Let This Be a Lesson to Us All…

Younger Girleen, who we usually think of as so biddable (suckas!), feels that this would be a good time to remind everyone within earshot that she is not her sister and that she knows her own mind.

— No, no, NO, she said last night during yet another dinner discussion about who shall be what for Halloween. —Not FAIRY! DORA fairy! DORA fairy!

You can tell she’s a second child — the first one had yet to taste the joys of Dora the Explorer, dark chocolate or soda when she was 27 months old.

The Husband, who for reasons inexplicable to himself, wants Younger Girleen to be a fairy for Halloween as much as I do, now that the idea’s been lodged in our heads, has come up with a solution: a pair of binoculars around the neck will accessorize the original fairy “look.”

There! Everybody’s happy, and we can still make use of the fairy wings already being shipped.

Rumbles of discontent from Elder Girleen, who puts down her fork:

— I don’t want to be a fairy. I want to be a PRINCESS.

Entering the World of Fairy, or, I Did This To Myself

As anyone with a lick of sense knows, the second most important day in the year is RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. This being the case, I figured I better start polling the Girleens about what they wanted to be for Halloween, because woe betide the mom who leaves this to the last minute.

They said “Fairies.” Or, more accurately, Elder Girleen said “FAIRY, Fairy, Fairy!” and Younger Girleen studied her closely and said “Ohhh-Kay.” I was so thrilled that the answer was not “PRINCESS, Princess, Princess!” that I highed myself over to the computer and typed in “fairy wings,” because, as anyone with a lick of sense also knows, to transform two small children into delicate fairy-like beings takes time.

Let this be your source for breaking news: there are 495.00 dollar fairy wings a bride can wear to her wedding. Fairy flower girls are now a marketed concept. In fact, I could spent the rest of my natual life trolling internet sites about fairies.

Mattel’s recent packaging of Tinkerbell and her “friends” aside, fairies have become the role-playing choice du jour of daughters of beleaguered women everywhere. Princesses carry HUGE baggage (for grown-up women at least, four-year-olds, who have the dress sensibility of drag queens, just like the spangles). Fairies, on the other hand, are magic, can fly, and are mischievous. Plus, they still get to dress in spangles.

Actually, now that I think about it, a more accurate observation might be: due to Mattel’s recent packaging of Tinkerbell and her friends, beleaguered women everywhere have been convinced by their daughters under six, who swim in a media sea we can’t even begin to imagine, that fairies are a better role playing choice than princesses.

Elder Girleen, unique being though she is, tends to go with the mainstream: she was Cinderella the Halloween there were twenty other tiny Cinderellas roaming our block. Astute anthropologist that I am, I realized this was also the same exact second that Disney repackaged the Cinderella movie and I suspect Tinkerbell is a calculated, mercenary attempt to cash in on the conflicted emotions of our nation’s moms. Let me know how many tiny fairies knock on your door come October 31.

But because I’m the kind of mom who can be convinced that fairies might somehow be “better” than princesses, I’ve also deluded myself into believing that store-bought costumes suck originality from our children’s lives: way back in the dark ages of the 1970’s, we made our costumes, utilizing our creativity (Actually, we were utilizing our mothers’ creativity). To avoid fairy costumes with Tinkerbell’s face printed front-and-center on the bodice, I would make the Girleens’ costumes. Some fairy wings, tutus and leotards they already have, glitter, and there you go! Instant fairy.

Then I found the Apple Blossom Fairy.

Yeah, the poem’s a little cloying, but oh, those fairies!!! That petal collar for the younger one! And the older one has brown hair exactly like Elder Girleen’s! Flower fairies apparently were an Edwardian craze and just say the words “Edwardian craze” (as opposed to 2007’s marketing concept in girl’s toys) and I’m all over it.

How hard could it be? Buy some fairy wings, make a little collar for Younger Girleen, and find a apple-blossom green flowing nightgown for Elder Girleen.

This is how the moms we all love to hate are born. You know, the ones whose children never have dirty faces, who make pies from scratch, etc etc …. insert whatever aspect of momdom makes you feel most lacking here.

The only flowing nylon nightgown I’ve been able to find that doesn’t have a branded character on it will cost 40 bucks.

Storebought costumes might be the name of the game.

