Friday, May 24, 2013

Riff on Hair

I have three daughters, all of whom were born with a lot of hair. They have beautiful hair, unique each in their own way. And yet I can (and will) complain: the styles, the clips, the products, the ponies, the knots, the haircuts, the mommy-cuts, the bangs, the growing out of the bangs, the lost brushes and clips and hairbands, the washing and conditioning and brushing, her wishing her hair was longer or shorter or curlier or straighter or just any way other than how it is. So it is to be a girl with hair.

Man, I look at little boys and just see hours of reclaimed time, not thinking about or doing hair.

Of course, it's not all bad. I love braiding Ruby's wet, clean hair, as she sometimes asks me to do. I don't mind helping them take care of their hair and I do my best to help them look presentable.

But people fetishize hair. Because we are redheads, everywhere we go, people talk about our hair. Usually people are say nice things and we say thank you, and I whisper in the kids' ears: you're smart, too. I have--no shit--been asked if my kids' hair is real. (Um, no, we just spent hours in the salon having my three-year-old's hair dyed to look like this. Of course...) I've also been insulted by so-called compliments ("Did your hair used to look as lovely as hers?") Red hair is a curiosity, and in literature it's always been a curse (Anne of Green Gables hates hers). So it's a strange thing: the attention we redheads receive.

Once, when Josh and I were in our childless early twenties, we were walking briskly down upper Broadway when one of those street salespeople blocked our way. He pitched us with a loud declaration: "Look at this. A couple with terrific hair!"

"Aw, thanks stranger trying to sell me some expensive haircut that I don't want. You're so kind."

Annoying, sure, but perhaps less so than the street heckler who, a couple days ago, said, "Smile for me, Red," as I was coming out of the dentist, numb and grumpy from having had two fillings replaced (um, yes, as you may know, it's been a super week here). I didn't respond, but if I had, it would have been unfit for family media consumption.

As annoying as it is, to have an identifiable feature that gets noticed and remembered becomes inextricable from one's sense of self. I can't imagine losing my hair, as a friend with alopecia has. Who would I be? We want our daughters, and our selves, to be about so much more than how we look, and yet we are physical beings. Our bodies do matter. I found this out first-hand when I couldn't take the underhanded comments anymore, as Bella's bright, young tresses increasingly served as a painful contrast against my greying, dulling locks. I did something about it, and it made all the difference.

So it is to be a girl with hair.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When It Rains, It Pours

When it rains, it pours. Which is another way of saying that on the day when you find the lost iPad under a child's bed and discover that the screen is cracked, you will cut your finger on a shard of broken screen glass; and then you will reach into a closet to find the clear tape to cover the shattered screen, only to catch a different finger between the closet doors, rendering your right pointing (and typing) finger on fire with pain, and then numb and black, making you dance and holler and cry while holding your flattened finger (the cut one seems fine, now) under the cold tap, while your toddler is rendered speechless by the antics of her own mother; and all this before 9am.

When it rains, it pours. Which is another way of saying that later that same day, you will find yourself spending more than four hours in a walk-in orthopedics clinic to have your daughter's arm x-rayed to make sure that it isn't broken, because she fell doing a cartwheel a week ago and you said, "You're fine, buck up," but a week later she is not fine, and she complains non-stop, and her father says, "when are you going to take her to see someone about that arm?", so finally you agree to do what any good mother would have done days earlier: that is, believe her child when she says she is truly injured, and take her to the doctor, and when you get there there's a kid with bleeding, mangled fingers waiting before you, so you sit in an exam room being completely ignored because, let's be honest, your kid is basically fine, and that kid is having his finger nail extracted, until finally the doctor comes to tell you that it's just a sprain; i.e. you were right.

