Category Archives: General Parenting

Kim Kardashian’s Armpits, and other things My Daughter Doesn’t need to Read About

This is a short one—more of a vent than anything else.  Let me say for the record that I do not care about Kim Kardashian’s weight gain (See the In Touch article entitled something like: I’ll Never be Sexy again; Even my Armpits are Fat!), I don’t care which celeb’s beach butt cellulite it is under the cutesy “Guess Who?” label.

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I am not interested in learning who the tabloids deem “scary skinny” or who’s had a recent plastic surgery debacle.  And since I don’t care—not even when these magazines are under my nose at the A&P check out—I don’t read them.  I scroll on my Blackberry if I have a long time to wait or else, check out the five hundred dollar nail clippers Oprah says I must have.   Easy for me.  But guess who is reading the tabloids?  Who is turning to page thirty to match the dimpled derrieres on the cover page to the celebs sporting them?  Who’s reading Kim K.’s lament about her pits? Getting the scoop on the new diet Kendra is swearing by?

My daughter, that’s who.  My daughter and everyone else’s daughter who happens to be shopping with us.  Despite our best efforts at raising them to think highly of themselves and their bodies—the way we avoid putting ourselves down, the way we choose accepting language if we must speak of different body types—our girls are bombarded with counterproductive, body-loathing messages all day long.  Here are the questions I get, standing in line at the supermarket:

Mom, what’s cellulite?

Mom, is it bad to gain weight when you’re pregnant?

Mom what’s a boob job? 

I answer everything simply and honestly:

Cellulite: the normal texture of your leg flesh when you get a little older.

Weight gain while pregnant = good thing.  It’s how your baby gets big and healthy enough to grow and live outside of you one day.

A Boob job is when people want their breasts to be bigger or smaller and they get an operation.  It hurts way, way more than a flu shot.  ’Nuff said.

But my daughter is twelve, and these days, unlike the happy days of elementary school where my answers were the only ones she sought, I know she’s getting information elsewhere, from friends, from friends’ big sisters and cousins, from the internet, and even from teachers who may share too much personal information in order to be cool and liked by students.   What I say—especially when I tell her that she is beautiful—is taken under advisement and often cast aside.   I can still give her guidance, but my daughter is at an age where she’ll weigh it all and come to her own conclusions.

I hope, I pray, that her body image and self-concept come out on top.

Goodbye Hadiya: An Ode to the Lights in our Lives

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Your daughter dreams big.  Why shouldn’t she?  She looks at the future as a wide open sea of possibility, a canvas to be filled with color or left full of open spaces as she sees fit.  She trusts that the future will come and take whatever shape she gives it, so she can live in the present where she belongs—with her friends, their jokes, their music and clothes.  The wonderful things they do together.

Special things happen to your daughter, they make her heart race with excitement, yours swell with pride.  You try not to gush—not to our friends or neighbors, not to the woman behind you at the checkout whose name you can’t remember but whose kids are the same age yours are—but sometimes you can’t help it.  Because, as much as your girl lives in the present, you see her in the full circle of her days: the infant you held, the toddler you chased, even the striking, accomplished woman you know she’ll be.

Sometimes, when you watch her with her friends, or listen to her as she tells you about her day, you find your eyes welling up because it’s going so fast, so magically, beautifully, painfully fast.  You don’t know how it will all turn out, but what an exciting ride—wonders around every corner.

But then, a phone call comes, the phone call you’d never expect, bearing impossible news.  Your girl has been shot.  Yes that’s right.  Your beauty, your sunshine, your light.

And hours later she’s gone.

As she huddled with her friends under a canopy to escape a downpour, you’re told, a man with a gun came running out of nowhere, fired on the group, then jumped into a car and was sped from the scene.  “I’ve been shot,” your daughter said to a friend, who tried to catch her as she fell.  Those were among her last words.

You get the phone call soon after.  You don’t think about statistics; you don’t consider which factors increase or decrease gun violence; you don’t blame the NRA or some negligent mental health professional.  Instead, you stand there in horror as your heart breaks in two.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15.  Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15. Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

So … no—it wasn’t your daughter, or mine for that matter.  The fifteen year old murder victim was Hadiya Pendleton, a majorette at the exclusive King College Prep, who had just performed in Washington DC at the presidential inauguration.  She was an honors student and volleyball player who thought of becoming a lawyer, a pharmacist, or possibly going into politics.  Dimples framed her warm, bright smile; her pretty brown eyes glowed optimism.  On NPR, I heard her father say these words: “They took the light from my life.”  I don’t think there is a parent in the world who can’t identify with him.

Since December 14th  in Newtown CT,  when Adam Lanza took twenty-six lights from the lives of their loved ones, about 1,500 people have been killed in gun violence.

It seems so senseless and it is.  The piece I have the hardest time making sense of, is the argument that arming more private citizens would prevent this sort of attack.  We can look at each crime, take apart the pieces and assess: was the perpetrator insane? (was he in therapy and can we then blame his therapist?) did he acquire the weapon/weapons legally (or did he swipe it from his mother who had acquired all her guns through legal means), but nothing will change the fact that these gunmen were, are murderers.  Murderers who—regardless of their clinical mental state—had no business wielding firearms of any sort.  Any law that makes it harder for a murderer to commit murder with a gun is all right by me.  Even if it means that I will have to work much harder to get a gun myself, should I want to protect my children from an intruder—or four or five intruders—as fantasized by Gayle Trotter.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) advocates arming educators to prevent such violence.  “I wish to God [Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung] had an M-4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands.”   I understand that sentiment; I am sure if I’d been there, I would have wished for this to happen.  But realistically, how good is the average private citizen’s aim—even with “extensive firearm training?  All I know is that police officers (and last I checked, the police receive pretty rigorous training) fire their weapons accurately in time of crisis only 34% of the time.  For private citizens, it’s less than that.

