Children, Learning, Parenting

Back To Each Other


Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.

– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

Continue reading “Back To Each Other”

Co-Parenting, community, Relationships

The Spoils of Civility

Ritter Skates

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

–Patti Smith, M Train

Tee’s face fell when I told him my Mister and I broke up. “That’s a bummer,” he said. “He’s a really good guy. What happened?”

I kept it vague. It would take a steadier hand than mine to fill in the fine detail of our shared briar patch. Attending to the perennial questions that twine their way through our story has worn me out. It’s all a little too bright and raw inside me at the moment, and anyway, it would be a mistake to cast my ex-husband in the role of confidant. He’s kind though, and he held the news gently. He told me he was sorry, and that both the boyfriend and his two kids were a positive influence on Bug. Tee seemed genuinely disappointed that our son would miss out on having that family in his life.

Continue reading “The Spoils of Civility”

Children, Things I Can

27. Things I Can Provide: Light, Touch

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

– Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

His dad opens the door and leads me in. I step out of my shoes and climb the stairs. In the bathroom, our son is tucked into a lumpy cloud of pillows and blankets. His eyelids are tinged green. “Hi mom.” It’s his Eeyore voice. He takes his time peeling himself from the heap. Leaning his body into mine, Bug wraps his arms around my middle. He sighs.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling yucky,” I say. His hair is stuck to his temples and neck. I stroke his skin and for once, he doesn’t stop me. He pulls back and looks at me with eyes far too big. He tells me he was sweating and then shivering, and that he sort of slept while watching a Harry Potter movie.

“Do you want to go to your other house and maybe make a nest on the bathroom floor there?”

“No,” he says. He gets all the way up now and presses into my arms again.

“Maybe just go home and read together?”


He plods out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Tee collects the backpack, the uneaten lunch, the unfinished homework. We step out together into a startling shaft of afternoon sun. When did spring decide to come out of hibernation? My desk at work is angled away from the window. An awakening can stroll all the way to its fullness and recede again without my notice. If I remember to resurface when I clock out, I might catch the last of its halo disappearing into the horizon.

The air fringing the sidewalk is so light and gentle it makes my chest throb. Only so many days like these ever happen in a season. In a chapter. In a lifetime. This is one of the truths that resolves into view at the rate of decades. The reward for a long life is the biting grasp of life’s brevity.

At home, the dog yips and babbles as we tumble inside. “Let’s open the balcony door,” I tell Bug. “We can put the blankets there. Right where you can be in the sun.”

Bug shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “Can I have tea?”

After walking Noodle, I dig around for the King Arthur picture book. Bug and I settle into cushions and pull a blanket around us. Leaning into my body, he alternates between sparkly water and hot tea. At our feet, the dog sprawls out under the current of evening air that cools my son’s fevered skin.


Change, Divorce

The Year of Pottery

We had a cookie ceremony. Friends and family poured ingredients into a shared bowl. Sugar, flour, chocolate, salt. The dear ones who were married long enough to know something about sticking it out through the rough stuff had painted a bowl to hold this moment. They’d splashed it sunflower yellow and added coral loops. Their baby daughter’s footprint marked the base.

Each participant stepped up and told a story. My almost-sister-in-law cracked open an egg and recalled the chicken coop in the yard in Wisconsin. My mother added pecans and told about the trees on the long-gone land of our Oklahoma kin. Each story found its way into the mix that was becoming Us.

When the mandolin and fiddle played the happy jig, the ceremony turned into dancing and caterers served chocolate chip cookies to everyone.

Nine years, it would have been.

We live up the street from each other now, both of us just a short jump to the park where we stood laughing in the sweltering sun on this day then. The man I married is my friend, our mix now composed mostly of flour and salt. It’s light on sugar but I don’t mind. It’s been 18 months since I’ve eaten a cookie. I’ve shed the craving for sweet.

The yellow bowl is a pop of light on my kitchen counter. It cradles lemons, nectarines, the paper husks of garlic bulbs. When my boy and I come home from school, I dance around the sink and stove cobbling together a meal. My son goes to relax in his “spot,” a bare wooden chair in the corner under the calendar.

He reaches into the bowl and pulls out a banana just like he did the last time he was here.

