Tag Archives: Children

For My Mother From Their Mother on Our Day

Like most of us, I am thinking of my mother today, feeling so fortunate to be her daughter and so incredibly blessed to have her around as my children fly through their teenage years. I am grateful for our daily conversations, the incredible stories she continues to surprise me with–still, after all these years–and most of all, for the laughter we share. In her honor, and in honor of all the mothers within reach of my blog, I am reposting this tribute from five years ago.

I love you, Mom!

One of the best things about being a mother is being able to share my children with my mother and vice versa.  Mom has been such a part of Zoe and Theo’s upbringing from the start, with the books she brings, the time she spends, the stories she tells them of her childhood and mine.  My children are eight and eleven now; Mom still cares for them at least once a week though it means driving out here to Jersey from her home in Manhattan.   When she comes, she cooks for them, helps them with homework as needed, plays with them and listens to the stories they share of their lives.  She never judges or criticizes them, but loves with an open mind and heart.

My mother had been a presence in their lives since the beginning.  I had to schedule my first prenatal sonogram on a day when my husband was away on a business trip.  I did not want to go alone because the event was momentous for me: I was going to see the image of my child (who, at the time, bore a strong resemblance to a thumbprint) for the very first time, and wanted to share it with someone who, well, shared it.

My mother had just gotten home from a trip to Spain and did not yet know I was pregnant.  I’d been cautiously secretive about it to protect myself and others from disappointment.  I had worked for several years at an adoption agency, counseling couples who had struggled with infertility before choosing adoption as the way to have a family.  Since infertility was a common theme in my daily life—also since my body had lived through so much eating disorder trauma—I assumed I too would face challenges conceiving.  I didn’t, though it took a few tests to convince me that the second line in the window was real.  So my seven week sonogram—whose purpose was just to make sure everything was “viable”—was a big deal.  Inviting my mother was how I told her I was pregnant.

After the sonogram—which took place at the hospital where I’d ultimately give birth—we walked together the seven blocks to my OBGYN’s office, my mother clutching the sonogram printout in her hand.

“Got a picture there, Grandma?”  said Dr. Finkelstein, when we arrived.  My mother beamed; it was the first time anyone had called her that.

My mother, having been a school teacher for over fifty years, teaching everyone from first graders to masters candidates, was what she would call child-oriented.  She started teaching kids almost as soon as she stopped being one.  Between caring for her younger sister, teaching, parenting me, tutoring and caring for my children, my mother’s life has revolved around kids.  She knows them—intellectually, instinctively and emotionally.    As a mother, she was so tuned in to my needs, she met them almost before I knew I had them.  (Her mother, cold and often distant, did the opposite; I’m trying to find a happy medium.)

So, though we don’t see eye to eye on everything, though we’ve had our struggles, mostly in the context of our food/body image legacy (which I think has its roots in the death of my great-grandmother, who left my grandmother motherless and full of rage at six), we’ve always been close.  I am so lucky to have had her all my life; I’m lucky and grateful to have her now.

Specifically, I am lucky to have a mother who listens to me, no matter how hard it is to hear what I sometimes have to say.  I am lucky to have a mother who champions me, even when I can’t see the value in what I do myself.  I am lucky to have a mother who knows me, truly, who accepts me and who has never, ever given me cause to question her unconditional love.  Generous mothers like mine are easy to take for granted because they never demand credit for anything.  For this reason, it is important for me to honor my mother, not just on Mother’s Day, but every day of the year.  She may not know it but I do.  My every interaction with my children is influenced by her in some small way.  I often bookmark the funny things they say and do because I know how much she’ll appreciate them.  I know how much they mean to her, how she loves to hear stories that highlight Zoe and Theo just being their smart, funny adorable kid-selves.

There are two things my mother has said about being a grandparent that I know will stay with me long after I am one myself.  First: Zoe was about six months old, crawling, interacting and generally being her quirky, funny, interesting self.  Having spent the whole day with her while I was at work, my mother said to me when I got home:

“She was such a delight.  It’s like having you again, only without the guilt!” As a grandmother, Mom is free to enjoy my kids without the worry of shaping them and doing things right.

The second thing she says has to do with my children remembering her.  Mom had me on the “late” side.  I too was considered an “older mother” when I had my son at thirty-seven.  Which makes my mother older than many of my children’s grandparents.  When my kids were very small, Mom worried: will they remember me?  She feared—though she had no health issues at the time—that she might not be around long enough to make an impression on their newly developing minds.  Somewhere, she had read that eight was the age of fully remembering experiences and people (though I know I have strong memories of earlier periods in my life).  Now that my youngest is eight, she says, at least I know they’ll remember me.  With all Mom has given them, done for them, taught them, with all the stories I know about her, either because she told me or I lived them first hand, I know there’s no question.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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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.

