Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 19, 2015 in Motherhood
I went for a bike ride today.
Not the sort of bike ride one expects a grownup to take. My bike lacks the pretension of those slim competitive bicycles custom-outfitted with clip-on pedals and special seats.
No, my bike may as well have had rainbow-colored streamers that blow in the breeze and a wicker basket affixed with plastic daisies. Because me on a bike is less a studied grace and more of a frenetic race with the breeze. I had on old paint-splattered sweatpants (iPhone tucked into the waistband) and pedaled as though my very existence depended upon it.
My neighborhood is a continuous slope of hill. It appears gentle until you hike up on foot or strain against your bike gears. So I took my bike to the park around the corner, which was blessedly empty of people but flooded with sunlight.
I set out across the park on my $150 bike, pedaling until my knees turned weak and my leg muscles grew weary. The dizzying blue sky accentuated the green of the little manmade lake I rode beside and a flock of sitting geese eyed me with disinterest.
My 30-something-year-old self’s most fervent biking efforts don’t touch my 10-year-old self’s cycling endeavors, but as I whizzed through the woods, the sort of unburdened joy I felt as a child infused me.
I was a kid.
I have two kids. Someone, somewhere tasked me with keeping two small beings alive that, collectively, weigh less than 70 pounds. Kids can be exhausting, but you have to give them credit: they don’t look back toward the past often; nor do they peer into the future.
That’s partially because they don’t have to, but mostly because they’re kids who are unburdened by all that life will eventually throw at them as they age.
We’re told that aging is graceful–the laugh lines, the gray hair, the stretch marks. “Embrace them!” shout the masses. And then, in the same breath—or more often, on the same magazine cover—”Look young by trying these 3 tricks! Regain your energy! Cover up those crow’s feet!”
If I’ve earned those stripes, it also means I’ve born the heartache, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness that goes with them. Growing up means I don’t have the luxury of being unburdened.
As a kid, I climbed trees, rolled down grassy hills until I couldn’t stand, and ran as far as I could, never really getting out of breath. I lived on the wind, stretched out in the snow even when my hands froze, and jumped into bodies of water not worrying about where I’d land.
These days are mostly clogged with bills, a barrage of emails, school events, a sick kid, job stressors, what to make for dinner, dying grandparents and the like.
Can I ever regain the freedom of being a child? I don’t think so. Not fully, at least.
But there on my bike in the park, I pedaled and pedaled, and the world flew by at breakneck speed as the wind whistled in my ears. And for a moment or two, I felt that peace. Then I headed back home—back to the deadlines, the heaps of laundry, the schedules—and pulled on a respectable pair of pants. If I’m going to accept the burdens, I’ll need to do it without the frumpiness of sweatpants … and maybe with a hint of lipstick–to pretend at least, I’ve got his grownup thing down pat….
Last school year, as my daughter navigated first grade in a new elementary school at least six to seven times the size of the one she had attended since preschool, she encountered, for the first time, a bully. This angry little boy, whom I’ll call Robert, was a pestilence to her happiness on a regular basis, pushing her in the schoolyard, calling her names, all the usual stuff.
And while I frequently encouraged Heidi to clock the kid (noting I would stand fully behind her when she’d undoubtedly go to the principal’s office for defending her right to exist without persistent harassment), she declined to settle the drama in this way after being inculcated at school with the idea that hitting someone else, no matter what, is always wrong.
Those among you who are my age or older know this is false wisdom.
One day my daughter got off the bus and mentioned she’d had a session with the school guidance counselor that afternoon. I paused on our daily trek up the driveway and asked, “Whatever for?”
“I’ve been going every week to learn how to cope with Robert’s bullying,” Heidi replied.
Rage is not a normal feature of my character, but I must admit feeling it at that moment. How was it that a little boy who pushed and hit his fellow classmates, teased and insulted them relentlessly, and proclaimed almost daily that he hated his parents had somehow become “the victim,” while my daughter was being advised to assume the role of caterer to his victimization and adjust her behavior to accommodate his youthful rage against the world?
The tale gets better, however. A few days after this revelation from within the walls of modern public education came a phone call from Heidi’s teacher, advising me my seven-year-old had used the “F word” in the school lunch line that day. My minor relief that my daughter had admitted to picking up this new addition to her vocabulary from her father quickly dissipated when she came home and explained the circumstances in response to my questions about why she was cursing at school.
“Robert told me I was stupid and ugly,” Heidi remarked.
Now with things in context, I could not help but concede that her apparent response of “fuck you” was entirely appropriate. But again, it was my daughter who bore all the punishment while the bully received no reprimand because apparently it is far worse to curse at someone who is trying to make your life miserable than it is to shake the foundations of another human being’s self-worth.
Robert, you see, was not to blame for his awful behavior toward his fellow humans. Rather, he was to be pitied—no doubt the victim of bad parents, degraded socioeconomic status, a poor gene pool, mental illness, or some other and perhaps multiple maladies.
Needless to say, for this and other reasons, I have pulled my daughter out of the public education system.
But the situation with Robert is reflective of a larger social ill—the idea that abnormal, malfunctioning, or just downright wrong behavior in our culture now comes with a litany of “excuses” ranging from borderline personality disorder to sexual addiction (though I recognize the latter has not yet been coded in the DSM-5; Tiger Woods found it useful nevertheless).
Don’t get me wrong. You will find few people as respectful of the wisdom of modern psychology as myself. Apart from having had a number of friends educated in and working in the field, one cannot help but see and exercise its usefulness in the art of journalism.
But let popular culture get a hold of a good thing…and watch it promptly twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be….
Remember the days when it was wrong to hurt the feelings of others, whether done deliberately or unintentionally? Remember when it was okay to say to another human being: You make me sad or you make me angry?
