This Afternoon, We Let Go This Gorgeous, Naughty Beast.

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He was true to his breed and protective but aloof. He kept his nose three inches from my business from the start—my companion through many iterations of me: newlywed, grad student, new mother, expat, soccer mom, and beyond. His loyalty lay with us and maybe one or two others. If he didn’t exactly steal your heart, he probably stole something off your plate. He liked dairy, dirty diapers, and—well, all garbage actually. He recycled horse poop: eat, excrete, eat, etcetera. He swallowed corncobs, peach pits, and a whole avocado from the kitchen counter. He wolfed down a double loaf of my mom’s banana bread (and she doesn’t even like baking anymore). He licked our newborns’ earwax and the extra milk from their cheeks. He stole 5,437 soft pretzels from the hands of Bavarian babies before the Germans finally kicked us out.

He stymied veterinarians the world over with his random, often self-inflicted, and always complex ailments. He ate a plastic milk bottle and chased it down with 3 pounds of wild grass, which had to be surgically removed and promptly thrown out so he wouldn’t eat it again. He contracted a bacterial infection that made every inch of his fur feel like bubble wrap to the touch. He was incontinent from the age of 18 months old: I did more weekly laundry for him than I did for our three kids combined. He got tetanus (dogs don’t, really). He impaled himself on a fallen log and then finished a five-mile run with a six-inch hole in his chest. He was attacked by a cat, lost on a trail run, locked in a boathouse, and rescued from drowning in the middle of a choppy lake. He once ransacked a hotel room. He boarded more international flights than most people do in a lifetime.

Also, he liked beer gardens and basking in the sun.

He protected us from dangers known and imagined. He swamped a kayak while trying to save me from a sea monster in Lake Winnipesaukee. He pinned a stonemason against our house. He tore the shirt off a DHL guy. He took off after a balloon deliveryman on our daughter’s fourth birthday. He was maced by the mailman. Just once, I bailed him out of dog jail.

Despite all this, he somehow outlived every single one of his puppyhood friends.

When we brought him home 13 years ago (almost to the day), I sobbed, feeling the heft of responsibility. I’d have wept even more had I known what mischief was afoot, and what great big love I would someday have to let go. Over the last few months, even though he couldn’t hear me, I’ve told him over and over again—you will always be my favorite—and hand over my heart, it’s the truth.

Tenzin, you big old boof, we loved you like crazy.

A Case for Hands-off Parenting, and Play

 

It is early one weekday morning and I am catching up on emails. I hear some kind of unrest percolating in the living room, some sibling kerfluffle that often comprises our family palette. My daughter stomps by my desk, snorting and mad. She cranks down the tie on her bathrobe and pumps her fists, shaking them at her younger brother, who stands giggling in the hallway.

“You know what?” she shouts at him, “I’m taking you off the timeline of major events in my life. Because you are minor!”

My son’s laughter shifts into a cackle, a verbal defense. He tweedles off down the hall, giving himself time and space to work out what his sister has said.

I laugh. Perhaps I’m supposed to stop this talk, to tell her to be nice. But my daughter has found her voice, and it’s bold, funny, and smart. Her brother took a piece of her Lego set, and she is angry.

Lego play seeds the stalk of my children’s imaginary life, which means it ends up influencing a large part of their actual lives. My children take new Lego sets and follow the building instructions, helping each other when one mind sees what another does not. The instruction booklets are then either lost or thrown out. Before long, the sets begin to break down: someone trips and falls, integral piece in hand, a jet booster or an axle, which falls to the ground, flies left, and lodges itself inside, say, the kitchen heating vent.

For years, I tried to reduce the ambient chaos in my house by figuring out where each wayward piece was supposed to go. My anxiety level would surge—any return to the picture-perfect original set seemed hopeless—until finally, exasperated, I started putting all the pieces together in one place. From there, I discovered, the building possibilities were infinite.

As parents, how much do we actually need to swoop in and tidy up, shape behavior, bring everything back to a perfect center? A lot of the time, I’ve learned, we don’t.

Each week, from a hodgepodge of Lego bits, my children set up new scenes, the intricacies to which only they are privy. My daughter dresses a table, filling dishes with treasured pirate gems, petit radishes, and a milk jug, her imagination splashed on the living room carpet like a page from a beloved children’s story.

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This type of play is like meditation, and my kids are well practiced. Their scenes are impermanent by nature, like a Tibetan sand mandala designed over many hours and then dismantled unceremoniously by a sibling who covets, or the dog who tramples through unaware, or me, whose hands sweep everything into a storage basket at once, reducing it to litter.

Most of the learning my children do outside our house is active and engaged—in school, at sports practice, during music lessons. At home, my kids learn passively through play, where it’s safe and inherently messy. They can check out of life, into their imaginations, and back again, often grasping important emotional skills in the process. They absorb more when this happens organically, without my intervention.

