The Oldest Child.

"Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light/The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight/For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above/While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love..."
- "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

On Mother's Day, I reflected not only on the complex nature of the relationship between myself and my own mother, with whom I am close, and of the relationships between myself and other "mothering types" in my life, including my grandmother and my aunt, but also of my relationship to my own children.  This marks my fifth "official" Mother's Day, though I still celebrated when I was pregnant with Lolly, my first child.

Any parent can tell you of the feeling of unspeakable joy, pride, wonder, intensity, fear, and euphoria that one feels when a child comes into one's family, particularly a first child.  After all, it's an experience like no other, and when you've experienced it for the first time, life seems to take a deep breath.  (Even at Lolly's birth, I wanted a mirror to see what was happening... I didn't want to miss a moment.)  When parenthood begins for the first time, it can feel like there is no other single person greater than your child - certainly not yourself.  You want to savor every moment.  You protect, you obsess, you worry.

Lolly in a box.

Now that I am the mother of three young children, I've relaxed somewhat.  I no longer feel ill when my baby cries; instead, it's a fact of life that babies will cry, and we just do what we can do help.  I no longer write down every single first - including things like "first dog seen" or "first apple tasted" - because I just don't have time.  I no longer have the same resolutions... life gets in the way before I can hold onto those things. 

However, when I was the parent of one child, I tried to devote all of my free time to her.  Unfortunately, I had to go back to work when she was less than a month old, but it made me cherish the times with her even more.  We went everywhere together: amusement parks, restaurants, New York City, everywhere from Maine to Pennsylvania to Florida, and all around her native Boston.  She sat in the front row every week at church.  I took her to the Museum of Fine Arts ten times before she was two years old.  I wasn't able to do attachment parenting practices all the time because I worked, but I definitely got the concept.

Lolly was my baby, my little seed of perfection.  Dammit, the parent says, I may have made lots of mistakes in my own life, but this kid is going to be perfect!  Look, she was born perfect!

Lolly's very first day of preschool.   I think I was just as nervous as she was.  I cried every day that week.
Of course, you also want to treat that child perfectly... you spend all of your money on professional portraits and trips to the zoo... you read to your child all the time, you don't let her watch any television... you create elaborate birthday parties, you make sure she eats her vegetables... you videotape her singing and even sleeping.  This child is a reflection of not only you, your family, and your values, but possibly of life itself.  Don't screw this up, your conscience seems to say. 

My biggest fear with Lolly is that her joy will be taken away.  We all know that innocence inevitably fades; that's just part of maturing.  However, joy doesn't have to fade... her sense of wonder and excitement about life.  Nor should her empathy and sensitivity fade, I hope.  It can't happen, I tell myself.

A happy, healthy, moral, confident kid... that's all we parents really want, right? 
The seed of perfection got older, and I had more children.  I got more busy and, admittedly, more lax about some things.  Yet I never stopped trying to mold Lolly, it seems.  Since she now knows the answer to 9 times 12, I get anxious for her to learn the whole times table and long division.  Since she now reads Babysitter chapter books, I get anxious for her to start on great works of literature.  I've been consistently amazed at how quickly Lolly learns, but the more she learns, the more I want her to know.  I think she's brilliant, so I keep pushing her.  One of these days, she's going to go on strike, and rightly so.

Then I worry about what's going to happen as she gets older.  Her personality, at least for the moment, is so much like mine was when I was her age. She is a people-pleasing perfectionist, a sensitive girl who loves performing but feels embarrassed when called to do so, a voracious reader with a strong imagination, and someone who might be lonely someday.  What if she goes with the first guy who says he loves her?  What if she falls in with the wrong crowd?   Just like any parent, I want to keep her from any hurt.  I don't want to see her get her heart broken or to be ridiculed or to feel humiliated or to dislike herself or to hurt others.  I guess that never stops.

We're really close now... we would do everything together, if I would let it happen.  I am worried, on a selfish level, about whether she'll decide that not only does she not need me when she becomes an adult(which is appropriate, of course), but that she doesn't want me.  Yes, I realize how remarkably immature that sounds, but those are my insecurities, right there.  I want us to continue to be close.  I also want her to learn from my mistakes.  And I always want a part of her to be my baby forever.
My recipe for perfection now is to let her have more tea parties, read more books for pleasure, have more playtime, and to keep making a big deal about all of the birthdays and holidays and visits.  Saying yes more often - when it counts - is a good thing.  She is never going to get these years back, and neither am I.


Because It Makes Me Happy.

I was reading an autobiography from my bookshelf today wherein the subject, a well-known actress, stated that her main childhood aspiration was to be a happy adult.  As a child, she didn't tell people that she wanted to be defined by some occupation when she grew up, but rather, that she wanted to be happy.

It seems so foolishly simple: of course we'd want to be happy.  Yet everywhere we look around us, we see people who either outright ignore the goal of happiness (by choosing careers they hate, partners they don't respect) or who pursue it in dangerous ways (like drug abuse).  Most of us rarely follow our bliss, as Joseph Campbell might say. 

But why?  Is it guilt?  Do we think that, somehow, making ourselves happy should be wrong?  To put it in a spiritual sense, don't you think that God (or whatever you call your ultimate) intends all of us to be truly fulfilled and happy in life?  If not, why not?

