Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

What We Know

In Family on November 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm
Dmitri May 1983

A few months before the cream cheese incident.

Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.

The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.

When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.

“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)

Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.

About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.

“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”

Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.

And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.

So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:

You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.

“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”

“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.'”

“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?

Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.

I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.

Dmitri March 2008

Finding happiness in a way completely foreign to me.

When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.

And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.

–Lois Maassen

Another Thing a Dad Can Do

In Family on June 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

In honor of Father’s Day, Moms Rising has created a special site where people can “share a favorite moment” involving dads. Since I’d been trying to come up with a meaningful way to say Happy Father’s Day to a dad who is no longer around to open cards or presents or check out his Facebook wall, I decided to give this a try. I found myself writing about how my dad used to play “Barbie Queen of the Prom” with my sisters and me on the evenings when my mom was at bridge club.

He did. Without complaint, without rolling his eyes, without making us feel that things girls liked to do were innately dumb, he bought the dress, got elected to a club, and found a steady date in order to vie for the honor of being crowned Queen of the Prom.

One of the best things about playing with him (and, now that I think of it, one of the reasons he regularly won) was that he never disdained the nerdy Poindexter as escort. In fact, he professed to prefer Poindexter. I think he may have felt sorry for him, seeing how often his daughters rejected the poor freckled, big-eared guy in favor of rounding the board another time in hopes of landing on the all-American Ken or the more sultry Bob (always my first choice).

He wasn’t shy about consulting with us on choosing his prom gown, either, questioning whether pink was really his best color.

My dad was manly man, don’t get me wrong. He played as many sports as Ken did, built things with his hands, knew his way around a table saw. I often thought it was a shame he didn’t have sons to toss a football with or coach in Little League (this was pre-Title 9). But now it occurs to me that he — a boy who lost his mother at a tender age — enjoyed the immersion in female life that came with having three daughters.

He was never afraid to tell us how pretty we looked, that he liked what we’d done with our hair. He came to our tea parties and ate our attempts at cooking with genuine relish. He never made us feel that there was anything wrong with being a girl.

Many stories about fathers are written by sons who remember the ways their dads showed them what it meant to be a man. I am glad to add this story about a dad who taught his daughters something essential about being a woman.

–Debra Wierenga

Battle Hymn of the Golden Retriever Mother

In Family, Fulfillment on March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

So I’ve been trying not to write about Amy Chua’s book, which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read. Which I no longer need to read because I have read 1400 reviews and essays and analyses and blog posts and angry letters to the editor that quote copiously from her book to: (1.) show what a heartless, humorless slave-driver of a mother she is, or (2.) hold her up as a smart, self-deprecating but determined role model for parents who want to raise their children to be all that they can be.

If you are a semi-conscious Western parent of the female persuasion (there’s a reason this book wasn’t written by a man or pilloried or defended by American fathers, but that’s the subject of a different debate) the Tiger Mother’s roar is impossible to ignore. She’s everywhere. Her book has even inspired an internet meme.

What could I possibly add?

But it’s been a fraught week, with parent/teacher conferences, band concerts, financial aid forms, and college acceptance and not-quite acceptance letters from the places my youngest son Eliot applied to last fall. And reading Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Ivy Delusion: The Real Reason the Good Mothers Are So Rattled by Amy Chua” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic has finally pushed me into the fray.

Because I have some things in common with those “good mothers” Flanagan makes not-so-gentle fun of —

“The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere.”


And, yes, Amy Chua rattles me. Because I am a mother who has allowed her sons to quit pianos lessons, tennis lessons, trombone lessons, swimming lessons, T-Ball, Youth Orchestra, AP Chemistry — even intramural soccer. I have not required them to do their homework, go to bed, join National Honor Society, practice their instruments, or write five-paragraph essays. I have encouraged them to find their respective passions and follow their proverbial bliss (good mothers read too much Joseph Campbell in college, says Flanagan) to film school, art school, and (for Eliot) music school. I am also a mother who, unlike Amy Chua, has never been entirely sure she was doing the right thing.

I am not a Tiger Mother. I am not really even one of the good mothers Flanagan chastises for thinking that their kids should be able to “have it both ways” — “a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education.” After my boys’ first years in elementary school, I stopped harboring any illusions of Harvard scholarships.

I am more of a Golden Retriever Mother.

