Programmed to Deceive

“Tell them you still play the piano. Make sure you don’t tell them about detention. Don’t tell them about that math test. Tell them about the paper you did for English.” That was just some of what my mother would say every time we saw family. We always put our best foot forward, but we also hid our worst foot behind us. read more

Swing and a Miss!

What’s going on with my dad? Usually when I call him, he regales me with the fascinating tales of his latest dental work, how the dentist’s receptionist doesn’t like him and how he’s trying to negotiate a deal so he doesn’t have to pay (is it any wonder she hates him?). Not so the past few phone calls. Right now, my dad’s living an exciting life.

A couple of months ago, my dad told me he had a fall. He was up on a ladder, above a small stairwell, and got his foot stuck in the ladder. He couldn’t get his foot unstuck, so he decided to have a “controlled fall.” The only control he had was that it was his decision. So the ladder came crashing down, he fell onto the stairs and he hurt his back. He went to the doctor, who said he hadn’t broken anything. My father has the posture of a question mark because of osteoporosis and it was a good six-foot fall. How is it possible he didn’t break anything? I was worried. About fifteen years ago, his sister’s decline started with a broken tailbone.

My dad talked about the fall for weeks, until he had another piece of news. He was in a car accident. For once, he called me on the same day, after he got back from the hospital. Usually he calls me a week after something big happens.

Just like every other bad driver I know, someone hit him and he was not at fault. Weird how that happens, huh? He was driving along, didn’t remember which street he was on, when a young girl came sliding across the wet road. He stopped, and she hit him head-on. His airbag deployed, and hurt his chest, and the seat belt caused a bad bruise. At the hospital, they told him he’d broken a rib, and they’d found an enlarged aorta. They offered to pay for an ambulance to take him to another hospital to treat the aorta, but he refused because he’d have to pay for his own way home. He did visit a cardiologist shortly after the accident, and the doctor said his aorta’s size was normal for his age. So he’s got no heart issues right now.

The next time we talked, he told me he’d had quite an adventure. He was sitting in his car outside Wendy’s, enjoying the air conditioning, when a rattily-dressed young man approached him. He said, “I remember you. We used to work together.” My father has not worked in 22 years. He responded something like, “At IBM in Fishkill, for the little French guy?” and of course the guy said, “Yeah. How are you?” Then he explained that he lost his job and his son had just died and he was headed up to Rhinebeck to make funeral arrangements. He could use twenty bucks and a ride to the Peekskill train station, he said.

Once he’d made the request, he walked to the other side of my dad’s car and got in. My dad didn’t know what to do, so he let the guy make a few phone calls on his phone, and decided to give the guy what he wanted to get rid of him. He gave him the twenty bucks, and a ride to Peekskill – but not the train station, he told me proudly. “Best twenty dollars I ever spent,” he said. The guy did get out at Peekskill and did not ask for anything else, thank God.

My father is eighty-two years old, and I can’t help but get a picture in my mind of the Grim Reaper, swinging his scythe at him, an announcer declaring, “Swing and a miss! Swing and a miss! Strike three! He’s outta there!” How is he surviving all of these incidents? I don’t want to sound like a ghoul, it’s just that the last life-threatening incident, when he fell through the ice while skating, happened thirty years ago. And now he’s had all of these narrow escapes in a matter of months.

The only conclusion I can come to is that I don’t know what’s happening. I believe that when it’s your time, it’s your time, no matter what happens. I should have learned that with my mother. She always thought death was imminent. She was healthy, just paranoid. And she suffered from Alzheimer’s for thirteen years before she died. My dad is just luckier than most 82-year-olds. And I’m glad he is.

Kids and Marriage, Kids and Marriage…

I never thought it would be this way. My husband and I have a good marriage – a good relationship, built on love, mutual interests and trust. We’ve been together seven years and we love each other deeply, so I never thought anything would come between us. Then we had kids.

At first, we were overjoyed. I got pregnant a month after we got married, so our first year of marriage was spent dealing with pregnancy or a newborn. When Rose was born, we were ecstatic. Her little pink face, those scrunchy eyes, the way she cooed and held our fingers in hers, it was all so new and wonderful. She slept through the night at three months, and so did we. As she grew, I looked forward to each stage with equal anticipation, and I was tickled with everything she learned and did. Matt and I doted on her, and she returned the love.

We’d gotten to the Terrible Twos by the time we got pregnant with our second child. We wanted him, but we didn’t expect him. We had tried for a baby for a year, and then the fertility doctor said I was old and drying up. We really wanted another child, so we started to research adoption. All through it, I thought, Man, if I could just get pregnant this would be so much easier. And then boom! It happened.

The first time I saw Christian on the sonogram I figured he was a boy. He was lying down, knees crossed, and he put his arms behind his head and stretched, arching his back, and I thought, That’s a kid who could watch football all day. We had wanted another girl and so did Rose, but now we were looking at a whole new adventure. I passed by a T-ball game one day when I was pregnant, looking at the boys in their tiny uniforms and thought, That’s going to be him someday. I couldn’t wait.

