To the Sensitive Kids—I See You

May 19, 2020 | add comment

This piece was originally published on Motherly.

To the kids feeling nervous in this new world of quiet chaos. I hear you.

To the kids who know coronavirus is scary but don’t know why. I see you. 

To the empaths, the worriers, the sensitive ones who pick up on feelings without words being uttered. I get you. 

When I was your age, I was you. 

1990. I was ten years old during the Gulf War. I remember watching the news and feeling nervous, despite it being on the other side of the world. I cried when my mom tucked me in and told her I didn’t want anyone to fight or die. Our fifth grade class wrote letters to troops. I still have the postcard I received in return: 

Dear Jessica, 

Thanks for writing! No I didn’t see Bob Hope, I arrived too late. The food here is great. The unit has its own cooks. Yesterday we ate chicken for dinner. How’s the fifth grade treating you? Hope you’re having fun. We are here. There’s no more fighting so it’s fun. Say hi to everyone for me. 

Your friend, 

John L.

John L. fought in an actual war. Was he dealing with the fallout better than my 10-year-old self was?! Probably not, though maybe on paper it appeared that way.  

I have always felt the influence of tragedies that don’t affect me personally. Wars, natural disasters, Leonard Cohen’s death—I can easily absorb the aura of those closest to the pain. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to distance myself, to step away from the headlines, to realize I can care without getting wrapped up in the hurt. 

My four-year-old son is emotionally intuitive in the same way. During our first week of COVID-19 school closures, I remained calm on the outside but was rattled on the inside—not just due to the weight of the pandemic or the political blunders that made it worse, but also because of the resulting “homeschooling” content that suddenly flooded my social media feed.

It was as if parents everywhere were expected to become English and math and science teachers…overnight. 

I browsed curriculums that seemed too rigid for a preschooler: 9:30 a.m. letters. 10:00 a.m. numbers. 10:30 a.m. foreign language, etc. The thought of following this while also minding my one-year-old made me laugh. And cry. 

I washed my hands so often that my knuckles cracked and my skin grew raw. My son swiftly picked up on the unease. He became a contrarian by day, and fought bedtime with renewed vigor at night. 

But I couldn’t fault him. He didn’t know why he felt this way. He just felt it. This openness to feeling the weight of the world is a good thing. It fosters connection and empathy. The trick is to not let it consume you. 

Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, quarantinis, #alonetogether. These terms have quickly become a part of our daily lexicon. But what language do we use to tell our kids what’s happening?

Sesame Street has ideas. Daniel Tiger has tips. I’m grateful for those, but I haven’t said anything to my four-year-old yet. I don’t want to put more worry into him. 

A life-sized diorama at one of our local museums depicts a group of Plains Native Americans riding horses to drive bison over a cliff. On our last visit, this exhibit transfixed my son. He stared, speechless, as I explained what it meant. He talked about it for days afterward. 

What happens when the buffaloes fall off the cliff? Do they die? What if the buffaloes chase the horses off the cliff? Please tell me, mommy. Why do they do that?

Given that he’s still wrapping his head around a bison hunt that happened maybe 1,000 years ago, I’m going to save the coronavirus talk for another day. There’s enough worry going around. 

Our homeschooling curriculum is a mix of activities that feed our creativity. They often involve numbers, shapes, or colors, but these are healthy side effects. The larger goal is to embrace art, music, stories, and nature. They’re not getting lost in this madness.

To My Second Born, Who Does Things His Way

October 24, 2019 | add comment

This piece was originally published on Motherly.

To my second born,

You are nearly a year old, and I’m just getting to know you. It took a while. 

Your arrival terrified me. 

I woke up at midnight to my water breaking—a huge gush, the kind I knew only from movies. You have never been subtle, dear one.

I was in a fog as your dad gathered our bags for the hospital. Before leaving, we snuck into your brother’s room to say goodbye to him, to his last night as an only child. He woke up (not our intention), so I sang a song to help him back to sleep. Before I could finish the first line, I felt you making your arrival! 

You were born on the kitchen floor. 

After two minutes of pushing, you were in your dad’s hands, on the floor of our tiny San Francisco apartment. No doctor, no doula, no idea how it happened so fast.

