Motherhood is Not a Finish Line

May 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s buying flowers for my daughter, who would have the unique opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center that evening with her community choir. My head was spinning while I was waiting in line to pay, going down the mental checklist of what needed to happen before heading to the concert hall (iron Emily’s uniform, print the parking pass, get the snacks together, etc.). Suddenly, the checkout woman interrupted my train of thought. “These flowers are such a gorgeous orange,” she remarked. I halfheartedly explained that the flowers were for my daughter, that she had a performance that night, and that orange was her favorite color. “These little joys make parenting so worth it,” she mused. “Yes,” I agreed, assuming she was talking about my being in the audience in a few hours. “It’s going to be so exciting.”

“Oh, I’m sure the performance will be great,” she replied, “but I was talking about getting to pick out flowers for your little girl.”

D’oh.

Once again, as a mother, I had found myself at the bottom of that all-too-tempting rabbit hole, of letting my “to do” list eclipse any opportunities for joy in the moment. What could have been a moment of delicious anticipation—and, really, I had deliberated over my flower choice at length—had quickly turned into checking off one more task before the minutes ran out and I had to pick up my kids from school. What could have been a moment of gratitude—to have the occasion to buy these flowers, the time to do so, the money to do so—was lost in a feeling of obligation. What could have been a moment of love and pride and affection was lost in a flurry of distraction.

As I was driving away from the store with my flowers, I caught the tail end of a rebroadcasted Ted Talk by a man who undertook a daring 1,800-mile journey on foot to the South Pole. To Ben Saunders’ surprise—and after nearly starving to death—he came to realize that his own personal reward came less from the completion of his goal than from the journey itself. “Happiness is not a finish line,” he says in the talk. “And if we can’t feel content on our journeys, amid the mess and the striving, then we might never feel it.”

If happiness isn’t a finish line, then neither is parenting. And yet, too often—amid the sleep deprivation, the academic struggles, the phases which seem to start and stop faster than we can count and yet feel terrifyingly permanent when they’re happening—we experience parenting as if it were one giant race. We may inherently understand that our time with our young children is short (and if we don’t, Facebook will remind us), but each time we find ourselves running to Target to replace some article of clothing which is suddenly too short, we’re too busy to realize we’re chasing after something we’ll never overtake.

Included in a short but I hope ever-growing list, there are two things I can almost always count on as a mother to return me to the moment. The first, you will not be surprised to learn, is reading aloud. When I’m reading to my children (something great, that is), time stands still, my mental checklist falls away, and the only thing that matters is delighting together in the words as they come off the page and enfold us in their spell.

The second is snuggling. My firstborn is not by nature a cuddler (though he has warmed to it over time), so perhaps the universe knew I needed a second child in order to get my cuddling fix. In this, Emily has never disappointed. I can be mentally a thousand miles away, but when she climbs in next to me in bed in the early morning, when she puts the back of her soft little hand against my cheek and places her nose where I can’t resist kissing those five tiny freckles, there is no place I’d rather be.

This is all to say that I can relate to each of the animal mothers in the darling new picture book, Mama’s Kisses (Ages 1-4), who are eager and ready to bestow kisses and cuddles on their young brood at bedtime. My kids may be too old for this book (stop it, just stop it!), but it nevertheless charmed every ounce of my maternal being. With spot-on rhyming by Kate McMullan (whose I Stink will forever be imprinted on JP’s second year of life) and whimsically but unsentimentally illustrated by Tao Nyeu (whose abstract orchestration of orange and blue began in this favorite), Mama’s Kisses is a rollicking seek-and-find jungle adventure.

When Mama’s Kisses opens, four mama animals are conversing (and sewing and knitting) in the foreground, while their little ones make mischief in the background. All the words in the book are spoken by the mothers. “Sun’s going down./ Moon’s on the rise./ Let’s find our babies./ And sing lullabies./ They must be yawning./ Sweet sleepyheads./ Our tired babies!/ We’ll put them to bed.”

The joke’s on the mamas (although older children will quickly realize they’ve been in on it the whole time), because the presupposed sleepy little leopard, panda, orangutan, and elephant are in fact frolicking, singing, and marching about with wild abandon. Even more, when they hear the STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP of their mamas, the young animals quickly sneak off under giant banyan leaves, take playful plunges into the nearby water hole, and then don feathered disguises.

