Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Parenting into the unknown

When Eli's first birthday was approaching, I remember distinctly feeling as though I'd reached the end of something. It had been a grueling marathon of a year, and I was approaching the finish line. My baby was no longer a baby. The scary part was over.

What I didn't realize then, of course, is that the scariest part of parenting is that the scary part is never over. Just last week after Eli had already gone to bed I read that Ari Schultz, a 5-year-old heart transplant patient whom I've followed for years on Facebook, had died. I stumbled into Eli's room, sobbing, just to watch his chest rise and fall, taking back every uncharitable thought I'd ever had about him.

Now, as Eli approaches his fifth birthday, what still surprises me is how every day he feels more and more like a person, more fully realized and fully formed, as if he's been blurred around the edges all this time and every day comes a little bit more into focus. A few weeks ago, for instance, I decided to try Mad Libs Junior with him and he laughed uproariously at the final product. It felt thrilling, like I had unlocked a whole new level of childhood: a kid who gets Mad Libs! This past weekend, I went for a run on the beach and when I got back, Eli asked, "Mama, how was your run?"It felt like such a tiny, precious moment of humanity to have my child show a passing interest in something that's important to me.

It's possible that I'm just a person who's better suited to parenting a 5-year-old than I was a baby or a toddler. I loved Eli's baby rolls and squishy, kissable cheeks (they're still kissable. I check every day), but I rarely feel that pang of "Stop growing so fast!" that everyone around me seems to feel. I love reading the Magic Tree House books with him at bedtime instead of "Trains Go." I love watching his confidence grow as he strides into the ocean and demands, "Don't hold onto me! I can tread water!" I love that I can sign him up for two different mini-camps after regular camp has ended without having to worry about how he'll adjust to all the transitions, because I know he'll be just fine.

(I do not love listening to the song "Rolex" for the millionth time, which he learned on the camp bus and now asks Alexa to play for us a dozen times a day.)

A few weeks ago, we were at the beach with friends when Eli noticed a little girl nearby wearing a puddle jumper. When she took it off he marched himself over to her family and asked, "Can I try it?" The next thing I knew, we were in the ocean. And not for the first time, I looked at him and thought, Who are you?! I never would have asked a strange family for their daughter's puddle jumper; I would have been too shy. And I never would have made a beeline for the deep ocean waves; I would have been too scared.

But that's my Eli: bolder and more daring than I ever was, equally loudmouthed but probably with more sass and charm. When his camp counselors talk about him, they say that he has a "big personality" (but I mean, so does Donald Trump, right?) and that he basically questions every decision they make (I feel you, camp counselors). A few weeks into camp, I got a message from a counselor asking me to speak to Eli at home about "making safer choices." In the 15 or so years that I attended school, this is not the kind of phone call my parents ever received about me.

Next month Eli will start kindergarten, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about how he'll fare. It seems to come with so many rules and expectations, which I'm sure Eli will do his best to test and bend and challenge. When I was in elementary school, I worshipped my teachers unquestioningly and thoroughly enjoyed doing my homework. It's hard for me to imagine this will be the case for Eli.

And that's been and continues to be one of the most challenging, complicated, intricate things about parenting for me: learning to be the parent of the kind of kid I have instead of the kind of kid I was or the kind of kid I expected to have.

This morning, the camp bus was late and Eli, who does not like waiting, was having a bit of a meltdown on the sidewalk behind our building. He chastised me for my own irritation while he spun in circles around me and stepped on my feet. "Help me!" he demanded angrily. I said, "Eli, I don't know what you want me to do."

"Just do something!" he yelled. So I bent down and scooped him up (thank you weightlifting). He relaxed instantly, his head cradled against my shoulder, and then he started kissing me on the cheek. It was sort of a perfect encapsulation of who Eli is: demanding and uncompromising, impatient and assertive, self-aware and all in service of wanting to receive love and attention and loyalty and give it fiercely in return.

I just finished binge-watching all five seasons of Friday Night Lights, and the rallying cry of the Dillon Panthers — "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" — feels especially apt. I see my son clearly, and my heart is certainly full. Happy birthday, my bold and brilliant boy. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about God

“God is just a story.”

