Defining Motherhood

One Mom's Attempt to Find Meaning in the Madness

Ten is Truth

Wedding Day

VOW: a solemn promise, specifically one by which a person is bound to an act

Once upon a time, a boy and a girl exchanged this vow:

I enter into a marriage covenant with you

secure in the knowledge that you will be

my constant friend, faithful partner, adventure buddy and one true love.

On this special day, I give to you in the presence of God

my sacred promise to stay by your side

in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow,

through the good times and the bad.

I promise to love you without reservation,

demonstrate honor and respect,

grow with you in mind and spirit,

always be open and honest with you,

and cherish you for as long as we both shall live.

The vow was written when their love was new. The vow was written when their future was bright but blurry.  The vow was written by a girl who desperately wanted a marriage that worked and a boy who loved the girl enough to think it would.  The vow was glued around a candle and placed on an alter one rainy day in September.

The candle was moved from the alter to their dresser and placed just to the left of the alarm clock – the aspirations of young love juxtaposed with the demands of daily life.

The vow once spoke of hope. But, as time passed there was less hope.

Hope is the language of wanting.  Of desiring.  Of wishing.  Hope implies unmet expectations. As years passed, the vow no longer spoke of hope.

Instead, it spoke of truth. Of a thing obtained. Implemented. Grasped.  Realized.

They never took this for granted. They knew that to love and be loved was a marvelous thing.  They also knew that to know and be known and still love and be loved was, quite simply, a miracle.

Friday Favorites

FAVORITE: a thing that is liked more than others

I love this quote from Anne Lamott:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again…

I love to write my own words, but I also love to read the words of others – especially words that restore my buoyancy and feed my soul.  Such writing deserves to be shared and celebrated.  So, without further ado:

The Violence of Humiliation by Courtney E. Martin

…yes, yes, yes, to consequences. Yes to institutions that think creatively about their opportunity to be a force for cultural transformation. Yes to teaching men how to speak about their own experiences of violence and humiliation, to creating spaces where they can hear one another before they scream with their fists. Yes to victims seizing social media’s power to point out how tragically ordinary this “extraordinary” news story really is. Yes to respecting every woman’s expertise on her own life and her authority to make her own choices.

But no to humiliation…

Choose Courage by Brené Brown

…choices have consequences: They make the world a more dangerous place or they cultivate peace. Fear and judgment deepen our collective wounds.  That rare mix of courage and compassion is the balm that brings global healing…

Desegregating Wilderness by Jourdan Imani Keith

When President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it legalized the segregation of wild places from the places where people remain. In doing so, it entrenched the cultural belief shared by Aldo Leopold and others that wilderness must be “segregated and preserved” from the areas where people live…Segregating wilderness from people creates permission to deforest and devalue the landscape where people are allowed to “remain” while falsely defining the remote landscape as “pristine.”

Watching Him Walk Away Is Like Looking Right At The Sun by Glennon Doyle Melton

Someone needs to create a word that describes what happens inside of a mama’s heart as she’s watching her child walk into a school building…

Remember Is A Verb

twin towers

Remembrance: something that is done to honor the memory of a person, thing, or event

Today, I will

tell my kids, explicitly,

about the power of kindness.

Today, I will

seek an opportunity

to show courage where it is needed.

Today, I will

look around me and notice

the good, the beautiful, and the lovely.

Today, I will

hug those I love and bask in the privilege

of another day in their presence.

Today, I will

look at the faces I pass and know

that we are more alike than we are different.

Today, I will

breathe deeply and sit with fear and uncertainty

then exhale

and do my best to let it go.

Wordy Wednesday

words

WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I see Wordless Wednesday blog posts and often think, “I should do that.”  But then I remember that I’m terrible at taking pictures.  So, I embrace Wednesdays in my own way.  In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.  I acknowledge that I am offering you less than the going exchange rate of 1,000 words per picture.  Forgive me.

Other People’s Words


This week, I was the fortunate recipient of my brother-in-law’s summer stash of The New Yorker.  I devoured months’ worth of great writing from the other coast.  Here were some highlights:

From John Green as quoted in a profile piece (The Teen Whisperer) by Margaret Talbot1:

“I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being – the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.  Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter.  And they’re dead right.  It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves.  We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.”

