Now, I should say up front that we eat family dinner together most every night but before I sound all self-congratulatory, I'll clarify that's only because most nights, my grandmother cooks it for us. There's no passing up a home-cooked meal particularly when its been home-cooked by someone else, particularly when that someone else is my grandmother. So we go to Nonnie's house and we eat amidst total, unmitigated chaos.
My grandmother's on the phone with her family in Italy, screaming her head off because that's the only way she knows how to communicate on the phone. The kids are clamoring for our attention -- talking over each other constantly and then arguing about who interrupted who. Seconda is jumping out of her seat and rolling around on the floor half-naked and then when she does sit down, she wipes her hands on her hair instead of her napkin (seriously, its gross). Primo eats with his knees drawn up in front of him and drops half his meal on the floor beneath his seat. And I'm busy trying to jam baby food into Terza's soldered-shut mouth while feeding myself. Some nights we have a good laugh and some nights, we manage to share interesting insights and information but for the most part, it isn't terribly enjoyable and not remotely good for digestion. Its certainly not something I'd make other people feel bad for not doing. It works for us but it doesn't work for everyone.
Which is why I liked this piece by Ian Mendes on todaysparent.com called Why We Don't Eat Family Dinner. I enjoy hearing parents confess their dirty little secrets even when the secrets aren't especially dirty or even really secrets. We've all got to do what's best for our individual, initimable family and its hard enough to do that without feeling like you're being judged on top of it. Different strokes, it takes different strokes to move the world.
When I brought Terza to her six month well visit, she weighed in at a scrawny 25 percentile. Being an Italian mother, my default state is set to "Is the baby starving?" and this did not reassure me. The doc seemed confident that she's just a really active little sucker who's burning calories up through her constant cardio (unlike her mother) but still, I worried. So I resolved not to forget to feed the kid her solid foods anymore -- no matter if most of the food ends up on the floor rather than in her gut. As per the doc's instructions, I have been unfailing in delivering two ample meals to her a day.
Only trouble is, something had to go to make time to feed the kid. So she no longer gets dressed. The child has not been out of her pajamas since the doctor's appointment. It's fine because those footed sleepers are nice and warm and who gives a shit? She's a baby. But seriously. What am I gonna do when she has to eat three meals? What other family member will remain in their all day long?
That stunning specimen of babyness regarding his impeccably made-up mother with suspicion a mere day after being born -- that's my boy, born on Thanksgiving day eight - pause while I gasp at that -- eight whole years ago. I remember it took me 15 minutes to put that suit on him, I was so terrified to more his little appendages. But despite being terrified to the point of nausea, I was as happy as I look. And proud. My golden boy. Ever year around his birthday, I like to look at this picture and tell him the story of his birth. So hunker down around teh fire, readers, and listen: On Thanksgiving morning at about 6am, I woke to a contraction. I smiled to myself. Today I'm going to meet my baby, I realized. I felt . . . sigh . . . so very peaceful. Fast forward eight hours and I wasn't remotely peaceful anymore. I also wasn't smiling. After writhing around our apartment all freaking day, I demanded that David take me to the hospital despite the fact that my contractions weren't of the proscribed duration and all that. I was pretty convinced that my doc would report I was at least 5, maybe 8 centimeters dilated. Instead, she told me I wasn't technically in labor. "Your make-up is still perfect," the doctor said, "Come back when your mascara is running." Since I was already totally demoralized, I figured my parents couldn't make things much worse. And since the thought of returning to our apartment where I'd spent 8 hours laboring to no avail was so unappealing, I decided a change of venue was in order. To my parents' place on the Upper East Side, where Thanksgiviing dinner was in full swing. My father harassed me with his cameras, documenting every grimace over antipasto. My grandmother forced me to eat, against doctor's orders. And my mother offered moral support, if by support you mean asserting that i didn't look like I was getting very far with this labor of mine. Two hours later, by the time dessert was served, I was writhing around in the tub, buck naked, moaning and crying, while my