One by one, each mama delivers a soft, sweet invocation to her child (I should be so eloquent when I try to get my own children to leave the park).

Come now, my leopard,
All spotted and pepperered,
Tomorrow you’ll pounce,
You’ll roar and you’ll race.

These invocations don’t exactly have the desired effect (McMullan understands what it’s like to be a parent), so the mamas have to do some playful pouncing of their own—in the form of a good-humored Sneak Attack.

My favorite part of the story then arrives, as each mama curls up with her little one. Four more invocations follow—each given its due in beautiful double page spreads—and these rhymes at last prove irresistible in their power to make sleepyheads submit to mama’s kisses.

Rock-a-bye bear cub,
Come closer now, scootch
So Mama can land
A Panda bear smooch.
         MWWWWAH!

Rock-a-bye fuzzy,
Don’t squirm like a bug.
Here comes a great big
Orangutan hug.
         MMMMMM-UMM!

Watching my daughter sing on stage last week was wonderful, but it wasn’t even the best part of the night. Still thinking about my exchange at Trader Joe’s earlier in the day, I tried my darndest to soak up every moment of the before and after. I delighted in the way Emily ran up and down the terrace under an enormous blue sky in her break between rehearsing and performing; I snuck peaks at her serious face doing breathing warmups with her fellow choristers; and I gathered her up in the biggest, smoochiest, longest hug when, after it was all over (even though it was well past bedtime, and I was eager to take up my post in front of some adult TV), we walked into her bedroom together and she squealed as she saw the vase of bright orange gerber daisies on her dresser.

Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow mamas, my fellow runners of the Great Race that we can’t be faulted for sometimes mistaking for motherhood. May we all just remember to spend a little more time smelling the roses along the way.

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Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Tugging at the Heartstrings (A Mother’s Day Post)

May 5, 2016 § 1 Comment

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser“Mommy, I wish this day would last forever,” my daughter said into my eyes last Saturday, in our third hour of watching street performers under a brilliant blue sky in Washington Square Park. It was our annual trip to New York City, something I’m lucky enough to do every fall with my son and every spring with my daughter. We had just spent an action-filled few days looking at art, making art, dining in style and dining at street vendors—but there was something about these unstructured hours in the park, the sun finally making itself felt, where I watched my daughter become totally and completely entranced by her surroundings.

There was a woman with hot pink hair on one side of her; a woman with a brilliant purple head wrap on the other. Emily sat on the rounded edge of a fountain that wasn’t in use, watching shirtless men in baggy blue sweatpants flip backwards and spin on their heads where the water would normally flow. In the distance, she could still keep her eyes on the creepy but fascinating human sculpture—a bald man (woman?) adorned in chalky gold body paint, who stood frozen atop a slim pedestal, waiting for someone to drop a dollar into his bucket, at which point he would slowly come out of the pose and strike another.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself as well, but the moment might not have stayed with me if Emily hadn’t called it out, and I was grateful that she did. It has been a tough few months for me. I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury, and the near constant physical pain of my body has meant that all too often my children’s voices have reverberated like nails on a chalkboard in my ears. It took a few days in a different environment (and a welcome shot of cortisone) to bring me back to myself and to remind me that motherhood brings with it the greatest joys, both big and small.

Maybe it’s because Emily is my second child—and will be my last—that I am continually fixated on her age. This is my favorite age, I think. I long to hold onto the age before me with desperate fervor. And then, without fail, the next age comes along and it’s even better. I may mourn her soft baby curls, or the bullish way she once used her stubby legs to propel her scooter down the sidewalk, but these memories have given way to a myriad of others that are equally poignant. I only hope I will continue to feel this way.

Still, right now, Emily is five and a half and, THIS, I’m convinced, really IS the best age. It was her fourth time in New York, but it was as if she was seeing the buildings and the subways and the people with fresh eyes—through the lens of this sweet spot of five and a half, where innocence meets knowledge, where outside stimulation is eagerly embraced and picked apart and digested right there on the face and in the eyes and in the voice for the whole world to see.

But especially for me to see. Because “I wish this day would last forever” wasn’t just about the sun and the sights; it was also about the bond we had nurtured so beautifully over the past few days. It was that push-pull dance that our children do with us, that not mutually exclusive desire for independence and closeness.

