The Agony of Defeat

“MY kids will never drink juice! MY kids will never play video games! MY daughter will never play with Barbies!” I said, b.c. (before children). After children was a different story.

Battles: You win some, you lose some. Before children, I looked down upon those mothers who gave their kids juice all the time. Don’t they know juice is just sugar? I’d wonder. So until she was two years old, Rose didn’t drink juice. Once when she was sick, we gave her apple juice. She promptly threw up. No more apple juice, we thought. It’s just as well, because we’re against juice in the first place.

Then she went to babysitting and all the kids had juice except Rose. Still, I said no juice and it was easy. We didn’t have any in the house. Rose asked why and I told her that too much juice isn’t good for little girls. The babysitter solved the problem by giving the kids Kool-Aid with Splenda. Because it’s just flavored water without sugar, I did not object.

Then Rose went to preschool. Every morning I made her a lunch and I poured milk into her sippy cup. Every afternoon I picked her up and her sippy had leaked all over her lunch bag. I hate making lunches to begin with, and not only was the sippy not working, but pouring it was another step in the process. I broke down and bought juice boxes. I must admit, throwing one of those into her bag is much easier than pouring milk into a leaky cup. I lost the juice battle but I consoled myself by noting that her juice boxes contain only 10 percent juice and less sugar than the other ones out there. But nevertheless, I lost.

I lost the video game battle right out of the gate. My husband Matt loves video games. We have an X-Box, a Wii and an old-fashioned Atari joystick with built in games, as well as lots of old cartridges for antiquated video pastimes. Matt could not wait to play video games with Rose, and the Wii facilitated her introduction quite nicely. She bowls, plays skeeball and sings with “Guitar Hero” now, but at least she’s playing with Matt and not by herself. It could be worse. My in-laws started their son on “Grand Theft Auto” when he was 11. I hope Matt will refrain from teaching her “HALO” until she’s 30.

Barbie was a different story. Because of her unrealistic body image, I swore Rose would not be allowed to play with Barbies. Ever. But my dear friend, who helped us when Christian was born, loves Barbies and indoctrinated Rose into the Barbie world by buying her first doll. I couldn’t refuse such a heartfelt gift, and Rose fell in love with Barbie. That was seven months ago and Barbie’s no loner in our house now. She’s got at least eight friends.

One thing I didn’t count on when I spouted my righteous plans was outside influences. As a parent, I learned that I am not the only influence my daughter has. Between babysitting and preschool and media and our friends, she’s got influences all over the place. And I have learned to accept these influences.

The secret is to separate the winnable battles from the unwinnable ones, and to understand that unwinnable battles are not failures, they’re just a part of life. I have to weigh each battle in my head too. How important are juice, video games and Barbies? To me, they were huge priorities, but now that I’ve lost those battles I know that I have to limit her juice, video games and teach her to accept her body despite those influences. And I’ve got to accept that I will, most definitely, continue to feel the agony of defeat.

What Matters Most

I recently learned a lot about what matters most to me. It should not have surprised me the way it did. Last week my family went on a cruise. We sailed from Galveston, Texas, to a few ports in the Caribbean. We had fun but we could have enjoyed ourselves more. We like to meet people on cruises, so we always tell the dining room staff that we like to share tables. They note our request, and usually they seat us with one or two couples and we make friends during dinner.

This time we made our request to share, but no one took us up on our offer. We spent every night by ourselves. I don’t know why. People may have balked at sitting with a three-year-old and an infant. Usually, though, the wannabe grandparents love sitting with the kids, so I doubt the kids were the problem. There were also many families with small children aboard who should have jumped at the chance to meet us. We all know how much parents need grownup conversation. So we sat, night after night, at big tables, looking like the uncool kids in the school cafeteria.

I work at home, so I love to see people. I was so bored with our family I would have given anything to meet someone, but as the week went on, I wasn’t so sure. The day we stopped in Jamaica, my husband,Matt, overheard some people talking on their balcony. They talked about the “N-word” natives on the island, and even tossed in a few “Sand N-word” epithets as well.

Growing up in the South, Matt encountered a lot of bigotry, and he chalked up the ignorant statements to the demographics of the vessel. We did sail from Texas, and we saw a lot of string ties and cowboy hats on the boat. In addition to the Texans, we saw people from Oklahoma and Arkansas. I know that not all Texans, and even not all Deep Southerners, are racist, but something about this trip attracted the bigots.

