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How Do We Keep Them Safe?

At the airport, before our flight

The feeling I have can only be described as “heavy.” My heart is heavy, weighed down by sadness for all the kids impacted by the school shooting that took place yesterday in my home state of Ohio. My head is heavy too; cloudy and confused by yet another tragedy involving our nation’s kids.

There are so many things to feel when a kid becomes so desperate, or unhappy, or murderous, or lost, that he opens fire on a group of his peers. I think it’s natural to feel anger, but I primarily just feel sad.

It’s a hard time right now for kids. And, consequently, a hard time for parents as well. What do we tell our kids in a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is so great? When there’s so much pressure to look a certain way, to have certain things?

I attended 12 years of Catholic school, which meant I wore a uniform for nearly every school day of my life. We were told that the point of these uniforms was to level the playing field, to take the focus off of which kids had more or less, thereby putting all the focus on learning.

This suited me fine. My clothes started their life in my cousin Kim’s closet. From there, they went to my cousins Kathy and Kristin, and then to my sister before finally reaching me. (Not that I was the end of the line — from me, they went to my cousin Karen, and sometimes ended their journey with my poor cousin Robert.)

We had no cell phones, no iPads, no laptops. The only opportunity we had to distinguish ourselves was with our footwear. I spent a lot of time obsessing over my socks and shoes, putting just the perfect amount of scrunch in my socks and feeling on top of the world when I had the “right” shoes.

But really, there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure. My head spins when I try to imagine what high school is like today. It seems that every day we’re hearing another report of a kid who was bullied so badly as to wish herself dead. Or a kid who felt so much pressure to succeed that his life was a private hell.

Or a young man whose home life is so bad, he does the unthinkable.

How do we, as parents, protect our kids in this confusing time? How do we help them navigate this complicated world?

How do we keep them safe?

I recently took my 4 ½-month-old son on a plane for the first time. Overall, the trip was a great success. But during the flight home, we went through a 45-minute stretch of turbulence that was the scariest I’ve ever experienced.

With my son sleeping peacefully in my lap, the plane began to lurch. The flight attendants scurried to their seats, the pilot instructed us all to prepare ourselves for a period of severe turbulence. I’ve been through turbulence many times before, and wasn’t fazed — at first. But then, things became more serious.

The plane began to shake violently, and then suddenly dropped, causing me to leave my seat and strain against my seat belt. A collective scream rang out throughout the cabin. Ice and ginger ale rained down from above, as the woman next to me lost hold of her full cup. I gripped my son as tightly as I could, feeling more vulnerable than ever before.

My god, I thought. How do I keep him safe?

I didn’t know the answer to that question then, and I don’t know it now.

At the time, I simply held him close. The turbulence passed. We weathered the storm together. And through it all, amazingly, he slept.

Maybe I won’t be able to keep him safe throughout his life. Maybe I can only prepare him as best I can, comfort him when necessary and — from time to time, when the going gets really rough — hold him close.

Dear Sweet Baby Boy


Cute Baby Boy

Today, you laughed. You looked into my eyes and tossed your head to the side, letting out the most joyful noise I’ve ever heard. Already, you’ve turned me into a slobbering pile of emotional mush — even more so than during my pregnancy. And then, you laughed. What a beautiful sound!

Every day you smile and smile, as if life is handing you a series of delightful moments, one right after the other. And every day you seem to grow a little more into yourself, becoming a little person. You are such an easy, happy baby.

I take pride in seeing you grow big and healthy, but find myself wanting desperately to slow it all down. You’ve left newborn diapers far behind and are quickly growing out of the impossibly small outfits I first dressed you in, when I hardly knew what to do with you. I want each moment to last twice as long, each night to stay with me for just a bit longer before it’s gone forever.

So many things about motherhood have caught me by surprise: how challenging (and time-consuming!) breastfeeding can be; how defined your personality is already, even at such a young age; how much poop can come out of you at one time (where did that all come from??); how different I feel.

But what surprises me most is how much more I value my life. It’s not that I didn’t care before, just that I suddenly feel so important now that another human being depends on me. It struck me one day when I was driving home from an errand. What would happen to you if something happened to me? I sat a little straighter in my seat, drove a little more carefully. Smiled a private smile as my stomach fluttered.

Being a mom makes me feel unique and irreplaceable.

My heart pounds with the rush of so many complex feelings — gratitude for your existence, amazement at your tiny features, even a strange and fleeting fear that you’ll somehow be taken from me. I am perpetually exhausted, frequently overwhelmed and often intimidated by the job of raising you to be a kind and responsible young man.

And yet.

My love for you astounds me.

Cute Baby

Dear Sweet Autumn Baby

Autumn Wedding Day

Our perfect autumn wedding day in November 2008

Dear Sweet Baby,

After a long, hot summer, the weather has finally started to turn cool. It’s beginning to feel like autumn: the season of your birth.

Your father and I were married in this season, on a gorgeous fall day nearly three years ago. There’s something so peaceful about this time of year, so mature and deliberate. Spring, with its wild abundance and infinite possibility, has always been my favorite season. But autumn seems like such a perfect time for you to come into our lives. It’s certainly become a special time in my life, and becomes more so with every passing day as we draw closer to your arrival.