grandmother, aunt and mother sipped wine tub-side and offered unsolicited advice. I was really very regretful that I'd eaten a bowl of homemade cappelletti when I upchucked the lot of it over the side of the tub. I put on a pair of my father's boxers and instantly they were wet. I sobbed to my sister that I'd wet my pants and she pointed out that perhaps, seeing as I was in labor and all, perhaps my water had broken. Oh yes! That's it! Good thing for sisters. I got David, threw up on him a bit, bellowed in agony, sobbed a lot and gasped that we had to go to the hospital. If the doc said it wasn't time for an epidural yet, then well, I'd vomit on her until she changed her tune. But I knew it'd be time. My mascara was running. My sister Melissa came with David and I to the hospital and since I was a very respectable 5 centimeters dilated, I received a big needle in my back. By midnight, I was fully dlated. At long last, and after a sizeable injection of morphine, here was the tranquil labor I had hoped for. As I waited for this famous "urge to push," Melissa brushed my hair and David held my hand. We listened to the Beatles and I put on a fresh coat of lipstick. After nine months of wanting things to hurry along, I was finally in no rush. I had this keenly poignant sensation of being in the moment before, and I wanted to linger here, savoring the anticipation of the great encounter which was about to unfold. When I couldn't resist the urge to push any longer, my doctor told Melissa and David to each grab a leg. I felt like a wishbone. Everything moved very quickly then and after only a few pushes, I was reaching down to feel the top of my baby's head, which was unthinkably soft and warm and so near. After that, I didn't need any encouragement. I pushed with a vein-popping force and within minutes, his head crowned. "Look down and see your baby," the doc said. How can words encompass something this sublime? "Miracle" has never sounded so mundane. His tiny head was just wedged there - perfect, oblong, intricate beyond imagining. Nothing could have made me look away. I was roused from my wonder by my doctor's words: "Come on girl,one more push!" I bore down and as I watched, my baby's body slipped right out of me, in an enormous rush. He was revealed to me entire -- shoulders, arms, torso and legs poured out in a wriggling mass of life. It was then that I screamed. Later David would tell me he'd never heard anything so animal-like coming from a human. My sister thought that maybe I had torn. But it was a the sound of release, of relief, of marvel. There he was, my son. They placed Primo immediately on my chest and he was heavy there and warm and wet. We were all hysterical, David, my sister and I, all of us shaking and crying, in the moment now, the great moment which had ruptured and was pouring over us. "My son," I kept repeating, "my baby." I sobbed with my eyes wide open so I could drink him in. Every inch of him, all 20 of them, was a masterpiece, and so brand new. He reached for my face then, stretching his spindly fingers toward my chin in a jerky gesture that some might think accidental and I thought totally, perfectly pre-destined. It was after midnight and I was a mother. The prayers I prayed each day for nine months, and for a long time before that, were answered all at once. The day of Thanks had ended about an hour earlier for everyone else but not for me. Not for me.
The hard thing about having three kids, I've found, is I have no time. Like right now, as I'm writing this blog, I'm not doing about five essential things I should be to keep this house and family running smoothly. A dozen dishes will go unwashed, a load of laundry unlaundered, a flu shot forgotten, a playdate un-arranged. But that shit doesn't matter to me. Not really.
What does matter, what I do feel the loss of, is time to be thoughtful about my parenting. I mean, I am mindful about it, just at about 10pm, after all the kids are asleep and the emails have been replied to and the house is restored to a livable state. In the moment though, there's just no time. There are three mouths demanding to be heard, three stomachs demanding to be filled, three sets of eyes crying about a million problems. Solving all those problems is a Sisyphean task -- as soon as I take care of all three of their pressing needs, another one pops up again. Help with the homework, find the favorite nightgown, feed the baby and damn, you forgot to take your allergy medication and no, I don't know where it is, and while I'm looking for it, the baby yakked all over her sister's favorite nightgown. It is like this, basically, every waking second that I have the kids in my charge. I feel like I'm just putting out fires all the time and when you're always putting out fires, there's no time to do other, really essential work. Like teach your kid anything.