A few years ago, on these very pages, I swore to you my disdain for overt, sentimentalized, pastel displays of maternal love, books that feel like they are cooked up by publishers to prey on the hormones and generally unbalanced states of us mothers. Well, this is where I eat my words. Because I need you to make an exception for a new picture book, titled You Made Me a Mother (Ages 1-6), written by Laurenne Sala and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (many of you will know her as the illustrator of the bestselling Fancy Nancy series). I need you to give this book to yourself and then to every mother of young children that you know. And then I need you to get your box of tissues ready. And, if you don’t believe me, you can watch this video, which was scripted by Sala for an ad campaign before she put down a version of it on paper—and before Glasser got involved and turned it into something lovely to share with young children.

My kids love hearing stories about themselves as babies. About where they were born, whether they cried, how long I held them and gazed into their eyes after they took their first breath. “Did you always know you would love me?” is a favorite question of my daughter. You Made Me a Mother facilitates these precious conversations. It also reminds us—as we sometimes need to hear—why we do what we do.

An homage to motherhood, the book reads as a mother’s monologue to her young child. It opens with a memory of the mother’s changing belly—“I felt you. You were a pea. Then a lemon. Then an eggplant.”—and goes on to mention some of the ways that the mother prepared for baby’s arrival, like eating spinach and reading books. “Can you tell I was nervous?” the mother asks. (“Yes!” my own daughter always responds at this part, basking in the revelation that grown-ups have vulnerabilities, too.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

And then there’s the baby’s birth—“Love. Big fat love.”—followed by sweet depictions of cuddling and rocking and, as the baby becomes a toddler, splashing and spinning.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

No homage to motherhood would feel genuine without mention of the bumps in the road. Nervousness continues to surface: the mom is pictured hovering over an upset child, who might be sick (my children’s guess) or might be tantrumming (my guess). We also register exasperation on the mother’s face, when another time the child wanders (I’m guessing not for the first time) into her room in the middle of the night. (Personally, I think a bit of time could have been devoted to the drudgery of dishes and laundry that also accompanies the territory of parenthood.)

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

But then, a new day dawns, the sun comes up, mother and child are at the park, and:

…you smile. And you say my name. You grab my hand with those little fingers. And I remember that everything is magic.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

PLEASE, Universe, don’t let my daughter ever stop holding my hand! Don’t let her deliciously soft skin develop even the tiniest roughness! Don’t let the light stop dancing in her eyes! Because these are the Band-aids that every mommy needs on her worn out body.

I’ve heard it said that having a child is like watching your heart run around outside your body. I might like this variation even better:

If I could, I would open my heart, and love would rain down all over you. And you would giggle. And I’d do it all over again.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

Despite our hearts swelling to bursting inside our bodies, we all know that we cannot stave off the day—even if they can’t fathom it now—when our little ones won’t be so little anymore, when they will detach from our hands and seize the world with their own. When they won’t share every discovery, mourn every disappointment, with us. And we would walk, hand in hand. Until you let go.

"You Made Me a Mother" by Laurenne Sala & Robin Preiss Glasser

I already see it in my eight and a half year old. The way he runs into school with scarcely a glance behind him. The way the other day, in response to my telling him that I loved him, he responded, “OK,” and glanced longingly at his friends. And yet, admittedly, this makes the moments when he does expose his vulnerability—when he seeks me out with his eyes or pours forth his emotions onto his dinner plate—even more special. Getting glimpses of the man he will someday become—and to think that I was there in the very beginning—is nothing short of astounding.

So maybe motherhood does get better with every age. Even when they let go. And maybe, by then, we’re better, too.

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Review copy provided by Harper Collins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

When Big Sis Starts School

September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori NicholsSeconds before I heard the door to his room slam shut, I heard my son bellowing these words to his little sister: “Emily, sometimes you are the best of all people, and sometimes you are THE WORST!”

Have truer words ever been uttered about one’s sibling?

Perhaps at no other time than summer is the sibling relationship so poked, prodded, and pushed. There have been long stretches this summer when the only kids at my children’s disposal have been each other. Having so much unstructured time together requires more than a little adjustment. As a parent, witnessing my children re-connect, re-establish boundaries, and re-attune their imaginations with one another, is equal parts mesmerizing and maddening.

Still, take away the bossing and the tattling and the unprovoked hitting (WHY DO THEY DO THIS?), and I am still smiling about the dinosaur dance party I walked in on…or the day my daughter appeared for lunch dragging her big brother on all fours by a dog collar…or the time I eavesdropped on them whispering conspiratorially under the bed. Nor will I forget the tears that welled up in my eyes when, after what seemed like hours of yelling and bickering, I came down from a shower to find the two of them sprawled on the living room floor, telling made-up stories to each another.

