Mothering Out of Bounds

Posted: March 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Little Rhody, Miss Kate, Movies, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | No Comments »

I’m unstoppable. As a mother, that is. And before you hit Play on that Helen Reddy eight-track tape, let me clarify. I don’t mean this as a good thing.

I’m not sure when exactly it started, but I’ve become the person who pulls a Kleenex from my purse for the guy who sneezes behind me in a store check-out line. I’m the daft Perpetual Baby Smiler—never letting any beings under the age of one pass me by without cocking my head, beaming, and saying, “Awww…” I’m the woman standing idiotically in the family-boarding area, even in the rare instances I’m flying without my kids.

Aside from wondering where the hell the old Me went—the one who thought of herself as an individual, not just part of a family unit—aside from that, well, hell, it’s just that this new Me can be so horribly annoying.

If you don’t believe me, ask Mark. We’re deep into this issue he and I. Totally aware of it and working on it, but like some bad rainy-season ant infestation, it just keeps coming back. You know, you spray-slaughter all the ants around the basement door, and next think you know they’ve forming a line trooping through your dining room, swarming over a fallen lump of last week’s oatmeal. It’s the kind of problem you’re certain you will never ever get a handle on.

What exactly am I talking about? Good question. It’s this: I’m a backseat parent.

Mark will be halfway though answering Kate’s plea for dessert, or helping Paige track down her tap shoes and I’ll jump in—totally interrupting, bombarding unheeded—and I’ll start dispatching orders. “Kate, you need to take three more bites of broccoli before I’ll even consider dessert.” “Paige, your tap shoes are in your ballet box on the top shelf of your closet. Do NOT wear them on the hardwood floors.”

Man, it’s annoying.

We’ve talked about this but I still can’t manage to make myself stop. The best explanation I can muster is that I spend my days responding to an endless stream of kid-borne issues. Things that come flying at me mercilessly like centipedes in a video game. To ward them off, I have to aim a kind of Ghostbusters-esque task-zapping uzi at them—Zap! Zap! Zap!—in order to get us to the next level, which is usually something like out the door, down the steps, and into the car for school, with everybody’s clothing on and hair combed.

I’m so used to single-handedly dealing with what life throws at me during the day, that when Mark’s there and I so much as sense that some kid-issue is incoming, I automatically kick into gear, guns blazing. Even though I know Mark can totally handle it on his own.

I guess I’m kinda trigger happy.

We’ve joked that I need classical conditioning to change. But really, more than the salt-lick reward I think what I need is an electric cattle prod deterrent every time I do it.

And just ’cause I have a maternal reflex to do something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do. I may be feeling over-programmed in the Mama arts, but I’m still doing dopey things like consistently forgetting to carry diapers, and leaving a baggy of Alleve in my purse where Paige can get into it. (Kate recently called out to me, “Paige is about to eat some blue pills she found in your purse!” Guess I need to take to heart this Motherboard tip about stowing my bag at higher ground.)

The younger brother of my most-excellent wonderful and good friend, Mike, is moving to Oakland. I’m all hopped up about this because if I drink enough, turn down the lights, and really squint I can kind of make myself believe that Mike’s brother is really him. Although it turns out that in the sober light of unsquinty day I actually like his brother for who he is. Go figure.

Until he’d found a place to live, Mike’s Brother stayed with us. Just for a handful of days.

And you know what? I think I mothered the poor guy to death! I found myself texting him in the afternoons. Would he be home for dinner? When he was out late one night I went to our chilly guest room to turn on the space heater so the room would be cozy when he got back. One morning I made him—no, foisted upon him after an initial refusal—cinnamon toast. And while shopping at Target, I stumbled upon the map section (those old-school paper things). And I grew inextricably concerned that he needed an Oakland-Berkeley map in order to carry out his house-search. So I bought it for him.

I didn’t do his laundry. And if he sneezed, I left him to figure out like a big boy where to find a Kleenex (on the back of the toilet in any of the bathrooms, and on the bedside tables in every bedroom). I didn’t do those things, but I do have a hazy memory of shouting into the bathroom at him that he was welcome to take any of the towels in the linen closet.

Is all this me smother-mothering someone? Sure, it’s my friend’s younger brother, but the dude’s a grown man with a wife and child of his own. Maybe what I was doing was what any hostess worth her weight in fresh hand towels would do. But in my mind—these days I’m feeling so super centrally Mom-like—I can’t help but think I’m just inappropriately taking those who aren’t even my offspring under my wing.

It’s like in those cooking shows when the reality show chefs sautee a piece of meat. As they hold it over the heat they keep spooning the pan juices over the top again and again. It’s like they’re super-imbuing the meat with extra flavor of itself. It sometimes feels like that with me and my Mama self. Do what I will, every act no matter how juvenile, self-serving, or un-nurturing, still becomes a reinforcement of my essential Mamaness. And the more I wish it were otherwise, the more it seems inescapable (See: The coating of pastel sidewalk chalk on my black biker boots).

Last week the girls and I flew east like confused geese veering off course for winter. The rest of humanity–or at least Kate’s classmates—were all bound for warmer tropical venues, or the ski slopes in Tahoe. But we were simply seeking snow. Sea level snow was fine with us. Along with some quality time with Gramp and Grandma Joan.

And despite the incessant string of blizzards all winter there, the East Coast snow had nearly melted altogether. (Unless you count the mud-splattered ice piles in the far reaches of parking lots.) We were granted only one light dusting, from which we made the teensiest most tragic snowman ever—akin to the pitiful wee Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

Add to that the fact that back in the Bay Area, meteorologists were flipping their Doppler radars over the potential for snow in San Francisco—something that’s hit the history books something like six times. Thankfully, the SF snow was a no-show, so I didn’t have to berate myself for sidestepping exactly what I was trying to get to the heart of.

Anyway, pardon the weather outburst. Where was I? Oh yes, Rhode Island. Where we love nothing more than the little local library. And where I found the DVD E.T. and decided to indoctrinate Kate in some non-princess-based media.

Of course, she wailed and lamented. Why didn’t she get to pick the movie? Couldn’t she watch Angelina Ballerina—or even a cooking show (what she came to simply call “Ina” in the course of the week) instead?

The movie was rated PG for language (one kid calls another “penis-breath”) and something else I don’t remember. I’d intended for Kate to watch it while Paigey napped. But of course Paige refused sleep, and before I knew it we were all piled on the leather couch tuned in.

And can I just say, E.T.’s death scene is unbearably protracted? I mean, the scene in which he’s zipped in a body bag (one that fits oddly-perfectly for such a uniquely-shaped corpse) and left for dead. I kept checking the girls to see if they were experiencing severe emotional trauma, but they seemed to not really register (or care) what was happening. Maybe they thought E.T. was just being kept fresh in a large Ziplock.

Finally Elliot—who thrillingly shares a name with Paige’s erstwhile boyfriend—brings E.T. back to life by invoking the magic words “I love you.” (I wonder if Kate’s teachers tried that with Freezey…) I thought I’d dodged the bullet. But it wasn’t ’til after the hair-raising final bike ride scene, when E.T. was saying his goodbyes before boarding the space ship home, that Paige—who had been otherwise engaged in playing with the dog and flipping through books—suddenly burst into tears. Wailing sobbing miserably inconsolable tears.

“T.C.!” she wailed to the ceiling. “Teeeeee Ceeeeeeeee!!!” she blubbered in a mistakenly-monogrammed moan. This went on for quite some time. And since it was so sudden, I was trying desperately to diagnose the depth of her sorrow. She’d not even been watching the TV when her anguish first erupted.

“What’s wrong, Paigey?” I pleaded. “What are you so sad about?” I asked, hoping she’d say she just ran out of milk in her sippy cup.

No dice. The woe, she reported, was directly related to “T.C. having gone away.” And, as if to spell it out to her moronic mother who clearly wasn’t getting it, she mumbled tragically, “It makes my heart hurt.”

Meanwhile Kate was on my left, watching the movie with the detachment one reserves for ads for professional training institutes.

I was flustered, trying to give Paige some happy thoughts to redirect her emotions. “He’s going home, Paigey!” I offered brightly.