“You hungry for a snack, bub?” I ask.

“Sort of.” He splits the peel open and settles back. “This is just what I do now. This how it is.”

Divorce, Family, Poetry

The Price is Right

It’ll cost you
the title, your hero,
your favorite villain,
and at least half the notes
you’ve added to the score.
You’ll be charged the magic carpet
of your pride and its rareified view
from a distance that has shrunk
so mercifully the proportion
of your never diminishing guilt
along the contours
of your history.

Into this dowry will go your cardinal
north and the map you drew
with measurements meticulously
if mistakenly
taken. You’ll hand over the slide rule
along with the legend
of triumphant good and forfeit
the last word,
the last laugh, the last time
you’ll ever have to deal with that shit again.

Hidden fees will take your breath
away and the fine print
sting your eyes:
You can’t throw anyone
under the bus, gather an audience,
hand-pick seeds
to sow, spin bristles into yarns,
tally fault, count beans,
spit venom, or squirrel spite
into the pocket of your cheek
and chew its cud in righteous silence.

You will pay yourself empty
of the solid weight
of your myth
just to buy a ticket
to a lottery whose odds are against you
and whose prize is nothing
more than a single fleeting frame

of sun-warmed bleachers
in an early spring thaw
where you loll with your son
and the person who shared
the bed where he was made

watching a stuttering rainbow
of children cast balls from turf to net
and another family
maybe taking shape
and maybe changing the currency
that drops in your palm
one penny at a time.

Children, Parenting

The Better Parent

“Is it hard taking care of me?”

He asks this as we coast at long last on a hard-won current of harmony. We are under the Tinkerbell blanket and nearing the last of the songs.

I laugh at his question to buffer the twist of the knife. He has seen my jaw tonight. It has been a locked box heavy with chains. He is seven and keen to learn the cues.

His face is near. I kiss his forehead. “Some days, it’s tough just getting through it all. Home and chores. All that.” The long mess of his hair presses into my cheek. “But that’s just part of being a family. It’s not hard being your mom.” I pause. “Is it hard being my kid?”

He flashes a wicked grin. “Yes. It’s really hard. It’s terrible.”

“Why’s that, bub?”

“You don’t give me anything good ever. Not Pokemon cards. Not ever, not even once.”

We are back here again. Back at the fight that started yesterday at 3:30pm in Bug’s classroom. Tee and I had joined three other parent volunteers to run the first-grade holiday party. When I offered myself up a week earlier, I was picturing a pan of brownies and paper plates. Instead, at 9:30 the night before, I was the glassy-eyed zombie walking through the screaming aisles of Party City collecting cheap props for a class photo booth. At the actual party, I ended up pinch hitting for the mom whose sick son kept her home. This meant, on a half-beat of notice, coming up with holiday-themed movement games to play with sugared-up groups of 7-year-olds in a suffocatingly small indoor space.

As we bagged up the party’s limp remains and the kids licked the last frosting from their fingers, Tee was in the back corner trying to convince Bug to pose for a photo. Our son was the only student who hadn’t had his glamour shot taken. Twenty other children had donned reindeer antlers and glittering top hats to ham it up for Tee’s camera. Not Bug. He’d flat out refused.

Instead of letting it ride, Tee cajoled. He begged. I dressed up for one. Tee dressed up and had me take one. Bug wouldn’t do it.

Tee wouldn’t let it go.

(Allow me to step aside here for a minute and say that Tee is super-dad. He’s the dad that eats, dreams, and oozes dad-hood. He’s engaged and loving and patient and on board with Bug’s all-around development. He coaches Bug’s basketball team. He comes to all the parent-teacher conferences. He takes the kid camping and ice skating and makes him do his homework. He is the father everyone wishes they’d had so they wouldn’t have all their daddy issues. He’s also a fantastic co-parent.)

Okay. Back to it.

Tee bribed Bug to take the photo. Bribed him by saying the next time Bug stayed with him, Tee would buy him Pokemon cards.

Bug posed for the photo. Tee reminded him that it would be Friday before they stayed together again.

Also? Tee made this same deal two weekends ago to convince Bug to go to a concert. Pokemon cards. Straight-up bribe.

It’s Tee’s issue, yes? His to deal with? If my son’s dad exchanges goodies for favors, not my problem, right?


