Me, Myself and Iris

My daughter is 14 months old, and I am astounded by how much she knows, sees, and absorbs.  I ask her if she wants water, she nods yes.  She’s fussy and I offer a snack.  She claps her hands, happy again.  I pick her up around nap time to take her into her bedroom, and she cries and shakes her head no.  She fake sneezes just to hear me say “bless you” and then laughs and laughs. 

I didn’t teach her these things. 

When I found out I was going to have a daughter, I thought hard about the mother and woman I want to be and the example I want to set.  I knew, even then, that the most important lessons I’d teach were not when to say “please” and “thank you.” 

I want to teach her to be kind and open, confident and assertive, to be forgiving and gracious, to be a friend to everyone, to feel strong, to be good and honest.  I want my girl to squeeze every ounce of happiness and love and light out of this life.  I want her relationships with both friends and lovers to be defined by mutual respect and love.  I want her heart to always be as open as it is right now. 

When I found out I was going to have a daughter, I looked to myself for these qualities.  I didn’t see the person that I wanted her to become.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I donned a cap and gown and received my degree in Women’s Studies.  Life seemed so easy then, and I had no doubts about the person I’d turn out to be.  I was learning how to be a strong woman, coming into my own.  Life seemed so black and white.  Right and wrong felt so easily defined.  Hot topics were the subject of heated discussion and debate, but it was all academic.  I didn’t carry with me the weight of everyday decisions or the reality of every day life.

It all feels so much more complicated now.  The details have crept in, and there are bills and budgets, grocery shopping and laundry.  I don’t revisit feminist theory in everyday life.  I favor easy camaraderie over heated debate.  The black and white world of my youth has blurred into real life shades of grey.  But the seed that was planted in me those years ago – and really, much earlier – is still there.  It just needed a little sunlight.  A little water.

So, for my daughter – and for me – I have shined the light back on myself.  I am reconnecting with old friends.  I am renewing my confidence in myself.  I am standing up strong for what I believe in and for who I am.  I am embracing what makes me happy in myself, in others, and in my relationships and I am stepping away from the rest.  I am going out and living life instead of watching it pass me by. 

When I found out I was going to have a daughter, I worried I might lose myself in her, in parenthood, in the details of everyday life. 

Instead, I found myself.

I have a long way to go.  But I am on my way.

– ALW

All Bets Are Off

I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s post about why we have kids, and my own post a month back about our house, and how it’s less about the stuff and the size, and more about the love.  Both posts have one thing in common – they remind us that there is something about parenting that is impossible to put your finger on.

My dad once told me that the best thing about having kids is that “you get to do all of those things that kids love that you just can’t do alone as adults.”  I used to think that was the oddest thing. Really? I’m hankering more for a Beer at my favorite bar than playing arcade games when we’re on vacation.  I’m more interested in sitting in the sun and having a long conversation with my friends than I am chasing my child around the park.  I just didn’t buy it.  Events that are catered towards kids?  Not as much fun as relaxing events catered towards adults.

But yet time after time, I prove my own thoughts wrong.

Most recently this happened when I decided to return to my favorite birthday destination, Arlington Park – only this time, with several kids in tow.  Would we have fun?  Would it be a disaster?  Would it be worth it?   As a child, my family and I went to the races frequently (OK, maybe it wasn’t, but when I look back on it, it was to me).  I loved them so much, I wrote a fan letter one year to the only woman jockey at Canterbury Downs.  I once was even a jockey for Halloween.  I used to play horse and jockey with my friend in her backyard and my horse’s name was always “Whatchyagonnadonow.”  That’s serious love.

Horses

After we got home and the kids were in bed, my husband and I were comparing this trip to the last childless trip years ago.  We compared what we did (I chatted with friends, labored over my horse choices by reading all of the stats and even the daily racing form;  he sat upstairs under the large cantilevered roof and drew for an hour or two, passing in and out of conversation as our friends mingled back and forth with a drink in hand.).  This time we took turns changing diapers, corralling children, explaining what betting is, watching the kids hang off of the rails in the paddock while we watched the horses getting groomed, saying the funny names of the horses, and letting the kids pick which they wanted to win based on the color of the jockey’s silks.

Which was more fun?  Sure, if you go simply based on your standard ruler of fun – the kid-less time.  But in reality?  The time that we got pass on our love for something that made me so happy as child.  The time that I followed my youngest around as he screamed HOHHHHSEEEEEEEE, HOHHHHHSEEEEE (horsey, for those of you who don’t speak Abbott).  The time that a friend’s youngest burst out into tears every time his horse (always the one with the jockey wearing the orange shirt) didn’t win.

