We don’t have a lot of family photos in my house these days.
I know, it’s bad.
It’s bad because my son is 14 months old, toddling himself around everywhere, talking, laughing, playing, exploring and making life equally chaotic and equally joyful. I should be snapping every precious memory of it and framing those memories for all to see.
The problem is that I do snap a lot of pictures. But they’re mostly just of him. Or me and him. Or his toes next to my toes. Or a blurry poorly attempted “selfie” (dear Lord, who coined that term?) of the two of us laughing into the shaking camera of my iPhone.
Or we have other pictures.
Pictures of my son and my husband. The two of them. Throwing rocks. Pointing at planes. The backs of their heads or a side-view profile that I hastily tried to capture while some sacred father-son moment passed between the two of them.
We have almost no pictures of the 3 of us.
I guess that’s because it is just the 3 of us.
I used to romanticize the fact that I moved away from home. I built up images of myself in my head, romping around the big city wrapped in Fall scarves, carrying my badge of independence like it was a prize I wanted everyone to know I’d claimed. I did it! I wanted to declare, I moved away. I moved to the other side of the country and stayed there. I didn’t just head East for college: I got a job, got married, rented an apartment and built a life for myself, by myself. Staying out East was the ultimate proof that I was a strong woman, a brave woman, a root-less woman.
But turns out, as the years go by, my romantic idea was just that – a romantic idea. It’s all a farce once you start your own family. Because as the days get lonely and the nights get perpetually longer and all you and your husband want is to drop the baby off with Grandma for a few hours – it gets tough to be the ones who are away. When your kid knows that FaceTime is synonymous with “Nanny”, well, it’s easy to let the nostalgia for home settle into your soul and stay there.
Some days are harder than others. Some days are better than others. But regardless of the ups and downs of each day, there is one good that has come from living away from our families. There is one good that I can claim as ours and be proud of and smile upon.
We are our own family.
We’re it. We’re all we’ve got in the nitty-gritty day-to-day. We are figuring it out – the 3 of us. We have a strength and an intimacy and a joy that exists only within the walls that we’ve labored over ourselves. Our laughter and tears and accidents and upsets are ours and ours alone. The poop-explosion laundry emergencies, date nights set in a living room full of baby toys, afternoons of “will you please take G to the park so I can have a moment to breathe?” crises – they are the mark of a real, living breathing family.
One of us might be always covering for the other. One of us might always be on the outside, taking the picture. But it’s turning out okay. We’ve got the love thing figured out.
Well, friends, this is a pivotal moment for us. We’ve received an invitation to go party it up at a classier, prettier, and much more highly pink-ified writing establishment than the run-down digs we’ve got over here.
The ever-so-poignant mother, wife, and blogger extraordinaire, Mrs. Toes, has asked us to pay her a little visit. That’s right, we’re guest blogging!
So come on over to Mrs. Toes and read all about my November bah-hum-bug spirit. If we’re lucky, we’ll leave with glitter in our hair.
It’s me. Mom.
You’re asleep upstairs. You’re probably wedged into the corner of your crib right now, with your thumb in your mouth and Blue Hippo tucked under your other hand. You’ve probably turned your head so that your nose faces the ratty old t-shirt that smells like me – the one I stuck along the side of your crib that I conveniently keep forgetting to wash. But you don’t seem to mind.
I just made your lunch. I packed all of your favorites into the small Tupperwares with the red lids and zipped them all inside your robot lunch box. I don’t know too many one-year-olds with robot lunch boxes, so that makes you pretty cool. Coincidentally, I also don’t know too many one-year-olds who can say the word “robot” the way you can, so tonight I declare you to be officially pretty cool and pretty smart. My God, buddy, with those qualities, you’ll rule the world.
But I digress.
I’m avoiding the purpose of my letter, so here goes nothing:
Pal, a sad thing happened today. A teacher died at a school in our town. She was a teacher, like Mommy, and she died doing a job she seemed to really love. Mommy didn’t know her at all, but it is still really sad for many, many reasons.