If you’ve ever owned a golden, you know from unconditional love. A retriever finds her person perfect, fascinating, the source of all possible happiness in this world. She will chase and return a soggy tennis ball for as long as you care to throw it. She will listen with rapt attention to anything you want to discourse on, from Petrarchan sonnets to nationalized health care. She wants to go where you go, do what you do, eat what you eat, and sleep where you sleep. She’s ready to follow you following your bliss wherever it takes you. She doesn’t care if you don’t have a 4.0. In fact, she thinks that your 3.25 — because it is your 3.25 — is better than anyone else’s 4.0.

So, yeah, Eliot’s been wait-listed by his first-choice school, while Amy Chua’s daughter has already played Carnegie Hall and, according to Flanagan, has likely applied to many of the country’s top colleges: “Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them.”

Eliot’s passion is music, but he didn’t discover that until high school. And by the time he figured out which program of study excited him, and understood the school’s acceptance rates and requirements, he’d had only two years of private piano and trombone lessons and his GPA was beyond repair. What if I hadn’t let him quit piano at 7? What if I’d made him practice his trombone two hours a day when he was in middle school? What if I’d told him, like Tiger Mother told her cubs, that he was “never allowed to get any grade less than an A”?

I like to think that my approach had its own benefits. Eliot found out for himself what he loves and learned how to find the teachers and resources that could help him achieve his goals. His latest progress report shows a D in AP English Language, but here’s what his teacher wrote next to the grade:

Eliot, I really enjoy working with you in AP Language. I appreciate your witty insights in class discussion, and wish that you would share even more. You possess an inherent gift for stringing words together creatively, and your sense of voice in your writing is strong and developed. The complexity of your sentence structures and your sense of humor is indicative of a writer far beyond your years!

Eliot’s D is better than most of my community college students’ As!

He didn’t get accepted into the University of Michigan’s highly competitive Performing Arts Technology program, and we feel sad about that. But Berklee College of Music wants him enough to offer him sizable merit scholarship. He hasn’t done Carnegie Hall (yet), but last month I watched him solo with his high school jazz band in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

That’s my boy! Son of a Golden Retriever Mother, perfect in every way.

–Debra Wierenga

A Hole in the Heart

In Family, Fulfillment on January 29, 2011 at 1:55 am

“We’re all done here. I don’t want to see you again,” said the cardiologist to my daughter as we left his office this morning. “Goodbye. Have a good life.”

She’s been seeing him since she was diagnosed at about six months with a ventricular septum defect—a hole between the lower chambers of her heart.  From the very first visit, we knew it was small. It never affected her development. The doctor never limited her or restricted her physical activities. “I see football players who have this,” he said. And that’s what my husband and I said, too, to each other: “He sees football players who have this.” Still, the doctor wanted to see her, every year at first, then every two, then every three.

In the years between visits, she grew. She loved passionately and she hated passionately. She had no trouble expressing her emotions.

My daughter gave me this ransom-style note when she was about eight.

Around the same time, she gave me this heart-shaped rock she found. Later, when it broke, she was the one who thought to fix it with a band-aid.

“Weren’t your feelings hurt when I said I hated you?” she asked me recently.  Fourteen now, still passionate but better able to moderate her emotions, she sees her young self through eyes that are more adult than child. I told her I never believed her, not for a moment.

“I really believed it when I said it,” she said. “I believed I hated you.”

But I knew her heart. I knew its nature as well as the cardiologist, with all his EKGs and echocardiograms and pulse oximetry, knew its form.

And now the form of her heart has caught up to its nature. The hole has completely closed, which is why her cardiologist doesn’t want to see her again. We left with a printout of her electrocardiogram, a parting gift.

I drove her back to school and went to the office to sign her in. She let me hug her before she headed to history class.

I thought about the hole, now closed, about how her whole life lies ahead of her, wide open, and about how I will never be all done here. No parent ever is.

–Christine MacLean

Zombie Christmas

In Family on December 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

“Not a good place to be in a zombie invasion.”

The year was 2004. The holidays were looming. I had just moved most of my family (three sons, two cats, one golden retriever) from a large house on a wooded lot overlooking a marshy bayou  to a small house on a busy city street with a backyard view that came to a screeching halt at the unpainted backs of neighbors’ garages.

My oldest son, then 17, was assessing our prospects for survival.

The urban location was bad. The undead always flock to the cities because — duh — people live there, and people are what zombies eat. Sort of.

Having a second floor with two bathrooms was good. We could barricade the stairs and fill both tubs. Plus, Emerson had a mini-fridge in his bedroom. But once we ran out of drinking water and Dr. Pepper, we had no hope of getting to the nearest Walmart to restock. Our car, in a small detached garage at the end of a narrow drive bordered by the house on one side and a concrete wall on the other, was unreachable. No way could we get to it without some major weapons. Which, of course, we didn’t own.


