I’m Done With “Happy”

Ellis Leaves

Before I became a parent, I was assured I would never know such love as I have for my children. “Holding your baby is the most amazing experience of all!” I was told by parents, relatives, friends and random strangers in the check-out aisle of the grocery store who saw that I was great with child.

Imagine my surprise, when I first held my daughter and felt absolutely nothing but fear. Was I going to drop her? Would I raise her correctly? Had we chosen the right name? What had I done, thinking I could raise a human child?

My fear of course made me feel even more fearful. I was afraid, so did that automatically mean I was a bad mother? Where was that overflow of love I was promised? Was I broken? I was probably broken.

The overflow of love didn’t beat out the fear until two weeks later, when one night, as she screamed at two in the morning and I had exhausted all means of stopping her, I started crying. “Please,” I said, “I’m doing my best, just stop crying.”

And she did. The whole moment was so improbable, so ridiculous, that I laughed. I looked at that mewling little baby who half-resembled her father, and half-resembled Mikhail Gorbachev and I realized, she didn’t have a clue about anything either. The fear abated.

I thought about that moment again, when a well-meaning relative assured me that this time with my baby and three-year-old was a golden stage. “You will miss it when it’s gone,” she said. “It was the happiest time of my life.”

My days are full, meaningful, frustrating and involve a lot of poop, but happiest time of my life? I’m not so sure. But even admitting that makes me feel afraid that I am failing, I must be doing it wrong if I’m not overjoyed to scrub poop out of my 3 year-olds carpet.

A dearth of parenting books, manuals and how-to websites, assure parents that if there is a problem that you can fix it. That if something is wrong or frustrating or if your kid insists on biting your arm flab, that you can overcome this with firmness, patience and a few other products that can readily be purchased online. Bottom line: if you aren’t happy, it’s your fault and you are broken.

I wish the word “happy” would be stricken from parental vocabulary. As if a perfect bliss were the realistic end goal for raising children. It’s not. Life is messy, it is hard, and sometimes things don’t get better. Our self-help culture implies that all problems can be overcome. But when that “problem” doesn’t understand that she’s not supposed to keep peeing on the floor because the potty-training book says she won’t, well, good luck with that.

No parent who has ever lain on the floor crying because everyone else is crying around them, is broken. No mom who has ever looked at her child with eyes of sheer terror needs to be fixed. No mom who’s wished themselves away from the living room floor that’s always sticky and smells of poop, is doing it wrong.  I wish instead of parenting books that showed you how to be better, we had books that just taught you how to accept what is before us, with all the grace, joy, frustration, anxiety and fear that comes with the territory.

Because I’m done with happy.


This article originally appeared in my Gazette column, which is not online. LOL. Newspapers.

How To Raise Your Children According to the Rules of Literature


1. If you are a mother, you need to die or contract a disease that leaves you bed-ridden but also lovely.

2.  If you are a father, you need to marry an evil woman as a mother substitute for your children. The occupation of woodcutter is preferable.

3. Chronically neglecting your children means they will have delightful adventures which don’t always end in death.

5.  Abandon them in the woods.

6. Orphan them, but in a shipwreck. Or find an evil practitioner of black magic to off you. Really, you are holding your kids back.

7.  After death, appear to them as a magical creature and give them cryptic advice.

8. Sew them dubious red garments.

9. Send them on errands in the woods.

10. If you aren’t a woodcutter, are not married to a woodcutter, you better know one.

11. Buy an investment property in the woods. Raise your children there.

12.  It is preferable to be very poor. The worse of a provider you are, the better parent. So abject poverty is the goal here.

13. If you are rich, marry your girls off to men who have beards and a lot of missing wives. Your sons are probably screwed. Or swans. I bet they turned into swans.

14. Treat the younger child worst than the oldest.

15.  Forget college, always send them off into the world to seek their fortune.

16. If you find a bear, fish, or other woodland animal in a trap, let it go.

17.  Accept that at some point, one or more of your children will transform into an animal.

18. Teach your children to talk to the bleeding heads of donkeys with respect.

19. The best dowry is an invisible cloak.

20. If your daughters are doing something suspect, have them followed by a poor soldier.

21. Your child’s hand in marriage is a pretty good solution to ending most wars, strife, threats from beasts who speak with a human tongue, or other minor annoyances.

22. Black magic.

23. Do not under any circumstances let your daughter’s sell matches.

24.  Your daughter who only wants a rose is the best one. The others are garbage. Burn them.

25. The youngest is probably the best one. But you have to hate him. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules.

26.  Fear the huntsmen.

27. Wishing your daughter to be beautiful will incur the wrath of witches, queens, and evil fairies.

28. Always vaccinate your child against sleeping illnesses.

29. Should your child fall prey to a sleeping illness, create for them a bower as if they are dead. Solicit men to kiss them.

30. Stop being a jerk, of course you kid will win the golden ticket.

31. Ensure that your child has shitty, rich cousin to make his or her life miserable. If you refuse to die, this is really the next best thing for them.

The Evening Apocalypse

An accurate image of my house around 5pm.
An accurate image of my house around 5pm.

The last hour in the day waiting for my husband to come home makes me feel like an exhausted prophet awaiting the Rapture. All I can do is decry downward fall of my home. Helpless to stop the destruction or the wailing. In this metaphor, my kids are both the antichrist and the godless masses.

Let me explain. Like most women in America, my work and home situation is complicated.  I work and write from home, but I don’t have set hours. Only deadlines. So, I often end up working at night, naptime, when I give up and put on “Horton the Elephant,” and in the two days a week I have childcare. The rest of my time is spent with my children. And I am outnumbered. There are two, mostly mobile, human beings who believe it is their mission in life to destroy my home and sanity and in the process, destroy themselves. I don’t know why I’m using the plural pronoun. It’s just the baby who believes that. My three-year-old just follows him around the house hang-wringing and wailing that “Bubby is making a big mess and ruining fings again!”

