Friday, July 29, 2016

Forgiveness


"To err is human, to forgive divine." --Alexander Pope


My dad tells me he is an evangelical preacher. He has his own congregation, mostly Filipinos, and he is now married to a woman from the Philippines. Her name is Rose. Rose is wearing a floral-print dress and has what looks like a fresh haircut. She smiles a lot and speaks in broken English.

I haven't seen my dad in a while. He lives five hours south of where I live, but that is not the only distance between us. The greater distance is an emotional one. My father began abusing drugs when I was seven, and after my parents divorced, when I was nine, I only saw him a handful of times. Sometimes--too often--he didn't show up at all when we were supposed to meet. When he wasn't homeless, he moved around a lot. One of the studio apartments of his that I spent the night in was overrun by cockroaches. I could feel their spindly legs skittering across my neck as I tried to sleep. While away at college, in my late teens and early twenties, my childhood sorrow mutated into an impervious disaffection, almost a nonchalance, that was easier for me to manage.

I was twenty-three, newly married, with my first job, and I'd agreed, after some thought, to meet him for dinner at an Applebee's. He was in town for some religious conference--I wasn't really listening. It soon became clear that he wanted to show me that he had turned his life around and that he was experiencing some modicum of success. As he spoke, though, and grinned his crooked-toothed grin, a familiar rage began to flare up. I noticed that he didn't ask me any questions about myself. I snorted, thinking, "Where did this man get the audacity to call himself a man of god? To put himself in a position of authority, of superiority? Where was his humility?" 

I remembered the time when I was fifteen that he'd called. He was still struggling with his addiction at the time. I'd wanted to test him, so I'd said, "Don't you remember when you used to put me on your shoulders and run around with me, and I'd squeal in delight, repeating 'I'm a flying monkey!'?" I was looking for an apology. I was looking for him to acknowledge how he'd failed me, but all I'd gotten back was a weak, "Yeah, I remember. What do you want me to say, Shan?" Well, I wasn't going to spell it out for him.

So now, in this Applebee's, despite myself, I couldn't resist the urge to test him again, to slip into that familiar outrage. Perhaps he really had changed. Perhaps he was ashamed that he hadn't lived up to his financial responsibility while I was growing up. Maybe he could guess at all of the things he'd missed--the Sun-In and perm and mixed tapes and prank phone calls and raft wars and too-short skirts and school dances and sunburns and volleyball tournaments and self-destruction. I missed out on fatherly remonstrations. I was denied a mentor.

"So now that you're all, like, religious, do you think I am going to hell when I die because I don't believe in god?"

His smile grew stiff, manic. "Yes. That's right."

"So to be clear, I am going to hell and you're not? Despite..." and here I swept my hand over the table as if all of my little hurts and disappointments lay among the napkins and dirty plates "...everything?"

He nodded, looking as though he were unsure where this was going or how long it would last, hoping with every fiber of his being that it would end soon. 

He had failed my test.

Over the next several years, I didn't see him often. I only visited occasionally when I traveled south to visit my mom, and even then, the visits, for me, were just obligatory 10-minute pit stops.

I got a call one night when I was twenty-eight. Rose was on the line, and she was asking me to please drive down to see my father. He was in the hospital, having a triple bypass, and he was asking for me. My husband and I left immediately. 

When I got to his bedside before the surgery, he reached for my hand. It was the most tender he'd been toward me since I was a child. His hand was cold and dry, and his eyes were watery. He was afraid. I tried to be as reassuring as I could. 

As I sat in the waiting room, counting down the hours until his surgery was over, I grew short of breath, increasingly anxious. I hadn't told him I loved him; in fact, until the moment he was wheeled into the operating room, I hadn't even allowed myself to feel any real affection for him. But now, confronted with the possibility that he might die, I knew that I did love him. Just the fact that he wanted me there at a time when he knew his health was in danger spoke volumes. It may not have been the apology that I was looking for, but it was clear how important I was to him. So even though it was a dream that didn't die easily, maybe I needed to accept that it might not be something he was capable of giving, at least not in that way. It occurred to me that maybe he was scared of me. Maybe apologizing to me in the way that I wanted him to would mean confronting his shame, and my disappointment in him. And that's a tall order.

