Upsetting

photo(4)On my first official day of unemployment, for the first time in my daughter’s almost eight years, I joined her class for a field trip. It was unseasonably warm and sunny, and a few clusters of colorful leaves still held strong to the trees, trying to delay the inevitable. We went to Phillipsburg Manor, which as the website description states, was once a working farm that used to “rely on a community of 23 enslaved Africans to operate the complex.”

The night before the field trip, I wondered out loud to my husband how much discussion of these slaves would take place during the visit. We have not discussed slavery with L yet. We have not told her about 9/11, or the Holocaust, and a year ago, I made sure she did not hear about the massacre at Sandy Hook.

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Halloween – a short tale on how it’s impossible to please everyone

My 7-year-old daughter was Pippi Longstocking for Halloween. She made up her mind a while back, when we finished reading Pippi. She has recently devoured Pippi Goes on Board, and her infatuation with the eccentric red-head who lives alone with her pet monkey and horse, without parents, and with a suitcase full of gold coins, has only grown. For her costume, I ordered a used blue jumper dress (under $10, thank you). Sunday we set out to sew red fabric patches on the jumper. Both girls immediately demanded to help. I let Pippi draw the square-ish patches on the back of an old, red t-shirt.

Immediately, her forlorn 4-year-old sister, who wore a well-loved, hand-me-down Cinderella costume on Halloween, demanded: “What can I not do anything” This has been her preferred way of asking for things lately, asking why she can’t.

I devised a plan that allowed both girls to help me. Pippi  would pull the needle. Cinderella would hold the thread and scissors, and cut off the excess thread when given a cue. According to this plan, it would take us about 50 minutes to sew each patch (there were four). Cinderella did not stop whining for even a second.

“Why can I not help? Why can I not put the needle in? Why can I not cut when I want to cut?”

Clearly, sewing is an activity best performed by two hands, not six. “Why don’t we put this down for now and go to the store to get Cinderella’s crown and red hairspray for Pippi?” I suggested. Both girls got dressed quickly and we were off.

We got to Target, and there was exactly one Cinderella tiara left. I grabbed it, tossed it into our basket, and exhaled a bit. Next, hairspray. Which they didn’t have. This being the Sunday before Halloween, the aisles were thoroughly picked out.

Pippi put on a pathetic display of disappointment, followed by an enraging one of blame. “You said we were getting red hairspray, and now there’s no hairspray, and how can I be Pippi with brown hair? YOU PROMISED.”

I guess somewhere in my suggestion to go to the store she read promise that could never, ever be broken. “OK,” I said. “I have to tell you that you are being ridiculous. We are going to try the pharmacy down the street, but if they don’t have it, that’s it. You are going to have to wear brown braids.” He drove the block and a half to the pharmacy. Cinderella asked if she could bring her tiara into the store.

“No,” I said. “Why can I not bring my tiara into the store,” she whined. “Because they will think you stole it, and then they will take it away from you, and I am not buying another one.”  Miraculously, she accepted the explanation without further questions.

CVS had a few sad cans of color hairspray among other exciting offerings in the mutilated Halloween aisle (Creepy Talking Butler, anyone?). We scored a red can, paid, and got in the car. Cinderella asked if she could hold her tiara on the way home. Sure. Whatever makes the whining stop. Everyone was pleased, for a few minutes. Cinderella asked: “Mommy, can you cut the package open when we get to the house?” The moment I parked the car, she asked again. “Give me a minute to wash my hands and I’ll grab the scissors,” I said.

By the time I got out of the bathroom, Cinderella had taken matters into her own hands, but the $5 royal tiara was not nearly as sturdy as the plastic rings that held it to the cardboard package. It had snapped. There were tears.

This is how the story ended: Cinderella wore her broken tiara, sort of repaired with some strong tape, just for pictures. Daddy held it the rest of the evening. Pippi was offended that the red hairspray got everywhere, not just on her hair. She trick-or-treated with brown braids.

A Happy Halloween was still had by all.

Fashion Goldilocks

If you were to walk into my 4-year-old daughter’s room any given morning, around 7am, you would find a partially dressed little girl, and two or three rejected articles of clothing puddled around her ankles, or tossed, inside out, over her bed. Black leggings with pink kitty cats that are “too stretchy,” striped cotton pants that are “not stretchy enough.”  Jeans that are scratchy. T-shirts that are “too hot,” “too summery” or tight. My child is the Goldilocks of fashion!

This sad scene usually takes place after I have exited her room in utter frustration, desperate for the soothing powers of my cup of coffee. What happens is I wake her up, we have sweet moments of cuddling in her bed, then she asks me to help her find something to wear. “Is it hot or cold today,” she asks. My answer bears no relevance to her choice of outfit, by the way. I may say “it’s chilly today,” and she will show up to breakfast wearing a skort and tank top. I have tried offering her a couple of options that are seasonally appropriate and match, to give her some level of control. She will reject my suggestions and declare: “I want to pick the options!”