Last week, Google Labs released a new tool, N-Gram Viewer, that may pose a worse threat to my continued survival as a free-will exercising human than a zombie invasion ever could. Having now scanned over ten percent of all books published since Gutenberg, Google’s new toy lets you use this vast data base to graph the occurrence of words and phrases that have appeared in print from 1400 through the present day.

This is, apparently, something I have wanted to do for so many years without knowing it, that now that I have the capability to compare, say, the rising usage of the word “zombie” with the declining usage of the phrase “nuclear holocaust” over the 17 years of my son’s life from 1987 to 2004, I simply can’t stop.

As you can see, during the years between my son’s birth and our move to the small city where I still live, zombies are increasingly likely to be referenced, in books, while nuclear holocausts get fewer and fewer mentions.

I’m just saying.


As a newly divorced mother I couldn’t help wondering what the rising zombie threat symbolized and whether it was my fault. Or at least my generation’s fault. Or the fault of women of my generation who didn’t believe it was imperative to keep the marriage together for the sake of the children.

I noticed that my sons’ friends also discussed apocalyptic survival plans and enjoyed mowing down the undead in popular video games like Resident Evil. The mother of one of Emerson’s buddies told me how, in the backseat of a car making its way from church to cemetery, she overheard her older son ask his brother whether he had his knife on him. When it became clear that both her boys were packing protection, she turned around in the driver’s seat to confront them. Why, why had they brought hunting knives to their grandfather’s funeral?

“They looked at me as if they couldn’t believe I was asking such an inane question,” she told me. “Then they both said — at the same moment — Zombies, Mom.”

So, was it the divorce thing? Had I met the undead and discovered that they were us? Goodness knows I stumbled through that first Christmas season apart from the boys’ dad with a numbed-out lack of grace that might have looked familiar to fans of Night of the Living Dead.

I tried the idea out in a sonnet.

Zombie Love

Saturday morning dads return to pick
up sons and take them bowling, out to lunch,
a game. Ex-wives watch slantwise, shoulders hunched
in bathrobes by back doors. The boys are quick
to pull on coats and let their mothers flick
the hair out of their eyes before too much
can happen. Sliding in the car, they scrunch
against the dash, ride shot-gun. Seat belts click
like triggers. Undead stalk the stark terrains
of animated strategical games
the sons direct with twitching thumbs all day.
The zombies look like people, but the way
they come at you with eyes like burnt-out fire,
you know there’s nothing there except desire.

Ultimately, though, the metaphor wouldn’t hold. My ex and I and our divorced friends were, if anything, more present in our children’s lives now that we spent time with them separately, without the distractions of unhappy coupledom. My small house on the busy street happened to be quite close to the boys’ school, and it quickly became the hang-out place of choice. With no other adult tastes to please or friends my own age to entertain, I cooked up large vats of kid-pleasing foods and let the TV room be overrun by sleeping-bag toting, chocolate milk consuming hordes of zombie-killing boys.


Why zombies? Why now? Greater minds than mine have been pondering the mystery.

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies insists that “the zombie boom” should be taken seriously, and wonders if it “might represent an indirect attempt to get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as the ‘unknown unknowns’ in international security.”

Over at The Daily Beast, Venetia Thompson argues that zombies are “the perfect metaphor for our rotting age.”

“Theirs is a condition that is far closer to that of the human being than we would like to admit, and it is perhaps for this reason that zombies will always have resonance in times of social and economic upheaval: We start losing our jobs and homes, and before long we’re all completely lost, left to shamble around mindlessly until someone takes pity on us and shoots us in the head.”

In a piece in The New York Times, Chuck Klosterman posits the undead phenomenon as an allegory for daily existence. “A lot of modern life,” he says, “is exactly like slaughtering zombies.”

“Zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.”


Tonight — actually, early tomorrow morning — a full lunar eclipse will decorate the turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, the day the sun begins its journey back toward the little house on the busy street where my family hopes to survive yet another Christmas season. If the weather is clear, my youngest son, My Loving Partner, our golden retriever, and maybe a cat or two will gather in an urban backyard that has a perfect view of the sky to sip hot chocolate and watch it happen.

When you’re dealing with the undead, it’s good to have a plan.

