Discomfort

My daughters collect the rocks and sticks that dot our front yard, each amassing a collection using a formula that makes sense to only them. “See, Mom? These are my walking sticks and I’ve broken them down so when I see people of other sizes I can give them each a stick.” They affix small rocks with glitter glue to a card for a beloved neighbor, recovering from surgery in the care of his husband, who we text with questions of, “how’s the patient today?” Their instincts of inclusion haven’t yet dulled.

My youngest and I walk to story time at the library. On our trek a mere two blocks, we pass the Chinese food shop, not yet opened for the day, and the car repair place with the Spanish-speaking man who always waves to us and shouts “Hola! Hello!” The old police station, being converted into housing for transitioning homeless families is quiet, but the condos going up just next to it are abuzz with myriad construction sounds. We pick up pine cones and count the cars that pass as we wait for the light to change. At this time of day, I see drivers from Maryland speeding into the city, driving through our corner of the world on their way into work, not paying attention to what’s happening just off the thoroughfare that’s taking them where they need to be.

Our home is in Washington, DC, a place so often considered only as a tourist destination, a repository of museums and government buildings. From the hilltop a few blocks down, we see the Capitol building, the “swamp” that our new President vowed to drain. And I think about how so many people fail to see the vibrant life just beyond the dome of that building. My husband and I wonder if we’d be better off leaving DC, moving to the suburbs, and settling in to a new normal away from the grit. Become people who actually vote for the members of Congress and send them to our old stomping grounds. But that feels like a sanitized life – it’s not what matters most to us.

What matters most is the discomfort. This has been a slow realization since the election in November – that love and family and health are important, but I’ve been sitting with discomfort, and that’s what drives me nowadays. There have always been people who push the boundaries of decency, whatever that might mean to whomever is determining it. The people who stare down injustice and refuse to budge; who use words and imagery and their bodies and their minds to take discomfort to the masses. There are so many populations who have sat with discomfort for so long, I can only imagine it’s frustrating (and perhaps refreshing?) to them that the traditionally comfortable are finally taking some of it on. It matters to me that we raise our daughters in a place and in a way that lets them know in no uncertain terms that life is not fair; imparting to them the knowledge that their privilege gives them a perch atop the shoulders of those who’ve come before – the total luck-of-the-draw genetics that grant skin tone and status – and the absolute understanding that it’s their responsibility to reach out and pull up those without that same advantage. That we expose them to neighbors who work twice as hard for half as much, and encourage them to ask, “why?” We embrace the recognition of differences and the celebration of them. Seeing how the Chinese food restaurant, the auto repair shop, the homeless shelter, and the brand-new condos compose the fabric of this neighborhood we share. What matters most is exposure to injustice; to the words and actions of those who seek homogenization of this country. And it matters that we work tirelessly – but happily – every day to let everyone we meet know they have value and purpose; those people who experience life the way we see it, and especially those who don’t.

When I see my daughters file into the cafeteria at the end of each school day, balancing coats and backpacks and lunch boxes while sharing knowing smiles with their classmates, I take mental snapshots of the scene around me. The triathlete mom with a shock of pink hair, leaning over to make eye contact with her son’s friend, whispering a quick word of encouragement. And the mom on leave of absence from work, balancing the mental exhaustion of caring for her son, recently diagnosed with leukemia, with maintaining a sense of normalcy for her Kindergartner, whose smile beams bright each time I see her. The mom collecting dress-up clothes for a neighboring school, one without the resources to provide playtime props for their preschoolers. The dads – who are taxi drivers, small business owners, professors – chatting with one another before the doors open to let in their children, who reflect diversity in both skin tone and socioeconomics. My girls’ teachers, a set of four amazing individuals, bring the best of themselves every day. In being themselves – both brand new teachers and experienced ones, black and white and Asian and Jewish and energetic and calm and logical and enthusiastic – they open the minds and eyes and spirits of their young learners. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how idyllic it is, and remind myself that we work hard to surround ourselves with the best people. We have the luxury of that, and it adds to my discomfort.

I see in my daughters’ actions, and hear in their words, that they absorb the intricacies of the world around them, and process those intricacies through the filter of their upbringing. The filter that shows them beauty and responsibility as two sides of the same coin. The filter that they will hopefully carry with them into adulthood and share with anyone else interested in adjusting perspective, encouraging them to determine on their own exactly what matters most.

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#WHYIMARCH

There are hundreds of thousands of people descending on Washington, DC at this moment in time. The Presidential Inauguration is over, so tomorrow we march. With my oldest daughter, my mother, and scores of friends, we’ll gather here in my hometown for The Women’s March on Washington with strong voices and clear messages to declare that “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

Dismissed with eye rolls or questions of “what do you honestly need to march for anyway? You lost, get over it,” we prepare for tomorrow. The moment Hillary conceded this Presidential election, and the reality of a narcissistic, inexperienced, sexual-assaulting, rape-accused, failed businessman running this country set in, something snapped. When the President-Elect began nominating individuals to Cabinet positions with shortcomings like little experience (at best) to clear conflicts of interest, and racist, homophobic, xenophobic track records, our collective pulse quickened.

Throughout the election and in the days that followed, there was a line tossed around that Bill Clinton assaulted women, so where was that concern when we were so vocally supporting Hillary? And I had the simplest of answers. My generation saw Bill Clinton’s infidelities and treatment of women during his time in office – and tales of those same things before his election – when we were young adults. We started talking about Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers and Bill’s culpability and Hillary’s embarrassment… and then we saw Hillary emerge. From any angle, it would appear that a discussion along the lines of “shut up, sit down, and stay out of my way, Bill” occurred in the late ’90s in the Clinton household. And Hillary worked. And we started to wake up.

