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Friday, June 5, 2015

What Not to Wear

Even in the depths of winter, my kids refused to wear coats.
On frigid winter mornings before I had children, I remember sipping coffee in front of my kitchen window and watching neighborhood boys wearing little else but shorts race to catch the school bus.

‘How can their parents let them out of the house dressed like that?’ I recall thinking.

Now that I have three kids of my own, I have a better understanding.

Parenting, to me, feels like an extended exercise in letting go, in accepting that I ultimately have little control over these beings that I helped bring into the world. But it has taken me a long time to reach this precarious conclusion, and its truth still sometimes evades me.

When my twins first started preschool, for instance, I would wrangle them into coordinated shirts and pants—an exercise much like wrestling an octopus into a net sack, as someone once said—and bundle them up against the weather. But I soon tired of this work and realized that Georgia and Griffin could dress themselves.

I decided that, as long as they were not leaving the house naked, it mattered little what my twins wore. Taking charge of their own clothes gave them a growing sense of independence. Plus, it freed me to get myself dressed.

I did suffer for a period when Georgia, now 8, put on her shirt backward for pre-kindergarten each day. Some mornings, unable to restrain myself, I forced her to turn it around. Other times, I plumbed the depths of my willpower to refrain from making a critical comment.

I also recall how her twin brother, Griffin, at about the same age, went through a phase during which he insisted on wearing his Crocs on the wrong feet. I kept fixing them, and Griffin kept switching them back.

“Isn’t it hard to run around with your shoes like that?” I remember asking.

“No,” Griffin said.

And then he waddled off, splay-toed, to preschool, with his sister trailing behind in her backward shirt.

I worried that something was wrong with my children. I fretted that this stage would never pass.

Of course, it did. And now I try to remind myself of these early days, now that my twins are 8 and have been joined by a younger sister—now that the emotions surge higher and the daily power struggles sometimes feel like navigating an abandoned mine field.

When my kids have been insisting on wearing summer clothes during this unseasonably chilly spring, I have been trying to recall those neighborhood boys who all survived their scanty wardrobe decisions and successfully emerged out into the world.

‘Children don’t feel the cold as much as adults,’ I console myself, as I shiver at the bus stop with my twins in their shorts. Germs make them sick, not exposure to low temperatures, I reason, while I also strive to accept that my older daughter hates to brush her hair.

After months of spritzing Georgia’s fine strands with detangler and tussling with her as I teased out the knots, I finally determined that this routine was too painful for both of us.

“It’s your hair,” I told Georgia one day. “You can do what you want with it.”

Not surprisingly, my daughter preferred to do very little, totally unselfconscious about the wild state of her locks. And ever since then, as I wistfully gaze at her friends’ slickly groomed ponytails, I have to remind myself that Georgia needs to be in charge of her own body, no matter how much I’d like to intervene. But my husband even finds it difficult not to interfere.

“Don’t you at least want to wear a headband to soccer, like Mia Hamm?” Jeff recently asked, cleverly invoking one of Georgia’s idols.

“I’ve made two all-star teams without a headband,” Georgia retorted, making us laugh and reminding us to back off.

I have even pulled back with Jane, who, although she is only 4, already has very strident opinions about how she wants to adorn her body. When I made her wear a hand-me-down snowsuit out sledding this winter, for instance, Jane refused to partake in the fun, standing on the sidelines and wailing, “This outfit’s too poofy! I look ugly!”

Last week, she came downstairs wearing a headband around her waist to hold up the leggings, a size too big, that she had selected.

“Doesn’t that hurt your tummy?” I asked, alarmed.

“No, mommy. It’s fine,” Jane said, completing her outfit with a pair of tattered purple rain boots.

No matter how important I feel it is for my kids to take charge of their personal care, however, I can’t help but wonder what the teachers must think as I watch my rag-tag bunch make their way off to school each morning. Do they feel sorry for these neglected children? Will I soon be hearing from social services?

But then, the other day, Georgia brought home a writing project entitled, “Why I Shouldn’t Wear a Coat!!” And I found myself hoping that her teacher had finally gained some insight into the daily battles I encounter—that she was able to reach a more charitable explanation for my beautiful daughter’s sometimes bedraggled appearance.

 “Who needs a coat when it’s 32 degrees outside?” Georgia’s treatise began. “I don’t. That’s for sure! Oh and by the way I don’t need a hat or gloves either…

“I will do all of my chores for 1,000,000 years if I never have to wear a coat again! I will live on bread and water for a week (ONLY a week not a month or a year just a week). Coats are very, very, very (a million verys) useless!”

“Your opinion is very clear, and your reasons are strong and convincing,” Georgia’s teacher commented. “Good luck persuading Mom and Dad!”

I had to laugh and realized that, no matter how many conflicts we've had in the past and will continue to have in the future, at least our children feel free to express themselves—and that that is ultimately more important than all this coat and hair business after all.