A and E

There must be some magical switch that get’s turned on when you become a parent.  You hear some say that whatever it is, it’s shown in the sacrifice you’re willing to pay to give your child what they need, that defines the love.  But in reality, I think it’s about remembering the pure beauty of the World and being allowed to introduce that Fabulousness to fresh eyes, bit by bit, day after day after day.

And when the day is over, and your child looks at you in your eyes and says “I am loving you SO very much today mommy.  I love you and daddy and Abbott and my Whole Family so much,” you know that they’ve seen and experienced something new, something important, something life changing, even if it’s something you never would have even taken note of as an adult.

A and the Color Wheel

And then what do you do?  You send those kids to bed, so you can breathe deeply and get ready to begin another day of discovery.

– EC

Better Than Happy

I recently watched a documentary hosted by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, called This Emotional Life.  The documentary is a look at the most recent psychological and neurological findings on what makes us happy. Two days later I read a book review in the New Yorker discussing three new books on happiness, one of which is co-authored by Gilbert. In both his book and documentary, Gilbert cites the finding that having children makes people less happy.

Since then, I have been consumed by this assertion. There is a dissonance to it I cannot make sense of.  If having children is our primary drive in evolutionary terms, then doesn’t the fact that doing so makes us less happy have profound implications not only for that drive but for happiness itself?  I feel, as I’m sure most parents do, that my daughter is unquestionably my greatest source of joy, despite the fact that after several straight hours of playing doll house I would whole-heartedly agree with the mothers from Gilbert’s study who rated caring for their children, in terms of the pleasure it provides, below jogging or napping and only slightly above washing the dishes. In fact, I can do them one better: at least while I wash dishes I can listen to NPR. So when I say that my daughter is my greatest source of joy, am I simply falling back on some of the cognitive tricks I learned about in the documentary?  These tricks include, for example, assessing our happiness based on our expectations, rather than the experience itself, and rating experiences and objects higher on a scale of happiness when they are things we are stuck with. Lorrie Moore, in her novel The Gate at the Stairs, seems to put all of this in qualitative terms when one of her characters says (and I paraphrase) that having a baby ruins your life, and therefore becomes the best thing in it.

Photo by Olaf Hajek, The New York Times

I want to resist this finding, even if that desire is just a mind trick of my own. So here is my question: is there something more satisfying, more fulfilling than happiness? I can’t define what that might be, but something I witnessed recently suggests, to me, that there might be.

My extended family shares a beach house in a part of Rhode Island that is magical for children. At the end of our road, perched on a ledge that drops to the ocean, is a beautiful stone house with a blue painted tower.  For most of my life, no one was ever there.  It just stood empty, looking out at the sea. As children, my cousins and I knew little about the family who owned it other than the fact that the mother had died and the father and two sons were too heartbroken to return, yet couldn’t bring themselves to sell it. We embellished the story by telling each other that the woman had died in the tower, making the house haunted in our imaginations.

Last summer, a man came to the house with his wife and tiny daughter.  The man looked older than most who have such a young child – maybe fifty – and was obviously someone comfortable with the sea.  He had thick muscles, a deep tan, and plunged joyfully into the roughest surf, the strongest undertow.  His wife was younger, beautiful, with red curly hair.

Last weekend I walked past the house with my mother and daughter and commented that someone had been using the house again.  I asked my mother whether it was one of the sons of the woman who had died.  My mother said it was, and then told me what she hadn’t told me when I was child – that years ago, before I was born, the woman had driven to some nearby woods and gassed herself in her car.

I thought of how the man had looked last summer, at the water’s edge with his three year old daughter, already fearless.  That is why he is here, I realized.  The joy he wants her to experience—that he feels in watching her at this place he loved as a child and loves still—is greater than the pain it brings him as the place of his mother’s death.

Does his daughter make him happier? Not to the best of our knowledge, I guess. But the greatest significance of that finding is, to me, that having children gives us something else, maybe even something more, that we can’t begin to understand.

– AC

Today, My Day Was Saved

Today, my day was saved by Sesame Street. My daughter was tired, hungry, thirsty, crabby, teething or SOMETHING, and Elmo, Big Bird, and the rest of the gang were able to make her happy when nothing else could. We sat on the couch and watched Sesame Street for, oh, longer than I care to admit.

Huge shout out to Sesame Street!

It made me think. I have gratitude to more than just Sesame Street. There are people and things that have helped me tremendously in my 14 months as a mom.