We couldn’t figure out why people who didn’t like black people would cruise to Jamaica in the first place. There’s ignorance and there’s stupidity and that’s just stupidity. We didn’t hear them, but I’m sure the same people complained about the Mexicans in Mexico just as loudly. The more we learned about the people on board, the less we wanted to know them. And now that the trip is over, we’re glad we don’t have to deal with them anymore, bless their little racist hearts.

A few weeks ago, Matt looked at a transfer to North Carolina. Although we’d be closer to our people on the East Coast, I had mixed feelings. I love our house in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is a beautiful and safe place to raise children. We’ve just begun to discover all that Seattle has to offer. But, although the natives are nice, if you try to get to know them, they’re so guarded you’d think they’d were in Witness Protection.

I thought about the idea of North Carolina a lot. We have close friends there, and Matt’s family is a three-hour drive from there. Visiting my family would still require a flight, though. But it was tempting. So I slept on it. When I awoke, my decision was crystal clear. The house, the lack of crime, the experiences all meant nothing if we didn’t like the people. I told Matt I’d leave these closed-off freaks in a heartbeat.

I have made friends in Seattle, but the few that are natives don’t subscribe to the typical “Seattle Ice” attitude. I have found that the ones who aren’t guarded are few and far between. It’s not just my experience, every transplant will tell you the same thing. Seattleites are colloquially called “The nicest people you’ll never get to know.”

On the East Coast, especially in New York, where I’m from, we knew where people stood within five minutes of meeting them. We knew if they liked or disliked us and we let them know the same, and even if we weren’t a match, we appreciated knowing right away.

When I realized that people were what mattered most to us, everything fell into place. Circumstances willing, I think our next move will be back East, close to my family. I want our children to grow up with my best friend and their new grandmother in their lives, and I want them to see Matt’s mom more often. I hate the cold, the memories that haunt me and the cost of living in New York, but being near the people who matter most is what’s most important, and thanks to a job opportunity and some Southern bigots, I’ve figured it out.

Prologue: Another Mother

Robert flipped over a bucket of sand as he dropped the bomb. “You had another mother,” he said. We were four years old.

I patted the top of his castle. “Yeah, my GRAND-mother!” I laughed.

“Nooo,” he said, green eyes grave.

I didn’t know what Robert meant. I tossed the idea around as I dug a moat. When his mother called him, I went inside and asked my parents. We sat around the table and my mother said, “Yes, Honey, Robert is right. We adopted you.” They told me the story. My “Other Mother” was 17 when she had me, and because she was so young, couldn’t care for me, so she gave me up and my parents had hand-picked me. “We wanted a girl, and you were Greek, too, so you were perfect for us.”

I had another mother. I wondered what she looked like, where she was, if she cared about me. As I grew, I developed a picture of this swarthy teenaged girl in the hospital, her face sweaty and strained, pushing. “It’s a girl!” the doctor said.

“Ok, take it away,” she waved her hand.

Although my parents strove to convince me that they wanted me, I never grew out of feeling abandoned. My mom’s idea of affection was a dry peck on the cheek or a split-second hug. I can count the number of times my father’s met my gaze on one hand. We never said “I love you.” The closest my parents got to that was, “We love you, but…” when I was in trouble.

Growing up, I would cry in the dark, sending thoughts out to my “Other Mother.” Why did you have to give me up? You were young but didn’t you love me? You can still come and get me. I’ll be good. I’ll help you. We can do it together. Please come!

The woman who bore me became my own Greek myth. I never thought I’d see another face like mine, or unlock that door. That piece of me – Who am I? Where did I come from? – left a huge hole in my life. I thought if my “Other Mother” only knew what my life was like, she’d come get me. I used to imagine that she was famous – Jaclyn Smith from “Charlie’s Angels.”

Since I played Dorothy in our first-grade production of “The Wiz”, I wanted to be “A famous woman.” My parents talked about famous people all the time. I thought if I could be famous, people would listen to me.

First I wanted to be an actress. When I was nine, I wrote to ABC-TV in New York, asking them to put me on a show. They sent a very nice form letter explaining that production companies, not networks, sought actors, and that I should contact some of those. I bugged my mother to take me to auditions, but she said that she didn’t want to be a stage mother. I acted in school productions but nothing came of it.