As we laid you on my stomach and covered you with a towel, the 9-1-1 operator instructed us to get a shoelace to clamp the umbilical cord. (To hell with the birth plan.) Your dad pulled one from his shoe and said, “Does it matter if it’s dirty?” The doorbell rang. I breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the paramedics. 

I’ll never think of shoelaces in the same way. 

I was overcome with anxiety in those early months. 

Daddy said, “It’s a boy.” All I could say was, “Is he okay? Is he okay?” You arrived so quickly that there was no time to panic. But terror lingered in the back of my mind. What would we have done had something gone wrong?

When you were two months old, we moved across the country. Between barely sleeping, learning to parent two kids, and leaving a big city for a smaller one, I felt like an irritable sloth. My mind raced while days crept along. Small decisions overwhelmed me. I knew it was temporary, but I hated it.

I’m just getting to know you. 

When your brother was born, I knew him from the get-go. He has my eyes and much of my personality. You’re a mini version of your dad. Loud and powerful, your spirit animal is, well, Animal. The Muppet. 

You were fiery from the start. When you cried, there was an urgency to your voice, and we couldn’t always figure out how to soothe you. The harder we tried, the more you wanted to do things your way, to roar for a while.

I hope I have loved you as I’ve loved your brother. 

My heart has loved you just as much. But as it goes with younger siblings, I haven’t read as many books to you, or made as many homemade meals. Giving 110% on every. single. thing. is a habit I am working to kick, and you’re certainly helping. Motherhood is no place for perfectionism.

I love your intensity.

You make your presence known. When I ask for a big hug, you crash into me head-first. There’s a confidence in your smile that astounds me. You seem too young to be this self-assured.

I love your appetite.

You get SO excited by food. Literally any food, aside from raspberries (too tart?) and sparkling water (too fizzy?). You grunt and yell and rock so hard that your high chair scoots across the floor in tiny, energetic bursts. You attack life. 

I love how much you and your brother love each other.

You adore him, and he adores you too—even on the days when he tackles you more than he hugs you, or takes more toys than he shares. 

We made a playlist to listen to during labor, but given your well-timed arrival we never got to it. Late that night at the hospital, we put it on shuffle and decided that whatever song came on would be your song. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—the one song out of all 74 tracks that your brother knew and has always loved to sing. Sibling bonds start early. 

Love always,
Your mama

The Case for Shredding Your Birth Plan

October 23, 2019 | add comment

This piece was originally published on Scary Mommy.

“Get a shoelace to clamp the umbilical cord.” My landlord relayed the 911 dispatcher’s instructions as I lay on the kitchen floor, a pool of blood beneath me. My husband pulled a lace from his Vans sneaker and said, “Does it matter if it’s filthy?” Our newborn was on my belly covered in a towel.

Here’s what I was not thinking in that moment: “Didn’t our birth plan note delayed clamping of the umbilical cord for at least three minutes?” No, I was thinking, “What the actual hell just happened?”

With all the thought I put into my birth plan, I failed to include a section addressing what to do if the nightmarish birth stories I’d only heard about from strangers and Seth Meyers became my birth story.

I awoke at midnight to my water breaking — a huge gush, the kind reserved for high-heeled women in rom-coms. I felt foggy as my husband gathered our things and phoned our doula and nanny.

Before heading to the hospital, we snuck into our two-year-old’s room to say goodbye on his last night as an only child. I barely brushed his leg, unintentionally waking him up. OOPS. We tiptoed out in hopes he would fall back to sleep. He began crying and yelling, “Mommy, sing me a song.” 

Before I could sing one note, I felt my baby starting to arrive. I chirped a panicky “Good night, sweetie” and waddled out of the room, clutching his crib for stability. He cried even harder, his expectations of a midnight lullaby thwarted.

“Call 911. The baby’s coming now!” I said to my husband and our landlord as they helped me to the floor. After a few grueling pushes, our baby arrived in the middle of our tiny San Francisco kitchen. The paramedics, doula, and nanny were still in traffic.

“It’s a boy,” my husband said. But I didn’t care. All I kept saying was, “Is he okay?” — terrified at the thought that he wasn’t. He came out crying. His big brother, in his room less than six feet away, was still crying too. No birth plan could have prepared me for how surreal that moment felt.