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Everything I Do Embarrasses My Children

Why is it that my kids are suddenly always shushing me?
My oldest daughter, upon reaching the sophisticated age of 8, recently listed the top five things I do that embarrass her.

According to Georgia, my offenses include asking her friends too many questions, conversing with strangers, kissing her and her twin brother at the bus stop, singing in public, and rolling down the minivan window to greet her classmates as they trudge home from school.

“It’s so embarrassing,” Georgia muttered.
“Ok,” I said, striving for compassion and struggling to understand.

After all, my daughter had just condemned in one swipe my inherently extroverted nature, one that I doubted I could curb this deep into middle age. Can I help it, I internally protested, that I like to express myself, that I’m interested in others?

I enjoy talking to my children’s friends and to people in general. Plus, I think I’m good at it. Years of practice have enabled me to discern through carefully aimed chitchat that the grocery store clerk is unhappy about the management shift and that our mailman never married because of a domineering mother. The strength of my love enables me to plant public kisses on my children’s cheeks. And I refuse to let the fact that I’m no Taylor Swift prevent me from singing her songs, regardless of my location.

But since Georgia has decided that my natural tendencies—tendencies that other people might consider virtues—are now causing her nightmarish levels of shame, I have been feeling a bit constrained.

“How’s school going?” I asked one of my daughter’s friends when she came to play the other day.
“Mom, stop!” Georgia exclaimed. “You’re embarrassing me!”

At a recent Girl Scout meeting, my daughter scolded me for trying to help her fellow Brownie thread a bead onto a necklace. And just last week I had to fight the urge to shout salutations out the car window to Georgia and Griffin’s classmates.

“Don’t say anything!” my daughter commanded from the backseat.

My twins no longer let me near them at the bus stop, not even close enough to air kiss the atmosphere circulating around their heads. And now, according to Georgia, I’m not even allowed to sing in the privacy of my own home.

“Men of Harlech! In the hollow! Do ye hear like rushing billow!” I lustily sang the other afternoon while sorting laundry, recalling an old Welsh air I had learned in my youth.
Stop, mom!” Georgia shouted from her room

As I continued to fold and obstinately hum, a little more quietly now, I took an uncomfortable stroll down memory lane, re-treading some of the mortifying territory of my own childhood.

I’ll tell you about embarrassing, I mentally harangued my kids. Embarrassing was learning to drive in the family’s rusted red Oldsmobile station wagon with a missing front grill and a novelty license plate, a gift from my father to my mother, which read “MOUTH.” Embarrassing was having friends who were over to play ask why costumed mannequins sprawled around our house—in the bay window, on the piano—and realizing I couldn’t explain.

Held up to these unsavory recollections, my “Men of Harlech” and “Hiyas!” to my children’s friends hardly seemed liked high crimes. My kids had no idea how good they had it, I thought. And I started to feel just a tiny bit resentful.

My resentment only increased a few days later when we were walking our dog and signing “A Bushel and a Peck,” and my 4-year-old suddenly halted, spying another mother approaching with a stroller.

“And a barrel and a heap,” I continued.
Stop!” Jane hissed. “At least wait till she’s gone!”

I was confused by my daughter’s sudden self-consciousness. It was bad enough that my 8-year-olds were censoring me, but Jane was only 4.

So when Jane’s dance teacher recently handed out the recital costumes with their peacock beading and multi-colored tulle—a moment my daughter had been eagerly anticipating all winter—I submitted to my instincts and began cooing in excitement.

“How pretty!” I cried, as I helped Jane step into her tutu. She glared at me, on the brink of tears, and finally put her hand over my mouth to quiet my exclamations. Startled by my daughter’s reaction, I couldn’t help noticing the other girls cheerily posing as their mothers and caregivers snapped pictures.

“What was the matter?” I later asked Jane.
“You just get too excited whenever I get something pretty,” she sobbed out.
“She doesn’t want you to make such a big deal,” Georgia added.
“Yeah,” Griffin said. “It’s really embarrassing.”

Even he—the loyal one, my only son—didn’t want me to come to his final basketball game last weekend.

“You cheer too loud,” Griffin confessed when I pressed him.
“Paul calls to all the players really loudly, too,” my husband said, coming to my defense.
“Yeah,” Griffin said, “but he’s a coach.”

I insisted on going anyway, nursing my wounded motherhood in the minivan during the ride. But as I watched my second-grader on the court, trying to screw up his courage to grab the ball and sort out how to navigate this world of bigger boys, I tried not to shout my encouragement to the rafters.