When our daughters asked what a pussy is, and why Donald Trump bragged about seeing women naked, and asked how many children he has with how many different women,and we answered each of those with pounding hearts, we brought the next generation of feminists into focus. When this election saw someone as breathtakingly nasty as Donald Trump emerge as victor, the gasp from liberal white women was heard around the world. And to that collective sense of disbelief, Americans of color – particularly the women – said to us, “Welcome. We’ve been here a while. This is how America goes, and what a privilege you’ve had to expect more from it.” And we liberal white women had to shut up, sit down, and take it all in.


The March wasn’t without stumbling  blocks. What started as a common idea among like-minded groups quickly found its footing with supporters, but started fumbling through permitting and leadership. Then we started talking within our villages – other parents, single friends, neighbors, and colleagues – and the March took shape. Leadership was solidified, commitments were made, and those who couldn’t be here in person started knitting. Pussy started to roar back.

As the mission and the vision for the March were articulated, one sentence among the statement stood out to me above all else: “We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.” It brought me back to a brief discussion my husband and I had right after the election, where we identified that as white, married, straight, middle-class Americans, a Trump presidency would likely benefit us financially, should he deliver on his campaign promises. Immediately upon realizing that, we followed-up with the sentiment that it wouldn’t matter. The damage being inflicted upon so many other classes and categories of Americans was entirely too great, and, well, we’re not assholes. So it matters to us.

Barack Obama, the Harvard-educated Constitutional Law professor who served as Senator before election as President, and who has been stably married to a brilliant woman for decades, has been one of the most vilified Presidents in the history of this country. It’s not surprising that the balance of power has swung back to the Republican side of the aisle, despite Obama being a quantifiably successful two-term Democratic President. This is exactly as it should be in a powerful democracy. There is not a single ounce of despair in my heart or my head that stems from the fact that a Republican took the oath of office today and is preparing to serve as the leader of the greatest nation on Earth. The overwhelming despair stems from the individual being sworn in. This individual is toxic and is empowering a fraction of our population who aren’t used to experiencing any sense of alienation. We march tomorrow to ensure that even the Trump supporters know that there are no space constraints within the American Dream. Many women see absolutely no reason for a demonstration – the wage gap, women’s healthcare, immigrant rights, LGBT protections, none of that is their concern. Whitewashing America and resisting progress are their solutions to the changing face of our country. And that’s not acceptable.

I’m spoiled that my daughters attend a school where their peers are diverse. The parents are diverse, and they’re highly-motivated to use their footing to ensure equal access. If I have any regrets, it’s that we are happily functioning within a completely liberal bubble, and have no contact with Trump’s America. But I’m amazed to see the sheer volume of people traveling to DC from every state on the map. Photos of planes full of Marchers flood my news feed, and stories of multi-generational road trips, snapshots of tables full of signs touting tolerance and kindness make me smile.

So this is #WHYIMARCH:
Because kindness matters. Because our friends and neighbors deserve respect and consideration despite their political affiliations or their treatment of others. Because my daughters are horribly confused by the ascent of a bully to the Presidency. Because I have an able body and heavy conscience and a half-million people waiting for me at 3rd and Independence tomorrow morning. So together we march. 

Mothering Molly

molly-3

“Hey, MolIy, guess what?” I whisper.

“What?” she asks as her eyes twinkle with anticipation.

“I love you.”

“No, Mama! TELL me something!”

“I love your smile. You make my heart happy. You have stinky feet. I think you look like a pineapple…” and on and on. My girl and I have this routine down to a science. My brand new three-year-old and me.

I wish I knew the secret behind Molly’s hugs. She embraces with her entire body, a real and strong hug that transcends her toddler stature. She is the most empathetic person I know, my Molly, who doesn’t hesitate to rub a back when someone is crying, or ask how to help when she senses frustration. Her keen awareness is mesmerizing. Her instincts are honed better than some people decades older than she. Mothering Molly has been the greatest gift of my life.

When Emma made me a mother, it felt right. The nerves that accompany first-time-parenthood ran amok, and every part of my life as I knew it experienced a seismic shift. She was perfect and beautiful and terrifyingly fragile. But it felt right. I rose to it. I loved it. I loved her above all else. And then Claire came along.

Second-time parenthood is an even bigger shift. The realization that love is not finite. That the capacity to love expands to levels and places uncharted. And Claire came flying into my life like a whirlwind; first twisting and turning in-utero, never revealing until the very end whether she’d deliver peacefully. As the doctor kicked up the brake on my hospital bed to wheel me into the operating room for an emergency c-section, Claire landed. Umbilical cord tangled and threatening, Claire arrived unscathed. She continues to be the most imaginative, carefree, magnetic child. And the depths to which she brought me as I sank my entire being into motherhood are greater than I could have imagined. But Molly…

Best I can tell, Molly was conceived within weeks of our third baby’s due date. Like so many other women who’ve experienced a loss, I’m well aware that this amazing creature would not be here had we not lost the other. It doesn’t diminish the loss, it does bring comfort. In the post On the Eve of the First Birthday of Our Second Third, I reflected, “Her first birthday feels like a touchstone of sorts. The feeling all through my pregnancy that we were tempting fate lingers, but as I get to know her, I move further from that. I move towards recognizing the twinkle in her eye when she’s about to try something new. I move towards appreciating the all-encompassing, gap-toothed grin that breaks across her face when she’s amused. I move towards the tantrums and the stubbornness and the boundary-testing that she engages in on the regular. I see glimpses of who she is becoming and I find peace in the fact that she’s simply here.”