Then Kate added, sighing with the bored air of a teen, “Yeah, Paige. E.T.’s okay. He’s going to see his Mommy.”

Which got me thinking. No one ever really wondered about what E.T.’s poor mother went through the whole time he was having his earthly escapade. Right? I mean, think of the stress one endures losing a child in the mall. Now take that up a few million notches to having them missing on another planet. Sheesh!

I imagine their conversation when he got back on the spaceship went something like:

E.T.’s Mom: “Oh my God, you’re BACK! Come here—I love you so much!”

E.T.: “Hey, Ma. Yeah, I’m fiiiiine.”

E.T.’s Mom: [Holding E.T. at wrinkly brown arms length] “Listen to ME, young alien. Don’t you EVER hop off the spaceship and run away again! I was worried SICK!”

Of course, if I were her I’d also scold him that he didn’t have a sweater on. But that’s just me.

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Seeing is Believing

Posted: January 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Discoveries, Friends and Strangers, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | 4 Comments »

I don’t believe in heaven or the afterlife or reincarnation, but I do believe in old blue Volvos.

My mom used to drive one. One of those boxy four-door sedans circa 1980-something. The ancient green one she had before that—that I learned to drive on—only had an AM radio. Talk about a character building experience for a teenager. Name any Carpenters, Elton John, or Neil Sedaka song and I can likely recite each line flawlessly. I was a girl before my time, I tell you.

Or at least, out of step with the times.

Anyway, when I first moved to San Francisco, I was surprised to see so many old cars on the road. Vintage Dodge Darts and ancient Volkswagon Beetles with original paint perfectly intact aren’t uncommon in these parts. Cars that would’ve been devoured by the Midwestern or East Coast road salt decades ago just keep chuggin’ along here.

So it’s not unusual for me to come across old blue Volvos. Ones exactly like the one my mom usedta drive.

I’ll be pushing the double-stroller frantically down the street, late for Kate’s ballet class, and I’ll turn a corner and there’s Mom’s car. Parked outside some house like she’s inside having a cup of tea and a game of Scrabble. Or I’ll come upon a yard sale, pull over, and I’ll see I’ve double-parked right behind her. When I open the door for the girls to pile out, I half expect to see Mom’s gray-haired noggin bent over a stack of used books, or rummaging through a box of table linens.

Just this Sunday, Mark and I were coercing the kids to trudge two more blocks to our car. They were fried from a visit to the farmer’s market. Too much sun and dancing in front of the band. It was like some impossible against-all-odds trek over the Alps to make it 50 more yards to the parking lot. I’d nearly given up, was about to sit down on the sidewalk and tell Mark, “Go on ahead without me.” And then I saw Mom’s car parked up ahead.

And I kinda smirked. Although Mark had no idea what I was doing, I actually ran up a half-block and took a picture of it with my cell phone. Then I circled back to herd us forward, having tapped into some energy reserves I wasn’t aware I had.

Have I gone mad? Or, from beyond the grave, is my mother strategically parking her car in places I’ll pass by? Is this her sly eccentric way of showing me she’s still somehow around? Still keeping tabs on me?

Because if so, I am TOTALLY picking up on it. Message received, Mom!

This realization is, of course, thrilling and relieving. What I didn’t mention about the fact that I don’t think my mom is an angel hanging out on a cloud with her dead sisters and all our past dogs, is that it’d be so much nicer if I actually DID believe that. I would LOVE to feel confident that she’s somehow seen my children. That she admired the apple pie I made on Christmas day (her recipe). That she’s cheering me on when the daily doldrums of mothering set in.

I’d be frankly kinda psyched if my belief—that the end of life is really the cold dark end—isn’t really altogether true.

Now, lest you think I’m alone at all this, I have a friend—a terrifically intelligent and thoughtful woman—who believes her dead Mama comes to her in the form of a raven. You know, she’ll see a few birds on her front lawn or gathered on a telephone wire and sometimes get this inkling, this sense, of her mother’s presence.

Which I think is awesome. (In fact, whenever I see a raven now I think it’s her mom too.) What can I say? One gal’s old blue Volvo is another gal’s big black bird.

What’s funny is I read this Motherboard story about how to let go of your kids as they grow up—how not to be a smother mother. I love the concept of giving your kids “roots and wings.” Roots so they know where their home is, and wings to set them free in the world. I really hope I can get that balance right with Kate and Paige.

But at the same time here I am—fully grown with kids of my own—and thinking that even though my mom’s not even alive, she’s still somehow mothering me in some cosmic car parking way. Maybe I could use a little smothering of my own.

I’ve already confessed my fandom of the sappy-excellent show Parenthood. So in a recent episode the parents of a five-year-old have to tell their daughter that a hurt bird they’ve been taking care of died. The Mom and Dad strategize about how to break the news, how to gently introduce the hard reality of death to their sweet innocent. When they finally talk to the twerp, the mom caves when she sees her daughter getting sad, and blurts out that the bird “is in heaven now—with Grandma!” Which had not been the plan for their little talk.

I super don’t like that mom character on the show. But on this one topic, man, I can feel her pain.

Because, I’m truly saddened to report, sweet little Freezey, Room 2′s pet frog who stayed with us during Winter Break, died last week. (Side note: I’d like to clearly state that this happened when he was back in the classroom. Not on our watch.)

Kate was pretty sad about it, but I was crushed. She laid the news on me on our way to pick up Paige from school. She was all casual—no warning, no “Are you sitting down?” (even though I obviously was, because I was driving).

I was heartbroken. We loved that little damn frog!

I wanted to tell Kate that Freezey was swimming around in a divine froggy pond in the sky. That he was re-united with his former tank-mate Cutie Pie. And that they were happy and free and could eat all the stinky food pellets they wanted. Hell, I wanted to tell MYSELF that. But instead I handed Kate a couple pretzels and made her promise not to tell Paigey.

On Monday, while shopping for stuff for Paige’s b-day party invites, I wandered over a couple blocks to the pet store. I mean, the mother of all snake, frog, and other crawly-creature types store. It’s where the Room 2 teachers got Freezey. And even though they were clear—no more classroom pets this year—I’d gotten to thinking. Wondering about the viability of a new McClusky family friend.

So this place. It’s like everyone who works there has face piercings and huge tattoos and is scary knowledgeable about the animals. Like the geeky ultra-smart weirdos that work in the labs on those TV crime shows.

I browsed frogs. Admired cute spotted newts. Got full-body shudders from a sunny-yellow boa that apparently had a big dinner the night before. And finally I screwed up the courage to ask one of the goth-girl employees about what a tank would cost, how much maintenance was needed, yadda, yadda, yadda.

And as I got in the car and drove off I questioned my motives. Buying a pet doesn’t bring Freezey back. Would the girls groove on having an amphibian sibling? Or would its novelty eventually fade, like some expensive toy that gets shoved to the back of the closet—an expensive toy whose tank water you have to change, and who you have to feed live worms…

At a stop sign, I dug around in my purse for my cell phone, and looked down to hit Mark’s work number. A blast from a car horn made me look up. In my rear view mirror a bearded man waved his arms in a “you gonna go, or aren’t you?” gesture.

He wasn’t in a blue Volvo, which was a shame, since I was looking for a sign.

Am I gonna go? Well, sir, that remains to be seen.


Making a List, Checking it Twice

Posted: December 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Holidays, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Scary Stuff | 4 Comments »

I was a little late to the game this year, but last week I finally put in my order for our Christmas cards. All 265 of them.

When did I become this person?

I mean, how could it be that we send out so many cards? It’s not like this was something my mother ever did. She had an aging trove of Christmas cards stashed away in the bottom drawer of her roll-top desk. (The same desk I use today.) Cards with cardinals and pine cones on them, and sometimes an old-school dusting of glitter. And she’d send out maybe nine or so each year, and write personal notes in each one.

She was far from gussying us up in velvet headbands and fair isle sweaters for holiday photo cards. (Like I do—sometimes at gunpoint—with my girls.)

And in her crusty New England way, she found it tacky for people to send holiday cards to local folks they see all the time.