The Wry Jocularity School of Parenthood Writing

All my life, whenever I’ve relocated to a new place, the first thing I’ve always done, often even before the household goods are out of boxes, is pay a visit to the public library and apply for a card, an impulse which means the library cards I’ve held serve as a pretty good road map of where I’ve been:

Writer that I am, I still find it a fairly admirable trait: to receive spiritual sustanance from books, and for libraries to serve as the churches one turns to for solace. But to put this same trait in a perhaps less positive light: I am always on the look-out for Operating Manuals (capitalization intentional), a method of moving through your life which means you damn well better have a library card. If I don’t know something, I assume there’s a book out there that can fix this lack in me, a lifelong search for meaning through the written word that might explain why The Husband and I have checked out a total of 27 books about bathroom renovation in the past six weeks, though the fact that much of the upcoming weekend will probably be spent trying to undo an abortive attempt at bathroom caulking indicates either that we never read them or that we forgot every instruction they gave within seconds after reading it.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that as soon as Elder Girleen was born, I hightailed it to the library for my fix. And oh, did I score! As Elder Girleen slept a total of approximately fifteen minutes in the first two months of her life, I was particularly fixated on infant sleep and in quick succession read:

  • Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
  • Baby Wise
  • Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (The Ferber Method)
  • The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night
  • Dr. Sears Baby Book
  • What to Expect the First Year
  • Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care
  • Some book put out by the American Academy for Pediatrics that you get for free if you join the Publix Grocery Baby Club

I now know that some children simply don’t sleep and there was no answer to my problem. But at the time, (just to continue the odd religious thread of the past few posts), I felt as devastated as if I had staggered to a church and found the door barred against me.

Because I was nursing Elder Girleen (a lot, because remember, she didn’t sleep), and I had gotten so proficient at it that I could read voraciously while I did so, I was also simultaneously reading every single “motherhood” book I could get my hands on. (Talk about being a glutton for punishment — where else, given all this, could I possibly have ended up but on the primrose path to postpartum depression?)

What was I looking for? I think what I was looking for was a lifeline, a comforting voice that would say something along the lines of hey, it’s okay if you think you suck at this; in fact, it’s also okay if you actually do suck at it, as long it’s in a sort of minor way and you’re not like, a crack addict who sold her baby or something. Or maybe what I really wanted that comforting voice to murmur was Forget sucking at this parenthood stuff! It’s actually okay that you hate it, or some of it, that you’d rather have ground glass shoved in your eyes than go to another playgroup, that what you want more than anything else is to go see a movie or walk in a coffeeshop with your prebaby body back and unencumbered…

Most of the writing I found instead seemed to fall into one of two camps. The first, which I’ve come to think of as the “And Then I Stared Down at the Little Miracle in My Arms” school of parenthood writing was so unrelentingly sentimental that I had to return those books to the library unread (I like my sentiment as much as the next girl, but it has to be leavened with something… I dunno, gore, or something). The second took the place of the lifeline I’d been looking for. Frayed, it was a lifeline that wasn’t pulling me anywhere I particularly wanted to go, but at least it kept my face out of the water. “The Wry Jocularity School of Parenthood Writing.” It felt subversive, even though it often schizophrenically veered off into “The Little Miracle in My Arms” territory in its final paragraphs. I liked it. It made me feel better. But if the “Little Miracle” school was formulaic, so was all this Dry Wit.

Part of loving reading may be a longing for that elusive, inexplicable moment when, reading something, you think yes, that’s it, that’s exactly what I felt. The two schools of parenthood writing, as formulaic in their ways as romance novels, could be good reading, were good writing, were sometimes excellent writing, but the jolt of recognition I occasionally got from them was more like the sort of feeling you get when you talk with a kindred spirit at a cocktail party that it was a profound expression of emotion. (And who am I to expect this from anything, anyway, now that I think about it?)

Two weeks of this blog under my belt and I’d be thrilled if any of this served as good example of the Wry Jocularity School of Writing — I mean, I want my Dear Readers to want to read this, want them to be at least momentarily entertained. At the same time, I’m also seeing how easy it is to fall into one of these two camps when you start writing about Parenthood. Is it because we live in sound bites, these days, and both techniques, the sentimental and the jocular, lend themselves to that? Is it because there’s something ineffable about the very state of parenthood, and that words fail it?

One of the definitions of ineffable is “not to be uttered” and maybe the problem is that parenthood may be one of the last social realms we have left that’s full of taboos. (Using the words “hate” and “parenthood” together in the same paragraph made me more uncomfortable than I like to admit). Or is it that the state of parenthood is bent almost to the breaking point by its cliched baggage?