I spoke with my mom recently about my decision to stop working. Emma and Claire had such stability in their early lives – continuous caregivers at their day care, and then on to preschool and Kindergarten. Molly has had the least amount of stability, and I lamented that. Then I told my mom, in a whisper, “but I think Molly’s had the best mom.” I came alive with this child.

I could have never imagined I’d stop working, at least part-time, outside the home. It was my life-blood. If my children gave me purpose, my work gave the fuel to power that purpose. I was a better parent when I could compartmentalize. But then that was stripped from me, and I panicked. I mourned and bucked up and said things like, “We’ll pull her from school and she’ll stay home with me. We have to – it doesn’t make financial sense. She’ll be home until she starts school with the older girls in the fall. We’ll figure it out…” I was glum about the prospect of it and believed I was failing my youngest. Then I really started to mother Molly, and that all changed.

molly-2Within days, I felt rejuvenated. My defeatist protective layer cracked quickly, and I saw the beauty of where I was at that moment. THIS MOMENT. Having coffee with a friend the other day, we discussed the ins and outs of three children. Already the mother of two girls, this friend saw herself with a third. And my only warning to her was about that feeling of tempting fate. As we said goodbyes, though, she looked at my youngest and said, “No, I want a third. We need a Molly too.”

“You must have a totally different experience with your three!” another mom at school commented last week. “It’s completely insane,” I acknowledged, “but it’s amazing.” Guiding my girls through their feelings and expectations calls for an honesty that takes practice. The sense of freedom – of being and saying and doing exactly what’s in my heart – has arrived with mothering Molly. Her brusque voice, her whispy blonde crown, her intensity and drive – they soften my edges and slow my breathing. They make me focus, and make me happier than I would have thought possible.

“Hey, Molly, guess what?”

Loss in the Age of Choice

It’s a strange coincidence that October is SIDS, Infant, and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month, and there exists today some of the most volatile conversation around the life and death of our very youngest loved ones.

Before I get too far, let me explain one irrefutable truth: you know a woman who has lost a child.

You know a woman who has miscarried, or opted to terminate a pregnancy, or who felt she had no choice but to terminate an nonviable pregnancy, or who lost an infant shortly after birth. You do. When I miscarried, I was flooded with the hugs and tears and open arms of women from all walks who shared their histories of loss; at the time I called it “a sad sisterhood” but today I know this is a global tribe of steel-spined women with more strength than one can imagine.

Let me explain one other thing: pregnancy changes you. Especially because I’m raising three girls and am ever-averse to gender stereotyping of any kind, it pains me to say this, but men can never fully grasp the degree to which pregnancy changes a woman. Women who haven’t carried a child have an understanding of how a woman’s body functions; have felt the hormonal fluctuations from month-to-month, and know the biological and emotional dance that happens at any given moment. The implantation of an embryo changes all of this. Exacerbates it. There are the obvious physical changes, but it’s the mental shift that is impossible to define. When something that has so fundamentally altered one from the inside is lost, it leaves a mark. And this is the premise of Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness.

Knowing the pain of losing an unborn child, how can anyone support the freedom of choice in our country? That’s where it gets tricky, but not impossible.

I had to stop calling myself pro-life when I started questioning my position on the death penalty. I’m not convinced that it should be abolished, therefore my status as a pro-lifer was revoked. The biggest misconception (pun intended) about being pro-life is that it’s the same as being anti-abortion. Not true. When I was in high school, I went to pro-life meetings. I heard the call for an end to Roe v. Wade, and to euthanasia, and to other justifiable causes. To be pro-life, one must support the rights of the unborn, but also of criminals, refugees, those at the end of life, mothers and children needing care, an on and on. Few – very few – people who call themselves pro-life actually qualify as such. So while I could still qualify myself as anti-abortion at the time, I was no longer pro-life. I continued to be ardently anti-abortion, thankful for a birth mother who chose life, who delivered me after Roe v. Wade was law, and who did not deny my basic right to exist. It’s powerful and lyrical to think in those terms, and I continued that way of thinking until I became pregnant. Perhaps ironically, giving birth to three children and losing another in the 2nd trimester made me value the freedom of choice that I sought to deny others in my Utopian anti-abortion thinking.

I’ll return to the premise that pregnancy changes everything. Men have always had the option to walk away from an unwanted pregnancy and still do. Women have no such luxury, and instead have to make a very painful and life-altering decision. Attaching oneself to a pregnancy and committing to carrying a child to term is the most desirable outcome. Don’t be fooled; this is a painful decision. To so freely love something unseen and yet unfelt is to bare oneself in the most raw way. Because pregnancy loss in the first trimester is so common, it’s become standard practice to wait until after 12 weeks before sharing news of a pregnancy. And because the pain of losing an unborn child comes with the pain of losing all of the possibility associated with him or her, that’s a pain many choose to carry close to themselves.

