I Am Not A Mom First, I Am Not A Wife First

Lyznkids

The questions began my junior year of college: “When are you going to get married?”

First it was my mother. I had been dating Dave, my high school friend since sophomore year of college. I thought the question was innocent enough. We had been dating for a while. But soon everyone was asking. His grandma said in the bold, huffy way that only 78 year old women can: “Why aren’t you married yet?”

“We’re in college!” I’d say. People always shrugged. Like it wasn’t a good enough reason, but no one wanted to press it further. We got married at 22. But that didn’t satisfy them. The week of the wedding, people started asking when we planned to have kids. A cousin asked about our plans for procreating while I primped for pictures before the wedding.

“Good lord,” I said. “Let me get through the wedding first.”

But they persisted. Kids? Kids? When will you have kids? I joked with my mom that for every time she asked me, I’d add five more years onto our timeline. If I held true to that threat, I would have been 95, by the time I tried to conceive.  And it wasn’t just family pestering us. Couples we met. Friends. People in church during greeting time, who looked around us as if we were missing something. Strangers I talked to in the passport line in the post office. It was the second question they asked me, right after, “What does your husband do?”

We had been married five years, when we decided to have a child. I thought the questions would end there, but they didn’t.

Before I even had my daughter hoovered from my heavily sedated vagina with one of those little hospital vacuums, the pressure was on for a second. I was six months pregnant when a woman in the Target check-out line asked me if I planned on having another.

“Good lord,” I said. “Let me have this one first.”

I had done everything “right” according to the laws of woman and it still wasn’t enough.

I have two children now and I am still pressured for a third. Although, the questions are more infrequent. As one family member put it, “You have one of sex, if you have more that’s just greedy.”  But it’s not over, not by a long shot. While all people may not eagerly anticipate the next product of my uterus, there are other expectations. Did I breastfeed? Did I have a med-free birth? Did I vaccinate? Will I homeschool? And it’s not just family. Every day, I read a new study that holds forth on some way I have failed—I placed my children too close together. I quit work to be with them. I feed them too much pizza.

And there is no end in sight. When they are older, conversations will fill with expectations of my children, laid before my feet. I am the mother after all. College? Do they have children? Are they married? How many grandchildren? And on. The gauntlet of what is required of me will never end.

In the wake of the publication of Meghan Daum’s “Selfish, Shallow, & Self-Absorbed” and Kate Bolick’s “Spinster,” there has been a new push to untangle the identities of women from their relationships—mother, wife and otherwise. Each book, expertly argues that marriage and childrearing may not be for everyone and they certainly shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a happy life.  I agree. And I laud these conversations, because every effort to free a women from being defined by her choices helps us all. In an article for Salon, Michele Filgate writes, “We live in a society where people are judged for everything, but especially parenting. My friends who are moms are just as criticized, if not more so, than the childless ones. Nothing is ever good enough. So why do we care what other people think?”

Good question. Recently, an article in the New York Times examined the lives of wealthy women on the Upper East Side. Women who are smart, well-educated and throw their lives into mothering like it’s their profession and they receive compensation accordingly. And while it may seem extreme, it’s actually not. I’ve recently been rereading Quiverfull, about a movement in conservative churches for women to embrace motherhood. It’s an older book, but the movement is still strong. And it’s amazing how similar it is to the wealthy women of the Upper East Side–women allowing themselves and their identity to be subsumed by the products of their ovaries.

And for those of us somewhere in the middle, we are not exempt either. We drown ourselves in Pinterest and complain about Elf on the Shelf. Heated discussions over whether we are a mom or a wife first, shuttle about on Facebook pages and Twitter. And it all misses the point entirely–we are not moms first, we are not wives first, we are not single career women first. First and foremost, we are ourselves.

From birth to death, a woman’s life exists in a tangle of expectations. The more a woman conforms to these expectations, the more they increase. Cloth diaper. Make baby food. Don’t let your daughter play with princesses. How dare you let your son play with princesses? It’s so hard to extricate yourself from the manifest destiny that society claims over your body and choices.

Whatever we do, it isn’t enough. So, why do we allow it to define us and make it encompass our human experience? Every time someone fights to wrest free the definition of woman from her relationships, gives us all a little more space to be who we need to be.

How To Raise A Boy

Before I had a boy a lot of people said to me, “What will you do with a boy?”

