The men that make us who we are

My mother did all of the housework and childcare. My father worked long hours at a physically demanding job. My mother often worked part-time, to supplement the family income. My father worked a lot of overtime. My mother still frequently bore the brunt of the housework and home management. We were never for lack of things we needed, like food, shelter, medicine, or love. Even when my parents’ money belt was tighter than was comfortable, every holiday was a moment for celebration. Even  religious ones, like Easter, were celebrated despite none of us ever attending church or talking about religion. A small stuffed bunny and a card. On Valentine’s Day, a small box of chocolates and a card. Cards often.

Holiday cards given to and by my family have always carried weight to them. My father, who struggles to put words to his emotions. He was the byproduct of a childhood with a father who offered few vocal expressions of love, a man who thought tough love was the best kind of love, because tough love benefited his sons the most. So when holidays came around, or birthdays, or anniversaries, he spent a not-insignificant amount of time on a hunt for just the right card — one that perfectly captured what he struggled to say. He still does, because he knows that verbal affirmation is important to a great many people, his wife and children included. Because of him, and my mother’s matching enthusiasm, they eventually grew to mean as much to me.

Quinn’s family, well — our childhoods were quite different. “Cards are dumb,” he told me once, very early into our relationship.

“Cards are important in my family,” I said.

He shrugged. “What’s the point?”

I dropped it. Is that why he hadn’t said anything about the card I gave him on his birthday? I wasn’t going to force sentiment on someone that didn’t want it. Inside, though, I was gutted. I haven’t bought him a card since. He’s an acts of service kind of person. That is, he shows his love by doing things for the people he cares about. Like fixing my car countless times, to save me money. Like doing the worst diapers because the smell makes me gag.

My dad sent Quinn a father’s day card this year. I saw the envelope in the mail, and as I handed it to Quinn, I warned him, as I had six years ago.

“Cards are important in my family,” I said. “I know you think they’re dumb, but throw him a bone.”

He smiled one of those Sorry, I goofed up smiles. That card was not signed by my mother. Only my father. Just man to man. Dad to dad. Family to family. Nothing sentimental — they haven’t reached that point in their relationship — but humorous and thoughtful. We’re family now. You’re a good man. Thank you for loving my daughter and grandson. Inside (because he is a dad, after all), he tucked a photo of me when I was 18, in my senior prom dress.

Thought you’d get a kick out of this, it said.

“This is great,” Quinn said. “I love your parents.”

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So Mother’s Day was last weekend

Within a span of eight weeks in the spring we have four birthdays, one anniversary, and Mother’s day, a day which I’m told that in some places mothers get to do this thing called… re- re-lax? I think that’s it. Anyway, Spring is hectic. But it means I get to buy presents. Lots of presents. Are love languages still a thing? Because I guarantee you gift giving is mine. What does that say about me?

I don’t even need the excuse of a holiday to buy someone a gift. Quinn, however, stalls out when an occasion arises that calls for a gift. There’s a lot of pressure in gift buying. I get it. I kind of like that pressure. Gift giving is a way of acknowledging the ways in which we value relationships. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not buying Quinn thousand dollar watches. It’s a way of saying I care about you, and so I’ve done this thing that I feel is reflective of the person you are. But over the past few years, I’ve started asking for donations

For my mom this year, I made a donation to Every Mother Counts in honor of my own mom (don’t worry, she also got a commemorative plate celebrating the royal wedding). We make modest donations at Christmas to women’s shelters in our area. For my birthday this year Quinn made a donation to Lambert House, an LGBT youth center in my hometown that I’d never heard of before. It was perfect, thoughtful, and a reminder that Quinn not only understands my values, but shares them.

It’s a tradition I hope to keep as Ben grows older, one that teaches him that giving is more than toys or trinkets — it’s consideration and compassion. In my dream future, summer vacation will be dotted with a few volunteer hours. Christmas will involve picking out toys for kids on the giving trees around town.

Time is not something we have in excess of these days, but we are fortunate to be without significant debt; giving money is the next best thing we can do, for now. That, and working towards raising our child to be conscientious of the needs of others. Kindness, and compassion — that’s what I want for him.

In Defense of Mom Jeans

We had friends over for an impromptu play date last weekend, and a friend lamented to me: “He (her husband) was giving me grief over my mom jeans. Look at where my jeans hit.” She held up the hem of her shirt, revealing jeans that hit right at her hip. “Rose, are these mom jeans?”

“Please. I wear jeans that cover my belly button.” Something was also said about telling him to pull his pants up.

“Exactly,” she said. “Does he want to chase a toddler in low-rise jeans?”

I realized, in that moment, what I look like now.

The most frustrating thing my mother ever said to me during my teenage years, those delicate, hormone-fueled years of insecurity and self-doubt, was that confidence, the thing I so desperately sought, would come with age. I hated hearing that. But… she was right.

When I was young — even up through my 20s — I caught myself spending too much time in changing rooms, too much time fidgeting with the hem of my dress, too much time fretting over non-existent bulges that were “unflattering.” Every aspect of my appearance was subject to scrutiny: my hair in profile (too flat), my cuticles (ever ragged), my thighs (why are they so round on top?). It was exhausting.

Fast forward a decade. You know what my mantra is now? Fuck flattering. My God, is it a liberating way to live.

I have no great ( or witticism to insert here, and no funny commentary about letting myself go, “coin slots”, or the sheer lack of care regarding fashion trends these days. Give me 15 minutes and I can whip myself into something presentable, clean, and toddler-chasing ready. That’s about as good as you’re going to get.

Guess you’ll just have to settle for a good conversation.

