My Irish Inheritance

At six, my daughter is all wide blue eyes when the owner of the tea house hands her a delicate china cup of steaming amber liquid.

“Wait,” she tells my girl. “Breathe it in. You see, every cup has only one first sip.”

At that moment, the presence of my long-passed grandmother Rheta Belle, for whom my daughter is named, is palpable, the veil between us so thin I think it might evaporate like the steam from the surface of the cup. She shared her love of tea with me, and I in turn with my daughter, who is so like her.

Tea had a prized place in Rheta’s family story, as her fondness for it came from her beloved Irish mother. She told about the two of them having decided one year to give up tea for Lent. They went piously to bed on Ash Wednesday without their usual evening cup. Minutes later came her mother’s gentle tap on her bedroom door, and they were soon back in the kitchen with the kettle on.

It was tea that helped bring my grandfather Ron to her attention. A war widow living at home with her parents, she first knew him as the nice young man who worked at the grocery. In the era of wartime rations, Ron always seemed to have a box of her mother’s favorite tea set aside.

Rheta taught me to prefer tea from a porcelain cup. And she’s right, the flavor is best that way, but delicate teacups don’t stand up to my practical use, so these days I drink my tea from thick bone china mugs or insulated glass. She drank Lipton’s, in a variety of flavors, for which she can be forgiven because a) it was an economical household and b) they were also British. I often wish I could share with her some of the more magical blends I’ve enjoyed in recent years. I think she would be amazed by frothy, jade-colored Japanese matcha.

But the lessons I hope I’ve passed on matter more than the flavor: the rituals of comfort and self care; the knowledge that one small thing can make the big things better; being fully present for the span of a breath or a pour. And also, that Jesus definitely does not want you to give up tea.

Each cup has only one first sip. Enjoy every one.

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Meditations on Loss at Year End

The turning of the year is often a challenging time. The days are dark. We’re often a little worn and ragged from giving our all to make a bright Christmas for our dear ones, end of year work pileups, or just trying to get by. It’s almost time for the resolution onslaught when, at the stroke of midnight, we’re supposed to magically transform into better, brighter, more-together versions of ourselves, just when we least feel like any of those things.

Having lost a loved one in the past year, though, makes these end days even more freighted. My mom died in August, and my grief has been every bit as complicated as our relationship was. But no matter how imperfect the bond, the death of a parent is primal, solemn; the loss of the bulwark between me and my mortality. That this comes at midlife, when I feel the inexorable slide into the invisibility with which we cloak older women in our society, is especially poignant; one less pair of eyes that see me, just when I feel least seen. Ambiguity is everywhere, my sadness at her loss mixed with relief at the end of her suffering, and at the completion of a caregiving journey that lasted decades.

The coming year will be the first in many in which my path forward includes more choices than obligations – a great blessing, I know. And yet I find myself frozen in place. I’m reluctant to leave the last year my mother touched in this lifetime. But it will leave me, regardless. The Earth completes its turn, I barely miss brushing her fingertips, and she is gone forever. The rest of my years, no matter how many or few, will not contain her.

What is it people do when they do not “have to” do one particular thing?

My mom visits my daughter in her dreams, and every time tells her the same thing: that she loves us, but she does not want to come back. I understand this. It makes me both bereft and relieved – that she is so unalterably gone, and that she’s also free.

Maybe what people do when they don’t “have to” do one particular thing is just do a thing and see what happens. Maybe, like my mom, I can follow this new path with abandon, or something close to joy, and someday find myself not even wanting to go back. Maybe the Earth, turning once more toward the light, will carry me with it.

My New Year’s Resolution: I Quit the Family Dinner

Over the holidays, I found a beautiful tablecloth tucked away in the top of a closet. White linen with a damask pattern, it fits an eight foot table and has snowy matching napkins. It had been wrapped in paper since the day I opened it as a wedding gift, and had not seen the light of day in the 22 years Anthony and I have been married.

I was not a white linen tablecloth person when I married. I’m still not. And yet, I registered for the thing. In my mind was an image of what family dinners were supposed to look like, and over the years, I have given them my best effort – but I’ve never quite needed that tablecloth.

Finding it got me thinking. I have spent a LOT of effort in the last 15 years to attain an ideal of my family eating a healthy, home cooked meal together around the table every night. I’ve worked and sweated, threatened, tempted, cajoled and jollied. And I think it’s time I quit.

Not in exasperation or resentment. Not in exhaustion or resignation. But gleefully, happily, with relief and relish.

That’s right.

I QUIT.