Well, clearly she’s never met my dry cleaner.

Okay, so I only wish I was kidding about sending our dry cleaner a card. It’s actually the first year they are on Our List. The thing is, they’re just a few blocks from us—the sweetest Chinese family you’d ever want to meet—and they do that thing where they display all their customers’ cards in the store. It’s so darn neighborly. For years we’ve been looking at our friends’ kids pictures under the glass on the counter. Hell, this year we’re getting in on the action too.

Along with sending a card to our pediatrician who also showcases them, but in a much more taped-to-the-walls shucks-we-love-our-patients kinda way. Every winter when I’m in the office for some inevitable kiddie illness I scan to see if our card got good placement.

I know. Pathetic, right?

But kinda true. Even though I know some secretary is just taping them all up like a zombie in no particular order, and getting paper cuts and complaining under her breath that it’s not part of her job description. Still, I want to feel like my kids aren’t hidden behind a pile of back issues of Highlights magazine.

My from womb-to-tomb friend from home, who I’ll call Adeline, well, her parents had a hard-core Christmas card system. When I was at their kitchen table once around the holidays I noticed a long list of names. There were check marks by some of them. Turns out that if Adeline’s parents didn’t get a card from someone they’d sent one too, that person got cut from their list next year.

Seemed kinda harsh to me at the time. But really, that might be a good way for me to whittle down my list a bit.

Anyway, about the cards. I insist on sending ones with pics of the girls. I love seeing my far-flung friends’ kids who I rarely get to lay eyes on. And even though Mom would call me gauche, I even send cards to our neighbors who live RIGHT NEXT DOOR. (And yes, I send them through the mail. So sue me.)

I have the good fortune of having an amazingly crazily talented photographer amongst my nearest and dearest amigas. And even though my brain tells me I should not constantly hit her up to take pics of my kids—even though I know I should respect some sort of separation of church and state in our friendship—I just. Can’t. Help. Myself.

So despite how madly busy and in-demand she’s been, and despite how she even kinda sorta outright told me she wasn’t doing holiday card shoots this year—and despite the fact that I know she hadn’t even had time to take pics of HER OWN KIDS—despite all that, well, I showed up at her house with the girls. With their hair all neat and combed. And their Christmas dresses. And even a wreath to use in the background in case she didn’t have any decorations up yet.

When did I become this person?

And if that weren’t already obnoxious enough, I then had to plead and beg and whine and bribe to get Kate to take off her paint-splattered school clothes and put on the dreamy Christmas-in-Norway dress I bought for her. It was hot, it was itchy, it was miserable, she complained.

But I was blinded by my vision. She would wear that dress, damn it. We would take the picture.

And you know? She did. And Mary, bless her heart, took the picture. And I likely alienated both my daughters and my friend. But damn, did I get a cute photo.

You’ll see. You’re probably getting a card from us.

My holiday mania knows no boundaries. Or decorum. Last week, like some lunatic mother hopped up on spiked eggnog, I approached the two kindergarten teachers on the front steps of Kate’s school. In the swirling chaos of afternoon pick-up I huddled them together and asked, demanded, interrogated them: Why in all that is fun and good and festive, is there no holiday pageant or party or play at the school? No musical medley? No special assembly? No small child wearing a poorly-adhered white cotton-ball beard who charmingly forgets his lines to the delight of all the adults?

The thing is, I think I KNOW why. Though those poor parent-pecked teachers don’t make the policies, I think the reason no one’s makin’ merry ’round Kate’s school is in our Northern Californian politically correct overdrive, there’s some fierce anxiety about not representing every possible religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, hair color, shoe size, and holiday.

Of course, the nice scared-of-me teachers did not tell me this. While likely beckoning to security to have me dragged away, they kindly informed me that there actually IS an event. A small celebration that no one needs to dress or bake for. Parents don’t even attend.

And the event is for—get this—Festivus! Yes, my child’s school is borrowing from a time-honored Seinfeldian tradition and celebrating the for-the-rest-of-us holiday. I wonder if they’ll be incorporating the traditional Airing of Grievances. Or the Feats of Strength in which the host is wrestled to the ground and the celebration isn’t over until he’s successfully been pinned.

Maybe, if the kids are lucky, they’ll also get to not decorate the Festivus pole. (It’s traditionally left bare.)

Actually, the teachers explained that in their interpretation of the anti-holiday, the kids will go from classroom to classroom where multiple craft projects will be set up.

Who knows, maybe they’ll do a Jell-o shot in each room too, like some college dorm party.

Well, what can I do? Is there a small part of me that thinks a school’s homage to Seinfeld is funny? Sure. I mean, I had a crush on George Costanza just like the next gal. But this Festivus work-around still doesn’t satisfy my need to gather as a community and get into the spirit. I guess I’ll just have to loiter around some Catholic school pageants to get my fix of Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

In other holiday happenings, I have managed to show some restraint. For years I’ve spearheaded day-long nap-robbing family field trips to scenic far-off Christmas tree farms. We’d spend $120 to chop down runty picked-over trees, buy hot chocolate for the kids even though it was 68 degrees, and inevitably someone would barf on the drive home. But this year I’ve tossed my Norman Rockwell tree-fetching fantasies aside. On Saturday we went to—wait for it!—Home Depot for our tree.

It was close by and convenient. The tree was $35. And it’s hands-down our biggest and best-looking tree yet.

This was a breakthrough for me.

Mark was thrilled.

And while I’m on a roll, I might as well brag that I’m also NOT taking my children to sit on Santa’s lap. Nope, not this year, or possibly EVER AGAIN. (Unless of course they beg for it.)

I have a friend who lines up wonderful pictures of her kids with Santa along the top of her piano. She’s had them taken every year, and I’m so deeply jealous of the freakin’ consistency and tradition and keepsake-ness of it all.

But my kids fear the man in red. One year when Kate was about 14 months, I waited in an endless Santa line with a Mama friend and her son. I’d just finished telling her how I’d weaned Kate. And then, when we finally stepped into the tool-shed-like roofed Santa nook, Kate took one look at Santa, then clutched me in a full-bore panic. She started balling, screaming and pumping her fist open and closed, signing for “milk.”

So we detoured to a red velvet-ish settee surrounded by poinsettias, where I caved on the she’s-finally-weaned thing I’d just gone on and on to my friend about.

Eventually Kate was willing to have her pic taken, but only if she stayed on MY lap. I kind of held her over towards Santa, and leaned back so they could crop me out. It’s a wonder my bare boobie wasn’t in the picture too. (Now THAT would have made a memorable card.)

Anyway, to punish me, Kate puked all over me in the Safeway parking lot later that day. To such an extent that I drove home in my bra.

Good times.

And, undeterred, I actually tried AGAIN the next year. And lo! I got a really cute pic of Kate. And the rental mall Santa even had all his teeth!

But the year after that she lost her Santa shit again. So last year I finally decided to do what mothers are supposed to—protect their kids from un-due trauma. I laid to rest my dream of a piano lined with darling Santa pics through the years.

In fact, we don’t even own a piano. So that makes it easier too.

I mean, I can’t be the only Mama who wrangles with an irrational desire to do up Christmas in all its perfection, can I? Even when it means traumatizing my children, their teachers, and my photographer friends?

How many of you are planning to drag your unwilling kids by their ears to sit on Santa’s lap? It appears some other Mamas are discussing this on Motherboard. (God bless the Internets for always proving you’re not alone.)

I may have cut corners on our tree selection process and visits to Santa. But my Christmas spirit is unwavering. I have every intention of keeping in close contact with that jolly old soul.

And to make sure that happens, I’ve added Old Saint Nick to my Christmas card list.


Locked and Loaded for Thanksgiving

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Drink, Extended Family, Food, Holidays, Housewife Superhero, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Sisters | 2 Comments »

My mother got headaches on holidays. The kind that required to her to be alone in her darkened bedroom. A room that she entered after shouting, “A little bit of appreciation would be nice!” then slamming her door.