In the movie theater in Aurora, CO, would a private citizen have been able to disarm madman James Homes who opened fire?  (Keep in mind, Homes was wearing protective gear, began shooting in a noisy, darkened theater, after releasing a canister of gas.).  Would the hypothetical armed teacher in Newtown have gotten Lanza (who also wore a bullet proof vest)   on the first try?  Or would she have missed, angered him and exacerbated things. ( Just remember, Lanza had two semi-automatic handguns and an AR-15.)  Statistics generally show that gun violence tends to beget gun violence.  Even guns kept in homes for self protection are far more likely to kill the gun owner or a family member, to go off accidentally or to be used by domestic abusers than in self defense.

Though Hadiya Pendleton’s immediate neighborhood was safe, with little gun violence, she lived in a city which, despite having tough gun laws, is virtually overrun by them.   Chicago’s gun violence has been climbing even while New York’s has fallen.  Hadiya was the 40th person killed by a gun in Chicago this year  Is it that the restrictions are too tough and therefore prevent civilian would-be-stoppers of violent criminals?  Or, is it that there are already so many guns in circulation (many attained outside the city) that anyone inclined to violence can get one without much effort, no matter the laws in place?  I imagine it’s not difficult for law abiding private citizens to get their hands on guns in these circumstances either, though I just can’t see how any armed bystander might have been fast enough to save Hadiya.

In any case, I join the rest of the country in mourning for her, just as I have for the children and adults slain in Newtown and all those lives lost between.

Someone Else’s Nanny

My children’s babysitter, Monique (whose name I’m changing here), came
to me with just one reference, and no background check. All I had to go on was
a good feeling about her in my gut coupled with a sense of total desperation about finding a sitter.

When we lived in Brooklyn, until Zoe was a year old, I had enough family around to watch her when I worked. When we first moved to Montclair–I was working three days a week then–I was fortunate enough to find a sitter—a cousin of a friend’s sitter—who came once a week. My mother came out another day and my husband was home when I worked Saturdays. Then that sitter left me to become a crossing guard, explaining she needed five full days of work.

I needed help quickly. Someone who could work two long days a week but didn’t need five, who could manage a newborn and a highly opinionated preschooler, who could read with inflection (that was a must for me, since I had strict TV limits), who played games and could run around after Zoe with ease.

I found someone quickly, though it would turn out to be a dead end.  Candy was the daughter of a friend’s babysitter, twenty years old, with a one year old son–but assured me she had plenty of childcare for him.  I had misgivings about her age, but my daughter loved her and the girl seemed to have a lot of family support around town.  I hired her on a trial basis, and everything worked out well for about a week.

Then, five days before I was supposed to start working, Candy informed me that she couldn’t come anymore because her own childcare had fallen through.

Trough an agency, I hastily interviewed about ten different women, all of whom seemed far more interested in newborn Theo than talking, walking Zoe.  Then, on Candy’s second last day, she brought home a woman she’d met in the playground.   (A stranger, which shed light on Candy’s judgment, frankly.)

“This is Monique.” Candy said. “She’s a baby sitter.”

I barely looked at Monique, because I’d been up all night and had interviewed three  sitters already that day.  I was also nursing every two hours and coping with a jealous two-year-old who thought it was high time we sent the baby back to the hospital where it came from.

I said to Monique,  “Look, why don’t you come back Monday?”  Meaning–but not communicating well enough to convey–that I’d interview her Monday. Instead, Monique thought I’d hired her.   She arrived Monday ready to work.

I said we’d try it for a day, since I’d be home. But I stressed that I needed, above all things, for her to win over Zoe. Well, Monique did it. She was bright and energetic and attentive. In no time she had my daughter giggling, asking for another story. (Yes, Monique read with inflection.)  She was also wonderful with baby Theo, with whom she fell in love immediately.

It was a happy story. Monique wound up caring for my children, two days a week (the other three, she cared for the children of a friend) from eight until eight, for six years. She stopped only when I went on my hiatus to write. Monique still sits for my kids sometimes, still does my daughter’s hair if ever I need it braided (like we did for sleep-away camp). I consider her a big part of my childrens’ early years, a wonderful influence, someone we care for, who cares for our children. I was lucky, so lucky to have met her, and so were my kids.

We were all lucky.
The most important thing you do as a working mom–responsible for finding responsible childcare–once you have chosen that special person who will make your complicated life at all possible–is take a huge leap of faith . Every day that you leave your children, you must make a choice to trust this person whom you’d never have met if you hadn’t been looking for childcare.

This is a truth between nannies* and moms: if not for the children, if not for the mutual need for work—their lives would likely have never intersected.  Nannies and moms tend to differ in childcare style, culture, class, education level, and also frequently race. With all those differences, not to mention the odd check-and-balance of power (Mom has the money; Nanny has the kids), there is much room for tension and even conflict.

