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Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Shifting Shades Of Success

My 9-year-old daughter recently managed to drop one of her socks in the toilet while simultaneously removing them from her feet and going to the bathroom.

Luckily, she also has a habit of not flushing. So I spotted the floater and fished it out with a plastic bag wrapped around my hand, before this unsavory situation became a calamity.

I was particularly relieved because the last time I was making small talk with the plumber while he unclogged our toilet he exclaimed, “Wow! You’re 44? I wouldn’t have guessed you were a day over 39!”

And I was feeling especially vulnerable to this kind of backward compliment because I was about to turn 45 and had just discovered that my 20th journalism school reunion—not high school or college, but graduate school—was arriving in a couple of weeks.

I suspected that I was already experiencing a sort of mid-life crisis, suffering from a depression that I guessed might have to do, at least in part, with the hormone shifts of early menopause.

I also noticed that my neck had started to slacken over the past few months and that by pulling up the skin around my cheeks in a poor woman’s pantomime of a face-lift, I shed years from my appearance.

I can no longer read my iPhone without the aid of magnifying glasses, the prescription for which I recently had to boost. And my youngest child will start full-time school in the fall, while I still have no career to speak of, after spending nine years as a stay-at-home mother of three.

“I like your mom posts,” a former journalism school classmate said the other day. “Those are pretty funny.”

Though his remark was good natured, it also touched a particularly tender nerve, since my blogging over the past several years has served as a lifeline—a reminder that I still have intellectual skills I can exercise in the world—even though my approach, more often than not, has been tongue-in-cheek.

I merely want to write. And on my rational days, I tell myself that every time I compose a coherent piece, that effort in and of itself is a success, regardless of where it ends up in the blogosphere.

I wasn’t always so unsure of myself. As a newspaper reporter for several suburban dailies, I used to fantasize about investigating heroin epidemics and sex trafficking rings for The Atlantic Monthly or The New York Times.

Instead, 15 years later, I am writing about toilet training and tantrums with the hope that my narratives about the unrelenting nature of motherhood will find an empathetic audience.

I would kill for my first newspaper job, covering local politics for an 8,000-circulation paper in Manassas, Va. And now I face the prospect of joining other Columbia Journalism School graduates at our 20th reunion, where I will hear about their latest book deals and cover stories.

After years of reporting for the New York Daily News, one classmate has just extended his contract with NY1. Another friend has written a popular column for The Wall Street Journal. Another has had a long tenure at People and just shadow wrote a book for Teresa Guidice, one of the most volatile Real Housewives on Bravo TV—practically the only channel that, in my degraded state, I now watch.

I have to admit that while I am genuinely happy for my former classmates and impressed by their accomplishments, I have also often felt demoralized by them.

In this state of diminishing self-esteem—bleary from being up all night with our twins when they were babies or dousing the flames of their resentment at our introducing a third child into the family—I have found it hard to congratulate myself on my own hard work.

The grimy reality of parenting day in and day out with no paycheck and often little more reward than slender arms hugging me at bedtime sometimes just doesn’t feel like enough. Which is why I have continued to write, even if mostly for myself and mostly about my “beat” of the moment, the slice-of-life parenting material at hand.

During my bouts of self-doubt, I remember that when I became a mom, I was lucky enough to be able to make parenting my ultimate priority. Although raising three kids has proven rocky at times, on some fundamental level, I do know that my husband and I are succeeding at creating a safe and loving home. And while my career may seem at a standstill, my children have enriched my life and deepened my capacity for empathy in ways no other kind of job ever could.

So when I hear about another Columbia graduate’s exploits in a war zone, I try to recall Leo Tolstoy’s admonition that “happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.”

I remind myself that success assumes many forms and that life has many chapters—and that perhaps I will soon begin to write my next one.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Over The Moon

Homemade binoculars were as high tech as we got, until recently.
“What’s a spring fever?” my 5-year-old daughter recently asked as she contemplated our backyard Magnolia tree that was bursting into bloom.

