Things That Are and Could Have Been

She—my baby girl Rachel—so badly wants babies. And we tell her: go to college, get married, have babies, in that order. She’s cool with this (she’s five), but the problem is: she really doesn’t like boys. Except her big brother, and sometimes her dad, and even less often her little brother. Boys, she says, are the losing team. They stink, and have too much body hair, and if they nursed babies it would be dirt-milk. So how to achieve her goal of motherhood? This, I want to tell her, is a problem women have faced for centuries.

She informed us tonight at dinner that men aren’t necessary for the birth of babies. My husband took umbrage at this and sought my support in convincing our daughter otherwise. I cocked my eye at him and said, “That’s a fine line, dear. She’s talking about carrying the baby inside and giving birth and nursing it. Do you really want to cross that line and tell her just exactly how it is that men contribute?” That put an end to that, and our daughter remains convinced that mamas are all that are needed. A lot of mamas think this too, and it’s kind of dragging us womenfolk down, all this hard work of going at life and parenting alone.

I should know: I did the single parent thing for right at twelve years. Technically I was married for about 18 months of those 12 years, but not in such a way that anyone would’ve noticed. Overall, those single years were some of the happiest of my life. My son makes for a wonderful life companion and I am the most introverted of introverts so being alone kind of suited me. But while happy, those years were also extremely, extremely hard. Like Chris Rock says, “Sure, you can be a single mom, but should you be?” It depends, of course, so I’ll just leave that one alone. Too many caveats.

I remember this girl from law school who was pretty much the most anti-marriage woman I’d ever met outside of a punk club. “It’s the worst contract for women ever! It’s killing us and bringing us down! We’re losing our selves, our careers, our potential!” And so on and so forth. That (wonderful) woman is now happily married with two kids and often posts Pinterest-worthy photos of homemade crafts on her Facebook page. She also is now “self-employed,” which we female lawyer-types know is really shorthand for “I want more flexibility than the jerks who run law firms (and some non-profits) will let me have.”

There is also the infamous case of Gloria Steinem who said women need men like fish need a bicycle (as in, not at freakin’ all). She is now married as well. I’m not sure if she’s happy or not because I haven’t checked. But regardless.

My personal ambivalence towards marriage could be because my first marriage was such an abomination. It was full of abuse, affairs, bar fights, and lots of drugs, none of which were perpetrated, had, started, or used by me. The innocent party stands highly wronged here, and though I’ve reached a level of forgiveness, the PTSD is a little harder to shake. What did come from that first marriage are two of the most beautiful people God ever created, and lots of what some might call “wisdom,” but only because it’s stuff I learned before the age of fifty; to anyone over fifty it’s mere common knowledge.

For some Godforsaken reason I decided to get marriage at fifteen. I think being pregnant had something to do with it. My parents yelled and screamed and forbade the marriage (as they should have), but his parents were gleeful and facilitated the whole shebang. I realize now the reasons for this were many. One, they were happy that their oldest son, whom they worried about greatly, had found a gentle and God-fearing partner who could influence him for good. Two, seeing as how I was pregnant, and that they were fundamentalists Christian types in a kindly and charismatic spirit-led sort of way, they figured we better make things legal to please Jesus.

So off we went in the middle of the night in an old Mustang that ended up stranding us halfway to the airport. Me, scared, pregnant, and hungry. Him, just happy to be doing something frowned upon by the establishment.

That baby, the one making me hungry, is the one who later died at not quite one year old. But even after that the ex and I stayed together and soon had another baby. That baby is now eighteen, in college, and the love of my life. Without him—as I often say while loving and hugging him hard—I’d probably have wound up in a cardboard box somewhere, spanging and dumpster diving with a tear tattooed on my face.

But instead, I’m here.

In case I haven’t mentioned it thus far, let me now say with emphasis: things happen for a reason. So I try not to even question it, this voluptuously curvaceous life, choosing instead to marvel at the mundane, squint so as not to bat my eyes at the ironic and absurd, and keep focused on the faithful, such as finding myself squarely in these middle years, strangely, dizzily, ironically, married.

Again.

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Shrimp-tutionalized

Knowing that I just moved to the area and am searching for kid friendly ways to Get Out Of The House, a friend told me about a local swim class she attends with her two little ones. If I remember correctly, the conversation went something like this:

“You know, there’s this great swim class we take the kids to—“

“Did you say swim class?”