–Debra Wierenga

Stay-at-Home Working Mother

In Survival on December 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Penelope Trunk blogged the other day about the difficulties of labeling herself. Is she a working mother? Well, yes: She works and she has children. Is she a stay-at-home mother? Well, yes, since her office these days is at home, although that’s not what the term is usually meant to describe. Is she full-time? Or part-time? How many hours, precisely, must she work with what regularity to qualify for one or the other?

I think she’s right about the meaninglessness of terms like these. I have similar problems when I fill out online surveys. Am I employed full-time? I think so. On a good week. Am I self-employed? Well, yes, that too. Somehow the research firm’s classification system isn’t happy with that combination.

I have problems with a short description of what I “am,” too. At different times, I’m a knitter, mother, writer, strategist, editor, planner, seamstress, chef, sister, friend, organizer, cat wrangler, and more. How should I summarize that? Must I summarize?

Penelope wants to “end the bullshit” of dividing mothers between those “who work” and those who “stay home” (acknowledging that both descriptors are wildly inaccurate). How about we go further and stop labeling altogether? I suspect there’s a role for categorizing in helping us make sense of our world and community. But as pressed for time as we all seem to be, as willing to generalize and assume, I also suspect it obscures as much as it clarifies.

–Lois Maassen

Dating, Tamed

In Romance on March 20, 2010 at 6:59 pm

In a few minutes, she will come again, my son’s first girlfriend, she of the long, blonde locks and plate-sized china blue eyes. She will ferry my son away from us, not across the River Styx but on a crossing at least as treacherous–teen dating. When she arrives, he doesn’t rush to leave, but he is eager to be off.  He never looks back.

I’m ill prepared for this. It feels like an embolism in my chest that will surely burst when he leaves for good.

But. Her arm encircles his waist and her hand rests on his belt. But. He smiles in such a way that I know the rest of the world–his dog at his feet, the hockey playoffs on TV, his father at the door, me on the stair–are in soft focus for him. And I remember.

I remember Robert, who parked his car at our house and rode to work every day one summer with my father. He was tall and dark with a slow, winning smile. I started showering in the afternoon. I set my hair in pink sponge rollers.  And I made sure I just happened to be outside at the very moment he and my father came home. I was smitten. I was ten years old.

My affection was not returned. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even noticed. I was devastated to learn, upon snooping through his glove compartment and finding his cigarettes and  love letters, that he loved some girl named Nancy. Misery loves company and I had plenty: my four older sisters were all in love with him, too. It’s because of Robert that to this day, I find the hint of smoke on a man sexy.

It took me a few years to recover from that loss and start dating Paul, my first real boyfriend. I remember Paul. He was shorter than I by about three inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in what he taught me. (No, I’m not going there.) Before Paul, I thought studying for a test meant looking at the material for a few minutes. But Paul, who was a socio-economic class or two above my farm family, was a serious student who eventually graduated at the top of his class. Paul studied five or six hours every day, and it was by watching him that I learned how to be a good student.

Then came Greg. I remember Greg. He smoked pot. I didn’t. We stayed together for longer than we should have. I don’t know why. Oh, wait. Maybe I do. He was good looking. Remember Robert? Yeah, he looked like a younger Robert. I was going to say that I learned nothing from that relationship, but then I realized that Greg taught me to play tennis, and tennis has been a hobby of mine ever since.

And I remember Keith, who was waiting for me when Greg and I broke up. Funny, athletic, and personable, he liked to lift weights–and use me as the weight. We laughed a lot. From him I learned that dating could be fun. He was the quintessential nice guy and I broke up with him in a hallway conversation between classes–an approach that strikes me as a precursor to the text break-up. I was a jerk. I regretted breaking up with him later, when I realized that nice, funny, personable, athletic guys who are fun on a date are pretty hard to come by.

I remember the things I learned in those early dating relationships that helped make me who I am and shaped my preferences. I remember that all those relationships prepared me to see that the right man who finally came along was the right man, and to treat him right.

Now when I see my boy-man son and his girlfriend together, I try to think of all he’s learning (no, not that,  although that occurs to me, since she’s older than he is and has had other boyfriends). She’s a good student and she has some ambitions; I wouldn’t mind if some of that rubbed off on him.

And she plays on the tennis team, which is why twice last week he asked me to go hit some balls with him–my son who has stonewalled me whenever I’ve asked him to play over the past five years.  Until now. In that way, she has not only given him back to me, but given us a new common interest that might connect us even as he pulls away, even as the embolism throbs near my heart.

She’s breezing in the door now, smelling of roses and french fries. She can ferry him across that passage and I will be waiting, racquet in hand, on the other side.–Christine MacLean