This comment was probably prompted by my complete disregard of anything masculine, except whiskey and bourbon. Which, let’s be honest, why did that turn into a “guy thing”? Whiskey and bourbon are delicious and they are mine.

I’ve never played an organized sport. I hate watching them. I only go to baseball games for the beer and the hot dogs. Once my husband and I went to watch the Red Sox play at Fenway Park on the fourth of July. After a tour of the stadium and the obligatory stadium food, I asked to leave. My husband turned to me very seriously and said, “If you leave Fenway Park on the Fourth of July we will probably have to get a divorce and you’ll have to turn Canadian.” I stayed. But only because I brought a book.

So, having a boy? Well, how in the world could I ever prepare for that? I mean, how could a person raise a man without pelting him with all manner of sports balls from birth until 18?

The other reason people made this comment was because my first child is a girl, who loves all manner of sparkles and unicorns and her ideal day is wearing a princess dress and making mud pies for her imaginary baby chickies, who follow her around and give her crowns and jewels. Or so I am told.

My mother in law, the mother of three boys, took me aside in the weeks after my son was born and said, “Is your daughter ready for a brother? Boys are different, you know.”

I just shrugged. “I guess she’s ready enough.”

My mother-in-law sighed and shook her head. She didn’t think we were ready. In the intervening 21 months since he’s been born, my son has been a very different child than my first. He scales counters. He can always find a knife. He throws everything—food, rocks, sand, glitter. He turns wands into guns, despite never having seen a gun in his entire life. It’s like he just knows that a stick that shoots fire and hurts people would be cool. I have a theory that even cave toddlers, in the days before guns, intuitively understood what a gun was and spent their days pretending to shoot things with sticks.

I think the same about sports too. If civilization were completely wiped out and there only remained a small collective of men who remembered nothing of their past lives. They’d probably invent the NFL before they even had a reliable source of water.

So, a boy, what in the world do I do with a boy? And I hear other mother’s ask this question as well. And it’s truly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Let me tell you what we do with our boy. It’s really complicated, so pay attention.

We feed him. We love him. We read him books. We let him pretend to shoot things. We also let him wear dress ups. We do crafts. We paint. We knock over towers of blocks. He throws balls at my head. He runs and we chase him. We run and he chases us. We put him to sleep. We put clothes on him. I teach him lessons about not hitting, about being kind and gentle, about saying, “Sorry” and sharing. We have him set his plate at the table and clear it when he is done. These are not new lessons but the very same we still teach our daughter. Also, sometimes we bathe him. Although we might give that up because it’s futile.

Do you know what his sister does with him? She gives him horse rides and plays princess. Sometimes they play house and sometimes she pushes him in the baby carriage while he yells, “MORE!” Sometimes she reads him books. A lot of times they fight, mostly over play make up and hairbrushes.

You know how you raise a boy? You raise him exactly like you raise any other human or houseplant, with food, water, love, kindness and a cultivated and careful amount of neglect.

Despite the fact that my kids are so radically different, I bristle at the assumption that raising a boy is so inherently different than raising a girl. People are different. Children are all different. One kid has taught me about magic. The other kid has taught me how to take a weapon from an armed infant. Both lessons are valuable.  But in the end, they are both humans first, I try to treat them as such and let them guide me with the rest.

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This originally appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Baby Chickies

babychickies

A few weeks after my daughter turned two, she told me I was squishing her baby chickies. Well, more like wailed, she wailed that I was squishing her baby chickies. I was six months pregnant and had heaved myself onto the couch in order to read her a book. “Oh no!” she screamed. “You crushed my baby chickies! You killeded them!”

It took some moving of my significant girth and some talking before I came to understand that my daughter had three to five small baby chickies who followed her wherever she went.  At any time in the past two years these baby chickies have been named Princess, Princess Chickie, Naughty Pants, Bad Guy, Window and Shrelalala.  For almost a year, I had to set a spot for them at the breakfast table along with a small bowl for their own oatmeal. I’ve accidentally squished them with the back door and had to jerry-rig a special place for them to ride in the car because I refused to buy them their own car seat.

Once, after she heard me call them “imaginary” my daughter threw a fit and wouldn’t stop screaming until I told her they were real. There have been times, when she’s woken us up in the middle of the night because the baby chickies thought there was a lion on the wall and could they all come snuggle in bed? Of course.