From a piece about discovering forgotten books (Ghosts in the Stacks) by Christine Smallwood1:

…The number of Americans who read books has been declining for thirty years, and those who do read have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise…the merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavor, as if what you read mattered less than that you read…

…Shelves and open stacks offer not only immediate access to books but strange juxtapositions.  Arbitrary classification breeds surprises – Nikolai Gogol next to William Golding, Clarice Lispector next to Penelope Lively.  The alphabet has no rationale, agenda, or preference…

From a critique of the 9/11 Memorial Museum (Stones and Bones) by Adam Gopnik2:

…The idea that we celebrate the renewal of our freedom by deploying uniformed guards to prevent children from playing in an outdoor park is not just bizarre in itself but participates in a culture of fear that the rest of the city, having tested, long ago discarded.

The site contains more contradictions, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, than any other eight acres in Manhattan.  A celebration of liberty tightly policed; a cemetery that cowers in the shadow of commerce; and insistence that we are here to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget – visitors experience these things with a free-floating sense of unease…

…Happiness writes white, and pluralism builds poorly…

…And so the double bind we find ourselves in is even more double and more binding than we knew.  On the one hand, no agreed-on figural style can any longer represent a society so plural and so quick to take offense at “partial” representations; a sublime minimalist reticence seems the best we can do.  On the other hand, the pressures of lives require feeling, and so the minimal isn’t good enough; we bring American relics and personal scraps, the roadside fold-memorial style, to the temples of sublime simplicity.  The American memorial style is powerful as an engine of pathos but is obviously limited as a language of representation.  It feels, but it cannot show…

From a piece about justice in the age of viral videos (Instant Replay) by Margaret Talbot3:

More and more often, when someone behaves badly in public, someone else is there with a cell-phone camera to record it, and a video goes viral. Watching such videos turns us into witnesses after the fact, but it also turns us into ersatz judges and jurors. There’s a tendency to compare and rank the wrongdoing we see on our screens, and the comparisons make us more aware of the jaggedly uneven distribution of consequences and, at the same time, less able, from the discomfort of our living rooms, to do much about it…

…Videos that do show crimes in progress may be helpful in identifying perpetrators or in drawing attention to an injustice that might have been neglected.  But the proliferation of those videos can have a numbing effect.  There they are on YouTube, or on Twitter, scrambled together with celebrity gossip and cat antics, administering brief shocks, then slipping from the grasp of our compassion.  They seem at once urgent and very far away…

If you liked Talbot’s essay, you might also like my essay Consequences: Then and Now featured on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog last summer.

 1 From the June 9 & 16, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

2 From the July 7 & 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

3 From the August 11 & 18, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

Words I Had to Ask Webster About


    • Elegiac: expressing sorrow often for something now past
    • Ersatz: being a usually artificial and inferior substitute or imitation
    • Panoptic: presenting a comprehensive view
    • Reify: to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing

Recalculating the Handsome to Hassle Ratio

Dr. JD

DENTIST: a person whose job is to care for people’s teeth

I am fortunate to live in a walkable urban neighborhood.  There are countless coffee shops and bakeries within easy walking distance of my house and errands to the drug store, library, post office and grocer can (though may not always be) done on foot. Our kids walk less than two blocks to school and many of their friends live within ten minutes of our front door.  I consider myself a thoughtful car user and try to consolidate car errands and keep the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in our single car low.  But, for the past decade I’ve been needlessly logging miles back and forth to the suburbs twice a year to see an especially good-looking dentist. 

To my credit, I’ve loved him since before I realized he was handsome.  He was my childhood dentist.  He’s seen me through big bangs, hammer pants, and the early elementary nickname that brings to mind pom-poms and/or stripper poles.  When I was young, he was just a friendly dentist that my mother seemed especially fond of.  As I aged, I began to understand. 

During college, it seemed perfectly reasonable to schedule dental visits during school breaks when I would be back in my home town.  All my peers did the same – though, perhaps, with less delight and primping before their appointments. 

When I returned to the Northwest after my post-college travels and mountains-without-water (Colorado) experiment, I was happy to return to my dentist.  I had a job in the neighboring town and was a responsible, young professional taking advantage of my employer-paid healthcare benefits.  It was all perfectly reasonable. 

However, when I moved to Seattle – nearly an hour away – I had to dig deeper for justification.  Husband looked dubious when I told him loyalty was my primary motivation for driving to see my hot (oops, did I say that out loud?) dentist.  