Democrats have been shouting for years that all Republicans care about is the child in utero and seeing that child delivered, at which time any help or support is gone. And this is true, which is why a decision to carry a pregnancy to term is fraught with landmines if a support system of some kind doesn’t exist. Carrying to term and surrendering for adoption is incredibly selfless and awe-inspiring. I wish more pregnant women considered this option but, again, the resources for educating women about options are constantly under fire. Planned Parenthood? An abortion machine. But it’s not. In a most frustrating cycle, the lack of education on the part of those persecuting Planned Parenthood results in – wait for it – less education for the population who needs it on reproductive health, birth control, and pregnancy options. I have no idea how much of Planned Parenthood’s funding went to abortion services in the past, and quite frankly, I don’t care. As one of myriad options to women facing their own most life-altering event, denying the presentation of all options by eliminating services out of spite for one of those is insane.

As I write this, I see a post on Facebook from a friend. She shares a devastating and intimate moment from six weeks ago, when her pregnancy ended 15 weeks into it with the absence of a fetal heartbeat. She has two children, and she knows what has been lost. Her body doesn’t naturally miscarry, so she has a procedure. A late-term abortion. The kind Donald Trump attacked last night. The kind characterized as ripping a child from the womb at nine months. The kind that too many want to outlaw. The kind that I had.

In the haze of child-rearing and illness, I don’t have many crystal clear memories. One I do have is the second ultrasound for my third pregnancy. Seeing a beating heart, a head and arms and nubby fingers and toes all starting to take shape. Texting my husband the exact words “our baby is starting to look like a baby!” Using the phrase “our baby” because that’s what Emma said all the time. I remember the whole experience of being sedated and waking up and feeling a distinct void after my “procedure.” Of seeing the ultrasound that confirmed no fetal remains were left. Of seeing a medical chart years later documenting “Abortion: Second Trimester” and nearly vomiting in the doctor’s office. I didn’t choose to abort that baby – our baby – but from my chart you would never know that.

So why do I increasingly advocate for legal abortion? Why would the experiences of carrying life, delivering it, and losing it bring me so passionately to this place?

Because it is NEVER black and white. NEVER. Women who use abortion as birth control? Doing harm to their own bodies and denying the world healthy children? Hard to differentiate from the woman who can’t raise a child with an abusive partner and has nobody to support her through a pregnancy or an entire life of child-rearing. Hard to differentiate from the teens for whom abstinence has been the only lesson. Hard to differentiate from the woman with severe chronic health problems whose birth control failed. Hard to differentiate from the woman who fought her way into a career that will be derailed by unintended pregnancy. Hard to differentiate from the married mother of two healthy children whose pregnancy terminated inside her body but would kill her without proper medical extraction. Because cherry-picking which women have the right to choose continues to oppress and degrade all women. Those who would advocate for the elimination of access to safe abortion convey the message that the moment one life begins, the rights of another to exercise autonomy over her body end. I will not.

This post won’t change minds. It’s not intended to. It’s an observation of a moment in time, when I recognized that where I’ve come from, where I’ve been, and where I want my three daughters to go is ever-evolving. It’s a tribute to those who have experienced loss in the age of choice and have been forced to confront their own confusion. It’s a call for those who still passionately believe in the right to life to channel their energies into guaranteeing access to proper and full sex education, to ensuring resources and support systems for pregnant women, and to shutting down the ugly slurs being hurled at women who need access to medical termination as a life-saving measure.

There is no other issue so personal yet so heavily regulated as the inner workings of a uterus and the debate raging over the rights of the human wrapped around that uterus. And no other issue less clear.

 

 

A Life of Luxury

I don’t have words to temper the horror brought about by a calculated, armed, bigoted extremist in the early hours of this morning. The heinous act of robbing this world of fifty – 50 – LIVES reverberates in every corner of my being. Fifty – 50 – LOVES: brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and friends. I have the luxury of sitting at a safe distance and condemning this monster. It’s merely one in a string of luxuries to which my eyes are adjusting more clearly each day.

Why is it a luxury to raise my children to be compassionate individuals? Why am I one who doesn’t need to foster a hardness, create an edge, in my children to protect them from perceived daily threats? How is it that I’m born into a position of empathy? The entirety of that position is the birthright of the middle-class white woman. Just enough understanding that there’s still an inequality with the white man, but much more of a footing in society than any people of color. 

Why is it a luxury to realize that I am not threatened in any way by the empowerment and acknowledgement of historically underrepresented (at a minimum) and historically persecuted (to put it mildly) sects of people? Is it parents and priests who taught Christianity through Catholicism in one breath while overriding the intolerance of religion with their better judgement in another? The luxury of empathy emerged from an older generation of influence able to discern fact from fiction? What a luxury to fall into the arms of that generation.

Why is it a luxury to say to my children “love does not discriminate” with absolute conviction? And to let them know in no uncertain terms that the loves throughout their lives may take the form of boys or girls, later men or women. That these loves of theirs may look vastly different than their own fairness of skin, but will capture their hearts in breathtaking ways. Why is it a luxury to casually explain that love has no bounds, and to mean that? 

Why is it a luxury to state in no uncertain terms that guns do not belong in the hands of civilians? That NO, we absolutely do not have the right to bear arms and that the Constitution guaranteeing that right is fatally flawed. Fatally, in the truest sense of the word. Why is it a luxury to disagree passionately with my husband, yet remain respected and loved without question (and to return that respect and love to him without hesitation?) Why is it a luxury to stand up and shout “ENOUGH!” without fear of targeted retribution? To exercise another of my Constitutional rights in this freedom of speech but as a citizen not actually represented by anyone at the Congressional level? A luxury as an individual citizen of a great nation.

The luxury overwhelms me.

The luxury is paralyzingly me. 