I was ecstatic that the days were already trying on the shimmery feel of summer, though winter wasn’t yet officially over. And when a friend suggested taking our third-grade sons and some of their friends to the Night Skies in the Observatory at The Franklin Institute, I readily assented, the outing sounding full of warm promise.

I had existed for more than 44 years on this earth without ever peering at planets through a telescope—much less through a 10-inch Zeiss refractor or a Celestron CPC 800 GPS computerized one.

“Do you want to see outer space with your buddies tonight?” I asked my 9-year-old son.

He shrugged an OK, not quite grasping the celestial serendipity of a clear, 75-degree Philadelphia evening in early March and a mother so long smothered by winter that she was willing to take him out late on a school night.

So down the Schuylkill Expressway I steered our minivan from Bala Cynwyd to Center City Wednesday evening after dinner. When I saw the crowds already gathering inside the museum, however, I started to regret that we hadn’t bolted our food even faster than usual.

“I’m sorry,” the man at the desk said. “We’re sold out.”

“But my son will be so disappointed,” I lied, nodding toward Griffin, who was staring into a closed ice cream bin while he waited for his friends.

After I agreed to renew our expired membership, the clerk finally handed over tickets, and my son perked up as soon as his classmates appeared. Then they immediately started alienating everyone around us by resuming the boxing match they’d left off at recess and trying to cram all four together into the tiny photo booth.

I felt my fantasy of a peaceful night’s stargazing begin to ebb as my friend and I trailed after the boys into the Institute’s Space Command exhibit, where they darted past the display of an actual Moon Rock toward a computer where they constructed digital rovers to battle each other on imaginary Martian terrain.

I had heard that the observatory had live feeds of actual footage from Mars but was having trouble luring our kids away from their virtual outer space. We were missing the Fels Planetarium show and an astronomical lecture—appropriate, the literature said, for ages 8 and up. The boys didn’t care.

But when they started pelting each other with hard little spheres from the Gravity Well, I had finally had enough.

“We’re going up,” I commanded, trying to sound as imperious as a cosmonaut.

I was crestfallen, however, to see a long line of college students, there to earn credit for class, snake its way down the corridor from the doors opening into the night sky.

“We should have come up earlier!” my fellow mother wailed.

“Can’t we go get some ice cream?” Griffin complained. “I saw some downstairs.”

“We’re here to look at planets,” I insisted, growing doubtful that we ever would as the queue inched forward along with the minute hand on my watch.

Needless to say, I was relieved when an older woman walking toward us read the despair in my expression.

“There’s no line for the smaller telescope, and you see the same thing,” she leaned in and whispered.

Forfeiting my dream of huddling over the 10-inch Zeiss—whatever that was—I started pushing forward. Sure enough, only a couple of people stood waiting to look into the 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that was dwarfed by the nearby Zeiss but that a volunteer had nonetheless trained on Jupiter and its four largest moons.

I watched as he swiveled my son’s chin into position and covered one of Griffin’s eyes to enhance his view. From my son’s tepid response, I’m not sure he even saw the planet.

But I did. And it was amazing, a glowing orb surrounded by four bright pinpricks of light.

“Weren’t you afraid you’d get pink eye?” a friend asked the next day when I told her about peering into the Schmidt-Cassegrain.

But neither my son's irritating antics nor my own OCD tendencies could dampen my excitement at having actually spied Jupiter and its moons from a rooftop in Philadelphia—an ethereal experience that lifted my spirits out of their long winter's sleep into the warm night's air.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Misshapen Hearts and Woolen Hats

I was pleasantly surprised when I bought a hat just in time for the Valentine’s Day cold snap and discovered that it not only keeps me warm but also muffles sound—even the din of my three children’s bickering.

This soundproofing was certainly welcome since, in my experience, one of the biggest shocks of parenting was learning how loud it was all going to be, starting right away when my husband and I lugged squalling twins home from the hospital. As we embarked on what seemed like an endless groundhog day of feeding, burping, diapering and rocking, I told myself that matters could only get easier, and quieter, as we moved into our child-rearing future.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Certain aspects of parenting have become more straightforward. My husband and I have stopped worrying so much about how to nourish our kids, for instance. Pancakes, we have learned, are a perfectly suitable dinner.

