The Perfect Number

The number of children I parent has been changing a lot lately.

Normally, I have two – a ten year old and a twelve year old.

For a few days recently I had five – my two, a six year old, an eleven year old, and a thirteen year old – all cousins.

Then, I had my two and a friend each for a weekend trip, so that’s two ten year olds and two twelve year olds.

Then I had a different combination of the cousins, my two plus the six year old and his sixteen year old sister.

Then, everyone left and my daughter went to camp and I just had one child, my ten year old son.

It’s not that it’s easier or harder to parent five kids or one kid, it’s just different. With five kids I felt the need to be super-organized and efficient. I planned a week’s worth of meals that all used some of the same ingredients. I even made some meals before we went out. But that efficiency was relaxing in a way. I didn’t have to worry or argue about what was for dinner, dinner was dinner, it was planned and ready. I was so proud of my meal plan, I put it on the refrigerator next to my ten year old’s 100% quizzes.

With five or four kids there was a constant scanning, do I have everyone? Where is the six year old? But also, with that many kids everyone was always occupied. No one was bored, no one was lonely. Plus, the scanning was sort of unnecessary since they were all looking for each other anyway.

With four or five kids it was easier to set rules, to say “no,” to deny whims. Obviously, if you are trying to get five kids through downtown Chicago you can not stop to look at everything that everyone wants to see. With one kid it’s hard to rationalize saying “no,” to restaurant or activity choices, but also, there’s less reason to do so.  It’s wonderful to have a child say, “I’d kind of like to do that” and to say “Well, it’s just the two of us, let’s try it.” With one kid it’s easier to convince him to try something, because you only have to convince one child, not two.

During one of his days as an only child I picked my son up from camp and he said, “I’m really craving a cheeseburger, can we go to Culver’s?” So, we did, and on the way he started asking me a question that led to a conversation about sex, including consent and condoms. It’s hard to imagine that conversation happening with four other kids in the car. It’s hard to imagine me agreeing to buying a 3:00 meal for four or five kids.

I love having two children. I don’t have the necessary attention span to only have one child and I am not young enough or rich enough to have more than two. Having two kids gives me the space and time to invite more kids in to my life from time to time. But it’s nice sometimes to try out the other alternatives.

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Blame Isn’t the Problem, Social Media Is

I have a theory about how normal people deal with other people’s tragedies.  I’m not a psychologist, but here it is:

Step 1: You hear that a horrible tragedy has befallen someone you don’t know.

Step 2: You feel a sense of shock and horror.

Step 3: You look for a reason that this tragedy happened to the other person that explains why the same tragedy can not happen to you.

Step three sounds horrible, but I think it’s a necessary step to move on to step 4. If every time that something horrible happened to someone else you were overcome with fear and sadness not only for that person, but for yourself, you would become stuck in Step 2. Think about it, every child who dies, every person hit by a car, every suicide, every rape, every murder, you know it could happen to you and yours. You would be paralyzed with grief and fear all the time.

So instead, you do a little victim blaming, a little rationalization, a little magical thinking. “My daughter could never be kidnapped because I would never let her walk that far alone.”  “My son wouldn’t die that way, I’d have called 911 immediately.” “I’ll never be raped because I never drink with people I don’t know really well.” “It’s horrible but if she’d kept a better eye on her kids, this wouldn’t have happened.” “That wouldn’t happen to me, I’d never be in that kind of bar.” “Well, that neighborhood is dangerous, not like mine.”

You give yourself an out, you let yourself fee secure so that you can move on to Step 4.

Step 4: You feel empathy for the people affected by the tragedy. If possible, you offer help of some sort, if not you offer support and continue to feel a manageable sort of grief.

But as anyone who has seen the Internet the past few weeks knows, a lot of people have become stuck in Step 3.

I don’t believe parent shaming and victim blaming are new. I read an article recently where someone talked about the Baby Jessica story (1987 toddler fell in a well). The writer claimed that no one accused her parents of not watching her, instead the whole nation joined together to pray and watch her heroic rescue.

I call Bullshit.

I guarantee you that there were plenty of people across the country wondering how an 18 month old baby wanders in to a well without anyone noticing. I guarantee you that any one with a well in their backyard and a small child began looking for the reason their well was safe, while the McClures’ well was not. I remember conversations about how young Baby Jessica’s parents were, and how that was probably part of the problem.

But for the most part, people kept those thoughts to themselves, or whispered them in small groups. You know why? Because Facebook wasn’t in their face asking them what they were thinking about. In 1987 we all pretty much understood that no one really wants to hear your every thought about every event. We had a 24 hour news cycle in 1987, but it wasn’t a personal 24 hour news cycle.

