Focal point

I used to be neat and tidy. At least I think I was.

But now I have children. And I've learned that having a clean house is almost impossible. And not a lot of fun.

So I've let it go. Really, really go.

But I like to keep just one corner the way I like it. I clear away the crap from this one spot over and over again, just so I can gaze admiringly at it: tidy and colorful and clear. It's amazing really, that I'm able to blur the mess all around me and just focus on this one little corner and all that I love about it. But I can.

And I do.

Ahhhhhh..... Don't you just want to curl up in this lovely spot with a book and a glass of lemonade? (Well, not right now as it's 37 degrees here, but, you know, in a month or so.)

Then, if I turn around and take a picture of the corner exactly opposite, I am back to reality.

Though this reality has a beauty all its own.


Intimate talk

A friend asked me the other day why I read so many mommy memoirs. "I mean, when you're finally free to read, don't you want to escape your life rather than relive it?" she asked.

I laughed and said, "Sometimes. But mostly, I crave what Faulkner Fox calls 'intimate talk' in her memoir "Dispatches from a Not-so-Perfect-Life". Mommy memoirs, and mommy blogs for that matter, are a great way to feed my appetite for the kind of intimate talk that gives me insight into my own life."

After moving across the country almost 2 years ago, I joked with my new therapist that I was paying her to have deep, real conversations with me, since I didn't have any friends here with whom to have them for free. I couldn't handle having only "How old is your son? Oh, look at him swing!" type conversations with the moms on the playground or at the grocery store. I needed someone other than my husband to have intimate talk with, in person. In addition to helping me navigate the depression that was swelling inside me, my therapist answered my need to talk about real things, with a real live human being.

In her book, as Faulkner Fox looks for female friends in her new hometown in Texas, she looks for women who are as interested in having intimate talk, as fascinated by "the freakish, the human, the complicated", as she is. Me, too.

Now, thank goodness, I have one great friend here and a few good ones that are have reached the intimate talk level or are at least showing the potential to get there eventually. My sanity depends on this as much as Prozac and chocolate and books and kid cuddles and my husband.

Of course, I had great friends in all the places I've lived before here and they're still out there, ready for a phone call. But in addition to the challenges of time zones and family schedules, I hate the phone. Phone calls are not as hard as they used to be BP (Before Prozac), but they're still uncomfortable enough to be infrequent.

Plus, I want to see my friends nodding in agreement or shaking their heads in sympathetic disgust. I want to feel our laughter in the same room, ricocheting off the same walls. I want to receive a pat on my shoulder or a hug when it's really needed.

This need for intimate talk is why I read a endless stream of memoirs and blogs. Intimate talk is where it's at for me. And if I can't get enough in person - and it seems I can never get enough in person - I honestly prefer to find it in the written word rather than make a phone call.

What I love about blogs are also their weaknesses: their raw imperfection, their unilateral (or non-existent) editing, their limited point of view. At their best, blogs can expose tender flesh, they let you in to where the real gristle is. If what Anne Lamott says is true and we should never "compare our insides to other people's outsides", then reading my favorite blogs and memoirs helps me remember that no one has it all together, that everyone else's insides are as imperfect and blemished as mine.

A problem arises when I read some other blogs. You know the ones. The perpetually sunny, beautiful ones. The ones where the bloggers only share the shiniest, happiest anecdotes and the most flattering pictures. The ones which never mention children pitching a royal fit over nothing, where spouses always help instantly and intuitively, where the writer is preternaturally sunny and perpetually smiling.

The ones which serve only to polish the image of a perfect outside rather than expose something, anything, inside.

(A friend recently joked that she wanted to start a parody of such blogs. Where the children all happily jump out of bed, milk the cows out back for their own breakfast, followed by happily reading to each other out of books that they wrote themselves. That are printed on paper they made themselves. From trees they grew themselves. With ink they made themselves out of native plants they grew themselves.) (You get the idea.) (BUT I COULD GO ON.)

