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Thursday, February 23, 2017

When You're Born with a Disability Called MOM

On this day, twenty-five years ago, my perfect pregnancy came to a screeching halt as my first born was sliced out of my stomach after a failed attempt at a natural birth. There had been no piƱata filled with colored confetti to reveal the sex of the baby. No pink or blue cake hidden beneath a neutral shade of frosting. No helium balloons to let the world know if we were having a boy or a girl.

I snuck only the stealthiest of peeks at the sonogram, asking the technician to reveal no more than the number of arms, legs and heads on the embryo. I was absolutely convinced that my first baby was going to be a boy. So sure that I packed a baseball outfit as a coming home outfit.

So much for a mother’s intuition.

Molly came wailing into the world and right into her father’s welcoming arms.  I, on the other hand, was much more concerned with making phone calls and retelling labor stories than bonding with my baby.

“Why doesn’t everyone have a C-section?” I asked my caesarian-experienced sister on the phone that night. “I’ll admit the labor leading up to it wasn’t pretty, but I’m definitely scheduling C-sections for the rest of my kids. I have absolutely no pain right now!”

“Just wait,” she said so softly I almost didn’t hear her.

And she was right. No one gets through this mothering thing without pain.

As a matter of fact, I had so much pain that I tried to shirk my duties the next afternoon, requesting the baby stay in the nursery so I could sleep. My spouse had just left under the guise of readying the apartment for our homecoming. More likely he was sneaking a couple hours of work in.

“So, you ready for your baby bath lesson?” a middle-aged nurse asked, bouncing into the room.

I was lying prone on the bed, head elevated, pillow hugged to my belly, dreading the impending agony of my next trip to the toilet.

I looked at her blankly.

She raised her eyebrows.

“No. That’s OK,” I said, blinking back tears that had inexplicably found their way into my happiness.

“Oh, my God!” she gushed. “Did your baby die?”

“No!” I exclaimed.

“Is she sick?”

I shook my head.

“Oh, OK. I get it,” she said matter-of-factly, picking an m&m wrapper off the floor.

“How ‘bout this. All you have to do is get your sorry soul out of bed. I’ll open the window and you can jump. It’s clear you’re unloved,” she said, pointing to the dozens of floral arrangements scattered about the room. “So, if life’s that bad, I’ll be glad to help you out.”

So much for wallowing in self-pity.

Because I refused to breastfeed, I got Molly on a schedule pretty quickly. And because I’m who I am, I kept meticulous records of each and every feeding. Dr. Spock said bottle fed babies should eat once every four hours. And so she did. If she cried after three hours, too bad. If she kept crying, sometimes I’d feed her 15 minutes early, but I’d also lie in my notebook so no one would ever know I cheated. After three weeks, she slept from 11 to 7 every night.

And just like that, my sleep deprivation days were over.

I went back to work three months later. I hired Teresa from the corner grocery store to take care of Molly. She was only 18 years-old, but I surmised from just one meeting that she was better with babies than I’d ever be.

I was right.

Our first nighttime babysitter was Kara. She was eleven years-old. I used to babysit for days on end when I was eleven, (for 50 cents an hour, I might add), so figured she’d be just fine. To this day, every time I see Kara she reminds me of what I said when we left that night for the movies.

“If she cries too much, just put her in the closet and close the door.”

Luckily, Kara knew I was kidding. Kind of.

Our friend, Janet, gave Molly an old-fashioned wooden sled for her first Christmas. One snowy evening I wrapped her up in a snowsuit so puffy that her arms and legs could not bend. My spouse plopped her on the sled and gave me the reins. I pulled her along at a clipped pace, trying to raise my heart rate and burn some calories.

“Stop!” the spouse screamed after I took the corner a little too close.

I looked back and there was Molly, face down, arms splayed, in a snow drift.

I laughed. And laughed. My spouse scowled and scowled. Molly cried. And cried.

Molly swears she remembers that sleigh ride.

But that doesn’t worry me, because over the past twenty-five years laughing at my kids’ misfortunes is far from the worst thing I’ve done.

Some people, like my friend Claire, are innate nurturers. They’re made to be mothers and perform their duties with precision; washing towels daily, cooking meals nightly, tending to wounds stoically and carpooling happily. Others of us struggle with the role. It doesn’t come naturally so we have to rely on those little voices in our heads reminding us to be more empathetic, more flexible, more giving. More motherly.