Recently, I let my daughter play with an old digital camera. As I flipped through the pictures she had taken, I came across several of just the floor. For a four-year-old, this isn’t that odd. But there were a lot. Almost 30 pictures of nothing but floor. When I asked my daughter about them she rolled her eyes, “Oh mom, those are the baby chickies, can’t you see them? They are so cute!

A couple weeks ago, my daughter stopped talking about her baby chickies and I began to worry. Had they died? Had they run away? They had done all of these things before and I even had to mount a search party for them, just to stop my daughter from crying. (We found them under a pine tree, thank goodness.)

So, I asked my daughter where they were. “Oh they grew up and moved away,” she said casually.

I have spent the past two years caring for these imaginary (or excuse me “real”) chickens, they’ve become as much a part of the family as the beloved blankies and the iPad. And now, I was being told they had left us, grown up and flown the coop.

I sat down. “Oh no,” I said to my daughter. “They didn’t even say goodbye.”

My daughter came and sat by me. “It okay, mom. They love you and they will come visit soon.” She patted my leg.

I wanted to cry. So much of these early days of parenthood are defined by the ridiculous—bouts of screaming over the sun being too sunny or tantrums thrown over oranges being offered as a snack, right after a tantrum about oranges being wanted for a snack. Some days, parenting feels like walking through a fever dream. I feed stuffed animals crackers. I make up stories about monsters. Underwear is worn on heads. Mittens become socks.

These baby chickies are so much a part of who my daughter is right now. Her silliness, her imagination, her big, big heart for all creatures even those that walk the line between imaginary and real. I love them, because I love her and now they are gone.

“I want them back,” I told my daughter. “They are too little too leave.”

She just laughed. “Mom, everybody grows up.” Then, she walked away.

By the time you read this, my daughter will be four. Four is old. Four is zipping-your-own-coat-and-preschool old. Four is getting-your-own-snack-and-playing-Candyland-and-Go-Fish old.  But four is so little too. She still comes to our bed at night when aliens climb on the walls. She still needs pink band-aids to make things better. And she still has the baby chickies. They came back after being gone a week and they are still here. This morning, I had to make them pretend pancakes with magic beans, which I was more than happy to do. I know that they will be leaving me forever soon and I will be so sad to see them go.

This article originally appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The Bad Days Don’t Need To Have Meaning

kitsch

The Monday’s after holidays are sugar-crash-the-baby-is-a-candy-addict-and-will-knife-me-if-I-don’t-hand-over-another-M&M kind of days. My daughter lay on the couch today begging for chocolate Easter bunny for breakfast.

“No,” I said.

“Please.”

“No.”

“Can you just put some frosting on my tongue?”

I finally relented and gave both kids candy because my daughter eloquently argued that when she sleeps in her bed the whole night she does get a treat. And the baby eloquently argued, “AHHHH! CANNN-YYYY!” Well put, baby.

I figured it was like giving them a bit of the hair of the dog for their sugar hangover.

It sated them for a bit. But then they both started begging to go to the library, but SOMEONE had left the dome light on the car on and it wouldn’t start. This is what we have AAA for. Plus, then they’d get to see a big truck, which is always a good day. I called and was told an hour. So we played outside and played. And one hour turned to two. So we ate lunch and folded clothes and the baby kicked over the towers of clothes. My daughter sobbed and called him “your naughty son!” Then it was nap time and I told the AAA lady to forget it. But I didn’t use a nice voice. Honestly, I don’t think I was using a nice voice since I woke up at 5am.

(That’s right, I willingly start most of my days between 5-5:30, because that is the only time I have to work out. I told this to a group of Starbucks baristas once and effectively delayed their reproduction for another decade. I deserve some sort of award.)

So, I hauled both kids upstairs and was reminded that they were both missing key members of their stuffed animal entourage. I went downstairs, then upstairs, then downstairs. When all members of the group were accounted for, I walked into the baby’s room and saw my son and daughter snuggling on the chair reading a book together.

This is where I am supposed to tell you about how my heart warmed. About how it’s all worth it. About how love is great and parenting is hard and something, something, small things and joy. But screw that.

Of course, my heart filled with all those happy cliches as I watched them snuggle and read. I love those two. And they love one another until the moment where they start beating one another with pool noodles and wands. But then they love each other again. But really, love isn’t the point.