This is where I can either fight, or walk away. In the past, we fought. We fought because I held fast to the notion that striped pants did not go with polka-dot T-shirts, or that skirts looked ridiculous over sweat pants. The more I tried to explain with reason, the harder she held to her fashion choice. Ultimately, there would be tears, breakfast would be delayed, and I would be late for work. Why did I care? I am not the one who drives her to school, so I don’t even have to face the public with my awkwardly dressed child. She, clearly, does not care. Maybe it was important to me that she show up put together especially because I am never there? Visual proof that I am a caring and involved parent?

Clearly, this is my issue, and It’s not worth the war. I have limited hours a day with my husband and children, and it’s a giant waste of everyone’s time to argue with a 4-year-old over fashion (or anything, really). This is not the Oscar’s. As long as she is comfortable (not too warm, not too cold), and dressed to play, I just don’t care what goes on her body. Not anymore.

My new goal is to get her to  “pick her options” without unfolding half her closet every morning.

On Books and Feelings

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“Spider on Web Munching” by MiniMised under a Creative Commons License

“Mommy, is Fern in all the Charlotte’s Webs?” It took me a few moments to process my 7-year-old’s question. We had just read the first two chapters of Charlotte’s Web, which I had grabbed from the library shelf in a huff, in reaction to her selection of yet another Pinkalicious book from one of those “I Can Read” series, which at this point is not exactly challenging.

“There are no Charlotte’s Webs,” I explained. “This is a really famous book, a classic, kids have been reading it for years and years.”

Charlotte’s Web was not a part of my childhood, in English or in translation. I first read E.B. White in college (The Elements of Style, still very much beloved, and a compilation of New Yorker stories, as writing to aspire to in Journalism classes). Yet, I knew exactly what the book was about. Friends, through the years, discussed how much they loved the book, hated the book, were traumatized by it. It was clearly a childhood milestone.

This was not the first time I considered getting Charlotte for my animal-loving, sensitive, 7-year-old. She is a child who feels things deeply, with abandon. We tried reading the first book in the Little House series, and she was so offended by the frequent descriptions of hunting that the book was returned to its box on the shelf (she had received the whole set for Chanukah), where it remains. She vows never to look at it again.

We took on Charlotte’s Web a chapter or two at a time. She was incredibly upset right off the bat when Wilbur’s life was at risk, then relaxed into the animal politicking in the barn. The writing is so clear and incisive, yet she did not see it coming. She was so happy that Wilbur was OK, she missed all the clear hints that Charlotte was the one who wasn’t going to make it to the end of the story. As we read the last chapter, I could see her eyes filling with tears. She held it in pretty well until the end, when she let out heart-breaking sobs, completely out of control.

“Why did you make me read this book? This is a horrible book,” she said, with a stuffy nose and blotchy face.

“The fact that you are feeling this so hard, it means that this is actually a good book. You know animals don’t really talk and plot, and spiders don’t write words on their webs, but you are still feeling something. This is how good books work, they make you believe,” I said.

“I don’t ever want to read a good book again,” she said. She will, of course, read good books, watch good movies, and feel.

The next morning, her little sister stomped out of her room screaming “Daddy, there is a spider in my room. Come kill it please!” I swear this actually happened.

You can imagine what happened next. My daughter dissolved into ugly sobs again. Her little sister was very confused, as my husband transported the spider safely  to the backyard.

“I hate feeling like this, Mommy. Do you ever feel sad like this with any of your books?”

“Sometimes,” I said. The truth is, not so often, not anymore. Real life’s brutality has brought me to my knees in the last few years, and I have been either actively avoiding upsetting literature, or it has failed to upset me very thoroughly. I did not tell my girl that I prefer her sadness continues to come from fiction, stories made up by other people, and not the complexities of our own lives.

What is home?

“Mommy, you are like Sophia the First,” stated my 7-year-old, triumphantly. “How so,” I asked, eyebrow raised high. “Well, she left her village and joined a new family. And you left your home and now you are in this family.”

Oh. My daughter, a sensitive type, feels excluded whenever I express nostalgia for Brazil, where I grew up. My husband grew up in the New York area, and the childhood memories my daughters are creating every day resemble their Dad’s much more closely than mine. I’ve lived in this country for a long time. In many ways, I am a lot more American than Brazilian. I spent my childhood in Brazil, but my formative years here. Home is here and there. Everywhere and nowhere.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place that is not your only home? I miss so many things. There are obvious ones, like people. My family travels a lot. We go to Brazil every year and a half or so, my Mom visits several times a year. We take advantage of Skype and other technology to see each other in between visits.