In such a complicated relationship, trust is paramount. And I mean Trust as a two way street. Mom trusts that her children will be safe and cared for and (best case scenario) truly loved by the nanny. Nanny trusts that she will be compensated for hours worked, warned if those hours are going to be drastically increased or cut, respected, treated like a valued human being and not taken advantage of.

Trust, respect, balance. Only when all that’s  in place can a mother breathe easily and finally begin to relax into the rhythm of her life.

And then …

A news story breaks, horrifying and gruesome.  About a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who was found, her own throat slit, apparently by her own hand (which still held the blade) and the two small children left in her care, both fatally stabbed. About their mother, returning home with their  sibling in tow, who found the above scene.

I can only imagine what must have gone through that mother’s mind, the disbelief, the anguish, rage and profound despair. As a mother myself it is impossible to think of this mother’s feelings without tearing up. The father, too, who was away on business, and who—hearing about the tragedy—could not immediately put his arms around his grieving wife or bewildered, surviving child.  (Of course, the therapist in me cannot help thinking of that surviving child herself, wondering how her life will be, how they’ll wind up parenting her—the whole family reeling with grief, guilt, fear and other residue from the trauma.)

I wonder too about the nanny in question, the suspected murderer, who was loved by the family, who loved the children. The family had visited the nanny’s home in the Dominican Republic and had met her extended family—an experience cheerfully blogged about by the mother. I can only imagine the brutality of learning that someone you thought you knew–someone you trusted with your heart and soul–is the ultimate monster.

But something else gives me a great sense of foreboding about the case: the implications for every other nanny in the tri-state area. Going forward, what will life be like for these women?

As noted in Saturday’s New York Times, nannies will hereafter be under intense scrutiny.  I can only imagine the mistrust, the questions forming that no parent wants to ask, but has to for the safety of their children. This was a family who thought such a thing could never happen to them.  Yet it did, which makes it seem like it could happen to anyone.

How then, does a good nanny prove she is who she says she is? How can she convince them: that will never be me, I will never lose my mind, I will never put your children at risk.  How can she make them believe?

For now she can’t. Good women will be doubted. Mothers will hesitate before hiring. When they do hire, they will still be wary, thinking: It was someone else’s Nanny, but it could have been you. Could still be you. Suspician and resentment, and finally guilt–because no one wants to feel these things–will pervade the playgrounds of New York, where both nannies and moms can be found. The aftertaste of this unspeakable tragedy will haunt them for months, years, to come.
*Where I live, in Montclair, NJ, I have never heard a mother refer to her kids’ baby-sitter as a nanny.  I use the word here because it is the word used in the New York Times describing the case.  Monique always prefered “babysitter.” Nanny, to her–to us–felt too formal and old school.

The Story of Your Identity

Mom, Writer, Therapist, Wife, Self …

My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began.  I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image.  My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately.  I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now.  I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together.   In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately.  So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.

The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it.  There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity.   Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family.   Were you the parentified first-born?   Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?

Think about your roles too.  How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children.  Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home?   Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.

Children have different identities too.  Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home?  She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest.  (Both sides to her are normal and healthy.  You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.)  It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.

In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer.  I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer.   I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs.  My identity is made of all these pieces and more.

Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.”  She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today.   I love this description.  I believe we are all stories.

When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,”  also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying.  We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present.  Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.

“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”

We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?”  “Who might tell another story?”

A pause, some thought.  “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”

The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.

Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know.  Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with.  For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.”   No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.

Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.  For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.

Which parts of you come into play the most?  Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?

Raising Scout: Why a Little Old-Time Danger is Good for Kids

When my friends and my husband lament the regimented life-style of kids today—the lessons, the arranged play-dates—reminiscing about the freedom of their 1970s rural or suburban childhoods, where “we ran outside, found our friends and played until our mothers yelled at us to come home for dinner,” I just nod, half wishing I’d grown up like that, half glad I didn’t.

Other people’s stories of childhood, the freedom, the excitement that took place beneath the radar of parents, always seem to involve trees, long shadows, mysterious sounds in the dark woods, and secrets whispered about nearby graveyards.  I listen to my sister-in-law’s harrowing tales of dodging snakes in the deep Wisconsin woods, my neighbor’s yarns about impromptu games of street-tag and rescuing her little brother time and time again from the town bully—for me, these stories carry the full mystique of  Harper Lee’s Scout and Gem Finch, braving the Macon County twilight, crouched in the brush outside Boo Radley’s home.  At the heart of all these stories is danger, risk, requiring the grit, the pluck, to make it home alive without adult intervention.  It’s what I loved about To Kill A Mockingbird (racial politics aside), what I love about all stories of children left to their own devices.

Those devices (call them life-skills or street-smarts) are part of growing up for all kids; they need to be developed and honed to achieve true adulthood.  Childhood pluck becomes adult self-reliance, self-efficacy: the idea that I can accomplish this, or, better yet: I have what it takes to get myself out of this mess.   Mastering danger as a kid can lead to adult confidence.  It’s why too much safety—helicopter parenting in a too-sterile environment—can lead to an anxious child.