Yep, I know all the benefits of the family dinner. Every single one of them. Because the exact moment science/culture/the sanctimommies are done guilting you about breastfeeding, they start in about family dinners: having dinner together as a family means your child is less likely to end up a homeless drug addict, fends off cancer, spiders, diabetes and ebola, and ensures entry into the Ivy League college of their choice (with full scholarship).

And I bought in. We did it all; cooked wholesome, whole foods dinners; involved Adri in meal planning, shopping and prep. Had her set the table. Modeled an egalitarian kitchen where both parents cook, and whoever isn’t cooking does dishes. I came prepared with background music, with DISCUSSION QUESTIONS, for crying out loud (what are the three best things that happened to you today? What was one hard thing? Who were you kind to?). We never had difficult or discipline-related discussions over a meal, because we wanted dinner to be something we looked forward to, and never engaged in power struggles over food for the same reason – if she didn’t want to eat what was offered she could make herself a PBJ or be excused until the next meal.

We did ALL OF THE THINGS. Not just because of societal pressure. Both Anthony’s family and mine are rife with metabolic issues, and we wanted to give Adri a fighting chance to avoid them. It was a lot of effort, but it wasn’t wasted; as a teen, she is adventurous about food and interested in healthy eating without being obsessed. We eat pretty well.

It’s that damn table we’ve never been able to conquer.

Despite my best efforts, we can’t resist the siren-call of eating in the living room, with the comfy squishy chairs and…here’s the deepest, darkest part of my confession….the television. We do exactly what you’re not supposed to do: eat in front of the TV. Trying to make us do otherwise has been exhausting and futile, and I’m not going to swim against that tide anymore.

It’s probably better for my overactive sense of mom-guilt if I call this a retirement, or an evolution, rather than a resignation. After all, I’m able to do this in part because she’s aging out of my having to be much involved in what she eats. She makes her own choices and, having recently become vegetarian in a household of omnivores, is doing more of her own cooking.

We’re also scaling down dinner in order to have time for other things – chiefly, physical activity. Gym class at school is just eight weeks out of the year, and the rest of the time she needs regular physical activity to manage stress as much as her parents do, so we fired up a family membership at the local gym. With work, school and extracurriculars, we don’t have time to do this if we spend two hours every night making, eating, and cleaning up dinner. Everyone’s still properly fed if we’re skipping the pot roast in favor of a bento box we prepped on the weekend, in order to get to spinning class on time.

And what about all that wholesome conversation we’re missing, while we’re eating in front of that evil TV? In my experience, butts in chairs around a table are no guarantee of connection. Kids rarely have the kinds of extended conversations we expect, in the ways or places we imagined, and we have to jump through those windows whenever they open. So we make an effort to encourage connection whenever we can – in the car, at Sunday breakfast, out for coffee. And mindfully chosen television programs (Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars have been recent favorites) have provided a great springboard for talking about relationships, sex, communication, drugs and alcohol…many of the topics we struggle to find openings to discuss.

I did find a use for that tablecloth during the holidays, draped over an eight foot plastic rental-style table I was using as a buffet. Still, if you’re in the market for a lightly used linen tablecloth and matching napkins, let me know. I’ll throw in my unused set of ‘good china’ for free.

In Praise of Small Families at the Holidays

When I was a kid, I knew EXACTLY what the holidays were going to be like when I had a family of my own. My big restored Victorian house would be packed to the rafters with family and friends, my antique dining table covered with a pristine linen cloth, extra chairs squeezed in to accommodate the crowd, kids coming in from playing in the snow in a tumble of wet mittens and (two) golden retrievers.

I was the only child of a single mom. Our family was small, our holidays often quiet, spent together in our trailer or at the one next door, which housed my grandparents. And sometimes, due to the poverty and chaos of our lives, the holidays were dark, serving only to highlight what we did not have. So, my adult holidays? I was going to make sure those were straight out of a TV movie.

Except.

As an adult, I was still an only child. Additional family members did not appear from central casting. My husband has just one sibling, a sister. She has two kids, we have one. Oh, and we live eight hundred miles apart. As for the rest of it – well, my restored Victorian is an affordable split level, my kitchen table seats six on a good day and has never seen a table cloth that was not disposable, and those two golden retrievers are instead a 14 pound rescue dog with issues.

But my family is not a consolation prize, just because it doesn’t fit the Hallmark-movie mold. There are a lot of awesome things about being a small family at the holidays; here are just a few.