Not so anymore. Today the individual committing the wrong is actually not responsible for the pain of others. Rather, the one suffering is.
How deeply has this idea permeated our culture? Well, apart from the very obvious sense of entitlement that a not insignificant portion of the American population now feels, get a load of what I heard the other day…from a friend I never would have dreamed would say such a thing….
I’d had my feelings hurt, and I said so, expecting, at the very least, some kind of apology. Nope. In response to “you make me sad,” I received, “I don’t make you sad; you choose your reaction to what I say.”
Um, yeah, okay, I get it. I did indeed choose to feel sadness. Had I a different personality, I might have chosen to say, as Heidi did in the lunch line, “fuck you.” The bottom line, however, is that whatever my feeling or reaction to a hurtful statement by my friend, the fact remains he made a hurtful statement. Since when did it become okay to say or do anything with the full protection of “it’s not my fault; it’s your reaction” backing it all up?
Once upon a time, we didn’t have all these layers of excuses. If you stole, it was wrong; if you cheated, it was wrong; if you treated others poorly, it was wrong.
Now, however, the victims of pain, theft, lies, whatever are frequently asked to consider the degraded socioeconomic status of the thief before rushing to judgment or charges. If your partner cheats, then you may be encouraged to understanding and forgiveness because there are just way too many outlets in the modern world for him to possibly resist stepping out, nevermind his need to feel admired universally because of some developmental lack in his childhood. If someone fails to show empathy to those who suffer, then it’s because she has an avoidant attachment style from having had a bad mother.
And yes, all these things may be true to some degree…but there’s another truth called self-responsibility.
But perhaps in this age of Facebook and selfie sticks, we are all far too narcissistic to notice our own failings much less take responsibility for them. It is far easier, I suppose, to say, “It’s my mother’s fault,” and end the sentence there. We follow pop psychology instead of the fully Monty, which requires you to not only see the root of what has set you on the wrong path but to right the wrong, transcend the destiny of your genes, your upbringing, your circumstances or life experiences…to stand in your own two shoes and take ownership of your actions and how they may impact others.
Because, as William Shakespeare, wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Yet how far we have strayed from that recognition….
Posted by Deborah Huso on Sep 1, 2015 in Motherhood
The very first time I had an anxiety attack, I didn’t know what was happening. It was early morning, my newborn daughter had just woken up crying, I knew I had deadlines demanding attention in the office, I’d had no sleep (having lain awake all night waiting for her cry), and all of the sudden my heart was pounding as if it would burst right out of my chest, and I felt cold sweats racing up and down my spine, my arms, my hands.
“Am I having a heart attack?” I wondered.
And no small part of me almost hoped I was: visions of a hospital bed where I could lie and do nothing all day while people brought me bland food I would not want to eat. Relaxation and weight loss coming right up!
And then I wondered, is this really what my life has come to? Having a heart attack is now a vacation plan?
But it wasn’t a heart attack, though in the years since that first incident, I have more than once wished I was experiencing some real physical calamity as opposed to anxiety. As a friend of mine, also a sufferer from anxiety, told me recently, “Physical pain is so much easier to bear.”
I agree. Doctors can fix a heart attack, or you die…either way, the trauma ends.
Anxiety has no endpoint, no pacemaker, no magic bullet to knock it out, so you can go home a new and improved person who can breathe again without hyperventilating.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety. That’s about 18 percent of the population. Most of them are women.
I’d wager the degree of suffering is much greater. Way more than half of my female friends and acquaintances suffer from it, and those are just the ones who admit it. Or maybe I just hang out with really high-strung, Type A folks who don’t know how to tramp down stress and trauma with a shot of bourbon and Netflix.
I sure as hell don’t.
I prefer to lie awake in bed, not wanting to get out, while my heart races at the speed of light and I’m encompassed by a pressing sense of dread. Eek, is that a laundry basket over there filled with dirty clothes? Damn it. Cold sweats. iPhone bleeps at me. I hunker down a little lower.
The anxiety in this house is so pervasive, even the dog has it. Though I acknowledge, he’s a pound puppy, so I have to forgive him for howling every time I leave the house and then hiding under the dining room table whenever I lose my shit with my daughter, which is more frequent than I’d like to admit. Pooping in my walk-in closet? Um no, not excused.
They make anxiety meds for dogs, you know.
I remain skeptical. I am not giving my dog Xanax.
But the fact that I could is a little alarming. The fact that nearly 30 percent of Americans will suffer anxiety at some point in their lives is also alarming, especially given that is the highest rate of anxiety disorder in the developed world. Again, I expect it’s more.
From where I’m sitting, it looks like an epidemic. And I have to wonder why….
I once believed anxiety was the body’s physical response to a situation that isn’t right. Do you get anxiety every time your husband walks in the door? Time to get a divorce. Do you have panic attacks in the bathroom at work? Time to get a new job.
But it’s really not that simple. As the mother of one of my best friends (who was a practicing psychologist for 30+ years told me once), “anxiety is fear that you cannot handle what life throws at you.”
Or rather what we throw at ourselves….
I admit I am a culprit in my own suffering. In the course of the last year alone, I moved my entire household from a community where I had spent the vast majority of my adult life, put my daughter in a new school, then put her in another new school this fall, fell in love and got serious about a man who couldn’t commit, attempted to paint an entire house all by myself in the wee hours of the morning for weeks on end, expanded my business times three, garnered nearly 20 new clients as a result, and then decided it would be a good idea to bring an anxiety-ridden dog into my life because, you know, a single working mother could always use another dependent to look after….