I’m afraid you’re going to grow up in a society where unsafe things happening at school will no longer be unexpected. I think by the time you have your first box of pencils, many adults will no longer feel as shocked or horrified as we once did by tragic (that means sad) events occurring in the places kids go to learn. We will become de-sensitized (that means numb, which means no feelings) to teachers and kids dying at the hands of others. I’m afraid we’ll almost expect a lack of safety in schools, and likewise expect a lack of trust from the students in those schools.
But kiddo, I’m writing to tell you a truth I learned very early on in my life. I’m writing to tell you a truth I want you to hear and try to never forget. I want you to remember these words on playgrounds and in school bathrooms and on the soccer field at recess. I want you to know that,
most kids are good.
Most kids are good kids. Most kids are awesome kids. Most kids love learning, love being together, and love school. All kids are trying to figure themselves out. All kids are making mistakes as they go. But buddy please don’t ever forget that,
most kids are good.
Let me tell you about some of my students. Are you ready? They’re hilarious. You might start laughing. Here goes:
- there’s the boy who walks into my classroom everyday with a Prince Harry joke for me. He knows I love Prince Harry. He goes out of his way to learn a new fact about him on the news and harass me with the information. I love it. It’s so funny.
- there’s another boy who is reading “The Maze Runner” for the first time. He can’t get enough of it. He comes into my room before school starts to talk with me about the book. I overflow with teacher joy.
- there’s a girl who didn’t feel confident about her writing at the start of the year. I won’t lie to you, she struggled on her first assignment. But on her second assignment – wow – she knocked it out of the park. She blew me away with her thoughts and poise. I remember giving her the second assignment back, with a really good grade on it. She absolutely beamed. But she beamed privately at her seat and didn’t make a fuss to anyone about it. That’s how Mommy knew it really meant the world to her.
- a student gave me a mini-Twix bar yesterday. So that was great.
- a kid emailed me with a question about something on the Homework Calendar on my website. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR – they actually use my homework calendar!?! VICTORY IS MINE!
- this morning, a student tried to barter with me. He told me he’d read the challenging book I recommended, so long as I agreed to write a letter of reference for him. I told him he’s such a stand-out student that I’d gladly, and with enthusiasm, write the recommendation even if he was reading The Bernstein Bears, but that he still had to read the challenge book. His awkward laugh and shy smile when he registered the reality of my compliment was perfect. He left feeling like the gifted young man he is.
Most kids are good. I am reminded time and again, each day, of the power behind that statement. I show up to work and am impressed, challenged, encouraged, and pushed beyond the limits of my imagination by the young men and women who walk through my classroom door. I love spending my days with kids, buddy, I really do.
But more than I love them, I love you. Before I knew I wanted to be a teacher or a writer or a wanna-be actress, I knew I wanted to be a mom. And I hate that there are days, and weeks, and months when I fear for your safety and mine, when I think about having to choose our physical well-being over my love of teaching. I hate that there are some days when my anxiety upon walking through the doors to my school is palpable, that I have to fight my thoughts and pray away my tears. I hate that I have to pray fervently for your protection, and that there are parents who have lost their wholeness because schools aren’t always the safe places they should be.
I hate that I have to use the word “most” and not “all.”
I hate that the reason I’m writing this letter is because a young teacher lost her life.
I will try to shield you from the news as you grow up, sweet boy. I will try to protect you from the truths I don’t think you’re ready for. I will try to help you make sense of the world around you, as you also seek to make sense of words like grace and love and holiness. I will try, sweet boy, I will try.
But for whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever you start to question and doubt like all of the adults around you do now, please don’t ever forget,
most kids are good.
For however long Mommy’s a teacher, she loved every single day of it.
Let’s hold hands when we walk into school together tomorrow, okay? I think we’ll both feel braver that way.
See you in the morning. I’ll try not to burn your waffles like I did yesterday.
Over coffee several weeks ago, a friend asked me to describe the moment I first felt like a real mom.
I know what she wanted.
