“Latkes and Paper Birds” or “How I Took Back Christmas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1995, the year my father died, the eighth candle of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. I could not have been more relieved. Though my father had died months earlier, as the December holidays closed in I was feeling increasingly anxious and ambivalent. How would I, could I, do Christmas without my father? For me, Christmas revolved around Dad.  Of course, my mother did all the baking, all the cooking, as well as the bulk of the shopping. But everything was orchestrated by Dad. The tree, the decorations, the annual four-letter-word-enhanced battle with the strings of lights, which would devolve each year into a massive tangle in their box. The music on the phonograph—from early morning gospel (despite Dad’s atheism) to Handel in the afternoon, to late night Louis Armstrong. It was all Dad. Who was, after all, the child of Christians—real ones. For whom Christmas was not about gift-giving and shopping and cookies and sweeping up glass because the damn cat got into the tree again.  No. Christmas, for my paternal grandparents, was about the guy himself. Jesus. It was His Day. And for my grandmother—who died long before I was born—this involved Church. And cooking and gifts and keeping the dog out of the tree. But first and foremost Jesus.

So with Dad around, I could embrace Christmas for what it was to my family. An annual tradition of sharing—gifts, music and food. Inviting loved-ones from around the area, telephoning loved-ones too far-flung to see in person. Taking the time to pause and love one another. My mother participated wholeheartedly. Being Jewish was her history, her family background, but not about religious affiliation. Besides, there was nothing in my family’s “Christmas” traditions that went against Jewish culture or values. (See above: love, food, music, sharing.) My parents had co-created a unique family culture during their long marriage and Christmas—Williamson-style—was just part of it.

We did Hanukkah too—there was a Menorah, dreidel, chocolate gelt and actual gelt coins which came tucked in little pockets of specially designed cards. And of course, latkes.

But Hanukkah is neither the Jewish Christmas nor the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah may be the most famous Jewish holiday as far as gentiles are concerned; it’s the one all of them know about. Because it coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on a commercial meaning in the same way Christmas has. (Why should Jews be left out of the December shopping frenzy?)

It starts for little kids in school. In planning the Holiday art project. Children are asked—not are you Jewish?—but which does your family celebrate, Christmas or Hanukkah? (Now, they are including Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but they didn’t even when my children were little.) The teachers just want to know how many trees to cut out, how many Menorahs. But what is created is a false sense of balance. They have Christmas; we have Hanukkah. So it’s fair.

But the analogy is half-baked. Hanukkah is not as to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. We have our High Holy Days and Hanukkah is not one of them. Instead, it is a beautiful holiday commemorating a miracle, celebrating freedom.

But this mini-rant wasn’t the point of my post.  The point was Christmas 1995—my first without Dad—and the coinciding last night of Hanukkah.

For some time, I had been struggling to justify celebrating Christmas as a Jewish person. What right had I? On the other hand, as a person of color, constantly questioned about my claim to Jewishness*, how could I call myself a Jew if I grew up celebrating Christmas anyway?

Clearly, the problem was celebrating Christmas itself. If I took that off the table, I’d have nothing to explain, nothing to justify. So how convenient was the timing of that eighth candle? I think it was a relief to my mother also, not to have to recreate the Williamson Christmas without Dad at the helm. It would have been too sad. Too soon.

What we did instead was throw a big, beautiful latke party. We invited all the friends of the family who used to join us at Christmas—most of whom were Jewish anyway.  There were about three or four Hanukkiahs but no Christmas tree. There was loads of food and plenty of music—klezmer, Jewish folk songs, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena! As well as some Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful, healing night.

And for me, it was a send-off to Christmas itself. My father was gone. I had new traditions to make. Christmas was part of my past. It was time to say goodbye. Things went on smoothly from here. I got married to Jon, who was Jewish—more culturally than religiously, like me. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with family in a low key sort of way, ate Chinese food on Christmas, took it as a given that our future children would do the same. We’d explain Christmas the way many Jewish families do—as a holiday for others. I didn’t miss Christmas; neither would they. As American conspicuous consumers, we’d make fanfare and share gifts for Hanukkah.

And so we did, until our children were one and three.  Something changed my mind. No, it wasn’t a visitation from some spirit of Christmases past. It was a shopping mall, frankly. One of those spectacularly American, sprawling malls, where you can buy everything from fine furs to motor oil. I went to this mall with a friend—another mother of two, who was there to do her Christmas shopping.