Every step of the way I’ve worried if I’ve destroyed self-esteem, damaged psyche, spoiled dreams. If I’ve been supportive enough, strict enough, kind enough. And through it all, I’ve never, ever underestimated the power a parent has. Which has scared me to death every day of my mothering life.

To celebrate this 25th anniversary, I spent some time flipping through photos from different stages of my daughter’s life. I laughed. I cringed. I cried. And I realized, looking at the compassionate, confident, adventurous young woman she’s become, that we did it.

We muddled our way through together.

And I have absolutely nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Happy Birthday, Molly!

Friday, February 17, 2017

How Old Would You Rather Be?


A long, long time ago, when I was approaching a monumental birthday, I had a conversation with my dear friend, Kit, who I’ve known since I was five years-old. Kit has always been older and wiser than I, and so I’ve always taken her words to heart. While lamenting what I then thought was old age, she countered with, “How old would you rather be? What age was better than the age you are now?”

Oh, that’s easy, I thought. 

Four months old. What could be better than life at four months old?  Not that I remember, but I suspect I just kind of floundered about waiting to get taken care of. I gooed and I gaaed and got to drink all of my calories. I could sleep all day. I could sleep all night. And if I didn’t, it didn’t matter because the next day I could. But then I dug out some photos of life as a wee one and saw that, though I looked happy as a clam in my pram, I was actually prisoner to a cumbersome cast. From birth until nine months old, my legs were splayed and my privates exposed, though my mother claims these particular photos were taken between (cloth) diaper changes. I was born with a dislocated hip and this was what was done back then to assure I’d be able to run and jump and play. And I did, eventually. But, I’m thinking, maybe four months wasn’t all that great after all.
So, then five years old. What a perfect age! I was cute and feisty and had a royal blue dress that I remember to this day. I had two older sisters and a younger one, too. We had a Dalmatian named Pongo. And we had just moved to Woods Road. Having worn out our welcome at the grandparent’s while the new house was under construction, we moved in before the kitchen was finished. We had all kind of fun meeting the multitudes of kids in the neighborhood (including the aforementioned Kit) and spent our days dodging Mr. Nicodemus as he hammered and sawed our house into a home. But what I remember most was the stairs. They didn’t yet have backs on them and walking up to my bedroom, I could see all the way down to the basement. I was paralyzed with the unreasonable fear that I’d fall through, dropping one of my precious china dogs that I carried with me at all times. I simply couldn't shake that terror and had many a nightmare and took many a teasing from my older siblings over my baby-baby-bushwack behavior. Maybe there’s a better age than five after all.
Seventeen. Oh, to be a high school senior again! I was socially satisfied, having successfully crossed all cliques, befriending the smart, the dumb, the jocks and the stoners. I was anxiously anticipating my new life at Wake Forest University where I would be a Creative Writing major, meet the man of my dreams, marry shortly after graduation and live a Please Don’t Eat the Daisies kind of life. What a wonderful time I thought I had had. Until I re-read my diary that began, “Let me describe myself. I’m fat and have red hair and freckles.” Two out of three were true. Every day in that diary held a new best friend horror story. Every week, a new unrequited love. Every page was filled with bubbling angst and plummeting self-esteem. Which hit rock bottom when I didn’t get into Wake Forest. Nah, don't think I'd want to live through that again.

How about twenty-seven? I was gainfully employed at TV Guide magazine where I had worked with fun people who became lifelong friends. I lived with my sister, Nancy, at Sherry Lake Apartments where we ate frozen dinners, destroyed silverware in the garbage disposal and threw keg parties on weekends. I traveled far and wide. To Moscow and Hong Kong. Manila and Paris. I had the kind of fun you can only have when you're young and free and fearless. But, as my friends succumbed one-by-one to the institution of marriage, I was absolutely convinced that I would never, ever be loved. And never, ever have kids of my own. And that hurt my heart and scared the bejesus out of me every single day.

Then, thirty-four. Nothing in the whole wide world can compare to becoming a mother for the first time. My baby daughter lived in the corner of the dining room in our one bedroom apartment in an antique cradle with homemade bumper pads my sister sewed herself. Oh, the attention! The gifts! The flowers! The absolute joy of having a newborn baby. The surprising simplicity of feedings and changings and burpings. That is, until the spouse went back to work and I was left, home alone with an infant, scared to death I would do something wrong. A feeling that never left me until the very last one left the house.

Which brings me up to where I am now.

I've just passed another birthday. Not a monumental one, but close enough. And as I thought about my conversation with Kit, I realized that, as usual, she was right. While I can unequivocally say I have loved every minute of my life, I also know that my mind is really, really good at rewriting history. But I also know that as we age it's perfectly normal to bewail our lost bodies and mourn our thwarted dreams. And so I will. Time and time again.