Justification was harder once I had kids.  As any mom knows, two hours in a car with children is nothing to take lightly.  The promise of a two minute dose of handsome small talk was no longer enough to elicit my prompt response to the post card reminders that I was due for a cleaning.  I started to evaluate the hassle to handsome ratio and question if the drive was worth it.  The postcards would languish on my counter while I weighed the effort of the drive to the suburbs against the effort of transferring my files to a local dentist of inferior beauty.  I began receiving the overdue for a cleaning postcards – the ones where the reminder turns from friendly to firm.  Good looks won, at first.  But then, the scales began to tip.

The loss of Cheryl, my favorite hygienist, was the beginning of the end.  She had been my hygienist as long as I can remember.  She kept great notes in her chart – presumably about the health of my teeth but also about the stuff that really matters if you are going to spend half an hour having a conversation with someone’s hands in your mouth.  She tracked my travels, relationships, and ambitions.  Thanks to her request for an x-ray, she was the first person (other than Husband) I told I was pregnant.  Cheryl always stayed current on my name preferences; she never slipped up and reverted to the cheerleader/stripper name.  Because my mom still saw the same dentist (and hygienist), Cheryl had a pretty good finger on the pulse of my crazy family.  She was great at asking interesting questions that made me want to talk – even around gloved fingers in my mouth.  Her reclining chair was better than any psychologist’s couch.   Cheryl’s retirement was a blow. 

But, my last two visits are what finally tipped the handsome to hassle ratio in favor of a dentist in my zip code.  My appointments started with thorough cleanings from nice-enough-but-no-substitute-for-Cheryl hygienists. Then, a LADY DENTIST came in the room.  The first time, I was told that Dr. Good Looking doesn’t work on Fridays.  My mistake.  The second time – after I made sure to avoid scheduling on a Friday – the same scenario repeated itself.  My teeth were cleaned by someone who wasn’t Cheryl and then inspected by the LADY DENTIST.

And that is why the overdue postcard is languishing on my kitchen counter and my to do list says “transfer dental files.”

So long hot dentist.  I will miss you.  I’ll think of you longingly during the brief walk to my new, local lady dentist.  ‘Cause if I’m going to see a lady dentist, I’m not going to get in the car to do it. 

Dr. Spock vs. Dr. Sears

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Illustration by Christine Juneau


ADVICE: recommendation regarding a decision or course of action; counsel

My essay about the Dr. Spock generation questioning the parenting decisions of the Dr. Sears generation was featured on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog yesterday: 

A friend recently asked for my advice in dealing with her mother’s disapproval of her parenting. She asked if I knew of any good articles about why today’s parents do things differently than their own parents or research she could use to defend her parenting choices.

I was flattered by her request. I’m not typically the go-to girl for advice. My own children ask me to fact-check my answers to their questions on Google…

But, the challenge wasn’t finding articles…The challenge was pointing out what my friend didn’t want to see—that articles and research would not provide the defense she was seeking against her mother’s criticism. Read the rest of this essay.

 

Friday Favorites: Back to School Edition

Inside of a classroom with back to school on the chalkboard

FAVORITE: a thing that is liked more than others

Here is a special back to school edition of Friday Favorites for your reading pleasure: 

Back to School Preparation Tips for Parents by The Onion

Children who eat healthy, balanced breakfasts tend to do better in school. Find out which kids do that, and instruct your children to cheat off them…

It Gets Better by Glennon Doyle Melton

the way we survive this parenting roller coaster of emotions is to find the joy in each new phase…

Rude vs. Mean vs. Bullying: Defining the Differences by Signe Whitson

…gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena…It is important to distinguish between rude, mean and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene…

The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart by Salman Khan

…I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach…

Wordy Wednesday

words

WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I see Wordless Wednesday blog posts and often think, “I should do that.”  But then I remember that I’m terrible at taking pictures.  So, I embrace Wednesdays in my own way.  In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.  I acknowledge that I am offering you less than the going exchange rate of 1,000 words per picture.  Forgive me.

Other People’s Words


This week, I’ve been reading How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny.  I like her books but they don’t necessarily provide pithy quotes.  However, this passage made me laugh:

…In the front seat, both the Chief Inspector and Isabelle Lacoste cracked open their windows, preferring the bitter cold outside to what threatened to melt the upholstery inside.

“Does he do that often?” she gasped.

“It’s a sign of affection, I’m told, “ said the Chief, not meeting her eyes.  “A compliment.”  Gamache paused, turning his head to the window. “A great compliment.”