When it rains, it pours. Which is another way of saying that when you're in the middle of figuring out the brain-splitting details of moving your family an entire 5.5 miles away within the same city, and your home is half in boxes, and you're trying to figure out how to pack and not lose sight of your kids' camp gear which they will need in less than a month, and you're dealing with the sad fact that after some twenty years since you started college, it's time to part with your Lit Hum and CC books, because your new place won't have room for them, you will suddenly be offered your first well-paid writing gig in who-knows-how-long, and it will of course have a deadline that coincides perfectly with the dates of your move, which is to say that it all must be done at the same time.

When it rains it pours. Which is another way of saying that while you're worrying about your move and your stuff and your job, and your kid's minor injury, and your own minor injury; on that same day, halfway across the country in a place you've never been, something terrible will happen: a tornado that will leave in its wake damage out of a sci-fi movie, and will take the lives of children at school; a terrible nightmare that you've never had, but now probably will; and it hurts you so much to know that this can happen in this world, to feel the pain of yet another disaster, after Sandy, Sandy Hook, and Boston, so recent, that you can't describe it in any other way than with a cliche: your heart aches.

When it rains, it pours.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Creative Ambition in Mommyville

Did you ever watch a TV show, or see a movie, or read a book, and think: whoever wrote that knows about my life? (I wish I could say that about Girls, but alas, not so much these days.)

Well, that was essentially my experience at a recent staged reading of Anna Fishbeyn's play, Sex in Mommyville. Despite the headline-grabbing title, the play isn't (only) about sex. It's about an under-appreciated writer and mother (Artemis), who struggles with her own intellectual, feminist identity while wrestling with the demands of her family: an over-worked husband (Zeus), two exhausting kids, and overbearing parents. It also happens to be laugh-out-loud funny.

I was delighted to realize how much Artemis and I had in common: advanced, under-utilized degrees in literature, novels under the proverbial bed, successful husbands whom we love but sometimes seem to have grown Blackberry tumors on the tips of their fingers. (The similarity ended with her insatiable randiness, it must be said.)

The play is autobiographical fiction: similar to the story of the playwright's life, but with significant changes of her choosing (an age-old genre, really). And it is very brave. Like some of the very best humorists and essayists, Fishbeyn is not afraid to mine her own life, and the lives of her family members, for humor and pathos (think: Nora Ephron or David Sedaris).

While the struggle of the mother at the center of a busy family might have been generic--an everywoman--Artemis is not every woman. She is frisky, not cold. She is intellectual, staying up all night reading philosophy, not watching Real Housewives. She has Russian immigrant parents, whom she loves even though they take her husband's side and let themselves into her apartment at exactly the wrong times.

A lot has been said about the gulf between feminist ambition and the reality of motherhood, and this play adds a whole new thread to that discussion. For writers and artists who can't or don't escape the home to an office, finding balance and maintaining ambition can be herculean tasks.

Sex in Mommyville is currently in pre-production, and hopes to come to an Off-Broadway theater soon. Here's hoping lots of other mommies (and daddies) get to see it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Confession: I Love Mother's Day

It's a so-called "Hallmark holiday," beleaguered by consumerism and guilt-buying. It's the reason why shelves are full of icky #1 Mom mugs, bad chocolate, overpriced cards, and other detritus that ends up overflowing landfills. Its founder, Anna Jarvis, essentially disowned it.

Before I had kids, I called my mother and told her I loved her. Maybe sent flowers. That was about it. No big fuss, and no guilt. It was a Hallmark holiday, after all.

But now, as a mom of three, I must confess that I love Mother's Day. Here's why:

1. Secrets. All that whispering between my daughters and their dad leading up to the big day was pure joy. These girls love a secret, and they especially love having a secret from me. Bless them.

2. Self-directed art projects. Gotta love those awesome cards and sweet, right?  You know they won't be doing that anymore in only a few years' time. But best of all, it took them many nagging-and-boredom-free minutes to make them (secretly and quietly in their rooms). What mom doesn't love that?