Did I mention I’m about to give up on having a clean house, folded laundry, and weed-free flowerbeds?
I cannot do it.
And that is the hardest thing for us anxiety sufferers to admit.
A few years ago, one of my best friends and I were riding a trolley in a historic southern city when a young woman seated across from us leaned over and said to me, “I’m having an anxiety attack. Can you help me? I need to get off this thing.”
Well, heck yeah. I’m old hat at this shit. My girlfriend got the trolley driver to stop, and the three of us got off and walked at least a couple dozen blocks back to our inn, where we poured our new friend lots of complimentary sherry while talking about this phenomenon called anxiety. Our new friend was in her late 20s, newly married, a successful writer, and well, should she not be in seventh heaven?
And there it is—the dreaded “should” word with which anxiety sufferers pelt themselves daily as if in penance for not having sharp, ironed curtains and cats that religiously use the litterbox.
Almost all my anxiety attacks, which I regret to report have worsened with age (or perhaps with the additional “I should do” duties that come with age), are the result of “I shoulds”:
- I should not be “overdue” on so many projects at work
- I should empty my inbox and be more on top of things
- I should delete the 40 “unheard” voice mail messages on my cell phone
- I should be a more involved and present mom
- I should play with my daughter more
- I should help my parents more
- I should be in an emotionally mature relationship with a man who has his shit together
- I should exercise more
- I should actually eat breakfast
- I should have a cleaner house
- I should not let laundry sit in the basket for so long
- I should weed my flowerbeds more frequently
- I should get new tires on the car
- I should clean out the garage
- I should call my friends more
And the “shoulds” wear on me until I can do no more than hit “snooze” on the alarm, crawl deeper under the covers, and avoid this thing called life for 10 minutes more. “Snooze” again. So 20 minutes more.
What’s even worse? Sometimes I will try to stay up all night just so I don’t have to wake up and feel anxious as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. I’m sure you can imagine how much sleep deprivation helps with the anxiety business.
I long ago gave up on thinking I will ever outrun anxiety. I really have tried everything—even had a couple of doctors try to kill me (unintentionally, of course) with drugs that made me want to climb the walls. The result is I’m now terrified to take any medication short of aspirin.
And try deep breathing and meditating right after someone has given you what feels like, at that moment, the most devastating news of your life. Sorry, panic coaches, my brain is far too sophisticated for your tricks. It can and will have an anxiety attack anywhere anytime just from hearing “that song” on the radio in the grocery store.
Yet supposedly anxiety sufferers are truly awesome people—hard workers with higher than average IQs, deeply analytical minds; they are more empathic, good team players. In fact, if you want a high-achieving employee who will go the extra mile, break the EOE rules and ask that interviewee if she suffers from anxiety. If the answer is “yes,” you can be sure she’ll do a bang-up job!
That’s just how we roll.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Why do we care so much?
You have no idea how we stand like dejected animals in a cage looking out at all those people who don’t have anxiety, have never known it in their lives. You know the ones. They’re totally okay with a sink full of dirty dishes. Fuck it. I’m going to have a beer and go watch TV, they say without a moment’s guilt. Meanwhile I can’t sit still in a chair unless I know everything is done, and how often do you suppose everything is done in the life of a writer always on deadline?
I get tired of being told that I should embrace my anxiety, that I should be grateful I feel deeply, that I’m capable of the great depths of love, joy, pain…all those things that make us human and make life rich…if far from easy. Heck, if you read my blog posts with any regularity, you know I spout out all these things myself. In my heart, I know their truth. In the here and now, heart racing, I just want to feel like I’m not losing my mind. And I understand how addictions start, why people run from risk, why the emotionally wounded will often close the door on human connection, why people lose themselves in TV, on social media, in emotional eating.
I get it.
But that’s just my extra special compassion because I have anxiety, right?
What I don’t have, however, is an answer, a way to tie this all up neatly with a bow, and say something pithy you can carry with you to call upon the next time anxiety hits you in your gut. It’s epidemic, and I am among the walking survivors.
Posted by Deborah Huso on May 11, 2015 in Motherhood
Originally published May 28, 2014.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” –Viktor Frankel
A perfect day with my late grandfather
Tonight I am sick with the flu, sitting near my sleeping daughter, who has been asking questions all evening about the MRI she will get tomorrow. “Will it hurt? Will I be scared? Can I take Shaky Bear with me? Will you sing to me, Mommy, while I’m in the machine?”
I am looking at my online calendar, rife with deadlines on complicated feature articles, thinking how this is the worst possible time to be sick, the worst possible time for me to successfully navigate the waters of motherhood when my little girl is frightened.
But a couple hundred miles away, the step-sister of my childhood best friend lies in a hospital bed, much of her body riddled with cancer. Tomorrow she will undergo a long and frightening surgery. She is younger than I—a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister.
And I wonder if she is scared, scared her happy young life will be cut short by life’s cruel unfairness?
Is she asking questions? Did I take enough risks? Did I live hard enough? Did I tell everyone who is important to me I love them in a thousand ways a thousand times and then some? What if this is all, and tomorrow I am no more?
These are questions we should all be asking every day. My father taught me to ask them, to live by them, and I have tried.
But who does not have regrets? Dreams not yet lived? Because life is not a Norman Rockwell painting, much though I often wish it was and wish I had a place in it. As my friend Sarah says, “Life is relentless.”
And there is no time for waffling on the big stuff. There is no time not to take a risk, not to bare your soul, not to embrace it all, pain and joy, and live it with wild abandon.