What greater responsibility could there be than to stand tall and carry that luxury so that those behind or below, or even too far down to see it at the moment, can stand on my sturdy shoulders one day? 

I don’t know where to carry it; how to bear it; but it must be borne. 

Luxury is rarely deserved and lives are made bitter by luxury wasted. 

50 lives. Today.

My Boy

I found Riley’s Washington Nationals collar last week and pulled it aside to mark another spring. I remembered ordering that collar the first year the Nats were in DC, when he and I lived walking distance to the stadium. We’d walk miles and miles of city blocks each week, stopping to play at a park or rest for a beer and a breather at a bar. People loved that Washington Nationals collar. It’s too big on him now, so I packed it to move with us.

A few weeks ago, my girls came back from Nana’s house with an old dog collar strapped to their bag. It was Riley’s from our time in Fredericksburg – the registration tag dangling from ring on the collar. I smiled and put it aside. A few days later, I came across three more registration tags, each with a different address or phone number and I chuckled. This poor dog was dragged from place to place, city to city, as I wandered aimlessly through my life. I gave him a scratch behind the ears and posted this on Instagram:Riley Tags

On Monday, I came home from work after picking up Molly. We stomped up the porch steps, unlocked the door, and dropped our bags on the floor. Molly was asking for milk, so I went into the kitchen, got her some, and returned to the living room. That’s about the time that Riley noticed we were home. I reached over to pet him, took one look at his face, and stopped. His left eye socket – from the time I went to work that morning until that very moment – had sunken into his head noticeably. His eye was filmy and unfocused. I called the vet for only the second time in his life and asked that they see us immediately.

This week has been unbelievably sad. Not tragic, or unbearable, but full of a raw sadness that I don’t think I’ve ever felt. The sadness that rests low in the abdomen, ever-present; the sadness that makes the body shake and the heart pound and the eyes leak with tears at any given moment. This week has been unbelievably sad because I’m losing my boy.

Before I had my girls or even met their father, before I left DC and then decided to return, before I shed my immaturity and found my adulthood, before all of that, I had my boy. When I sat on the futon in my apartment after discovering I was pregnant, he sat beside me providing warmth and stability. When I sat on the couch in my house after miscarrying, he rested at my feet and nuzzled me whenever I shook with tears. When our daughters came home – one after the other after the other – and I sat to nurse them, he would always, always be by my side. He’s not always the easiest dog to live with – his tap-dancing and prancing when he’s throwing a tantrum, his huffing and humping, his inclination towards “burying” pieces of food in the middle of the floor – all of those can be grating. But he’s absolutely the easiest dog in the world to love. His sweet eyes and his gentle kisses have been my salve for fourteen years.

The vet was gentle but confident in his delivery of our bad news. Riley’s body is shutting down. “You should make these next few weeks count,” he said. “Lots of extra walks and snuggles and treats.” And that’s when I burst into tears.

I thought he was mistaken at first. Riley looked sick, but was in good spirits, and still wandering around in search of the next crumb. But on Wednesday he started stumbling. And then I noticed that his tail is no longer arched upward in a spray of black and white fur, but hanging down. “It’s usually only that way when he’s thinking,” I said to Craig, and one of my girls asked “How do you know that?”

“Because I know everything about him. He’s my boy,” I said. And I see the struggle in his steps, and see the food in his bowl untouched. And I know.

It is my truest and most selfish wish that I come downstairs one morning to find that Riley is gone. That he crossed the Rainbow Bridge peacefully, finding eternal slumber with no pain, where his body lets him once again run, and prance, and hump, and play for all time. His time with me has been better than I ever could have imagined when a scrawny, skittish, beautiful puppy crawled into my arms all those years ago and I smiled for the first time at my boy.

In Which We’re Housed

So much of my life lately has been focused on two things: the house in which we live and the body in which I’m housed. Both are changing; both have surprised me this past year, in ways that are challenging and surprising. One I can choose to leave, the other I can’t.

Most of our friends know that we’ve decided to move. It’s been a decision swirling for a while, and it’s time. Three girls crammed into one room, the five of us sharing an upstairs bathroom, a few missing features that would be nice to have (fireplace? garage? why not?) Craig and I are clear on where we want to live, how much we want to spend, and the defining characteristics our next home must possess. We have a clarity that we haven’t had about many things as we’ve cruised in survival mode for the past seven years. But it’s still daunting. Our current home is the one we chose when Emma was just five-months-old. When we first toured this house, I stood in the empty kitchen and glanced over to the eat-in area and had the clearest vision of a whispy-haired preschooler standing in front of an art easel, the sun bathing her in natural light. That moment of vision spoke to me and ultimately we ended up buying that house. Our daughters have lived their entire lives in this place, and it’s where my true adulthood began. I’ve loved this house and it’s a great home. It’ll be a perfect home for another family, and knowing that gives me comfort. We’ve lived a beautiful life here. And now it’s time to close that chapter. 

 Moving is no small task. As we’ve been packing and purging, I’ve had to confront new limitations. I’ve asked for help and accepted offers to lend a hand, both of which took tremendous personal growth to achieve. Last summer, after a few years of wondering, my suspicions were confirmed and I’ve had to adjust to a life with rheumatoid arthritis. And then came the lupus diagnosis. And then came the determination to reverse them, followed by the tough realization that mitigating was really the only option. 