For My Mother From Their Mother on Our Day

One of the best things about being a mother is being able to share my children with my mother and vice versa.  Mom has been such a part of Zoe and Theo’s upbringing from the start, with the books she brings, the time she spends, the stories she tells them of her childhood and mine.  My children are eight and eleven now; Mom still cares for them at least once a week though it means driving out here to Jersey from her home in Manhattan.   When she comes, she cooks for them, helps them with homework as needed, plays with them and listens to the stories they share of their lives.  She never judges or criticizes them, but loves with an open mind and heart.

My mother had been a presence in their lives since the beginning.  I had to schedule my first prenatal sonogram on a day when my husband was away on a business trip.  I did not want to go alone because the event was momentous for me: I was going to see the image of my child (who, at the time, bore a strong resemblance to a thumbprint) for the very first time, and wanted to share it with someone who, well, shared it.

My mother had just gotten home from a trip to Spain and did not yet know I was pregnant.  I’d been cautiously secretive about it to protect myself and others from disappointment.  I had worked for several years at an adoption agency, counseling couples who had struggled with infertility before choosing adoption as the way to have a family.  Since infertility was a common theme in my daily life—also since my body had lived through so much eating disorder trauma—I assumed I too would face challenges conceiving.  I didn’t, though it took a few tests to convince me that the second line in the window was real.  So my seven week sonogram—whose purpose was just to make sure everything was “viable”—was a big deal.  Inviting my mother was how I told her I was pregnant.

After the sonogram—which took place at the hospital where I’d ultimately give birth—we walked together the seven blocks to my OBGYN’s office, my mother clutching the sonogram printout in her hand.

“Got a picture there, Grandma?”  said Dr. Finkelstein, when we arrived.  My mother beamed; it was the first time anyone had called her that.

My mother, having been a school teacher for over fifty years, teaching everyone from first graders to masters candidates, was what she would call child-oriented.  She started teaching kids almost as soon as she stopped being one.  Between caring for her younger sister, teaching, parenting me, tutoring and caring for my children, my mother’s life has revolved around kids.  She knows them—intellectually, instinctively and emotionally.    As a mother, she was so tuned in to my needs, she met them almost before I knew I had them.  (Her mother, cold and often distant, did the opposite; I’m trying to find a happy medium.)

So, though we don’t see eye to eye on everything, though we’ve had our struggles, mostly in the context of our food/body image legacy (which I think has its roots in the death of my great-grandmother, who left my grandmother motherless and full of rage at six), we’ve always been close.  I am so lucky to have had her all my life; I’m lucky and grateful to have her now.

Specifically, I am lucky to have a mother who listens to me, no matter how hard it is to hear what I sometimes have to say.  I am lucky to have a mother who champions me, even when I can’t see the value in what I do myself.  I am lucky to have a mother who knows me, truly, who accepts me and who has never, ever given me cause to question her unconditional love.  Generous mothers like mine are easy to take for granted because they never demand credit for anything.  For this reason, it is important for me to honor my mother, not just on Mother’s Day, but every day of the year.  She may not know it but I do.  My every interaction with my children is influenced by her in some small way.  I often bookmark the funny things they say and do because I know how much she’ll appreciate them.  I know how much they mean to her, how she loves to hear stories that highlight Zoe and Theo just being their smart, funny adorable kid-selves.

There are two things my mother has said about being a grandparent that I know will stay with me long after I am one myself.  First: Zoe was about six months old, crawling, interacting and generally being her quirky, funny, interesting self.  Having spent the whole day with her while I was at work, my mother said to me when I got home:

“She was such a delight.  It’s like having you again, only without the guilt!” As a grandmother, Mom is free to enjoy my kids without the worry of shaping them and doing things right.

The second thing she says has to do with my children remembering her.  Mom had me on the “late” side.  I too was considered an “older mother” when I had my son at thirty-seven.  Which makes my mother older than many of my children’s grandparents.  When my kids were very small, Mom worried: will they remember me?  She feared—though she had no health issues at the time—that she might not be around long enough to make an impression on their newly developing minds.  Somewhere, she had read that eight was the age of fully remembering experiences and people (though I know I have strong memories of earlier periods in my life).  Now that my youngest is eight, she says, at least I know they’ll remember me.  With all Mom has given them, done for them, taught them, with all the stories I know about her, either because she told me or I lived them first hand, I know there’s no question.

Happy Mother’s Day.

A Fiction-Writing Shrink?!?