In the weeks that followed, everything felt wrong, or at least harder than it should have. I was working through the trauma that nestled in deep, beneath 3:00 a.m. feedings and diaper changes. 

One night I dug up the energy to make slow cooker oatmeal. I chopped up some apples and mixed them with coconut milk and cinnamon. This felt like a big accomplishment. In the morning I realized I’d forgotten one thing — the oats. 

Our newborn was so fired up in those first few months. Was it colic? Acid reflux? Had he, too, been reading Trump’s tweets? I threw a foolish sum of money into infant chiropractors and cranial sacral therapy. None of it did a thing. I think our little one just needed to wail for a while. Maybe the fast arrival shocked him just as it had me.

When you’re in the throes of labor, your birth plan will not matter. The battery-operated candles will not matter. Touching your baby’s head while crowning will not matter. (Spoiler: It feels squishy.) The laughing gas will not — no wait, that did take the edge off with my first delivery. My point is, the things you think will shape your birth story may be all but forgotten. What you’ll remember the most you can’t yet envision. 

Giving birth offers an early but crucial lesson in being a mom: At some point, you have to relinquish control. Let go. Take each breath as it comes, and hope you arrive on the other side a bit stronger and wiser. 

Letting go was and is hard for me as a mom and a recovering(-ish) perfectionist. I’ve always liked things “just so” — the exact opposite of how babies and kids operate. 

As a new mom I ditched my beloved fiction novels for parenting books, thinking the more I read about parenting, the better I was at it. With time, I learned to expect less of myself, and to be okay with things not going to plan.

There is no birth plan for the insane amount of love you’ll feel holding your newborn for the first time. There is no book that will adequately prepare you for the overwhelming emotions that accompany parenthood.

My older son, now three-and-a-half, is fascinated by dinosaurs and is beginning to understand the permanence of death. The other day he looked at me with his big hazel eyes and said he didn’t want to die. He asked if we could die together. I didn’t have a good answer, so I said yes.

Having a baby is a fantastic leap into the unknown. Create a birth plan, of course. Visualize it. Meditate on it. But also, be prepared to shred it. Or at least create a second one — a blank sheet.

Giving In Made Me a Better Mom (with Help from an Oscar Winner’s Umbrella)

March 28, 2019 | add comment

A version of this article was published on Motherly.

When Elliot was born, I thought being a mom meant giving 110% on every single task. I kept floors spotless months before he could crawl. I ate up parenting podcasts and books at every turn. I was all too happy to give my husband pointers (commands?) when his swaddling technique differed from my own. Mother knows best, after all. 

I thought that the more time I spent learning about parenting, the better I was at it. 

When Elliot napped, I rarely did the same. There was always more to be done! And if I didn’t get it all done, I wasn’t a good enough mom. Or so I told myself. That’s the constant struggle with perfectionists. We hear “good” and we think “could be better.” There is no “good enough” in the perfectionist’s compendium.

The lack of sleep didn’t help. It stirred my anxiety around the clock. Even when Elliot slept through the night, I didn’t. I would wake up around 4am to pump under moonlight, worried my milk supply would drop.

When Elliot started eating solids, I made everything by hand. I wanted to maximize the “flavor window” and was hell-bent on filling it with apples and peaches and lentils and squash. I took pride in steaming and pureeing organic kale. He loved it. (Just kidding.) As he got older, I soaked and skinned almonds to make almond milk. I briefly explored raising chickens in the backyard.

Looking back, these behaviors seem a bit much. (At the time, they felt vital to my survival.)

When Elliot turned six months old, I went back to work — terrified of not being able to keep up with home life on top of work life, but insistent on not letting anything slip.

It was impossible. Dishes piled up. Dust bunnies taunted. I felt guilty on the nights we ordered takeout. I felt bad when new recipes were just meh.

My quest to do everything the best and be everything to my little one was sucking joy and energy from my life.

One morning I awoke with a horrible stomachache. Fever…chills…I wanted to dive under the covers and watch rom coms. But we host a nanny share at our small San Francisco apartment, and there was nowhere to hide. So I went to work. By 10am, I was deteriorating fast. I left the office, unsure where I would go. It was raining, and I had no umbrella.