I grew up in New York City—far from snakes, where trees and their shadows were confined mostly to fenced in parks—the only child of older parents who’d waited a long time to have me and weren’t taking any chances with my safety.  Our apartment complex on West 100th Street—the dividing line of Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had terraces and tennis courts (where the Mayor himself came to hit); a nice laundry room, pretty playgrounds, gardens and a parking lot.  But right across the street were housing projects, where you could always hear loud voices at night, glass breaking, police cars pulling up.  I could hear the sirens from my bedroom window on the seventeenth floor; I knew there was danger: crime, fights, drugs.  There were also children down there, many left largely to their own devices, roaming their own not-so-pretty playground.  No matter how late I got into my nightgown, teeth brushed, book waiting on my pillow, if I looked out of the window, the children from across the street were always still out.  To me they seemed to have it good.  How lucky, I thought, not to have a bed time.

For me, there was a time for everything: lessons each day after school—ballet, gymnastics, and piano—playdates each Friday, more gymnastics on Saturdays, family bike-riding outings on Sundays and dinner at seven each night with both parents.  When nothing was scheduled, I went to my room and played on my own, drew, or—more often than not—worked on the “book” I was writing (I started it in second grade and finished in fifth).  I had a big imagination that kept me company; I was never lonely.  Just sheltered.

Of course there were moments without supervision.  I rode the bus to and from school alone, and made the most of it.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get off the bus several stops after I got on and wait for my friends who were coming from the East Side on the crosstown bus.  Then we’d all get on a later bus together, treating less-than-appreciative commuters to our noisy grade-school banter and antics.

Friday playdates weren’t always supervised either.  By the time my friends and I were in third grade, everyone’s parents let us walk around our various neighborhoods without an adult.  We could go to a playground, or to a grocery store for bubblegum and high bouncing balls, as long as we made sure to walk on the nicer side of the street and avoid anyone who seemed drunk or crazy. (Not always easy in New York City in the ’70s.)

The city wasn’t safe in those days, but child abduction wasn’t on anyone’s radar.   Instead we worried about “maniacs,” treacherously armed vagrants who got lots of press by holing up at various subway stations, taking mostly unsuccessful swipes at riders, but evading the cops with relative ease.[i]  We kids could all identify the best-known maniacs: for example, Plastic Bag Lady (she wore one over her face), who presided over the traffic island on 96th and Broadway; Hatchet Man, who was stationed at the 72nd IRT line.

Muggings were a big concern too.  Everyone knew someone who’d been mugged.  Kids got mugged for their bus-passes and candy cash all the time.  Getting mugged didn’t depend on the neighborhood you were in.  You could get mugged anywhere.  A big topic of conversation among us kids was what to do if muggers caught up with you.  Give them everything, people said, especially if they have knives.  Some parents packed extra money in kids’ backpacks just in case.  Word was, if you had too little cash on you, it could anger the mugger, and you might really get hurt.  The best thing to do, said one of my friends (whose brother had been mugged walking home from his private school on 91st Street) was—anytime you saw anyone suspicious coming at you—just run as fast as you could go and hide in a store, anywhere you could.

My friend, Laura and I used to play this game on our way from school (on 63rd and Central Park West) to her home on 71st Street.  We’d link arms and walk, one of us looking to the right, the other looking to the left; if either of us saw someone unsavory-looking, we would give the watchword: Creep!  And both would run for our lives.

Though our criteria for a creep was pretty broad—it could be a man or woman, of any age or race—our prototype was an aged, white man with a matted, soot-encrusted beard and missing teeth, who had actually approached us one day, offering candy in a dirty, brown paper bag.  We’d screamed and run that day, concluding, once we were safely in Laura’s lobby, that the candy was poisonous, designed to knock us out so he could drag us off to his lair and chop us up into bite-sized pieces.

Laura and I did a lot of screaming and running for our lives, as we made our way along one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the city.   It was thrilling.  Like Scout, Gem and Dill, running away from Boo Radley’s home in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My own children play Hunger Games with the other kids on our block, running wild through all the connected backyards, forming alliances and hunting one another down, armed with weapons they’ve fashioned out of K’nex.  I (along with the other moms on the block) am wary of this game, based on a bestseller about kids who survive by doing one another in, but I won’t intervene unless asked to.  Growing children have an innate need for such thrills.  They’ll find them anyway, anywhere they can.  Best served with a heaping dose of imagination.


[i] Not being flippant here, just describing my view as a child of the seventies’ mass-deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill patients.  One devastating result was an explosion in the mentally ill homeless population.

What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

I’d been encouraging my normally chipper eleven year old daughter to consider getting a new dresser, a bigger one where we wouldn’t have to annex pajamas to a shelf in her closet.  I’d shown her some in catalogues—which she normally loves poring over.  But she declined, with a defiant no that seemed disproportionate.

“Okay,” I said.  “No big deal.”  Just a dresser, just a suggestion.  Then I took a risk and asked why she’d snapped at me, if something was wrong.  She might have snapped again; she might have denied that she’d raised her voice (it’s what I might have done at her age) but she didn’t.  Instead she confessed to being grumpy lately.

“And I don’t know why,” she said.

My first thought was: uh-oh, here they come: the new moods of early adolescence.  But maybe it was something more fundamental than that.  Maybe it had to do with some Really Big Changes coming up in our family.