My Little Missionary or Life On Fire, Footnoted

OK, two weeks of this under my belt, and I have to say I love the way blogs “manage” your writing. Labelling, sorting and archiving posts sorta legitimizes the whole process, doesn’t it? I don’t have “thoughts” — I have Thoughts. Ditto regarding the way I can link and footnote. When I was working on my first novel (that’s the unpublished one in a box in my attic if you were wondering, thanks for asking!) I sometimes found myself making weird tree diagrams with stacks of real cut-and-pasted manuscript pages, trying to figure out what went where (you only have to resort to this if you’re ambitious enough, or stupid enough, to try to create a novel from six points of view). If only I’d written it in blog form! I could have easily linked portions of the narrative, like this:

In her Friend V (she of the fire-n-brimstone grandma), Elder Girleen found her first theologically-inclined buddy. Last year in preschool, Elder Girleen and V discovered that they both knew the words to “Jesus Loves You” (taught to Elder Girleen by her grandmother, not on my watch), which they then with great relish taught the whole preschool class. Causing so much consternation that the teacher felt obligated to put the following into her weekly newsletter for parents:

“Some of you have asked why I am teaching your children the words to religious songs. Some of the children have enjoyed teaching songs they know to other children in the class. Learning religious songs is not part of the instruction at XXXX Preschool.”

Just so we’ve all got our separation of church and state straight.

Three Little Words, Revisited

An astute reader reports that she’s run across the new sanitized Wheels on the Bus (with “the mommies on the bus say ‘I love you'” replacing “the mommies on the bus say ‘ssh, ssh, ssh'”) elsewhere, as well as a sanitized version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”–instead of “down will come baby, cradle and all” they sing the last line as “mommy/daddy will catch it, baby and all.”

Oh, the years of therapy the Girleens will need — not only were they sung the wrong versions of these two songs, but also “Hush Little Baby” complete with lines about horses and carts falling down.

OK, I have now parsed out The Wheels on the Bus as much, as not more, as the author of last Sunday’s Modern Love column.

It’s all either Grist for the Mill — or I need to get a life.

Life, On Fire

Last night, over dinner, Elder Girleen presented us with the following example of deductive reasoning:

“V– said that her grandmother said that if you say bad words you will live in fire.” Pause. “When I was three I said bad words and I don’t live in fire.” Pause. “Live in fire. I don’t know what that means.” Pause. “I think V– was confused. I think what her grandmother said was that if you say bad words you will be FIRED.”

This is what happens when dinner conversation for the past month has revolved (in code, we thought) around corporate layoffs.

Three Little Words

I tend to read the “Modern Love” column in every Sunday’s New York Times the way one slows going past a car crash: with equal parts disgust with myself and prurient interest. It’s never one’s better self who taps the brakes driving past someone else’s tragedy; it’s certainly not my better self that immediately after scanning the Book Review (I admit, there are vestiges enough of my writer self left that I still read the Book Review first) immediately flips to the Modern Love column in the Style section.

No offense to any of the writers published there (I’d certainly be one if I could), but I had no idea that navel-gazing could be elevated to such an extraordinarily high art within the pages of a daily newspaper. In a blog, yes. But in the New York Times?Does the world (or New York, or those small portions of the country that actually read the New York Times) _really_ need to know what it’s like to… be a egg donor… an abused woman… at the losing end of a bad breakup… or, as was the case this past Sunday, what it’s like to be a mother who doesn’t particularly like to say “I love you” to her two-and-a-half-year-old?

(Don’t get her wrong… it’s not that she doesn’t actually _love_ her child; she just doesn’t care to say it much, a realization that dawns on her after she hears a woman sing the following verse of The Wheels on the Bus — “The mommies on the bus say ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you…’ — to her stroller-strapped offspring.

First things first. I’ve NEVER heard this verse of the Wheels on the Bus. And I’ve been singing the Wheels on the Bus, a song I was lucky enough to never even have heard of until I had children, until I’m blue in the face for the past five years, particularly at Mommy and Me Swimming classes, a scam foisted upon well-meaning middle-class parents who, being led to believe that you can actually teach a toddler something that resembles swimming, pay good money to stand waist-high in a swimming pool singing the Wheels on the Bus and This is the Way We Splash Our Hands while their child, and every other in a two-mile radius, screams its head off. I mean, how stupid do we think children actually are? The Wheels on the Bus is no way interesting enough to distract anyone from the fact that they’re being dunked in water, which, in case you didn’t realize it, Mom, you can drown in.

