Who Are You Calling a Bad Mommy?

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Oh, stop judging me. (Photo by Frieke Janssens)

As usual, everything is happening elsewhere. That’s the modern world, people. 

Well, here’s what I wanted to say about the Slacker Mommy phenomenon:

Here it comes, the backlash to the “Bad Mommy” backlash to the “Perfect Mother” backlash to the “Don’t Be a Mother” backlash to the “You Have to Be a Mother” backlash to the… where was I? Oh right, the Salon article burning up my Facebook feed these days, titled “The tyranny of the bad mother: Slacker moms are just as intimidating as perfect ones.” Elissa Strauss writes about the persona of the “Bad Mother,” which has colonized the world of mommy blogs: “Born in the sanctimommy’s shadows, the bad mother is everything the perfect breast-feeding, plastic-avoiding mom is not… But then the bad mothers started getting a little judgey themselves.” Could it be that the real problem is that we have become addicted to labeling ourselves as mothers? And how has this happened?…

Read the rest on Redbook

 

The Only Thing to Discourage is Discouragement Itself

Image(via NYPL)

Is it because of writing so many of these things for the people who pay me money to write that I seem to only be able to think in lists lately?

Or is that just life in the internet age? Or life as a mother of young children who is constantly being interrupted and hasn’t had a cohesive thought in a half a decade?

Where was I?

Oh right lists. I have been thinking and talking a lot about discouragement lately.   I feel like I am often having this conversation with other writers I know:

Writer Who Is Not Me: What kind of book should one write? What is the best kind of Writer to be?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. Those are Important and Big Thoughts to Think. But I don’t have time for thoughts like that anymore. I think I remember having thoughts like that. Now I’m just happy when I have a minute to write.

WWINM: But what’s the point of it all? You work and work and work on a piece of writing and for what? Why do we try so hard? To what end? Writing something no one will publish, or that someone will publish but no one will read, or that will be read but get lousy reviews, or be really well-received and then called overrated, or that will do well now but never enter the literary canon? Or else to get a job teaching writing that still barely supports us or offers only crud health insurance so that one day we sit joylessly among our dusty books while the teeth fall out of our heads one by one?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. I just, like, get crabby when I don’t write?

But of course I get discouraged, everyone does. Here are three ways I try to dig out:

1) Do the thing. Talking about writing and thinking about writing are both somewhat crazy-making. What I actually like doing is writing. I had a rather abstract conversation about What Writing Is the other day, and felt a little muddled, and then sat down to write, and changed the phrase “walked down” to “descended” and felt a clean jolt of joy, and then became miraculously unmuddled. These are rare moments but such good ones.

2) Don’t do the thing. Then again, sometimes trying to write makes me just as crazy as not writing, because in my life right now finding time to write means missing out on family time on the weekend when my husband can watch the kids, or paying a nice lady many dollars I don’t have to watch the children, or not sleeping enough which then makes me not a nice mommy, and all of these things are stressful, and sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the grand scheme of things, there is no real rush, and if creative work happens slowly for a few years when the kids are small, it’s really okay. It’s just a few years, in the end. So if I don’t write 150 pages and finish my novel draft this weekend, and if I want to read a book tonight instead of doing novel research, it’s okay not to beat myself up about it.

3) Make it easy to enjoy other peoples’ successes. This is a tricky one I know, and not a nice one to talk about because who wants to admit that they greet other people’s triumphs with a petty, self-pitying inward grumble? I mean, I can imagine some people feel that way. Other, much smaller-souled people than moi, of course!

Something that has been really nice for me the past 6 months or so is hosting my reading series, Lit at Lark.   Reaching out to writers, getting to enjoy great writing in that pure-reader way that first made me want to write, connecting with other people who do this crazy thing I do too – it’s been somewhat nourishing. And it helps me to remember that when something good happens for another writer, it’s really just something good for everyone who likes books and wants them to keep existing.

4) Then of course there’s also just, like, this:

Image (via Kateoplis)

Recipe for a Good Day

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The funny thing about parenting is that just when you think you have it all figured out, a kid stops napping or starts biting, or schedules change, or you change, and it’s almost like you have to start all over, figuring out how to have a good day. That’s my goal lately, a good day. It’s hard to think bigger than that, and when I start considering Childhood or Theories of Brain Development or What Kind of Parent One Ought to Be I get really tired and need a nap. But my kids don’t nap. So I can’t. Instead I spend a lot of energy trying to make each day good. Not perfect, but good. Each day with little kids is a marathon and a lifetime and a work of art and a mess. Inevitably.