Sometimes we err in living too much for joy, forgetting that pain provides, as Viktor Frankel so eloquently noted in Man’s Search for Meaning, “no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
Because that suffering makes the perfect days more perfect. Like the afternoon I spent sipping wine in a vineyard with the man to whom I had not yet spoken my love, watching two small boys play catch with their father, a small white church with delicate steeple rising softly in the distance beyond green hills. Or the day I curled up on the floor under sunny windows with my daughter, snuggled under blankets reading books by Richard Scarry and Jan Brett.
I would not have experienced the full bliss of these moments had I not walked through fire for love and failed, had I not wept rivers over death, had I not known abandonment and fear.
As that sweet young mother drifts off to sleep tonight, may her mind be filled with the “soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering, in the faith that looks through death,” as William Wordsworth noted in one of his most famous poems.
He also said, “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, / To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
For that is the only way to live—fully, openly, courageously, vulnerably.
Posted by Claire Vath on Feb 4, 2015 in Motherhood
My children started school this year. A few mornings a week only, but still. It’s something. So naturally, the end of week No. 1 of school brought with it a cold that spread—like the lice the school has been warning us about, except less gross—first to my daughter, then to my son, to my husband, and, of course, to me.
It’s 4 p.m. on a Monday. Both my kids are in last night’s pajama tops and underwear. I’m still in pajamas and a robe. Kleenex litters every surface of my house, and dishes are piling up. I have a laundry list of things that need to be done (and a mountain of laundry on my sofa), but between my cold and the constant wiping of little runny noses, my energy is zapped.
It’s all incredibly glamorous, this life of being a parent. And it’s a lot of work. All this illness (and my lack of sleep) has me compiling a list of things I never anticipated I’d have to do when I decided to have children.
Here are my top 10. As usual, many involve bodily fluids because, as it turns out, parenting babies and toddlers is like 50% bodily fluids.
1) Pick boogers out of other people’s noses. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes once you dislodge something dried to the size of a raisin.
2) Suck snot out of a nose with a tube. Even my husband can’t quite stomach this one. It’s immensely gross, but also immensely gratifying.
3) Sleep on sheets that have been a little peed on. Because sometimes you’re just too tired to do the sheets right that second. Especially if the pee landed on your husband’s side of the bed.
4) Lift a baby’s diaper up to my nose. So I don’t have to bend down, of course, to determine its contents.
5) Stick a linty pacifier dug from the bottom of my purse in my mouth. Sometimes sanitizing wipes won’t do the trick.
6) Bribe waist-high people to be good in stores. I always assumed I was above bribery… until I had to take two children grocery shopping.
7) Reason with a toddler. It’s a losing battle, but I continue to wage useless wars … just in case.
8) Use the TV to babysit the kids. Because sometimes I need a break. Sometimes I need to work. Sometimes they just. won’t. leave. me. alone.
9) Catch vomit in my bra. Yeah, that’s all I have to say.
10) Lose more sleep than I could possibly imagine. Three-and-a-half years and two children have made me lose more years of sleep than I ever knew was possible.
Posted by Claire Vath on Jul 16, 2014 in Motherhood
Should you ever need a handy guide for surviving as a hostage, rest assured, Wikipedia has you covered. Complete with ominous cartoons involving a masked man with murderous rage in his eyes and his hand clapped over the captive’s mouth, the web site offers 20 “simple” steps to make it through being taken against your will.
I’ve never even gotten the wind knocked out of me—much less being abducted by a cartoon villian—but as I scrolled through Wikipedia’s tips, I realized just how applicable hostage-surviving tactics are to surviving parenting. I’m not going to give you 20 tips based on Wikipedia. That would be too easy, but here are a few of the highlights.
1) Regain Your Composure
Calm down! says Wikipedia. “Your adrenaline will be pumping, your heart will be pounding, and you’ll be terrified.”
I spend most of my time terrified of parenting. Whether it’s worrying about Internet-viral stories of unvaccinated children poisoning the herd or BPA in my sippy cups, I try not to let the fear creep in. But it does. From the Internet. From a car that follows me too closely while I’m driving (I have kids in the backseat, for God’s sake!). From the other kid in the waiting room who’s holding a vomit bag. There are a million disastrous scenarios I envision on a daily basis. And those I can’t even begin to envision usually end up as a Facebook story that gets shared over and over (I’m looking at you, secondary drowning story).
2) Be Observant
“Never let your guard down.”
As I type this, I’m sitting in one room while my children remain suspiciously quiet in the other. I would go in and check them, but I don’t want to know who’s coloring on the wall at the moment.
However, when I see a child about to vomit, I remain vigilant. If anyone gets near me, I quickly back away … to avoid the vomit spray.
3) Keep a Survival Attitude
“Be positive … the odds are with you … That said, you should prepare yourself for a long captivity. Some hostages have been held for years, but they kept a positive attitude, played their cards right, and were eventually freed. Take it one day at a time.”
This needs no explanation. It’s Parenting 101.
4) Put Your Captor at Ease
“No needles aren’t scary.” “Yes, vegetables are so delicious!” “Yes, school is fun!” “I love going to the dentist. So will you.”
We tell our children little white lies to make them believe what they need to.
“Cooperate within reason with your captor.”
I usually fall prey to bribery in the grocery store. (Yes, if you’re quiet the whole trip, you can have a cookie or snack when we get in the car.)
5) Keep Your Dignity
This is easier said than done. Wikipedia advises us to remain “human” in the captor’s eyes. “Do not grovel, beg, or become hysterical. Try even not to cry. Do not challenge your abductor, but show him/her that you are worthy of respect.”
Sometimes, after a long day of fussing, after the kids are in bed and I’m holding a glass of wine, I look in the mirror and wonder when I turned into a parent.
6) Try to Communicate with Other Captives
Luckily, my co-captive and I have the advantage of time on our side. “If you look out for each other and have others to talk to, your captivity will be easier to handle.