When I was in college, we wrote letters. Email was brand new, and while I had a school account (I had to go sign up for it in the basement of the school’s IT building, that’s how old I am), my family in Brazil certainly did not. Once they got dial-up service, it was less than reliable. For most of my college years, I still put pen to paper, then stuffed my scribbles into envelopes. The letters took a week to reach their destination. Most of the time, whatever turmoil I had written about would be resolved and sometimes forgotten by the time my Mom tore the envelope, read my words, and formulated her thoughtful response. There were weekly phone calls too. They were expensive, and any additional calls were saved for IMPORTANT THINGS.

Technology has made living abroad undoubtedly easier. As annoying as Facebook can be – and I could go on and on here – it is sort of a miracle to be able to keep up with friends from middle school, see photos of their children, know what kind of career they have chosen for themselves.

Still, there are so many things I miss. This kind of nostalgia is not helped by technology, quite the opposite. They are the sensory memories: the smell of barbecue permeating through the air on a Sunday morning, as hundreds of families light up their grills for churrasco. Grilled sausage to be eaten inside a fresh roll, with potato salad and steak. Tomato and bean salad. Simple and fresh, all year, not just during the summer months.

I miss a completely different kind of flora, the landscape of my first decades. Trees that don’t lose leaves, and a majestic pine tree that is the symbol of my home state. I miss birthday parties with brigadeiros and guaraná, and people clapping along to “Happy Birthday.” Yes, you can buy brigadeiros and guaraná here, but they are the exception, not the norm. Birthday parties here are pizza and juice boxes, and “Happy Birthday” is not percussive.

I miss the flavors and sounds of my original home because they were the colors of my childhood. I am homesick for a place in the past. Even if I were to move back, some of it would be impossible to recreate, or not as sweet. I explain this to my girl, and try to share my language, my extended family, my history with her and her sister. I tell them about the beautiful city that I left (not a village, not even close), which they have have visited several times, but hardly know. I tell her that one day, she will feel a similar feeling, warm and sad, about her childhood, about today, about hearing my stories about a place and time far, far away.

Our Needs

I recently read Maria Semple’s Where Did You Go Bernadettewhich someone had recommended as a funny, quick read. True and true. The story of Bernadette Fox, told in loose epistolary format (emails, letters, bills, FBI evidence), begins with a mother who is so neurotic and averse to human contact, she hires a personal assistant in India to take care of her family’s every need, from booking a trip to Antarctica to celebrate daughter Bee’s academic prowess, to outfitting the family for the trip, to ordering prescription drugs from a compounding pharmacy. Bernadette is a devoted mother to Bee, but just about everything else in life bothers her. She despises the bleeding-heart liberal parents in Bee’s private school, and most of all, she hates Seattle and everything that goes with it – the weather, the architecture, the people. As the story unravels, we get glimpses of what has made Bernadette’s existence seem so excruciating . Once an award-winning, talented and promising architect in Los Angeles, she crumbles after some professional frustrations and moves to Seattle with her husband once he is hired by Microsoft. The couple buy a decrepit mansion which had been a boarding school for girls, which in time becomes overrun with mildew and vines. Daughter Bee is born after several miscarriages. The baby is frail and sick, and at her bedside, Bernadette makes a trade-off that will define the rest of her life: she will give up professional fulfillment, her architect’s vision, if she can keep her baby. The realism of this scene took my breath away.

Bernadette gets her wish – Bee survives, after going through multiple elaborate surgeries during childhood. The child not only survives, she thrives, but her mother is left hollow. In a novel dripping in caricature and sarcasm (it really is funny), the process of Bernadette’s loss of self – and sanity – is sadly familiar.

I made that same barter after being told by doctors that we weren’t going to keep our little D, after having just lost her twin sister L. In the NICU, hunched over the incubator to protect a fresh C-section scar, as the whizzing respirator kept my tiny baby breathing, I unzipped and stepped out of the suit of my former self. The woman who emerged was raw, afraid, yet newly empowered to mother this fragile creature, to fight for her, with her, to experience the greatest joys and the darkest fears through the child. It is a process that special needs parents will surely recognize – the child needs, and we give, and give, and give. Time, money, energy, creativity, and love, above all. We love our children almost beyond reason, to the point of ignoring who we are, what we need. We have needs too – we need sleep. We need community, and friendship, and time for quiet contemplation. We need nourishing food. We need activities that nourish our souls (whatever that may be, in my case, travel, reading, theater, dance). We need physical activity. We need time with our partner. The list goes on.

Let Bernadette Fox be your (my) cautionary tale. You may be willing to give up everything for your child, but it won’t work. It is not true that the more you give up, the better off the child will be. And eventually, it will catch up with you.