We’re flexible. Because there are so few of us, we prioritize being together, but what that looks like shifts every year according to the needs of each family unit. That will serve us well going into the years when our children have families of their own. We’ll never heap Adri with guilt because she can’t make it to MawMaw’s house, where the family has held Thanksgiving since 1796. Our priorities can stay the same – being together, if and when and how it works best.

It’s easier to bow out when you need to. Last Thanksgiving found me an absolute wreck in the wake of a caregiving crisis that came hard on the heels of a difficult loss. I could barely function. So when Anthony and Adri got in the car for the 800 mile road trip to spend Thanksgiving with Sis, I stayed home. I explained to exactly one person (Sis), and Anthony didn’t spend the trip fielding questions from Great Aunt Zelda and Uncle Freddy about why wifey would abandon her family on this of all days. I spent the weekend with pajamas and Netflix, and when my family returned, I was feeling better and ready to enjoy the rest of the holiday season.

There’s plenty of room for chosen family. When you don’t have a lot of biological family, you tend to build your own. We’ve built a tribe of brothers and sisters at heart, and some of our best holidays have been spent with them.

In addition to these inherent up sides to a small family, there are things I can do to make sure that our holidays don’t feel small just because our family is.

Do the things! I do everything I can to make the holidays feel like the holidays, and not succumb to feeling like it’s somehow not worth the effort if it’s just us. I decorate the house, bake the cookies, make the dinner, knowing I will feel better (and Adri’s memories may be nicer) if I do.

Embrace where I am. Damn those Hallmark-movie families, they are insidious. But THEY are the problem – my family is not the problem. If I allowed myself to miss out on the fun that’s right in front of me for lack of a restored Victorian house and two golden retrievers, I would be a sad person indeed.

Shake things up. Each year I like to do something a little different, something that makes this holiday different from the rest. It might be big – a surprise trip to visit family, a big theatre outing – or it might be small; turning dinner into a family cooking challenge, or choosing ethnic dishes instead of a turkey.

So on this holiday season, I’ll be leaving the imaginary families in their imaginary houses, and choosing to appreciate the wonderful, loving, quirky, (and small) one that is mine.

Why Are Middle School Moms So Unhappy? And Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

A recent study on the happiness and well-being of moms showed a U-shaped curve across a child’s development, with mothers of infants and adult children being the happiest.

The low point? Middle school.

Why aren’t we talking about this?

Mothers of young children can feel understandably overwhelmed at the sudden and total transformation of their lives. We admit this, and happily talk it to death in blogs, parenting groups and on social media. What we don’t talk about is the way much the same thing happens again, when we reach the middle school years.

If you do any kind of reading, web-surfing or talking to other parents prior to having a child, you’re pretty clear on some of the reasons new motherhood is hard:

Uncertainty. We’re awash in “am I doing it right?” in the face of this new role and this new tiny person, and everyone we meet is ready with opinions, criticism and judgment.

Our bodies. The physical elements of childbirth and recovery, the rush of hormones post-delivery, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, and a body that looks very different than it did nine months ago.

Loss. No matter how wonderful the reason, every transition brings with it a sense of loss for what we’re leaving behind – this is why weddings are so emotional. In the case of new parenthood, of course, the change touches every corner of our lives and all our relationships. It’s natural to grieve what your life looked like before, even as we welcome the change.

When I was pregnant, suspecting these challenges were coming helped me to be prepared. I soaked up support and encouragement wherever it was offered and before long settled into my new role with some growing pains, and a lot of gratitude and joy. The early years were intense, but by the time kindergarten happened, things were looking up.

The ‘latency’ period of childhood (from six or so until the onset of puberty) was, for me, one of relative calm. It was like the second trimester of pregnancy, where there were certainly changes going on, but everything was mainly cute, fun, and stable. Her increasing independence meant that parenting wasn’t quite so intense, but Mama and Daddy were still her sun and moon.

And then puberty happened. And those old challenges I thought were behind me, reared up in different form.

Uncertainty. I still wonder if I’m doing it right. There’s precious little encouragement for a mom in our current culture, and I’m almost used to that, but in adolescence, the stakes are so much higher. Their brains aren’t fully developed but they have the autonomy and ability to do things that will impact the rest of their lives. I have the sense of time growing short; we have about four more years to help her become a functioning adult, to make ourselves obsolete – a fact that makes me gasp for air if I think about it too much. I no longer worry about what other people think of my parenting; now I worry about what SHE will think of my parenting. I wonder how my decisions, the life and the home we made for her, will stand up to the passage of time. Whether it will always be clear how much we loved her; what damage is done by the times we missed the mark.