I don’t totally understand autoimmune disease, and it sometimes feels like these conditions have been bastardized by pharmaceutical commercials. Dinding the right course of treatment and allowing your body to explore its new limitations is not as breezy as these commercials would suggest. Diagnosis of autoimmune is exploding, and there’s a proven genetic component, so worrying about how to prevent my girls from experiencing these illnesses can be all-consuming. The body I’ve known for nearly 40 years is not the one in which I’m currently living, and it’s confusing as hell.

My mind has been focused lately on three things – presence, place, and purpose. 

Just before Christmas, I had a come-to-Jesus moment about being present. The fall brought big changes – starting in a new school, starting a new job, and recurring injury and illness (mainly in my youngest child.) I truly felt I was not present in full in any way for any of these three areas of my life. I wasn’t involved in the girls’ new school as much as I’d envisioned; I was repeatedly out of the office to tend to sick children and was embarrassed by my lack of physical presence in my new position; and when I was home tending to sick children, my mind was everywhere else but in that moment with them. The blessing and the curse is that this is not a unique problem. Presence is discussed ad-nauseum on parenting blogs and at mom’s happy hours. But despite how common it is, presence haunted me. 

  After starting my new job in the fall, I came to the realization that place is multi-faceted. We’ve found a neighborhood and community we love; discovered that “place” trumped a house we felt we were settling for. We didn’t have to make this home work for us because we could simply move. Moving is not simple, mind you, but it was an option that intimidated before I saw people buy and sell homes every day. I’d rather have my daughters remember their first home fondly instead of recalling how their mom was a crazy lady, always trying to adjust space and reinvent one place. That realization made me find some peace. So now we look at new places and spaces and work to  make this move happen.  
The most challenging thoughts lately have come around sense of purpose. Living a purposeful life can come in nearly any form, right? And that’s the problem. I love working outside the home, for the explicit reason that I feel refreshed after focusing on something separate from home and family. Yet I feel fulfilled when I approach my mothering in a purposeful and present manner. When I’m racing to get out the door in the morning, or muttering to myself about the unfinished tasks at my desk when I’m picking up from aftercare, my mothering feels shaky. When Craig and I feel like ships passing in the night, I lament neglecting the most important relationship in my life and curse the other factors preventing me from being purposeful and present in our relationship. And still, pulling back in any one of these areas seems ingenuine.

Earlier this year I started working with a health coach to explore holistic ways to manage (okay, reverse) autoimmune disease. But I quickly realized that this was myopic and that my health encompasses so much more. Being aware of my mind’s approach to issues both big and small was one tangible way to feel control over, quite literally, the one thing I CAN control: my responses. Being more confident in my ability to respond, while not perfect, is empowering. 

Still, not knowing where we’ll be living this time next year (or even a few short months from now) and wondering how I’ll feel physically when I wake each morning is tiring in itself. The ways in which we’re housed vary, but luckily, finding home isn’t dependent on either one. Despite the failings of the places in which I’m housed, I feel more at home than ever. 

*But seriously, if anyone knows of a house we can buy…

The Truth About the Tooth

Sometimes a person carries something with her for so long that it almost disappears in the context of the new; its meaning fades and its importance becomes diluted. And then something happens to bring that original meaning and importance to the surface, and it becomes fresh all over again.

Emma fell down and bumped her front tooth on November 24,2010. Over the next 5+ years, the tooth slowly died. Or so it seemed. I picked Emma up early that day, the day before Thanksgiving. She was on the playground at daycare, riding a little tricycle, and she saw me walking across the blacktop in her direction. I’d taken that day off work and spent it thinking. I was fragile that day because I’d been anticipating it. And when she saw me, my girl pedaled a little faster, a huge smile on her face and a look of determination to get to me. The tricycle hit a rock and she tumbled off, head plummeting toward the asphalt. And I vividly recall mentally reeling – thinking that she was about to be taken from me. But she face-planted, her lip and tooth bearing the brunt of that fall. Blood and tears, but also hugs; and a look deep in her eyes told me she was okay. Apparently that was the day she chipped this front tooth and it started to slowly, slowly gray. She was 17 months, 13 days old that day. 

Her exact age may seem an oddity to most, but to others it has surreal meaning. Seeing this beautiful face smiling on the same blacktop where Emma fell that day still tugs at my heart. Reading Mandy Hitchcock’s raw words about the sudden, heartbreaking death of her daughter brings back the absolute disbelief. Hudson lived only 529 days. And when Emma was 530 days old, I stood on that blacktop watching her tumble toward the ground. The thing that stopped her head from slamming down was that tooth.

I don’t recall exactly when I put this all together. Probably around the time of Emma’s first visit to the dentist, where we pointedly asked if the tooth – only milky gray at the time – would need to be pulled. The dentist assured us that the root was still healthy and pointed out where the tooth itself was only slightly chipped at the bottom. “Probably a tumble on the playground sometime last year. We’ll keep an eye on it but it should be fine.”

Emma grew older; the tooth grew darker and more prominent. I did the math and recalled that afternoon on the daycare blacktop and knew it was that particular fall to blame for this tooth. The fine thread of correlation between what that day meant and the visible presence of it on my daughter’s smiling face was something I carried with me. In the grand scheme of life, it was a whisper-fine thread. In my heart, a powerful symbol.   