The first time my 4-year-old says these words, I feel a stab of panic, as if we might be struck down at any minute for blasphemy.

My next instinct is to protest. I’d like to believe in God, I tell him. I like the idea of a God who loves us, who can protect us and keep us safe.

“But no one knows for real,” he says, and I tell him this is true. Both of us know that God doesn’t always protect us, that we’re not always safe in this world.

The truth is, we don’t often talk about God in our house, and that’s because I don’t really know how. When we do, it’s mostly in Hebrew. Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheniu melech ha’olam. Blessed are You, God, ruler of the universe.

These are sacred words, and saying them feels holy. But until now, we’ve never talked about whether someone is really listening.

Eli thinks he knows how to find out. “Watch this,” he says. “God!” he calls expectantly. “Tell us a story!”

Then he spreads his arms wide into a ‘well, what can you do?’ gesture. “See?” he says to me, half-pityingly. “He doesn’t answer.”

I’m reminded of a wisecrack Fox Mulder once made on The X-Files: “They say when you talk to God it’s prayer, but when God talks to you, it’s schizophrenia.”

These days, Eli is brimming with questions about the larger mysteries of the universe: Who invented milk? Well, then who invented cows? What was the earth like before there were any people? Was God alive before the dinosaurs? If God is the inventor of everything, who invented God?

I try to explain — haltingly, fumblingly — that some people think you can see God in every awe-inspiring sight in nature. Eager to please, Eli lights upon the first object he sees and croons, “I see God!”

Back to square one.

When I was an adolescent, I went through a crisis of faith. Or, depending on how you look at it, a crisis of mandated attendance at Hebrew school. I was a fraud, I told my parents, a sham. I went to class every week, but I didn’t feel a spiritual connection with God. So therefore I shouldn’t have to go to Hebrew school anymore.

As an adult, I was able to say those words that every Jewish parent longs to hear: You were right. Eli goes to Hebrew school every week now at the same temple I grew up attending, and he loves it. When we go to Shabbat services and he sits transfixed by the children’s choir, mimicking their hand motions, my eyes fill with nachas and tears.

But that comes from a place of tradition, of community, of family. We’re all there to talk to God, I suppose, but it’s the blessings we give to one another that resonate most with me.

Whenever I find myself flummoxed by childhood curiosity, I do what my father the librarian taught me to do: I turn to books. Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this item also bought” feature leads me from one suggestion to another, and I scour the customer reviews for clues about whether the “right” answer will be revealed.

“It offers everything a child first needs to know about God: who he is, where he is, how do we find him, how much he loves us, why is there evil in the world and how do we pray,” says one review of a book called Where Does God Live? 

“Fine if you’re looking for heresy,” scoffs another.

(Come for the deep existential questions about the role of God and spirituality in your young child's life. Stay for the hersey!) 

I settle on the 4.5-star-rated What Is God? Eli pipes in excitedly when he hears mention of Moses and the Torah and synagogue. I cringe when I get to a new-agey paragraph about how if God is in everything then “all of us are God!”

I get on board with the paragraph that says

When we pray to God, 
We are praying for that feeling of love 
To come to us and to everybody we know, 
Maybe even to all those people we don’t know, 
So that we can all be happy together, or apart. 

Eli is nonchalant as I finish reading. I’m relieved we haven’t been struck down for blasphemy, but sort of disappointed there haven’t been any major revelations either.

“You know, in a way you’re right that God is just a story,” I tell him, “because there are so many different stories that people tell themselves and each other about God. But that feeling that you feel when you talk to God? That’s real. And when I talk to God, I say thank you for making me your mommy.”

I sit back, triumphant. I’ve done it, I think. I’ve Hallmark-carded my way through this crucial developmental discussion.

Eli looks at me. ‘Duh, Mama’ says the expression on his face.

“Can we read another book now?” he says.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Regrets, I've had a few

This morning Eli and I were snuggling on the couch and looking at the Timehop app on my phone, which shows all the photos and videos and status updates I've done on the same day in previous years. Last year on this day was the first time Eli ever drew a "representational figure" (a stick figure with legs coming out of its head and "angry tears" on its face). From four years ago there's an incredibly sweet video of Phil stuffing Eli's fat flailing limbs into his swaddle and putting him into his swing with a Fisher-Price glowworm on top of him — obviously I was trying to capture the sturm und drang of naptime in infancy.