Having suffered many years of sleep fractured by midnight bottles, potty breaks and bad dreams, we have begrudgingly accepted that we will never again experience a sound rest, even after our three kids have left the house. We knowingly laugh at the commercial where the couple, after having their second child, graduates from a quick booty call during nap time to a power snooze, the husband aided by a sleep apnea mask.

And we no longer agonize about every child-related decision, though we still often second-guess ourselves after the fact.

But while the physicality of diapering babies and chasing toddlers has slid into memory and we have found ourselves grinding away at a tiring but familiar daily parenting routine, the challenges of helping our children navigate their complex emotional lives and relationships have become anything but mundane. And the cacophony, far from fading, has merely shifted to a new frequency.

With 9-year-old twins and a 5-year-old, the sibling rivalry in our house is intense. The fighting at times reaches what feels like intolerable decibels and especially lately, for reasons unknown, seems to be hitting a new crescendo.

That is why I am so particularly pleased with my new hat—with the multiple kinds of insulation that it provides.

For instance, the other evening while I was sautéing vegetables that my kids were certain not to eat, I could barely make out some kind of disturbance emanating from the basement. The noise was deadened enough by my woolen cap that I pretended not to hear it at all, that is until my 5-year-old decided to deliver an official report.

“Griffin was throwing my socks, and one of them got stuck in the ceiling,” Jane said.

Later, in the tub, she filled me in on the particulars: about how she had snatched a ball from her older brother, about how he had then tossed her socks skyward until one of them snagged in a pipe and about how my three kids had taken turns balancing on a toy horse on wheels and whacking away at the rafters with a plastic hockey stick.

“I think the less I know about this whole operation, the better,” I told Jane, pulling my hat back down over my ears.

And then I sped her through the rest of her bedtime routine, fretting now, instead, about the fact that my son had drawn a duck regurgitating blood onto a monster’s corpse on his Valentine’s party bag. I knew he wanted to clobber his sisters, but I had thought he had the sense to confine those feelings mostly to our house.

Furthermore, Griffin’s twin sister had returned from school with the precise purpose of tallying who had the most Valentine’s loot. Finding her stash coming up short, Georgia had been bewailing the injustices of the world all afternoon. And then Jane had started in about the fact that she hadn’t had a party that day at all.

“But yours was yesterday!” Griffin hollered, a point that failed to register in Jane’s irrational 5-year-old mind.

So what was supposed to be a holiday full of sweetness and love had taken a sour turn.

At least I knew I was not alone.

“Valentine heart cookie making wasn’t the after-school family bonding activity I imagined in my dreams,” a friend had texted me earlier that day, accompanied by a picture of what were supposed to be heart-shaped treats that had bloated in the oven into sloppy spheres.

This is a friend who has also confessed that she lingers in showers long enough to drain the hot water heater to escape her children’s squabbles. My hat provided a similar kind of warmth and respite without having to get wet.

But truth be told, it gets kind of itchy. I’ve also found that instead of leaving me alone when I am wearing it and fail to respond, my kids only end up raising their voices.

Furthermore, I don’t think the volume of their complaints and emotional conflicts will diminish any time soon.

So, for the time being I've decided to fortify myself with my friend's misshapen-heart sugar cookies—and with the hope that my husband and I will keep finding enough love to help our children, and ourselves, figure it out one Valentine's Day at a time.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Weathering the Storm

I hadn’t paid much attention to the hype about the blizzard heading toward Philadelphia until I was nearly concussed on Thursday by a woman fighting for one of the last cartons of milk at the Wynnewood Giant.

Not a fan of winter, I had been pleasantly surprised by this one so far, with temperatures only intermittently dipping into the 20s and teens and no snow to speak of. The high on Christmas hovered near 70.

So forecasts calling for a possible two-foot deposit seemed unlikely, or so I hoped, trying to will away the nor’easter.