And, while I can think of nothing more bah-humbug-eliciting than a mall at Christmas time, there was something there that touched me. It was not the Christmas Carols, pumping aggressively from every speaker; not the endless array of oversized wrapped faux-presents or oversized branches of faux-holly or gargantuan faux pine trees sporting gargantuan balls and lights. It was not the cloying scent of too-sweet cookie samples on trays outside every chain bakery in the place, or even the mile-long line of sweating parents with screaming children determined to sit in the well-worn lap of Santa. (What’s wrong with that man? My daughter asked, pointing at the red-suited sage.)

It wasn’t any of that. But it was sort of all of it. All around me—as far as the eye could see—was stuff my dad would have poked gleeful fun at. The cartoonish decorations, the over-the-top promotions, the music, the urgency in the eyes of the shoppers (acquisition as a competitive sport!), the music, the clawing one’s neighbor for a spot in line to see Santa, the absurdity of the whole thing, would have just tickled my dad to pieces.

As I walked through it all, pushing my son in the stroller, checking occasionally to make sure my daughter was holding on tight, I found myself flashing back.

I’m five or so, Christmas shopping with Dad, heading for Gimbels on East 86th Street, to buy my mother a present. Normally I love Gimbels because of the lights and colorful scarves and exotic smells of perfume, but today I am frightened because of the men in red suits who guard all four entrances. They have white hair and beards and say Ho-Ho-Ho in a deep, throaty growl. When we get close to one of them, I begin to scream and refuse to take a step further.  My father is used to this. Each year, he and my mother assuage my fear of Santa Claus by assuring me that he is only pretend. Well, this guy looks pretty real to me. My father slips guy a five dollar bill to make himself scarce long enough to get me into the building. Inside there are no more scary men, just beautiful things to see and touch and smell. At home, my mother is baking gingerbread men that I will decorate later. Then I will fasten my special family of paper birds with wire feet to the lower branches of our Christmas tree.

All these years later, pushing a stroller through a mall in New Jersey, it occurs to me that I still have that family of birds—or my mother does—somewhere in a box, wrapped in tissue along with the other decorations from my childhood.

And it also occurs to me that maybe—regardless of my religion or lack thereof—these birds and the traditions that went with them are still part of me. And part of my children’s birthright.

So, before I left the mall, I bought my children each a painted wooden Christmas ornament—one in the shape of a toy train, the other shaped like a dancing doll. Later that night, I shared my epiphany with my husband, who understood—about my dad, about the birds, about my wish to share it all with our kids. Let’s get a tree, he said. We’ll do this.

And from that year on, we did. Christmas—in our modified, Rosenberg kind of way.

_________________

*In truth, the two components of my ethnic identity have never felt mutually exclusive to me. But as a social work grad student, for whom the topic of racial identity came up in class just about every day, I kept finding myself in a position of having to explain and frequently defend who I was. How can you be black and Jewish? If you claim Jewishness, aren’t you also claiming whiteness and rejecting your blackness? If your Jewish Grandmother rejected you, how can you in any way identify with her culture? And so on. It is one thing to know who you are inside, but another to be put on the spot to explain it every day. I did not always have the right words ready to defend myself. Why bother? To whom did I owe an explanation? Ultimately, to no one but myself.

 

 

 

Tears for Bridget Jones

Zellweger before

Zellweger before

Everybody’s talking about Renée’s face. Part of me—the self-righteous, PC part—is thinking, here we go again: women scapegoating other women. When will the madness end? Why don’t we live our lives and leave each other alone? But honestly there’s another part of me, clicking on the gossip link along with everyone else, comparing Bridget Jones to modern day Renée, thinking, okay, I can see it, eyes a little wider, forehead a little stiffer, speculating on what exactly she had done, hanging on every word as the Hollywood nip and tuck experts weigh in.*

Why is it so fascinating when one woman—a woman in the public eye—changes her appearance? From Jennifer Lawrence’s hair chop to Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss, we can’t get enough. On one hand, many of us are tempted to do something daring with our hair, our noses or our necks.  Many of us fantasize about dropping a load of weight or adding new boobs. Celebrities have the cash, the time, the clout, the personal chefs and trainers to pull these things off. But there’s more to this woman-on-woman voyeuristic judgment than living vicariously through the stars.