Parent shaming and blaming aren’t new. The mother in the Cincinnati Zoo isn’t the first woman to be told she’s doing a horrible job and that others are suffering for it. We have always judged mothers harshly. The medically accepted explanation for autism used to be “refrigerator mothers.”

Ask any mother who worked “by choice” in the 1970s and earlier whether or not others judged her and blamed and shamed her. Ask any divorced mother in the 1970s and earlier how people judged her.

The difference is that in the 1970s and 1980s the number of people we had available to blame and shame was limited to people we actually knew. Today we have a whole planet full of people to judge.

Today, we’re conditioned to share our thoughts and emotions and judgements on everything from celebrity deaths to horrible accidents to politics. We not only live in a 24 hour news cycle, we are part of that cycle, we are asked to share our thoughts before those thoughts are fully formed.

So, you hear about a horrible event, a child falls in to a gorilla pen at the zoo, the gorilla is killed. You think, “Oh, that’s horrible. I go to the zoo all the time, could that happen to me? Probably not, I mean I watch my kids carefully.”

Then, you put that on Facebook and one friend, who is also in Step 3 of the process says “YES! I was just thinking the same thing.” You feel vindicated, “Hmm, that must be the right response, she agrees with me.” A few more people also agree, you start to feel like that’s really the right response. Then, someone else says “How dare you, that’s a horrible thing to say.” Now, you feel attacked and one of the most common and normal approaches to being attacked is that you defend yourself.

The more you defend yourself, the stronger you believe that you are right.

So, you never get past Step 3. You never go from telling yourself what you need to in order to feel safe to helping the actual victim. Instead, you begin to think that you and your way of thinking are the real victims.

Victim blaming isn’t the problem, victim blaming is normal and healthy, it’s getting stuck in the blame phase that’s the problem.

So, maybe next time instead of floating your every thought out to hundreds of people at a time, only float the thoughts that you’ve really truly had time to consider and carefully craft out there.

To use another phrase from the 1980s, when Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” just say no.

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The Bigger Story

I knew this guy in high school. Let’s call him “D.” I didn’t know him well, but he was cute and nice. He had dark hair and bright blue eyes, a combo I still love. I think he played trumpet in the band. At a couple of different parties our senior year we got drunk and made out.

D had an on again off again girlfriend, also in the band. She was sweet and well-liked, and I think I remember everyone thought she could do better. I guess she noticed the make out sessions because a month before prom she sent someone to find out if D was taking me to prom. He hadn’t asked her and she wanted to know who he was going with. It wasn’t me and I don’t remember who it was.

Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t remember D and his girlfriend, except that freshman year of college the girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver. I have always wondered if they were a couple when she died. Which would be worse, to lose your girlfriend or to lose the girl you kind of sort of thought you might date again one day.

I still know my own on again off again high school love. We see each other every once in a while and there are no romantic “what ifs.” Now, in our late 4os there’s just a genuine delight in the past we shared and a strange affection for each other. But I wonder if D ever got that slow, natural closure to the relationship. I think he’s divorced, maybe more than once, and I wonder if sometimes on a muggy spring night like the ones right before senior prom he hears an old song and thinks about her.

I also remember the high school drama because of Facebook, which keeps everyone from your life in front of your face at all times. D and I haven’t seen in each other in years, but we’re “friends” on Facebook. I don’t usually see his posts, but because so many people had commented on one the other day I saw it. He was posting from a children’s hospital. I don’t know D well enough to pry and ask for details, but I looked back through his posts to try and piece his story together. If I’m following the story correctly, his stepdaughter is seriously, possibly terminally, ill.

What I also noticed looking through his posts is that D is now a pro-Trump, transphobic, racist. I don’t remember this about him from high school. We went to the performing arts section of an inner-city high school. It would be hard to be an overt racist and have the kind of social life D had. I knew racists growing up, but they didn’t wear sheets or burn crosses. I know there were a few of those hidden around town, but I don’t think they went to our high school.

The phrase “Now look, I like a lot of ’em, but one thing I just don’t understand …” will sound familiar to anyone who grew up in Louisville, or a city like it. It’s possible D was one of those, someone who didn’t know he was racist. You can find him in our senior yearbook posing happily as “Most Spirited” next to an African-American cheerleader, a girl I remember as his friend. But maybe he was racist then and in his mind she was “a good one.”

Because now here he is, this boy I made out with, this boy I know had African American friends, here he is using the N word on his Facebook page. Here he is, this boy who went to school and probably shared a joint or two with boys who grew up to be women threatening to beat up any man who attempts to pee next to his daughter. Here he is promoting Trump, bragging about his guns, posting jokes about sexual assault and misspelling Guatemala in some unintelligible post about Trump’s promised wall.

