Brain, Children, Determination, Learning, Parenting

How to Grow a World


Old shortcuts lead to dead ends. Minor annoyances to major road blocks. Drifting off during the boring parts of class, crumpled papers forgotten in the bottom of the backpack, goofing off in the hallway. D grades. Closed doors.

As he fails, his world shrinks.

Only the first quarter of his first year of middle school, and hard lessons are giving my boy’s psyche a good scraping.

Continue reading “How to Grow a World”

Family, Home, Learning

Boxed Blocks Equinox

mirror tree house

My boy wants me near.  I want to be near.  The sun is low in the sky. We have come inside.

He taps his pencil against the worksheet. Someone somewhere crafted this shoddy crossword puzzle. Someone believed it to be an adequate stand-in for learning, or at least believed others could be made to believe. This is how we teach the vocabulary of soil.  The Rorschach of blocks (dinosaur? metro map) lacks symmetry. It lacks even the pretense of design.

Wood pulp pressed flat extrudes the texture of earth.  What’s left is surface and the imagined mines we spell ourselves into digging.

We ask so much of our children. Continue reading “Boxed Blocks Equinox”

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.


Happy 100 Days: 82

We are driving home in the almost dark and Bug drifts off to sleep. He stretches awake when I pull into the driveway, and I ask him again whether he wants pizza toast or eggs for dinner. He does not answer. When I gave him the same choices at Chicken School, he’d answered, “Lasagne and Thai food.”
“What’s it going to be, Buddy?” I ask as he slouches out of the car and yawns his way into the house.
“Mom, can’t we just sit on the couch and talk about it?”
This decision is clearly too much to tackle. I drop our bags in the doorway and follow him into the piano room. Granddaddy is in the den eating a sandwich and watching a show, no doubt gearing up for the vice presidential debates. I fold myself around Bug and he presses into me, resting his head against my chest. We do not talk for a while. I kiss his forehead over and over, just because it is so close. Finally, I ask again about dinner.
“Okay,” he sighs. “Eggs, I guess.”
Bug’s grandma is in Germany, so she is not here to help me figure this out. Also, I did not have the foresight to prep a meal. Such flashes of organization never strike twice in one week. I rise to go into the kitchen.
“Mommy, can you play something with me?”
“Can’t, Buddy. It’s time to make dinner.”
I start washing out the containers from Bug’s lunch. He follows me in, bringing the new science kit his aunt sent from Germany as a birthday gift. He opens it and digs through all the tubing and rubber gloves and strange pictures.
“What do I do with it, Mommy?”
I dry my hands and come over. The instruction booklet is long, and I tell him I cannot help him with it. “This weekend, baby. We’ll have lots of time.”
He sighs again and puts everything away. I have him set the table and wash his hands. He is still exhausted, still wandering around and looking for something to do. I remind him of his “H” collage for school. I set a magazine and some scissors on the table, but he can barely hold his head up.
Finally, dinner. We eat our spinach eggs, share the bacon, nibble at the cinnamon toast. We look together through the Kid’s Post and Highlights for words with “H” in them. Hockey, High Five, Third, Hidden. We find a picture of a hug. I help him cut and he glues the scraps into his journal.
Then it is time to clean up and get ready for bath. Bug finds a book sitting on the kitchen table. It is one of his new favorites, The Witch’s Supermarket.
“Mommy, can we read this book?”
I look at the pile of dishes, the unfinished laundry, the snacks still needing to be packed for tomorrow. I haven’t started the bath. If I don’t iron something tonight, I’ll be wearing yoga pants to work in the morning. Even with Giovanni watching the dog for the week, even with someone else paying the mortgage, all I can manage is another “no.”
And so I finally know this: loneliness is nowhere near the worst part of being alone.
“I really need to clean up. You could help me, and we would be done faster so I could read to you.”
I see my boy deflate. Even the book seems to droop in his hands.
“I really like this story,” he says. He is so tired.
“Sorry, baby, I can’t read it right now. I’ll read it to you at bedtime. If you are done helping, you can go look at it by yourself until I’m finished here.”
“Okay.” He trudges away.
Some days, I would give anything not to be a single mom. Okay, maybe not anything, but in certain low moments, the devil could show up with a contract and a fountain pen, and he’d walk away a soul richer.
I start the dishes. Then I stop.
How stuck in our ways are we? Really, how blind do patterns make us to their existence?
And how willing are we to come un-stuck?
We are not alone in this house.
Yet somehow, we keep giving that truth so wide a berth, we can’t even discern its edges.
“Hey, kiddo. Let’s go ask your granddaddy. Remember that guy?”
We walk into the living room. Bug pauses, transfixed by Gary Oldman’s giant face on the screen. We chat for a moment with my father about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and then we ask if he would be willing to read Bug this book while I finish preparing for bath and bedtime.
“Why, sure!” He turns off the TV. “Get on up here, big boy!”
Piece of cake.
Bug ooches up onto the couch, pressing his insatiable body into his granddaddy’s frame. The old man takes the book. “Let’s see what we have here. Uh oh. Witches!”
And they begin.
As I putter and pack and start the washing machine, I overhear my father taking his sweet time. He puts on a cackling voice and even reads through all the disgusting signs at the Witch’s meat counter. “Eyes of newt, lizard’s gizzards. . . ” This catalog of dark magic gives me a few extra breaths which I offer up to Carolyn Hax and the other guilty pleasures of the Style section. This is my moment of nothing. A booming racket and a fit of giggles burst from the living room, and I hitch a ride on it, free and easy.
Imagine that.

