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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

When Your Heart Cracks Open

I remember when I was pregnant with our twins, now 8, several years before our third child was even a possibility, and a friend told me that the extreme nausea and vomiting I had been suffering as a result of hormonal shifts—that the extended period of physical exhaustion and strain that we would experience when we finally brought two babies home from the hospital—would one day seem easy compared to the emotional demands of raising older children.

When we did eventually begin to care for our infants, who took turns squalling, feeding, pooping and sleeping, just to begin the cycle all over again two hours later but unfortunately not on a synchronized schedule, I quickly realized that nothing in my previous 36 years had prepared me for this brave new world of child rearing. I wondered how my friend, herself the parent of two older kids, could be accurate—how this foreign territory that my husband and I had just stepped into could possibly become more hazardous than it already seemed at that moment.

Despite our anxiety and ineptitude, our twins miraculously survived their early years and have been striding forward into the world, their younger sister, arriving three years later, dog-paddling in their wakes in her frantic attempts to keep up. Of course with Jane, now nearly 5, Jeff and I were much less worried about every bottle and belch. Seasoned sleepwalkers by day, we registered her nighttime feedings more as blips on a radar screen than as seismic shifts in our lives.

But right away after Jane arrived, I began to sense just how prescient my friend had been. Amidst our surging love for our children, my husband and I often experienced an even greater sense of disequilibrium than we had when our twins were born. Griffin and Georgia were understandably jealous, the competition for attention suddenly exponentially increased with the introduction of an infant to suck up their parents’ energy.

“Jane won’t always be so little,” we consoled them. “Someday you will be able to play with her and enjoy having a younger sister.”

This has proven somewhat true. But our family unit also frequently feels off-kilter and the conflicts more intense.

Jane and her older sister now often engage in games, making “little people” houses for their Polly Pockets out of the Styrofoam casing our new microwave came in or playing school, using wet tissues to wipe their easel. I find the papers dried out, stringy with ink, days later on the floor of the basement, next to the discarded tennis balls our son diverted himself with while his sisters were absorbed with each other.

“They won’t let me play with them,” Griffin sometimes complains.

I console him, and if I’m free at that moment, I offer to share a hand of Crazy Eights or to examine together his baseball card collection. My son usually turns me down, a parental companion seeming second best to the company of his preoccupied siblings.

I often feel like a cloud of impenetrable injustice is hovering over our house—and in our children’s minds.

“Griffin and Jane never get in trouble,” Georgia cries.

“You never let me do anything I want to do,” Griffin says.

“Why do I have to wear a sweatshirt if Georgia and Griffin don’t?” Jane demands.

She will be able to make these decisions for herself when she is her brother and sister’s age, I answer.

“I’ll never be their age,” Jane retorts, which is true—just as it’s true that our children’s feelings, though sometimes inaccurate in reality, are always valid in the way they interpret their surroundings.

And despite our best efforts to make our home a safe, loving and stable one—my husband and I decided long ago that that goal would trump all other priorities—ever more complex issues keep arising. At each turn, we face new problems that we feel we will never be able to solve.

Recently, I was chatting with a neighbor about the challenges of re-wiring our 110-year-old house, which required breaking into most of our ancient plaster walls. She commiserated, describing how trying to fix a leak years ago revealed that the joists supporting their second floor were rotten.

“It’s like when you find out you have cancer or your kids are on drugs, you can’t ignore it,” she said. “You have to deal with it.”

Her words felt particularly poignant to me that morning, standing in the dewy grass with our dogs, since my husband and I had just learned that one of our children had been silently suffering. Even though we were attentive parents, we had misjudged the volume of the pain until it overflowed, and our hearts cracked open.

But through the aching we have been carrying on, like most people find themselves doing in the face of life’s challenges. We have been discovering new depths to our love for our children and seeking the help we will all need to heal.

And as I have continued to move through the daily drop-offs and pick-ups and meet-ups with friends, I have been reminded, as I often am during times of pain, that my own vulnerability opens me up wider to others, expanding my capacity for empathy.

A friend whose life appeared from the outside to be perfect—as the lives of others often do—recently shared that she and her husband had entered counseling. I felt a rush of tenderness for this woman and for the other mothers who have confided to me of late about their own struggles with their children. And I am developing an even greater appreciation for this formidable journey of parenting that we have embarked upon from which there is no turning back but only moving forward into more complex and fertile lands.