Once I had my daughters, my dad was thrilled. He visits them as often as he can, always bearing too many gifts: clothes, toys, coloring books, candy. Violet shows off, which, for her, means rolling around on the floor, making strange animal-like noises, and parading around in the different outfits he bought her. Harper always asks Rose to take pictures of her on her iPhone, and then immediately asks to see them. My dad grins from ear to ear watching their antics and asks for a hug before he leaves. 

Family has never been as important as it is to me now. That's one of the many things having my children has taught me.  So even though I feel justified in being angry at my father, and even though I think it's understandable that our relationship has been strained, I've learned that it's a mistake to think that you are going to live up to the life that you've imagined for yourself, or, by extension, that you can live up to the parent you imagined you would be. I also can see now that my father has a backstory that led him down a destructive path for many years, and that, as has been said, people wound each other in the same ways in which they were wounded.

My father can't take back the past, and he may never be able to apologize in the traditional sense, but he can be present now. He can develop a healthy relationship with my children. He has taught me that I need to meet people where they are in life and acknowledge the person he has become. And maybe, if we're lucky, he'll pass along some of that resilience. At long last, I've come to the conclusion that showing me that he has changed his ways is apology enough.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Graduation Day






The closer I got to my high school graduation, the more I began to take off my clothes. 

I don't mean I took them off in front of a boy, desperately hoping to please him, desperate for validation, self-conscious, daring myself to show my body to another person even if I hated it myself, acting out something I'd seen on TV or acting out of pressure or the fear of losing someone. 

At first, it was spontaneous. Once, my friend Meredith, who lived down the street from me, and I were rollerblading through a nearby neighborhood. (It was the '90s.) It was May, and the heat was already oppressive. My T-shirt was saturated with sweat.

"I wish I could take off my shirt," Meredith said. "It's not fair that we can't. Boys can get some relief, and we get nothing."

I nodded my head in agreement and shrugged. It was unfair, yes, but that was just the way it was.

Meredith reached out and touched my damp forearm. "Wait a minute. What if we did? I mean, there's no one around, and who cares anyway, right? Soon we won't even live here."

A wicked smile played across my lips. Finally, a touch of wonder to what had otherwise become my drab, predictable universe. "Yes." And like that, we wriggled out of our shirts and balled them up in our fists. We threw our heads back and laughed at our own brazenness; the air felt charged. 

Sometimes I was alone. I'd started driving out to the beach after dark to stare at the moon and squint through the diaphanous light from the nearby street lamps, past the soft curve of sand, out into the riotous swell of the ocean and black night. In front of me were shadows. I'd sit on the hood of my car and take off my shirt, letting the temperate breeze wash over me. In just three months, I'd be away at college. 

I was saying good-bye. 

I was saying hello.

For my high school graduation I chose to wear a sleeveless, beige dress with imperceptible belt loops and a stiff belt the same color. I wore stockings and nude kitten heels. I wore a cap and gown at the ceremony, like everyone else, but I was excited to reveal my outfit at the small party my mom had thrown for me. Really it was more of a gathering, just me and three senior friends drinking soda and eating pizza. 

At seventeen I hadn't realized how misguided the outfit was. The dress and heels were something a career woman would wear, to an interview or meeting or lunch with a client. I should have worn a flouncy, flirtatious skirt or my most comfortable jeans. But instead, subconsciously, I'd chosen to dress for the future, even though, in reality, I had no idea what that might look like.

Once my mother went to bed, I devised a plan. My friends and I would take off our clothes, each put on one of my mother's coats, go to the end of my block, then toss off our coats and run down the street naked. 

At first my friends scoffed at my idea, but before long, I'd convinced them and they'd become giddy with excitement. 

Fortunately, even though we lived in Florida, my mom had held on to a few decades-old coats that she kept in the downstairs closet. One was a denim ankle-length coat with fat navy buttons and a sash around the waist. Another was a brown rain jacket with a hood that hit my friend Jackie just above the knee. My friend Lauren chose the pale-yellow trench coat that brushed her mid-calf. That left just me without a coat, so I offered to take off my belt, shoes, stockings, and underwear in advance, and just heave the dress over my head when it was time.