“Depending on the situation, your communication may have to be covert, and if you’re held for a long time you may develop codes and signals.”
After 15 years together, we have the knowing looks down pat.
7) Stay Mentally Active
As much fun as it is to be home all day with my children, if I don’t have adult activities and conversation, my brain turns to mush and I feel like the walls of my house are closing in on me. There are only so many times I can answer my daughter when she asks me what sound a dragon makes.
8) Blend In
This is my greatest triumph. The article advises you not to stand out to your captors, particularly when you’re being held among a group of other captives. As someone’s mom, I do my best to blend into the walls, the woodwork, anything. This works really well when anyone has a dirty diaper, needs to use the potty or needs a nose wiped. If I’m extremely stealthy, sometimes they run past me … to their dad… to ask him for help.
And, finally …
9) Try to Escape Only If the Time is Right
Since it’s apparently frowned upon to go shopping while you’re alone and have small children napping upstairs, as soon as my husband is home from work, I volunteer for errands. The grocery store? Great! Pick up dry cleaning? A pleasure.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Jul 8, 2014 in Motherhood
, Travel Archives
Being a writer, I travel a lot, often averaging a week away from home a month. I don’t complain about it too much though. In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret: I love it. It doesn’t matter that I’m working. Because let’s face it: while my days “on assignment” can be long and tiring, sometimes starting at 6:30 a.m. and not ending until 10 p.m. (and let’s not forget the couple of hours I then stay up catching up on e-mail at the hotel), they are not usually spent in arduous meetings watching the dullest PowerPoint presentations known to man. Instead, I will frequently spend these days away from home doing everything from sea kayaking to stand-up paddle boarding. It could be worse. It could be a lot worse.
The author, sans famille, in the Sea of Cortez
And even if it were a lot worse, I still wouldn’t complain. A friend of mine who travels around the world overseeing clinical research trials says she loves hotel rooms. “When you leave them in the morning and come back in the evening, they look pretty much the way they did when you checked in,” she says. “Someone makes the bed, cleans the bathroom, leaves you cookies.”
An editor, wife, and new mother I ran into on my latest trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, told me she, too, loves the travel that comes with the job: “I get a king bed all to myself, and I don’t wake up with any cats sleeping on my head.” An added bonus: she can drink beer at the airport.
Unfortunately, I know far too many women who have not yet discovered the art of traveling solo, whether it’s for work or pleasure. Guilt ties them to their husbands and children. They are so guilt-ridden, in fact, that they would never admit to their friends (or even to themselves) that they actually want to get the heck out of Dodge, even if only for a day or two. This is tragedy on a grand scale. And I cannot help but wonder why otherwise sane and intelligent women chain themselves to motherhood and marriage as if it’s a life sentence, no probation allowed.
Men rarely do this. How many men ask their wives if it’s okay to go out with the guys on the weekend or if it would be in bad form to go on a hunting trip to Alaska for a week? Do men feel this level of bondage? I don’t think so. Call it socialization if you will, but even the most liberated women among us still feel they are less than women if they long for a night away from their toddlers or a week away from the company of their spouses.
I’ll admit it took me awhile to discover the blessings of solo travel. I got my feet wet taking girlfriend getaways and discovered, at first to my horror, that vacationing with women friends was about ten times more fun than traveling with my husband. You don’t have to waste time looking beautiful every day because your girlfriends really don’t care as long as you’re not embarrassingly sloppy, and you can laugh as loud as you want in the restaurant because women are not as hung up on propriety as men are (yes, it’s true, ladies). Plus, your female friends won’t give you a guilt trip about going to a museum they’re not really interested in. Women share and share alike. Follow me around The Louvre, and I’ll support you in your search for the perfect stinky cheese. Men will tell you it’s okay with them if all you want to do is shop for shoes in Rome, but they don’t mean it. And they’ll give you more guilt than your mother when it’s all said and done.
But even better than the girlfriend getaway is the solo retreat. And I don’t care if it’s an actual vacation or travel for work. Few things beat sitting alone in a posh restaurant in a tropical garden in L.A. sipping California Riesling without having to carry a conversation or make someone else laugh. It’s divine, in fact, about as divine as sinking into a king-size bed in a hotel suite you have all to yourself with no 6 a.m. “I’ts morning time, Mommy!” wake-up calls.
When I travel by myself, whether it’s on my own personal vacation or on assignment for a magazine, I retreat (without even being aware of it sometimes) into a life that is mine but isn’t. All the anxiety of meeting deadlines, picking up the kid on time, being cheerful for a grumpy spouse coming home after 12 hours of work and a long commute, and suppressing my own “I just want to scream because I can’t take it anymore” tendencies so I don’t land my daughter in psychotherapy before age 12 dissipate into thin air. I forget that crazy woman who lives at home and become entirely myself–the long lost adventurer of my youth out on a journey to see the world and live in the moment with no responsibility to my name but getting out of bed and living hard and blissfully all day long.
If you tell me you don’t need this, then I have to tell you: you are lying to yourself, whether out of guilt or societal pressure, I don’t know. But you are lying. Because we all need to be apart from our families. We all need to stay in touch with the women that we were and still are beneath that stressed out surface of the world’s greatest multi-tasker.
I didn’t realize how much I needed it until returning from a trip one day and pausing across a long layover at O’Hare to have lunch and remembering for a moment that I was returning to my four-year-old’s birthday party–a potential mob of waist-high people in my house, the presence of my mother, my mother-in-law, and sundry relatives who all think I’m just a little bit too much to take. The thought of that re-entry into my everyday life made me scan the menu for hard liquor.