And I suddenly realized that in this moment I couldn't help him, that Griffin couldn't process my cheering, that he had to figure out this one for himself—and that what really hurt about embarrassing my children was that it meant that they were growing up.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Trying to Escape a "Frozen" World

I'm hoping by summer, we'll have escaped all things "Frozen."
Although my family is arriving appallingly late to the “Frozen” scene, we seem to be making up for lost time at an exponential rate.

Until recently, my 4-year-old daughter may have been one of the few children in the civilized world not to have seen the Disney blockbuster released in late 2013 to record box office sales that buried entire populations in a slush of “Elsa” and “Anna” products and clogged up airwaves—and people’s minds—with cloying hits from its soundtrack. Despite the theme song’s urging to “Let It Go,” people just didn’t seem to want to.

But for a long time, my family somehow managed to remain on the periphery of the “Frozen” mania.

During last winter’s frigid months, my then 7-year-old twins viewed segments of the movie during one of their slew of indoor recesses at Cynwyd Elementary School. With the playground and field buried under snowdrifts that kept piling up at record rates, the teachers, at their wits’ ends, understandably turned to Disney’s tale about the Snow Queen Elsa who traps her kingdom with an icy spell.

Georgia and Griffin, however, were generally done with all things cold by that point, and Disney’s depiction of a perpetual winter seemed to repel rather than attract them. My then 3-year-old had heard from nursery school friends that some scary trolls and a frightening snowman haunted the movie, and she refused my repeated offers to play it during one of our many housebound afternoons.

So when my friend, a transplant from Chicago, sent me a YouTube link to WGN morning news anchor Dan Ponce’s “Let It Go (Chicago)” parody last winter, I didn’t really get it—though I watched it anyway because he is cute and possibly, I thought, a budding musical comedy genius.

“You’ve never seen ‘Frozen’?” people demanded, horrified, all last year. Even my exterminator, when I asked him what that tune was that he was humming while re-baiting our rodent boxes (it happened to be, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman”) couldn’t quite grasp my ignorance.

“You mean you’ve really never seen that movie?” he asked, pausing with poison packet aloft. “My daughter won’t turn it off.”

But as the leaves started to drop and the air gained a chill, the “Frozen” tide began to turn for my family, at least for my 4-year-old, who suddenly became enamored with the movie’s princesses and began asking me to braid her hair like Elsa’s and tie our picnic blanket around her neck after nursery school to mimic the characters’ capes.

She attended a “Frozen”-themed birthday celebration, during which the resourceful mother helped costumed partygoers make snow out of cornstarch and hair conditioner, a messy enterprise that disgusted me and delighted the youngsters. The 4-and-5-year-olds took turns on a homemade wooden stage, parading their Elsa and Anna attire and signing “For the First Time in Forever” karaoke.

A teacher at Jane’s small preschool counted 17 Elsas at Halloween. And during our neighborhood trick-or-treating, three Elsas made the rounds with our coterie, two of them sisters in competing braided wigs.

Jane, having recently viewed “The Muppet Movie” from 1979, with its chubby credits and corny banter, was dressed as Miss Piggy. I am certain, however, that my daughter would have chosen to be Anna or Elsa, instead, had she not still been too afraid to watch “Frozen.”

So finally, come winter, Jane’s best friend from school, determined to cure her of her “Frozen” fear and deprivation, invited her over for a special playdate to see the movie. Jane’s friend held her hand during the scary parts.

And a few days later, I caught my 4-year-old eyeing a giant Elsa doll that was being raffled off at our neighborhood pharmacy.

“Wow!” Jane said. “Do you think that’s too expensive?”

“Yes!” I cried, thinking that the toddler-sized mannequin with its bulging eyes was also the stuff of nightmares.

“Can I at least get a ‘Frozen’ CD for Christmas?’” Jane asked, and I found myself picking up the disc from an impulse-buy bin near a checkout lane at the Wynnewood Giant.

Downloaded during the holidays to my laptop, the soundtrack has been streaming out of the tinny speakers and booming from our minivan stereo for months now, at Jane’s request, until neither her twin brother and sister, nor I, can take it any longer.

“Can you play ‘Frozen’?’” Jane asks nearly every afternoon.

“Nooooooo!” Georgia, 8, cries, fleeing upstairs to her “Frozen”-free room.

“I hate that song,” one of Jane’s preschool teachers recently confessed when she heard me singing “Let It Go” while shoving my daughter’s mittens and hat into her backpack.

“So do I!” I said. “But I can’t get it out of my head.”

And as if the recent cold snap wasn’t torturous enough—cooped up with my three kids and a severe case of cabin fever—I also repeatedly awoke in the wee hours to fret about frozen pipes and critters scuttling in our walls, only to hear “Love Is An Open Door” looping through my brain, chasing sleep farther and farther away.

That might be because Jane’s ballet class has been practicing its recital routine, choreographed to that song, for weeks now. I now know all of the admittedly catchy lyrics: “I mean it’s crazy… What? We finish each other’s- Sandwiches! That’s what I was going to say!” I will continue to have the pleasure of humming that tune while watching my 4-year-old dance deep into the warm heart of May.