I suspect that many of those bloggers are simply choosing to focus on all that is positive in their admittedly impressive lives. Highlighting the good in one's life is an admirable practice and I strive for gratitude and positivity in my own life. But as a reader, and as a person, I want so much to feel something, to be moved. Being moved by love and joy is a wonderful thing. But it's all the more meaningful to me when the dark edges and frustrating challenges are acknowledged alongside the joy.

Plus, I refuse to believe that any one's life is exempt from darkness. And I resent the implication, however unintended, that this is so.

Perhaps it is not healthy that I want so much to delve into darkness. Perhaps it is simply a sign of my depression, or my generally depressive nature. But I think, more than anything, it's about how I connect. It's about intimate talk. It's about being real.

Faulkner Fox wrote: "The particularities of a woman's life, especially as articulated by someone bright and funny, were endlessly interesting to me."


This is why I read mommy memoirs. This is why I read mommy blogs. This is why I read YOUR blog.

Is intimate talk why you read blogs? Or is it some other reason entirely?


"Cinderella Ate My Daughter" ate my daughter's wish list

Last night, Z, CG and I were working on preliminary ideas for Z's upcoming fifth birthday party. When we first asked what kind of party she wanted, Z immediately said "Princess! Barbie!" because, I think, they are the obvious choice - not to mention pretty much the same thing. Pink. Tiaras. Dress-up. (BLEH.)

I gently said, "There are lots of options for party themes, would you like to talk about some other possibilities?" She agreed and we talked about sea creature/mermaids, superheros, horses, Little House on the Prairie, Fancy Nancy, Dinosaur Train... and when I got to the latter one, her eyes lit up and she started squealing: "Dinosaur Train! Dinosaur Train!"

We all love this show around here: Z loves the characters and information about dinosaurs and we adore its (relative) gender neutrality and its introduction of "I have a hypothesis" into our daughter's vocabulary.

So we're throwing our almost five year old girl a Dinosaur Train birthday party.

It's not exactly a coincidence that I helped guide her to that decision - and away from a Barbie/ Princess party - as I just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter". If you have a daughter and haven't already done so, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now and go get yourself a copy of this book. It is an illuminating look at the insidiously omnipresent, stereotype-entrenching, hypersexualized girlie-girl culture. While reading, I found myself nodding and note-taking and shuddering with equal, frequent, ferocity.

Unfortunately for my oldest daughter, I also found myself jettisoning a large portion of her birthday wish list. Anything pink and Barbie and Cinderella on that list now has a big ol' blue line through it.

Of all of Orenstein's thoughtful, thought-provoking assertions, one stands out: that the overwhelming marketing of pink and princess to little girls doesn't provide for their protection and innocence like we naively assume, but rather, since it teaches our girls to primp and preen, to value their looks above all else, it is a de facto training ground for their later sexual objectification.

I believe that what we buy for our girls tells them what we think of them, what we expect of them, what is possible for them. There are so few strong female toys, movie characters, or even popular book characters (who aren't from before the turn of the century). Most are fairly limp and others derive any power or heroic qualities solely from their beauty.

The offerings in popular teenage role models are also troubling. Orenstein's dissection of the rise and fall of pop princesses, the baffling social media landscape and teen girl hyper-sexuality is enough to make me wish, if only for a moment, that I could take my girls to a desert island for their teenage years.

"... Britney [Spears] embodies the predicament of ordinary girls writ large. They, too, struggle with the expectation to look sexy but not feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves. Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to be sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized." (page 123)
Obviously what really resonated with me was some of her thoughts about hyper-sexuality in teen girls, something I will not deal with for some time, thank goodness. As it is, I am horrified at how suggestive even little girl clothing has become. The tarting up of our little girls is disturbing to me, as some of Z's friends watch movies meant for teens and just today were practicing their "runway walks". I wonder daily how to help her navigate a world which over-values beauty and allows for only the narrowest definition of femininity.

If we aren't going to totally remove our children from the dominant culture - something Orenstein perfectly refers to as "going Amish" - then how do we teach them our core values without rendering them social pariahs? None of us want our children to be left out of playground friendships, un-liked and picked on, because they don't know the cool TV shows or have the latest gadgets. But how do we raise our children to be critical consumers rather than naive drones who are irrevocably molded by the media that surrounds them?