Happy Days, Living in the Moment, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 83

After the small scuffle at the Chicken School about leaving (he hates leaving), the tiff in the car about the lipstick (he threatens to smear it on the ceiling), the cuddle on the couch and the talk about talking about feelings (“Mom, I don’t know how to explain how I feel!”), the dinner I make from scratch in 15 minutes because I had an odd moment of foresight and marinated the chicken and prepped all the sides last night (“This rice is so good!”), the conversation sputters and Bug zones out. I catch him staring in the general direction of the dark kitchen window. We loll at the kitchen table, too tired even to drag ourselves upstairs to bed. I know there is homework in his backpack, but I just can’t bring myself to force it on him tonight. Not at 8:00pm on a Wednesday, and not in kindergarten, for Pete’s sake.
I open the Style section to get my fix of Carolyn Hax, but Bug is not having any of it. He reaches for the paper and scoots closer to me.
“I want to read with you, Mommy.”
“Okay.” I turn to the Kid’s Post at the back, and we read this article about the fact that pets can have preferred paws, just as humans have dominant hands.  As we work through the percentages, I pause. “Do you know what it means that 10% of people are left handed and 90% are right handed?” He does not. “Which hand are you?”
He thinks about it then holds up his right.
“You and me, we are in that 90%. Here, let’s see if we can figure this out.” I find an envelope and a scrounge up a couple of pencils. I make ten hash marks and then draw a circle, dividing it into ten sections. “Ninety percent means nine out of every ten.” We count the marks together, cutting off the single leftie at the end. I keep checking Bug’s body language for signs of resistance, but he has picked up the pencil and is counting along with me.
We talk through coloring one slice of pie for left handed people. We write together “10%” and “90%.” I don’t know if any of this is making sense to him, but his eyes are bright and he is copying every single thing I do, including my little key for which section of the graph represents which hand. We do the same exercise for dogs, which, as the article indicates, are usually about 50% left-pawed and 50% right. I ask him to compare the two circles, and see how much of each one is colored in. “See? Many more dogs use their left than people do. Half of dogs are lefties, but only that little bit, that 10%, for people.”
His eyes light up, and he breathes a big “Wow!”
“So, the article says something funny about cats. It says that 50% of them are right-pawed, 40% are left-pawed, but 10% have no preference.”
We find a fresh envelope and start on the cats. Bug is buzzing with excitement despite the fact that it’s nearing 9:00 and he almost fell asleep in his barbecue sauce. He is bent over the page now, making his hash marks and circles. I explain that he can remove all the zeroes from his percentages and make them into numbers easy to count. He decides that right paws should be dark, left paws should be dots, and no preference should be stripes. He draws a key, makes his ten-slice pie, and begins to color in the sections.
“Bug, look what you did! You made pictures to compare dominant sides for a whole population of dogs, cats, or people. This is really cool stuff, and it makes the numbers easier to understand.”
Beaming, he writes “cats” on the top of his last drawing and tells me again what it all means. I am dumbfounded. This, from the boy who claims he is too tired even to set forks on the table at dinnertime?

On nights like these, I am more resolved than ever to keep a TV from setting foot in our someday-home. It is nearly an hour past bedtime at the end of an exhausting day, and my boy would like nothing more than to stay up half the night creating a graphic model of an animal population. Who would be more tickled by this, Edward Tufte or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Perhaps Bug’s own granddaddy, who is at this very moment down in the basement puzzling out one of his mutivariate equations, those Faberge eggs of math, adorned as they are with their many-shaped numerals and their strange Greek baubles.
When Bug is finished, he makes a giant check mark on the bottom of the page and draws a big smiley face just like the teacher does. He is delighted enough to grade his own work and give it high marks. I quiet the urge to tell my boy how happy this makes me. That’s the sweet little secret of intrinsic motivation, isn’t it? The itch is his to notice and to scratch. And it doesn’t matter one smidge who is proud of Bug, other than his very own self.