She wanted a scene from my hospital bed the night they wheeled my sleeping baby boy in to see me. She wanted to know about the way my voice caught in my throat when I unwrapped him from his blankets and saw his wrinkled, precious little baby toes. She wanted to hear about how I held my breath for several minutes just so I could hear him breathing quietly against my chest. She wanted me to recount the sound of the ticking clock, a sound that grounded me in reality and confirmed I wasn’t living in a dream. She wanted to know I felt like a mom then, but I didn’t.
I feel like a mom today. I felt like a mom this morning. I’ve been feeling like a mom all week. As I fight to get my son back to bed in his now habitual 2:30 a.m. wake-up, a fight that he apparently is only willing to have with me – I feel like a mom. As I stand in the bedroom with my third cup of coffee to assess the damage from the night before – 2 diapers, 2 peed-on crib blankets, Orajel teething medicine, tear-stained pillows from Mom and Baby – well, I guess I feel like a mom then.
For a very long time I thought I wouldn’t get to be a mom. Or, well, I thought I would have to work really hard to be able to become a mom. And as it goes with anything we’re told we cannot have, or don’t have, or desperately want to have – we spend all the years without it creating a fairytale around the day when we actually get it. I spent a lot of years creating a fairytale around motherhood. I imagined only and all of the good stuff – the cuddles and the giggles and the grass at our feet as we ran. I imagined long walks before dinner and Friday night movie nights and anything that was tainted with rose colors and kissed by rainbows and butterflies. I imagined a parenting fantasyland in which everything was perfect and nothing ever went wrong. I imagined a Mother-Me who was always kind, always smiling, who was patient, laid-back, carefree and breezy. I do not know from where I got this fantasy Mother-Me because, friends, I have never ever been “breezy.”
I will never be the fantasy Mother-Me I pictured. And my little boy will never be the fantasyland version of the baby I created in my head either. I look at the reality of motherhood, and for perhaps the first time in the 10 months of my son’s life, I really truly, feel like a mom.
I see his spit-fire personality; his impatient, vivacious, bursting-at-the-seams personality that so closely mirrors my own, and I feel like a mom. I see the same tendencies in him that I fight in myself and I wonder and I pray, how will I guide him through that with grace? How will I teach him to embrace his curiosity, to channel his impulsivity, to contain his quick-to-frustration temperament while I am still learning for myself at the same time? How will I set boundaries that still provide him his freedoms?
As I use stern yet (I hope?) calm words to redirect my son who is screaming and kicking when I move him away from the glass table he continues to bang relentlessly on – I feel like a mom.
When I find myself taking deep breaths while G arches his back and bends his legs backward so that I can’t put him in the stroller he doesn’t want to go into – I feel like a mom.
When my little boy lets out a guttural belly-laugh from my tickling and silly faces – I feel like a mom.
When I search endlessly for sleep solutions on the internet and drive myself silly with self-doubt, frustration, and mistrust of my own instincts – I feel like a mom.
When my son reaches out for me in the middle of the night and nestles his face into my chest – I feel like a mom.
As I pray each day that my little boy will blossom and grow in healthy and humble ways in spite of me – I feel like a mom.
In the hours when I am utterly exhausted, when I wish someone would come serve as my stand-in, when I work to keep my own anger and impatience in check, when I realize I’m this poor boy’s only hope – these are the moments when I feel like a mom.
I don’t think that is the picturesque version of motherhood my friend wanted to hear. I’m not sure the bleeding trenches of motherhood is the stuff of TV movies or wistful novels or the dreams of hopeful young girls like I used to be. But these are the moments when I realize, when I know, that it’s me. It’s still me, and I’m a mom. Not some fantasy Me, not some other worldly Me, but a Me who is flawed and human and learning and here and working and trying and faking-it-till-I-make-it and doing the very best for my little boy that I can possibly do.
There’s no roses or butterflies in this house.
Just me and my boy.
It’s as good a day as any for us to keep figuring this thing out together.
(Based on events from last week).