But, as I'm doing so, I'll do it knowing, for sure, that there's no other age I'd rather be than that which I am at this very moment. 

After all, I'm finally old enough and wise enough to know I don't have much choice in the matter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to Kill a Family Vacation

“Hey family!” the daughter’s group text began. “You have 4 months to each save $1,000 for a family trip to Iceland! Woohoo!”

“Sounds great,” I responded, just because it’s rude not to.

“I’m serious. We leave June 1.”

And that was the end of that.

Like my friend Jean, I really, truly believe in the Family Vacation concept. There's nothing like transporting a family of five across state lines, through the friendly skies or over distant seas, all for the purpose of reconnecting, relaxing and recharging. With the very same kids who weren't able to exist in the same room together for more than three minutes. Sometimes. two. Any longer than that, the jabbing, jostling and blood-curdling screams kicked in.

But, we did it anyway.

First, we did the shore thing. For several years in a row, we rented a house in Avalon, New Jersey for a week. We packed the old minivan, which was rather new then, with playpens and high chairs, baby bottles and bouncy chairs, bicycles and beach umbrellas and drove the 2 ½ hours to the beach, a not-so-happy place for me. I detest sand as much as my spouse adores it, so it being relatively early in our marriage, we compromised. I did the nap and dinner duties and he dealt with the sunscreen and screamers.

Later, we did the lake thing. We rented a townhouse, with a really cool sleeping loft, on the Canadian side of Lake Memphremagog. We spent the week riding bicycles, eating croissants, going to an Expos game and reveling in a walk-in closet bigger than my bathroom at home.

And, finally, we did the mountain thing. We rented places in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Catskill Mountains of New York. We hiked and biked and swam in cold, clear lakes. We went to Ben and Jerry's, the Trapp Family Lodge and a state fair at which we watched pig races, ate funnel cake and speculated on how our kids would do as 4-H members.

When you're not a rich family, have three strong-willed offspring, one easy-going spouse, and one mother like me, renting houses can suck the life out of any vacation. Yet, I loved our family vacations, despite the weeks-long prep lists, the days-long packing, the hours-long car rides and the filled-to-the-gills minivan with overflow in the rooftop carrier.

And there's a good chance we'd still be doing it today if it weren't for our vacation back in 2006.

We had just moved into our new house and had a false sense of financial security. Money was moving between mortgages and we somehow got a free month of living, or so we allowed ourselves to believe. We’ve long since learned that they get you on the backend, and the front end and on every end in between. And so, I won the “This might be our last chance!” argument and we went on a family vacation to Jamaica.

But, this wasn’t just any little romp in the woods of a family vacation. This was a fly-to-Montego-Bay, all-inclusive, no-cooking, plenty-of-drinking, hanging-by-the-pool, spring-break, resort kind of family vacation.
And, the cherry on top was not in the umbrella-drink, though there were plenty of those, but in the friends we recruited for the fun.

We somehow convinced four other families that for them as well, it may be their last chance to take the ultimate family vacation. And so we went, five families, with a total of twelve kids ranging in age from 6 to 14.

The kids ran loose. The parents got loose. We played games on the beach. Cards on the deck. And had family dinner every night under the Jamaican skies. We respected the sun. We drank somewhat responsibly. The 14 year-old girls were unexpectedly civil.  The boys expectedly independent. And we only lost the six year-old once.

 Ya think for a minute my kids would ever want to go away with "just us" again?

And so the era of the Voreacos family vacation came to a screeching halt.

Along came the bills and baseball. Cheerleading and football. College visits and summer camps. Summer jobs and summer courses. Tryouts and tuition. Graduations and gravitations, to cities far and wide.

And while that fun-filled, multi-family vacation is now nothing but a fond memory, there's always hope that we'll do it again. The Santostefanos always ask if we want to vacation with them in Cape May and the Hargraves truly believe that one year we’ll give in and join them in the Caribbean. But, instead, I end up on a cruise with my girlfriend. My spouse goes on a mission trip to some unairconditioned world. The daughter goes trekking through Thailand. The boys go mountain climbing in Colorado...

I think about Jamaica a lot, not just for the fun-in-the-sun, but for the seize-the-day, spend-the-money, just-do-it-ness of it all.

Because sometimes, you've just gotta throw it all to the waves and jump in.

Speaking of which, anyone interested in a trip to Iceland in June?