But, in the end, while I’ll never be the mother my mother thinks I should be, I’m a damn good one just the same. And that’s because my solo journeys strengthen my sanity and enable me to walk into my bedroom, where my daughter has just colored the ottoman on my favorite chair with an ink pen, and not turn into psycho-mommy. Instead, I glance over at the stack of Italy travel books on my nightstand, smile a little to myself about my next escape, and engage in a strangely rational conversation with my child about why we don’t do pen and ink drawings on household furniture.
So next time you find yourself putting on a “mommy show” for your 10-year-old, who seems mildly amused that you can get so upset over the fact that he just locked his sister in the closet (a treatment she may well have deserved if she was chattering on the way she is known to chatter on), consider the fact that it may be time for you to do some solo traveling of your own.
Posted by Claire Vath on May 27, 2014 in Motherhood
“What’s your name?” the man asked me. We were in the Publix parking lot. I was hugely pregnant, waddling across the cold pavement toward my car, a basket full of groceries.
When I told him my name, he broke out in a huge, gap-toothed grin and reached for his back pocket. He pulled out a worn brown wallet, the creases of which matched the smile lines around his eyes. Rifling through the billfold, he pulled out a crinkled yellow Post-It note and showed it to me.“ This is my e-mail address,” he said. “And this,” he pointed, “is my password.” Written in all capital letters was the name “CLARABELL,” as though it were some poignant, divine intervention (or as though that were my name).
I smiled politely and nodded as though I understood the nature of this revelation.
“I just wanted to know your name to let you know that I’ll be praying for you, Claire. Prayin’ that you deliver a healthy baby.”
I looked at the green nametag on his shirt. He knew mine, after all. His name was Jimmy, and he had just bagged my groceries, asked me about my pregnancy, and walked me to my car. I don’t like accepting help from anyone, but now with a protruding stomach, people insisted upon it, and I’d given up arguing with them. As he walked me to my car, Jimmy told me about all the February birthdays in his family (I was due in February) and the dates of each family members’ birth.
And when he told me he’d be saying prayers for me, I thanked him profusely. If nothing else, that’s the kind of help I can get behind, particularly when I’m treading the uncharted waters of new motherhood.
“Everything will be great,” he promised. And looking at him—the sincerity in his eyes, the age lines of his face and his lop-sided grin—I believed him wholeheartedly.
“I hope so,” I agreed, getting into my car.
“Hope,” he nodding, pushing my empty basket back toward the store. “Ya gotta have hope.”
Nine mornings later, I awoke with faint contractions. Things moved swiftly thereafter. I was ushered into the hospital, then into a gown. I was given needles and catheters and ice chips. And then the baby’s heart rate began to drop. And things moved even more quickly. “We need to get him out now,” my OB informed me as a nurse slapped an oxygen mask on my face.
Tears swam in my eyes as I looked up at my husband, who squeezed my hand and nodded it was going to be okay.
Six minutes later in a roomful of people working at breakneck pace, my baby was pulled from my stomach. He was swollen and pale, and his head was a bit conical, but he was perfect.
Two days after I left the hospital, I went to the grocery store, wincing a bit from my tightening C-section stitches as I strolled the aisles for provisions. As I passed shoppers, I wanted to call out: “Do you know who I am? I’m someone’s mom!”
I had ceased to be just me anymore. The frenetic birth of this baby inexplicably changed who I was.
I looked for Jimmy while I was there, but I didn’t see him. And I didn’t see him again for many months after.
And then one day, there he was. He passed me by, looking straight at me, but there was no light of recognition on his face. Just a placid nod, an impersonal smile as we passed.
I felt a pit form in my stomach. He doesn’t remember me. I’m just one of the hundreds of customers passing him by.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, that Jimmy clearly had no recollection of our moment months back.
Maybe he’d changed. I certainly had.
So when he passed me, I didn’t say anything either. Just smiled back, remembered that one cold February day and the kindness and reassurance given by a man in a grocery store parking lot.
Originally published March 2, 2012
Coral, gold, and gemstone on Ponte Vecchio
Last Saturday I promised my four-year-old daughter movie and pizza night if she behaved herself all day while I caught up on work in the office. I don’t know as I would go so far as to call my daughter “girly.” She hates baby dolls, loves cars, trucks, trains and LEGOs and is especially fond of getting as dirty as possible when outdoors, but she also has a fondness for all things Barbie and princess. I’m okay with Barbie, and I’m actually okay with princesses, too, as long as we’re just talking about dressing up in a fabulous gown and looking beautiful for the day.
But there is a point at which my tolerance runs a little thin. Heidi persistently asks for Disney princess or Barbie princess movies–you know the ones where the girl finds her “one true love” and lives “happily ever after.” And much though I’d like to pretend my efforts to make her strong, independent, and choosy are overriding all this falderal, I know they’re not.
I still try though and resisted Heidi’s begging for yet another Barbie princess movie last weekend and chose instead the movie Enchanted. You may have seen it. It’s a little bit of an anti-fairytale with the otherworldly princess rejecting Prince Charming in favor of an imperfect marriage to a New York divorce lawyer. It still has the flavor of happily ever after, but it’s a slightly better twisting of reality.
Heidi loved it, and she even got it when the princess fought the dragon instead of the divorce lawyer. But still, it wasn’t perfect. Because the princess fails, and both she and her lover are saved by a chipmunk. Women are still not allowed to save themselves in fairytales.
A friend of mind calls Disney princess “mind-fuck for girls.” I think that’s an apt description.