Don’t Make Me Do This Again: The Pressure to Reproduce

“When are you going to give him a sibling?” a complete stranger asks. It’s maybe the dozenth time I’ve been asked this question. When someone offers to be my pro-bono, full-time nanny, I think.

There’s a kind of unspoken expectation in America to have multiple children. Only children, or kids who don’t grow up with a sibling in the home, are seen as self-absorbed, maladjusted, unhappy loners lacking in social skills. I have an issue with  the way these assumed behaviors are referred to — only child syndrome — and how it suggests that being without siblings is a disorder of some kind: all children that grow up without a brother or sister are subject to this same set of negative stereotypes, with little or no regard for the environmental factors that influence characteristics like adaptability, agreeableness, empathy, and resiliency.

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The unspoken assumption is that parents of only children do little or nothing to encourage or facilitate socialization with age-mates, or that only children are treated as little adults, isolated from situations that allow them to develop critical social skills that will allow them to flourish as they become old enough to interact with the world independent of parental guidance.

To tell parents that only children are in some way worse off places an excessive amount of pressure on parents to reproduce — even if they lack the financial stability or mental energy to do so. The decision to expand (or not expand) the family is a deeply personal one. More worrying, this pressure entirely disregards the possibility that many couples are unable to expand their family, whether due to fertility reasons, a lack of resources to pursue adoption, or other equally personal reasons. How does a parent compensate for the multitude of ways they are told their child will suffer for their solitude? Can they compensate?

Of course they can. I’ll be damned if I let strangers and ill-proven theories about stunted development persuade me to put my body through the difficult, painful, year-long process of conception, pregnancy, and newborn period. I’ll be double damned if my son isn’t going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted kid ever. The common factors that are most often pointed to as being causes of only child syndrome are things that can be significantly influenced through the active and ongoing evaluation of the child’s environment, relationship with caretakers, and various social outlets.

Ben is in daycare three days a week. We get a little report card telling us how he’s doing on his interpersonal skills, like listening to directions, table manners, and waiting patiently during hallway time. We also get a note on what we need to work on at home. Right now (surprise) it’s listening ears. Ben has a mind of his own, but I’m pretty sure kids his age have maybe a 50% return rate on listening the first time anyway.

From the time Ben was old enough to be aware of the world around him, I made an effort to get him out of the house and into the world on a daily basis. While I’m sure this started as a way to relieve myself of the monotony of caring for an infant, it eventually grew into a much-needed reprieve for Ben, who becomes restless if he’s been cooped up inside all day. We have a large yard and two active dogs, but this isn’t enough stimulation for a vibrant, giggle-happy toddler. Our daily outings to the park or grocery store or a friend’s house for play time allow Ben ample time to interact with the world and other children outside of the structured routine of daycare.

So here, friends, is my deepest (and newest) fear. What if I do everything in my power, but my everything turns out to not be enough? What if my family history of depression ensnares him as it did me? How much of his adult self is determined by  nature vs. nurture? The truth at the heart of it — the same truth at the heart of everything we do — is that only one outcome is ever guaranteed to us. So I’ll do my due diligence and hold onto the hope that our efforts won’t be for nothing or in vain. The rest is a combination of chance, effort, timing, and love.

 

He won’t call me mama, and the weight of loving

After a few nights of teething fueled, leg flailing non-sleep, Ben woke up in a surprisingly stellar mood. Most nights (get off my back already) he ends up in our bed between 3 and 4 in the morning. This doesn’t really bother us if he can HOLD STILL, WHICH HE NEVER DOES BECAUSE HE’S A TODDLER. We’re suckers for the snuggles, but we’re also freaking exhausted and aren’t capable of anything more involved than bringing him to our bed in the middle of the night. Sleeping with a flopping fish isn’t exactly easy, but it is possible. That’s what I tell myself. Fake it ’til you make it. Or something. I don’t actually believe that. But I like to pretend I do.

Instead of waking up under his usual cloud of fog, he was immediately ready to go. He flopped around for a minute, smothered me in a few very wet kisses, and crawled over to pat the dog. The he stood up, threw his arms up and cooed “Da-da!” at Quinn. Side note: Ben has yet to call me mama after doing it exactly twice several months ago. As far as his baby brain is concerned I am still merely an extension of him, not an autonomous being unto myself. Everybody else is a separate entity, but I exist to be an anchor point in the sea of childhood. Ever-present, stable, sturdy, covered in strange growths.

Wait. No.

It’s kind of a heavy burden to bear, isn’t it? Being the center of someone’s world. There’s a constant pressure of never wanting to let them down, never wanting to see them hurt or sad or in need. It’s like universe is telling us, No pressure, but the emotional well-being of this small human depends entirely on you and whatever small village you can cobble together to help you.

There’s a well-meaning saying about having to love yourself before you can love other people. This is an unfair statement. It tells us (unintentionally, but nonetheless) that we don’t deserve to love unless we first can find ourselves worth loving. This is a cruel thing to tell people. I speak from personal experience that this way of thinking is, by and large, misguided bullshit.

Here’s the thing: in allowing myself to love others, I am better able to find reasons to love myself. In allowing myself to take on the weight of caring for another human life, I have opened myself to a range of emotions I hadn’t experienced before becoming a parent. There’s a sense of being secure in my abilities that wasn’t there before. The people I love — my kid, my husband, my friends, and even my dogs — inspire me to be better, to take better care of myself. I am absolutely, 100% capable of loving others even when I don’t love myself. There’s a quote I like much better, that doesn’t tell you that you have to have reached a certain level of acceptable mental status before you’re deserving of love:

By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also.

– Thomas Browne

Something to think about.