I know we're supposed to limit their exposure to adult material and images whenever possible a well as talking as a family about advertising and media messages and CG and I do those things. We also try to broadcast our values in everything we do: how we dress, what we say about our bodies, their bodies, other people's bodies; what we watch, what we allow them to watch; what we buy for them and what we DON'T buy for them. I do think carefully about that stuff, most of the time, when I'm not overwhelmed by life and just hanging on by my right pinkie nail, and I will continue to do so.

Today, though, I am trying to figure out how to explain to a sweet, almost five-year-old girl that she won't be getting some of the things on her wish list. (Truly, she needs no more Cinderella items and wasn't going to get everything on her wish list anyway. Reading this book, however, sealed the deal.)

I wonder, too, how to help her deal with the fact that some of her princess-loving friends might not embrace the idea of a dinosaur birthday party for a girl. I feel weary knowing this is just one of the many battles to come. But I am willing to fight.

For them.


Edited to add:

Crap. Given some of the comments, it appears I gave y' all the wrong idea about Ms. Orenstein's book. Her book is thoughtful and engaging, personal and political, and it is in NO WAY preachy. Her book does NOT tell you not to get your daughters anything pink (I like pink too!) or to banish princesses (I wouldn't dream of it and Ms. Orenstein didn't either). Her book is about her own struggles to understand the deeper issues and nuances within the girlie-girl culture as she raises her daughter. Where my brain took me is my own responsibility.

(Sorry, Ms. Orenstein. I promise I won't be sending you my resume to be your book publicist any time soon.)


The $50 bill

What would you do?

Yesterday I took both girls to Target to get their babysitter a gift card for her birthday. When we pulled up, I noticed the car parked next to my chosen spot, a battered sedan in need of a paint job, at least. A young couple was getting out of the car and I waited as the tiny woman, stooped with exhaustion either recent or lifelong, and the young man, hat down low, tattoos crawling up his neck, laboriously removed a car-seat with a tiny baby inside. I parked next to them and sympathetically remembered when my babies were that little.

We got the gift card, as well as a few other items that I suddenly couldn't live without once I entered the magical land of Target. We saw the young couple again, in the diaper aisle, and the man played a brief game of peek-a-boo with E, his smile appearing like a Cheshire grin above his tattoos and below his hat.

As we were leaving, I saw a crumpled dollar bill on the floor between the two sets of automatic doors. Z saw it too and picked it up: "Mommy do I have to leave this here for the person who dropped it or can I keep it?"

I glanced around, not seeing anyone who would have obviously just dropped it, and made a quick moral decision. "You can keep it, Z. I'm pretty sure we can't figure out who dropped it, so it's your lucky day."

As she pranced back to the car, I noticed another bill on the ground, this one in the parking lot, right in the middle of a lane of traffic. It was folded crisply into fourths and I picked it up quickly to get out of the way.

Then I glanced down at it.

It was a $50 bill.

Z started exclaiming about how lucky we were and I spun around looking for someone, anyone who might have dropped it. There were no other pedestrians close by in the parking lot.

I immediately thought of the young parents we saw earlier. I should stick the bill under their windshield wipers.

No, someone might come along and steal it before they could get it.

I could go back into the store, find them and give it to them.

No, what if the person who dropped it saw them spend it and thought they stole it?

I could turn it in to the customer service desk and hope that it would find its way back to the person who dropped it.

No, the teenagers who worked there would probably pocket it.

I could donate the money to our county food bank or the local domestic violence shelter or the relief efforts in Japan.

Yes, maybe.

I could think of it as my lucky day and spend it on a treat for our family or put it in my wallet and spend it as I would any other money. Is it any different to keep this $50 bill than the $1 bill?

The girls were getting antsy, so I drove them home.

I did nothing.

I still have the $50 bill.

What would you do??