I'll give you the perfect example. A week or two ago, I heard a cafe near our house was collecting stuff for Sandy relief. One of the things they needed were newborn clothes. I posted about it to my building listserv and collected a bunch of clothes and formula and diapers within the same day. Now all I needed to do was bring it over to the cafe. A day passed, consumed with pick ups here and dropoff there and retracing steps looking for the beloved cat toy this one lost and searching through the lost and found for the other one's winter jacket and oh shit, I almost forgot the baby has a checkup. The next day passed in just the same way. I kept looking at the bag of Sandy Relief stuff and flagellating myself. This is important, I thought, I need to make this a priority. And I did. The next day, after school, I brought the bag to pick up and dragged the kids over to the cafe and dropped it off. Except that I wanted to be able to have a conversation with them about it, about being a member of a community and how everyone needs help sometimes and its important to do that. But the kids hadn't talked me me all day and were fighting about who would get to tell me about the fire drill first and there just wasn't time. So all I managed to say about it was, "Mommy needs to run in here to drop these clothes off for a family who can't stay in their house because of the hurricane." and honestly, I'm fairly certain the kids stopped listening after "Mommy needs --"
These are the fails which make me feel like a lousy mother. But then I think that thoughtful parenting isn't a pass/ fail sort of thing. Its something you work at every day, and hopefully the working at it is as much as a life lesson as the life lessons I'm not imparting on purpose.
When David recommended this middle-grade book Wonder to me as a bedtime book to share with Primo, I was dubious. He said it was about a very severely deformed little boy who starts school for the first time in 5th grade. He gets bullied, he said. Sounded suuuuuuper depressing. Big-time downer.
But he kept bothering me about it. "Just read a few pages," he said, "I think you're going to love it."
My husband is a smart guy sometimes, especially when it comes to matters literary.
I started reading the book with Primo about a month ago and we finished it last night. And now I'm sad -- the way you are when you finish a book so consuming you don't want to let it go.
Here's what I love about the book: it is, in fact, about a very severely deformed little boy who starts school for the first time in the fifth grade, and he does in fact get bullied but it is not even remotely depressing. In fact, its one of the most deeply inspiring books I've read in a long time. Its hard to write a book that is uplifting without being maudlin or sentimental but Wonder gets it just right. RJ Palacio follows the little boy, August, from September to June, in his first year of school. As you can imagine, its no cake walk at first -- or really, for almost the whole year. But by the time the year ends, something miraculous, and totally believable, happens. The other kids, and us as readers too, learns to see past August's face. Its simple and maybe even predictable but the trajectory is so well drawn, so vivid and touching, it packs a powerful punch.
And here's the other thing -- the story is incredibly relatable, despite being about a condition that is, in this day and age, almost unheard of. The particulars don't matter though. Even as we as readers wonder how Auggie or his parents could go through life saddled with the enormity of his burden, we also can understand. Everyone of us has something that makes us feel apart, like an outsider -- its just most of us are able to hide these things, unlike Auggie.
I must have broke down in tears half a dozen times throughout the book but at the end, I was left exactly as I like to be left at a book's conclusion -- feeling hopeful, feeling motivated to be a little better than I was before. I know that Primo felt the same way. And that's what I think is so spectacular about R. J. Palacio's story - its the right story for kids to hear at a time they can (hopefully) still really hear it. I genuinely feel like Primo will carry some of Wonder's message with him and try to be, as August's teacher likes to say, a little kinder than necessary, every day.
This morning, it feels fantastic to have rocked the vote. This morning, i'm glad I took all three of my children with me to the voting booth. Hopefully, they learned that every vote counts.
No matter how much of a pain it is to cast it.
Yes, yesterday, at the voting booth, I wasn't so euphoric.