Our bodies. Perimenopause – that long on-ramp between our most fertile years and menopause – is like both adolescence and the postpartum period, where it feels like my body is just doing its own thing, whether I like it or not. Physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and a libido that’s all over the map combine to make daily life in my body more challenging than it used to be. My body also doesn’t look like it used to, as years and gravity take their toll.

Loss. This is closely connected to the changes in my body. I’ve never been much of a flirt, don’t often dress provocatively in public or use my sexuality as a tool (though I have zero problem with women who do any of those things). Because I wasn’t overtly sexy as a matter of course, I thought I had nothing to lose with the coming of middle age – that I would continue to occupy the same smart, edgy and funny public space I always have. Instead, I’m feeling a terrible, creeping invisibility as I age out of my sexual prime. I’m choosing to fight it, but it still registers as a loss – and a hard one.

Loss also creeps in through my role as a mother. Parenting a blossoming and independent young woman is a daily joy, but I still mark the loss of those years when we were her sun and moon. While I knew they wouldn’t last, their ending still comes with a pang.

The antidote to these challenges as a new mom was knowing they were coming, and knowing I was not alone. We can be this same antidote for other women if we start talking about it, laughing about it, sharing our wisdom.

The joy and gratitude are still here, too. In the same way the uncertainty is compounded by the high stakes of adolescence, so are the joys. Watching her take her first steps pales in comparison to watching her discover who she is.

 

On Not Going Quietly

“Tell me a fun fact about your mom.”

Adrienne’s friend Anna asks her this as I’m driving them to practice – not out of interest, I know, but as part of an online game. Still, I listen. What’s my fun fact – my work? Baking kick ass cupcakes? Swearing too much? That I totally fell for the ‘frozen shark’ internet hoax?

Adri: Uhhhhmmmm….I think her favorite color…is…blue.

Me: … … (keeps driving while the remains of my shriveled, desiccated heart blow out the window)

Anyone who has parented an adolescent (or even been in a room with one) knows it’s not an easy gig. The same eyes that once looked at you like you were the moon and stars now look at you like you’re obsolete. Adolescence is so all-consuming that even the most self-aware teens start to treat their parents with an utter lack of interest, as though you couldn’t possibly have any other dimensions than the one that drives them to games and cooks their dinner.

This is not easy on anyone’s self-regard. It’s especially painful for many women because it happens at roughly the same time we start aging into literal and figurative invisibility in the public eye. Aging out of, to credit the legendary Amy Schumer, our fuckability – the point being that once women can no longer be seen as sexual objects, we can no longer be seen at all. The wounds are slight, but they are many. The deli server ‘didn’t see me’ standing right in front of her while she waits on people behind me in line, one after the other until I say something. College-boy bartenders start calling me “hon” and “sweetie” like they’re doing me some kind of favor. Colleagues seem more free to talk over me in meetings than they did just a few years ago.

The weapons with which I fight the disappearance of my personhood continue to evolve, but for now these are my favorites:

At home, I am letting my family see more of me as a person. I am starting to talk about the things I do and think and see and read and feel, even when they have no direct bearing on our home life, like I have every right to do so. Because I do. This is surprisingly difficult. I found I had developed a pattern of mostly talking about things that have some bearing on our family or something I do for Adri, while they talk about their own interests and activities. It’s not a healthy dynamic for Adri to witness or be part of, and certainly not one I’d want for her if she has children. I don’t want HER to disappear when she hits middle age. So I’m talking more about nonessentials, revealing more things she might not know about me or my past, trying to be sure to do it for its own sake, and not because I seek her interest or approval. I balance that by just accepting her lack of interest when it arises – allowing it, allowing any feeling that results, and being mindful. She is not here to provide me with adoration or feels; in fact, I am here to be the rock she pushes off of as she enters life’s current.

Out socially, I intentionally ask other women about their work. Several years ago I noticed how often, when in groups, only the men talked about or were asked about their work – even in the presence of women who had jobs with equal or higher authority, interest, and importance. This isn’t recent, but given the encroaching invisibility, it seems more important now.

In my personal life, I try to…well, be a person. Learn new things, take time to myself, give time to activities and causes of my own, and cultivate my relationship with Anthony separate from our roles as parents. This has been the hardest part. School and work requirements and extracurriculars tend to encroach on any regular, scheduled ‘me time’ I might try to establish; and the presence of a teen in a small house means Anthony and I are almost never alone. (For anyone who might not know, that’s the one exception to a teen’s lack of interest in parents: if they try to have a private conversation.)