When we stopped doing plays in school, I started writing them so that I could act. I showed the plays to my parents. My mom would get excited and share the plays with relatives. My dad would say, “Very nice, very nice.” But they read every word. When I tried to tell them something out loud, my father would interrupt. My mother would appear to listen, then reach over, maybe brush my bangs, and say, “You need a haircut.” But they focused their full attention on my written words, so I kept writing.

“Maybe you’ll be a famous author,” my mom would say. And way in the back of my head, I thought that if I became an actress or an author, my “real” mother would see me, say, “That’s her!” and find me. She and I would live happily ever after.

As I grew, my dreams became more realistic. Thanks to my high school English teacher’s dire warnings against studying English, I abandoned the idea and the practice of writing by the time I went to college. My experiences shaped me, and I revived the writing dream at 25, but I never abandoned the hope of learning my personal prologue.

Four months ago, my husband handed me an envelope from the adoption agency that placed me with my parents. It had been 10 years since I’d tried to search for my birth parents. At the time, I’d put my name on the New York State Adoption Registry, and they said if there was a match, they’d let me know. I didn’t get a match but they did send me a document that offered some details about my birth parents. I accepted it as a sparse but sufficient story of my life.

And now somebody was looking for me. I read the letter Saturday, and spent two days wondering who it was, hoping it wasn’t a scam, and if not, that my long-lost blood relative didn’t want a kidney. I called the agency and they said that

my birth mother wanted to make contact. Jackpot! My birth mother. My mythological heroine. Did I want to meet her? the social worker asked. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about this all my life.” They would send a form for me to sign and then they would exchange our information.

I signed and notarized the consent form the same Friday I got it. It takes four business days for mail to get from Seattle to New York. I waited. I thought maybe my birth mother had balked. The following Thursday, I called the agency. I couldn’t wait any longer. Expecting to hear they were still waiting, my head felt numb as I hung up, looking at the name, address, phone and email I’d written on the back of an expense report. How did I want to make initial contact? they’d asked. Email was safest. If Brad Paisley is cooler online, I’m cooler in writing. This way I could think about what to say beforehand, instead of breaking into tears with a stranger on the phone.

I crafted a detailed email. Seeing my screen through the blur of tears, I told her all the things I’d want to know if I’d never met my daughter. Rose’s laugh is my favorite sound in the world. I told her that I laugh long and loud, no matter where I am. I told her my first word was “kiri” – candle in Greek, when I was a year old. I told her I got straight A’s in school and made the gifted program, then got ejected for writing a trashy teen soap opera. I told her I that I’d married the

love of my life and had a two-year-old daughter and a son on the way. And I told her that though I was happy now, growing up was fairly tragic. I told her not to feel bad, because I’d finally triumphed over the obstacles I’d encountered.

The next morning, I booted up and she’d already emailed me. She said she’d never stopped thinking about me, not for a day. She said she was so grateful for the gift of contact. She said she always loved me. I cried. I could not have hoped for a better introduction.

I sent her the email, and directed her to my blog as a convenient window into my life, past and present. I’d written about some pretty serious issues in it – sexual abuse, emotional abuse, my crazy family. I told her to focus on the positive, that triumph was my life’s theme.

During our first phone call, she said that she was nervous, but conversation flowed. She was just as emotionally honest as I was, and we talked and laughed. We had no awkward moments. She told me that she and my birth father had been high school sweethearts and planned to marry. When she got pregnant, her parents sequestered her in Queens, and then sent her to a home for unwed mothers uptown. They were Greek. He was Cuban and therefore unacceptable. She wanted to keep me but knew she couldn’t care for me. Her adopted best friend lived a charmed life, so she thought her baby would have the same great experience. She loved me since she’d carried me and she gave me up but never gave up thinking about me. All those nights I wondered if she was out there, did she think of me? She did. And if she’d only known, she would have come.

Since the first phone call, we’ve talked every few days. She says all the mom things I’ve always longed to hear. She’s proud of me. She loves me. She can’t wait to meet her grandchildren. My mother died last October after suffering 13 years of Alzheimer’s disease. I never thought I’d get a second chance at having a mother. But I did. And I’ve given her a second chance at being my mom.

The Taming of the Blame

“Let’s go, into the car! Now! You don’t want to miss circle time, do you? Come ON!”

At preschool: “Circle time is already starting. If you had put on your shoes and gotten in the car when I told you to, we wouldn’t be so late!”