Eli was fixated on a video from three years ago: taking a bath at 18 months old. Sandra Boynton's Barnyard Bath! floats in front of him. "Where's your washcloth?" I'm asking him. He grabs it with a goofy grin on his face. "Wash the duckies!" I chirp. He obliges cheerfully. "Wash the cow!" I say. He looks up at me quizzically. "Bus? Bus?" he inquires apropos of nothing, and the video ends.

Present-day Eli wanted to know if we still had Barnyard Bath!, because suddenly Barnyard Bath! was the thing he desired most in the world. "But can we look at a map of where we bought it and can we buy it again? I really want that book," he said.

These days in the bath Eli is usually crashing his Transformers or submerging his Hot Wheels; I haven't encouraged him to wash the duckies in years. "Why do you want it?" I asked. He arranged his face into a crestfallen pout. 

"I didn't get to wash the cow," he said despondently. "I really want to wash the cow."

Which strikes me in its own capricious way as a perfect metaphor for regret of any kind. I didn't get to study abroad in college, I didn't land that job at Sesame Street I always dreamed of, I never broke 4:30 in the marathon. I didn't get to wash the cow.

Parenting in some ways is like a crash course in regret. If I could go back to the beginning, I'd breastfeed longer, worry less, encourage a greater variety of vegetable-eating...

In a lot of ways, childhood is a crash course in regret too. Every parent knows what it feels like when your kid melts down at the end of a day that's been a orgy of excess in the fun department: We recently went to a birthday party where Eli boogied down during a dance party, rubbed elbows with a life-sized Minion, ate pizza and cake, drank several juice boxes, ran through a funhouse maze with his friends, played a host of arcade games and traded in tickets for prizes — but of course at the end of it all he was fixated on the prizes he didn't get, the tickets he didn't earn, the game he didn't get to play for the dozenth time. Woe! Oh, how his life might have been changed by that teeny slinky!

Doesn't he know there are starving children who would feel thankful to drink even one of those high-fructose juice boxes? Doesn't he understand how lucky he is?

Well, no, he doesn't. And I guess in some ways that's a blessing, that right now his biggest regret is not washing the cow, as opposed to the ones that keep me up at night: I wish I'd called my nana more, not fallen out of touch with those friends, campaigned harder for Hillary Clinton. After all, if YOLO behavior is supposed to prevent looking back in regret, there's no better embodiment than a child who's living his best life as 100% id.

Three years ago Eli was a chubby toddler in a tub who couldn't distinguish between a cow and a bus, and now he's a kid with enough self-awareness to actually feel mournful about that fleeting experience — isn't the human consciousness amazing? He's grown into this saucy, funny, earnest little person. And — I'm tempting fate here, but — when you have a baby everyone warns you about the terrible 2s and then about how 3 is worse than 2 and 4 is worse than 3, and these days we are in kind of a groovy place where I can't wait to see what he comes up with next and where his mind and heart will go.

And from this point forward, I'm going to think about regret the way Eli did this morning. There are some cows I didn't get to wash too, Eli. I really want to wash those cows.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

History has its eyes on you

I told my child that Donald Trump was a bully. I told my child that Donald Trump was a bigot. I told my child that Donald Trump was the wrong choice.

This morning I had to tell my child that Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

He burst into tears. "But I wanted Hillary Clinton to be the president," he sobbed. "She was going to be the first woman president and now she never will!"

I was, frankly, unprepared for the depth of his emotion. I wondered if I had done the wrong thing by being such an unabashed cheerleader for Clinton, so partisan in my distaste for Trump. Like many of us, I had treated it kind of like a game: Ha ha, can you believe this crazy buffoon thinks he's going to be president? Good thing us reasonable people will see right through his rhetoric!

Van Jones on CNN said it for me: “It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us. You tell your kids don’t be a bully. You tell your kids don’t be a bigot. You tell your kids do your homework and be prepared. Then you have this outcome. How do I explain this to my children?”

