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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.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

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.

Follow Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

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.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

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.