I live in a medium-sized town where I run into a minimum of ten people I know every time I go to the grocery store.  Often, these people are past or current psychotherapy clients.  More often than not, I have my children with me.  My clients have seen me in restaurants, in a bathing suit at the swimming pool, marching in the fourth of July parade with my daughter’s junior girl scout troop.  One former client was my daughter’s favorite camp counselor.  I have attended parties where clients were fellow guests.  They see my name in the paper as the new member chair for a local secular-humanistic Jewish family group.  In other words, unlike some therapists, my life is no mystery to my clients.  Seeing as my practice currently involves no individuals, and I see strictly families, this is less of an issue than it might be for some.  Families like to know that I am a mother.  Couples and individuals like to imagine I am simply their therapist.

To be fair, I’m pretty visible around town.  People know me as the biracial—black, white, Jewish, family therapist.  I’ve done talks on parenting, Multiracial Jewish Identity, Body Image and Talking to kids about Race.  People know what I think … about some things.

But a novel (un-agented, unpublished, but a novel all the same) exposes a much deeper, weirder piece of me: some form of my own reality skewed by the warped lens of my wildest imagination.   Writers of good fiction are supposed to take big risks.  How can I do that while responsibly adhering to the NASW Code of Ethics?  A fiction writing therapist opens herself up to all kinds of questions.

Are my characters based on my clients?  (Deliberately?  Never, ever.  Subliminally?  Maybe.)

Do I really think like my characters? (Some part of me has to, right?)

And what about this blog itself?  Where I’ll be writing about my ballet-dancing, eating-disordered past (which inspired Birch Wood Doll, my novel), as well as the more complicated aspects of being biracial?  In order to write at all, I’ve had to free myself from these worries.  I am not a private person by nature, which serves me as a writer, even if it presents a challenge for me-the-therapist.

My therapy practice, like everything else I do, has to be compatible with my personality.   I refuse to be fake and constrained with my clients, to answer their questions with the artful dodges we were taught in social work school.

For example:

Client: have you ever used drugs?

Therapist: I’m wondering if you’re asking that because you’re concerned that I might not be able to help you if I haven’t shared your experiences of drug use.

…Really?

As long as I’m writing fiction and blogging, I won’t practice individual psychotherapy—where your relationship with the client is the most important part of the work, where clients  hold onto their own stories about who you are.  Families generally like knowing I am a whole person with a family and experiences of my own.

The best thing to do—the only thing I can do—with my writing and my life, is be honest and open and me.

Kwanzaa Next Year

Kinara, Dreidle: two of my son's holiday art projects from school.

Happy Kwanza to all … though I confess, it’s my “Not Yet” Holiday.

I first heard of Kwanzaa in 1993 as an assistant teacher at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York.  This job was my first since leaving Pacific Northwest Ballet and provided my first concentrated exposure to children since I’d been a kid myself.  While the black population in this school hovered around 5%, there was much talk of this African American festival which completed the diverse December trio.  At the “Holiday Assembly,” along with the compulsory Christmas and Hanukah medley, the girls sang a West African song with terrific gusto.

Was Kwanzaa new, I wondered?  Where had it been when I was growing up?  And, as a black American woman—mixed-race notwithstanding—shouldn’t I know about it?

I made a mental note to find out what the deal was.  First I asked my father, though I had an idea of what he was going to say.  My father had always identified himself as black—not African American.  Black history, black culture—these were what he valued.  He did not look to Africa for grounding or validation.  To do so, he felt, would undermine the proud, American legacy of blacks, as well as their contributions to this country.    He appreciated his ancestry; our house was full of African art and photography which he found beautiful.  But Dad did not identify with Africa itself.  To my father, Kwanzaa felt contrived—which he explained in something of a diatribe.

For me, since it was not part of my childhood, I currently have no personal template for Kwanzaa.  Still, I respect it as a celebration of family and heritage, an honoring of ancestors and the survival of a people.  I often wish I could do more to support my children’s black identity, which is a challenge.  I am their only surviving black relative as my father, for all intents and purposes, was mine.   When my kids see my relatives, they see white, Jewish ones, the same as they’ve got on my husband’s side.

I tell my husband: we should look into Kwanzaa, maybe incorporate a few rituals into our life, attend one of the many open Kwanzaa celebrations in our town.  If only for the exposure, just to see what it’s all about and increase our kids’ cultural competence.  He is supportive; he is all for it.  Though of course I am the one who must make it happen.  Next year we’ll do it, I say every year.  But we don’t.  Not because I’m resistant.  Not because I think my father would object.  Instead, it’s laziness and exhaustion.  Frankly, after eight days of Hanukah and one very long Christmas—of presents and cooking and cleaning, I am all holidayed out.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t find the time next year.