I do my best. We plan activities. Go to parks, the library and museums. We glue macaroni to things. But by 4pm, I’ve run out of ideas. I’m scraping the bottom of an empty barrel and I need to start dinner. Because my family somehow believes that it is their god-given right to have dinner right at 5:30 and no later. I tried explaining to the baby that people in Europe eat as late as 7pm, but he just screamed and started chewing on the table leg.

But, I’m loathe to turn on the TV. By which I mean, turn it on “again”, because let’s be honest, TV is my crutch in the morning, there are no TV atheists in foxholes. And I seem to unreasonably expect my kids to play with their manifold toys for an hour, while I thaw the chicken and lie on the floor and weep. I grew up without television and recall spending hours playing in the sticks and mud with my brothers and sisters until my mom rang the giant, Texas shaped, rebar bell, summoning us for dinner.  But my kids, surrounded by a wealth of toys and crafts, can only manage to play a game called, “Scream for the toy that the other one is holding.” The game ends when I come in and take that toy away. There are no winners.

I thought I had more time. The baby is only 15-monhts old, after all, I thought I had a few more years until I began screaming things like, “Stop touching each other!” But the baby loves to tackle his sister, who loves to wail that her “brudder” is touching her again. And I have to emerge from the kitchen, spatula in hand and say, “Then get up and walk away! You can walk! He can’t!”

Last week, as I exited the living room to prepare dinner, I didn’t hear the usual screams and wails that signaled the ritual evening apocalypse. I cooked, untrusting of the happy sounds I heard from the playroom. Finally, convinced they had kidnapped the neighbor’s cat and were enslaving it, I peeked in on them. For two seconds, I saw my daughter rolling a ball to the baby and him laughing and tossing it back. It was magic. Then, they saw me and the baby screamed. The three-year-old cried. I should have known, the end was nigh. Come home quickly, dear husband!



This article original appeared in my Gazette column, which is not online, because OLD MEDIA. RIGHT?



Please don’t fire me.

On Dogs and Rage and Parenting

the park

Yesterday, while I was taking the kids for a walk, a dog charged us and bit the stroller. I managed to wedge my way between the snarling and barking dog and my kids and just scream for help. Some lawn crew guys chased the dog off with rakes. The dog ran down the street after a high school girl walking home. And then bit an older woman, who screamed for me to call the police. I did.

I called 911, which I’m sure wasn’t the right number, but I got a new phone and haven’t reprogrammed animal control into my speed dial. Because yes, I have animal control on speed dial. I’ve been chased down by so many mean dogs in my history of running and walking through the neighborhood, that I don’t even hesitate to call.

While I talked to the dispatcher, I heard my baby was crying in the stroller. The 3-year-old seemed fine. But the baby was sobbing. The dog had been closest to him. And in my adrenaline-fueled rage, I was ready to attack the dog back, to call the police, to find the owners and tear them apart, but I had completely ignored the kids. My baby was crying. So, I got off the phone and I went to hug him.

When I first thought about writing about this, I wanted it to be a rage-fueled diatribe about people who let their dogs off leash. About people who don’t take their dog’s meanness seriously. I was once backed against a tree by a large mean dog and the owner shouted, “He won’t bite!”

I yelled back. “I don’t believe you! Get a damn leash!”

This is what I wanted to do. To rage against danger. To hunt down the things that had threatened my children and tear them to pieces. But all I can think about is that baby crying. How my first instinct should have been, not to run down the danger and seek vengeance, but to go to him. To hold him and reassure him.  My baby is a wild little warrior. Never afraid to scale a summit. But he also has a tender heart. He cries when his sister cries. He cries when I pretend cry. His heart is so big and open, that is what I should have been protecting instead of lashing out. What is rage anyway? I don’t know the situation of the people who owned the dog. I don’t know how the dog got out. Rage is just a blind swinging at what very well maybe windmills.

Seeking vengeance is what is natural for me. I often find myself fighting the urge to punish and correct and give myself over to the need to comfort and console. A few nights ago, after a particularly rough bedtime, I put the 3-year-old to bed without a story. A few minutes later, she was up again, whimpering at the top of the stairs. “What is it?” I snapped.

“I just need some lovins,” she said. “You forgot to give me lovins.”

I went to her. Scooped her up. Hugged her and apologized. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I was wrong. I should have given you a kiss. I am so sorry, I was just feeling frustrated.”

“Me too,” she said. “That’s why I needed lovins.”

I had to do the same thing to the baby yesterday. I went to him and held him. I knelt by the stroller and reassured my kids. “We are okay. You are brave. Mommy is here to protect you.”

But it isn’t just with them, is it? I’m struck by how often I find myself cowering in a corner and instead of taking the time to grieve or find grace, I stomp off in search of vengeance. There is a person who has hurt my family dearly. I find myself often stalking him on social media. Finding new ways to get angry at him at his selfishness and narcissism, that will continue to wound those around me for years.

When we came home from our walk in the park, I realized, I needed to stop that. That I was making myself miserable, swinging with blind rage, out with my pitchfork, hunting down sinners, instead of where I needed to be, comforting the girl in me who was crying.

A friend once told me that after she told her family about her rape, her father went out to hunt down the man who did that to her. She told me that instead of reassuring her, it made her feel awful. Because there she was, wounded and aching, and she needed something better than rage.

Her words are like a beacon for me as I try to navigate these threatening places with myself and children. Yes, rage has a place. I now have mace on my key chain and attached to the stroller. I hope I don’t have to use it. But the mace isn’t the point. The point is that I need to give my children and myself something better than rage.


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