There is also a subconscious—or in many cases conscious—identification with these famous women, perpetually on display thanks to their publicists and the paparazzi. Recent studies suggest that women who spend time on line, bombarded with images of Hollywood stars, feel worse about their appearances than those who spend limited time on fan sites. It may be natural for women to compare themselves to other women, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be destructive. That automatic impulse, honed since adolescence, makes us look at a female peer, then check ourselves. Am I ok? Do I measure up? It that peer is a celebrity, chances are you don’t measure up. Why should you? It’s not your job!

As we age, it should get a little easier. Self-acceptance should come into play as we learn to value ourselves for the things we accomplish, the women we are inside as opposed to our outward presentations. But the checking still happens.  Women in their seventies have Jane Fonda to contend with; women in my age range have Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry as guides to “what’s still possible.” Demi Moore looks pretty fabulous too, as does Helen Hunt. How are the rest of us holding up? Unfair question.

“Well, she must have had work done.” It’s a comforting way to explain another woman’s physical age defiance. It’s helps us feel okay about aging appropriately and, in many cases, it’s true. Plenty of women, famous and otherwise, go under the knife. For every woman out there who swears she would never consider such a thing, there is another secretly contemplating it, checking out celebrity “before-and-after” pictures, holding them up to the mirror, wondering what if?

It’s my guess that Renée Zellweger had her reasons for doing whatever she either did or did not do. Whatever those reasons were, it was her business. Some critics say, yes, but as a celebrity, she’s a role model like it or not. If she was dissatisfied with her naturally adorable face—how are the rest of us supposed to feel about our own?  I say, if Renée thought she had crows’ feet starting and sought to nip them in the bud, so be it.  To say that she abandoned me and other women with burgeoning wrinkles is like saying that Jennifer Hudson abandoned plus-sized women when she dropped her weight. We are talking about Renée’s eyes, not mine.

Other critics say, By removing her imperfections, Renée has lost her charm! Now she looks like everyone else in Hollywood. Again, they’re her eyes, to make as commonplace as she sees fit. Maybe Renée did have surgery because she couldn’t love the imperfections that gave her so much character. Or maybe she thought surgery would help her maintain what everyone loves about her. She can’t win. Her face and body—like those of all stars—are part of the public domain.

So, mourn if you will for hapless Bridget Jones, but leave Renee in her round-eyed peace. And swear off toxic comparisons to anyone you see online–Facebook friends included. Take comfort in the knowledge that the image you see in your mirror is beautiful because it is belongs to no one but you.

——————————————

*No post that touches on the topic of plastic surgery would be complete without homage to the late, great Joan Rivers, the brilliant, ground-breaking comedienne and tireless plastic surgery enthusiast. I am sure I am not alone in wishing Rivers were still alive—if only to weigh in on the burning topic of Renee’s new face.

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.

Not Everyone will Like You–and That’s OK.

Yesterday, which happened to be Father’s Day, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Empowerment Celebration at a wonderful organization called Sister to Sister, which provides professional women in my town with an opportunity to mentor teenage girls aspiring to college and careers 

I decided to post the body of my talk because even though it was aimed at high school girls, I think it fits here. The theme is knowing and liking who you are, regardless of how others may feel about you.

 

??????????????????????????????????????This is June, a season of moving up, moving on, graduating, saying good bye—if only for the summer. It’s a good time to say to yourself—so what is next? What is next for me and how can I make the best of it without getting sidetracked by negative influences, without listening to people who might bring me down and stand in my way?

So in the spirit of father’s day, I’m going to share with you a piece of wisdom my dad gave me.

I was about ten at the time, and I had a lot of friends. Kids liked me, because I was silly and made them laugh. Grown ups liked me because I knew when to stop being silly and at least look like I was paying attention. Things went along pretty well until I went to Gymnastics camp and I had to room with two of my teammates who were a little older than me. These girls, Cece and Lila, they didn’t let me hang out with them, they made fun of me for being homesick, and when I finally made another friend, they made fun of her voice and made us both feel bad. Since I’d made another friend, camp got okay, but I still lived with Cece and Lila; I still dealt with their meanness every day.

Well, when I got home, I didn’t say anything to my parents about it at first. Then one night, in tears, I told my dad. We’d been talking about something else and I just unloaded on him. I didn’t usually talk to him about social drama, that was mom’s area. I don’t remember why I used him as a sounding board this time, but I did. Anyway, Dad listened carefully to my story, thought it over, and finally laid one on me.