3. Peace and quiet. Josh took all three kids out to buy the ingredients for brunch, and then to his parents' to cook it, leaving me ALL ALONE for almost two hours. I took a shower, without having to stick my head out three times to negotiate with a child. I got dressed, without any visitors. I left the house and walked in the sunshine to a nail salon, where someone soaked and rubbed my feet and put purple polish (aptly named "playdate") on my toes. Yes, my family knows how to pamper a mom.

4. Brunch. My mishpacha put together a meal of egg and whitefish salad, smoked salmon, potatoes (by Bella), arugula-walnut-parmigiano salad (with the most delicious dressing by Aunt Nina), and a beautiful fruit salad with mango, peaches, and pomegranate seeeds (by Ruby). They made sure I had a cup of coffee in my hand, without having to get up to fetch it. When the meal was over, they snapped at me for trying to help clean up. Wow.

5. Cooperation. For some reason, my instructions carry more weight on this day. The kids listen because it's against the understood rules to argue or disobey with me on Mother's Day. (Well, the big kids did. The two-year-old had better get with the program for next year.) Admittedly, it stinks that this isn't the case every day. But hey, I'll take it.

6. Love and appreciation. You'll notice there are no gifts on this list. I didn't get any, and I didn't want any. What I like most about Mother's Day is that my kids were reminded to appreciate me, and they did. They know that that it takes a lot to take care of them. I think that knowledge will go a long way to make them good mothers themselves one future day, should motherhood be in their cards.

All in all, I think Anna Jarvis would have approved.

No, there's no need for kids' day, we told the girls yesterday. Because every day is kids' day. Well, today I appreciate my unique and quirky and difficult and loving and wonderful kids--who made me a mother, after all--just a smidgeon more. And their dad, too.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Where's That T-Shirt From? Ethics, Shopping, and Growing Kids

So I've been thinking a lot lately about clothes. How much we own; how much we wear; how much it costs; where it comes from. When I heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh, I immediately wanted to know what in my closet could have originated there. All it takes is a t-shirt or a towel, and at once the far-away horror on the news is made personal.

I'm thinking about this especially now, because it's coming to the end of the school year and my big kids' uniform clothes are in tatters. On the weekends, they each wear the same two or three outfits over and over. Much of what is in their closets, for one reason or another, does not get worn. Soon it will be summer, and they will need the requisite number of t-shirts and shorts to get them through camp. But where should these clothes come from?

When Bella was in second grade, her class did a theme study on textiles. The idea was to learn about the processes of how things are made by focusing on a specific product, from agriculture to manufacturing. One assignment had the kids looking on garment tags and recording the type of material and the place of origin (T-shirt: cotton, China; Jacket: polyester, Bangladesh).  Far-flung spots like Indonesia, Pakistan, and India were injected into our family's consciousness via our clothing. But to what end?

As part of that unit, Bella's class went on a field trip to a rare working schmata factory in Brooklyn (and I chaperoned: an experience unforgettable for many reasons, but not least because I had baby Louisa strapped to me in a Moby Wrap (cotton, Thailand)--not the typical place to bring an infant.) The factory was busy, the workers were friendly, and the business, we were told by the owners, was at risk. Why? Because of the demand for cheap clothes made in places with cheap labor and zero protections for workers. There was undoubtedly much lost on the seven- and eight-year-olds, many of whom were simply captivated by the big machines and bolts of bright patterned cloth. But the fact that this factory still even exists on our shores is nothing short of amazing to me.

I'm not the only one thinking about the origins of our clothes right now. As the NY Times pointed out, "The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter." Last week on Fresh Air I heard an interview with Elizabeth Cline, who has written a book about the many costs of our society's addiction to cheap clothes. She pointed out that Americans used to spend a much larger percentage of their earnings on clothing. Today, we expect clothes to be dirt cheap, and many people buy a whole new wardrobe (or at least a new outfit) each season.

When Terry Gross asked Cline if her shopping habits have changed since researching and writing this book, she said they had. The main thing she tries to do, now, is wear what she has and take good care of her clothes--and if she needs a few new things, she tries to shop vintage and looks for durable, rather than disposable, garments.