By that point, I hope to be moving out of “Frozen” territory. But I fear I may not be so lucky, since Jane is now requesting a “Frozen” party for her 5th birthday in June.

“I want to dress up like Elsa and have a ‘Frozen’ cake,” she told me the other day. “And we can make snow in the yard!”

“We’ll see,” I said, hoping that maybe by then we will have managed to “Let It Go”—even if we’re more than a year late.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Holy Matters

I wondered if holy water would still be holy after it thawed.
I recently received some holy water—a gift I fear I may not have properly appreciated—and having left the jug on our porch to freeze, I have begun to suspect that I might be suffering the consequences of some kind of sacrilege.

“What’s with that bubbly water?” my 4-year-old daughter asked the other day when she spied the plastic jug and its solid contents still standing near our front door.
“Not bubbly water. Holy water.”
“Oh yeah,” Jane said. “Well, what’s with it?”

What was with it, indeed, I wondered while recounting to my daughter for the fifth time the story of how I wandered into the Bala Cynwyd Post Office more than a week ago to mail belated holiday cards and spotted a bearded man in Crocs heaving an unwieldy box atop the scale.

“What’s in there?” the clerk asked, eyeing what was apparently registering at an unusually cumbersome weight. “You know you can’t send liquid.”
“It’s five gallons of holy water,” the gentleman replied, unperturbed, even after her warning that his package might be returned and handing over more than $60 for postage.

I, myself, was feeling a bit pinched for cash of late, after paying an obscene sum to exterminators to fight a losing battle against flying squirrels inhabiting our 110-year-old house. Furthermore, we had just found out that the last-ditch hope we had to get rid of the critters was to tear up our deck, let the exterminator seal up any holes he might find underneath and then rebuild the structure. An $11,000 quote for the work had arrived via email that morning. And our twins had celebrated their 8th birthday five days before Christmas, the price tags for the presents still glaring up at me from my unpaid credit card bill.

These financial worries were impeding my festive spirit, which might account for my procrastination in sending out our holiday greetings. As I stood at a counter despondently stamping my envelopes, the man’s talk of “holy water” had an appealing ring. And so I offered to help him load his precious case onto a dolly the postal clerk had wheeled out in order to save her own back.

“Where do you get holy water around here?” I inquired, eliciting a intricate tale that I had trouble following, one that as far as I could make out, involved a priest in Sri Lanka, a well in Texas and a faithful group of distributors somewhere in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. The gentleman added that he took the elixir for his kidney problems. But before I could ask any follow-up questions—such as why he was mailing gallons of it elsewhere—the fellow had bustled out to his car and in again, carrying a jug for me.

“You have to believe in something,” he said, hurrying back out before I, a longtime atheist, could utter sufficient thanks or ask exactly how I might use the mystical water.

“You never know what you’re going to get at the post office,” the clerk said.

Suddenly carried away with my good fortune, I excitedly texted a friend.

“Someone just gave me a gallon of holy water!”
“Save some for me!” she responded. “I could use some magical potion!”

And then, without further ceremony, I deposited my sacred cargo in my trunk and forgot about it until a few days later when I realized it was leaking all over my groceries. So I decided to leave the bottle on my front porch, not quite sure what else to do with it and feeling superstitious about throwing it away.

By then, circumstances at home had turned grimmer. The flying squirrels were keeping up their nighttime clamors inside our walls, while we were trying to figure out if we could remove sections of our deck without completely destroying it and still battling the exterminating company over payment for the unresolved situation.

My best friend in California was advising us to adopt some feral cats.

In the meantime, my 8-year-old son’s scalp had begun to itch so intensely that late Saturday evening I placed a panicked call to the Center for Lice Control after our pediatrician’s nurse had told me over the phone that he was most likely infested.

“I’m really scared!” Griffin wailed. “I don’t want bugs crawling on my head!”
“Stop being a baby!” his twin sister scolded, though she, too, was soon in tears when the woman from the center arrived and started picking through my children’s hair with her nit comb.

By some undeserved miracle, she declared us lice free, but Griffin still kept me up most of that night with his mysterious itching. And wrung out the following morning, I started to suspect that our trail of tribulations might have something to do with the frozen holy water on my front step.

I wondered whether holy water would still be holy after it had thawed, figuring I had nothing to lose by bringing in the jug and placing it in our kitchen sink. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to use it to anoint the roof and deck and possibly my son’s scalp.

And as I waited for it to return to its liquid form, I remembered that much graver problems plagued the world than flying squirrels and lice scares—silently sending out thanks to the anonymous man with failing kidneys, hoping that he had found succor in his holy waters—grateful for his generosity in sharing something he so cherished with me.

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