I have been at the point of exhaustion on this, of giving up on creating space for myself, many, many times. It would be so easy. Because it’s not terrible, soul-sucking things that are absorbing the time I might have for myself. It’s things I LOVE – being with my family, and being involved in their lives. But when I don’t have regular, consistent time away, I am not the parent or partner I want to be. When I ask myself the two questions I often ask (Is this the person you always wanted to be? Would you want this life for Adri when she’s grown?), the answer is more often ‘no’ if I haven’t taken care of myself.

So I keep trying.

I like to think my efforts now will pay dividends later. The more meaningful things I have in my life as Adri gets older, the less likely I am to be unbalanced by the absence I’ll feel when she is grown, which will make life easier on us both. And if some day she faces a similar challenge, I will want her to keep trying to be herself. Maybe having seen me keep at it will help her do the same. She has too much to give to the world to give up.

And so do I.

Birds, Bees and Blue Hair

We’ve been pretty open with our daughter about sex from the beginning, I thought. We taught Adrienne the anatomical names for all of her girl parts (and let her sing them in the grocery store). We provided answers on how babies are made as soon as she asked. When we saw she was shy about discussing these things with us (who really WANTS to talk about sex with their parents?), we bought her age appropriate books about how her body functions and about how sex works. With illustrations. We’ve talked about birth control. About STDs. About consent. About assault. About unplanned pregnancy.

We’ve tried to take any sense of shame out of sex, because that’s what causes the secrecy and the damage. We want her to know that her worth as a person and our love for her are in no way tied to her sexual decisions. And we want her to be able to come to us if there’s a problem, to understand that her sexual decisions are in her hands, not ours, and not a potential partner’s.

I actually thought, having done all this, (go ahead and laugh, veteran parents) that I was almost done. That she knows what she needs to know – and so very much more than I knew.

But we’ve never talked about pleasure. We’ve never talked about her having her own expectations for sex. And we’ve never talked about the sexual environment that she will have to come of age in. In this interview, author Peggy Orenstein talks about what it’s like for girls out there right now.

And it is fucking terrifying.

In her book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein explores the current sexual environment for adolescent girls. She discusses how culture is impacting the sexual expectations girls put on themselves, and that boys put on them: the pressure to look and act sexy at ever younger ages; oral sex as social currency; the way alcohol drives hook-up culture; and the notion of sex as the gateway to a relationship, instead of the other way around.

Did I mention this is terrifying? I really want to bury my head in the sand on this one. I want to…but I won’t. The book illuminates both the things I’ve been doing wrong, and what I think I’ve been doing right.

On the wrong end, I’ve been talking to her about relationships as though we’re still in the era I dated in. And the current environment makes that era seem quaint. The fact is, things are so different that I can’t give her much relationship guidance that will make sense. The thing I can help her develop, though, is a strong enough sense of self so she’s not doing anything – sexual or otherwise – because she’s pressured to. I can help her learn to listen to her intuition about when she’s being respected and when she’s being used. It doesn’t feel like enough; but it’s what we have.

And the stuff I’m doing right? First, being openly accepting of same-sex relationships. Orenstein notes that young same-sex couples have a different dynamic, and much to teach us about reciprocity and equality in sexual relationships. Also, encouraging Adrienne’s friend relationships, and her self-expression when it comes to her appearance. She’s friends with a group of girls who support one another, smart, kind girls who are into science and fandom and all sorts of good mischief, who have their sights set higher than our small town, and who don’t much care what the middle-school queen bees are doing. They seem to like being a little outside the norm with how they look – androgynous dress, hair in edgy colors and styles. And each time Adrienne has come to us asking about doing something new, our answer has been a carefully considered yes. I had thought this was because we want her to express herself (and because, you know, we’re awesome like that). And we do; but Orenstein’s work made me wonder if these things might have a value I hadn’t considered.

I’d thought about the down side – that any kind of non-typical appearance can be a magnet for judgment. But what if choosing to look a little ‘outside the box’ has a benefit? What if these girls, by seeing themselves as outside the mainstream, are insulating themselves against those mainstream pressures? Thin insulation, to be sure. But I hope that, layered on top of a strong sense of self, the examples of respectful relationships that are abundant among our close friends, and the knowledge that we can talk about sex like we can talk about anything else, she may avoid some of the more horrifying aspects of the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture. I dare to hope that she and her friends and the other young women in my life can develop their sexuality on their own terms, on their own timeline.

So, I am not almost done. And I won’t be, for years. Time to brush the sand out of my hair and initiate some more hard conversations.