So much of these little tiny things, like dirty chubby fingers and jelly bean drool on dimpled chins, I will forget them. So will they. They are the little nooks in the sheer rock cliff of our days. They help us get from one place to the next. We bless them. Then we forget about them as we reach for another.

Kundera called life a struggle of memory against forgetting. He meant the big things–war, human, atrocities–I mean the small things, the holes in the hard rock of our days. But I’m okay with forgetting. I’m okay with time washing over these rocks and smoothing out the stone. I’m okay with things seeming better in hindsight than they are right now.

I don’t think it’s dishonest. I think its about perspective.

Kundera also wrote that kitsch is an ideal with no room for objection. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” There is no room for the shit in the grass with kitsch.” So much of talk about parenting is either the kistch or the shit. No in between. But in reality, it’s all in between.

I’m not grateful for the bad moments. I don’t want them. But they are here. I don’t have to pretend there is some greater point to them. Or justify them with high minded ideas. Here they are. Here is the baby beating me with the Elsa wand. Here is my daughter telling me that I have ruined everything because I can’t find the play-doh. And here in the next moment is a snuggle a kiss. A clamor for me to sing “You are My Sunshine” and I do.Because that moment is here too.

In hindsight, these colors will wash into one another. But I’m here now, reaching for that next spot in the rock, making room for tears, shit, and kids in the lawn. Letting my memory and my forgetting bleed together and binging on jellybeans during nap time. I need my hair of the dog too.

Junkies

EandJMy daughter is stealing toilet paper. It started innocently at first. A roll here and there. I barely noticed. I’m absent minded. Thinking that I replaced the toilet paper in the bathroom and then discovering that I actually did not is something that is so common in my life that I don’t even question it.

This is how she was able to ferret away seven rolls of toilet paper under her bed without detection, until one day, Dave, stranded on the toilet yelled, “WHO KEEPS TAKING THE TOILET PAPER AND CAN SOMEONE BRING ME SOME?”

I stood up to go rescue him, but E was already up the stairs. “Oh dad, I have some under my bed.”

I followed her upstairs and watched her reach under her bed, grab a roll and hand it to Dave through the bathroom door. “Here you go dad.”

I crouched down next to her. “Honey, why are you taking the toilet paper?”

She smiled. “My baby chickies need it for their butts.”

The baby chickies in question are three to five imaginary chickens that follow my daughter around. She has had them as constant companions since she was two. Yesterday, I gave her an old digital camera to play with and she took a picture of the empty floor. “Look mom, all my baby chickies look so cute in dis picture!”

“Baby chickies poop on the potty,” I told her. “So leave the toilet paper there.”

I thought this would be the end of it, but the thievery only continued. The next time I caught her she wailed, “The monsters need it for there butts! THEY DO! THEY DO!”

The third time I caught her, she snarled her little lips, “I take it because you never buy me any toilet paper ever!”

So, that next Sunday, I took her grocery shopping and bought her a four-pack of one-ply toilet paper. She hugged it like it was the toddler Holy Grail. “OH FANK YOU! IT’S MY DREAM!”

She carried the toilet paper with her in her backpack to school, in my bag to dance class and in a plastic Target bag to ride bikes at a gym. One of my friends, a mother of three, asked E what was in her bag. E held out a little ball of paper. “Oh, it’s toilet paper, you need some for your nose?”

For the next two hours, she rode her bike and passed out little bits of toilet paper to the kids. When JQ spilled his drink she sped over and waved her toilet paper like a one-ply superhero. “Mom, I will wipe it up!”

And she did.

Part of me was seriously worried about her love for toilet paper. But then I remembered how when I was about the same age, I thought my baby doll’s bloomers were Cinderella’s cleaning cap. There are multiple pictures of me at four and five, asleep in only my underwear wearing baby bloomers on my head. Maybe she comes by this crazy honestly.  I told Dave this story of my childhood and martyred myself on the cross of genetic weirdness and that’s where we were, until a few days ago.

A light burnt out in the kitchen and I had to venture into the basement where Dave keeps his stash of bulbs. Out of protest against the new compact florescent light bulbs, Dave has been accumulating a vast horde of incandescents. There is a whole shelf of them in the basement, where he has stacked them. He often tells people how to score incandescents and he once scolded me for wasting them. “The next bulbs I buy will have to be from the internet,” he huffed. “This pile won’t last forever.”

I thought of his protests when that night, I heard E beg him for “Just a widdle more toilet paper, please? Just a widdle more?”

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