By the time Christian was born, Rose was two-and-three-quarters, and gearing up for the Theatrical Threes. Her tantrums had grown longer and more dramatic and she grew more defiant every day. She still had a sweet side. On the day her brother was born, she came to the hospital, looked at him in his plastic crib, and said, “I will protect you!” We thought it was incredibly sweet. We didn’t know how she’d react to her brother but so far, so good.
Once we got him home, it was a different story. I was holding newborn Christian one day and Rose shouted, “SHE’S MY MOMMY, NOT YOUR MOMMY!” So we had to tell her that things in her little world had changed. She was still the Alpha dog, but she had to “move it on over” because a new dog was moving in.

Things pretty much went downhill from there. Rose would kick, push and punch her brother, while we tried to protect him. She’d clamor for attention every time we fed him or played with him. She’d yell and scream while he slept, just to wake him up. And now she steals his pacifier in the middle of the night, waking everyone up.

Speaking of waking everybody up, more often than not, Christian wakes in the middle of the night. Matt gets up with him, sometimes for an hour or two. Mornings after nights like that are no fun.

And speaking of sleep, getting both kids down at night is impossible. Christian stays up until 9:30 and Rose insists that Matt sit with her while she falls asleep, so we don’t get any couple time.

All through this so far, I thought Matt and I were on the same team, and for the most part, we were. But now that we’ve been through a year of toddler violence, tantrums and defiance, I think it’s torn us apart. Our parenting philosophy is still the same, but we differ on execution.

When I tell Rose to, say, stop playing with the sink in the bathroom, it goes something like this. I’ll say, “That’s enough water. Turn it off.” I still hear the water running. I wait a minute to give her some time to follow (something I learned from parenting experts) then I say, a little louder, “I said no more water. Turn it off!” The water still runs, then I get up, go into the bathroom, turn it off, and say, louder this time, “I SAID no more water!” at which point Rose gets all mad and starts screaming “Nooooo!” And I say angrily, “That’s it, go to your room!” and she either runs to her room screaming or she continues to protest and I say, loudly, “Are you choosing a time out?” (something I learned from her preschool teacher) and she yells “NO!” and runs to her room.

When Matt tells Rose to stop playing with the sink in the bathroom, it goes something like this. He’ll say, “Rose, turn the water off.” The water keeps running for a few seconds. He’ll say, a little louder “Rose, I said turn the water OFF!” The water keeps running. He’ll yell “TURN THE WATER OFF AND GET OUT HERE!” The water keeps running. Ten seconds later, he goes into the bathroom and yells “ROSE! I TOLD YOU TO TURN THE WATER OFF! GO TO YOUR ROOM!” She says, “You’re a damn daddy! Dammit! Dammit! (something we have to work on)” and runs to her room.

It would appear we are on the same team, but the offensive coordinator has dropped the ball. We both want the same thing, but we’re not using the same playbook. We do have some things in common. We both get mad. We both let her push our buttons. But Matt’s defense is a lot more aggressive than mine. I want to yell, and I do, a lot, but I really try not to.

I have this thing about yelling. My parents were best described as a cross between the Bunkers and the Costanzas, so I grew up with a lot of yelling. I hate hearing violence in a voice. When someone yells around me, doesn’t even have to be at me, all of those childhood feelings come back – I’m scared, I’m mad, I want to fight back. When I yell, I feel ashamed – well, as soon as I calm down. When Matt does it, I want to comfort Rose when it’s all over. When I comfort Rose, I undermine Matt. And that’s what’s tearing us apart.

Whenever we have a clash in discipline, Matt and I wind up angry at each other. I’m mad because he yelled and he’s mad because I took Rose’s side. It takes us a few hours to talk about it and work it out, and sometimes we don’t talk it out at all. We just let it eat at our relationship for a few days until it either happens again or we have a compelling reason to band together. So we wind up in this band together/break apart, band together/break apart cycle and it’s killing us.

We thought that kids would bring us closer together. We imagined an idyllic family life, free of the conflict we had in our families of origin. We’d gaze at our kids, smile, and gaze lovingly at each other. We’d be a family and we’d be so full of love we couldn’t stand it. Sometimes we do feel that way. But most of the time, no.

The thing is, we’ve got to stop the kids from coming between us. This week we had a talk about Rose and how to deal with her. We agreed to watch a DVD that will teach us to derail tantrums. We finally got some alone time — that doesn’t happen unless both kids nap at the same time. We got to talk not only about the kids, but we were able to laugh together, and talk about grownup things too. We haven’t worked out all the kinks but it’s a start. We agreed to be more open to parenting advice. Most of the time, that comes from me, because in researching a parenting article, I’ve discovered an “opportunity for improvement.”

The advice comes from parenting experts – sometimes pretty heavy hitters – but it seems like it comes from me because it comes out of my mouth. That makes Matt feel like I’m criticizing him. But I can’t help it. I get these little nuggets of parenting gold and I can’t keep them to myself – not if I think they can help us.