Being a parent is hard, and not always for the reasons I expected. I expected the sleep deprivation and the impatience and the casual disregard with which I would come to interact with certain bodily fluids. I did not anticipate how hard it would be to instill those prized values in my child that we all strive for: decency, kindness and respect. I used to think those values were innate; you were either born with certain moral standards or you were not. But since Eli was born it's become clear to me that those values can be taught; must be taught. He needs to see me going out of my way to help others. He needs to hear me explain what it means to be impoverished, to be marginalized, to be powerless. It can't be as simple as "Our side is right and the other is wrong."

Because how did we get here? Something ugly has been festering in America that maybe I as an educated northeastern liberal have failed to acknowledge. My America is supposed to look like "This Land is Your Land," like the cast of "Hamilton," like "If I Had a Hammer." This is not my America.

But the problem is, this is my America now. This country where Trump supporters kick the wheelchair of a disabled kid at a rally, where dissenting Jews are taunted with photoshopped images of their biracial children in ovens, where presidential candidates say maybe it would be a good thing if their opponents were assassinated. This is our America too. I have to come to grips with that.

But I don't have to make peace with it. Because I bear some of the responsibility. I can't say that I did everything I could to make sure Clinton got elected. Because I honestly didn't think this could happen. Even though history tells us that the "it can't happen here" mentality is our enemy, I thought it couldn't happen here.

When I woke up this morning, I had that Harry Potter line running through my head: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face a choice between what is right and what is easy."

So I'm strapping myself in. I'm getting organized about my charitable giving. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Every time I read something online that enrages me, instead of drowning myself in a cesspool of online vitriol, I will make a donation to a cause I care about. I encourage you to join me. (So we can all go broke by 2020 together.)

Early in the evening, before we could bring ourselves to turn on the news, we watched Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead. There's a character named Negan who's truly a bad hombre, and his army of followers has been trained to embody his philosophy so wholeheartedly that if you ask them, "Who are you?" they will answer "Negan." At the episode's climax, after spending an hour trying to break the spirit of a long-beloved character named Daryl, Negan gets in his face brandishing a baseball bat covered in barbed wire.

"Who are you?" he asks. There's a long pause.

"Daryl," says Daryl.

Who are we, America? We are not Trump. We are not xenophobes, misogynists, racists. We are not Trump. We are better than this. We have to be.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A snapshot of Eli on his 4th birthday

Dear Eli,

A few weeks ago, you ran your first 400-meter race. When the woman with the bullhorn announced it was time to line up, you waved cheerily and called out, "Bye!" as you hustled to the starting line. When the race started, you surged ahead with confidence. But 400 meters is a long way, and as you rounded the curve of the track your eyes took in how much farther you had to go and how many bigger and faster kids were already way in front of you. Your shoulders slumped forward in defeat.

I could tell what you were thinking, because you are that kid who throws tantrums by flinging himself to the floor and refusing to move, so I hastened across the track to you and shouted some encouraging words — Come on, you got this — and you started to move again, hesitantly this time, like you weren't really sure you were committed to making it to the finish. I tried to talk to you not like a mom but like a coach: You have the strength, you have the power, and you're going to go all the way!

Just before the end of the straightaway, your face changed. Suddenly there was a hunger in it, a determination I hadn't seen before in you. It said, I have the power. It said, I got this.

And you did.

I'm telling this story because next week you'll be 4 years old (in fact, you ask me every day, "Is it today? Is today my birthday?"), and I can't think of a better way to express the kind of kid you are. All at once you are confident and despondent, determined and powerful, independent and craving support.

You've had an incredible year. You finally ditched your pacifier. You sat through your first full bigscreen movie and your first family Shabbat service. You rode through the haunted house at Adventureland for the first time and tasted your first s'more. You had your first sleepover at Grandma and Grandpa's and your first dropoff at the magical kids' play area in IKEA. You wrote your name for the first time.

You weren't all that affectionate as a baby, but this year you've started to reward my patience with sweet kisses and hugs. Every night we read together before bedtime and you nestle in close to me. Sometimes you stroke my cheek the way I used to stroke yours when you were small and I understand the meaning of the phrase "my heart melted."