How many times have I said this? How many times have I unnecessarily blamed my daughter for making us late, or making me trip over a toy or tromping over my garden? How many times have I criminalized typical toddler behavior?

The other day, when I stubbed my toe on the book I’d left on the floor, and I immediately tried to find a way to blame my husband, I realized I’m addicted to blame. Whenever something bad happens to me, finding fault is my first impulse. And then I fire off the blame, wherever I think it lies. Sometimes it’s legitimate. Living in a house with a man and two kids, I’m bound to stub my toe on a step stool or trip over a laundry basket fairly often, and I can’t control that. But I can control my response.

What good does it do to yell at a toddler for leaving the stool in my path yesterday? She’s too young to learn to correct past behavior. At her age, the behavior and consequence must be immediate. Is it worth it to instigate a fight with my husband because I tripped over his laundry? I’m sure he’s tripped over mine many a time.

So what good comes from blaming? It makes me feel better. For a moment – that moment when toe hits stool or knee hits hamper – I’m mad and railing against it gives me some relief. I still feel the pain but I try to dissipate the anger.

I think all blame is an attempt to relieve anger, or disappointment, or guilt. At least all the blame I dole out to my family serves that purpose. But it’s not healthy. I know it isn’t because, as an only child, I shouldered the blame for everything. My dad left the top off the cake stand – my mom blamed me. My mom dawdled getting out of the house and I’d stay with her – I got blamed. As the universal scapegoat, I developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility and enough shame to give me a permanent view of my shoes. It’s wasn’t just me, I have learned. All only children carry that weight. To add to it, for years my mom would tell me how she blamed herself for my 84-year-old grandmother’s death. “I should never have put her in that hospital!” she’d say through the flow of tears. I was 19 when Yaya died but I was still under my parents’ influence at the time. Accepting all blame came so easily it seemed like a normal part of life.

Knowing that, I realize that I am yoking my child with the same burdens I held. So it has to stop, or slow down, or something. There’s nothing wrong with teaching her to take her to take responsibility for her actions. That’s constructive and healthy. But taking away her scissors because she cut up my dress is different than making her feel responsible for dawdling every time we’re late. Toddlers are natural dawdlers. I am the adult and I need to find a way to be on time.

So I recently changed our morning routine. Getting Rose out of the house for school used to be a nightmare. I’d give us 10 minutes to get out of the house, and the whole process consisted of me yelling at her for that 10 minutes. Hoping to save time on the way out the door, I used to put Rose’s socks and shoes on her an hour before we left. She would inevitably remove those shoes and socks by go time and I’d get all mad and demand that she keep them on. It never worked.

Reminding myself that I am the adult and it’s up to me to captain our egress, I added another 10 minutes to get out the door. It worked. It’s still frustrating to urge the kids out of the house, but now that we’re not rushing, I’ve stopped scolding. And just recently, I decided that we would let go of the dream that she’d keep her footwear on. Now we adorn our shoes and socks at the door, just before we leave. And it works. It really does work. I still catch myself shaming her when we’re late, but it’s a lot less frequent and I’m a lot more aware. I also found out that circle time is at the end of the school day, not the beginning. No wonder she was always so baffled when I said she’d miss it.

Now when I shame her, I immediately shame myself. It doesn’t sound healthy, but feeling shame over doing something truly wrong is good for me. I don’t want to feel that way so I watch my behavior the next time. I think soon I’ll be able to get us out the door without any regrets.

Blaming my husband is another matter. He does know better but I realize that I don’t cut him any slack. When I stub my toe on the gym bag he left in the hallway I still get mad, and it’s not easy to forgive him. But it’s usually not long until I trip over my own laundry basket and want to blame him that I realize I try to blame him for everything. If I could leave my basket in my own path then it’s unreasonable to expect him to monitor our course through the bedroom every time he puts something down. I impose higher standards on him than I do on myself. The least I can do for the guy is hold us to the same measuring stick. This one’s a little harder, but I ‘m working on it. To do so, I have to remember that neither of us is perfect; and I have to ask myself, will it matter in two minutes when the pain subsides?

Blame comes down to pain. When I think of the long-term effects, I realize blame causes more pain than it relieves. It destroys trust and can ruin relationships. Hell, it’s even started wars. So why would I voluntarily inflict pain on the people I love? I can get over my anger faster than they can get over my words, so I have to remember to tame the blame.

