Thursday, January 30, 2014

Birthdays Are For Mothers

You may have heard me say it before: birthdays are for mothers. We're the ones that hold the memories, and we're the ones who were there. For. Every. Second.

So, memories of this day, eleven years ago:

After giving birth in the early hours of the morning, I was wheeled to a hospital room. The nurse insisted that the baby had to be taken to the nursery for washing or checking or who-knows-what, while my parents took Josh home for a shower and a rest. I protested, but truly, I was in no shape. After several days of early labor and a whole night awake doing the hard work that brought my girl into the world, I was beat. As soon as I laid down in the hospital bed, I fell fast asleep.

I woke up two hours later (at maybe 7 am) and couldn't find that nurse call button fast enough. I sat up, full of anticipation. Ready. The nurse came and put my beautiful red-headed, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked baby in my arms. I held her, and stared at her, and nursed her, for the rest of that day. I felt so many intense emotions: accomplishment, pride, wonder, and love. I'd never felt love like that.

(Makes me think of Stevie Wonder, who got it just so right.)

It's strange watching her grow up, as it all happens so fast that I can remember, though she can't, exactly what she was like when she was 18 months, and three, and six, and nine, and now, eleven. I can see all of those stages in her face: her resourcefulness, her social acuity, her impatience and her kindness. I remember what it felt like to hold her pudgy baby body in my arms, even though now she is almost as big as me.

Watching your kids grow is like experiencing a time warp. They give you a perspective on the passage of time, unlike any that you could otherwise experience. I can't really remember myself eleven years ago. But I can remember Bella, in so many details.

Even a glimpse of someone else's newborn--their slumped bodies, their squinty eyes, their little, desperate yawns--brings it all back to me. I remind myself that grandparents and parents with older children were once smitten with love for their own helpless little sacks. All parents are newborn parents. Our kids may outgrow our nipples and our laps and even our homes, but they're still made out of the magic that we first saw that day when they showed up in the world, teeny tiny, but fully formed.

Photo copyright Julia Smith

Monday, January 27, 2014

Someone Told Me It's All Happening at the . . . Library

This is something in the almost-too-obvious-to-say category, but I'm going to say it anyway: I love the library. Whenever I put a book on hold, and the forget I did, and then get that email saying it's my turn, and then go find my book on the "holds" shelf, and then scan a couple of barcodes, and then slip the prize in my bag to take home, I think: score. It's like going shopping with a magic card that never sends you a bill.

And, bonus, when you're done you get to give the book back so it doesn't gather dust or take up space in your apartment that has zero free bookshelf space.

The books themselves, when they arrive, are beautiful artifacts. They have stamps from branches all over the city (well, almost: not Queens or Brooklyn). They are well-worn, with curling pages and softened bindings that tell a story of appreciation. People have read these books. These books have done their jobs well.

Louisa is in heaven at the children's room in the Bloomingdale library, dashing around, pulling books off the shelf ("Read this! Read this!"), choosing which two will come home with us, and, then, often, will go to bed with her. (Sleeping with books: is that a thing?)

Our new m.o. for voracious reader Ruby is borrowing books for her Kindle. She can be very picky about her books, so borrowing books this way has a myriad of advantages: 1. she can't see the cover, lest there (gasp!) be some deal-braking image on it (say, a girl in a dress); 2. she can try the book, and if she doesn't like it, I haven't lost any money or killed any trees trying to get her to read it (This goes for me, too. Have you ever bought a book you didn't like? I have books on my Kindle that did not get finished. It's depressing.); 3. if she loves the book, and then reads it in one sitting, and demands the sequel RIGHT NOW, we can usually oblige.

(Although, there is always a risk. After borrowing the first Artemis Fowl book, which she adored, we discovered the other seven books in the series were not available to borrow electronically from the NYPL. So she used her Amazon gift card from her birthday to buy them, one at a time.)