Superheroes are your latest infatuation. You want to wear your Avengers T-shirt at all times (if it's not available, Captain America or Spider-Man or Ninja Turtles will do). You've developed some pretty kickass solitary pretend play skills that usually involve angry-sounding fights breaking out between various superheroes ("I said, no, you can't eat all the donuts! Yes I can!") or loud car crashes in our living room. You love "swordfighting" with Daddy, who swears he's taking you for fencing lessons as soon as you turn 4.

You love listening to audiobooks, especially Frog and Toad. When the Audible announcer says, "Audible: Audio that speaks to you wherever you are," you usually answer her back: "I'm in Forest Hills" or "I'm in my car," you say, and I crack up because it's so cute.

You are a summer kid through and through. You detest the frigid winter wind, and although you tolerated playing in the snow for about a half-hour longer than last year, it's apparent that summer is your spirit season. When we're at the beach, you're the happiest I've ever seen you, and you've never been in a pool you ever wanted to get out of.

You continue to rise at a painfully early hour and immediately request dairy products: cheese, yogurt, milk. You're partial to Danimals smoothies that you call "Dr. Dennis" for no reason we can discern. In your world the food groups are made up almost exclusively of different types of cheese: square cheese and string cheese, shredded cheese and powdered cheese, goat cheese and melted cheese.

This fall you'll start pre-K, and I'm a little nervous about how you'll fare in the world of academics. Recently you asked me, "When I go to pre-K, is it going to be fun stuff, or is it going to be just boring writing?" You've got a rebellious streak, and your teacher tells me she speaks with you quite a bit about "making good choices," which everyone knows is a school euphemism for "not being a pain in the ass."

But you're also wickedly smart and funny. You love being in charge, and I hope that teachers who really get you will channel that energy into leadership. Your teacher always told me that she knew to keep you very busy and give you lots of jobs to do.

I read an article recently about how our personalities tend to remain the same from the time we are babies. When you were a baby I thought, What personality? But now it makes sense: You are still loud and restless and demanding. You still love to laugh and crave independence and always manage to do things in your own unique way.

 I'm going to say something hard and honest: It doesn't feel easy for me to be your mommy. But I don't think it's supposed to be. You challenge me every day to see and explain things differently. You frustrate me and you make me proud, sometimes in quick succession. You are a human in progress, and you are the best thing I have ever done.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Love wins

In the living room, Eli picks up a long plastic tube and dangles it in front of his mouth. "I'm an elephant!" he declares, swinging it back and forth like a trunk. "Let's pretend I'm a baby elephant and I'm lost, and you're the mommy elephant and you have to find me."

I think of what I know about elephants, that mothers and calves stay together in lifelong family groups, that they have been known to tend to and grieve their fallen relatives, that a mother elephant probably would search in anguish for her lost baby.

It is the day of the worst mass shooting in American history, and even as I pick up my own plastic elephant trunk I'm thinking about another mother, the one I saw on the news outside the nightclub in Orlando, searching for her baby.

"I've been so proud of him," she said, the pride in her eyes even as her heart was breaking.

We have been here before. In San Bernardino, Aurora, Newtown. The first time I ever truly felt like a mother, the first time the full weight of motherhood seemed to settle itself around me, it was 2012 and I had just heard about the gunman at Sandy Hook. I looked back and forth from the television to my baby in his jumperoo, imagining him among the children in their classrooms, huddled under desks or in closets and bathroom stalls.

Since then: a clinic, a church, a college campus. I expect to feel devastated. I expect to feel angry. But this time I feel something else: fear. A movie theater, a library, a salon. This can happen anywhere, I think. This can happen to my child.

The next day, I'm scrolling through my newsfeed, reading Donald Trump's contemptuous words in despair. "Radical Islamic terrorists are pouring into our country," he says. "Threatening not only our society but our entire way of life."

In other words: We should be afraid. We should live in fear. Donald Trump's campaign depends on it, feeds off it, like the dementors in the Harry Potter books who breed in its wake.

"Dark times lie ahead of us," said Dumbledore, "and there will be a time when we have to choose between what is easy and what is right."

