Thursday, March 30, 2006

Invention Convention

Today's challenge was unexpected, actually beginning last night with my child's tearful complaints of a toothache. I thought I was imagining that his cheek was swollen. I tried to distract him with a few rounds of Boggle Junior before putting him to bed, but he did not sleep. Each time I looked at him, his cheek looked bigger. We stayed up most of the night , trying remedy after remedy (mouthwash, salt water, ice, vitamin C, echinacia, CoQ10) to no avail.

Finally 8am arrived, when I knew I could reach our dentist ,who had filled a cavity in the child's tooth last week. By this time, said child resembled a human chipmunk with an entire winter's supply stashed in one cheek. The dentist's receptionist said to bring him in right away.

What timing! This morning was the official judging for the "Invention Convention" at the child's school. My child was one of the youngest participants and had spent a lot of time and energy on his invention, a "Pooch Perch" which enables our Chihuahua to see out of our windows.

The visit to the dentist took forever, followed by a trip to the drugstore for penicillin and Children's Motrin. When we finally arrived at school, the judging had been completed, and they had skipped my child's entry because he hadn't been there to answer questions.

I found the director of the convention, and seeing how upset my child was, she rounded up some judges and had them judge while I stood by and watched. The child responded well to all questions at first, aptly displaying his enthusiasm for his subject. After about fifteen minutes he started to fade a bit, and finally gave out when she asked if he planned to market his product. After a painful, sleepless night followed by the stress of the dentist's visit, he had reached his limit.

"Uhhh......I dunno........"

These were not the words of a budding scientist. And this particular judge happened to be the personification of the "B" word.... She regarded him sternly and repeated the query: "You DON'T KNOW if you want to market this?!" she uttered, incredulous.


We were sunk, I knew it.

A better mother than I would have jumped right in at that point, explaining the events of the past twelve hours. The problem was, I too was sleep-deprived and not mentally acute. The explanation didn't even enter my mind until I was leaving the school with tears in my eyes.

I don't know whether my child passed on to the next round or not. His fading toward the end of his interview definitely didn't help. How sad it is, I thought, that we rely to such an extent upon outside approval. This is one of the first times I've realized that I need approval not only for myself, but for my child as well. And I therefore teach him to need it.

My wish is to become so secure that I am not hurt or threatened when an insult, real or imagined, is hurled; and that other people's judgments no longer determine my worth. Then I can teach that instead.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Betty and Charlie

An unfortunate mishap occurred this morning on my way to the child's school bus stop. It's a mile from our house, therefore requiring vehicular transportation. (Back in the olden days, young Betty used to walk, not to a bus stop, but to the actual SCHOOL. Childhood obesity was, coincidentally, nearly nonexistent back then.)

The accident happened before I was even out of my garage. Although my subcompact Honda Civic is one of the tiniest cars around, I seem to have trouble maneuvering it early in the morning, especially around obstacles like garage door frames.

The side mirror on the passenger side shattered into a million pieces, along with my already minimal supply of serenity. Too stunned to react, I silently drove to the bus stop and parked what was left of my car.

"Mama......Are you. .........CRYING?"

"NO! I'm sobbing uncontrollably! Can't you SEE that?!"

It took a few minutes for me to realize that it wasn't so much the wrecking of my car and subsequent hassle and expense of dealing with it, but it was more about the jarred memory of Betty and Charlie.

Exactly three years ago I had experienced the same problem maneuvering my car out of the garage, with the same broken mirror consequence. At that particular time I was already an emotional wreck, having just been "ditched" by my weekday babysitter, left high and dry, with no notice, without childcare. The rejection by that sitter, coupled with the very tangible childcare problem dumped in my lap had been unbearable. Then, on top of all that, I had wrecked my car's side mirror in a senseless act of incompetence.

Enter Betty and Charlie. They were the grandparents of my child's preschoolmate, Anthony. I knew they were unusual- they were the oldest people, by far, to ever set foot in that preschool. I came to find out that they had adopted Anthony as part of a complex, soap-opera-like family drama. (Anthony had been born to Betty and Charlie's irresponsible alcoholic son's girlfriend.)