“Yeah, it isn’t far, and it’s relatively inexp—“

“I HATE swim classes for kids. They are TORTURE. Let me tell you….”

I went on from there, probably for a good thirty minutes, disparaging every swim class between here and Berkeley.

I’m sure I appeared both selfish (or at least a bad listener) and crazy (or at least slightly obsessed), but being selfish and/or crazy doesn’t make it any less true that my experience with kids’ swim classes is one of misery.

In the funny way life has of being weird and coincidental, shortly after that heated one-way exchange, I was searching for an old email and accidentally stumbled instead upon an email I sent Andy in 2010, detailing every painful moment of one of Rachel’s first forays into Shrimp-dom:

Today’s Shrimp class was soooo not worth it. You know how it starts at 10am, ends at 10:30am, and then it takes until approximately 11:45am to get both of Rachel and me dried off, showered, dried off again, and re-dressed? Well today I had a definite plan for how I was going to reduce that time to about 20 minutes. Seriously. Of course, I failed miserably, and I ended up driving home in my wet swimsuit.

The five other moms and babies in class seem to have it all figured out. The moms put the younger babies (6-8 months) on towels on the changing benches, and the moms with older babies stand them up in the little closed off area the benches make. One mom even gets her seven-month-old to sit on a towel the whole time. Amazing. When I try any of these things, Rachel: 

  1.  falls down
  2.  crawls on the icky floor
  3.  cries
  4.  all of the above

The mom with the seven-month-old who sits on a towel without moving saw me struggling to keep Rachel from crawling away and said, “does she know the word ‘stop?’”

“No.”

 “Oh. Well what about ‘Red Light?”

Uh, no. She’s seven months old. She thinks ‘no’ is the funniest word she’s ever heard and has not a freaking clue what a red light is. I told the women this and she smiled like she felt really sorry for me and my obvious incompetence.

This was when I decided to wear wet clothes home.

I put Rachel in the stroller and she immediately started crying and reaching up for me. Okay. Rachel out and gym bag, diaper bag, and purse in. I pushed the stroller to the elevator with one hand. This did not go well. You know how the stroller alignment is all screwed up? Well, there’s an old-person class right after the Shrimp class, and I was forced to dodge canes and walkers lest I take some old lady down. I got a lot of glares. That was especially true when I couldn’t figure out how to push the stroller with one hand while carrying Rachel and her Froggie blanket through the swinging gate to leave. The gate swings IN, which is just plain stupid, but everyone looked at me like I was the stupid one.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disorganized: no makeup, hair half wet/half in a ponytail/half in a bun, wet swim suit soaking my clothes, one hand busy knocking down old people with my run-away-stroller, the other hand struggling to carry a grumpy baby and her Froggie blanket, all while wearing disgusting, soggy sweats as I walked the two blocks to the parking garage where I was parked on the sixth floor. Rachel freaked out as soon as I put her in the car seat, so I had to drive all the way home with my left hand while my right hand was twisted behind me holding a bottle for Rachel. I could see a mom in a minivan behind me laughing as I drove down the garage ramp.

I’ll admit that one reason I felt so incompetent is because I’m used to being the one who has it all together. I certainly did with Collin. Collin thinks things are different with Rachel because I’m “old” now. I think it’s because I don’t co-sleep with her like I did with Collin so I get up every two hours between midnight and 6am and am too damn tired to do something like change a wet, squirming baby with one hand while sitting on a cramped, stinky pool locker room floor with five other moms and their kiddos watching me, waiting to see if I’ll screw up.

Anyway, finally Rachel fell asleep in the car. Yay! We were almost home and since it wasn’t yet 1pm, Collin would be asleep, too. I figured I’d get something hot to eat, maybe write you an email about today’s Shrimp fiasco, and then take a long hot shower.

Uh, no.

Rachel did stay asleep, but as soon as I got home Collin let Bella-dog out of his room, so she started barking and whining and Winston-dog started trying to rough house with her, then Collin turned his techno music &!*$ up really loud and the bass started thumping the half of the house I wanted to relax in. Obviously I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my hot food and drink, so I went straight to the shower, desperate to get in there before Collin came upstairs and started running his day’s plans by me, such as, “can I experiment with smoking tree bark today? Can I drive the minivan to Taco Bell? Can I go to a girl’s house while her parents aren’t home and she’s having a pillow-fight-pajama party?” Honestly though, at this point I would have said yes to all those things just to get some peace and quiet in the house while Rachel was still sleeping.