 Emma lost her first tooth on the eve of her sixth birthday. I was convinced the gray tooth would be the first to go. I was shocked when it wasn’t. Other teeth became wiggly. “Is the gray one loose yet?” I’d ask constantly. She lost her second tooth; she lost her third tooth. Finally, the gray tooth started to budge. The dentist told her to purposefully wiggle it every night since her permanent tooth was coming in quickly behind it. And Emma did. She pushed it back and held it… Pushed it forward and held it… And I was utterly convinced that it would be out by Thanksgiving. And when it wasn’t, then by Christmas. And when that didn’t happen, I looked to Valentine’s Day. “Here – bite into this piece of chocolate with your front tooth!” I’d joke. But the anticipation built up in me. Being so close to shedding the fragility of her toddlerhood was palpable. Not her fragility, but mine. 

 Last weekend, the tooth was jutting out of Emma’s head at a weird angle. Ironically, she fell after school and knocked it a little sideways. It was rubbing her inner lip raw. She couldn’t eat without angling food in her mouth a certain way. The tooth wasn’t budging. We tried to pull it, but that really hurt. The girl who popped out her own teeth and let Craig yank one has a high threshold for pain. And we crossed that threshold trying to extract this tooth. I asked Emma to count to ten with me while Daddy tried to pull it. I asked her to give me one try. I told her we would double whatever the tooth fairy left her if ONLY we could get this tooth out. And I realized that this extraction was so heavily weighted in my mind, I was certifiably obsessed. 

Craig observed that the tooth seemed to be gaining color back, and he was right. It looked less gray; healthier. Somehow, the twist in the root that made the tooth stick out at an angle also caused increased blood flow, or something of the like. The tooth was getting lighter, and as my obsession grew, it was coined my “white whale” by my very observant husband. 

On Tuesday, my mom mentioned in passing that she was surprised I hadn’t called the dentist about this tooth. It was wedged in Emma’s mouth in such a way that her fully-erupted permanent tooth was visible behind it already. The night before, I told Craig I would let the tooth go (physically and metaphorically) and wait for it to go organically. After I spoke with my mom, though, I wasted no time picking up the phone. The dentist would see her the next day. I was palpably relieved. The next morning, the dentist had to cancel and my heart started racing once more.

Wednesday evening I stared at my daughter. The tooth stuck straight out of her mouth over her lip. “I hope you don’t turn over when you’re sleeping and accidentally swallow that tooth. Why don’t we try to get it out?” With those words, I planted a seed of fear in Emma that overcame her. If we tried to pull the tooth – AGAIN – it would definitely hurt. If we didn’t try, she might swallow the tooth. Craig assured her that was highly unlikely, and I sat silently trying to avoid transferring any more fear into my already-bothered girl.  

Emma is the bravest person I know. She’s determined and focused. But that night  she was a mess. Finally, through her tears and deep-breathing, she sat on my lap and I grabbed the tooth. She reeled back but I kept my hand steady and wrenched the tooth. It popped a little and started bleeding. But Emma felt the difference in her mouth. She quietly got a tissue and held it in place to stop the bleeding. “Now it’s only hanging by a couple threads,” she announced. Over the next ten minutes, she worked on the tooth in the bathroom and reported back to Craig and me in the other room. She twisted, she pulled, she wiggled, and she got the tooth out. 

The look of pride on her face was instant and radiant. The pit I felt in my stomach made me teary. I told her how proud I was, and she handed me the popped tooth and immediately started writing a letter to the Tooth Fairy. I immediately started to process all of this.

   

Last night, Emma threw a tantrum. This afternoon, she lost her mind when Claire refused to conform during playtime. And a few hours ago, she positively melted and lashed out. It’s almost as if she changed overnight. 
My girl IS changing; she’s feeling deep feelings, and processing life in different ways. I won’t talk to her about this tooth in full just yet, but at some point will discuss hallmarks and touchstones and the need for humans to identify both. And how this gray tooth, for her mother, represented so much. 

Facing It Down

Last night, news broke that local police officers were injured responding to a domestic violence call. This morning when I awoke, I read that one of the officers died – it had been her first day back on the job after a hiatus and she died responding to this domestic violence call. Shot by a bad guy with a gun, who had already killed a woman in his house, presumed to be his wife. This man shot and killed both women while his son was home. The bad guy is a former service member, someone trained to shoot and kill, and he did. We don’t know this story yet, and I won’t speculate as to why this man took two lives last night. But our service members need help. And they’re not getting it.

My father was drafted into the Army when he was twenty years old. In his Army portrait, he looks fresh-faced and stoic. When he was twenty-one, he was awarded the Purple Heart. His body had been torn apart and wired (literally wired) back together. His country recognized the sacrifice he made and awarded him that prestigious medal. 

 It was brutal at times, seeing the pain in his eyes. Seeing his body stiffen and his shoulders lock in place. When the weather turned cold or rainy, we wouldn’t see him for days. Relegated to bed by the lingering injuries to his body, exacerbated by the mental fog of medication, he sometimes just existed. His inability to ride a roller coaster, or to grab his kids and throw them over his head into the air was understandable. The broken neck left Frankenstien-type scars that jutted out below his hair line. You could SEE that trauma. But when he couldn’t come to the fairgrounds to watch fireworks on the 4th of July, or navigate through a crowd without becoming claustrophobic and panicked, it was less understandable. What do children know about shell-shock? How do you explain PTSD as the underlying cause for missing a piano recital? When you’re the child of a disabled combat veteran, you just understand the imbalance of it all.

Last night, when his father took the lives of two people – one who came rushing towards the scene in order to serve and protect – what did this child see and how much could he understand about the imbalance?