I am not talking about selfish hedonism here.  I am not talking about Ayn Rand or do-it-yourself, damn-the-rest happiness.  I don't feel like the pursuit of happiness at the expense of compassion, generosity, and community is worth much in the long run for anyone.  What I mean is when people follow their bliss - while being mindful of what might be best for other people - people can inspire more joy and fulfillment in others.

If that sounds too vague or simplistic for you, consider this: can you recall a time when someone inspired you?  Perhaps a friend made a courageous life choice that caused you to reexamine your life choices and redirect your life in a positive way.  Perhaps a stranger did or experienced something extraordinary that caused you to rethink the very nature of joy.  I am convinced that happy people can beget more happy people, as long as those people are given the chance to be happy and don't feel like they're on the outside looking in, so to speak.

Certain things are supposed to make us happy, society says: our kids, our looks, our financial security, the toys we have.  While I certainly agree that children can make us feel deeply fulfilled, and I agree that one cannot be very happy in life without some level of security - however that might be defined - I think that our standards for happiness are different from what we might think.  (I remember the comedian Rita Rudner once giving a list about the things that sounded better than they really were; on the list were things like the beach, and hot buttered rum.)

I was talking with a friend this week about expectations; specifically, about how things that cost money are supposed to make us more happy.  My friend talked about how she had more fun just sharing a glass of wine and conversation with her husband on the back porch while the kids played than she did going out to a fancy dinner and paying a babysitter to watch the kids.  It's also the same feeling when you buy a nice pair of jeans for $40 vs. $80 vs. $1, and thinking about how much you could do with the extra money and the $1 jeans.

But I get a little awkward when I describe what really makes me happy.  I mean, why did I get married, procreate, and raise kids?  Because all three things made me happy, of course.  (Many children aren't conceived because their parents deliberately wanted to make a wonderful difference in the world.  Instead, the children were a byproduct of joy, so to speak.)  Was I supposed to give a different answer?

But what about other things, like homeschooling?  One of my "dirty little secrets" is that I wanted to homeschool because it makes me happy.  It makes me happy to see my kids constantly!  It makes me happy to put lesson plans together and watch my kids learn.  It's exciting!  We don't homeschool because we feel that, regrettably, we have to... we do it because it's awesome for us.

All in all, why wouldn't we do things out of happiness?  Can we do things out of a sense of duty, and still feel really happy about them (like volunteer work)?  We've only got one of these lives, so we'd better find some happiness in what we do.


Because I'm not a Woman anymore. I'm a Mom.

Warning: what is to follow is some of the most vapid, insignificant stuff about which I will write, but I figured we could use some levity.

As some of you may know, my personal fashion style has been, er, eclectic over the years.  My style could be called gaudy, modest, weird, over-the-top, or just plain frumpy.  A former boyfriend's best friend used to describe my clothes as "dick repellant" (my apologies).  First, I didn't wear jeans, shorts, or sexy shirts.  Instead, I wore long skirts or dresses or jumpers, sometimes with tights or leggings underneath, and blouses with sleeves.  This was even in the summer. It's not a religious thing, but rather, a personal thing: I would prefer not to show my own skin, and I definitely don't like to tan. 

In addition, I've tended to go overboard with colors and patterns.  It's not that I didn't want to attract attention to myself, but that I wanted to do it on my own terms, with the clothes that I liked best.  I mean, who doesn't like bright fabulousness?  (I won't even go into my hairstyles over the years: bleached, buzzcut, mohawked, you name it.  That would be another blog altogether.)

"Hey, guys!  The pregnant, hippie creampuff modeled after June Cleaver's curtains is right over here!"

Is it the pattern that's causing my manic smile?  This was part of a polyester three-piece suit.

When you've completely given up, you can wear Christmas pajamas outside.  By the Dumpster.

However, while I thought that I was looking original and unique all of these years, I think I was just looking tacky.  I was doing my own thing, but I wasn't flattering myself.  I had even been anti-jeans because I'd been anti-conformist.  I wanted to be different at any cost.

Then there's the modest aspect.  There's a difference between not trying to look sexy and deliberately trying not to look sexy, even for my husband.  I began looking like a cult member (trust me).  It didn't help that I'd gained and lost about 450 pounds total within 5 years with 4 pregnancies.  I needed all the help I could get.

Flash forward to the present day.  I am helping to look for jeans for my niece and nephew, and it occurs to me that I haven't owned a single pair of jeans in years.  In fact, I last wore jeans back in college, I think, with the exception of a pair of maternity jeans I wore during one pregnancy.  Yet jeans are flattering, versatile, and very practical.  They are perfect for busy moms like me. 

So I decided to change my style altogether.  I will now be a Jeans Wearer.  It's okay to be somewhat normal, I guess, for the sake of practicality and looking decent.  I've also gone back to wearing makeup and styling my hair, two things that had gone by the wayside over the past year. 

I still refuse, however, to go to the trouble of shaving my hairy legs.  (Thank God I married a European who doesn't give a darn about these things.)  So, obviously, the jeans will really come in handy for that.

Total cost of new outfit: about two dollars, thanks to the clothing-by-the-pound deal at Good Cents!

P.S. I showed this photo to my oldest daughter, and her response was, "Who's that?"