All that aside, there are a couple of ways one could react to this essay:

1. When the song The Wheels of the Bus leads you to start parsing out your relationship with your kids, it’s time to reevaluate your life

2. Maybe this was published in the Times so that all of the rest of us parents — whether bad, run-of-the-mill or stellar — can feel good about something. We may forget to pick up our kids at school, may exchange store-bought cookies for homemade ones when it’s our turn to bring snack to preschool (provided one’s preschool allows cookies), may buy our kids Barbie outfits at Target so that we will have five minutes to stand in the dressing room to try on t-shirts that make us look pregnant (having, as we move through our child-bearing years, travelled the ignominious road from wearing Exhilaration! to Mossimo to Cherokee Woman) without having to contend with a child who is either screaming or trying to squirm under the dressing room stall door into the adjoining stall where a 65 year old woman who does not like children is trying on brassieres. We may do all that, but at least we are ok about telling our children that we love them.

Of course, like every other parent, this woman makes herself feel better about her disinterest in saying those three little words by making the whole act of doing so seem vaguely suspect, as if it were akin to

1. Letting your child watch too much t.v.
2. taking them to MacDonald’s
3. Bribing them with sugar

What a pretty pass things have come to. The other day I was in the check-out line in the grocery store and against my better judgement picked up Real Simple’s Family issue. Did you know that letting your child eat something that’s dropped on the floor gives you two stars in a one to five scale of bad parenting? Likewise, sending your child off to school without a scarf or mittens? Don’t even ask how many stars neglecting to make them brush their teeth one single night can give you.

Forgive me, for I have sinned. My youngest daughter trolls around on the dining room floor after dinner occasionally popping that morning’s dropped cereal into her mouth. My children are congenitally incapable of wearing mittens, and more power to you if you can get them crammed on their recalcitrant hands. Sometimes when the Husband has been away on business for four nights running, we … forget… to brush our teeth.

I guess the title of this post should really be: I Just …Don’t… Want… to …Know.

If I were Smarter…

I guess if I were smarter, I would’ve started this blog five years ago — and hooked whatever hypothetical readers there might be out there (as of now there aren’t any, since I’m afraid to “unveil” this to friends, much less the world) with the easily-packaged narrative arc of motherhood: the pregnancy; the baby; the sleepless nights; the long haul from childlessness to parenthood; the slow, incremental realization that when, Before Children (B.C.), people (like your mother-in-law) said “boy, your life is going to change,” what they really meant was: “have fun being broken down by the boot camp of parenthood. The screaming drill sargeant, the face shoved in the mud, the complete subjegation of your will in the service of something larger than yourself — all true.”

Or probably if I were REALLY smart, I would’ve started this blog even earlier, while working some mind-numbing job, from which I would’ve then gotten fired because of time spent blogging, a la dooce.com. Oh, the publicity! I would’ve been set for life.

But on the other hand— if I were really smart, maybe I wouldn’t start a blog at all. We all know you should never say anything online that you wouldn’t want the entire world to hear, a caveat that, disregarding the damage following that advice would do to all the hundred million blogs this one keeps company with, makes me realize that I have never said or written anything I want the whole world to hear, not even my grocery list. I mean, think about the whole world: my mother-in-law, previous boyfriends, George Bush, potential employers, people who might one day publish the book I should be writing instead of this blog, the old lady who lives next door, the director of my daughter’s preschool, the C.I.A. Talk about stifling creativity! This may be why much of the writing one finds online more resembles the sort of automatic writing channelled by a medium from dead souls than it does any kind of art. Nothing squelches art like the idea that it has to undergo the scrutiny of the whole world.

All it takes is toggling from one button to another: and then this blog will go from being ether to being something that anyone, including actual strangers or the F.B.I., can read (Is there a file out there somewhere labelled Subversive Mothers? Would it be all that bad if I actually ended up on it, especially since, so far, I haven’t had anything particularly subversive to say?)

I’m not sure if this dilemma is unique to Blogworld, or hits on something about writing in general. You either make the leap and reveal something about yourself, or you don’t.

And you know, I can’t have it both ways. I can’t both fret that no one in the world will ever read this AND simultaneously worry that having written it will someday come back to bite me on the ass. The two are mutally exclusive.

White Noise

Suddenly I have become the parent of a child old enough to attend school. Real school. Where they wear backpacks and have a dress code (all those lovely sundresses bought this summer — not ok). Real school, where the library is called the media center ( —Did you have a media center when you went to school, Mama? — No, it was just called the library then. We didn’t have media!) Real school, which I now realize was not what came before this. Real school — my child is out of my purview for seven hours. She eats lunch in the cafeteria, for God’s sake, and I have no idea if a vegetable has passed between her lips at lunchtime since August 13, the day school started. And there’s not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it: all I can do is hope she’ll make good choices.

Which actually, now that I think about it, is about all I’ll be able to do about anything, from now on. Hope my kids make good choices, and that I’ve given them decent tools to do so. That’s my job — the rest is up to them and whatever higher power you choose to give credit to.