First, after nearly a three year sabbatical, during which I wrote two novels, choreographed three children’s musical productions and began blogging, I am resuming my psychotherapy practice which will mean a shift in everyone’s schedule as well as some form of childcare.  My kids are used to me being there all of the time; now they’ll have to adjust to most of the time.  Second, my husband is in the middle of a job transition, which means some extra stress and uncertainty.  On a lesser and more predictable note, my son is turning nine, which to me feels like a bigger deal than eight (“eight” sounds little still; “nine” not so much).

But the biggest change of all, the one we’re talking about the most anyway, is that my daughter is starting middle school, which, in our town, begins in sixth grade.  It’s not just that she’s going to a new school, bigger and further away than her old one, where she’ll have to take the bus instead of walking or being driven by me.  It’s not just that she’s saying goodbye to many old friends who are going to different schools or “hello” to a whole new crop of kids she doesn’t know (and whose parents I don’t know).   It’s all of these things and more: the unknown.  For most people, anxiety—identified or not—is a big part of venturing into unfamiliar turf.  And, as I know from personal and professional experience: anxiety can feel just like depression.  Especially if you throw a little sleep deprivation into the mix.  (My daughter is still recovering from a week of sleep-away camp.)

For me the change is significant too.  Becoming the parent of a middle schooler is the start of some new and really big words.  Adolescence.  Independence.  Inevitably Increased Screen Presence.  On some level, I believe myself to be prepared.  As a family therapist, I specialize in adolescence; for the six years I worked at the former Montclair Counseling Center, about fifty percent of my clients were teenagers; about twenty-five percent were families and couples who’d come into therapy to talk about issues related to their kids and teens.  I felt confident translating between teens and their parents.  I gave talks on the teenager-parent power struggle.

I’ve had countless kids tell me they felt a certain way or were acting a certain way—and didn’t know why.  Actually, my favorite part about being a therapist is tracking feelings.  I don’t know why I’m angry; I don’t know what’s making me sad.  Even in the case where moods are truly biological or chemical in origin, there are always triggers: losses, moves or other life events that contribute (which is why therapy is always recommended along with medication!).  It’s so normal, so common to be grumpy, grouchy, sad or however you manifest stress when things are in flux.  Day to day snapping at people, nightly bouts of tears, feelings of emptiness and I-don’t-know-why listlessness—when you trace them back, it’s not surprising to find something concrete that you didn’t think bothered you all that much.

I remember when I was nineteen, on a leave from college, about to move to the Midwest for the first time to join a mid-sized ballet company.  I was excited about living in an apartment of my own for the first time, not a dorm, paying my own rent, my own utilities, groceries, such as they’d be.  The best part was that dancing with a real ballet company had been my dream for as long as I could remember; now it was coming true.  I’d have my own pointe shoe order, an amazing repertoire to learn, not to mention a paycheck—a real pay check.  But why was I feeling down?  Why these unexpected crying jags at night?  The therapist I saw at the time made her usual quizzical-sympathetic face (a face I swore never to make once I became a therapist, right up there with the phrase how did that make you feel?) as she wondered aloud whether I was having some feelings about leaving home for the first time?

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “I can’t wait to leave.  Besides, it’s not the first time; I’ve been in college (one hour’s drive away) for over a year.”    And then I began to cry anew.

Well how about that?  Maybe I did have some feelings about leaving, about dancing full-time, about living in Ohio … about all the wild and crazy new-ness, the fear that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.

Most people I know, clients as well as friends and family, suppress fears and worries to a degree, just to get through the day.  But it builds.  It can makes you sad or angry if you don’t explore what’s going on and sort it out.  You take it out on others, if not yourself.

When it comes to transitions, most people have plenty of fears and worries, even if the transition is something they’re thrilled about on some level.  A move to a new house, a new job, a new baby, a new school.  All can be hugely exciting; all can increase anxiety, bring on or exacerbate depression.   In a few weeks, my daughter will have a new school, new classes, a new bus, and new peers.  A Hogwarts-like house system, a specialized arts program, an audition for the school play the second week of school.  Going from a tiny school where every teacher knows and loves her, to an enormous school where no one knows her.  Going from being the oldest in the school to the youngest.  Lots and lots of changes.  Possibly enough to make anyone grumpy.   My therapist training had given me the skills to talk about this with kids.  But those were other people’s kids.  They were in my professional realm, not my personal one.  This was my own daughter.  Since I’m her mother, I am—by status, by role, and by virtue of the fact that I make her do things like make her bed and write thank-you notes—really annoying, which cuts down on the credibility I might have had with a tween client her age.   I had to choose my words and tread more carefully, wanting to be supportive, hoping to get her talking but not wanting to sound too therapist-y.

“Summer is ending,” I said, trying to sound neutral.  A cricket outside chortled its agreement.  “Think you might be feeling a little sad about that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“And …” a deep breath, “middle school is coming up soon.  Any feelings about starting middle school?”

She assured me it wasn’t that.  “I can’t wait for middle school to start.”

But we talked a little more.  There were some details, she admitted, a few small ones, she might be wondering about.  Like the bus, like being in a House with the friends she’s got from elementary school.  Like some other stuff she hadn’t realized were on her mind.  We talked about the worries that she said weren’t really worries until her excitement about going to this big new place really took over.  Soon she was gushing about the cool things she’d heard from friends with older siblings who went there.  I’ve found this with clients too: when you’ve got mixed feelings about a transition: both thrills and doubts, you can only really enjoy the thrills once you’ve unpacked the doubts.   My daughter had moved on to the thrills, happily speculating about the future.  But I felt like I had to get in my therapeutic mama moment:

“It’s so normal,” I said.  “To worry about things even when you’re happy about them.  And sometimes, worries you don’t talk about can make you sad without knowing why.”  I was saying it after the fact; it might have been moot anyway at this point, but I said it.