I'm going to pause here to point out, for the record, how much I value my right to vote. How much I respect it. Which is to say, do not mistake my whining for ingratitude. I LOVE MY VOTE. Of course, the greatest testament to my gratitude is the fact that I stayed at the voting place, even after I saw the line around the block. The line wouldn't have been a big deal were I by myself. Since I was with the three kids and my grandmother, it sent a chord of terror done my spine.
Didn't help that I'd come directly from taking the baby to get her shots at the pediatrician, or that she was overdue for a nap. Also didn't help that in my coterie was a perpetually-whiny, incurably-impatient five year-old as well as that child's sworn enemy, who happens to be my eldest child. My grandmother was there, too. Her and a shopping cart full of melting groceries. We only waited an hour and a half there but I have to say, it felt like at least a whole work day.
Suffice it to say, it was not the enriching lesson on democracy, as I'd hoped.
It was, let's be frank, a shit show.
If I didn't really, truly treasure my right to vote, I would have spun on my heel and got the hell out of there. I won't lie -- it occurred to me. The thought, "Fuck it. I just can't." did occur to me. I know it occurred to other people, too, because the woman who got in line behind me, a woman my mom's age, with no children at all, said as much.
"Oh this is bullshit," she said, "I'll just go home and vote in four years."
But she didn't. She stayed. We all did. And in return, my children tortured everyone.
When I approached the school where we vote, I saw right away that the line snaked all the way out the door and around the block. I'm not good at estimation but I'm gonna guess five thousand people? No, that can't be right. Let's just say it was a freaking lot. Enough to give me heart palpitations.
"We'll come back later," I told my grandmother, "But we can't come back too late, or else it'll be worse, with people getting off work."
While we were deliberating whether to stay or go, a big group of people were allowed entry and the line got short enough that it just stretched to the corner, not around the corner. Something about this small change swayed me. It was exactly like how stores price everything at $.99 rather than a dollar because the cent off really tricks your brain into thinking you're getting a deal. The line decreased only by like ten, fifteen people but I suddenly felt optimistic.
That was short-lived. As soon as we stopped walking, children made their pressing needs known.
Seconda was "dying of hunger."
Primo was "sick and tired of his stupid sister torturing him."
Terza was "WAAAHHHHHHHHH!"
Nonnie was concerned about the Turkey Hill ice cream she'd bought on sale.
I convinced my grandmother to hold our place in line for a bit while I let the kids push Terza on a swing across the street. This boosted morale somewhat. Then we returned to our line-waiting and soon enough, some official-looking person directed our district-dwellers to a different line, inside. We lugged the shopping cart, screaming baby and fist-fighting children up the stairs and joined a different line. Which, after a minute or two, I realized snaked back somehow, to the same line we had been on.
"Is this the line for distirct 88?" I asked the people in front of me.
"No," said one lady.
"Yes, "answered another.
"Nobody knows," said someone else.
"This is bullshit," said the woman behind me.
Thus began a debate about what the hell kind of line we were on. The line I had just left began the exact same debate. The baby started clawing at my face and my children laid dow in a supine position on the floor. Nonnie remarked that her ice cream was melting.
"Fuck it," I thought, "Let's just go home."
But no! No! NO! We would persevere! Standing in line with three badly-raised children (and who'se fault is THAT?) was an infinitesimal price to pay for the right to vote! I imagined the suffragettes who'd won me this right and how much more they'd had to endure. I decided to tell Seconda about the suffragettes. She made it quite clear she didn't give a flying fig about them.
"I DON"T WANT TO VOTE!" she yelled, "THIS IS THE MOST BORNG THING EVER!"
Ahhhhhh. How lovely to pass on the gravity of this day to the young minds I'm helping to mold. So glad we could experience this historic event together.
"You can't vote anyway!" I barked at her.
"WHAT?" her eyes popped out of her head. She was outraged, betrayed, "WHY NOT?"
"Because," Primo explained, "Children don't make good decisions."
"THEN WHY ARE WE HERE????" bellowed Seconda.