“Not everyone,” he said, “is going to like you.”

Well. As you can imagine, this piece of information came as quite a shock. I was not accustomed to this kind of candor. I was used to my mom, who would have reassured me that no one meant me any harm, that I must have misunderstood their intentions. Not Dad. He got it. These girls did not like me and I would have to live with that, because sometimes there is just no changing someone’s view of who they think you are.

Dad wanted me to understand that who Cece and Lila thought I was didn’t matter. Cece and Lila themselves didn’t matter. What did matter was who I thought I was and those girls should have no bearing on that. I would never have Cece and Lila for friends, but I did have me. And as long as I liked who I was, I was going to be okay.

The thing is, to like who you are, you have to know who you are. What does that mean—to know who you are? It’s more than, hi I’m Jessica, I’m from Montclair, my mother’s family is from Trinidad and my father is African American and Irish. It’s more than I play the cello and I’m allergic to peanuts and I’m with T.J.. It’s way, way more than I’m with T.J. Sure, those things are part of it, part of who you are, but they don’t define you unless you want them to.

Who you are is what you love, what matters most to you, what you won’t stand for, and what you will always stand up for. It’s what you are passionate about, what you dream of, but also the little parts of your personal reality. I don’t like crowds, I get insomnia if I drink coffee, chocolate makes me happy. No one can change those parts of you unless you want to change them.

Who you are comes from within (that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true). How you feel inside, what you want in your heart, that sixth sense you have when something is not right for you. That voice that helps you decide between what feels good right now—like someone else’s approval—and what is going to lead to something good for you long term, like working hard in school.

A girl once came to me for therapy. This was about ten years ago. She was in a pretty good state over all. Got along with family, did well in school, but she was lonely. She liked going out and meeting new people, she loved to dance at parties, but since she didn’t drink or smoke weed, she never got invited to any. She did have friends at school, girls who didn’t drink or smoke, but they had no interest in parties. So her choices were either start drinking or else be bored. I’d like to say she joined a club where she found kids who were like her, but she didn’t find that until college. MHS is bit—you don’t always find everyone who is there. She dealt with parties where kids made fun of her for not drinking, or she hung out with the girls who didn’t like to dance. Still, she remained true to herself, and found ways to be happy in this. She knew who she was and had to be true to that.

More recently, I knew another girl who really liked this guy. They got together at a party and sort of became a couple. I say sort of, because in my day, you were going out, but I know the rules and definitions are different now. Anyway, she was with him for a while—just hanging out, kissing, but no sex. He wasn’t pressuring her at first, but after a few months, he started to and she started to feel like she should. And did, though she didn’t feel she was ready. What she didn’t know was that he had been giving his friends updates on his conquest of her. What she also didn’t know what that he had found a way to film what they were doing. What she didn’t know was that it was all over Youtube before she got home. And she hadn’t even wanted to do it.

She learned the hard way how important it is to be true to yourself. You know deep down when something or someone isn’t right for you. You owe it to yourself to listen to yourself.

Some people will pressure you to do things you don’t believe in. Others will judge you for holding those beliefs. Not everyone will like you. You have to be able to hold your head up and be proud and happy with yourself even when others are not. Never be afraid to stand out, never be afraid to take a stand.

This is a women’s organization, but in honor of father’s day I will close with a fatherly quote by Dr. Seuss (who, by the way, never had any kids of his own): Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

Guest Post: Stella Padnos-Shea, “You in Our Bed”

Though I am not a frequent a blogger these days, I continue to be amazed at the power of the blogosphere. Some months back, I reconnected with a former colleague, Stella Padnos-Shea, a published poet and licensed social worker, who reached out to me out of the blue–through this blog, of all places. Today, I am happy to announce that she has agreed to a guest blog! (Read on.)

Stella’s theme of motherhood–its impact on a woman’s identity and sexual self-image–is one that I believe resonates for countless women with children of all ages. So, without further ado, here is Stella, in her own words.

You In Our Bed

by Stella Padnos

Tonight, like last night, husband tempted by the couch’s quiet:

that plush other woman, slightly concave in the middle

like my body once was, since expanded, shrunk, starved and fed–

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

The most pleasure I’ve felt has been the absence of pain.

I’d cheat on my husband again with an epidural.

Your debut: messy, requiring containment. Parts of my body

bagged and discarded.