I am finding that our recent heartache has been deepening my sense of compassion for my husband, my children and all those I encounter—and that I am still able to laugh—like when my childhood friend recently texted me that she had ordered a load of guinea pig hay on Amazon and almost shipped it to our address, which, for whatever reason, always appears on her screen as a default.

“I could actually use some guinea pig hay,” I responded, laughing out loud and imagining spreading it over the gashes in our old plaster walls and on the wounds in our hearts.

And I felt suddenly lighter.

I knew that we would survive these fresh challenges and all of those that confront us until the end of our days, recalling "All's Well That Ends Well" and Shakespeare's observation that "the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together"—knowing that this tangle-up is what makes parenting so heart-cracking and rich and worth it all in the end.

Taking the Plunge

A cartoon recently circulated on Facebook depicting a mother's fantasy about what lounging by the pool might be like, leafing through a magazine and maybe even taking a nap, contrasted with the reality of her kids’ repeated complaints that they had to pee and demands to "Watch me! Watch me!"

I was amused because this image mirrored my own experience of having three children and realizing that going to the pool, far from diminishing my cares, actually increased them.

When my husband and I tried to feed our twin infants at the Belmont Hills Pool, for instance, we attracted battalions of ants with our dripping bottles of formula. Competing with other families for slips of shade provided by the few umbrellas proved exhausting. I felt uncomfortable changing diapers in the open air, but found the urine-slick bathroom too unsavory an alternative. And despite our repeated vows that this would be the time that we lasted, that we could still actually enjoy the pool, our wailing twins inevitably drove us back to our sweltering minivan.

Then there was an unfortunate incident when I was wading with our third child in the baby pool, and she had a blowout in her swim trunks. I slunk away, ashamed, depositing both Jane’s defiled diaper and her bathing suit in a trash can on the way out.

However, though still far from relaxing, the Belmont Hills Pool has become in the past couple of years, if not exactly a place of respite, at least a spot where I can enjoy my kids enjoying themselves, where I can meet up with friends for fragmented adult conversation. And I have become more inured to public humiliation, to the barely controlled chaos that is parenting and to the reality of poop in the pool—rejoicing that it is no longer coming from my now potty trained kids.

In fact, I was completely unfazed when our minivan recently crested the hill that overlooks the township pool, and my 8-year-old son declared that no one was in the water. Predicting a fecal incident, I said that we might as well check it out anyway. And we were delighted to find that the teenage lifeguards—the same ones charged with determining the safety of the water’s PH levels—had opened the lap pool to children.

My twins leaped into the teeming waters. I watched their 5-year-old sister as she made inelegant arcs around splashing kids, wriggling her bottom up and down like wounded eel in this frantic pantomime we have named “swimming.”

The following afternoon, Griffin played baseball on the grass with clutch of buddies, taking turns at bat with a flip flop and swinging at a sodden tennis ball, currying the disfavor of a nearby elderly couple whose own kids had probably long since graduated from college—who were actually trying to relax.

Despite their glares, the game went into extra innings until the tennis ball landed in the bathhouse gutter. The boys turned to a lifeguard who happened to be passing and who reached up and grabbed the ball with a graceful extension of his tanned arm.

Oh, to be young again, I thought wistfully as I suddenly spotted my girls heading to the deep end, which offers not only a water slide and a strong current but also a tight corner kids like to leap into, landing in a tangle of flailing limbs and near head collisions—all of which the disaffected lifeguards pretend not to notice.

I recalled another woman's comment to me earlier in the summer that the pool was the best babysitter. True, I agreed, if only I didn't have to watch my children with the fierce attentiveness of a falcon stalking his prey.

Georgia, 8, will sometimes disappear into the melee of bobbing heads, and when I finally see her blue-goggled face, she is already halfway across the pool. I begin furious mental calculations about how long it might take me to reach her were I to dive in right now, anxiously watching my daughter's lopsided crawl. Then she makes it to the other side, slithers out and run-walks to the line for the water slide.

I take a few deep breaths.

"Mommy! Can you get in?!" Jane demands, and I reluctantly slip into the water, the cold shock making me yelp despite the fact that it is 88 and humid outside.

In line at the snack bar, still shaking from the chill of my soggy bathing suit and the unrelenting watchfulness of the past few hours—thinking that I might benefit from some downtime, possibly even a vacation—I fall into conversation with an acquaintance, asking if she will be lucky enough to get away this summer.