Because I seem to have to relearn this every day, I am writing this to remind myself what helps, at this moment in time — as the kids are almost-3 and almost-5 and still home for most of the day and at the end of a long long winter — for a day to be a good one.

1) Stay busy but flexible. This is a real SAHM thing, to be sure. Maybe it’s because my kids are so, how you say, batshit crazy, it always helps us to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan Z. In this matter give them pretend choices. “Do you want to do X or Other X, both of which I have pre-approved?”

2) Remember to take breaks. Book time in bed. Juice breaks at playdates. Bench-sits at museums and parks. You actually have to make it happen and it actually makes a huge difference. There is no nap anymore. Get over it. Remember that some minutes playing math games on Starfall will not suck their imaginations out of their heads. Chillax, Mama. Break time = important.

3) Invest in healthyish convenience food. Because I am sorry, but few things are as enraging as involving the kids in menu planning and grocery shopping just like the thingy you read said to, spending an hour cooking with “helpers” wobbling on chairs in the galley kitchen, all Montesourri-like, only to end up with a huge mess and food that the kids just look at and cry. Try again with the real food in a year. Until then, fuck it, how bad can Annie’s Mac and Cheese every night be? (Do not read the story about the girl who ate only chicken nuggets for 17 years. Do not hang out with the mom whose kid eats bell peppers at the playground like they are apples. Do not click on any BuzzFeed thingies about any kind of food.)

4) Get out everyday. If nothing else, walk to the mailbox or invent something you need to buy at the store that can be scooted to. Even in the winter. Even when they’re sick. Even when the bundling up takes longer than the outside time.

5) See other grownups/text your friends/look at twitter just enough so you stay sane or at least remember that all the parents are feeling crazy.

6) Keep the ratio of art project setup/cleanup to actual kid-entertainment potential in mind. No wants to clean up fucking cloud dough all night.

7) Remember Pinterest is a liar. Most of the internet is a liar. And nothing entertains kids for hours. Nothing.

8) When possible, don’t react. To hitting, to whining, to acting out. Remember Amy Fusselman, who writes in her memoir 8 that when you are parenting small children, you are a robot. When not reacting is impossible, don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell yourself some shit about how it’s good for kids to see you get mad and calm down or something . That has to be constructive somehow, right? Because you’re not actually a robot, are you? And just imagine how entertaining it must be for your neighbors down the hall to hear you yelling “I SAID STOP BITING YOUR SISTER’S BUTT!!” and how pleasant for them to get to feel kind of superior to you. That’s a great gift, really, that you are offering them. You’re welcome, them!

9) Leave the kids alone. I mean not alone alone but they can play together, and they can be screaming one second and resolve it the next, and you will surely be alerted if the skirmish is unresolvable. You didn’t have 2 kids to have 2 people to have to entertain constantly. You had 2 kids so they would play “kid/grownup” long enough for you to tap out a blog post on your phone!

10) Don’t clean up after they are in bed. Make them help even though it sucks and they do a crap-ass job of sorting the toys into the appropriately-labelled bins so that their room looks nothing like the ones on your really excellent Kids’ Rooms Pinterest page, which remember, is a liar anyway. Or at least let the kids see you do it. After they are in bed, that is your time. A coworker once told me, “I don’t have a clean house. That’s the new feminism.” Take out the trash and load the dishwasher and then read that New York Times article about how a clean house is a sign of a wasted life or just skim it and then read an amazing book instead, or make some art, or call someone, or do something crazy like talk to your husband. Fuck cleaning. Seriously. Unless you like it. In which case you’re crazy.

11) When all else fails, look at the kids’ baby pictures together. They love it, you love it, it helps put everything into perspective.

12) Don’t forget the 3:00 pm coffee. That’s the one that makes it all work.

13) Inevitably, on a crappy day, an old lady will stop you on the street and tell you to enjoy every moment. This is crazy of course and only possible to even consider if you’ve completely forgotten what little kids are like. But you can enjoy one moment. There is one magical moment in every shitstorm of a day, and you’ve got to enjoy the hell out of that moment. Remember, if you can, if for only that one moment of the day about all the wonder. All the goddamned crazy this-is-your-life wonder.

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(top image from Emily Winfield Martin’s DREAM ANIMALS.)