“Hmm.”  She said, pretending to think it over, though really I think she was patronizing me.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  But I know she heard me.  And maybe next time the “grumpies” set in, we’ll have a good place to start.

Here come those Crickets Again!

You hear them don’t you?    As evening falls: brreet, brreet, brreet!  The broken up, rhythmic brreeting, at once comforting—it happens this way every year and there’s something to be said for consistency—and disheartening: summer is ending!  Fall is coming!

Don’t confuse their song with the spiral-sounding, siren wailing of the cicadas up in the trees: a long low, buzzing, unbroken, getting higher, higher, more and more shrill, as if someone is swinging a pygmy cat with a kazoo around by the tail—then it stops.  Silence.  Then it starts again, low to high to silence.  Cicada song goes on for the better part of the summer anyway; you hear it during the day.  I associate it with heat and humidity, because that’s what summers are like where I’m from.   Cricket song comes at night.  Brreet, brreet, breet!  And you know just what they mean:

Brreet, brreet, brreet! Grab those last rays of summer, those last days at the shore, over the grill, over drinks with the far-flung relatives whose kids don’t have the same vacation schedule as yours so you won’t get to see them unless someone’s willing to travel on really major holidays.  Brreet, brreet, brreet!  Grab the back-to-school supplies in a hurry: remember how last year you couldn’t find a single pencil sharpener anywhere in your county?  Make your kids try on their old school clothes; make up a bag for good will; find those lunch boxes and see if nothing can be done about the stickiness in hers or the eerie smell in his.

Brreet, brreet, brreet!  I think with nostalgia about Chester Cricket of The Cricket in Times Square, the wonderful 1960 children’s book by George Selden (illustrated by the incomparable Garth Williams, who also illustrated E.B. White’s Stewart Little and Charlotte’s Web among others).  Chester is a country cricket, who—due to a series of picnic snafus, winds up living in the Times Square subway station—where he is befriended by the resourceful, liverwurst-loving Tucker Mouse and the honorable, if wily, Harry Cat.  Chester, adopted by little Mario Bellini (whose parents own the newsstand inhabited by Tucker), is soon discovered to be a deeply talented musician, able to whip off symphonies any time he is inspired, giving one impromptu concert after another.

I’m nostalgic for Chester, not only because my mother read me the story so many years ago, but also because it seems a very long time since I read the story to my own children.  My littlest, Theo, my baby boy, will turn nine at the end of this month.  Funny, when the crickets start singing each year, that’s often my reminder to start planning his birthday party.

Theo at three with a special friend

Theo was already a big fan of Tucker and Harry when I read him Cricket.  He was also interested in music, so the story meant even more to him.  Chester could touch people with the power of his song, even though he was so tiny and, in other ways (being a bug), fairly powerless.  I think, being such a small boy at the time, Theo liked the idea of music magnifying the person playing it.   I think he still does.  Though it can be tough sometimes to get him to practice, he’ll frequently remain at the piano long after he’s finished what I’ve asked him to play.  Theo can spend hours banging out dark, heavy chords, rain-like runs and arpeggios that roll like waves.

“Did you like that?” He’ll say.  “That one was called Midnight.”  Another is Halloween.  Theo’s musical compositions tend to be minor and haunting with names like the above.  (Lately, he’s been working out the Harry Potter movie theme by ear.) He loves playing, even if he’d rather do it only when the mood strikes.

“The only reason you’re making me practice,” he roared at me once, “is because you like how it sounds!”

The truth is that I do like how it sounds though, of course, that’s not the only reason I make him do it.  I make him do it because he’s good.  He’s got something that he’ll be able to do long after he’s done playing basketball and tennis and all the other sports he loves.  Something he can do when it’s raining or when he wants to impress someone or just feel good playing on his own.  Something beautiful and consistent and reliable.  Like the crickets.   And there they are again.

Brreet, brreet, brreet!   Your baby is nine!  You’re not getting any younger either!  Brreet, brreet!  There it goes, another beautiful summer!  Brreet!  Here it comes:  another fall.

Breastfeeding: Choice or Privilege?

As a mom who weaned her last baby almost eight years ago, I feel I have to weigh in on the breast-feeding discussion.  First, some background for those who’ve missed it.  Slated to begin this September, New York City hospitals will be locking away infant formula, just as if it were medication—part of Mayor Bloomberg’s stepped-up efforts to encourage all new mothers to breastfeed.  Similar initiatives are being promoted at the state level—all with the goals of better health and outcomes for children.  Good intentions, no doubt, but are the rights of mothers, of families, at stake?  That’s what critics are saying, including many mothers who are feeling judged for not nursing, as women who are dismayed at the lack of general support for breastfeeding mothers. There have been several good articles  as well as hundreds of thought-provoking comments on this subject.