The brights

As a twenty-something in San Francisco, my life was awash in plain dark clothes. Once a week, I squished down three flights of gray carpeted stairs, trying not to breathe in the stench of stale beer and flowery carpet powder, carrying my laundry in a black trash bag slung over my shoulder, like Santa Claus visiting the broke hipsters. At the laundromat down the street, on Half Price Tuesdays, I would scope out the machines least likely to have been used by the homeless, who were famous for washing without any Tide and leaving stray pieces of drug paraphernalia that tumbled out of pockets into the dryers. I packed all my clothes in two loads: darks and lights. I did like bright colors and owned a few blues and greens but I wore them more as accent colors on carefree spring days, bright spots on an otherwise dark landscape. My lone blue tank top and purple leotard got washed in with the jeans and black cardigans and when they wound up in the whites by accident, well my socks looked just fine with a pale bluish tinge.

These days I haul multiple white plastic tubs of laundry down two flights of stairs, twisting side-ways to watch for tiny plastic land mines and to keep from marking the walls, all the while hoping I don't throw out my aging back.

I dump them out on the floor of our basement for sorting, checking for food stains and pockets full of coins, crayons and rocks. The darks are plentiful - my husband's blue jeans seem to multiply weekly, my surfeit of black yoga pants give them a run for their money. The lights pile is made up of smaller but even more plentiful pieces - underwear and socks and plain t-shirts.

Then, there are the brights.

A sea of red pants, purple flowered dresses, and vibrant orange t-shirts, the brights pile grows like my girls, in surprising leaps and bounds. Many of the girls' clothes have been given to them as blessed hand-me-downs or gifts, some of them we chose from the racks at Target. Wherever they came from, they all are bright, like most children's clothing these days. Is that because kids intrinsically like brights or because we think they should? Do we forcibly paint their days with happy childhood Tempura-colored clothing or is vibrant blue and stop-sign red a natural childhood self-expression that will one day be beaten out them by dictatorial fashion magazines and snotty popular girls?

Z chooses pinks and reds and purples these days, though she professes to love all colors equally as long as they're bright. She doesn't see the point in white or pastels - too boring, too easily dirtied - and black? Black is not a color, Mommy. She doesn't view bright colorful clothing as something to be reserved for a single accent or even a bold choice on a confident day. Colorful clothing is like air to her; it is necessary; it just is.

When Z goes into my closet, she immediately fingers my dresses, the ones I reach past every day to grab my fluffy robe or yet another black cardigan. She goes for the bright pink twirly dress I wore to my friend's wedding last year and the silky purple one I have never actually worn. When will you wear this one, Mommy? she asks, clearly wondering why not today?

I may not wear that silky purple dress today but something happens more and more often when I shop for myself: I remember how much I love all shades of blue and green and purple, and I especially like the bright ones. I reach past the black pants for the aqua ones. I buy the patterned aqua shirt, the green polka dotted rain boots.

Because life is too short not to be surrounded by brights.

Lately, the brights pile is made up more and more by my things: a fuchsia tank top and apple green pants and bright paisley print pajamas. I like to think that I am smart enough to be inspired by my children's love of pattern and color, and old enough not to care about the fashion magazines or the popular girls.

I still have my fair share of plain black cotton but I have officially been invaded by the brights, and there is no turning back.


Take a breath

For most of my life, telling me to "take a breath" was pretty much the best way to get me to kick you in the armpit. In the heat of the moment - the kind of moment where telling me to "take a breath" seems necessary - there was something deeply insulting to me about that instruction.

My husband, among others, has learned this the hard way.

Gee, thanks for the reminder. I might have forgotten about that whole needing-oxygen-thing if not for you.

Usually, someone telling me to take a breath was also trying to put their arm around me, as if to corral me, or possibly to manually assist me with that impossible task of - what do they call it? - inhalation? I almost always shrugged that assisting, corralling arm off of me and mustered my best glare. I AM BREATHING ALREADY THANKYOUVERYMUCHNOWGOAWAY.