The enormity of this state of affairs has left a number of my colleagues seriously discomforted. (“Colleagues” as in motherhood has become temporarily, or not, at least one of the jobs they hold; “colleagues,” because most of the conversations I have with them resemble the water-cooler trivialities you exchange at work).

Me, even though I have a younger child still at home, I feel free. Or maybe not free, but free-er. Also anxious. This could be my chance to have a couple of adult thoughts long enough for them to actually run their course, without being interrupted by someone under four feet tall who has a question, a need, a desire to watch television, is hungry, thirsty, wants me to wipe their nose, their bottom, wants to tell me what they want to do, what they don’t want to do, what they did, what they didn’t do, or maybe just wants to illustrate their complete and utter control over me by laying their head in their sister’s lap so that said sister will pull her hair and I, the Mother, will then say, in the tone of voice used by mothers for millenia: if you don’t want her to pull your hair, don’t put your head in her lap!

What if, when all that white noise goes away, there’s nothing left? What if those adult thoughts aren’t really worth much? What if…

This is the reason people have more children. Or keep their kids out of preschool longer than most. Yeah, once I mourned the loss of my sense of self but now I’m not so sure — outside of the ugly but comfortable Keen shoes, the bermuda shorts, the dated haircut, in short, outside of being a mom — who that self really is.

Joining the Throng

I don’t know if there’s a timetable somewhere for midlife crises but 42 seems a pretty good age to embark on one. At thirty-one I was jetting around the country to promote a book (although the fact that I was doing this at my own expense and had to take a plane because I lived in another country slightly dilutes the freewheeling and successful image this conjures up). Now I’m forty-two and the only thing I’ve done in the past year or so that can be classified as “writing” is to waste the previous year waxing eloquent in emails sent to the other members of the board of my oldest daughter’s preschool about a variety of subjects that mattered not a whit to a single sane soul in the universe. Because these women also often found themselves deeply concerned about subjects that mattered not a whit to a single soul in the universe, occasionally one would be nice enough to profess admiration for my writing ability, but other than that I think it would be safe to say that my writing career, my avocation, my calling — whatever you want to call it — is pretty much dead in the water. Since it was hardly seaworthy at the best of times (can you say “literary fiction” and “midlist author”?) this is a pretty fucking sad state of affairs.

Perfect reason to embark on a midlife crisis, right? Running out to put a bright red sports car on the Amex has not been a viable means of getting through this period of my life; nor is taking up skydiving. So lately I’ve been asking myself: What would be the 21st century, cutting-edge way to indulge a midlife crisis? (In other words: is there a cool way of being so uncool as to question what the fuck you’re doing with your life?)

The answer of course — is to start a blog. If the cyberworld were an actual physical space, blogs would be the cockroaches that live beneath its floorboards and behind the drywall. There are millions of them. Each one has links to three more just like it. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the number of blogs in the world is that nobody in America is doing any “work” — we’re all just punching clocks, literal, metaphysical or spiritual, so we can sit down and vomit out our hearts out to our computers.

Or put another way: Blogging is the new knitting! Some of us make lovely cashmere sweaters, others of us, unidentifiable lumps of overly-handled dingy yarn.

So why add my voice to this unholy clamor? We’ll pass over the naive greed that for about .73 seconds made me entertain the idea that writing a blog might actually be a way to make money from writing. (This turns out not to be the case, of course.)

When my oldest daughter was born, I found myself unable to surgically amputate my writer-self from the Mommy I had become, a state of affairs that did absolutely nothing for me but lead me down the primrose path of postpartum depression. In fact, sad refugee from academia that I was, I found myself unable to keep from examining the world in which I found myself as a potential narrative.

How do women write about motherhood? How do they talk about it?

The conclusion I came up with then, and could probably call my manifesto now (except that all you have to do is Google “mother” and “manifesto” to see how overused that concept is) is this:

We all behave as if the choice about how to talk about motherhood is easy, lies either in sentimentality or its inverse, some wry jocularity. I have to believe that the truth is more complicated than that, that it resides elsewhere, spreads and deepens, shifts and shimmers; watery enough to both sustain and drown.

I suppose I’m adding my voice to the calaphony because it still seems laudable, to wade through the bog of motherhood in search of that watery elusive truth. To figure out a way to talk truly about this messy business of mothering, called women’s work for so many millennia.

Besides, I spend most of my life with the under-six set. With who else can I share my observations about the deeper meanings of My Pretty Pony, Dear Reader, but you?