I’m no expert, but I breastfed for pretty close to three years total, and that’s only spread over two kids.  So, I happen to be on the privileged side of this debate.   I say privileged, because often privileges are what it takes to exclusively breastfeed your baby—a fact that is often overlooked in the discussion.  Too often breastfeeding is described as a choice all mothers have the option of making.  The right choice, as opposed to the wrong choice (presumably formula).  And while I believe everyone is entitled to make that choice; every mother should be entitled to decide what really is best for themselves and their children—often there is no choice involved.   For me, it worked out great.  For me, it was the lazy-mom option.  My kids latched on like pros.   And for me—with the exception of one week where I was making way, way too much milk, so much that my poor daughter sputtered and nearly choked—it came easily.  I was so exhausted and totally out of my depth with a newborn baby.  Nursing was what made them happiest so I relied on it, probably too much in the beginning.  Formula just seemed too complicated; I didn’t feel I had the wherewithal to measure anything, let alone mix anything or warm anything up.   So I nursed.  And nursed.  Sitting up, lying down, wide awake, sound asleep, cradle hold, football hold—you name it, I nursed that way.  Does that make me a better mother than anyone else?  Does feeding your child non-stop because it is less tiring than anything else make you a better mom?  Does reading both Bridget Jones books and American Pastoral and We Were The Mulvaneys in the first two weeks of your child’s life because your child is conveniently occupied at the breast make you a better mom?   You decide.

It’s true that I was planning all along to breastfeed.  Reason number one was that, yes, I’d heard it was healthier.  Reason number two was more personal.  As my followers know, I’m classical ballet dancer by training and by first career.  But (and here’s what I haven’t mentioned before on this blog) I was an anomaly: a classical ballet dancer with what can only be described as a rack.   Now, a ballet dancer with a B cup is considered busty.  I was at least a D.   My breasts had plagued me throughout my dance career, contributing to my eating disorders, and keeping me distant from what I considered my true identity.  Therefore, I told myself—and told my “Girls” as they swelled beyond their normal large, to their mammoth proportions of late pregnancy: they better damn well be worth something!  And lo and behold they were.  When it came to nursing, they served me (and my babies) very well.  They were not only latch-on-friendly to both kids, but productive.  Very, very productive.  Once I figured out how to tame the wild, high-force-shower-nozzle spray of milk that threatened to gag my newborn daughter (my son, it turned out was game), nursing just happened to be a breeze for me.   But how could I possibly judge another mother whose lactation experience was different from my own?  Volume and supply was not the only privilege that allowed me to nurse seamlessly.  Here are the rest:

  • Time.  I had left my job as a special-education coordinator at a charter school a few weeks before my delivery.  My return to work when Zoe was four weeks old, meant seeing psychotherapy clients one morning per      week—Saturdays when my husband was home and usually at least one other      relative was visiting.  When she was      six weeks old, I resumed the second night of sessions, along with a full day of a post-masters family therapy externship at the Ackerman Institute,  a short subway ride away.  I carried my pump to work, had easy access to privacy and refrigeration.  I also had time to pump.  Pumping wasn’t fun, but it was only  twice a week.   My kids, I’ve been told, hated the bottle, but took it begrudgingly.   No one starved.
  • Emotional support.  I was lucky in this: there wasn’t a  single person in my whole life who had any issue with my nursing, not a      single person who didn’t applaud my efforts—from my pediatrician to my      husband to my mother and mother-in-law, to all the other breastfeeding mothers      on the park bench.  And there were lots and lots of them in my ‘hood.  Which brings me to:
  • Good Company: When my daughter was born, it was the beginning of the rise of the Breast is Best movement and I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where everyone, it seemed, was out nursing their babies (some demurely covered up, some not so much).  In my neighborhood, even adoptive mothers found creative ways to nurse their babies, using complicated      contraptions involving tubes and pouches of goat milk.  That said, adoptive mothers are some of the best mothers I know, and on average, NONE of them nurse at all. (See below.)
  • Location, Location, Location:  Another thing about our neighborhood in Brooklyn, if I walked my stroller-baby too far from  my apartment building to go home and nurse when she needed it, I was always less than a minute’s walk from one of several nursing-friendly locations: Starbucks, Cobble Hill Park, my pediatrician’s      waiting room.
  • A loving, unconditionally supportive, and nicely-employed partner.  While my husband didn’t do any early morning feedings, he would have if I’d asked.  As it was, he was always on hand to burp a baby, change a diaper, sing a song, or do anything at all in his      power to make this whole new family thing a happy place for all involved.
  • Access to other moms who told me how to avoid confusion in the hospital.  In my day, back when I started having babies at the turn of the century (2001), hospitals didn’t just hand out free formula, they would feed it to your crying baby any time your back  was turned—unless you had a big sign on the bassinet that said “NO FORMULA!  NURSE ON DEMAND,” which meant you were a  savvy, in-the-know mom, an educated mom, who might sue if someone snuck formula into your little angel’s mouth.   Without a sign, your baby might get bottles of formula as well as sugar water if they cried and it wasn’t convenient for an orderly to bring him/her to you.  I had a sign. (I knew to have one because I’d learned from      other moms, to whom I had access, and the leisure to seek out.)  Though my babies were both with me on the ward, sometimes they got taken away to be measured and washed and vaccinated and honestly, who knows what else?       But the minute they cried, the sign meant they were delivered to my waiting arms (and breast).

And lastly, did I mention,

  • Babies who latched on without a hitch and were not allergic to anything?  (Worth mentioning twice.)