Electric Cats in the Garden: A Printable Picture Book

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

My grandmother was always making these charming, crazy little picture books for me and my brother, and of course I filed this away as A Thing I Will Definitely Do For My Own Children Someday. Well, right there with make every food from scratch and never say, “Wow, you are being really annoying right now” to their faces, this has mostly gotten shelved. I know, I know — I’m a writer! I should write for my children! Remember how A.A. Milne wrote all those Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems for his own little son Christopher Robin? Let me tell you something. The real Christopher Robin? Went to boarding school from age 6. And that is how a writer/parent finds the time to document that unmissable magic of childhood. By missing it.

Still, somehow I wrote this story (I hope it’s just a chapter of a longer book, but you know, laundry), using ideas from the children. Harper really pretends to speak Polish quite frequently (also, Arabic and Spanish — Brooklyn public schools!), the kids really do play electric cats, Harper has invented all sorts of facts about said electric cats, she really did once threaten to take Ollie to play in the garden after Adam and I went to bed, Ollie told me that nocturnal creatures run Trader Joe’s at night. My talented mother, Peggy Shearn AKA Nani Peg, was gracious enough to do illustrations, and my talented husband, Adam TetzloffAKA Daddy, laid it all out and made a little book that we gave to the children on Christmas. Predictably, it was quickly buried beneath the wrapping paper of more exciting toys and dolls, but after a day or so it was rediscovered and has been pored over intently since.

So I’ll share it here, and I think you should be able to print it out, although you’ll need to have my husband explain how to make it into an actual booklet because my brain can’t handle the geometry or whatever that is. Here, it’s a PDF: Electric Cats in the Garden

I hope you like it, and that maybe even if your kids are not the actual Harper and Ollie they might like it too! Leave me an encouraging comment so I am shored up to finish the next story. Just kidding, I’m not that needy. Just kidding, of course I am.

Happy New Year!

The Read Balloon: Bill Hoover’s Haiku Alphabet

I remember when my husband first told me about Bill Hoover. He played a cassette tape (!) in his car, and we drove around Iowa City listening to Bill Hoover’s distinctive voice sing the smartest, funniest songs I’d ever heard; Adam told me about the times he had, as a high school student, driven out to Omaha to see Bill Hoover’s band The Dark Town House Band play, the time he’d gone on stage to sing with them. Bill has that kind of creative spirit, the kind that makes everyone want to go on stage and sing along. He seems to be constantly embarking on some new creative endeavor —  he’s a musician, painter, storyteller, writer, and teacher — and so I was unsurprised but delighted when he emailed me about his new children’s book, Haiku Alphabet. 

Harper and I read through the book today and she was fascinated by the illustrations — they are pretty wonderful. Observe:

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Here is Harper’s review: 

“It’s good! My favorite part is how the Z and A say ‘It’s hard always being last’ and ‘It’s hard always being first’ Because it’s fun how it repeats. I really liked it. The pictures were interesting. I like how it’s just in black and white. It seems like coloring pages! I think it’s for kids in between mine and Ollie’s age. And for both our ages. My favorite letter in it is the Z. I don’t know why. Can we look up coloring pages to print out now? This put me in the mood for coloring.”

And there you have it. That’s Bill Hoover for you — hilarious, zany, and inspiring.

Visit his website BillHooverArt.com for ordering information. This book really is delightful, and would make a great present for new parents (especially since it’s one of those books with humor that will appeal to board-book-zapped grownups…)

Happy Haikuing…

 

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella – the musical that was invented for my 4-year-old daughter

Well, we did it. Harper went to her first Broadway show and it was Cinderella and she screamed with delight as it began and then looked like this the entire time:Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 10.47.58 PM 

Here’s what she wants me to say about it:

“It’s really good! Everything about it is good. You just – you want to live there. And you’re stuck there with yummy snacks and pink t-shirts for your mommy to buy. But we should warn people that there are two scary parts at the beginning, so mommies can tell their kids. I think it’s for four-year-olds or older. It’s actually perfect.”

I’d been putting off the First Broadway Show because, though Harper loves theatre and drama and costumes and spectacles and fanciness of all kinds, she is also very sensitive to anything scary or intense, and everything seemed like it would be too much. And, I’ll admit it, I wanted it to be Annie, because I loved Annie when I was a kid. Only every time I played Harper any music or clips from Annie she frowned and asked me why everyone was so mean, and then asked me to please turn it off. Blasphemy! But oh, doesn’t it happen again and again as a parent, how you come to realize you’re not actually parenting you as a child, but a whole other person, a dreamy, fancy little person who wants to wear foofy pink dresses and be really into princesses. (I asked her once why she likes princesses and she said it was the dresses, and that they get to be in charge. Sounds about right to me.)