I’m staring at a pile of baby vomit. It taunts me, just like the last pile did. Come on, lady, come and get me. Just try to scrub me out of this carpet. Think you can soak these high chair straps long enough to get my smell out? Think again. I own you. Vomit is so sinister. It’s heckling me, I can feel it.
I start scraping and scrubbing. Note the intentional verb choice – I am literally scraping at my rug with carpet cleaner. I am scraping the straps of G’s high chair with Lysol wipes. I am running my arms back and forth until they start throbbing, and then my sick boy starts screaming from the spot where he’s playing in the living room. I guess my work with the throw-up will have to wait.
I find G, who is pitifully sitting amidst a pile of toys with snot dripping down his nose and his thumb in his mouth. He is sobbing and looking up at me with the most helpless, sick-boy eyes. I pick him up and he snuggles into my chest. Tears soak my shirt. Nose boogies go everywhere. His thumb goes back in his mouth. I can tell he would like to stay in this position for the rest of the day.
But I can still smell the vomit in the carpet. If I don’t get to it now, my house will smell like this forever. Forever. So I become a bad parents and put cleaning above the needs of my child and, after holding him for a few minutes, I put him back down with his toys on the floor. He screams. Okay, super. New plan: Pick him back up. Rub back, hold face. Soothe, calm. I put him back down. SCREAM. New plan #2: Attempt to distract. Wave new toys in his face, clang his balls together, show him books. SCREAM. He looks at me with a quivering lip and giant crocodile tears pooling on the floor. I am running on about 4 hours of sleep and start to cry too. Where is my live-in nanny when I need her? Where is my maid? Did my night nurse decide to take a vacation this week?
I decide it is time for the unthinkable. It is time to utilize my most ultimate form of parental back-up. It is the thing I swore I’d never do, never use, or allow myself to reach for at any point of desperation. But I don’t really care. I think I reached a point of no return. With throw-up wafting through the air and a baby that demands my arms for an entire 24-hour period, I think I’ve found my desperate.
I flick on the DVD player.
I turn the TV on.
Baby Einstein comes to life in my living room.
I wait with bated breath for my son’s reaction.
I am a mother without honor.
Today, I lose parental points for both allowing my son to watch TV, and also for the crazy get-up he’s wearing in these pictures (yes, I know, but did I mention I had to change his outfit in the middle of the night?). However, I think I gained points for no longer having the smell of vomit in my carpet and on my son’s high chair.
Can we consider it a day I came out even on the parental scoreboard?
I don’t know anything about Pinterest.
Correction, I don’t want to know anything about Pinterest. Or at least, any more than I already do.
I know you find pictures of wedding flowers and dream kitchens and Hallmark sayings and tack them up to an imaginary board. I know people can look at your boards (I think?) and maybe you can even have a group board about kittens you love or new shoes a whole group of girlfriends want to buy.
Here’s the only other thing I know about Pinterest, which is why I refuse to sign up for it:
It’s a place where women compete with each other.
Not even kidding with you. It is the mecca of woman against woman, my home is prettier than your home, I make a better made-from-scratch-handmade-handtossed-whatever-you-want-to-call-it soufflé cake thingy than you do.
As a new mom, I’m still learning the ropes as to what makes me a better mother than you. I’m learning (slowly) the ways in which mothers compete with each other for honor and public glory. I am learning there is sacred ground only the fiercest competitors tread. Should you dare to aspire to such greatness, your Pinterest board better damn well be stocked with goodies – and they better be more original and require more hours of labor – than the Mommy pinning next to you. This is the ultimate Mommy Competition Event. Friends, we speak of it in only a whisper. This is The One Year Old’s Birthday Party.
At this point in the journey, this is what makes me or breaks me as a mother. That’s right, ladies. Wo-man your battle stations. Get our your glue guns, your paper cutters, and your most impressive Pinned recipes because, as I am learning, my generation of women go ALL OUT for the one year birthday party. All out.
