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Monday, May 22, 2017

Parenting from the Inside Looking Out

“Are you crazy?” the perfectly coifed blond-haired mother with the Prada sunglasses exclaimed. “You can’t have French fries before you ride!”

The mother gave me a conspiratorial roll of the eyes as the daughter cast her eyes downward.

“I’ll have the Healthy Start, please.”

“Oh, live a little!” I said, causing the mother to grimace. “Have the French fries!”

The daughter, all of ten years-old, peered up at me through her mascaraed lashes and managed a tight smile. She wore the classic tan breeches, black helmet and leather and brass bracelet with the name of her horse inscribed in block letters – BRANDY.

Knowing it was just plain mean to interfere in someone else’s parenting, I said, “How ‘bout you have the yogurt and fruit now. And when you win the blue ribbon, come back for a double dose of French fries.”

The mother gave me a sarcastic smile, grabbed her daughter’s elbow and pivoted.

“Good luck!” I called to the sweet girl’s retreating back.

It was early May and I was working an eleven-day stint on a food truck at the Garden State Horse Show in northwestern New Jersey. My sister Nancy’s best friends from Charleston bought the business last year, and now travel the horse show circuit for the summer season, offering up the likes of grilled shrimp, caprese and marinated steak sandwiches, kale, pasta and quinoa salads, lobster rolls, scrumptious breakfast sandwiches and of course, all the good stuff like hot dogs, French fries, hamburgers and chicken fingers. Nancy and I pop on the truck for a week or two at a time to help our friends, meet a whole new flock of folk, and earn some cold, hard cash.

We particularly like this horse show because there are so many kids around. We love to banter with them, because beneath their Hermes belt buckles, trainers, grooms and mane-braiders, they’re all the same. They're all just kids. Just like ours. 

My sister and I raised five children between us. While we shared similar values and expectations, our day-to-day parenting styles often differed. But now that they’re all (somewhat) grown, we could mix them up, toss them out and the world would be hard-pressed to figure out which ones were coddled, which ones were throttled, which ones rebelled and which ones excelled.

Neither my sister nor I know the first thing about horses or the equestrian world. We could have been in any world in which parents are over, or under-parenting their kids who are over, or under achieving. We wise, old moms watched mothers and fathers struggle with their children, indulge their children and embarrass their children. In oh, so many familiar ways.

“WTF?”  (And, yes, she did say something very close to the F word) the mother hissed through gritted teeth. “You haven’t eaten yet? You have to show in 30 minutes. What were you thinking? Get over there and get something to eat. RIGHT NOW.”

The tear stained pre-teen stepped up to the food truck and ordered herself a Caesar salad.

“Chicken on it?” I asked.

She shook her head no, took the salad and stabbed her fork into the lettuce leaves with a vengeance.

“Did you ever make your kid eat if she didn’t want to?” Sister Nancy asked after the girl and her mother walked away.

“Absolutely!” I admitted. “If they were about to play in a game, for sure. I’d be so afraid they’d pass out or wouldn’t play well. I know I did exactly what that mother did, dozens of times.”

Sister Nancy shook her head.

“Would you make them clean their plates?” she probed further.

“They always cleaned their plates,” I answered. “Because if they didn’t like what I made for dinner, I’d just short-order cook them whatever they would eat.”

“Really?” she said, incredulously. “I always believed if they were hungry enough, they’d eat.”

“But then it becomes your problem when they wake up in the middle of the night starving. Or pass out on the football field,” I countered.

“And exactly how many times did that ever happen?”

“Well, never. Cause I never wanted to risk it.”

She laughed. And, I bristled. Just a bit. Because, even to this day, I still think I did it right. Or, at least, not wrong. Because somehow, half-right, half-wrong, we made it through.

“Cocoa puffs?” the father asked his Little Lord Fauntleroy.

“Swedish fish,” the son responded.

“Okie dokie,” cool Dad said, plopping the container of sugary, gummy candies on the counter. counter.

“Amazing the difference between the mothers and fathers,” Sister Nancy said.

“Oh, my ever-loving spouse would never have let them have candy in the morning,” I said. “It would have been granola or a banana for sure. I'm the one who gave them whatever they wanted to keep them quiet.”

All week long we watched the parents coddle and throttle their children. We watched the kids rebel and the kids excel. We saw the pain on parents’ faces when horses spooked and tossed their little rider into the mud. And we saw the pride when their little equestrian nonchalantly dangled a big blue ribbon from Brandy’s reins.

We loved it when 19 year-old Ines appeared every morning with her middle-school posse, girls who weren’t showing, but had convinced their parents to let them skip school to check out the competition. Or maybe they were flat out cutting school, kind of like we did, back in the day.

“Can I please have chicken fingers and fries?” the six year-old with the gap-filled smile asked at 9:30 in the morning.

“We’re not cooking lunch yet,” Sister Nancy told her. “How about a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich?”