I'm on the waiting list right now for a handful of electronic books. (#146 on 109 copies of The Lowland; #13 on 60 copies of Little Failure, #73 on 103 copies of The Goldfinch). This wait-wait-wait-read approach to fiction consumption has its pitfalls: you have to read fast (usually you get 2 or 3 weeks to read a book), and if your number comes up twice at once, that can be a challenge (especially if you happen to have a sick child or a lot of work to do or a husband insisting that you catch up on episodes of True Detective).

Using the library is not as uncomplicated, ethically, as you might think. I do feel a pang of guilt about borrowing books. Just as strongly as I believe that public libraries do a great service to the public, I also believe writers should be paid for their work. The last time I bought books in a bookstore may have been last summer, when we picked up some reading for the big girls to bring to camp. That said, as an avidly book-consuming family, I feel confident that we're still contributing financially to the well-being of writers. Despite our library use, we still easily buy more than half of what we read. But those books we do borrow make a difference in the bottom line, and add variety and ease to our reading habits. So cheers to that.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tale of Three Hungry Sisters

This is what happened one morning last weekend.

It involved teamwork:

And following directions:

And taking turns:

And patience:

And collaboration:

And independence:

And a tiny bit of help from Dad:

And results!:

And Mom felt like she might be out of a job. Which was just fine with her. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

One Year Later

One year! This blog began one year ago, yesterday. Oops, please excuse the passive voice. I started this blog one year ago, yesterday. (Surely, the "I" is central in blogging: something that still makes me nervous). One year of sharing my reactions to dramas big and small in my family, in the media, and in the world.  I'm not sure what possessed me. I'm sure it doesn't feel like a year.

This is actually my second blog. The first one was meant to be an expat-family-log, and only lasted a few posts. When we were preparing to leave New York, a friend told me I should blog about our experiences, and it seemed like a good idea. I stopped because I felt very self-conscious writing about tiny everyday things as they were happening. Our two-and-a-half-years in London were enlightening, life-changing, even--but I was barely able to register how, and in what ways, back when we first arrived.

I knew I wanted to write while we were there, and instead of journaling about the present, I began writing fiction. I wrote story after story, and then, a novel. Just about everything I wrote took place back home in New York. Interestingly, though I had two young children and was pregnant within that time, I wrote very little, if anything, about motherhood. My writing tended to focus on young adults, forging their emerging identities. Perhaps part and parcel of the impulse that kept me from writing about my life in London. Ah, to live the life of the expat writer, examining the familiar from afar.

So, thinking back to a year ago, I wonder what changed. I began this blog soon after I decided I wanted to be a childbirth educator (and have since, indeed, become a LCCE -- Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator). I imagined a forum in which to write about why birth is important, and why every mother deserves a good birth experience. Identities are formed and re-formed throughout life, and the identity of mother is a big one. How that begins, those first minutes and hours and weeks of motherhood, matter.

But then, as I began to write about the world through my two central identity lenses (that old classic, the Jewish mom), I found that the topics on here varied far and wide from pregnancy and birth. The becoming is still interesting to me. But the journey is equally important.

I love reading everyone's responses to posts, and the feeling of community--that we're all in this together--is heartening, indeed. Thanks for reading, and for giving me the support I've needed to keep it going.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Too Close to Home

It's a retort that people offer when defending dangerous behavior, or making an argument to seize the day: "well, you can die crossing the street". But we don't actually expect it to happen. Not here in NYC, a place where pedestrians are everywhere, and motorists are trained (one hopes) to look out for them. No one should have to worry about dying while doing something we all do--by necessity--dozens of times each day.

For one nine-year-old named Cooper Stock, who lived just blocks from us, life ended steps from his own front stoop this past weekend. Crossing the street with his father Friday evening, Cooper was run over by a taxi and killed. 

Hearing this unspeakable news shook me. An acquaintance lives on that corner and heard the father's loud, terrible screams. Three blocks away, I didn't hear the father's screams myself. But I could feel his pain nonetheless. I can't imagine. And yet I do. Yes, there are tragedies that take place every day, in places far and near. But this is our home. 