In Time magazine after September 11, Nancy Gibbs wrote something I've never forgotten: "Do we now panic, or will we be brave?"

It's easy to panic. Close the borders. Keep them out (whoever "they" are). Build a wall. But I can't build a wall around our neighborhood, our playground, our school. I keep thinking about the concept of tikkun olam, the idea that we bear responsibility as God's partners to repair the broken world. When the world is shattered, where do we begin? Not with ugly rhetoric and threats. "We're on this earth for such a short time," said that mother in Orlando. "Let's try to get rid of the hatred and violence."

Like any mother of a 3-year-old, I talk with Eli a lot about choices. Make good choices, I tell him. What I mean is to choose to keep his hands to himself, to keep his voice calm, to use his listening ears.

But today I also want to tell him: Choose hope over fear. Choose kindness over bigotry and xenophobia and hatred. Choose to be brave.

Friday, May 6, 2016

This is parenting

More often than I would like to admit, I miss the days before Eli was born. I miss when Phil could meet me after work and we'd go see a Broadway show with cheap tickets I'd gotten through TDF. I miss taking long walks with Ellie to the dog park after dark. And perhaps more than anything I miss waking up when I decided I wanted to wake up, not because a baby was crying or a toddler was whining in my ear.

This is the part where I'm supposed to tell you that even though I miss these things, every time I look at my boy's sweet face or hear his delicious laughter or snuggle with his cuddly body it's all worth it. That everything before his birth was just a prelude. That my life now finally has meaning.

But I'm not going to tell you that. I mean, yes, I love looking at my boy's sweet face and hearing his delicious laughter and snuggling with his cuddly body. But that doesn't mean there isn't also a part of me — a secret, shameful, selfish part — that misses the time when my life was a little less magical but a lot less maddening.

Whenever I have these thoughts — usually when my ability to do something like get out the door of my own house is being held hostage by the emotional whims of my 3-year-old — I feel tremendously guilty. I know there are probably people who never have this problem, who are lucky enough to handle the whims of parenting with grace and good humor. And I know how many people wish they had this problem — I know, because I used to be one of them. I know I'm supposed to cherish every moment. I know it all goes so fast.

But I own these feelings — these flashes of resentment, these jolts of longing to be responsible for just myself and no one else — and I'm determined to be honest about them. Because when you admit your most secret, shameful, selfish feelings, those better angels of your nature rise up to seize you at the most unexpected times. Last night I got home late from a dinner with my besties with a belly full of cupcakes and cocktails, a night I could have had 5 or 10 or even 15 years ago (well, minus the cocktails). I tiptoed into Eli's room and there was my boy, all twisted up in his blanket with his feet sticking out at the bottom, his head wedged just below his Lightning McQueen pillow, his mouth slack against his blankie. I took the blanket and gingerly pulled it down over his bare feet, and all of a sudden there it was, the raw fierce love I almost didn't believe I was capable of.

Last week, I was at the playground with Eli when he suddenly announced he had to poop "right away!" Naturally, the bathrooms were locked. I happened to have a stroller with me, so I threw him in it and went flying down the block towards our house as Eli observed, "Mom, I never saw you run so fast!" Halfway there he casually said, "Mom, I just farted. I don't have to poop!"

Instead of trusting my gut, which says if your child announces he has to poop, believe him, I took him back to the playground, where five minutes later he hopped behind the fence, spreadeagled his legs next to a tree and fully exposed himself in front of a large audience of horrified grade-schoolers. "I have to poop," he explained.

I was embarrassed and sweaty and miserable. This is parenting, I thought.

A few nights later Phil decided that we should break Passover with not just the pizza I had been craving but with a full-on pizza party. He brought out funny hats and turned on the Disney Junior radio station. We jammed in our seats at the table in our funny hats and Eli beamed up at me as he munched on his pizza, his face incandescent with happiness.

This is parenting too.

On my new fave reality show, Bravo's There Goes the Motherhood, one of the moms had this to say about parenthood: "Parenthood is like the ocean. It's inviting to some, it's terrifying to others, and the minute you turn your back on it, it'll suck you right under."

But sometimes it's not such a bad thing to get sucked under. Because sometimes when you come back up, you learn how to float.