I’m fully in preparation mode now, doing all I can to feel ready. It never seems like enough. I know there’s nothing I can do completely prepare my heart for the day it grows huge with love for you. Nothing in the human body can expand that quickly without some pain involved — without aching at least a little bit. I already feel my heart swelling and being stripped raw at the same time, just by having you inside me.

People talk so much about crazy pregnancy emotions, but rarely about why expectant women get so soft and vulnerable to everything around them. Perhaps it’s a kind of practice run for how fully and helplessly we love these babies when they finally arrive.

This pregnancy — the process of creating you and growing you into something real — has not been brief or fleeting. It feels like I’ve been pregnant for ages and I still have more than a month to go. I can feel my body readying itself to bring you into the world; now it’s just my heart that needs to get itself into shape. I fear it will truly burst when I finally lay eyes on you.

It’s been more than 10 years since your dad and I first met. We were so young — in years, but even more so in spirit. We took our time growing up: moving to new cities; changing jobs and careers; collecting experiences and friends along the way. It took a long time for us to get here, and a lot of people haven’t always understood why.

But we know.

We know it took every one of those years — every week, every month, every season — to bring us here today. We anticipate your arrival with hearts that have grown broader and stronger with every passing year. And still, we know you will turn us upside down and inside out. That our lives will never be the same again.

Ten years. Ten autumns. And now, the autumn of you. Of new feelings, new experiences — a whole new chapter for us. I wait for you with bated breath, knowing this is only the beginning of the rest of our lives.

The Fierce, Rabid Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

Courtesy of Shel Silverstein

Recently, a friend sent me a note in which she mentioned that “The Giving Tree” is her daughter’s current favorite book. Before reading my friend’s letter, I hadn’t thought of my favorite Shel Silverstein work in a while. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about why I love this story so much.

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy.”

According to Silverstein’s website, this touching story “offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.” The tree loves the boy without condition, never thinking about what’s in it for her. When it seems there’s nothing left for the tree to offer the boy, still she finds more to give. It is a poignant story, and a beautiful concept.

Some people think the tree represents God. I don’t know how I never noticed it before but, to me, the story chronicles the relationship between a mother and her child.

Until now, I didn’t think too much about how mothers give their flesh and blood in the most literal sense possible. Just as the tree provides her fruit, her branches and even her trunk, women share every bit of themselves; all with the goal of helping their babies grow strong enough leave and forge their own way in the world.

My mother did this for me, and her mother for her and so on. It’s an incredible thing when you stop to think about it.

From my earliest visions for the nursery, there’s been one part of the décor that I’ve consistently imagined: a mural climbing up the wall and arching over the crib. Without really knowing why, I always pictured a tree, with or without birds, leaves or fruit, but always forming a protective canopy over where the baby will sleep.

It’s only just now occurred to me that I’ve been picturing the Giving Tree all along.

I recently came across another thought-provoking perspective on motherhood in a book called “Sister Mine” by Tawni O’Dell. According to the book’s protagonist, a mother’s love “is not warm and cuddly like a soft blanket, as it’s popularly portrayed. It’s a fierce, rabid love, like having a mad dog locked inside you all the time.”

Already, I get it — I don’t want to think of this baby ever feeling sadness or fear, loneliness or pain. And if any person threatens this baby’s safety or well being, I suspect there’s a rabid, frothing dog lurking inside me, just waiting for the moment she’s needed. (Suddenly the term, “bitch” seems so perfectly apropos.)

I guess my interpretation of motherhood falls somewhere between Silverstein’s and O’Dell’s versions, but doesn’t align perfectly with either.

I can’t wait to let this baby swing from my branches and nap in my shade, but I don’t plan to end up a felled stump, happy only when I’m serving my child. Similarly, I know I’ll ferociously protect my baby from the pain in the world, but without teaching him or her to turn a blind eye.

I want to be a Giving Tree for this baby and I hope the world will be one too. And yet, I don’t want the world to simply drop apples into his or her outstretched hand. I’d prefer to watch my child climb the world’s highest limbs and learn that the sweetest fruit is sometimes the hardest to reach.

And the tree was happy.

Listen to the Oompa-Loompas

Blueberry Baby

"I feel funny!"

Apparently, I’ve “popped.” That’s what I’m told, anyway.

When I look in the mirror, suddenly I see Violet Beauregarde staring back, with a horde of Oompa-Loompas dancing around me in a circle.

Recent developments include:

1.     I’ve become unable to perform any activity without making a loud grunting sound, like Monica Seles delivering a game-ending slam. This happens whenever I’m getting in the car, getting out of the car, getting out of bed or trying to lift my foot.

2.     Basic activities cause me to break out in a body-drenching sweat. Like typing. Or breathing.

3.     I’ve started to walk with a distinctive pregnant-lady swagger: a lazy waddle that involves tilting the shoulders back, jutting the belly forward and moving slower than a toddler who’s just learned to walk.