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

Husband’s afraid of my body’s lower half

and I’m afraid of his fear.

Does a girl have to go back to the hospital to get felt up, pricked?

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

And so, sometimes, it is three in the sack:

Not a kinky college stunt or swapper club

But snoring husband, my wet breast, your mouth, your bobbing head–

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

Stella and her little one

Stella and her little one

I wrote this poem about two months after giving birth to my daughter Mirabel; she is the “you in our bed.” The evolution of the marital bed, from pre- to post-children, could doubtlessly become its own blog post/ series of essays/ manifesto, but here it will have to suffice as a poetic theme.

Motherhood is a radical new dimension in a woman’s life. Nearly three years ago, I bore my first, and likely only, child. What a joy, what a gift, and, still, what a deeply ambivalent change. My relationship to my body has undergone some evolutions/ convolutions in these short (yet very long) years.

Initially, those first six or so months, my body was primarily a host, a conduit. A source of food, energy, heat, and deep well of unconscious for the babe. As one of my half-sisters told me early on– It feels like you’re constantly jet-lagged. That was a true psychic and somatic experience, of feeling lagged, constantly weighted, slowed, knowing something urgent needed to be done to care for the baby, but you’re so damn tired and it sure would be nice to brush your teeth.

Then, somewhere, sleep starts to creep in longer stretches. Our baby was incorporating formula, and then solid food, into her diet. I was no longer primarily an udder with legs and unwashed hair. A successive image of my physical identity involved the question– Do I look like a Mom? Simultaneously, I don’t know exactly what that means, yet we all have some idea (forgiving elastic-waisted jeans, scrunchy as couture hair). A Mother is defined by her relationship to her children; can a woman, the same Mother, just be herself, independently? I still want to look like a “woman”: my version is creative, sexual, yet often a loner. How can I begin to reconcile the selves of female-dom? Well, one straightforward way in which I do is that I still wear weird clothes. If anyone sees me tempted by a Lands End flannel big shirt, please talk me down. The way we are perceived by others does, whether we want it to or not, influence our self-perception. Being a Mom in celestial print pants helps me feel more vital. But, of course, looks aren’t everything. I want to continue to fascinate myself.

Some weeks ago, I uncharacteristically got dolled up. Took a shower, put on contacts and make-up, wore a cute little dress. I saw a woman I know who cares for her grandchildren during the day; we know each other from local playgroups where I bring my daughter. She told me– You don’t look like somebody’s Mom, you look like somebody’s girlfriend. That was… something. A huge compliment, yes. And also a reminder that once we become Mothers, that sexy and playful self is assumed to dissipate. The message seemed to be that we are purely caretakers now. What a shame.

Stella Padnos-Shea’s poems can be found in Chest medical journal, The Comstock ReviewLapetitezine.com, and ldyprts.tumblr.com, an online collaboration with jewelry artist Margaux Lange. She has participated in the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and presented at the 4th Annual Creative Writing Festival in Long Island. In an early incarnation, one of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Stella has also regularly performed her work at Studio 26 Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Stella has been employed as a college English instructor, jewelry maker, and therapist, and currently serves as the organizer for the political action committee of the New York City Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She is currently embarked, though, on her greatest and most challenging project yet: raising her toddler, Mirabel, while sustaining a marriage. Please find her virtually at Stella.Padnos@gmail.com, or genuinely in Brooklyn.

Aside

images[10]I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged. I’m not even going to look at the date of my last post. In any case, I’ve had a much needed hiatus, during which I’ve been building my private practice, working hard on my other writing, attending to a loved-one’s health crisis—now resolved—and enjoying the ongoing adventures of being a parent.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day—just two days away—on which we’ll honor our mothers , and (if mothers ourselves) be honored in turn. This year, I’m not going to write about my mother, though she deserves it, since this has been an especially wonderful and rich year for our relationship. I think I’ll save that for another post.

Today, I want to honor all the mothers out there who—through no fault of their own—are not doing much mothering of the kind they’d like. I am thinking of all the waiting mothers.

First, the expectant moms, who have weeks or months to go before holding their children for the first time. To you, I send a smile and one word: soon.

Then there are the mothers-to-be-someday, those trying to conceive, some trying for a long time. Maybe you are not a mother yet, but you deserve to be. I know you think about your child as much as I think of mine. For you, I wish hope and the belief that someday, you will have a child. Infertility is not your whole story.  One way or another you will be a mom.