We’ve gotten to the point where we’re open to anything. That’s good because we’re using anything and everything to help us. We’re taking every opportunity to be together as a couple. Matt’s started working at home more, so we can take breaks together, and we’re going to schedule some more babysitting so we can have dates. A few weeks ago, the kids’ surrogate grandparents stayed with them so we could have a weekend away. It was amazing how easy our companionship and intimacy was during that weekend. I didn’t have to rush to tell him everything within the five adult minutes we usually have. Neither one of us was stressed out or pulled in other directions. We were able to focus all of our attention on each other.

It’s not a new concept. Parents have to prioritize and make couple time if they want to survive. We’ve got to learn it over and over again. I don’t think we’re alone in that. I think that part of being a parent is focusing so much on our kids that we neglect ourselves. Our family consists of our kids AND us, so we have to learn to include ourselves when we think of taking care of our family.

Is it three or is it me?

Tantrums, taunting, doody, defiance – that’s what my three-year-old is made of. Or so I thought. There’s no question, Rose is a challenge lately, and not the good kind, like a thousand-piece puzzle or an ice-cream-eating contest. She screams, she hits, she kicks, she steals, she lies, she mouths off at me and her father and she’s mean to her friends. She’s impossible. Everybody said that the theatrical threes made the terrible twos look like cotillion, but I had no idea it would be like this. read more

September 11, 2011

Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane in Pennsylvania. It was, and still is, a horrible tragedy as so many struggle to cope with their losses.

I was working two blocks from the White House when we heard about the attacks. Our office gathered in the conference room to watch the tragedy unfold on TV, when it was still in New York. Then a picture of the Pentagon, five miles away, flashed on the screen. A half-hour later the building evacuated us to the gridlocked DC streets. I didn’t think the Metro was running, so I boarded a bus. It took us an hour to go two blocks.

Frustrated, I got off and found that the Metro was, in fact, running. People on it were talking to strangers, trying to make sense of the tragedy. I couldn’t go to my usual stop, the Pentagon, so I improvised and found a bus at another stop. I got home and my friends, who didn’t have a TV, asked to come over and watch. I was grateful not to be alone, as we watched the attacks over and over. I tried to call my parents to tell them I was ok, but all the lines to New York were jammed as people checked on their loved ones. I finally got through to them at 9 p.m. on my friend’s cell phone. I asked if my cousin Peter, a Brooklyn cop, was at the site.

“He’s from Brooklyn,” my father said, dismissing the idea, “He’s not gonna be a there.”

He was there, and so was my cousin “Baby” Louie, a Westchester County volunteer firefighter. I found out later that Louie had had a close call as his chief changed his mind about sending the team into the second tower just before it collapsed.

We learned a lot about ourselves that day, and in the days after. We learned that the U.S. was not invincible. We were not safe. We learned a lot about character – the character of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the character of our president, George W. Bush. But to me, we learned the most about the character of New Yorkers.

We New Yorkers get a bad rap. I grew up in suburban New York, and although I’ve lost most of the accent and haven’t lived there in 13 years, New York is a huge part of my identity. When my Virginian mother-in-law first met me, she told her family “I never thought I would like somebody from New York.” Every city with a baseball team hates the Yankees. Everyone knows that New Yorkers are rude, gruff and selfish.

So in the days and months following the attacks, people around the country were surprised to see how New Yorkers pulled together. How everyone, whether they lost someone or not, was affected by the tragedy. How Mayor Giuliani led this population of callous cads to support each other and grieve together.

I went to New York several months after the attacks, and as I walked through Grand Central Station, my chest wrenched when I saw all the “Missing:” posters on the walls and bulletin boards. Months after the attacks, no one had taken them down. I could not imagine the pain that these people felt. I went to Ground Zero. The emptiness was what hit me the most. I could see clear across Wall Street to the water. Before the attacks, Wall Street was its own fortress of capitalism, blocking out the city around it, and now its greatest monument was gone. Ground Zero was fenced off, and people had tied flowers, pictures and cards to the fence, tributes to those who were lost.

As wounded as they were, New Yorkers started to pick up the pieces. They told their children why Daddy or Mommy wouldn’t be home again. They got their affairs in order and tried to move on. They leaned on each other when standing by themselves was too much. And the whole country, and much of the world, saw them – in news interviews and pictures of the tributes; reflected in Mayor Giuliani’s speeches; in the financial markets, resuming their work. They saw that rude was really resilient. They saw that gruff was really generous, and they saw that selfish was really supportive.

Some New Yorkers tried to bring some good back into the world. Public relations pros David Paine and Jay Winuk started, to encourage people to volunteer and do good deeds in honor of those we lost. Scott Heiferman founded to bring community back into our cities and towns.

After the attacks, and always, I’m proud to be a New Yorker. The people who survive the attacks to this day make me even prouder. My heart goes out to all of the people I left behind there, the people who lost family and friends, and the people who’ve had to recover from the horrors of that day. I hope that every September 11th, our country will remember the courage and the support that they saw in New Yorkers those days. I hope that even without a great tragedy to unite them, they’ll be able to follow New York’s example.