And even if we did see significant snowfall, I reasoned, it might provide a welcome diversion from more diurnal cares, such as my 9-year-old twins’ constant sparring and my 5-year-old’s recent report that she sometimes accidentally dunked her hand in public toilets when wiping.

A friend, who sent around a group text inviting us to a “snow-pen house,” seemed to share my sentiments.

“This is Lower Merion Township with an important announcement,” she wrote. “It is going to snow a little bit this weekend. Everybody just needs to chill the f@&$ out!”

But when I saw my mother-in-law on Friday, she was nearly twitching with anxiety.

“You’ve been watching The Weather Channel again, haven’t you?”

“I just can’t help myself,” she confessed, heading off to her apartment to hunker down with her Boston Cream Pie Yoplait Whips and remote control.

I, myself, started to worry a bit after receiving yet another robo-call from the township instructing residents to park in driveways where possible and saying that a snow emergency had been declared.

Then my husband walked in around 7 p.m., having accidentally left his boots at work. Back out he went to the DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse in Wynnewood, miraculously snagging the last pair of men’s size 11 knock-off Timberlands.

Left at home, I found myself switching on The Weather Channel against my better judgment, hoping that the meteorologists’ apocalyptic predictions would drown out the squabbling of my three children. Then I started to rifle through closets to retrieve last year’s snow pants and boots, hoping that our kids could still squeeze into them.

Taking a last glance out the window at a world rapidly covering itself in white, I went to bed, trying to be stoic but now fearing the worst.

What if our pipes froze? What if a 50-mph gust toppled that old-growth tree we had neglected? What if we ran out of beer?

The fact that our 5-year-old woke us at 4:46 the next morning, saying that she couldn’t sleep because of a noise outside, did little to buoy my spirits. The snowplows had started running.

And I had to stuff the bottoms of my pajamas into my boots so I could shovel a path from our kitchen door, across our deck, into the backyard for our small dog to relieve himself. Despite my efforts—I hadn’t even had a sip of coffee yet—I still had to rescue Buddy who sank up to his whiskers in a snowdrift. I finally carried him through the house and just let him pee on the bricks of our covered front porch.

“I’m bored,” my 9-year-old daughter said, as she stood dripping in our foyer after a brief snowball fight with her twin brother. It was 10:04 a.m.

“Can we watch ‘Winnie the Pooh: Springtime With Roo’?” Jane, 5, asked.

Griffin groaned and demanded a snack.

“I like to pair mismatched scrubs with a Mrs. Robinson jacket,” a friend later texted, attaching a picture of herself in baggy green bottoms and a leopard-print bolero.

“The things we do to divert ourselves during a blizzard,” I texted back, then went to vacuum the basement, the most distant point I could find in our house from our fighting children.

My husband, who for some reason follows The National Weather Service on Twitter, came down to tell me how they’d requested that people send in snow pictures and then quickly tweeted again to say not to if it was too dangerous to go out.

Meanwhile, it was starting to seem dangerous, the high winds having resumed and sleet mixing into the snow, rapidly covering the narrow paths we’d cleared earlier that day.

“You should open a business,” Georgia had brightly remarked. “C & J’s Shoveling!”

That was before Jeff and I had tried to free the cars that had been plowed into the driveway. Knee-deep in heavy snowdrifts, we soon abandoned the project and went back inside to deal with our warring children.

The twins were bickering over a puzzle. Jane was unraveling because I switched off the TV. We missed the “snow-pen house” because we couldn’t extricate the cars, and it was too far to walk in the blizzard with our grumpy kids.

But then a neighbor managed to fire up his finicky snowblower, kindly promising us the use of it. We still had power and plenty of Goldfish Crackers. I told myself that we would endure the shifting winds of family life, even as the nor’easter continued to rage.

And maybe, if we were lucky, the sun would emerge again tomorrow, and we would meet friends at the nearby sledding hill—and there we would fill up our lungs and souls with the bright vigor that winter sometimes holds out like a peace offering after a storm.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.