Anyway, I finally managed to shower. Ready to recover from my horrible morning, I sat down at the computer with coffee and homemade blueberries muffins slathered with butter. Of course, that’s when Collin walked in and said, “Andy wants me to check my email right now.” Crap, crap, crap. So I turned on Martha Stewart, which I almost never watch, and guess what? It was one I had already seen.

Maybe someday I’ll re-write this to make it touching or funny or something more than what it is, but for right now, I just needed to get this off my chest.

Shrimp class sucks.

Author’s notes: if the person who advised me on a great local swim class is reading this (and I assume she is because I’m going to tag her on FB), now you know I am neither selfish nor crazy. I am, quite simply, still in Shrimp-covery.

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Manic Monday Crossover Post: The Difference with Daughters

Also found here, but with pictures.

My daughter is beautiful. Actually, let me rewrite that: my daughter is BEAUTIFUL.

Sometimes I feel an almost physical shock at how adorably precious Rachel is. And while she is far (far!) from all grown up, she is no longer a “baby,” no matter how often I tell her that she is. Everything we do and say to Rachel now will influence who she becomes in the future, and how she perceives herself and her role in this world. Our words and our attitudes will give her the foundation upon which to base all of her worldviews and will create the lens through which she sees herself and others.

I find that I tell Rachel, over and over again, just how beautiful I think she is. I can’t help it—it just spills out before I can stop it. I say, “you’ve got such a pretty smile!” Or, “you are the cutest daughter I have!” (She has yet to think about the fact that she’s the only daughter I have, but we’ll leave that for another day.) I want her to be confident in her appearance (just think Dove commercial, which is a whole other can of worms), but I also am worried about how frequently we comment on how she looks. Lately I’ve tried to follow every involuntary blurt of “your curls are so gorgeous!” with, “Are you going to be an engineer or an architect when you grow up?” (because I want her to recognize and value her intelligence), or, “Do you know how much we love you just for being you?” (because I want her to know that neither beauty nor brains are what make her special).

We don’t use negative adjectives such as  “fat,” or “ugly,” or even say overly positive things about other people in front of Rachel, in part because we don’t want her to fixate on looks or think that other people will be critiquing her in the same way. In my house growing up, intelligence, kindness, and independence were revered, but so too was a person’s appearance. And when that is combined with society’s emphasis on beauty, bad things can happen.

So I’m worried. Collin is almost grown, so you might think I’ve had to address this issue before and have come to am enlightened viewpoint. Nope! I think Collin is as handsome as Rachel is beautiful, but I don’t worry about him in the same way. Why? Because society isn’t fixated with how men look or dress in the same way it is with women. It’s also understood that even if a man is outrageously handsome, his worth is in his personhood. His job. His intelligence. Good looks are just the icing on the cake. With women, the opposite is true… Beautiful AND smart? Intelligence becomes the icing. And of course, both of those cakes neglect to note that a person’s true worth is found in neither brawn nor brains.

How do we teach Rachel otherwise? She is beautiful. She is smart. She can create intricate machines out of Legos, a stroller, and random bits of paper and tape. She can organize three-hundred and thirty-seven toys into a symmetrical repeating pattern that spans the entirety of our main floor. She also makes my bed, feeds the baby, begs me to use the iron (don’t worry, I don’t let her). And after she does all these things we smile at her in her princess dress and tiara and tell her how lovely she is. How precious she is in piggy-tails. And she parrots back when she feels especially needy, “Look how cute I am!” And darn it, it both scares me and angers me. We should be able to enjoy all of who Rachel is without fear of repercussion. Without fear that she will not only be objectified in the future, but will objectify herself because she thinks that’s where her value is.

How many times in a row should I compliment Rachel about things other than her appearance so she will get the point that there is so much more to life? So much more to who she is?

As a woman, I know all too well the internal struggles Rachel will face in junior high. In high school. In college. And even into adulthood, when just as she is sure she is finally where and who she wants to be, something will happen to make her question herself all over again. And when that happens, I don’t want her to demand, “Look how cute I am!” but rather to say, “I am loved and special.” Period. No justification or explanation needed.