Instead of treating Anthony like an unwanted mistake, they sought nothing but the best for him, as demonstrated by their choice of preschool (the most highly-rated in the city). Betty and Charlie socialized with the young parents of Anthony's classmates, fitting in unbelievably.

On the day my sitter "ditched" us, I hauled my defeated self into that preschool, fighting tears, and passed out letters to each parent in my child's class, explaining my situation and begging for immediate help.

When my phone rang that evening, it was Betty and Charlie. They would take my child, covering all of my working hours, until the end of the school year. They had discussed this with the head teacher of the preschool class, who had wholeheartedly approved. My life changed dramatically with that phone call. Hopeless desperation morphed into salvation; rejection into acceptance.

During the subsequent months, Betty and Charlie took us in as family. The day after that phone call, Charlie took my child and Anthony to the butterfly exhibit at the local conservatory, just for fun, before our first scheduled babysitting, and took them to lunch. He wouldn't even let me give him money to cover the cost! It was as if my son finally had a grandparent. It symbolized our acceptance into the family.

A few weeks later, my parked car was slammed into by a van. I was lucky that it happened while Betty and Charlie were in my life. They set me up with a highly-regarded body shop, whose owner they knew, and helped me deal with the insurance hassle. They even loaned me one of their cars while mine was being fixed!

And yes, when I hit my garage door frame three years ago, Charlie went to a junkyard, found a replacement, and installed it. (The Honda repair shop would have charged $500 for its replacement!)

The only sad thing about our experience with Betty and Charlie was that they set a time limit. They gave us their all, but being mature, wise people, they knew they'd have to set a boundary. They have an extensive biological family here in town who, as you might imagine, are constantly needing Betty and Charlie's help.

But what I took away from that experience was a newfound belief in the benevolence of life. I may not be constantly surrounded by people waiting to help out, but most of the time I don't need any help. And when I truly DID need it, Betty and Charlie were there, in spades.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


The month of March stands out a bit for me. It is the month in which VS performed her most important functions: birth, marriage and death.

Not many people know anything about her story- even I don't know that much. Since it bothers me to think that any life could possibly slip by unnoticed, I feel compelled to tell what I know.

Rather than attempt to calculate the year of her birth, I will honor her lifelong dedication to its concealment. Suffice it to say that she was born in a bygone era, the only child of a fairly poor family. Her mother had immigrated from Ireland at age 19. Her father was a handsome, quiet, talented man who never did figure out how to make a living. Her Irish mother earned the family money by hoofing it to a camera factory before dawn each morning.

VS used to tell of a cabin, on a tranquil lake in upstate NY, that her father had built. He even custom-built the kitchen to accomodate his tiny Irish wife, whose factory job funded his craft. This cabin was a mecca for people wanting to escape the city, and VS spoke of her resentment of all the people taking advantage of her parents' generosity. VS felt cheated.

VS entertained herself as a child and teen by going to movies. Apparently she was quite addicted, and even desired a career in film or dancing. She must have looked the part, since she was voted "most beautiful girl" by her high school senior class.

She met her future husband, PeeWee, in marching band. Years later she confided that she should have married Dick Packer, who turned out to be not only successful, but loyal to the woman who did choose him.

VS was still a teen when she married PeeWee. He performed a brief stint in the Navy, where he narrowly escaped death when a cable on an aircraft carrier snapped. His buddies were not as fortunate, and he surely was affected by the tragedy.

Back home, the couple bought a little house from PeeWee's stepfather, and they never moved from that house. VS gave birth to a girl, then a boy a year later. VS's mother, who lived nearby, helped with the housework and children. (VS's father had left his wife to marry the woman next door.) PeeWee ended up with a decent job at IBM. Both VS and PeeWee were smart, but neither came from educated families, and college was never considered.

Twelve years later, VS suddenly became pregnant again. VS bragged that she only gained 12 pounds during that pregnancy, and people didn't even know she was pregnant. Was she unhappy about it? We'll never know.