Rare is the woman, no matter how intelligent, who does not suffer to some degree from a childhood of fairytale mind-fucking. I always thought it had bypassed me. Instead of browsing through catalogs at pictures of stunning wedding gowns as a pre-adolescent girl, I was cutting out pictures of my dream house…which I did eventually build, by the way. It seemed to me, even when I was quite young, that I had a much better chance of building the perfect house than of finding the perfect man.
You can control the construction of a house. Love is something else entirely. It runs where it wants to without asking anyone’s permission in advance. And most men are not prepared to be Prince Charming. They didn’t grow up watching princess movies. So there’s an emotional disconnect between boys and girls right from the get-go. My preschooler recognizes it already. She told me in the car one day, “Boys are stupid, Mommy.” I nodded, for there was much truth in this statement. And then she continued, “Daddy is a boy, so Daddy must be stupid.”
I laughed aloud, as I often do when profundity on a grand scale comes out of Heidi’s mouth. One of my girlfriends told me Heidi is far more advanced than we ever were as girls if she already gets the idea that guys don’t get us.
Even though my parents raised me not too put too much credence in fairytales and to make my own way in the world without relying on anyone else to make it for me, they apparently did not protect me enough. Because I still grew up believing that maybe, just maybe, I would fall in love with my best friend and live happily ever after.
A better view than the jewelry: on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
It didn’t happen. Not for lack of trying. I think, like so many women (especially young ones), I did my best to cram romantic partners into my personal visions of Prince Charming. And the poor men could not help but fail. My former husband had no idea I actually wanted to be proposed to at the lovely overlook where we first watched the sunset on Skyline Drive. I honestly don’t remember exactly anymore how he asked, it was so unmemorable. Others were worse. Like the boyfriend who foolishly told me he’d bought me a diamond just out of the blue with no indication beforehand that marriage was even on the table. I told him he better pay off his college loans and credit card debt before he dared show me the thing. Thank heaven for that caveat. We broke up long before he had his finances in order, and I was saved from what probably would have been a disastrous marriage.
So I don’t have a romantic proposal story about being carried off on a white horse into the sunset to pass onto my daughter. But then my mother didn’t have one to pass onto me either. She got her engagement ring in the mail. (My dad was in the Air Force in Texas at the time.)
And maybe these anti-fairytales are better anyway. For what pain women suffer in believing that a man will sweep them off their feet one day and love and cherish them forever after. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, mind you. But it’s rare. In my 36 years, I’ve encountered only one such couple. They were in their 50s when I met them, working at a museum where I had a part-time job during grad school. They’d been married 30 years. Every day at the end of work, that man would come into the gift shop where his wife worked, scoop her up off her feet, and kiss her. And she would giggle like a young bride. It was amazing to watch. Everyone in that museum shop would turn to look, no matter how many times we had seen it. And we all longed to be so lucky.
Because a lot of it is luck in the end, isn’t it? Chances are Mr. Right is out there for you. But chances are he lives on the other side of the country or maybe halfway across the world. He may not even speak the same language as you. How do you find him? That man whose personality is so magnetic that you’ll forgive him a thousand times for failing to put his socks in the hamper or for failing to pick the kids up on time? (Because you know the reason you’re really mad at your husband about his sloppiness and forgetfulness is because you’re mad at him for not being Prince Charming, right?) He’s not your match, and both of you know it, so you spar over the kids’ grades, whose turn it is to do the grocery shopping, why his mother is coming over again, and what to do on the weekend that everyone will enjoy.
Most of us settle for Mr. Half-Right. Or maybe even Mr. One-Quarter-Right because we know that our chances of finding the true Mr. Right are very slim. And someone told us somewhere, likely in a fairytale, that we have to get married, have kids, and pretend to live happily ever after with our “one true love.”
I’d like to think I’m over it. Sometimes I think I am. I’m a realist at least 85 percent of the time. I know men and women often don’t speak the same language, that they have wholly different expectations, that neither gender can be expected to read the other’s mind. I know that 90 percent of the time when a man hurts me, frustrates me, makes me crazy, he really has no idea he’s doing it.
But then something will inspire me to start believing in fairytales again…or at least make me want to believe. It happened most recently last November when Dorothy and I were in Florence, Italy, walking the famous Ponte Vecchio. In case you don’t know, it’s a famous bridge spanning the Fiume Arno that is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. I’ve never been much into jewelry. Once when my former spouse suggested he should update my engagement ring, get me something with a bigger diamond, I told him if he had that much money, I would be far happier with a fantastic vacation or a piece of land. (I never got the diamond, by the way, or a vacation, or a new piece of real estate.) But something about this romantic 1345 bridge in Florence, overlooking the river, with its shops of jewelry and the couples hand-in-hand walking across it gave me a little regretful thrill.
“Wouldn’t it be grand to get proposed to on this bridge?” I suddenly said to Dorothy. “And then go into one of these shops and pick out your ring?”
Dorothy, like me, is something of a cynic about love, but even she had to agree. Yes, that would indeed be fantastic. And so we stood there a moment in between all the glistening shops, looking out over the water and the city, daydreaming about something that was long gone for both of us. And I think we felt a little foolish that we even had such a girlish daydream—two business-owning women who had paid for their own trips to Italy and gone unaccompanied by husbands or lovers.
The “mind-fuck for girls,” as my friend called it, apparently outlasts education, prosperity, experience, even divorce. Which really leads me to wonder what it’s all about, why we can’t let go. Is it something like the “Hope” of Pandora’s Box? Does the idea that the “one true love” is out there somewhere keep us trudging onward in the most hopeless of circumstances, enduring the string of dates with men who are not “the one,” sifting through them all, wondering, and wondering if Prince Charming is ever going to show up? Do we really go through all of this thinking we’re going to be the rare and lucky woman who truly lands Mr. Right??