Dad’s Third Day: Avionics and Teabonics

On Sunday, Matt and I had a Parrot Head Club meeting down by the airport. My dad wasn’t due to fly out until 9 p.m., but we decided to stay in the south end, close to the airport, all day. In the morning, while we were waiting for Matt to get ready, we were talking about my garden and somehow the subject of the First Lady came up.

“Mrs. Obama’s got her nose in everything. In other words, she’s trying to say ‘Take the junk food out of the schools.’ She’s trying to take it out of everything. She’s trying to say that planting a garden and eating it is good. But she’s not planting it. Someone else is planting it. She’s not in office. She shouldn’t have anything to do with that stuff,” Dad ranted.

“Well, didn’t Barbara Bush do stuff? Didn’t Laura Bush do stuff?” I said.

“Yeah, they did, but not like this,” he said

“So what’s bad about having a garden? “ I asked.

“Nothing. I don’t think there’s anything bad about it.”

“So you agree with Mrs. Obama?”

“About that I do,” he said.

“So she wants kids to eat healthy. What’s wrong with that?” I baited.

“I believe in eating healthy. I just don’t take it too far. I don’t eat salt because I don’t like salt. Sooner or later, you say you don’t like these things and you don’t eat them,” he said.

“So you agree with her about that too,” I said.

His pitch increased, “She’s just into everything and she shouldn’t be in everything. She wasn’t elected to office, he was.”

I really wanted to say, “You don’t want him to be into everything either,” but I refrained. In hindsight, I regret my restraint. Another missed opportunity.

On the way down to the meeting, I rode in the back of the minivan, with the kids in between, leaving Dad and Matt up front by themselves.

“So where are we going?” my dad asked Matt.

“We have a club business meeting,” he said

“Is Jimmy going to come to this meeting?” my dad asked. We’ve told him about the club many times. It’s a social club, and we do charity work. There are hundreds of clubs all over the world, and though Jimmy Buffett’s the inspiration for the clubs, he has virtually nothing to do with them.

“No, it’s just a business meeting,” Matt said.

“Does he come to any of your meetings?” my dad asked.

“No. Sometimes he shows up at the convention in Key West, but that’s it,” Matt said.

“Then how does he keep track of what you’re doing?”

“He doesn’t.”

We had lunch at the restaurant during the meeting, and my dad picked up the check. He left a three-dollar tip on a $45 check (and two hours’ worth of service). Matt noticed the tip but we had no cash. He asked the waiter if we could ring up a tip on the card. Nope. Embarrassed, we apologized profusely.

After the meeting, we headed to the Museum of Flight near Boeing Field, between Seattle and the airport. They had a Concorde and an Air Force One there and we got to walk through them – very cool. All day I felt run-down. I was popping cough drops and blowing my nose. We got to the museum just before nap time, so Rose was in her pre-tantrum windup, but she was tired enough to stay strapped in the stroller. After three hours, I left the guys to feed Christian. It was the first time I got to sit down since we’d arrived. My dad wanted to see everything.

After the museum, we considered places to eat. As usual, Matt started to drive before we knew where we were going so we wound up meandering through South Seattle, ending up at the Pyramid Ale House, across from the baseball stadium. They have the best mac and cheese in the world, but we’d been eating leftover mac and cheese all week so it didn’t appeal to us. Still without sleep, Rose couldn’t sit still, so she ran around the table and tumbled on the floor. At least she didn’t scream. Matt and I got a beer sampler to cope. My dad had about a pound of meatloaf, with potatoes and vegetables. We thought for sure we’d be taking that tasty morsel home, but he hunched over it and bulldozed it into his mouth, cleaning his plate before we could salt our food.

After dinner we headed for the airport. I was exhausted, as was Rose, and we couldn’t wait to go home. We dropped my dad off, he gave me a cursory hug, and he took his handheld suitcase and satchel and headed into the airport. Heading home, Matt discussed their conversation on the way in that morning and I wished I’d had more golden nuggets from him. I guess now I’ll just have to bait him whenever I can and take notes when he calls.

Dad’s visit taught me that he and I don’t have to fight all the time. If I don’t take the bait and let him spew his dadisms, I get fun fodder for my book and I stress less. It’s only when I’m emotionally invested that we start arguing. I never realized it but I have control over our interactions. From now on I’ll try to appreciate my dad for the character he is and enjoy the humor in the crazy things he says.