Truth be told, I’m not sure this holiday ‘tradition’ took place on a truly regular basis, like the arrival of eggnog at grocery stores. But it did go down a few times for sure. Which in my tattered memory qualifies as something.

Of course, back then, my three sisters and I thought she was a drama queen. We rolled our eyes, called her nasty names (under our breath), and phoned friends to bemoan our misery. But now, as a Mama myself, I’m not so sure my mother was the offending party.

When I think of my mom at the holidays, I see her rolling out these Italian fruit cookies she used to make. More often than not, this was a late-night project. It took up all the counter space and the kitchen table. The cookies are super time-intensive and the dough’s delicate and tricky to work with—so much so that even now as a graduate of cooking school, I’ve shied away from ever attempting them.

But us kids loved them. They’d become tradition. So even if it meant finding time to bake at 10PM—and even though they were her ex-husband’s family recipe—Mom made them. Never fail. Every year.

Like many of the things she poured time and energy into—making pine cone wreaths, going to a farm for real hay for our manger, nurturing Christmas cacti year-round and baking cranberry bread on Christmas morning—all these things we all just took as traditions. Hardly considering how Mom toiled to maintain them.

What I’d pay now to be a fly on the wall back then. There were four of us girls, one of her. What was it we did to set off her tirades? Lazed about in our Lanz granny gowns, refusing to even let the dog out, when she’d woken up at 5AM to start the bird? Moaned about going with her to Christmas Mass? Or complained that the cocktail sauce for the shrimp was too spicy—or worse—was a new recipe we weren’t used to?

Embarrassingly entitled behavior, I know. But all totally feasible scenarios.

From where I stand now—a Mama who’s decorated and baked and shopped and wrapped ‘til all hours of the night—I can’t help but think that the odds were Mom’s tantrums were legit.

Too bad it’s too late to tell her I feel her pain.

When Paige was in a crappy sleep cycle a while back, waking up sometimes five times a night, I was also dragging my ass up at 6AM for boot camp. I was a zombie. Some days when Paigey napped, I’d crawl into my own bed. But Kate doesn’t have the ‘constitution’ for naps. (The gal’s natural pace is hopped-up like a speed fiend’s, and I have no one but myself to blame.) So to ensure Katie-Pie was well occupied, I’d plop her in front of the boob tube. I felt guilty, but I also felt so very very sleepy.

A couple weeks later, Kate and Mark were talking in the kitchen. “You know, Mom’s tired all the time,” Kate reported. “I always watch TV during the day so she can sleep.”

Whaaaat?!” I cried from the next room, tripping over myself to bust in on their convo and rectify my reputation. “I did that TWICE!” I said to Mark. “Okay, maybe three times… Back when Paigey kept on waking up at night.”

Then, turning to Kate like we were sisters in a spat, I sneered, “It wasn’t ALL THE TIME.”

I think Mark knew Kate was stretching the truth to con him into turning on TV. “Hey, it’s cool man! We roll like this all the time when you’re at work!” But maybe, like my memories of my mom’s holiday headaches, Kate saw a small pattern in my behavior and blew it up to be much bigger in her mind.

Whole families can have collective distortions of how things went down. Don’t you think? Stories are told and retold and embroidered along the way, and before you know it that famous playground scuffle William got into in third grade involved seven other kids and a pit bull. And he stole a police car after to get away.

I wonder if that’s the case with Mark’s family and their tales of talking politics around the turkey table. From the lore I’ve heard, there were some holidays that got pretty ugly. Folks fired up with a wee bit o’ holiday cheer duking it out over differing political opinions. I mean, far as I can tell there were never fisticuffs. But maybe a turkey drumstick or two got chucked across the table. At least, it’s fun for me to imagine that.

Were their political imbroglios ever really THAT bad? I can’t picture Mark’s mild-mannered Midwestern family bickering over Hilary’s foreign policy. I’m fairly apolitical, so I can’t even see doing that myself. Just like how I don’t get how a football team losing can put someone in a bad mood all day.

In my family accusations are flung, people storm around, and doors get slammed. But that’s just ’cause we’re Italian. It’s built into us. Moments later we’re all back at the table tucking into slabs of pie like nothing happened.

Anyway, all I know is, at some point prior to my indoctrination at Mark’s family holidays, an edict was set forth to suspend all political discourse. Forevermore.

But, you plug up one hole and eventually water spurts forth from another, right? Try as you will, there’s no way to ensure that a big extended family—with differing ages, political views, and opinions on how the stuffing should be cooked—can gather at the holidays with utter serenity. Even if you cook all your side dishes ahead of time, and avoid dinner-table talk on legalizing marijuana, healthcare reform, and failed family investments, something’s gotta give, right?

A recent Motherboard story I read gives the best reality-based holiday advice. Listen, your mother is going to be critical of what you cook no matter what, so just brace for it, honey. And when your brother-in-law acts all tweaky and insecure about something, GIVE INTO HIS SHIT. Toss out some crap that shocks and soothes him with how understanding and supportive you are.

I just LOVE that. Instead of willing it all to go away, step right into it.

Thanksgiving is always with Mark’s family. It rotates between being at his Mom’s house and her siblings’. This year we’re in North Carolina, which is fab, though frankly we could be in [insert some crappy place here] and it wouldn’t make a difference. Wherever we are we all end up just hanging out in the house anyway. Totally by choice.

Everyone’s even got their own foam coozy with their name on it. How rad is THAT? The bar’s open all day and the food don’t stop coming. This year there are even two—count ‘em TWO—newborns we can babble at and whose heads we can smell. And I just KNOW the cousins from Kentucky will bring some truly excellent bourbon. [Nudge, nudge.]

What’s not to love?

The Milller Family Thanksgiving is nothing like the holidays at my house used to be. (They actually watch FOOTBALL. And sometimes even play it!) But ten years in I can’t imagine spending Turkey Day any other way. Is it too meta to be thankful for Thanksgiving itself?

Well, who cares, damn it. I am.

A few years ago one of Mark’s relatives made a request to omit the nuts in the Chex party mix. This person lobbied that everyone in the family just picked around them anyway. A year or so later, the little pretzels were also removed. (I know, right? One of the best parts!) I joked—after a couple bourbon and Cokes, mind you—that the next year they’d be setting out empty bowls.

“What are these?” folks’d ask.

“Oh, the Chex party mix!” the host would reply. “The recipe that everyone likes.”

So, no political banter. And eventually I fear, no Chex mix.

We will get there! We will achieve celebration perfection!

If anyone’s bound to throw a wrench it in the well-oiled Miller Thanksgiving machine, I fear it’ll be me, or one of my kids. (Our wild Italian genes can’t be held down.) So I’m just bracing for Kate to start lecturing her cousin that daddies should be able to marry daddies. Or ranting about BP’s management of the oil spill. (Kate LOVED that damn spill and still goes on about how “some birds died, you know” and “Uncle John plugged it up.”)

At the same time I can picture Paige spitting out a brussel sprout, screaming, “ME NO YIKE DIS!” then spilling my red wine all over the white linen tablecloth.

Should this take place, I offer this up to our hostess, Aunt Ann, in advance: Talk a deep breath and a swig of chardonnay and remember that you’ve got a back-up plan: There’s a dark bedroom and a headache—either real or well-acted—that’s waiting for you.

Trust me on this. I’ve learned from the best.


Gratuitous Gratitude

Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Holidays, Miss Kate, Moods, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Sisters, Working World | 9 Comments »

The cold weather this time of year always makes me grateful.

There’s something about it getting dark early and being all chilly out. I love the evenings. The freshly-bathed girls are snuggled up, safely asleep in their beds. I’m on the couch under an afghan, toe-to-toe with Mark. He’s peering into his laptop, or telling me how a meeting went. Or we’re submitting to some IQ-sapping TV show.

It’s cold outside, but it’s warm in here. Our cupboards are packed with food. Our closets full of clothing. Our beds hold sleeping children, nearly perfect in their unconscious states.

There’s nothing swanky or indulgent about our set-up. No rare art on the walls or luxury cars in the garage. But we are healthy. We are here. We are blessed.