My children will realize suddenly, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that they still haven’t eaten lunch. After school on weekdays, they find that I have moved their play sets, interrupting their mental flow to make room for dinner on the kitchen table. They have to stop playing to practice piano and get their homework done. They share, pooling favorite pieces to create combined sets. They learn, therefore, how to be angry and disappointed, to forgive and surrender, to take care of themselves in small ways.

They also unearth little joys, like when one of them discovered she could make a swaddled Lego baby by simply attaching a yellow head to a tiny building column. Instead of freaking out about those tiny, errant pieces everywhere, I am actually tickled when my three-year old son lays out baby Jedi, baby Spiderman, and a baby ninja girl side by side on the corner of my desk.

“Look, Mama! They’re sleeping!”

Indeed, they are.

Some parents I know keep Lego pieces organized, colors and sizes separated in a special container made just for that purpose, getting everything back on point at the end of each day. Others still are excellent at consistently engaging with their kids in the moment, teaching them how to harness or express anger and other emotions that bubble up and over during playtime. Me? I don’t always have the time, energy, or patience for that. What’s more is that when I bring my own psyche into the mix, I can be more disruptive than helpful. As long as everyone is being respectful (or nearly so) in both the imaginary realm and the one we share together, we’re all better off when I just let the pieces roll.

Struggling, for the Win

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“I feel awful!” my nine-year old daughter wailed, throwing herself on the kitchen floor like a dishrag.

“Please don’t make me go to school!”

Her ailments grew more elaborate each morning that week.

“I’m like a woodland spring in a drought!”

“I’m a fairy stuck in a flower that won’t bloom!”

Then, I found a notice from her teacher floating on the kitchen table among the crumpled backpack trash that appears at the end of each school day.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh. That,” she scowled, her arms crossed as if she had just closed for business, but I knew that we finally had a start.

In fourth grade, for the first time, the Student Council representative from each class is chosen by popular vote rather than at random. Candidates are required to write and deliver a speech to their class. My daughter was terrified. She had been debating running for class representative for days, her anxiety bubbling over right before school when she knew she would be faced with her murmuring peers: Who is running? Who will you vote for?

I wanted to encourage her to run, but we’d been here before. She wants to be the best soccer player on the team, but she hides in her closet with a book when it’s time to go to practice. It’s the same with piano and dance. She’s not certain that she will accomplish what her creative mind sets forth when she first fantasizes some level of achievement, so she ends up assuming the worst: that her fantastic fears of failure will come true instead.

One small part of me wanted to take the notice about the class election and bury it in the recycling bin along with all the shiny holiday catalogs and their promises of joy and splendor. But when my daughter brought it up again the next day, I knew we were already halfway around the track. I had to help her quiet her anxiety, temper her fears, and live through her own process. Rather than spit, moan, and make faces at the difficulty ahead like she was doing, I needed an actual strategy. But how do you encourage a child who isn’t certain that she has what it takes to fulfill her goals?

“What if I don’t win?” she wondered aloud, “what if I come in dead last?”

That’s when I nabbed an idea from some random quote in my Facebook feed.

“Well,” I began, “you might not win—that’s true. But you definitely won’t win if you don’t try.”

Turns out, it was just the thing. She grew quiet, chewing on her lip.

That evening, we made a list of her leadership qualities and I let her type them out in sentences on my computer. Seeing the very best of herself on display gave her confidence to add her own flair.

“I’m creative and good with colors!” she wrote.

Then, I listened to her read her speech aloud in what we call her quiet voice. I want to call it her nothing voice, but I don’t say that, because it is something. It’s the voice she uses to get a running start. I have to let her talk to me in that voice even if it makes me feel uncomfortable—it’s the voice in which she appears small, anxious, and unsure. If not at home with me, then where else does she get to use it?

It was raining on the day the speeches were to be given, so I drove my kids to school. As I dropped them off, I turned to my daughter. I told her that she is the bravest girl I know, and that I really love that about her. She had tucked her speech into her backpack that morning, and I trusted that she’d know which voice to use when she read it aloud.

The next day, the election winner would be announced at school after lunch. I took my dog for a morning walk in the woods where my daughter’s class happened to be on a field trip. I walked along the trail for a few minutes before seeing some of her classmates.

“Hello Mrs. Shanley!” They called to me. “What’s your dogs name again?” someone asked.

Children seem so cheerful most of the time.

I stood surrounded by her classmates when my daughter ran up and wrapped her arms around me. She kissed me before leaning over to nuzzle the dog. I realized then that one of her strengths, the kind that’s both hard to put on paper and to say out loud, is this: she can stop and feel the weight of every emotion, yet still move through her day with a full, clear heart.

As I walked out of the woods, I saw her teacher, who caught my eye and waved me over.

“I have to tell you…she was elected,” she said quietly, smiling. My eyes welled up and I reached for her arm.