As I passed two women, I overheard them discussing a faulty umbrella. At a red light, I saw that one of them was Oscar (and Emmy and Tony) winner Francis McDormand, of Fargo fame. She tossed her umbrella—her navy blue, Muji, covered in Hollywood fingerprints umbrella —in the trash. 

As they walked on, I pulled it out of the bin, figuring a busted umbrella was better than none at all. I opened it, it closed. I tried again, harder this time, and it snapped into place.

VICTORY! But…I still felt awful. I texted a few friends and found one who was home. I curled up on her sofa, and she brought me tea while I explained the story of my newest accessory. 

I didn’t care if her house was clean or if her tea was organic. I just needed someone to take care of me.

Years from now, Elliot isn’t going to care whether I made all of his meals from scratch. Or if his toys occasionally found their way into the dog’s mouth. He’s going to remember the time we spent playing, the forts we built, the books we read.

Elliot’s now a year and a half old. I have resolved to do less and to care less (which still sometimes feels like failure.) I still don’t nap when he does, but sometimes I read a book or watch TV. And yesterday, instead of cleaning the floor, I bought more socks.

As a mom, I have learned to compromise with myself. It’s not easy, but I’m learning. 

A Letter to My Son, Who Will Soon Be a Big Brother

August 28, 2018 | add comment

This piece was originally published on Motherly.

Dear Elliot,

You turned two-and-a-half today. Sometime in the next few weeks, you’ll turn into a big brother as well. Before that day arrives, here’s what I want you to know.

I hope I can love baby sister or brother as much as I love you.

Deep down, I know I will. But you consume so much of my heart that it’s hard for me to imagine devoting as much love to another tiny human. How does that happen? (Other moms tell me it just will.) In Whoville, they say, the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes one day. May I be so lucky.

I know you know change is coming. 

You’re excited to be a big brother but anxious about the changes it will bring. Suddenly you’ve been wanting me to spoon-feed you dinner, or sing just one more song before bedtime, or stay just one more minute (then one more after that). You tell daddy to “go away!” even though you adore him. It’s your way of getting the most out of me, because on some level you know I won’t be as available once our baby is here.

I’m sorry I can’t carry you like I used to.

I’ll tell you something, honey bear—sciatica is no joke. After carrying you up 23 steps to our front door one too many times, my back said “no more.” I ignored my needs and ended up needing a few weeks of physical therapy and chiropractic care as a result. Lesson learned.

Since then, you’ve been prepping for your big brother role like a champ, and you don’t ask to be carried much anymore. But just the other night, you awoke from a bad dream crying and saying, “Mommy, carry me up the stairs!” My heart shattered into a million little pieces. Growth is rarely linear. 

I’m nervous. 

Nervous that I won’t be able to give you as much attention as I do now. We won’t have as much time for puzzles and books and running around the house in our firefighter hats putting out imaginary fires. 

I’m nervous that the anxiety I experienced in your newborn months will creep back in with a vengeance. Nervous that the sleep deprivation that comes from caring for two children will make it even worse. Nervous that I’ll again find myself striving for perfection instead of embracing the imperfect

But I’m so proud of you.

I know you’ll be an amazing big brother. I know it will take time to adjust—for all of us. You’ll never be the only child after this. But you’ll be able to teach our baby so much! You already love singing to my belly and giving it eskimo kisses. 

Lately, you’ve been taking words and changing them ever so slightly to make new ones. Yesterday, the robin in the park became a “robimp” and the elephant in our storybook became an “elephamp.” I can feel our baby giggling already. 

And I’m proud of myself too.

Because growing a human is hard work. Growing a human while both working and raising a toddler is damn hard. It’s exhausting, painful, never short on emotions, but worth every second. 

More than anything, I’m excited to watch you two grow up together.

You’ll play, you’ll fight, and you’ll develop a special bond reserved only for siblings. One of your favorite bedtime songs right now is “Marty Moose” (aka “The Wally World National Anthem”), which I memorized as a child in the ‘80s because my brother and I were obsessed with Clark Griswold and family in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

The other day, after I put you down for your afternoon nap, I heard you reciting the final line of the song to your stuffed animals: “Hyuk! That’s me. Ahuhuhuh!” I texted my brother immediately.