I know there have been times in my life when I have wanted to shout like Charlotte in Sex and the City, “I’m 35! Where is he?!”
I remember watching a friend of mine walk down the aisle a few years ago. And if anyone had been through the relationship ringer, she was it. I remembered her lamenting during her days as a single, dating woman, “I’m exhausted by it. I am exhausted by dating men, none of whom are right. I just want to give up.” But one day, years later, she walked down the aisle arm-in-arm with the man she believed to be “the one,” and the beaming smile on her face gave me hope for a moment.
Maybe this will be it, I thought. Maybe she really found him, and they’re going to be in love forever. She’ll prove it’s possible. I even told her so. “Make me believe,” I urged her.
But that’s not how it happened. Her husband is not picking her up into his arms at the end of every workday and planting an “oh, my god, I am so in love with you” kiss on her lips. The question is though: does he need to be?
And I’m afraid the answer might actually be “yes.”
But do I say that because I’ve been mind-fucked, too?
But I do know two women who found love in their 60s…finally. And at least one of them is quite madly in love. I think of her sometimes when I start feeling hopeless. I remind myself there is always that five percent or less chance that something magical might indeed cross my path one day.
Crazier things have happened.
It never crossed my mind, for example, when I was the child of hard-working parents just barely getting by at times that I would one day enjoy the luxury of standing on the Ponte Vecchio looking at diamonds and coral pendants and perhaps, more importantly, looking across the centuries-old architecture of the city where Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci once lived.
I bought a ring for myself that day. It was not a diamond. It was not even expensive. I bought it from the jeweler on the bridge with only a few dozen pieces in his window. He told me he was able to sell the same pieces as his neighbors so much cheaper because of his low overhead. I slipped it on my finger, pulled my leather gloves back over my hands, and proceeded on my way to the Galleria degli Ufizzi to look at the original paintings of Botticelli, Raphael, and El Greco, something I also would never have imagined being able to do on a typical writer’s salary.
It did not occur to me until later that I had done my best to live out my fairytale thus far. And perhaps that simple gold filigree band was something of a self-engagement ring for me, not on the scale of the famous right-hand diamond. My fairytale is not quite that big, not yet. And I suspect if it ever gets that big, I’ll be buying more land with mountain vistas or maybe checking out Antarctica, not frittering money away on diamonds. Who knows? That is the beauty of it, too. The not knowing what’s around the next bend.
In the tale of Pandora’s box, humanity is saved by hope. But hope is not sitting on a windowsill wishing for Prince Charming to come dashing around the corner. Hope is active. It is work. It is believing…and doing…and being…even when the evidence suggests that the game will not end as you would like. It’s still worth a bold attempt. Don’t leave it to princes and chipmunks to save you. That’s great if one comes along and gives you a lift. But try lifting yourself first.
Posted by Claire Vath on Mar 11, 2014 in Motherhood
Spoiler alert: If you plan on eating today—or ever again—don’t read this … unless you’re a parent or plan to become one.
I opened a diaper the other day (one attached to a child), and a baseball-size ball of poop rolled out … into my hand. Like any normal human would do, I shrieked. And then, like any mother would do, I calmly threw it away.
There should be a test, I thought, to determine whether one is really able to handle parenthood. I mean really. Babysitting does not count. I babysat all the time growing up … and I had three siblings. None of that prepared me in the slightest for having my own kids. I wasn’t privy to the late-night feedings or early-morning vomits that I am now.
So I’ve devised a test instead. You’re welcome, world. And it doesn’t involve staying up all night listening to crying (that’s the easy part!).
- Procure a baseball-size hunk of feces—human, animal, whatever. Hold it in your hand for one minute.
- Have a friend or spouse fill his or her mouth with fake blood and run to you screaming. Put your hand in the mouth and try to determine the source of bleeding.
- Dip your hand into a jar of peanut butter, and rub your hands together like you’re spreading on lotion. Run your hands along every upholstered surface in your house.
- Fill a few sippy cups with milk, and hide them like you would Easter eggs around the house, except upside-down. Set a reminder for 10 days, and then try to determine where they all are … and how to remove the smell from your house. It doesn’t matter whether the cups are “leak-proof” or not. A cup filled with milk sitting upside-down on your carpet for 10 days will leak–guaranteed.
- Buy a bunch of children’s books and marvel at how 99.99% of them have animals in them. Understand that every creature—rhinoceros, duck, porcupine—in those books is 99.9999% easier to care for than caring for a child. Many books have different ideas about how an animal should sound. “Ribbit” in one book and “croak” in another don’t jive. Talk to your spouse about consistency in animal noises. It will save for confusion later. Also, agree on animal noises for animals that you don’t know. We’ve told ours that giraffes say “Munch crunch” as they eat leaves from a tree (and we stole that from a book). Because your kids will want to know.
- Find a college bar, and hang out there until someone looks like they need to vomit. Stand 5 inches away from their face when it happens.
- Scoop a hunk of mud out of your yard and throw it in the tub. Now, take a cup and try to scoop out every piece of that mud as it breaks apart. This is what happens when someone poops in the tub. Poop (and probably mud) is harder to corral than a goldfish.
- Learn silly sounding words like Boppy and Bumbo and Mamaroo, Desitin and Boudreaux’s. Those are serious things.
- Get a regular screwdriver, and try to fix a pair of loose glasses. Those tiny screws? They’re in all baby toys/implements. Bonus points if you put a recording of a screaming toddler on while doing this.
- Study Baywatch-era photos of Pamela Anderson. If you want a mid-90s rack like that, don’t nurse or pump for 8 hours. And, voila! A chest of rocks.
If you got through my little test, congratulations!
You are definitely fit to be parent.You are also fit to be a serial killer.