Everyone was looking at us. My grandmother was melting in hunilation like her Turkey Hill ice cream.
"Because,"I hissed, "Mommy is going to vote. And you are going to help. And learn things. And be inspired."
The hubbub caught the attention of someone in charge.
"Are you in district 88?" he asked.
"That depends," I almost said, "Is that the one whose turn it is now?"
"OK. come on," he said, leading us through the throng to the gymnasium which was full of smaller throngs.
Sometimes it pays to have the worst-behaved kids in the room. People can't wait to get rid of you.
We waited on line in the gym for another 30-45 minutes. I put my down coat on the floor and let Terza crawl around on it for a bit and then when she started ctaerwauling again, I asked one of the helpers if I could use a folding chair to nurse her.
I was kind of hoping that the sight of my bared breasts would scare people away. It didn't. I was contemplating just hosing them down with breast milk but then I reminded myself that it was GOOD that everyone was voting like this. Democracy and everything.
While I was nursing the baby, Seconda waltzed up to the front of the line and asked, real casually, if she could vote, please. Nice one, Sec. No, they told her. She was a child.
"Awwww," she whined. That is her speciality.
Finally, finally we got our ballot and then it was quick. Whiz Bam, fill it out. Scan the thing. Done and done. Then i felt GREAT.
"WE DID IT!" I yelled, giving all the kids high fives and feeling terribly excited and proud of us, "WE VOTED!"
I'm glad I don't have to do it for another four years, though.
I wonder how many hurricane babies were created over the past week?
And how many hurricane divorces? Because when you already have one, or two, or wait for it -- three babies running around your apartment with an intense case of cabin fever and record amounts of energy, there is no slim possibility of banishing boredom with some carnal embraces. And without the carnal embraces, all you're left with is bickering. Especially when you've just moved into a new apartment and there's about five thousand little, totally-non-essential things to be done to make Mama of the House happy and Daddy of the House beleaguered.
I've been trying to trap David at home to hang up pictures and change lighting fixtures and seal the countertop forever, and now I have but after five days at home with Franken-children, he's too grumpy to comply. We are both nearing fatal levels of grumpiness. Kids not faring much better. Seconda and Primo are locked into mortal kombat sibling rivalry from where there may be no return. Getting back to school yesterday was a tiny reprieve but then with the day off today, it was back to warfare. Those two will end up getting a divorce if we lose any more days of school.
Of course, its pretty damn innocuous stuff compared with losing your home and everything you have. So I feel duly guilty about complaining. In atonement, I think I'll volunteer my husband to donate blood or manually scoop water out of a flooded tunnel.
School's been closed all week, and then, of course, this Tuesday, too. If my own desperation to unload my kids to someone else is any indication, babysitters, those who are mobile, are rolling in it, with no shortage of work this week.
I'm considering scribbling a handwritten sign to tape up in my lobby, "Sitter wanted ASAP. $1000/ hour." I just worry they might get a higher offer. Maybe I should scrawl, "Sitter wanted ASAP. I'll give you whatever you want. No references required. Experience unnecessary. Just come quickly."
Wow. The stories surfacing now about the damage and devastation caused by Sandy are just heart-breaking. But for every sad story I read, I find a heart-warming one about little acts of kindness and generosity as New Yorkers try to find ways to help. My aunt, who just got power and water back in her apartment on the Lower East Side, is full of first hand stories of neighbors banding together, sharing flashlights, taking turns groping their way up and down fourteen flights of stairs to get the food and water being handed out in the neighborhood. I've gotten a half dozen emails from friends and neighbors collecting needed items to drive over to Red Hook. It's little stuff, so small in the face of what's been lost, but its a start. If you're looking for ways to help with Sandy recovery, there's plenty.
Nicole is a parenting writer who contributes essays and articles for magazines like Parenting, Parents, American Baby and Babble. She lives in Brooklyn with three children, one husband and a morbidly obese goldfish.