When I picked up Bug from school after the party, the kid cracked into a dozen pieces. Sobbing. Wanted to go to Wal Mart. Said his daddy promised. Begged me to let him stay with his dad. Told me he didn’t like my house and he never wanted to stay with me ever again.

On our way out the door, the after-school care folks cheerfully reminded me of the potluck to be held the next day. Reminded? No, wait. Informed. For the first time. So, after working all day at my job and then volunteering in the classroom doing Rudolph Says with three dozen wired mini humans, I was to go home and cobble together some festive dish to take back to school in 13-1/2 hours?

“Remember, no nuts or pork! Thanks! We can’t wait!”

Me neither.

But we were still hours from the menu planning. Right on the heels of the car meltdown came galloping in an epic homework battle. Bug scrapped with every sentence. Tore at the paper. Slumped. Drew on the table. Deliberately misspelled every other word then flipped out when he had to correct them. Took 30 minutes to do a 5 minute assighment.

Finally, we ate. Bathed. Sang extra-long Christmas carols. Bug crashed. I went into the kitchen to make brownies, prepare a cheese platter, and assemble Bug’s lunch while finishing up wrapping gifts for the holiday exchange at my office.

Bed for mama sometime after midnight? Did I even dare look at the clock?

Fast forward to tonight.

I pick up Bug at school. Collect the brownie tins and cheese tray. Play the last two rounds of Pictionary with the kids.


“Why can’t I stay with my dad? He promised me Pokemon. And it’s Thursday which is the start of Friday so you’re a liar and I hate you!”

Ding Ding! Round 2!

Bug wails and rages and sobs the whole way home. Claims he is homesick. That his daddy is better because he gives him the food he likes and he has all the good toys and he buys Pokemon. Everything about his dad is better. And I’m mean. And he hates me.

Another homework battle. Another long lecture.

Another chokehold on my temper.

Here’s mom breathing. Mom steadying herself. Mom only yelling once and immediately changing tack. Mom talking through feelings and expectations. Mom explaining that homework is his own, his name is on it — not Mom’s name — and it’s his choice to do his best or not. Here’s mom methodically making dinner. Pausing to kiss the boy on the head. Ironing the fuse beads. Chatting calmly over grilled cheese sandwiches and broccoli.

So, at bedtime? Sweet mercy, we fall into reading and cuddling as we do every night. As if nothing in the world is ever very big, as if three is the magic number.

Three books to call up some fallen angel’s wings. Three songs, the incantation that wraps them around us.

“Is it hard taking care of me?”

This tap-tap on the sealed edge of my door. This spinning of the combination lock.

When he tells me it’s hard to be my kid because I never give him anything good, I chuckle instead of wincing. This is the third invocation in the spell of threes. This is the charm that animates the thing embracing us and warms it to life.

I laugh. He tries again.

“You don’t ever give me Pokemon ever.”

(Which isn’t true, but)

He curls into my arms and tickles my neck with his breath. I say, “I give you more good things that you can even count.”

I say this to him. To me. I say this to oil the hinges and thaw loose the frozen clasp.

I say this:

I give you cheese quesadillas.
A gazillion books.
Trips to the library.
Rides to the ice rink.

I give you a hot breakfast every morning.
Clothes you can move in.
A sweet doggie.
Cuddles. Hugs. Three songs every night.

I give you art stuff in every room of the house.
I give you a home.
Near a park.
And walks to the park all the time.
And walks all over this town.

I give you bandaids.
Time with your grandma.
Playdates with friends.
Help with your homework.

I slow down. Bug’s eyes droop. I ease up on the list and start the same last song I sing every night and will sing every night for as long as this fleeting eternity lasts.

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea.

And I say without saying the words between the lyrics:

I give you my steady face. My calm half-attention when I reach all the way in and half is the most my fingers will grasp.
I give you my breath.

When I know the beast inside is snapping for bones, I give you the locked door.

I give you my best self. When I haven’t seen her in days and don’t know if she’s even in this time zone, I call her back home. I sit her down in the place I just was and let you have her version of love.

Yes, it’s hard to be your mom.
Some days I just give you a mom.
But you deserve her, this mom of yours.
I’m still figuring out how to be her.