All these things add up to one thing: my pregnancy has become impossible to ignore. People are now comfortable assuming my inflated girth isn’t just from an increased consumption of jelly doughnuts. As a result, I’ve been getting some pretty bizarre comments. Reference the conversation I had with one of the cooks in the cafeteria at work:

Cafeteria Guy: That thing doesn’t even look real!

Me: Huh?

CG: Looks like you got a pillow stuffed up under your shirt!

Me: Oh. Yeah, it’s definitely real.

CG: Gonna be a big baby!

Me: Well, I hope not. For my sake.

CG: I was a big baby. I was so big my mom had to have a hip replacement after giving birth to me!

What is it about pregnancy that brings out so many inappropriate comments? It’s nice when people congratulate me or ask me when I’m due (as long as they don’t assume it’s within the next 24 hours). But there are a lot of weird exchanges too — like when strangers call out, “Hey, mommy!” And can someone please tell my male co-worker to stop referring to me as “Preggers” (this is the same guy who asked me the other day if I “stopped at Denny’s for a big-ass breakfast” on my way into work)?

I’m often reminded of the scene in Juno when, referring to the very public nature of her pregnancy, the knocked up title character tells her baby daddy, “At least you don’t have to wear the evidence under your sweater.” Like Juno, I have days when I wish this big belly were one of those fake pregnancy suits forced upon unsympathetic husbands and promiscuous teenage girls, just so I can take it off for a little bit.

It’s been hard to get used to my new reflection in the mirror. Inside, I still feel like me: a friend, a daughter, a career woman, a wife. Most of the time I feel like a kid, just trying to figure it all out. I can’t get used to the idea that I’m going to be someone’s mom. That word carries a lot of weight.

Being pregnant creates more questions than answers. I feel like the most common phrase out of my mouth these days is, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if this baby is a boy or a girl. I don’t know what direction my career will head after he or she is born. I have absolutely no clue how we’ll ever choose a name. But, thankfully, this little one doesn’t give me any uncertainty about its vitality; there seems to be a party going on inside of me all day, every day (and night).

If only those Oompa-Loompas would sing me a charming little song with a helpful moral at the end.

Oompa Loompa, do-ba-dee-doo,
What do you do when your belly gets huge?
Oompa Loompa, do-ba-da-dee,
Try to relax and let it all be.

I’ll try, Oompa-Loompas. I’ll try.

What’s Inside the Diaper?

A creative, convention-free kid

The devastating consequences of letting your child make her own choices.

It turns out my husband and I are not brave pioneers.

Apparently, waiting to find out your baby’s gender until the delivery is child’s play. Waiting to find out its gender until the baby tells you what it is: now that’s hard-core.

Can we talk for a minute about the Canadian parents who refuse to reveal their baby’s gender, saying, “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs”?

Seriously.

To some extent, I get it. They want their child to grow up with his or her own sense of identity, unburdened by society’s judgment and expectations. Frankly, I want the same things for my child.

However, I can’t get over the irony (hypocrisy?) of the situation. In making their child’s gender a big, creepy secret, these people have created an international inquiry into what’s inside the diaper.

The couple says they’ve noticed “parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious.” These parents don’t seem to realize they’ve already made a very big choice for their children by exposing them to such complex and emotionally charged issues at such young ages.

It seems to me that, in an effort to give their child freedom of choice, this couple is actually foisting a radical viewpoint on a baby who’s blissfully unaware of what he or she “is.”

Do we really need to worry about four-month-old babies being stereotyped? While cooing over a new baby, I don’t think too many people are thinking about his or her sexuality or future choice of magazine subscriptions. When you’ve only been alive for four months, people mostly just worry about whether or not you’re able to pee in their face while your diaper’s getting changed.

When I was young, I was fortunate enough to attend the fantastic Columbus, Ohio pre-school, School For Young Children (SYC). Long before it was hip to do so, this school facilitated an open-minded and accepting environment where kids engage in self-directed, imaginative play. At SYC, if a boy chooses to spend the day in a princess dress from the collection of dress-up clothes, no one blinks an eye. Similarly, no one pulls that boy aside and asks him, “are you sure you want to be a boy? Maybe you want to be a girl instead?” To me, that’s true gender acceptance.

There’s a difference between gender acceptance and gender ignorance. Why not just teach your kids they can be anything they want to be? My mom was great about giving my sister and me the freedom to express ourselves, letting us put together our own outfits and style our hair however we wanted — even when this resulted in years of very, very bad school pictures.

Life is tough enough these days. Being a baby should be easy and fun, and free from serious questions about gender, sexuality and stereotypes. I commend these parents for creating an environment where their kids are accepted for whoever they are. But kids aren’t supposed to make all their own decisions.

Parents should say no when their kids want to play in the street or drink Drano. They’re supposed to encourage a vegetable here and there and teach their child how to respond when someone has a problem with him wearing a princess dress.

I hope this little bean inside me has his or her father’s confidence to disregard societal conventions. For my part, I’ll try to teach this baby that whatever he or she wants to wear, study, play or be is okay. That’s the plan anyway.

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