Sounds logical, right? Just buy a few things, make them good things, and take care of them. But as Cline was talking, I found myself wondering about the special case of children. They are growing, and until they stop, they will continue to need new clothes (Eeek! For us that's still a lot of years!). I have the benefit of having three daughters, so I can hand down from one to the next (although once clothes have been through Ruby there's often not much left to hand to Louisa. Also, living in NYC, we are seriously short on space, so I don't always choose to hold onto Ruby's clothes for the 6.5 year hiatus 'til they will fit Louisa).

All this brings me to my point. Bella needs clothes for camp! In the past, I would buy cheap stuff from Old Navy and Target and send her on her way. But it just doesn't feel right to me, knowing what I now know. I would love to buy ethically sourced garments, but it's too expensive to outfit her from American Apparel or the like.

Anyone else out there in my situation, with clothing needs and bags to give away? I'm thinking a kids' summer clothing swap may be in order. Please be in touch if you're in or near NYC, and you're interested.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Gun: The Perfect Gift For Any 5-Year-Old

Did you see the story about the five-year-old who accidentally killed his two-year-old sister with his "My First Rifle," which the family "kept in a corner" of their home? The boy's gun was had been given to him as a gift--a common practice, apparently, in many communities in the US. The manufacturer of the child's gun, a "Crickett rifle", has a "kids' corner" on its website.

Or maybe you heard the story--also this past week--about the Florida 2-1/2-year-old who shot and killed his mother? The boy's father was right there when it happened--he just couldn't get to the child quick enough to prevent the gun from shooting.

I can see, in a way, exactly how this happened. Last week my two-year-old asked me to fill her water cup. In the two seconds it took me to do that, she grabbed my laptop off the table. I turned around, still screwing the lid on the cup, as she smiled and said, "No Loulou!" while dropping the computer hard on the floor. So hard that the computer's screen is completely and utterly broken. ("Oh no. Bow-ken," she said. Cute.) I was right there. I'm usually careful with keeping things out of her reach. But I couldn't prevent her from this random and irrational little outburst of toddleritis. It's a good thing it wasn't a gun.

The bottom line is that I don't get guns for kids, or near kids. I just don't get it. I know I'm full of coastal-urban-intellectual bias. That is to say, I fully recognize that I have trouble understanding the need for guns in people's homes at all. I'm on the far side of a cultural divide that sometimes seems unbridgeable. But being that I live in the same country in which these awful events are continuing to occur, it makes me think about our nation's child safety standards. Shouldn't it be obvious that it's dangerous to have guns near kids?

It need not be said that many more firearm deaths are happening on a daily basis in the hands of older children--i.e. teens. [To get a sense of the incredible danger that guns pose to adolescents with ready access to them, listen to This American Life's two-part series on Chicago's Harper High School. It is eye-opening, and terrifying.] But when it comes to young children, we have expectations and laws about keeping their environments safe.

Among items that have had major recalls for safety concerns in this country are: fleece drawstring hoodies, toys with magnets that a child could swallow, and drop-side cribs. None of these items are designed to kill children, mind you. They are all usually safe if used correctly and under supervision of an adult. But this is exactly the same argument that gun-rights advocates make about guns for and near children.

We know that children are fallible--they don't yet have fully developed brains. The fact of the matter is, no adult is perfect either, or perfectly attached to their child at all times of day. It doesn't make sense to buy a gift for a child that can kill. And it doesn't make sense to keep deadly weapons in any home where a child lives.