Since the cold set in a couple weeks ago I’ve spent evenings this way, awash in deep contentment. Sometimes I’m nearly giddy with our riches, with all that we have.

But my Seasonal Excess Gratitude Disorder isn’t something I’ve passed on to my children. Just the opposite, in fact. Lately they seem steadfastly stuck on grumbling disquietude, making blatant displays of their lack of appreciation.

Like on Sunday. I took Kate to see a matinee of what turned out to be a really charming, well-acted play called Cinderella, Enchanted. It was one of those adult-performed kid-attended productions where little girls come gussied up in princess attire. But it was Berkeley, so it wasn’t too sickening. You know, the kids wore Birkenstocks under their frocks, and were doused in patchouli.

Afterward, game for more feel-good family fun, we went to an old-timey ice cream shop. We ate linner (as opposed to brunch), and Kate and her friend ordered ice cream for dessert.

It was a lovely day. What kindly, well-mannered child wouldn’t appreciate that her mother blew off her favorite yoga class to spend the day catering to her every childhood want?

Not mine.

We stopped to rent a movie en route home. At one of those places that’s still actually a building where live (albeit socially-inept) people work, and where there are ceiling-high shelves of actual DVDs that you look at and pick out and carry home with you. It doesn’t involve The Internets at all!

And in that same old world vein, they have those candy dispensers. The ones where for a quarter you get a sweaty palm-ful of Skittles or those hard sour candies that’re shaped like little bananas and other fruits.

Kate saw these machines and wrapped herself around one like a rabid koala bear. I looked over my shoulder from the New Releases to give her a definitive, “No, Kate.” At which point she hunkered down like some protesting hippie setting up house in the branches of a soon-to-be-chopped tree. Had I not pried each of her fingers one-by-one off the glass candy-filled containers, she’d likely still be there, trying to gnaw her way through to the sugar.

“Two minutes ago you ate a bowl of rainbow sherbet THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD!” I growled as I dragged her by the arm through the parking lot. “And I took you to a Cinderella play! Most kids stayed home and played with Legos today. And now you’re begging me for CANDY? And acting like life is unbearable because I said no?”


Mark noticed this with Kate lately too. After running errands with her he cornered me in the kitchen. “What’s up with her and all the begging? My God, there were even things at Office Depot she wanted me to buy.”

And let’s not get started on the Halloween candy. Negotiations for it begin AT BREAKFAST. “I ate all my oatmeal, Mama. Can I have just one lollipop?”

If Mark and I weren’t such candy addicts we’d have tossed out that crap a week ago.

The thing is, especially with candy, I know the siren’s call of drug-like sugar is hard for kids to resist. But sometimes even while they’re eating something they’re already asking for more. Is it too much to want a brief moment of appreciation? Even from a two- and five-year-old?

Sure, we have some instances of unexpected gratitude. Kate will look up at me from dinner, eyes shining and say, “Mama, this is so delicious. Thank you!” Or Paigey will snug up to me after I’ve read her a book and say, “Fank you, Mama for read book. I yuv you, Mama.”

It’s sweet and sincere and makes me think all the time I spend like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill while calling over my shoulder, “What’s the magic word? What do you say when someone gives you something? Wash your hands after you pee!”—maybe some of it actually IS getting through to them.

But then yesterday I did what working mothers across the stratosphere do daily—busted ass out of the office to take the kids to gymnastics. This felt especially foreign and hellacious since I work freelance and intermittently. I’m unused to fleeing the office, jetting to two schools for pick-ups, struggling to pull leotards onto the kids in the parents’ waiting area, then foisting them towards their classes with a head-throbbing wave.

But like some rain-averse dog, Kate put on her breaks. She was unfoistable. I scuttled her towards her already-underway class and she started shaking her head, lip quivering, and muttering, “No.”

“NO?” I whispered in her ear, trying to keep my expression neutral for any onlookers. “What do you mean, NO?” The veins in my left temple throbbed, taking my headache up a level like a jagged peak on the yellow graphs on those aspirin bottles.

Well, no, it turned out, meant no. No class. No, I’m not going. Unh-uh. Just not in the mood.

And since I couldn’t imagine any way to force this to happen, though God knows my brain was racing to figure one out, I relented.

Fine,” I hissed. “You sit over there and watch your sister.”

Then Little Miss Monkey-See Monkey-Do Paigey Wigs (her new official title), decided after ten minutes of participation that she was also not going to take her class. Apparently the sight of Kate sitting on the sidelines picking through the uneaten remains in her lunchbox was more enviable an activity than Paige could bear to witness.

And so, with my sister in tow who was visiting from SoCal (and no doubt thanking God that she has dogs not kids), we left. Fifteen minutes after blasting past old women in crosswalks to get there on time.

And. I. Was. Furious.

I shoved shoes on those little leotarded girls and said to them in no uncertain terms, “Daddy works hard to pay for these classes. This is a special thing you are lucky to be able to do. And if we go through all the trouble to get here and you refuse to go, you… you… you WILL NEVER TAKE ANOTHER CLASS AGAIN!”

This, it turns out, was the most rational thing I could think of to say. Nice, huh? I’m sure there was some other way—nearly any other way, really—to have handled it better. But that was all I had in the moment.

I especially like the attempted guilt trip about Mark’s work. “Your Daddy’s risking his life in a coal mine right now so you girls can learn to walk on a balance beam!”

Keep it classy, Bruno.

Ah well, one more place I’ve likely been put on some Mommy Dearest watch list. Hell, it was the last class of the session anyway. Besides, per my impassioned threat, my girls will never take another class ANYWHERE ELSE AGAIN. So, who’s to worry?

I have had the thought that some of this recent whiny, tired, begging, miserable behavior has been brought about by, of all things, the one-hour time change. It seems silly that one hour could take such a crippling toll on the behavior of my children. But when they’re playing they’re whining for dinner. At dinner they’re ready for bed.

And when they are supposed to be sitting back and savoring all that is good and wonderful and blessed in our lives, they are asking for more. Or different. Or, none at all.

The holiday season is not quite upon us. I have a little time to sort this out so when we arrive in North Carolina where we’ll spend time with Mark’s extended family, we’ll all be aglow in the true spirit of Thanksgiving.

But just in case it doesn’t come together in the happy heartfelt way I’d like, I keep returning to this one thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if—instead of just making you feel sleepy—tryptophan also made you grateful?


Shit Storm

Posted: October 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Daddio, Friends and Strangers, Little Rhody, Misc Neuroses, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | 1 Comment »

At age 81 my father has a newborn. He’s no Anthony Quinn, star of the old-school flick Zorba the Greek, who squired a child with his thirty-something wife when he was in his early eighties. (Mr. Quinn did spend the latter part of his life in a home across the bay from my dad’s. But I’m guessing the most they had in common was a hometown.) 

No, my father’s baby is a puppy. Specifically a wire-haired miniature Dachshund.

And Dad and his wife are the consummate new parents. They boast about the little guy sleeping through the night. They fret over him being overstimulated or needing sleep. They bring him to play group. And they talk about his poop. Poop poop poop poop poop.

Coming in from a walk:

“How’d he do?”

“He made a mess  [This being their New England euphamism for fecal matter.] Get him a cookie.”

“Oh! Good DOG! Good DOG, Bruno!” [Yes, the dog's name is Bruno Bruno.]

“But after he went he seemed to be trying to go again.” 


“I think he might be constipated.” 

“Oh poor baby.”

Did Mark and I talk like this when the girls were babes? I can’t imagine we did—at least not in public—since hearing them seems to dismay me a bit. Though someone discussing so much as a child’s skinned knee can make me light-headed and queasy.

I’m in Rhode Island now, after a fabulous weekend in New Yawk. It’s my, uh, 25-year high school reunion. (Gulp.) And really when I should be focusing all my time and energy on looking 18 again, the theme of our visit thus far has been poo.

So there’s a pizza joint here in Bristol that’s truly world-class. I mean, it well could be why Anthony Quinn moved here when he did. The place has been around forEVER. After I collect my bags from the airport luggage carousel it’s like I’m programmed to go directly there. 

