Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More than reading, writing and arithmetic.

I believe my daughter may have still been in the womb when I began participating in "school talk." It's the talk that us moms around the neighborhood have quite regularly. It's the "where do you think you're sending her" question lobbed at the playground, the grocery store, the potlucks and the playdates. It's launched quite casually, this question, a harmless balloon, but in actuality it carries the weight of a jetliner.

That's because no one wants to get this wrong. No one wants their kid to end up being the kid you knew in high school with the trench coat and the black Doc Martins who never talked to anybody and started smoking who knows what in second grade. Granted, when you were in high school, he might have seemed quite alluring, this bad boy, dangerous and sexy. Now, as a mom, he just scares the crap out of you. You certainly don't your sweet baby turning into him, or god forbid, dating him. So, as you push your infant on the swings and you spy a responsible-looking parent with their non-trench-coat-wearing-infant, you ask the question. You hunt and you gather information. You protect your young.

We hope that if we pick the "right" school, the one with the "good" kindergarten teacher and the extra art classes and the "involved" principal, then maybe our child will be spared the pain that childhood brings. The pain that deep down we know is inescapable, no matter the school, the neighborhood, the decade. Being the last to be picked on the team, being the first to grow two inches, the first to grow breasts, the last to grow breasts, having the weird little brother, having the perfect big brother, sucking at math, sucking at science, being really good at math, being really good at science, having no style, having style no one thinks is the right style, being the teacher's pet, being the teacher's nemesis, being terrible at sports, being good enough at sports to get noticed, making your first best friend, losing your first best friend.

It's the growing and hurting and winning and losing and loving and hating that happens outside your four baby-proofed walls, out in the big wide world, the world that for this moment is elementary school, that is so terrifying. It's the sure knowledge that after spending the first five years of your tender baby's life keeping her away from chokable objects and sharp corners, you're sending her out to the wolves.

So we ask. We come together as mothers to say: help me keep her safe. Help me, help her to become everything wonderful I know she can be. We ask about school as we ask about diapers and potty training and sitters and strollers. What we're saying, I think, is: help me do this right. Help me get this child, this little innocent, grown and off into the world with a minimum of pain and a maximum of empathy and kindness and wonder and love. This, I think, is what we ask of each other. And of ourselves.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Man of Our Dreams.

My four-year old daughter and I were lying in my bed together quite early this morning. Her Dad had already left for the gym, her brother was still snoozing in his crib. It was that sweet, warm morning time when nothing bad has happened yet. Your car hasn't not started, the electric bill hasn't arrived, no one's expecting you to be anything; just being awake is enough. And, for the life of you, you can't remember why you thought your kids were so irritating just twelve short hours ago. Now they're these little cherubs, rubbing their eyes and wrapping their chubby little arms around your neck, making you drunk on their delicious baby goodness.

Anyway, it was during this semi-dreamy part of the morning when Reese was chatting away to me, her head on my chest, her mass of curly hair swirling around my face. She was telling me one of her usual stories about her "family when she grows up." You see, there's this guy Andrew out there somewhere who doesn't know it yet, but according to Reese, he's marrying Reese. And they're having Jessica, "who came out of my tummy first," and Jennifer and then "the baby," Sophia. I normally just listen to the exploits of Reese and her future family with limited interest, but today, for some reason, I had a question:

ME: So, why did you pick this guy Andrew to marry?

REESE (after a considerable pause): Because he has a nice face and he's sweet to me.

ME: Those are excellent reasons.

REESE: Why did you choose Daddy to marry?

ME (after a considerable pause): Because he has a nice face and he's sweet to me.

Of course, it's always more complicated than that. Or is it? I remember the first time I laid eyes on Chris eight years ago. I walked into a room and the first thing I saw was the back of his head. At that moment, I felt a rush go through me; heart to toes. I'm not going to be completely nauseating and say it was love at first sight. Or destiny. Or whatever. What I am going to say is that the moment that we met, there was no other option. My life was going his way. Wherever that was going.

Love being love, there's no neat little package to describe what happened next, what's happened since. I can give you the facts: five and a half years of marriage, two kids, two dogs, two houses, two cities. I can tell you that when I am lost, it is him I call. When I am at my best or at my worst, it is him I want by my side. I can tell you that every year for Christmas I get a collage of all the moments of the year past and they're always moments I've forgotten and he's remembered. I can tell you that I prefer him to a double brownie hot fudge sundae.

And I can tell you that he has a nice face and that he is sweet to me.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fast forward ten years.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a restaurant alone, doing some work. I hadn't even noticed the family at the table next to me. They were unremarkable; late forty-something mother and father, along with a typical snotty teenage daughter: tight jeans, flipflops, long dyed hair, acrylic nails, continuously texting into a cell phone in her lap. But at some point the heat of their conversation drew me in like a firefly; the pain and thickness of it making it hard for me to swallow my meal. It went something like this:

MOM PUTS ARM AROUND TEENAGE DAUGHTER. DAUGHTER SHRUGS IT OFF.

MOM: Why do you always pull away from me?

DAUGHTER: Maybe you should be nicer to me.

MOM: I gave birth to you. Twelve or thirteen years ago you used to skip when you saw me, you used to love me so much. I think you’re the one that changed.

DAUGHTER: You never really listen to me.

DAD, ACROSS THE TABLE, BEGINS LAUGHING UNCOMFORTABLY AND MAKES A BAD JOKE TO BREAK THE TENSION. DAUGHTER GIVES HIM A DIRTY LOOK.

DAD (HURT, TO DAUGHTER): You read so much into what I say. Do you think every thing has to be a lesson – can’t I just be funny?

This just about tore my heart out. It made me want to take the whole family up in my arms and squeeze them tightly. It made me yearn for the Velcro-like relationship I seem to have with both of my very young children right now, the kind where when I leave the room, they know it and begin alerting the media. Lately, I've been thinking of this family on days when my personal space is non-existant and I don't know if I can take another few hours of not having a single thought, a single moment to myself. I bring it to mind when all of us are driving in the car and Reese, my four-year old announces, with passion:

"I LOVE you guys. I love my whole family: Mommy, Daddy, Finnie, Rosie. I want to be with you guys forever."

Having glimpsed the future, I know we're not too good, not too in love, not too anything, to avoid it completely. Somehow the hard moments are easier knowing this and the sweetest ones, somehow sweeter.

The other day, Reese and I were, for unknown reasons, sitting on the kitchen floor leaning against the refrigerator, and she said to me: "You are my best friend Mama, my bestest friend." Then she ran off to take care of four-old business, her brother and she continuing their ongoing quest to dismantle the house piece by piece.

I sat there, savoring her words like fine chocolate, knowing their value.