Why this is even up for debate in our safety-concious nation remains a mystery to me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mom Guilt: Sunburn Déjà Vu

An early sunburn memory: it was one of those first beautiful hot and sunny weekends of pre-summer, in late May or early June. I was eight or nine, and spent the day at the home of a friend, whose family had a pool. We were wet and active all day: on the swing set, in the water, running around the yard; we had a ball. I had no idea that I was burnt until nighttime, when it hurt to peel off my swimsuit. In the days that followed my back and shoulders ached and stung, and I had hot and cold flashes. I remember my teacher spraying Solarcaine on my back at school, sent in with a note by my mother. The teacher sprayed it on my friend, too. I had red hair, and she was blond. We had both been scorched.

This was not the first or last time I would get sunburned as a kid. It was a regular enough occurrence. Yes, there was sunscreen back then. But it was not used as universally as it is now. We brought it to the beach and other height-of-summer activities. But we certainly did not apply it every time we went outside in the spring and summer, as my kids and their peers are used to doing.

I went on to get sunburned many more times before I really learned my lesson. Some of the worst included my first time skiing in Colorado, age 14 (blisters all over my face), a day at the beach in Tel Aviv, age 17 (same, plus burns over my arms, legs, and chest), and a few times in Costa Rica in my twenties, when I simply failed to reapply sunblock often enough for the equatorial sun. (Despite all this, I have been lucky thus far: the dermatologist says my skin is healthy).

Maybe we parents have learned our lesson from the burns of our youth. We hope, armed with both knowledge and fear, that our kids won't get scorched, and they won't get melanoma. We buy sunblock in bulk, we slather it on our kids, and our kids (amazingly) submit to being slathered and re-slathered. (It definitely was not cool to put on sunblock back in my day. Shhh. Don't tell the kids. The stigma seems to have disappeared.) And it seems to work.

In fact, up until recently my red-headed 10-year-old had rarely had so much as pink summer skin, let alone a real sunburn (with the exception of one day last summer in day camp, when I suspect she didn't adequately reapply after swimming).

That was, until last Sunday, when she went bike riding with her sister and dad. When they left our apartment, it was chilly out and she was wearing a sweatshirt over a tank top with crossed straps in the back. It was still only April; we just recently stopped wearing our down coats. I wasn't in sunblock mode, yet! (I, and not their dad, mind you, as sunblock falls squarely in my domain of things-that-must-be-remembered. Alas.) They biked around the southern tip of Manhattan, and played in the Imagination Playground on the way. They had a great time. And when they got home, late in the day, this is what Bella's back looked like:

As I gently rubbed aloe vera into her red skin that evening, I empathized with my mother. She, too, did what she could to soothe me after my sunburn all those years ago. But neither of us could wish the burn away.

I never blamed my mom for my sunburn, and I still don't. She wasn't even there that day at my friend's house. So, why, then, do I feel so guilty about Bella's burn? Because I should have known. (Says the voice in my head.) I should have protected her. Even though I, too, wasn't even with Bella on her bike ride, I still feel the burden of having failed to protect her from that all-too-familiar sun.

It takes constant vigilance to protect our kids from from every possible wrong that can come to them, and from repeating our own mistakes. We live in a safety-obsessed world, where helmets and pads and sunblock have become de-rigeur. Mostly, this is a good thing, as who can argue with protecting kids from head injuries and sunburns? The problem is that when the expectation becomes perfection, we're all doomed to fail. Or, even worse, we fail to try. We keep kids in instead of letting them outside, lest they get hurt. If we worry too much, it takes away our ability to live.

The truth is, we can't protect our kids from everything. Bad things happen. Life happens. So it always was, and so it will be. Bella still had a great time being active and outside on Sunday. Her skin is fine now (aloe vera works wonders), and the incident served as a reminder to get that sunblock down off the top shelf.

Here's to summer.

Those Funny Kids

Today, no deep thoughts. Just some funny pictures of my kids. That's partly why we have them, after all, innit? They make us laugh. 

Eating Wafels and Dinges in Union Square last December.

Sporting roll-up shades on the C train, just bein' Ruby, and fishing in Prospect Park. 

Eating toast 'n (wearing) jam, wearing Dad's (clean?) undies as a headdress, 
and climbing in Union Square playground.