So back when Jesus was a Boy Scout and I too was a youngster, I did something in that restaurant that turned into Bruno family lore. I guess we were gathered around a table, takin’ in a nice pizza pie, and the place—all linoleum-topped tables and sparkle plastic seats that’d sell for a ransom on eBay—was packed. Let’s say, for the sake of fleshing out the scene, that it was a Friday night.

What they all say happened is I banged open the door of the bathroom, it being right off the joint’s main dining area, and announced with my pants and panties around my ankles “I need some help here!”

Mind you, I was young. I’m assuming I was a toddler. 

Anyway, so much about that place hasn’t changed through the years that I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I’m there some codger sitting at the counter says, “You’re the youngest Bruno girl, right? Well did you know that one night when you were just a little thing…”

But the pizza is good enough that whenever I’m home I muscle through the risk of having someone recount my youthful ass-wiping ineptitude.

In the spirit of all that is shitty, Paige is taking up my legacy. Yesterday we went to the local library. We love doing this since my kids are book geeks, but also because we can walk along the sea wall from Dad’s house and it’s a short walk through town to get there. The kids get books, I grab a decaf Americano at The Beehive Cafe, and my hard-on for small town life is fully actualized. 

So we’re at the bibliotheque and Paige poops. No big. She’s still in dipes. There’s someone in the bathroom, so we wait. I settle in to read Kate an Arthur book, when I see Paige across the room, and notice an unmistakable thick brown smear emerging from the waistline of her diaper up her back and under her shirt. 

Aack! I toss Arthur’s Teacher Troubles over my shoulder like a baseball player throwing a bat, and dive towards Miss Paigey La Poop. 

She’s about to turn and settle her turdy backside onto a large stuffed bean-baggy-type turtle that lives on the floor of the children’s area. And then I see that, lo, she’s already been there. In fact she has left several large clumpish deposits on the turtle’s formerly shit-free shell. 

I grab Paige by what I hope is a clean shirt-sleeve, and pick up the offending reptile, holding it at arm’s length and wishing I carried a pair of tongs in my diaper bag. 

This is when my apprehensions about the friendliness of New Englanders manifests itself into a neurotic full-bore panic. I mean, in the best of situations, in the friendliest of places, I’d feel hard-pressed to comfortably fork over a shit-strewn ANYTHING to anyone. 

But here in Bristol, my wee home town that’s gotten kinda well-heeled over the years, well, let’s just say it’s no friendly feel-good California. As much as I’ve defended New Englanders through the years, the fact is I did notice this summer that other parents don’t extend themselves to smile or chat with you, even when your kids are playing magic princess ballerina (and other tough guy games) at the playground. Yes, here in the land of “who is your father?” social calibrations, this seemed an especially daunting social interaction.

In fact, when I later told my dad this story, he joked, “They didn’t know who you were, did they?”

Anyway, what came next was really just me groveling apologies for my daughter’s scatological proliferation. And the older white-haired librarian shooing me and the offending turtle thing towards the young librarian with a wave of her bejeweled entitled hand. ”Oh, please just bring that to Molly,” she said wincing over her half-glasses.

I guess seniority in the Children’s Room means not having to deal with poop explosions.

Molly later compounded my angst by pointing out that there was not a removeable cover on Turdy Turtle that would allow it to be washed, then scoffed at my offer to replace the thing. In other words, I was shit out of luck in terms of being able to fix the problem. 

Later in the day I chatted on the phone with a classmate I’ll see at my reunion this weekend. She shared her own tale of public poop shame. One in which all eyes trailed her as she walked through a fancy restaurant holding her son. She had no idea why until on the sidewalk she noticed poop literally dripping through his pant legs.

The fact is that if you have a child you’ve likely had an unfortunate episode involving their excretions. 

What’s your story?

1 Comment »

Speaking with the Fairies

Posted: October 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Birthdays, City Livin', Firsts, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Milestones, Miss Kate, Parenting | Tags: | 3 Comments »

I vowed to never be a pony-renting birthday party mom. No juggling clowns, jumpy houses, or elaborate expensive goody bags. I decided some time ago that simple sweet parties were the key to raising my kids all wholesome and well-balanced.

Plus, I figured hype-free parties would be less stressful.

But then last year, I was overwhelmed—nay, terrified—by the prospect of entertaining a slew of raucous four-year-olds in our small back yard. (Yes, the guest list grossly exceeded my long-ago best laid plans for wee intimate birthdays.). So I rented a jumpy house. A big princessy pink castle jumpy house.

And then this year, well this year a meltdown at California Pizza Kitchen informed it all. I swear we don’t go there very often, but for some reason it’s a blog-worthy spot.

So there we were, in our CPK booth, awaiting our CPK personal pizzas and my half Waldorf, and Kate mentioned how super duper wicked excited she was for her friend Casey’s party. The party wherein a fairy—a real live bee-ooooo-tiful fairy with wings and a flower crown and everything—was going to not only paint faces and make balloon animals, but do a magic show too.

Kate’s anticipation for this party was so intense I imagined her pituitary gland transmitting jolts of unicorn hallucinations throughout her system. For weeks she was bathed in a heroin-high haze of pixie dust, and mind-numbing glee at the thought of a corner slice of cake with a blue frosting rose.

Yeah, so she was excited.

And then Mark laid it on her. Right there in our CPK booth. “Actually, honey, you know how we decided to go visit Aunt Judy? Well, it turns out we’re going to be in Palm Springs for Casey’s party.” And just to be sure his dire message was clear he added, “So you won’t get to go to the party after all.”

At which point Kate clenched both sides of her head in an Edward Monk-ian scream and began what was to be a long, loud, and active grieving period.

Even though Kate’s ensuing hunger strike and black armband seemed like extreme expressions of parental condemnation, I did feel bad. We had told her we were going to the party. I did read her the invitation daily (at her request) until she could recite it from memory. (“Be sure to arrive by 12:30 when the magic will begin!”) And I was a coward, putting off telling her myself so Mark had to share the bad news.

So I did what any mother who is heartbroken about her child’s heartbreak does. I called Casey’s mom to find out how to rent a fairy.

She gave me the straight scoop. “What I liked about these fairies,” she said, “is that they’re not Disney characters.”

“Oh good. That’s good!” I said. I was taking notes like a first-year law student.

“And communicating with them is interesting,” she added. But I was too busy scribbling down the URL she gave me, like some junkie with a line on a dealer, to take much note of anything else she said.

It was a month before Kate’s birthday. “Oh Kate,” I thought, with an aren’t-I-clever Hollywood-grade chuckle. “You WILL get your fairy.”

But seconds later on the website, my scheming laughter turned to perverse fascination. This was no two-bit get-a-fairy-and-a-jumpy-house combination party pack kinda place. This was all fairies. Serious fairies. With serious fairy names, like Miss Violet and Miss Acorn. There were gauzy sun-drenched photos of each one wearing wings, flower-wreath halos, and shimmery flowing dresses. They had long wavy hair cascading around their shoulders like some Vidal Sassoon Shampoo wet dream.  They were seated on mossy rocks at river’s edges and in flower filled meadows. One super hot blond was even nuzzling a real white bunny rabbit.

It was intense. It was compelling. It was kinda pervy.

It was definitely NOT Disney.

Clicking on each fairy’s main photo took me to a bio page with more glossy pics and background info on each gal. Things like “she came to our family in a whirl of sparkle,” (our family?!) “she  likes to sing songs way high up in the tree tops to the squirrels,” and other ‘qualifications’ like being a clown college grad or former nanny.

Anyway, I couldn’t porn out on the whole thing without getting my hubbie in on it. Besides, it had been seven minutes since I’d called Mark at his office.

“Okay so check this site out,” I said giving him the URL. “I feel like I’m hiring a call girl.”

After we hung up I imagined a bunch of guys in Mark’s office crowding behind his desk, obsessing over the site over his shoulder.

As for me, back at the house, I found I was a bit gun-shy about calling them. Who should I say I wanted? Did I go for experience or looks? And could the acorn fairy face-paint anything besides the poorly-rendered Blues Clues dog that appeared in one picture?

