’t see or wrap.
Happy birthday to my sweet, sweet boy.