After school that day, I met my daughter outside on the steps.

“Congratulations!” I said. I wanted to ask her how she’d found out—was she excited? Surprised? But the relief on her face told me all I needed to know.

“Thanks,” she said happily.

We didn’t tease out her emotions or inspect them as we do so often together when something is not right; the process was over, the outcome joyful. I hugged her, I held her for a moment, and I told her I was proud of her. Then we piled into the car with her little brothers, the dog, and a pile of overdue library books, and went out for ice cream.

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On the Eve of My Sister’s Wedding

181753_1720023092919_1213413_nYou’ll hear a lot about my sister this summer; after all, for several weeks, we’re living together with our children, embracing the village life temporarily. (To read the rest of the series, written for Washington Post’s On Parenting this summer, see The Village Life, Part IVillage Life, Part II: Specializing by MomentVillage Life, Part III: Sending My Daughter to Camp, and Packing Up the Village, Saying Goodbye)

Here’s a little more history to the story of us as mothers:
When Sisters Become Mothers

Finally, below is what I read to her (and a barn full of people she loves) on the eve of her wedding, nearly five years ago.
(Photo Credit: Our lovely cousin Sara McPherson)

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I’m not sure I ever really figured out how to be a good older sister. I think I always assumed that Joanna needed me for something, though I couldn’t possibly have articulated what that was. “Joanna and me” was something of an experiment; my own private after-school special that I made up while posturing in front of my bedroom mirror, making up songs for imaginary Suave shampoo commercials, in which Joanna was the back-up singer, or whatever supporting role I happened to assign to her. She was happy to roll along with me—I don’t think she pouted, sulked, or slammed a door with real meaning in her life. My parents will tell you that Joanna and I complimented each other in that way.

She doesn’t know this, but up until a few years ago (maybe a few days—I’ll never tell) I really and truly thought Joanna was mine. I mean this in the same way that my nose is mine, my arm is mine, and my Joanna was mine. I talked to my friends about how beautiful she was—even with her headgear on—how smart she was, how talented. She was like my beloved pet. I think I hoped that if she really was mine, she would somehow make me shine a little brighter. Some of you know exactly what I mean. She was more organized, more gentle, more forgiving, more willing to try new things than I was, and she was mine.

In the role that I thought she played, and we all know she plays them well, she witnessed some of my most tortuous moments. After those moments were over, even when she was only 9 years old, she always managed to provide some sort of adult-like perspective that of course I hadn’t thought of myself. Most importantly, she always loved me anyway. She was steady and strong. You couldn’t shake her. It was so annoying. It was also the best.

We choose people whom we admire as our friends. We choose people who remind us of the very things we want to love in ourselves, the things we aspire to be. We rarely get to say that if we could have done so, we would have chosen our families, and yet I get to say that. I would have chosen my sister.

And, for the record, I chose her husband (I’ll call him Matt here).

For the past five years, every time I’ve seen them together I’ve wanted so much to say “I told you so,” if only because in those words I could contain my excitement, conceal my joy—I won’t say relief— and make light of the fact that to me, in life, it was real love that trumped all other semi-important matters.

I engineered this pair when I was pregnant with my first baby. I was brilliantly happy with my own situation and wanted more than anything to rearrange the universe so that my dear sister would some day know exactly how I felt then. I did my best, but Matt got the hint and took over faster than I could say “Soccer Mom!”

Matt was funny, he was quirky, he was attentive, he was interested in everything, and he was real. He was perfect, a bit like my own brilliant little sister star, though I think he’d agree that nothing really compares. It was no matter to Matt that shortly after they met, Joanna took off for Kentucky, or Mexico, or Chile, Argentina, or wherever. He was sold.

Apropos of nothing, he also liked to eat. Ice cream, peanut butter, chocolate chip scones. We once had a cookie war: I baked him a dozen or so of my best efforts and asked him to take them to work the next day, knowing they’d be gone before he’d finished the five-minute drive home. This was my form of torture. He countered the attack by dropping at my back door his latest shipment of baked goodies from Kansas, still in the cardboard box. I ate all of them. I’ll remind you that I was pregnant; Matt didn’t have any excuse for the insatiable hunger that apparently drove him to consume three gallons of frozen cookies and cream while he was dog sitting for a day and a half. I realize that Matt has gone on to compete in triathlons, while I continue to compete with my dog for who can eat the most off the countertop at once, but still, if you give a Matt a cookie, chances are he’ll ask for more.

I sometimes imagine that if I could check Matt’s Google cache, or browsing history, I could discover all the particular, peculiar things he’s been interested in. Things, I imagine, like the underside of tree lichen, the composition of bear scat, the exact muscular fibrocity or fibrociousness of bat testicles. That he’s had his arm all the way up a cow’s insides is part of what makes this man so awesome, so genuine, so willing to engage in life, so good.