Plus, for the trifecta—magic show, face-painting, and “balloon twisting” (I guess that extends beyond just animals)—it was stupidly expensive. Fairies, it turns out, don’t come cheap.

But my thoughts of how excited Kate’d be—and what the hell I’d do with twenty-some sugar-crazed kids on my own—spurned me on. So I dialed.

No answer. The voice on the answering machine was shrill—a woman intentionally making her voice high-pitched and sing-songy, achieving an effect best described as demented. Her outgoing message mentioned something about her “being in a goblin class until two o’clock.” (Now does Goblin 101 meet on Tuesday-Thursdays? Or is it a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class?)

At any rate, I managed to leave a message using my very own voice. I didn’t get reeled into that thing where someone talks with a drawl and you talk back with one even though you were raised in Indiana.

The next day, as I walked in the door from somewhere and unburdened myself of heavy children and whining grocery bags, I hit play on the machine. “Why hello-ooo, Kristen!” the munchkin-woman voice trilled out. ” It’s Trixie! Why I was so verrrrry happy to get your call. Hoo-ray! But I guess I’ve missed you. Tee hee hee!”

I quickly hit Stop before Kate heard. And before I had to hear any more.

Eventually, after a voicemail exchange that included a glass-shatteringly shrill “Tag! Yoooou’re it!” message, Trixie (who I thought of as the madam of the fairies) and I reverted to email. But even there, the messages I received were rife with “[smile]” and “[wink!].”

I guess that’s just how fairies communicate. Constant reminders of their cuteness, wee-ness and girlishness. As if we could ever forget.

Several laps into this surreal communication sworl I finally received some actual helpful information. Yes there was a fairy who could work at our party. Just one fairy was left for hire that day.

Of course, I ran to the website to check her out. I was both crestfallen and unsurprised to see that the fairy who was free, the last puppy of the litter, the last-ditch consolation-prize party nymph, was—okay so it might sound kinda mean—but she was by far the uncute-est of the fairies. Maybe even a bit kinda “homely,” as my mother would say.

I was dismayed. I called Mark. Our child’s fifth-birthday fairy call girl was the bottom of the woodland barrel.

Damn me and my procrastination! Of course all the more organized mothers snatched up all the cute sexy fairies first. Poor Kate and her friends would be doing that thing you do when you see an ugly baby. Wanting nothing more than to say, “She’s beautiful!” but having to drum up alternate compliments. “Your wings, Miss Mushroom! Why, they are so long and lustrous!” “Your eflin shoes! How they curl so at the toes!”

But a day or two into sharing my frumpy fairy misery with a few friends, I started to come around. “Maybe,” I said to an amiga, lounging in the sun at her swim club, “Maybe Miss Mushroom will teach the girls that knowledge of math and science will get them further in life than a dewy complexion and a button nose? Or—you don’t have to be cute to make sound investment choices? And if you fling around enough glitter fairy dust, people won’t be able to really see you anyway!”

I was starting to feel preemptively defensive and protective of Miss Mushroom. By the end of the week I’d transformed my mental picture of her from the fugly fairy to an up-and-coming feminist intellectual. Like some young Simone de Beauvoir or thick-calved Hillary Clinton. I was hatching plans to take her into our home, set her up in the downstairs bedroom. We’d help her pay her way through Berkeley so she could quit the fairy gig once and for all. We’d emancipate her from her evil-voiced madam, Trixie. She’d become a beloved family member, a big sister and role model to the girls.

A couple days before the party I was slopping the kids’ dinner on plastic plates, while swilling a glass of wine. It was that early evening chaotic hell-realm time of day when everyone’s cranky, fried, and hungry. The phone rang.

“Hey, is this Kristen?”


“Oh hey, it’s Miss Mushroom,” the woman said.

I gasped! After only communicating with her madam, after talking her up for weeks to Kate, it was her. Miss Mushroom. In the telephonic flesh!

But what shocked me as much as her sudden presence on the phone line was her voice. It was kinda gravelly. I mean, not like Marge Simpson’s chain-smokin’ sisters or anything. But definitely no affected lilting fairy voice. Like not even trying a little tiny bit to sound like she could fly, or at least heal wounded wildlife.

“Yeah so I just wanted to run through the details of the party and stuff,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. “Turns out I’m not that far from you, which is cool.”

She was like some urban hipster fairy.

I felt a bit sad, somewhat let down as I ran through the “in our backyard” “eleven o’clock” “magic show first, then face-painting” details. I realized I was missing the magic. The magic I’d hated. The fake fake fairy-voiced magic.

But not long after hanging up I’d managed to shake it off. Despite how she came across on the phone, one look at her gossamer wings and the kids would be smitten. (And they were.) And the whole reason I hired Miss Mushroom was to avoid having to entertain the teeming throng of kids myself.

Besides, next year when I revert to the “small picnic in the park with a few close friends” I won’t have to worry about these things. I mean, you know, I’ll do the small picnic thing, or buckle again and go the pony-ride rental route.

Only time will tell.


Postcard from San Francisco

Posted: May 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Career Confusion, Working World | 1 Comment »

I’ve recently ventured to an exotic land. And not just once. I’ve been back there day after day, for weeks now.

The thing is, this place is separated from my usual stomping grounds by only a narrow waterway and a small island. But despite its close proximity, it seems like worlds—light years even—apart from the life I’ve come to know.

But I’m alone in my aloneness here. Which is to say, there are throngs of people in this new realm. Hoards of humanity who exude an overwhelming sense of comfort in this still-strange-to-me environment.

There actually was a time when I was at home in this place. But it’s like looking at a lock of hair in your baby book. You can’t imagine that that curly, naturally-blond lock was ever really part of you. It seems impossible that This You and That You are the same person.

Anyway, it’s struck me as odd that in all the time that I’ve been away, these other folks have still been there. It’s like five years ago some director yelled, “CUT!” to me and moved me onto a totally different set, but all these other chumps are still in that same place, acting out that same scene.

And for them it ain’t so fresh any more. They clearly lack my new-girl sense of wonder about the place. Like, they seem un-phased by the Walk signs that on select intersections allow people to traverse the street not just from one corner across to the next, but diagonally as well. It’s pedestrian mayhem! And for some reason, it’s dorkishly delightful to me.

There are other strange, noteworthy things. For one, there are no kids around. Not a single playground, toy store, or abandoned binky on the sidewalk. And I haven’t seen any of those Koala fold-down changing tables in the bathrooms. For that matter, I haven’t wiped a single nose (other than my own, that is), and thus far no one has bellowed to me from behind a bathroom door that they need my help wiping their—well, you get the idea.

It’s all just so different.

And my beloved—nay, ONCE beloved—iPhone, trusty telephonic companion that it used to be, has utterly seized up in this new place. Its inability to work is infuriating if only because sometimes, at the least expected moments, it does decide to function. This intermittent success factor gives me desperate irrational hope that if I endeavor to use it to do something as outrageous as making a phone call, it may possibly perform that simple act. After so long hearing others disparage their iPhones and not understanding why, well, I now understand. I want to shout from the rooftops about my allegiance to them in their hatred. In fact, I’ll have to shout to them, seeing as I’m shit-out-of-luck at making phone calls.

The place I’m talking about is, of course, San Francisco. Downtown, or the Financial District as it’s known (even though that’s a somewhat alienating term to those of us who work there, but not in the finance sector). I’m there because, after a more than two-year maternal hiatus, Mama’s taken on a bit o’ freelance work.

Yep, that’s me. Bacon. Pan. Frying up. Bringing home.

After being away for so long I’m trying to play it cool, but I can’t help but feel sometimes like I just got thawed out after a cryogenic experiment. All the donut shops have been replaced by those tart yogurt franchises, and there are compost cans in office kitchens now. And while fiddling with my iPhone paperweight on the subway, I discovered the BART train now provides wi-fi. I can access the Internets while hurtling through a tunnel underground! It is a brave new age, people.