In short, here he is, a complete asshole.

I would like to know what happens with his stepdaughter. I hope she recovers. But now that I’ve peaked in to the rest of his life, I don’t want to accidentally see it again. I don’t want to be angry with someone who until recently was a strange half-memory of a happy time in my life. I have “unfriended” him, because I don’t want to see it and because I think that will probably prevent him from seeing this. I do not want to cause him pain.

I wish there were another way because I see those bright blue eyes in his profile picture and I can’t help thinking that being a racist asshole isn’t his whole story. It’s not that I think the fact that he used to be a horn player with African American friends, or the fact that he suffered a tragic loss at a young age or is currently undergoing a tragic loss excuses or explains his racism. It’s that knowing those things about him reminds me that everyone, even those we least want to talk to, has a bigger story we should hear. Knowing little bits of the beauty in his life reminds me that we are all bigger and more complex than our faults.

 

 

 

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Louisville’s Ali

My husband jokes that living with someone from Louisville is like living with a Canadian, our accents are slightly off and the minute you mention anything with a possible connection we jump to point it out. “Oh, you like to watch the news? Did you know that former anchor Diane Sawyer is from Louisville?”

We are tribal, we travel in a pack. The first time I took my husband to New York to meet some of my Louisville friends he was excited to find out that someone else also had a new boyfriend. He thought there’d be someone else not from Louisville. Except, our tribe prefers intra marriage. The friends I took him to meet were my best friend from high school, his boyfriend (now husband), who was my college roommate, his sister, who had been best friends with his boyfriend since middle school (where I met her). Oh, and her new boyfriend (now husband) also from Louisville.

When we took our baby daughter to meet her these friends my husband joked, “Well, finally, I have someone else not from Louisville.” My roommate cradled my daughter and looked in to her eyes, “Hmph,” he said, “not really.” I think it made my husband nervous.

My college roommate? His sisters live next door to each other back in Louisville. His husband? For a long time his older brother and mother lived next door to each other in Louisville. My friend’s husband? I grew up down the street from his first wife, her brother had been best friends with my roommate’s now deceased boyfriend. Don’t try and follow, there’s no need, we know who we are.

There is plenty to be proud of in Louisville: Churchill Downs and the Derby, Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks, the Louisville Cardinals. The Hot Brown sandwich was invented in Louisville, as was Benedictine spread (look it up). According to some, the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville.

Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville, as are Tom Cruise and Ned Beatty. Hunter Thompson was from Louisville, and so was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (also, a Jew, so double bragging points for me).

Our main claim to fame though is Muhammad Ali.

When I was five my family lived in Tanzania. I remember going to the market with my mother. “Where in America you from” The man asked. “Louisville, Kentucky,” my mom answered. “Oh!” He said, a smile widening his face, “Louisville, Ali, yes?” He did a quick boxing jab, “ALI!”

Ali was our pride and joy.

I am not naive about Louisville and Ali. It was a Louisville restaurant that refused Ali service causing him to toss his Olympic Medal in to the Ohio River. Although Kentucky remained part of the Union, Louisville has the Northernmost statue to the Confederate dead. It is just now, in 2016, being removed from the campus of the University of Louisville. When I was in college the dorm closest to the statue was finally renamed, it had been Confederate Hall. A dorm where African American students were expected to live was called Confederate Hall, in 1988.

Another Louisville Olympian, Mary T. Meagher, trained at a segregated pool blocks from my home.

I’m sure to this day there are those back home who are angry at Ali’s refusal to be drafted, angry at his conversion to Islam, angry at his holding a mirror up to the ugly side of Louisville, the ugly side of the country.

But for most of us, he was our pride and joy.

If you drive around Louisville you’ll see big signs with famous Louisvillians. They say  “Bob Edwards’ Louisville” “Jennifer’s Louisville” and of course, “Ali’s Louisville.” They don’t direct you anywhere, they don’t point out different points of interest, they just command you to look. This is what we make in Louisville, what does your city do?

 

 

 

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How We Do It

Our Memorial Day weekend was filled with all the things a summer weekend is supposed to have. We had visits from friends and family, we went to a Cubs game, we went downtown to site see with tourists, we went to the pool, we sat on the porch and drank with friends, we had a last minute slumber party, we went to a parade and used the grill.

There were so many good things, cousins and cute kids but my favorite moment came early in the weekend. On Friday, we went to the Cubs game with our visiting family. My first cousin, his wife, and their two kids, ages four and two. My 10-year-old was over the moon about the idea of missing school for a Cubs game. My 12-year-old was happy to miss school and eat nachos for lunch. She brought a book to read at the game.