Of course, it has become painfully obvious to everyone who knows me - and I now include myself in that lucky, lucky group - that my breathing gets shallow and brisk when I'm upset and taking a deep breath is the most important thing I can do for myself when I'm wound up.

CG, equal parts smart and loving, now verbally acknowledges my feelings first and then models a breath or two alongside me. His self-conscious, long, slow respirations often garner him another, even meaner, glare from me.

But then he smiles his gentle, encouraging, badger-wrestling smile and I reluctantly breathe with him.

The next thing out of my mouth after those breaths: an apology. Always an apology.


It's not an infrequent scene: Z a wailing, stomping whirlwind, me a confused flustered bystander. One moment, she is a teenager, hands on hips, eyes narrowed. The next, she's a toddler not getting her way, fury extending through every limb.

In the midst, my four year old girl needs help.

Any words from me are lost, are in vain. She is too old to distract, too big to grab and move. She is picking up steam.

I channel CG, sit beside her, and wait for her to glance my way. When she does, I open my arms but don't look into her eyes.

She stomps one last time, spins to turn away and then drops into my lap. Her torso folds to barely fit and her legs extend far beyond my reach but the back of her head slumps heavy against my chest, a familiar feeling to us both.

I start to take a deep breath, keeping my chin up and to the side in case she suddenly flails into my jaw in one last explosion.

The calm comes slowly, warily. The back of her ribs reach for the front of mine. We meet each other.

After a few necessary minutes, we can talk.


We are late for something, and I can't find my keys. There were just here. Or just there.

"Did you put on your shoes yet, Z?"

Or did I leave them in the pocket of my coat? Which coat? ARG.

"Put on your shoes!"

I am starting to spin in place, eyes wide, teeth beginning to grit.

Z looks at me, head cocked to the side, shoes on the wrong feet. "Mommy? Let's take a deep breath and then look together."

I look at her face. I listen. I breathe.


It's almost bedtime and Z and I are lying under her covers. Well, she's lying and I'm skewered on top of the tangle of pointy plastic limbs and matted hair that is her "doll collection".

I have my eyes closed serenely, one hand on my belly, the other on my chest, an excellent example. She squirms constantly, eyes opening and closing, glancing at me, adjusting the covers, taking this opportunity to pick her nose without my reproachful glance.

"Do you need a tissue, Z?" I ask pointedly, my eyes still closed but MAMA SEES EVERYTHINGGGGG.

Her eyes snap shut, she drops the offending finger and she stills, for a second, a minute. I strain to hear the air moving from us both.

Then she's squirming again and the moment has passed. She's ready for her book, her story, her last beg for water/kisses/conversation.

When I hug her for the last time, she pauses, holds me tighter, and sighs. I used to think of this as one more stalling tactic. This time, I listen to her long, slow breaths, an excellent example, and take one too.


The I/We Debacle

CG and I have a recurring problem. Deeper than the eternal Socks Next to the Hamper Fiasco or the You Load the Dishwasher Wrong Battle, this one cuts to the heart of what it means to be individuals in our family, to be autonomous and yet connected, to have a full-time stay at home parent and a full time working parent. We bump into this particular issue again and again, struggling to find a middle ground where we both feel loved and respected.

The problem: when talking about our house or our children, I often possessively say "I" or "my". And he inclusively says, and doesn't understand why I don't say more often, "we" or "our".

It is a pet peeve of mine when couples become a mono-unit using the royal "we" to express the sum content of their uni-brain. "We just loooove the endless pasta bowl at the Olive Garden, don't yoooooouuu?" This is one of my hottest feminist trigger points because in heterosexual relationships it's historically the woman who loses her sense of self and becomes subordinate to the man's intellect and opinions. His "I" becomes their "we".

Long ago, I vowed never to let anyone else's "I" become my "we".

But this really isn't political, it's personal. I say "I" when talking about our home or our children because I want to own something and stake claim to an identity that is mine alone. Since choosing to stay home with the girls, there is precious little else to possess. I can't deny that a selfish, possessive love for my girls and our home runs deep in me, whether it is a result of me staying home with them or the underlying motivator for me to stay at home in the first place, I don't know.