Then I was – full disclosure! – offered tickets by some nice PR people and listen, nice PR people of the world, Harper and I are really into this practice. We consider ourselves the Robert Benchleys of the mom blog set.

So Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella it was, and let me say, it was perfect for her. Perfect. Aside from the one scary moment (a startlingly beautiful woodland giant in the first few moments), there was very little darkness. No witches, no wolves. This is hard to come by in the kid-entertainment world. The score is lovely, not cloying like so much kid music, and the costumes are amazing – those magician-quick changes! And here’s what I liked the best about this play, that there is an attempt to make Cinderella a free-thinker (oddly enough, she’s a bit of a revolutionary, and while that whole subplot is a touch absurd I appreciated the effort) and the prince is, for once, not just a handsome cipher but a lovable goofball. In fact, Harper and I had a nice conversation on the subway ride home about backstory. We talked a bit about story structure too, and why, as Harper noticed, there were big exciting things happening in the beginning, middle, and end of the play. Well, that’s what happens when you go and get a writer for a mother. 

I would like to add that watching Harper’s face while the pumpkin transformed into a coach and Cinderella’s rags turned into a glittery gown literally made me teary. Her eyes got enormous. Her mouth hung open for approximately 20 minutes. We try to provide our kids with a healthy dose of whimsy, and there is something really satisfying about showing them something that seems actually magical.

This play also made me feel awfully self-satisfied for having refrained from introducing the Disney princess movies. Oh, she’s into those princesses all right, but only as vague images on band-aids and such. So fairy tales are still just that to her, and I think this gives her permission to make them her own, too. As soon as we got home she began acting out her own version of Cinderella. She played the part of…a rather vaudevillean step-mother.

So if you find yourself in possession of a 4-year-old girl, and some disposable income, and you want an adrenaline shot of magic and sweetness and excitement, Harper recommends Cinderella. And I concur. It really was just delightful – threaded with bits of grownuppy humor but mostly just being what it was: frothy and fun and sparkly. And after the play Harper and I walked around Times Square with a soft pretzel, discussing it all. Something I hope to do many times in the years ahead.

 

Please, Random Stranger, Share Your Feelings About How I’m Feeding My Baby!

 ImageGet a load of this helicopter-parenting exhibitionist. Seriously, lady, just give your kid a can of Coke already.

Oh, breastfeeding. How can such a simple thing be so fraught? Even if you are one of the lucky ones who finds it easy, whose baby latches, whose nipples don’t turn into gruesome scabs, whose milk flows plentifully, who learns that awesome skill of nursing while doing other things (eating spaghetti, sleeping, walking your toddler to music class, sleeping, did I mention sleeping), you have the next series of hurdles to cross: the prying eyes of everyone else in the world who has an opinion on your breastfeeding habits, which is usually about 10,000 people too many.

My buddy Luisa Colón, a very fine writer among her many other talents (i.e. acting, drawing, rocking the cutest pixie cut ever), has a really insightful piece in the New York Times Motherlode today, about how as a breastfeeding Latina mother she has not found support in her community. She writes:

“I’m just half Puerto Rican, but my fellow Latinas always seem to be able to spot me as one of their own. It’s a cultural community that I’ve found to be made up of protective, generous women. I love how a group of Hispanic women, assembled around my children, will issue gentle coos of “Que lindo,” a chorus of affection and acceptance. More often than not it’s a Latina who offers me her seat on the subway or a hand up the steps when I have my family in tow.

Up until a few months ago, I lived with my family in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Lest you think Puerto Ricans in that famously bourgeoisie neighborhood are as rare as gluten-free pasteles, seven years ago my partner, Joe, and I moved into a rent-stabilized building in the South Slope next door to a Puerto Rican matriarch and her assorted children and grandchildren. The night we moved in, they presented us with a giant baked ziti that had our initials written on the top in tomato sauce. It seemed like the start of a harmonious relationship.

Then I had my two boys. I nursed my first born, C. C., until he was 20 months old — about 19 months too long, according to my neighbors. To their horror, I also nursed him in public, often while he was strapped to my chest in the Ergo carrier.

I heard a lot about how my sons were “too attached” to me because of breast-feeding, how my breasts were “out there” for everyone to see. And I heard enough for 20 lifetimes about how my neighbor’s formula-fed, similarly-aged grandchild was younger than C. C. and way, way chubbier (the Coca-Cola he was drinking at 18 months probably helped with that, too).”

Read the rest over at The Motherlode!