The little girl’s face fell.

“Oh, OK,” Sister Nancy conceded. “I'll make you some chicken fingers. But, only if you tell me what happened to your teeth.”

“The tooth fairy took them!”

“The tooth fairy took them! Did the tooth fairy leave you anything?”

The toothless sweetheart nodded. “Twenty dollars.”

“A tooth?” my sister and I cried in unison.

Cute as a colt, she giggled and handed us a $100 dollar bill for her chicken fingers and fries.

"Enjoy your meal!" Sister Nancy said.

"Enjoy your life!" I added, marveling at how different things look from the inside looking out.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

You Made My Mother's Day

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!”

Somewhere between childhood and motherhood, Mother’s Day surpassed even the holiest of holy days. Cashiers at Kohl’s wish random women a Happy Mother’s Day a week in advance. Billboard ads for 1-800-Flowers proclaim the virtues of every mother ever made. Gyms and spas and nail salons hang banners reminding you just what your mother wants most. And even the Mets, despite their ever-escalating aches and pains, appear between innings, extolling the virtues of the mothers who made them.

When I was growing up, my mother was lucky if one of her four daughters even thought to buy her a card. And my father certainly didn’t buy her a present. I can still hear him saying, “She’s not MY mother.”

My dear mother, as I’ve said many times before was, and still is, at 91.5 years-old, a perfect mother. One whom I wish I could emulate, but instead, long ago forgave for not passing on that particular gene. My mother didn’t need recognition, reward or respite.

Unlike her Number Three daughter.

When my three kids were young and needy, my Mother’s Day wish was to escape. And so, I’d go to the movies on Mother's Day. Alone. Where I didn’t have to tie any shoelaces, clean up any messes or referee any fights. Where I could spend an afternoon in the dark with Meg Ryan falling in love in You’ve Got Mail, me falling in love with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Renee Zellweger feeling complete with Jerry Maguire. Then I’d head home for a spouse-supplied supper, warm and waiting, on the kitchen table. My mother never had that luxury. She just kept tying, cleaning, refereeing and cooking. Day after day.

Every year for Mother’s Day, my spouse fills my garden with blooming flowers, buys me some objet d’art that I may or may not have left a picture of on the kitchen counter, takes me somewhere springy like the Great Falls of Paterson and surprises me with something magnanimous like a dishwasher after vowing never to replace the one that had died.
I smile at my good fortune, still hearing that old familiar voice, “She’s not MY mother.”

My kids, on the other hand, are deeply immersed in their own lives, just as I was at their age. They’d never forget me, but there's rarely a year when all three bestow gifts upon me. Instead, I'll get something age appropriate from the 21 year-old, and from the other two a heartfelt Facebook post, lovely card or a phone call in which they consciously refrain from sharing their recent trials and tribulations.  

And I don’t need anything more than that. Like my mother before me, I know that my kids love me and that no gift they could ever purchase will elevate their status in my heart. After all, it’s part of the job description. As mothers, we just can’t help but love those little suckers, even when they suck the life out of us.

Today, while praying for my sorry soul, I felt my phone blowing up beside me. But, being the good Christian I am, didn’t sneak a peek at my messages until church was over and I was back inside my car.

There was a message from my friend Madge telling me, as she is wont to do, what a great mother I am. There was a convoluted group text from my friends Karen and Theresa wishing every mother they ever knew, including some whose identities were unbeknownst to me, a Happy Mother’s Day. Another string of texts included Claire, Jean, Jenn and Tracy, reminding me of how very important we were in each other’s lives during those long and laborious Little League days. There was a Facebook post to me and 98 other mothers whom Angelae Wilkerson chose to celebrate. Then, in rapid succession, the messages from Angela Hargraves and Katrina Williams and Heather Wimbush, the mothers whose collective hearts bled together on the bleachers, as we hoped and prayed and dreamed our way through agonies and injuries. And when my Mahjong mamas, Susan and Janice weighed in, it warmed the cockles of my tiles.  

I smiled with each and every message but knew the best were yet to come.

And they came. The messages from the kids. Not my kids. But the kids whose lives I touched. The kids who didn’t have to wish me anything. Who, after all these years still remember the nights when I pretended not to know what was going on in the basement. The days I listened to them as they shared their secrets, voiced their fears and formulated their dreams across the kitchen table. The kids who rode in my car, slept in my house, asked for my help and ate my pasta.  The kids who followed my advice, refused my advice, did the right thing, did the wrong thing and did nothing. And still turned out perfect.

And as I read those messages from Heather and Tanya, Oksana and Taylor, Chris and Taryn, Kris and Koree and lovely Liza, I finally get why Mother’s Day has become the holiest of holy days. As the world gets crazier and crazier, as life gets more and more difficult, as kids get more and more confused, no one can soothe a soul quite like a mother. And sometimes the souls you soothe don’t share your DNA but simply share a small and fleeting time in your life. 