Then, the mothers-to-be who are in Home Study, or somewhere along the road to adoption, gathering paper work, awaiting word from a birth mother, awaiting a referral, or waiting to travel overseas to meet your child for the first time. For you, I wish patience. It will happen. It really, really will.

Next, I am thinking of mothers who spend their days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or in other hospital wards, entrusting the care of their children to medical professionals, awaiting word, awaiting news, awaiting a chance to touch and hold and parent their children. For you, I wish strength. For you, I wish love, and that you are not alone. For you, I wish good news.

And finally, I am thinking of the nearly three hundred Nigerian mothers whose daughters have been stolen away by the Boko Haram terrorist group. I can only imagine the pain and the rage you must feel toward your daughters’ captors, toward a world in which this horror can happen. For you, I wish relief from the nightmare of wondering where your girl is and what she is enduring. Most of all, I wish for you the swift, safe return of your child and the comfort of holding her in your arms again. To all: If you have not had a chance, please read Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article, Honoring the Missing Schoolgirls, in which he identifies several tangible ways to support women and girls in Africa as a tribute to the missing daughters.

Wishing you a peaceful Mother’s Day.

The House Fire Chronicles: Homecoming

images[3]Just over a year ago, I went for a walk out in the bright autumn sunshine to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Though the fall colors were still vivid, the trees’ angles were all wrong.  Trees should be vertical, yet most tilted; many lay horizontal—a fall against the road having crushed someone’s  wrought iron fence.  The horror of it was breathtaking: all these magnificent sycamores and sugar maples and oaks, felled overnight to be sliced up and carted away in chunks.

Today, as I drive my son to school, what I notice most about the trees that still stand are the colors themselves.  What is breathtaking is the way they’ve burst into fiery reds and oranges, gold against the sparkling sunlight.  Life, they tell us—the seasonal cycle of our corner of the planet—continues.  And just because it is the anniversary of that natural disaster, when lives were lost as well as trees, doesn’t mean the survivors won’t put on their annual splendor.

A year ago, I had just learned that my house had been mostly consumed by a fire.  I was trying to keep my children calm and recreate some new normal for them, while my husband dealt with the insurance company and the fire department, and we both searched for a place to live.

We were not alone.  Countless others in the region had their homes destroyed by winds and floods, as well as some fires.  Schools were closed for days.  Most everyone had lost power.  Even those whose homes were unscathed had to regroup as the rest of us figured out how to rebuild our lives.

We have been among the lucky ones.  Our insurance was sound.  Fire, I’m told, is insured more easily and completely than flood or wind damage.  There were three categories of coverage: non-use, which meant our rent was covered, when we found a temporary home—contents, which referred to everything that was lost that we’d need to replace—and lastly, construction, which meant the costs of fire/smoke remediation (which was extensive) as well as rebuilding and renovating.

The good news is that one year, less one day following our fire, we moved back home.  My children slept in their old-new rooms in their new beds.  Our home was beautiful to me before, though nothing had been changed or renovated since it was built in 1958, but now, renewed and polished, redecorated, with the gracious aid of our friend Gina (and do check out her site, By Design Interiors) it kind of blows me away.

Here is the dining room before:

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And here it is today:

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The leaves are falling outside, but for us, it is the season of renewal.

On the eve of our homecoming, while I was shuttling our belongings from the rental to our “real” house, I had a moment of identity confusion, similar to what happened when I first saw the effects of the fire: where am I?  where do I belong?  Oh, yes, here.  Home.  For real.

There are so many still displaced by the hurricane.  Still homeless, still being shuffled from shelter to hotel and back again.  I listen to their stories on NPR while chauffeuring my kids around.  I know all those other mothers want for their kids what I wanted—what I have—for mine.  Normalcy.  Space to breathe and play, somewhere to put the donated items they’ve received during the course of the year.  This year we’ve been recipients of generosity but we’ve also done what we could to give back, making donations to the Red Cross and other organizations that help hurricane survivors, including those in Haiti (even harder hit than we were).  But we can’t give these families what they need most: Permanence.  I now have an inkling of what it’s like to crave that.

Sometimes I think, what did I do to deserve to survive this so easily?  Of course the answer is nothing.  We have amazing friends; there aren’t enough words to express our gratitude.  We have good insurance.  As I said, we are lucky.   And lately I fall asleep at night with this phrase on my lips: Thank you.