Isabelle Lacoste smiled.  She was used to similar “compliments” from her husband and now their young son.  She wondered why the Y chromosome was so smelly…

I’ve also been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.  Here are a few passages that showcase Jacobs’ ability to punch the planning profession in the gut using only words:

…Although the numbers of arrogant old gatekeepers have dwindled with time, the gates themselves are another matter.  Anticity planning remains amazingly sturdy in American cities.  It is still embodied in thousands of regulations, bylaws, and codes…and in unexamined public attitudes hardened by time.  Thus, one may be sure that there have been enormous and dedicated efforts in the face of these obstacles wherever one sees stretches of old city buildings that have been usefully recycled for new and different purposes; wherever sidewalks have been widened and vehicular roadways narrowed precisely where they should be…wherever downtowns are not deserted after their offices close; wherever new, fine-grained mixtures of street uses have been fostered successfully; wherever new buildings have been sensitively inserted among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighborhood so that the mending is all but invisible.  Some foreign cities have become pretty good at these feats.  But to try to accomplish such sensible things in America is a daunting ordeal at best, and often enough heartbreaking…

…Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design.  This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories.  Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities – from anything but cities themselves. 

Words I Had to Ask Webster About


  • Cypher: a person who has no power or is not important
  • Perfidious: deceptive
  • Querulous: full of complaints; carping
  • Vituperative: harsh and abusive

The Last First

NEW: different from one of the same category that has existed previously

Tomorrow will be another last first for our family.  The last first day of Kindergarten.  

Tomorrow, I will dress Daughter in a skirt decorated with pencils, help her slip her backpack straps over her shoulders, try my best to make her hair cooperate, and beg her to look at the camera and smile naturally. 

I look back on my feelings (and writing) from Son’s first day of Kindergarten and realize that this time feels different. 

There will be plenty of similarities to the last time we did this.  Like her brother’s first walk to school, hers will include an entourage of loving grandparents armed with cameras.  Like her brother’s first day of school outfit, hers will be better coordinated than anything else she will wear all year.  Like her brother, she will walk into Teacher Amy’s class. 

And like her brother, she’s ready. 

The difference is that this time I can see that. 

And that, more than anything else, makes this last first feel completely new.

August Reads

READ: to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.

I read interesting, moving, frustrating, innovative, and impressive books in August.  I can’t recommend any of them as “must reads” but I hope the descriptions below will turn you on to one or two that sound like a good fit for you.  If you have any September recommendations, I am in desperate need of a book or two that will knock my socks off. 

Impossible knife

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

I read this book because someone who read my July essay on Brain, Child responded with a recommendation for this title.  Summarizing this young adult book – boy/girl relationship, troubled parent, timely topic, female sidekick with issues – won’t do the book justice.  In this book, Anderson tackles PTSD and its impact on a father and daughter.  Anderson’s writing style is jumpy, but it worked for me.  In fact, the jumps and the disjointed feel of the prose fit the subject matter and kept me turning pages.   

thirty girls

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

This book has no quotation marks!  Is that a thing?  If so, how do we stop it?  Now, on to the substance…

This book promises to weave the stories of Esther (a Ugandan teenager abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army) and Jane (an American journalist traveling to Africa to give voice to children like Esther) together and give the reader “razor-sharp portraits of two extraordinary young women confronting displacement, heartbreak, and the struggle to wrest meaning from events that test them.”  Let’s be clear.  Esther is abducted, raped, and forced to kill.  Jane survived a divorce and is having casual sex with a younger man.  These two women are not equals.  Their struggles are not equivalent.  And, presenting them as such didn’t work for me. 

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

I was excited about the premise of this book – detectives struggling with the pointlessness of solving murders in a pre-apocalyptic United States with approximately six months until the world is obliterated by an asteroid.  I’m a sucker for fiction that uses dystopian settings to shine a light on human behavior.  This was a book with tons of potential, but I finished this book disappointed about what could have been but wasn’t.  

woman upstairs

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This is a tough review for me.  I was impressed by this book but can’t say I liked it.  Perhaps liking isn’t a necessary part of thinking a book is great.  The writing is solid throughout and masterful in parts.  Messud shines a light on our ability to lie to others and ourselves with great skill.  If someone told me they loved this book, I would totally understand.  I appreciated this book.  I admired this book.  I just didn’t love this book. 

dept of speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This is a short book densely packed with snippets of truth and insight about marriage and motherhood.  The writing style is haiku-like in its deceptive brevity – short sections that pack a punch when you take time to unpack them.  Alas, this reader’s need to follow the narrative arc at a steady pace made me cheat some sections of their due.  I would recommend this book to readers attracted to different literary formats.

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