But, their hearts. Their hearts you have forever.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why You Should Have That Third Child

“Can you believe your baby is turning 21 tomorrow?” the daughter proclaimed rhetorically in a phone call last night.

“It is truly amazing,” I responded. And, my dear, you’ll never know just how amazing until you have a 21, 23 and 25 year-old of your own.

Today, as my favorite youngest child turns legal, I can’t help but think about what life would have been like without him.

When we were young and in love, my spouse-to-be and I were certain we wanted five children. We named them before we were married: Max, Molly, Eric, Sophia and Abbie. They’d all be born two years apart and once the youngest was diaper-free, we'd start toilet training a puppy. His name would be Winston.

As perfectly planned, first came love, then came marriage, then came Molly in the baby carriage. Max followed 22 months later.

I knew the spouse was beginning to dither when our conversations started going something like this:

Me: “When Eric’s born…”

Spouse: “You mean AIR – IK.”

Me: “No. Err-ick.”

Suddenly, proper pronunciation was becoming an issue.

When I cleverly switched out Eric for Phillip, the truth came out.

“You sure we should have another one?”

And the ever-sensible spouse tossed out reason after reason why we’d be better off leaving well enough alone. We were just fine with happy, healthy Molly and Max.

But, I dug in deep and countered relentlessly with a dozen reasons to have just one more.

Of course, I won. Leo came along in a timely fashion, gracing us with a four year-old, a two year-old and an infant. And though his arrival took us from a family of four riding the Tilt-a-Whirl to a family of five riding a 21 year-long roller coaster, it's certainly been well worth the extra tickets.

So, when anyone asks me if they should have a third child, I answer with a resounding and unequivocal YES. And while there will always be viable arguments for not having a third child, the reasons to go for it far outweigh them all.
  1. Just as the rule of three is used in interior design, it is equally as important in the inhabitants of your home. You always need something to skew the balance.
  2. If you’re given a boy and girl as Numbers One and Two, you'll want to know if their personality differences are gender-driven. You won't know for sure until you have two of one kind. Conversely, if you begin with two of the same sex, and go for three, you just might get that coveted boy or girl. The problem arises when you don't stop trying until you end up with four boys. Or worse, four girls. 
  3. Everyone needs one child who doesn’t provide an itemized birthday list. The third child is so used to going without that when he says, “I don’t need anything,” he means it. 
  4. The third child has learned from his siblings before him. He knows not to ask permission for things to which his parents will say no. Instead, he just does as he pleases and deals with the consequences later. Of course, there are none because he is the third child.
  5. Every parent deserves to raise one kid without worrying if he has eaten enough, slept enough or drunk enough. Though long before that last one sees the light of 21, you know that under-drinking was something you really didn't have to worry about.
  6. By the time number three gets to college, you’ll be rich enough to be able to pay his tuition in cash. A myth worth holding onto as long as you possibly can.
  7. Three kids will help you win the let's-move-to-a-bigger house argument. And though that bigger house will completely eradicate the college savings fund, the years of a friends-filled basement and a bottle-filled attic will make every one of you way richer.
  8. Having a third child ups the odds of getting a call about a legal infraction from the high school principal or the local police.
  9. The third child will successfully dispel any traces of Superwoman Syndrome. It becomes abundantly clear that it is impossible to be in two places at one time. Or with two children at the same time. Because each will have his or her own place to be. On the same day. At the same time. 
  10.  While Number Three certainly shifts the balance of power, it also gives you a built-in excuse for why you’ve become powerless. 
  11.  Number Three gives Number One and Number Two another person to fight with. And fight for. 
  12.  Having three children will increase your chances of raising one who will take care of you when you’re old and feeble, one who will talk to you about their deepest fears and foibles and one who won’t move to another time zone.
And, no matter how stretched you were with Numbers One and Two, when Number Three comes along, you realize that you did indeed have another thousand readings of Owl Babies left in you. That no matter how many times you’ve been through it and how much you’re looking forward to it, you still get that old familiar lump in your throat when Number Three walks for the first time and speaks his very first word. When he gets on the kindergarten bus with that heart-wrenching look of trepidation and brings home his first drawing of the family – with Mom dominating the whole page. When he strikes out for the third time in one game and when he ends his Little League career with a grand slam homerun. When he shares his dreams and when his nightmares kill them. When he finally asks for advice and finally takes it. When he gets dressed up for the prom and when he packs up for college.

Yes, that old familiar lump hurts a little harder with Number Three. Maybe it's because you know that it’s the last dance. That there’s no one coming up behind him. That while your kids have been your whole world since the day they were born, you know there's someone out there just waiting to become their whole world.

And so, you just raise them up and let them go. And know that the best thing you ever did was to have Number Three. Number Three, who by no fault of his own pushed your limits, tested your strength and tried your patience. But, at the same time, completed your family and tripled the size of your heart.

Cheers to you, Number Three, on your 21st Birthday!