Here are just a few of my shout outs:

  • Shout out to infant’s ibuprofen!  You have soothed my baby during ear infections, fevers, new teeth.  You have stopped the crying.  You have eased my mind.
  • Shout out to spring!  My house is too small for winter.
  • Shout out to milk!  I think if my daughter had to choose, she would choose you over me.  She LOVES you.  And you make her happy and healthy, so I love you too.
  • Shout out to Feist!  Your music has made our diaper changes easier.  I haven’t gotten poop on myself or the wall ONCE since we started playing your music in the bedroom.
  • Shout out to rainy days!  You provide quiet times in our busy life.  You slow us down just when we need it.  But please, don’t come around too often.
  • Shout out to clotrimazole!  You are foot cream, but you get rid of my daughter’s antibiotic-induced yeast infections, too!  You are amazing!
  • Shout out to grandparents!  You love our baby independent of us.  You will always be there for her and watch out for her.  And you will let us know if we are doing something wrong.  I don’t always want to hear it, but I will always remember that your heart is in exactly the right place.
  • Shout out to cheese!  From the dogs to the adults, every single member of my family loves you.
  • Shout out to bed time!  My sanity thanks you.  Please talk to nap time and see if you can get it on board, too.
  • Shout out to my dogs!  You are annoying, you smell, and you cost too much money.  But you are kind to my daughter, and she loves you.
  • Shout out to Dexter’s Pub!  You provide a place that my whole family feels comfortable and welcome.  You have great food, an awesome beer list, stellar service, and you know us – and our baby – by name.
  • Shout out to our daycare!  No one would call you the best that there is.  But for a insanely small amount of money per hour, you have taught my daughter some very useful sign language, single-handedly gotten her to eat solid foods, and treated her with love and respect.  You are (relatively) affordable, accommodating to my part-time schedule, and close to home.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.
  • Shout out to books!  I love that my girl would choose you over any of her toys.  Like Mary Poppins, you are practically perfect in every way.
  • Shout out to generics!  You provide the same products at a fraction of the price.  You have helped us buy the things we need and want for our family without being a burden on our sometimes meager budget.
  • Shout out to dandelions!  You assure me that I can lay our blanket in the park without fear that the grass has been chemically treated.
  • Shout out to my camera!  You aren’t fancy.  You’re kind of banged up.  But you fit in my pocket and have reliably and beautifully captured the best times in my life.  And you’re pink!
  • Shout out to graham crackers!  You have dried tears in the car seat, in the cart at the grocery store, and in the stroller.  I try to never leave home without you.
  • Shout out to Madison!  I fell in love with you the minute I laid eyes on you.  I can’t think of any place that I’d rather raise a family.

Madison

– ALW

The Name Game

What’s in a name? Well, everything. It seems that people either love or hate their name, spend time telling stories about their name or spelling it over the phone. In many circles today people vie to give a name that no one else has in the classroom. Granny names are trendy, but so are “you named your child what?” versions. Naming a child is political. And a big deal.

Me? I have a semi-complicated-for-America name. Not only do I have to repeat my name, I also have to spell every part of it – first, last and each part in between. So when my husband and I were deciding what to name our baby, I knew immediately that I wanted it to be not common, but not unusual. Something that people would smile at because it was harmonious, something that could last a lifetime. A name that would work well for a baby, toddler, teenager, mother, grandmother, lover. I’m also half Mexican (insert “which half” joke here. I’ll show you some time) and wanted a name that would sound nice if said in Spanish.

We didn’t know that we were having a girl at the time, but we both “knew.” For eight plus months in my mind I called the baby “Alma.” Alma. I loved the way it rolled off my tongue. I loved that it means “soul” in Spanish and fit all of my criteria for a name that would travel well over the years. “Alma,” I would say, holding my belly. “Alma.”

Then, at month one million, I was watching an interview with Michelle Williams as she talked about her role in Brokeback Mountain. Her character’s name? Alma. But when describing her character, she kept referring to her as “Alllll-muh.” What?! My heart raced. Allll-muh? Like in Al’s Mother? No way. No how. My heart skipped a beat and I almost started to cry. I couldn’t name my potential child a name that some people would butcher into something that sounded so terrible. Like my name, but worse.

Teary, I later told my husband the story. We had a second name on the list. He told me he liked it better anyway. We decided to meet the baby and see what she (or still he) looked like.

And who came out? A baby! A baby girl! And after one look we knew it wasn’t Alma. Alma has dark hair, is serious and slightly brooding. Alma is an old soul. Who came out was a fiery redhead. Someone, albeit sleepy from the journey, who looked around the room and knew where she was. Someone who had perfect ears. Who came was my heart. Mi corazon. Cora.

– MD

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