That baby had to be incubated for a while, but did survive. VS's Irish mother took a liking to the baby and gave her her first bath. VS decided, when that child entered school, to get a job. It had been many years since she had worked outside of the home.

She landed a job in a hospital, as a ward clerk, on the 3pm to 11pm shift. The child, named Betty, was not happy about this, since it meant she'd rarely see her mother and she'd be stuck with PeeWee. Betty had discovered by listening in on a phone conversation that PeeWee was cheating on her beautiful mother. Betty kept the secret, but despised PeeWee.

VS loved working at the hospital even though, during her first few years, she had a sadistic boss. On her days off she'd indulge in her favorite delights: shopping, museum-hopping and attending NYC Ballet performances.

Long before its popularity, VS was a health food devotee. (Betty can vividly recall the foul-tasting tofu hot dogs she was forced to ingest during health food's infancy.) VS kept herself in shape with aerobics and lots of walking, and never strayed from her high school weight of 115 pounds.

Eventually, though, she had to acknowledge that her home life was in trouble due to PeeWee's extramarital activities. They separated briefly, but she did not thrive on her own. When PeeWee came running back, having realized that his girlfriend was a nutcase, VS took him in, along with his promise that he'd change his ways.

Well, you can guess the outcome. PeeWee never changed, and VS suffered greatly, torturing herself by spying on PeeWee's clandestine adventures, sometimes even confronting the "other woman".

Then one day VS was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died eleven months later, in her month of March, days before she would have had to endure another celebration of the anniversary of her marriage, and shortly before she'd have had to reluctantly add one more year to her age.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Betty knows Best

Yesterday I witnessed a scene which brought back some not-so-distant memories. The scene involved a terrified 4-year-old boy who was being forced to face a large audience. The quivering boy did everything he could to hide within the folds of his father's suit jacket.

With great interest, I watched the reaction of those around me, expecting people to shake their heads and roll their eyes at such "papa's boy" behavior. Why? Because that's the reaction I've received, ever since my child was born, every time "mama's boy" wanted to hide within my folds.

Instead, people seemed mildly amused, somewhat sympathetic, and basically non-judgmental!!!! What the.......?

So what I've read is really true! Society truly does judge mothers (especially single mothers!) much more harshly than fathers.

A vivid nightmarish memory has pestered me since yesterday's demonstration of that phenomenon. My child was 3, and being the conscientious zealot that I tend to be, I had researched all available services for single parents and found a little-known program offered by the local school district. It involved free monthly home visits from early childhood educators. I was happy for any support in my parenting that I could possibly find.

During one visit, when the educator rang my doorbell, my 3-year-old began crying for me to pick him up. (Mama's boy behavior, indeed.) I had been practicing attachment parenting, believing that its effects would serve him well throughout his life. He was accustomed to being held, and I thought nothing of his desire for me to pick him up before opening the door to let the educator in.

Well, let me tell you, this educator was HORRIFIED that I would "allow a 3-year-old to control me" in such a manner! She entered my house and raked me over the coals for the entire hour, and demanded that I call her suggested child psychologist AT ONCE!

I did, and the psychologist had already been warned about me. She insisted that I hire a sitter for my son (even though he was already with sitters while I worked fulltime) and show up by myself. I followed her orders, and arrived for my appointment filled with trepidation. She proceeded to rip me to shreds, insisting that by allowing my son to "ruin" my life, I was ruining his! She flat out demanded that I "lock (yes, lock) my child in a room by himself" whenever he asked me to pick him up! I sat there and listened, stunned, for 50 minutes, then feebly stood up, (over)paid her, and said, "Your beliefs differ vastly from mine. I won't be coming back."

For the next 6 months, every time my doorbell rang I expected Children's Services, fearing that those professional witches had found a way to "blow the whistle" on me and my twisted parenting. How could I have been so fiercely attacked by other women, mothers themselves, whom I had called upon for support?

Somehow I suffered through that very difficult period, learning to get by with no support. A flash of clarity appeared as a fleeting gift one day, when I was given the message "This, too, shall pass". I chuckled at the thought of a 16-year-old boy crying for me to pick him up when the doorbell rings!