Crossing the street with children is one of those things that city parents learn to manage from day one. Even pushing a stroller makes the experience different: you can't poke your head out into the street to see if a car is coming when your stroller is out in front of you. As with many aspects of going places with a baby, you relax your timetable and learn to be more patient. You also learn to be defensive when necessary: you stare down the aggressive taxi driver who is inching out into the crosswalk. You teach your children, as soon as they can walk, the meaning of the "walking man" and the "stop hand". You tell them they must hold your hand in the street. Then, you teach them how to cross themselves: watch the lights and the traffic, don't run, be aware.

I have to say that I felt a sick relief when I learned that Cooper Stock was crossing with his dad. That's because had he been alone, there would be some who would automatically blame the child, and assume that it was his inexperience that allowed the terrible accident to occur. And then, by extension, there would be a clamp-down effect, where parents would be discouraged from trusting their kids to cross the street. I still believe that many 9-year-olds, including my own, are capable of crossing the street on their own. If anything, this accident reminds us that we can't protect our children from the roll of the dice that is life. 

No one should have to worry about dying from crossing the street. Saying that makes it sounds like I'm angry at someone--that there is some systemic failing at fault. But, while I support recent efforts to slow down traffic in this city to protect pedestrians, it's unclear whether such efforts would have saved this boy. The taxi driver, no doubt, was negligent. He wasn't looking; he didn't see them. Perhaps he was in a rush, thinking of something else. He did not flee the scene; reports say he was in shock.

 How terrible. Life is fragile. Life can end as oddly and unexpectedly as it sometimes begins.

Today I'm crying for Cooper, a local third grader whom I didn't know, and hoping his family can come to terms, one day, with their loss. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

On Skipping My 20-Year High School Reunion (Guest Post)

Welcome to guest blogger Erica Sininsky, who chose to skip her 20-year high school reunion. Why? Not because of a previous commitment, or because it would have been expensive or inconvenient to attend, but because she still shudders at the very thought of high school. Thank you, Erica, for this honest piece about finding refuge and refusing to be a victim. It makes me, for one, reflect on how becoming a parent has changed the way I reflect on memories of my youth. We all have stumbling blocks in our past that we hope our own children will avoid. What are yours?

On Skipping My 20-Year High School Reunion

I am a 38-year-old woman, mother of two, and I consider myself a no-nonsense type of gal, practical and with my priorities in order. Why oh WHY then do I still have nightmares in which I show up to school for first period 10th grade biology in a towel? The very thought of walking down those cavernous high school hallways makes me shudder. It's not that I think about high school often; but when the thoughts do arise, they are powerful, even frightening. There must be some part of me that continues to lament my high school experience. 

In addition to the towel dream, I sometimes imagine myself in a bathing suit, standing before the entire high school football team, teetering on the edge of a full-blown panic attack. Oh, wait a minute—that wasn’t a dream. That actually happened. 

My high school had a pool, and a graduation requirement of at least one semester of swimming instruction. Co-ed. For some, (hormonally raging 17 year old boys), a fantasy; for me, this was the stuff of nightmares. While the majority of the girls could have stepped out of a J. Crew ad, their lanky figures barely filling out their swimsuits (or so it seemed to me at the time), I represented more of the zaftig type—well endowed, curvaceous, and hippy. (I wore -- no kidding -- a size H bra, according to the Russian saleswoman in a Queens lingerie shop.) To top off the whole dripping wet package, I wore a Star of David around my neck. I soon heard the rumor going around: people were calling me the Jewish slut. Not because of anything I did, but simply because of the way I looked. 

For many, high school represents the epitome of youth, the formative years, the height of everything: socially, physically, and emotionally. Rich carefree days spent gallivanting and partying, sexual discovery, challenges presented and overcome. And I did experience much of that during those years -- just not in high school itself.

My high school was physically imposing and classic at the same time, with a vast, velvety-green expanse of lawn, towering columns, and red bricks. The campus was “open”, meaning students could come and go as they pleased. For me, being inside the building was like serving a prison sentence. But once I stepped outside those doors, I was free. No need to avoid the ‘commons’, where the jocks and cheerleaders lined the walls, nor the dark corners where the angry “goths” conspired and shot baleful looks; no cliques to wade through between classes; no swimming pool to agonize over. I knew that my ‘spot’ on the lawn would be waiting for me, along with my friends (two without whom high school would have been unbearable), and that for the next forty two minutes I could completely let down my guard.