Though all the changes aren’t for the better. A new disease appears to be sweeping through offices. It’s striking young and old, and leaving otherwise productive workplaces decimated. This “Social Networking Addiction” was not considered problematic in my stay-at-home mom realm. But I’ve gotten the sense that playing multiple concurrent games of Scrabble on Facebook, or obsessively Tweeting mundane life details like “Just peed and it smelled like asparagus,” is looked down upon in the workplace.

Go figure.

The last time I worked it was personal phone calls that were discouraged at the office. As far as I can tell, in the Email Age office phones never even ring any more. (And God knows our iPhones don’t.) If the building catches fire, I’m guessing an email will be sent out to alert folks to evacuate.

I mean, I don’t want to make myself out as a total dinosaur. There’s plenty in the workin’ world that’s still familiar to me. Sparring over limited conference room space. Publicly berating meeting latecomers. The Office Manager’s frustrated reminders that the fridge will be cleaned out on Friday afternoon. And let’s not forget the mixed blessing of sitting next to the woman with the candy bowl. This is the timeless stuff of office life. There’s comfort in knowing it will never go away.

At times it’s been so natural being back in my old workaday skin, I’ve found myself talking about “data points,” “knowledge transfer,” and “taking conversations offline.” It’s gross and shameful when that language creeps up on you, but worse when you use it at home. I’ve mistakenly slipped into Work Speak with Kate and Paige recently, and they just ran past me squealing, then tore into the cupboard looking for strawberry snack bars. Like I hadn’t said a thing.


The Then World and the Now World, or whatever combination of the two it is I’m living in now, don’t need to meld seamlessly. In fact, it’s probably better that I set my expectations around the likelihood that when my client spills his coffee I’ll have a baby wipe on hand to mop it up. (Or maybe even a diaper to really do some absorbin’.) And someday while Paige is sitting on my lap as I work from home, it’s inevitable that she’ll hit Send, and her own gibberish type will go out at the end of my attempted-professional email.

As long as I don’t start having daily status meetings with the kids, or hassle them about the amount of billable hours they’ve worked, I think I’ll be okay.

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Revisionist History

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Discoveries, Miss Kate, Preschool | 3 Comments »

I was late picking up Kate from school yesterday. Again.

When I walked into her classroom she was helping the teacher pin some of their work up on the wall. It was a project about the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. The kids had painted cool life-sized skeletons and had talked about people and animals they’d known who’d died.

Kate’s quote—the longest one by far—was hanging front and center.

“My cousin’s fish died. My grandpa’s dog died. I helped feed her breakfast. I had a cat named Edwin who used to sleep on my bed. Recently, Edwin died.”

It’s true that Cousin Gavin did have a fish—a few I think by now—that went the way of the toilet bowl. In fact, the first one expired on a weekend when Mark’s mom was babysitting, requiring Grandma to deliver the first Sometimes Things We Love Die lecture. I like how that life lesson extended across the country to Kate.

And yes, my father’s beloved wire-haired Dachshund, Katie, passed away recently. Somehow Mark and I decided to name our daughter Kate when there already was a Katie in the family—albeit a four-legged one. So trips home to Rhode Island inevitably resulted in all of us having to clarify child from beast.

“I’m taking Katie for a walk!” I’d call through the house. “Katie the Girl, not Katie the Dog.”

And then there’s the cat Kate mentioned in her school’s, uh, ‘death unit.’ The thing is, we ain’t never had a cat. Now, I certainly don’t like the thought of Kate telling tall tales. Especially those that are writ large in the middle of her classroom. But when I read her comment yesterday, I was actually kinda proud of her lie.

I mean, many kids would say their fake cat’s name was Snowball, or Boots, or Fluffy. I just love that Kate’s cat-we-never-had is called Edwin. Maybe it’s her crafty way of ensuring that any babies that might come into our family someday won’t be given the same name.


The Presents of Greatness

Posted: September 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Doctors, Eating Out, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Shopping | 2 Comments »

When I got home from school the afternoon of my 16th birthday, my mother was lying in bed and couldn’t move.

Now, the thing with my mother was she was a procrastinatory goddess. You never wanted to visit her and leave your prescription medicine. She’d tell you she’d mail it to you, and she’d have every good intention to, but ultimately weeks’d go by before you saw those pills again. And by then, your blood pressure, your acne, hell, a pregnancy even—whatever it was you were trying to ward off—would’ve gotten an excellent shot at entrenching itself in you.

So, on the morning of May 10, 1983, the 16th anniversary of my nativity, my mother woke up, ushered me off to school, and set out for her tennis game, utterly unprepared for my birthday. During doubles that day with “the girls” (a term she used even when they were long into granny-hood), she fell down. Landed on her elbow. And apparently gave it a substantial whack.

I assume it had to hurt. But this was a woman who left everything to the last minute. After tennis she’d have time to go to Ma Goetzinger’s, a cute boutique one town over, where she figured she’d find some little number or other that’d appeal to my fashion-frenzied teen self. She might also be able to swing by another shop or two, and round out her gifts for my sweet sixteen.

But there was, she decided, no time to see a doctor.

Well, by 3:30, or whatever time it was I got home from school that day, Mom’s elbow had had enough of being made a low priority. She’d hopped on her bed for a small rest when she got home, and in the calm of her quiet room, with the birthday whirlwind behind her, her body’s urgent pleas for attention finally got through.

The pain at that point was so great, she couldn’t even move.

I don’t really remember what happened next. How we got her up and to the medical center, or maybe to one of our small-town doctors’ home offices. But it turned out the arm was broken. She’d cracked or chipped or fractured some part of the elbow. An injury that was grave enough to warrant the doc, who we likely knew (whose wife was likely at the tennis game), to give her a good “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking-to-not-get-here-sooner?” lecture.

I assure you, I never expressed greater appreciation for birthday presents than I did that day.

Even in my ego-maniacal teen haze, I was struck with a jolt of insight into the greatness of a mother’s love. And her desire to make her child’s birthday just perfect.

Oh and you can bet I delivered my own “Geez-Mom-you-didn’t-hafta-do-that” lecture, managing upward as it were. After all, a daughter’s got love to give too.

But somehow, like those things do, that episode, that painful act of maternal sacrifice, faded into the backdrop of life. Never alluded to or held over my head, and only springing to my mind this morning as I lay in bed tickling the girls, awash in my own feelings of giddy love and gratitude for my daughters.

On Wednesday night, I went downstairs to the guest room closet to take stock of Kate’s birthday loot. And it turned out, that with all the shopping, or wrapping, or storing of gifts that I’d done on behalf of grandparents and other far-flung folk, I realized there wasn’t much for Kate that was from Mark and me. This discovery, of course, taking place late on the eve of her birthday.

So when she was in school that day, after Paige’s play group, I scrambled to a toy store. A mother ravaged with guilt that it’d taken until THE ACTUAL BIRTHDAY to get something. A woman incredulous that the Procrastination Gene she’d spent a lifetime denying, had somehow manifested itself in her, on the sly.

We found some little thing or other. A toy I’d say was from Paige to Kate. And by pure kismet I saw a billboard proclaiming the imminent arrival of Disney on Ice. The kind of branded, overpriced spectacle that makes the inner Waldorf mom in me shudder. But a perfect last-minute addition to Kate’s paltry set of parent-given gifts.

So there! I was done. With ten minutes to spare before fetching the birthday girl from school. I loaded Paige into the car, content that it’d all come together after all.

It wasn’t ’til later that evening, when Mark was back from his work trip and we were preparing to head to Kate’s favorite dinner haunt, that I noticed the stroller wasn’t in the back of the car.

I mentally retraced my steps.

Was it on the front porch? Had I left it outside Jen’s after play group? Or, in my haste to declare myself the ever-ready mother, did I smugly deposit both Paige and the birthday gifts in the car, then drive off leaving the stroller on the sidewalk?

Why yes, that’s exactly what I’d done.

As we headed to Filippo’s, pushing our unwieldy (but gratefully existent) double stroller, I asked myself, “How long does it take for an abandoned MacLaren stroller to biodegrade?”

Ah well, it’s good to have these humbling moments that prove I don’t really have my shit together after all. Right?

That said, I’ll have you know I’ve already purchased two (yes, 2) Christmas presents. So there.