Yes, all the breastfeeding stars lined up for me.  They allowed me to nurse Zoe for fifteen months—until I was ready to try for a second child and weaned to increase fertility—and Theo for seventeen months until one day he decided that was just about enough, thanks (when I offered him a breast, turned his head away and shoved in a thumb).   Does that give me the right to judge, or to lord it over those who didn’t have it so easy?   Absolutely not.  My children are healthy, smart, lean, well-adjusted and awesome, but so are many of their friends who weren’t breastfed.  Those friends had mothers who worked more than I did, or whose offices were not supportive of nursing women.  Some of those friends’ mothers had trouble nursing, or were on medication contra-indicated for nursing, or got infected breasts, or didn’t produce milk no matter how they tried.  Some of those friends were in the NICU and were unable to be nursed.  Some of those friends weren’t nursed for reasons I can’t name, because it wasn’t my business to ask.  Also, some of those friends joined their families through adoption.

Speaking of which, where—in all this discussion—is the acknowledgement that adoptive parenting—every bit as “real” as non-adoptive parenting—does not generally include breastfeeding?   If formula is good enough for children who joined their families through adoption, why can’t it be good enough for children whose families’ lives just aren’t set up for breastfeeding?  Ask any one of my friends who have adopted children.  These mothers will tell you: formula is not poison.  You can tell that by looking at their bright, beautiful and awesome kids.

Taking Time to Relish the Moment

A proud moment; Zoe’s 5th Grade Graduation

Sometimes the best moments in parenting come when you’re not actively parenting at all.  I was sitting by the pool, reading Wild,the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, occasionally glancing up from my book to watch the antics of my eleven year-old daughter and her two friends.  I was at the beginning of the book, where Strayed is losing her mother to cancer, living in two time periods at once.  First: the past, where her mother was healthy and vivacious, telling Strayed and her siblings stories, singing them songs, teaching them about nature and using all her creativity to make them feel loved and grounded no matter how shaky their circumstances.  Second, the present, where illness was ravaging Strayed’s mother’s body, taking her far more quickly than doctors had initially predicted.  As I’m reading this frank, raw description of losing a beloved mother, of being consumed with the need to hold onto her, my own mother was thousands of miles away visiting Russia, the land of her father’s birth.Now I always worry a little when my mother travels.  I’m not specifically thinking that she’ll fall and break a limb on all these walking tours she takes, or that she’ll get sick and need medical attention in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.  I’m not imagining her plane will go down, or that her boat will hit an iceberg and sink.  Of course, all these fears go through my mind, as I’m sure something like them goes through hers when I take a trip.  But I always see my mother as resilient, able to handle more than most women half her age.  I see her as solid.  I see her as permanent, which—as I know too well from having lost my father—is a fallacy.  In any case, reading about Strayed’s pain, about her wish to have her mother longer, just to have a chance to hear her voice again, I wished my mother were around so I could hug her, have her tell mea story.

Of course, I’m closer to the age of Strayed’s mother when she died, than I am to the age of the daughter losing her.  And unlike Cheryl Strayed when she lost her mother, I am a mother.  So, as I sat there, reading by the pool watching my long-legged girl doing flips off the diving board, I found myself identifying more with Strayed’s mother,  than with Strayed herself.  Not in an entirely morose way.   Naturally, it went through my mind how devastating it would be to have to say good-bye to your daughter prematurely.  But that wasn’t where my mind dwelled.  Instead, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the brevity of life in a seize-the-day good way.  I felt urgent about the need to appreciate each moment that I am here with my children, to make the most of them, of myself, of our lives together however long that is.  I don’t think that way enough.

Between writing, household chores, arranging for home-repairs, dealing with the car, getting people ready for their Next Big Thing, be it camp, school or a family trip, re-starting my therapy practice after nearly three years, preparing talks—I am so caught up with the minutiae of my life that I am often at risk of missing all the good stuff.  The moments that matter most, those where I get to enjoy the people I love.

My kids during a great poolside moment last summer.

So I closed my book and just watched my daughter in the simple act of being her smart, silly, inventive self.  The girls had stopped their game of Marco Polo by now, because a younger girl, hoping to get ingratiate herself to the big girls—had lent them her enormous, inflatable seal.  Zoe and her two friends took turns trying get on its slippery back for a ride, more often than not, causing the seal to slip out from under them, pop up into the air, knocking them back into the water to the tune of their own hysterical giggles.  Finally, when each of them had mastered it and taken a turn riding around the section of the pool where inflatable toys are allowed, a new challenge arose.   From where I sat, I couldn’t tell what they were up to at first.  One of Zoe’s friends took hold of the seal’s head, the other its tail, trying to hold it steady as Zoe climbed aboard.   Now she crouched with her feet planted shakily on its back.  Her goal, it seemed, was to stand.  A few attempts ended with Zoe sliding off one side or another, but finally she got her balance—albeit in a bit of a squat—let go and, arms outstretched, shrieked that she was surfing!  Her friends cheered as Zoe toppled off the seal once again, creating a surprisingly big splash for a sixty-five pounder.

It was just a split second of victory, but the delight on her face brought tears to my eyes.  It is a snapshot of Zoe’s childhood that I’ll remember always, a moment I was around to appreciate, silently cheering her on.