So I get that my identity struggles are at the heart of this stumbling over pronouns, but it still refuses to go away. I still say "I have some cookies here somewhere", "I found a great Christmas gift", "I thought her first birthday party should be at a biker bar" because I bought the cookies and I found the Christmas gift and I researched the very best biker bar for our daughter's first birthday (not really, but let's pretend). This, of course, negates that I bought the cookies because we both like them, I found the Christmas gift after we decided on the general idea and I chose the biker bar after we dismissed a topless bar from our list of options (But there'd be boobies everywhere! She'd love it!). From my skewed perspective, he gets sole ownership of his career, I should get sole ownership of what happens here, in the house, with the girls, even though they are his daughters too and he is as true a partner in parenting as he can be.

CG wants me to use "we" because he often feels wrongfully and hurtfully excluded when I use "I". As the current designated household earner who works very hard to keep us flush with those cookies and Christmas gifts and biker bar birthday parties, he sometimes feels cut off from the bonds, rituals and rhythms of life with the girls just by virtue of the number of hours he works away from the house.

He wants me to say we have some tea and we found a good preschool and we use time-outs sparingly because presenting a united front as parents, as the people who started this little family in the first place, is of paramount importance to him. My overuse of "I" appears to stake my claim to the mantle of Head of Household, or at least to Chief Parent. He worries I see him as an afterthought, a supporting player, in the central dramas of our family's life and my overuse of "I" just confirms and entrenches that fear.

I'm clearly struggling to forge an identity as a person, a mother and - gasp - homemaker, without making him feel as if I'm trying to push him out and own all of parenthood, too.

This is one of those marital arguments where there can be no ultimate victor. We're both right; I deserve recognition for what I accomplish and contribute and he deserves to be clearly included as a partner at the very center of this family. Obviously, I need to work on differentiating when it's appropriate for me to use "I" and when it's more precise and truthful to use "we".

I have some work to do but I'm so glad that we have each other.


Mid blog-life crisis

I feel compelled to write personal narrative, short memoir, an online journal, ego-driven navel-gazing, whatever you want to call it. And I want to do more of it, broaden my view of what's possible, including maybe even getting paid.

How can I write personal stories elsewhere while still shielding my family? I am an introverted over-sharer - it seems blogs were MADE for people like me - but my husband is very private and wary of online living. And my children? How can I predict what they will be comfortable with? How might my writing online affect their lives?

Currently this doesn't matter, because my blog has a small audience and is relatively anonymous. My family and select friends know about it but you can't Google my name, or any of my family's names, and find this website. I did that on purpose. It's highly unlikely that any ex-boyfriends or mean girls from junior high or local moms vetting play dates would stumble upon this space.

But now that I'd like to to try to write elsewhere, I guess I would need to put my real name out there. And then would I link to this website? Even if I get published elsewhere and don't link to this site, CG freaked me right out last night when he sat me down and explained how, in a matter of a few years, people will be able to Google search cross-referencing facial recognition of Facebook pictures, names, domains, FINGERPRINTS OF YOUR FIRSTBORN CHILD. (I'm pretty sure that last one was in there.)

So long, relative anonymity.

I am getting ahead of myself, of course. Like most of us SAHMs, I have precious little time to devote to anything but the daily grind- cooking vegetable my kids won't eat, vacuuming up Polly Pocket shoes, wiping impossibly small bottoms, you know the drill. It's all I can do most days to read a little bit and write a crappy first draft of a blog post. Writing that young adult novel I have in my head, finding a serious writing program, crafting freelance pieces - all these seem impossibly far off.

I think I'm having a mid blog-life crisis. What's a girl to do?

Keep writing, of course, one page, one day, at a time. That's the substance, the heart, of what I want. But I also crave change, in the what-the-heck-give-me-blonde-highlights! kind of way. So in lieu of a red convertible or a trophy husband, or those ill-advised blonde highlights, I'm going to get myself a bloggy makeover.

It's a start.

(Stay tuned.)

Blog Designed by: NW Designs