As it happened, my family's synagogue was situated directly across the street from my high school. The synagogue was my refuge—between Hebrew school, youth group and weekend retreats, it was inside that brown brick, oddly designed structure that I spent the bulk of my teenage years. Having that balance was an essential part of what helped to shape me during those years, and more than made up for what high school lacked. Between local activities affiliated with USY (United Synagogue Youth), and summers spent traveling the country and abroad, I had a very fulfilling young adulthood. I was anything but a deprived or depressed teenager. I managed to escape the confines of adolescent 'hell' unscathed. In fact, I went to college with a rich sense of identity and profound confidence in myself. But as far as the “high school experience” is concerned, mine was definitely not run-of-the-mill.

So twenty years have passed. I’ve grown more outspoken, no doubt the result of life experiences, maturity, and motherhood. Back when I was agonized by swim class and my peers' awful rumors, my parents suggested I remove my Star of David. Even though I know they were trying to help, I can't imagine making the same suggestion to my daughter (age 9) now. In a sea of insecurity, that Star of David was what made me feel most secure; connected to my cultural and religious identity.

Twenty years later, I have no need for small talk with my past-tense peers. I would rather spend time with my two dear friends from the high school lawn, whom I still see anyway.

When it comes to my daughter's turn in high school, I plan to share my experiences with her so that she knows that high school is not the end-all-be-all of life, though sometimes it can feel like it.

I'm living proof that you can still have a fulfilling life without attending senior prom. Or your 20-year reunion.

Erica Sininsky is the mother of Sofia, 9 and Dylan, 6. She lives on Long Island and teaches English to children from all over the globe. In her free time (ha!), she enjoys writing short stories and creating beaded and metalwork jewelry.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Back-to-School Bliss

There is no calm like that which follows the end of a two-week school vacation. I actually had two out of three in school last Thursday, which didn't make much of a dent in the chaos since the one who was still home was the almost-three-year-old (she is, suddenly "almost three"--not sure how it happened but there was a shift and she's hardly two at all, anymore. She's on a M/W/F preschool schedule, which, in this new stage, does not feel like nearly enough).

And then, on Friday, it snowed a few inches in New York and de Blasio, the show-off, cancelled school. The snow day did have some plusses:

First, I went sledding with my children, for the first time. Ever. We used to live in the plains of downtown, where the biggest hills were the snowdrifts blocking the crosswalks around Union Square. We built some snow-people in our downtown days, padding around Stuyvesant Square in full-body snow gear. But sledding required planning, and a subway ride (!). But no more. We are now just blocks away from a Riverside park sledding hill so desirable that the local CBS news station was there filming when we arrived! (And this is why no one watches the local news). It was a brisk 14 degrees out when we got there, and sled we did, hopping up and down in between runs to keep the circulation going in the toes. It was a classic New York family moment. Newsworthy, even.

Second, Josh made soup.

That's it for the plusses. School is good for the kids, good for the parents. Especially those of us writers/ artists who need a room of our own (or at least a quiet table) to work. Sometimes it feels like school vacations are black holes on the calendar--projects in progress will be suspended until the children leave again. I mean, I'm not saying these black holes aren't enjoyable. It's nice to have a relaxed relationship with time and schedules, and to loll with family and friends. But when it comes to personal productivity, I can't even open a file without a kid reading over my shoulder. Without privacy and the promise of prolonged quiet, it's not even worth trying.

For those of you hunkering down with your kids beneath the talons of the Polar Vortex, all I can say is I feel for you. My parents love to tell stories of their Omaha days, where you couldn't open the door for all the feet snow, and the minus minus minus wind chills (and 100's+ in the summer!), and forget sledding--it really is the plains!--and all I can say is, all the power to you middle-of-Americans. Enjoy the football and let me know when they clear the ice off the runways so you can come visit us in our mild-weather paradise.

Here's to 2014, and many happy days of school ahead.

What we all want to do after two weeks of vacation.