"I’m not sure," she says. "My younger son is still only so-so."

Having had no idea that her child was sick, I am overcome by a flush of concern and admiration for this mother who lives in a heightened state of anxiety that far outstrips the cares that attend raising healthy children.

And as I walk back toward our towels with the ice cream sandwiches already melting in my hands, catching sight of my children's sunburned cheeks, the freckles decorating their noses, I silently celebrate their eagerness to gobble up their treats and plunge back into the water—back into everything that childhood has to offer.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lately I Have Been Feeling Old

It's probably time to increase the strength of my reading glasses.
Lately, I have been feeling old and ruminating about my mortality—perhaps because I just turned 44 and learned that it was no longer even technically correct to call myself “middle aged.”

On my birthday, I unwisely Googled “average life expectancy for women in the United States” and found that it was 81. This meant that I was already several years past my halfway point, if I was lucky.

Rather than inspiring me to “carpe diem,” this news only made me fret. I still had so many unfulfilled goals.

I wanted to learn to roast a turkey. I wanted to read Proust. I wanted to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture without ending up with leftover screws.

And I only had 37 more years in which to accomplish these tasks. Who knew what would happen in the interim?

Thankfully, I have experienced relatively sound health up until now, but I often hear stories about people who, out of nowhere, develop life-threatening diseases. I started to tally up what I suddenly realized was a disquietingly long list of creeping physical complaints: blurred vision while reading; chronic neck and shoulder pain; a nagging case of adult-onset acne; an ingrown toenail that I thought might be contributing to the shin splints that had recently been hobbling my exercise routine.

I had to admit that while out jogging of late—a stress-relieving pastime I have enjoyed for more than, I shuddered to calculate, 30 years—I was fatiguing more easily. Some days I just didn’t have any gas in the tank. In fact, my pace in The Narberth Cystic Fibrosis Run this spring was 10 seconds slower than it was the last time I raced it, in 2013, when I was 42.

This year, I seriously considered halting at several points along the hilly course. A very pregnant woman passed me near the end. And when I finally crossed the finish line, I had to limp around in circles for about 15 minutes, away from the crowds, just to keep myself from vomiting.

“It’s great you did it, though,” said my 46-year-old husband, who could only offer me such platitudes since he had miraculously finished the race one second faster than when he last ran it at 44.

But I consoled myself that he had already gone completely gray, an indignity to which I have not yet succumbed despite the daily trials of raising twin 8-year-olds and a 5-year-old—despite their relentless demands and conflicts and hungers. As much as I love my children, and as fulfilling as I find it to watch them develop, it feels like an enervating full-time job just to diffuse their endless bickering.

“Griffin pushed me!” Jane, 5, wailed this morning. “And my toe hurts!”

“I’m the owner of this picture!”

“No, I am!” Jane and her older sister squabbled a few minutes later.

We finish one meal, and a few breaths later my 8-year-old son tells me he is hungry again.

His twin sister’s clock radio blared me out of a deep slumber last night at 12. Georgia had accidentally hit the “alarm on” switch sometime the day before. So even when they’re not vomiting or having nightmares, my children still manage to fracture my sleep.

Every precious year I spend with them deepens the furrows in my brow, a curiosity to which my 5-year-old delights in drawing attention.

“Do that thing with your forehead,” she says, and I oblige. But the truth is that I no longer have to wrinkle it for the creases to appear—worry lines that began before my kids were even born.

I remember being pregnant with Jane and asking a friend, who already had three children, how she did it.

“You just produce more love,” she said.

So that’s what I’m doing. But the labor is leaving its marks.

“How old is your cousin?” Jane recently asked, holding up a picture.

“Almost 51, I think.”

“Wow!” my daughter exclaimed. “She looks so much younger than you!”

This latest insult clearly called for beer and chocolate.

“Come for cocktails and munchies to help me celebrate the fact that I still have two more years until I am closer to 50 than 40,” I emailed some friends, growing convoluted in my senile attempt to be clever.

“So exciting you’re turning 48!” someone replied, to my dismay.

After assuring her that I was actually much younger than that, I began to wonder if I could open some kind of tax-exempt fund—like the 529 we kept talking about starting for our kids' future college expenses—to pay for the reconstructive surgery I would need by then, if I was lucky enough to make it that far.

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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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