This year, I received 3 mail-delivered perfectly fonted invitations to one-year-old birthday parties. THREE. These were not email invites or Facebook event groups, these were invitations. Like, fancier than my wedding invitations, invitations. The birthdays had themes - themes! – of which party goers were asked to be aware as they prepared to attend and gift shop. Each invite had multiple pictures of the sweet little one – from birth to year 1 – and all had some sort of a quote from the Bible or Dr. Seuss or Winnie the Pooh. Not that these are not honorable literary choices, but friends…
what the what?!?!
These are one year olds. One year olds. Since when does a one year old care about his or her own birthday party? Does a one-year-old care about the invitations we design and pay for on Shutterfly? Do one-year-olds care that his or her first birthday is covered in barnyard animals or Disney princesses or that you turned his bathtub into a pirate boat for other one-year-olds to finger paint in? Do you think your baby will even remember this event?
If you answered no to any of those questions (as I have done), then you will join me in the only logical conclusion I can draw to the question of the One Year Birthday Party:
it’s about the mothers.
This is a Mommy thing. These are parent parties. These are Pinterest-inspired, female competitions where we pretend it’s all about the kids. We pretend to decorate and glitter and bedazzle to make it so special for our big 1-year-old boy or girl. Bologna. It’s about the mothers.
I’ve attended a few of these One Year Birthdays. There have been upwards of 30 people at all of them. 30 people! My baby doesn’t even know 6 people, well alone 30. One birthday I attended the baby was sick – that’s right, sick. And the poor thing was forced to be at this rented out room in his little party get-up outfit with boogies running down his nose and tears in his eyes because he felt so miserable. Think he cared about his One Year Birthday bash then? Think he noticed the costumes for the photo booth in the corner while he was trying to find a way to breathe through his congestion on Mom’s shoulder? Think he took notes of the new dress Mommy bought to accompany her fabulous new manicure for his ever-so-memorable event? No and no.
It’s not that I’m against birthday parties. I love birthday parties. Cake, ice cream, balloons, Jumpy Houses – yes, yes, and yes. I can’t wait to throw my son a birthday party when he’s old enough to remember it. I see a piñata on the tree, goodie bags for his friends to go home with, tons of outdoor games, and perhaps a water-balloon fight – this is my vision of his first real birthday party. I see him running around, laughing and talking and chasing his buddies with soccer balls or lightsabers. I’m not able to imagine myself out there, in some fab glam new dress, sipping Pinot and laughing with 30 of my closest friends. I don’t see a theme or a good quote or an Instagram-worthy homemade cake I just happened to whip up the night before.
I see lots of little people – my son’s people. I see boys playing. I see old fold-up card tables and my husband bent over a kickball base, trying to re-position it after a kid slid into it a little too hard. I see togetherness. I see my son smiling.
So ladies, help me hold on to that vision. Help me to not feel pressured to produce a One Year Birthday that will be the stuff of suburban Mom legends. Help me to scratch one thing off the list that I don’t have to compete with you about. Help me to not feel less-than without a Pinterest account and birthday invitations awaiting you in your mailboxes. Can we normalize the One Year, please? Can we just make it about the baby and not about us? Perhaps a few friends and family, perhaps some burgers on the grill, perhaps an adorable two-teeth little guy in his high chair with cake smashed all over his face?
That’s a party I can sign up for.
If it’s a Pinterest Party, well, I guess after this I won’t be invited.
“This class makes me want to die!” he yells as he slams the laptop screen shut. He stands up, knocks his chair to the floor, and walks out of my classroom. Rather, he storms out. Rather, he stomps out. Rather, he slams my door shut in his manner of leaving that is now becoming all too typical. Freak out. Yell. Throw around some expletives. Leave.