I would argue that, in recent years, no picture book artist has captured the young sibling relationship more astutely and adorably than Lori Nichols. Tracking the relationship between two sisters, Nichols first gave us Maple, where Maple (named for the tree her parents planted when pregnant) learns that her parents are expecting a second child. Then came Maple and Willow Together, where the storming and norming of sibling play reaches full fantastic force. Now, in this fall’s latest installment, Maple and Willow Apart (Ages 2-6), Maple’s departure for kindergarten throws both girls for a loop. This new angst is hardly surprising, given that the two sibs have just spent the entire summer playing together (in and around trees and while speaking in their secret nonsensical language—two favorite themes that run through all the books).

IMG_2818

Ah, but which is the greater plight for a sibling: the one doing the leaving, or the one getting left behind?

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
While it has been two years since Emily watched her brother walk up the steps into school without her, this is the first fall that Emily will stay for a full day like JP. Boy oh boy, has she longed for this day. The question of what the school children do between the hours of 1pm and 3pm has been nothing short of an obsession for her these past two years. “I think they get to play special games!” “I think the teacher sneaks them special snacks!” One night, as I tucked her into bed, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, I think in the afternoon is when the kids learn to read.”

Like Emily, Willow discovers that she, too, can fall back on her imagination during the quiet hours at home while Maple is at school. When Maple comes home—chatting incessantly (and not a little bossily) about everything she has learned, everything she did on the playground, everything her teacher said—Willow lets her big sister in on a little secret of her own.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
“I had fun, too,” said Willow. “I played with Pip.”

“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”

“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols IMG_2831
Pip is, of course, an acorn. But he is not just an acorn. Through the vivid escapades that Willow paints for her sister—they ride snails! they nap in bird nests!—Pip becomes elevated to something greater than simply Willow’s imaginary friend; he becomes a signifier for both girls of the Change that’s taking place in front of their eyes. Suddenly, Maple isn’t so sure that she wants to go to school and miss out on the adventures to be had in her own backyard. For a brief second, she isn’t sure she wants to grow up.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

The solution that’s offered up (and I won’t ruin the surprise) is nothing short of delightful. It’s also realistic—as are all three of Nichols’ books. But the best and most unexpected part is that this solution comes from Willow, the younger sibling. It turns out that big sisters still need their little sisters. It turns out that little sisters know just how to make their big sisters feel better.

Beginning next week, even though my children will enter and exit school together, they will likely ignore each other for most of the day, perhaps granting a brief wave or smile as they pass in the hall. They’ll still have evenings and weekends together. But it’s not the same. They’ll grow and stretch and circle back and grow some more…and then, with luck, next summer will come and they’ll find their way back to each other again. There will most definitely be squabbling. But I like to think that I’ll choose instead to notice the other stuff. The laughter. The whispering. The heads pressed together. The scampering in unison. The casual, unforced gestures of affection.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise). But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose). Many nursery rhymes lend themselves to singing, which was clearly part of the initial appeal for Em (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is still a favorite), but in time she’s become equally mesmerized by ones that aren’t easily sung (like “One, Two Buckle my Shoe”). Actually, literacy experts say that we as parents should encourage our children to read nursery rhymes (or other rhyming poetry) from an early age: such word play creates an awareness of linguistic sounds and word endings that later translates into learning to read with greater ease and success down the road. (Don’t feel bad if you, like me, missed the boat on this for an earlier child; simply break out some Shel Silverstein at four, five, or six and watch their awareness of language transform before your eyes.)