So much of my dad’s life has come into perspective as I’ve grown into adulthood. So much of the sacrifice he made; even more of the sacrifice my mom made. How does one serve as a partner to someone for whom all comfort – physical, emotional, spiritual – ceased to exist at age twenty-one? How does one reconcile the love for the person ‘before’ and translate that to the ‘after?’ My mom has spent more than 50 years by my dad’s side, including years before he was drafted into war. Their love is the most difficult and complicated thing I’ve ever seen. It would have been easier if they’d have divorced decades ago. Truly. But my dad may not have survived that. Ask him today and he’ll tell you he’s the only one of his PTSD support group who hasn’t succumbed to alcoholism, or spent time homeless, or attemped suicide. The only one of dozens. The complication wasn’t worth the risk. 

My mom kept my dad accountable to himself and to us, but a PTSD support group gave my dad room to breathe. Each Friday afternoon, tucked away in a room at the Veteran’s Hospital, he would sit with people who got it, and they would face things down together. When we moved to Brookland, just a few miles from the VA Hospital, my dad would come over after this group session and sit in my living room. His granddaughters would run around, fawning over Papa, climbing onto his lap and playing silly games. Those afternoons, after he felt the burden lift momentarily, he relished the attention and the vivacity of his family. Because of that group.

Early last fall, I visited the Armed Forces Retirement Home here in DC as a possible move for my dad, who still lives independently but who, obviously, is aging. I saw men and women who’d spent their lives in the military. Who were proud of their service and who relished the camaraderie of their living quarters. In order to be admitted to the home, one has to be free of psychiatric conditions and must not abuse drugs or alcohol. After asking pointedly if PTSD was considered a psychiatric condition – surely the idea of treating a stress disorder created directly by one’s military service as a psychiatric condition that would disallow admission was absurd – I thought little of those requirements at the time. As we’ve gotten mired deeper and deeper into the process of admission, and waded deeper and deeper into the dark bureaucracy of the Department of Defense, I’ve come to resent the implications around these admission criteria. I’ve come to resent even more the mistreatment of our veterans by a system of government that has a responsibility to holistically address the needs of a population they created. It’s infuriating and, just ask my mom who’s spent decades of her life navigating and advocating, it’s bone-crushingly exhausting.

My dad will turn 70 this year. He’s spent 50 years in the shadow of his brief service in the Army; decades facing down  demons that are too deep-rooted to quell. Some of this is simply his personality – he is not one who should have served in the military to begin with, but a draft card doesn’t know that. I’ll turn 40 this year and I don’t know a life outside this shadow. What I DO know is that more wars, more combat veterans, more children witnessing the internal and external wounds their parents carry home with them makes me want to rage. This morning, I want to sit with the boy who saw his world shatter last night, fold this child in my arms and whisper words of strength into his ear; to look him in the eyes and promise to be his advocate. 

On Finding Your Roots last week, Gloria Steinem, whose relatives were interred in concentration camps and died before liberation by the Allies, commented that those who served in World War II are referred to as “the greatest generation.” And she added that perhaps the greatest generation will actually be the one that doesn’t go to war. 

Amen, Gloria. Peace to those for whom that sentiment is too little too late, and peace to the families mourning the loss of these two women to such awful violence last night.

Nobody Told Me About the Weirdness

I don’t understand why nobody told me. Or maybe they did, but I didn’t know enough to listen. 

Nobody told me how insanely loud children are. All the time. Sitting-next-to-you-and-conversationally-yelling-type loud. Screaming-at-one-another-while-happily-playing-type loud. Wailing-in-my-ear-because-I-touched-the-Cheerio-box-when-you-asked-for-Cheerios-type loud. So loud that my ears hurt when it’s quiet now. Why did nobody tell me?

Nobody told me that children act like molten lava is being poured into their eyes when you rinse their heads in the bathtub. You know, when they’re both siting IN and surrounded BY this same water. This water that must not touch their eyes. I think one of Molly’s first words was WASHCLOOOOOOTH! Nobody told me about this shit. But mostly, nobody told me about the weirdness.

Claire went through a sleep-sitting phase. We’d hear a muffled noise come from upstairs, pop open the Dropcam app, and most of the time see Claire sitting upright in her bed, eyes closed, head twitching, sidled right up against the ledge of the window at eye-level. It was…. weird. We’d softly coax her back under her blankets, gently positioning her down on the bed, and she would remember none of this the next morning. These episodes were reminiscent of those middle-of-the-night encounters where Craig and I (deep asleep) would sense a presence and open our eyes, only to find Claire standing really close next to the side of our bed, just staring. Ultimate weird.

And Emma has started losing her teeth. I remember losing some of my baby teeth; I see the school photos of me in first grade, second grade, smiling gap-toothed at the camera. I remember tying dental floss around a wiggly tooth and attaching that floss to the doorknob of my bedroom and slamming. But now that I’m on the other side, and watching a gap-toothed six-year-old play with loose teeth, which make that creepy sucking noise as they shift back and forth, I find it absolutely weird. As the teeth come out, she grins at me – bloody, gaping hole in her gums and tiny mouth-bone in her hand – with triumph. “I like how my blood tastes,” and I smile and nod and make a mental note to Google “signs of a psychopath” later that evening. 

And, of course, Molly is a booger-eater. We made it though the first two with no signs of this, but Number 3 thinks boogers are the best. Talk about classic weird. Gross weird. Digging-for-gold/appetizer-on-your-pointer weird. I hope she grows out of it, or at least becomes more discreet, for god’s sake, because she’s got cooler weird stuff to explore than boring, old booger eating.

Nobody told me.