But you know what? Of course this class makes him want to die. Of course. It’s a remedial literacy period. It’s an entire class period wholly devoted to the particular area of school that makes him feel completely incompetent. It’s a class where time is spent on the thing he’s learned to hate the most, that requires all of his mental energy, and that seldom shows him the fruits of his labor. Re-learning how to read sucks. Re-learning how to write sucks. It’s like realizing that the relationship you’ve been in for the past 14 years is actually no good. That relationship is actually on a one-way track to Nowheresville with no proposal or wedding bells or babies at the end. What do you do when all you’ve known is that 14 year standstill? What do you do if you let it go and have to start all over again? All. Over. Again. 14 year break ups are a bitch. Facing the teacher and the class that required you to have that involuntary break-up is an even greater bitch. So I get the whole wanting to die thing. I do.
I drive home. I think about my student. I run and re-run the next week of class in my head. I start to change readings. I start to change projects. I start to mentally redesign two week’s worth of material so that there’s an off-chance he won’t want to die when he walks into class. Will I have time to preview those articles on Ebsco? Would that author really respond to my emails? How do you set up Skype in South Africa? My brain is on overload and the wheels do not stop spinning.
I’m still reeling even after laying my son down to bed. I stay up way past my own bedtime and way too late into the evening, and I work and I toil to get some material together that will make my student not want to die. I upload and email and pin-save my documents to get everything ready for him for the next morning. Mind you, I’m doing this for just one out of five of my classes. Thankfully, no one wanted to die in the other four. Well, at least, no one told me.
I go to work the next day and anxiously await my literacy class. I explain our new project, our new readings, our new audience and purpose for writing. I sing and I dance and I do the whole dog-and-pony show just trying, desperately trying, to convince my students this is worthy of their interest and engagement. I say a silent prayer as my aforementioned student gets to work. He opens the computer. He begins tapping on the keys. He finds the article online and actually begins to read it. He’s reading it!
“UGH – I want to die!” he yells. Screen slam. Chair knock-over. Stomping. Storming. Slamming. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Oh. my. God.
Is it possible to actually explode? To have my body actually separate into thousands of tiny particles like the kid in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Is it possible to actually melt from fatigue and demoralization – right here, right now? To drip like wax into the multi-colored carpet of my classroom floor? Because that’s what I feel like doing. The rest of my class of 25 students gives me quizzical looks. I smile and work my powers of diplomacy to get them to move on.
This, friends, is real teaching. This is real reality. I do not know what you imagine when you imagine teachers, but this is it. Here we are. A bunch of hard-working, passionate, bend-over-backward-for-any-individual kid, return-to-the-drawing-board-a-thousand-times kind of people. We get it right a lot of the time. We get it wrong a lot of the time. We face obstacles with our students that are often bigger than us. We uncover victories that are often too subtle for the untrained eye to see. We welcome kids through our doors in whatever shape they’re in, with whatever home life they’ve got, and whatever attitude they have about learning. We work for an unrelenting clientele.
That kid who sits in the back of our classes and says nothing all year – we work for him.
That girl who knocks every assignment out of the park and needs a challenge to reach her personal best – we work for her.
The 3 or 4 students who need proper coaching in constructive group work – we work for them.
The boy who is too distracted by Little Miss Short Shorts to pay attention to my discussion of “The Veldt” – I work for him.
My student who slams computers and leaves in a huff – yes, I work for him too.
I work for these kids. I work for their families. I work for their confidence and competence and risk-taking and set-backs. I work to finally get that girl into class on time. I work to see the kid who lost his dad crack a smile. I work to get the two all-American athletes to include the weird kid in an authentic, non-patronizing way. I work to get my students to love books. I work to get them to trust adults. I work to get them to understand, and respect, the boundaries. And I work to get them to develop a coherent thesis statement.
I go home thinking about 100 individual kids. I stay up at night replaying conversations, recreating documents, writing meaningful feedback on essays, and responding to homework questions over email. Could I do that differently tomorrow? Did she accept that feedback well? Did I stop to make him feel heard? Did I email that parent? For the love of God, do they know what a verb is yet?
It’s exhausting work. It’s thankless work. It’s all-consuming work.
It’s work that cannot be measured on any high-stakes test or government evaluation system. The day my student walks in my room and feels like he does not want to die will be the day I count myself successful. Until then, the warriors shall battle on.