As Emily’s love of sing-songy language continues to grow, I’ve stopped bemoaning the strangeness of Mother Goose and started enjoying the way the words roll off my tongue—and the way Emily quickly begins to anticipate and fill in the endings of each line. As such, we have graduated from our abridged board books and delved into the Treasury of all Treasuries: The Original Mother Goose, a reprinting of the 1916 classic, featuring a beautiful purple cloth cover and many of Blanche Fisher Wright’s original illustrations (incidentally, this makes a wonderful unisex baby shower gift if you are a traditionalist). Last year, while I was helping my mom downsize her apartment, I came across her own tattered copy of this same anthology; how often do we get to share with our kids something that their grandparents remember looking at when they were kids? With over 300 nursery rhymes, this anthology is obviously too much for one sitting (too much for me—not my daughter—just to be clear), but therein lies the fun: Emily loves to take her finger and point to which rhyme she wants to hear from a page (ah, the power of choice). I discreetly try to avoid the blatantly offensive ones (“Peter Piper Had a Wife and Couldn’t Keep Her”—seriously?), because I have to draw the line somewhere. But we giggle, we talk in silly voices, and at two and a half, Emily’s love affair with language is in full swing. She marches around the house making up her own rhymes, stringing together “poop” “goop” “soup” “loop” (the fact that many of her rhymes begin with a potty word is owing to having an older brother). I probably won’t be too sorry when we close the cover of Mother Goose for good, but I will definitely miss her wide-eared enchantment.

Warning: a love of Mother Goose can quickly, suddenly transform into a Big-Time Obsession with Dr. Seuss for all the same reasons. You may find your child demanding that you read the equally nonsensical and often interminable One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish nine or ten times a day (you may find yourself hiding said book from said child)…but that’s a post for another day.

Other Favorite Nursery Rhyme Anthologies:
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever, by Richard Scarry (Ages 2-4)
Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose, by Tomie dePaola (Ages 2-4) (there is also the abridged board book mentioned above)
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, by Jack Prelutsky & Marc Brown (Ages 2-5; not traditional Mother Goose rhymes but very Mother Goose-esque with contemporary vocab and great humor)

January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

I Took the Moon for a WalkFor this month’s birthday pick, I’m doing something a little different: 1) I’m focusing on the youngest ages for a change 2) I’ve chosen not one but two books (which make a perfect pairing) and 3) I’m encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on books that aren’t brand new but are commonly unknown. In short, the next time you are headed to a birthday party for a one or two year old, you’re in luck. I Took the Moon for a Walk (Ages 1-4) and Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4) are both illustrated by the supremely talented Alison Jay, whose praises I have sung here before. With their over-sized 9” by 9” format, these hefty board books mirror another favorite by Jay, her ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (which tends to be well known and for good reason: it may just be the best alphabet book ever illustrated). Alison Jay’s books are the ultimate gift. Packed with hidden surprises, layered with detail, and shimmering in vivid colors underneath a “crackle” finish, Jay’s paintings beg to be poured over again and again. When he was a toddler, my son JP absolutely adored I Took the Moon for a Walk, which is inspired by the illusion of the moon moving with us as we walk. Alongside Jay’s illustrations, Carolyn Curtis’ lyrics chart a little boy out for a pre-bedtime stroll: “I took the Moon for a walk last night. It followed behind me like a still summer kite.” The child-centric premise (why shouldn’t the moon be following my every move?) has always been immensely alluring to my son, who like many children is fascinated by the moon. Although he hasn’t read the book in a probably a year, just the other day when we were out walking at dusk, JP spotted a nearly full moon and immediately broke into a jog, craning his neck toward the silver disc in the sky and yelling back at me, “Look, Mommy, it’s like we’re taking the moon for a walk!” (at five it seems his world view has now broadened to include his family). My two year old daughter, on the other hand, is currently entranced by Listen, Listen, an onomatopoetic ode to the seasons, written by Phillis Gershator, and which seems especially fitting to be reading at the beginning of a new year (although, in few disclosure, it actually begins with summer’s “chirp, chirp, churr, churr, buzz, buzz, whirr, whirr”). While the book’s text is all about the sounds of the seasons, the illustrations are all about looking; even after dozens of readings, Emily and I continue to find something new on every page. Alison Jay is like a magician who seems to conjure up new details in her paintings from some nearby invisible location (how could I have missed the little black witch trick-or-treating in the distance? Ha, I never noticed that the ladybug has her legs over her ears because the tulips are shouting so loudly!). Naturally, being obsessed with all things baby, Emily’s favorite pages are those devoted to springtime, in particular to the baby chicks hatching from eggs and falling on their bottoms beside their mother. Even JP has joined us for a few of our more recent readings (naturally, being obsessed with all things competitive, he likes to challenge Emily to see who can find the icicle or the dragonfly faster in the bonus seek-and-find pages at the end). But I digress. The important thing is that with these two treasures, you will be armed with gifts that keep on giving with every season, with every night.

Listen, Listen

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