I had forgotten that baseball games are not as much fun with small kids. They need to walk around. My cousins walked their kids up and down and around. But around the fourth inning it became clear that the little ones needed to go. My cousin and his wife also had plans that evening, and she wanted to try and rest a little first. I’m happy with half a ball game and my daughter was more than happy to leave early. So, the women and small children headed out leaving my husband, son, and cousin at the game.

In between El stations, we got caught in the one major rain storm of the day. Already soaking wet, we ducked inside to wait out the worst of the horizontal rain. When the rain went back to a drizzle, we made our way up the El stairs. My cousin-in-law carrying stuff, me carrying the stroller and my drenched 12-year-old, a small, wet, tired, and sniffly child in each hand, making her way up the stairs.

All the way up she said little things “That’s right Owen, we’re almost there. You can do it Isabelle, just keep going.”

She sounded so natural, I almost didn’t notice at first. When I did it took my breath away, “Look at you, you’re a star Madeline,” I said to my baby girl.

An older woman had been walking patiently behind us, “That’s right, that is a responsible young lady. She IS a star!” She said as much to me as to my daughter.

We got to the platform and I turned to catch the older woman’s eye. She nodded at me, “That’s right. That’s how we do it,” she murmured as much to herself as to me.

That’s right, that is how we do it.

 

 

 

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Brushing Her Hair

long brown hair“This is my least favorite part of Irish dance, you putting my wig on.”

She doesn’t mean for it to sting, that’s not how my daughter’s mind works, but it does. This is my favorite part. She has always been tender-headed and independent and so it has been years since I’ve been allowed to brush her hair. It has gotten so much thicker, no longer a scraggly, thin mess, it falls in a beautiful curtain of dark waves down her back.

There is something about brushing someone’s hair. It is practical and intimate, an act of trust to let someone brush your hair, an act of love to do the brushing. As a girl, hours were spent at sleepovers and summer camp brushing each others hair. “I love your curls.” “I love how smooth your hair is.” “Your hair is sooo pretty, can I brush it?” “Can you French braid?”

Oh those French braids! When she started dancing her hair was supposed to be in two neat French braids, but I can’t braid. I understand the concept, but my fingers are too clumsy. With bravado I sent her to the salon or a neighbor’s for the braids, proud of myself that I wasn’t putting undo pressure on myself. “Being a good mother isn’t about being able to do things for your child, it’s about understanding your limits,” I proclaimed to anyone who would listen, but mainly to myself.

She is taller than I am. So now, I stand on a stool behind my baby. I brush her hair for as long as she will allow. I gently (but never gently enough) put it in two ponytails, and then two buns. I lift the wig with it’s fake curls over her own hair and attach it with bobby pins.

She dances off, making sure the wig is secure.

This is my favorite part.

 

 

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A Good Party

The dolls' party

The dolls’ party

For my daughter’s 8th birthday we created invitations out of popsicle sticks to look like a log cabin. We curled orange peels in to flowers and made a cake with rosewater icing, just like in the Little House books. For her 9th birthday we created two invitations, one for the guest, and one for each guest’s doll. We made a separate table at which the dolls sat and were served tiny cupcakes. For her 10th birthday she again made an invitation, this time for a science-themed slumber party. We planned three science experiments and a movie.

Then last year at 11, she said, “Mom, could you just make an evite?” She settled on an “International” theme, since it would allow her to serve all her favorite foods (including Doritos), but resisted any attempt to plan activities. “We just want to talk.” I finally forced a few “international” games on her. I still got to create a centerpiece. The end of the party became a little chaotic as the girls finished their games and were not quite capable of finding something else to do.

This year at 12, she again requested an evite and limited planned activities. She barely indulged me in a “beach” theme and tablescape, because it involved confetti. But this year the girls entertained themselves. This year they really didn’t need the planned activities, they created their own. Eight girls stayed in our house from 6:00 pm to 10:00 am and entertained themselves.

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I loved the years of creating invitations, tablescapes, and planned activities. I don’t have a lot of domestic or artistic skills, but one thing I know how to do is throw a party. The parties my daughter and I planned weren’t competitive and Pinterest fueled, they were a project we did together. As we made invitations and plans I implicitly and explicitly talked to her about why I loved parties, why I thought you should put care in to how you create a party. Parties are a way to show love.

But now she is 12.  I don’t know what the parties of the future will hold. It’s doubtful I’ll be allowed to create an invitation or tablescape any time soon. Will I even be allowed in the basement at her next party? Will there be boys? How long before birthday parties themselves become too childish? How many years before her birthday is celebrated in a different town from me?

I have told my daughter that creating a party is a loving act. All I can hope is that as in all things, love is what lasts.

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