I am not saying that I myself fell in love with Matt, but I knew that I had found, for the first time in my life, someone who I thought was worthy, and very much so, of my sister. If I am the only one who thinks my own opinion on this matter is important, I’m okay with that.

It wasn’t until later, when we’d grown at least halfway into the women we are today, that I really understood, in the same way you allow yourself to accept a certain sweet loss, that Joanna didn’t need me as much as I thought or hoped she did, and that she would find her own way, in her own time, with her own heart. That she would find this way with tremendous compassion and grace is no surprise, but stunning nonetheless. I love every piece of you. Congratulations.

My Daughter Takes the Lead, Again

FullSizeRender (8)“Mom, do you like my recital costume?” my daughter asked, offering a wadded-up ball of tulle for me to admire.

We both held our breath hopefully.

I unraveled the ensemble from my daughter’s arms and found a neon green leotard attached to a flouncy zebra-print mini skirt. A matching backless halter vest, belted with a silver buckle the size of a smart phone, tumbled to the kitchen floor.

Each year around this time, my daughter’s beloved hip-hop class goes bonkers over their recital costume. This is part of dance class culture: I’m pretty sure a group of girls would fawn over a baggy Ronald McDonald suit if it were made from shiny polyester and came with floppy red shoes. But the girls’ costumes aren’t just fun and flouncy anymore—they’re actually sexy. My husband maintains that last year’s getup, a mini-skirted schoolgirl uniform, had been pilfered from the set of a 1990s Aerosmith video.

If my Facebook news feed is to be trusted, I know that our school’s costume selections are not that unusual in the world of dance recitals. Still, I want to be able to watch my daughter dance without feeling like I’m tossing her into a public ring and celebrating her budding sexuality: dance recitals are not country fairs, and my daughter is not a ripening goat.

With my daughter anxiously awaiting my verdict, I waffled. Rather than feigning approval over yet another pile of saucy dance garb, it seemed more important to tell my daughter how awful it was that she was encouraged to doll up for an evening as some hyper-sexualized version of herself.

“Honestly?” I replied, thinking we could start a discussion right then and there about what the word “sexy” means and why it has no place in her life, yet.

When she looked at me, crestfallen, I backed down. Above all else, subjecting my daughter to further disempowerment would be ridiculous.

“I want to know what you think,” I asked instead.

She shrugged, still unsure.

What neither of us had realized was that this year, halfway between my daughter’s ninth and tenth birthdays, things had changed for her. The costumes she once categorically loved for their end-of-year flair now made her feel uncomfortable.

On the day of her dress rehearsal, I helped her get ready.

“I hate tights! They show everyone my butt. They’re itchy.”

She stretched the leotard up around her torso.

“Did I take home someone else’s costume by mistake? This feels too small!” She tugged on the straps, snapped them back onto her shoulders disdainfully, and then yelped in pain.

I read off the list of make-up requirements: blush, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. I know—these things make faces stand out on a stage. But with my two younger children in tow, we never arrive at the performance in time to sit close enough to the stage to see my daughter’s face anyway. Also, she’s nine.

“Do you want any of that stuff?” I asked her.

“Can we just do a light blush application? This is ridiculous!” she moaned as I brushed her cheeks from a small tin.

“Argh. Mom, it’s getting in my mouth. So is my hair. Do you have any hairspray?” she asked.

I pulled her hair into a ponytail with my fingers and grabbed a travel-size can of hairspray. I sprayed it awkwardly around the perimeter of her face, as if fending off a swarm of mosquitos. She stood with her eyes shut, and imagined the following scenario out loud:

“If a big man squeezed into my costume, it would take a thousand people just to button it up.”

Then she held up a six-inch zebra-print bow and squeezed her cheeks into a smile. “Look at this fancy bow I have to wear!” she cooed sarcastically. We both giggled.

“It says you’re supposed to have a ponytail with curls,” I explained.

The last time I borrowed a curling iron for a recital, I scorched my daughter’s hand and sent a friend running out at intermission to buy a bag of frozen peas to cool the burn.

“No curls,” my daughter said sternly, pulling on a pair of black fishnet gloves that extended up to her elbows. “These gloves are the best part of the costume,” she decided.

When she was ready, she looked at herself in the mirror, one hand on her square hip, and stuck out her tongue.

I thought back to the day one week earlier when I’d been catching up with a friend whose daughter is in the same dance class.

“What am I going to do?” I asked my friend, bemoaning our yearly costume dilemma.

“You’re going to put her in that hideous thing and get her to the stage on time,” she said.

Of course, my friend was right. But next year, if my daughter would rather not go through it again, I’ll tell her to opt out of the spring recital. Instead, we’ll clear the living room furniture and set up a stage. She can dance on the coffee table for all I care. Afterwards, we’ll have cake.