We crept out my front door, giggling, shushing each other and telling each other to "be quiet," and made our way to the stop sign perpendicular to my street. It wasn't late, but it was very dark and still. The plan was to run naked a full block down the street, past the church and a couple of other neighborhoods, and then run back to the stop sign to throw back on our clothes.

I held still for a moment, my dress still on, looking out into that authoritative blackness. I thought about how confident my friends were, how they all seemed so sure that they could design their futures, and how I, no matter how intensely I looked, still couldn't see what was ahead of me. I was nervous to run naked down the street, yet I felt this persistent urge to tear into that immersive blackness, to tear through it. I would know the end when I got there.

I started counting: one, two ... We gave each other furtive glances, but when I said three, we flung off our clothes and took off like a shot, gulping for air, one of us squealing, our silky sheets of hair flying behind us.

We made it back to the stop sign without incident. I was panting, exhilarated. The shapeless night had been a worthy audience for my nakedness, both literal and figurative. I had been wholly unselfconscious, uninhibited, perfect. I had shed that laughable dress, never to be worn again, leaving it behind for good. I had loosened myself from where I stood and rushed into what was in front of me, even though I couldn't fully see it. 

And even though I didn't know it then, I had given myself a gift. I had given myself an insight: It didn't matter how I chose to dress or act based on other people's expectations or even my own expectations of myself. Underneath all that, there would always be a certain purity, as real as the body I was born with, that could be hidden away but never denied. The distinction between actual and artifice can be hard to make as a teenager, but knowing that the real me was a constant, not something that could be changed as easily as a dress, was comforting in a way. As I was about to move away from home and attend college, I knew that the learning curve might be steep and that I'd make mistakes along the way, but I also knew that I'd always be the same girl I've always been and that I could trust myself to recover from missteps and land right where I needed to be. It's funny sometimes how striving to have an adolescent adventure can instead lead you to do something you'd never planned on doing -- growing up.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Imperfect





In the family where I grew up, sacrifice was imperative. What had started out as an idyllic childhood for me, and, I have heard, a happy time for my parents, slowly became a time of hardship: emotional, psychological, and financial.

In upstate New York, where I was born, I built igloos and snowmen in the winter, coming inside to hot chocolate, and I ran through the grass naked and swam in the lake in front of our house in the summer. But we left it all behind--moving my dad, mom, little brother, me, and our nanny--to South Florida, for what we believed would be like taking a permanent vacation.

For a while it was. I made friends easily, both in the neighborhood and at school. I had the hot-pink bedroom and waterbed that I dreamed of. I could wear my favorite Dr. Seuss T-shirt and overalls for days and stand in front of our typical 80s wall of mirrors and sing David Bowie and Moody Blues songs at the top of my lungs, easing the fact that I was becoming unconsciously aware that I was not the most special girl in the world. I was growing up, and some hidden part of me began to realize that the world did not revolve around me.

But soon after my eighth birthday, my parents split. My dad had become so violently addicted to drugs that he abandoned us. I would only see him a handful of times over the next ten years as he struggled with his addiction. 

That left my mom, who, after fourteen years of marriage, had to find us more affordable places to live. With no child support and just a teacher's salary, it was a struggle. As I got older, I became more aware of our financial limitations, and embarrassed by them in the face of the much wealthier kids I went to school with. 

When I was thirteen, I went to my best friend's bat mitzvah. The dress I wore was a black-velvet clearance item from Ross, and the gift I'd brought for my friend was a twenty-dollar silver ring. I knew it was all wrong when I got to the party and saw the delicate diamond earrings in her other friends' ears, and the pale-pink lipgloss on their lips, and the thick envelopes of cash being passed to my friend; not to mention the venue itself, with its polished dance floor, tables with centerpieces, and a D.J.

By high school I'd grown resentful of my mother for not being able to provide my brother and me with a lifestyle equal to that of my friends', and for not, at the very least, recognizing how critical this was for me in terms of my social standing. I also, of course, suffered the ramifications of having an absentee father. My self-esteem was low, I was angry, and my mom was an easy target. We began to fight. A lot. We yelled at one another or ignored one another more often than we spoke. I told myself she didn't love me. Home was a hostile environment, and I took every opportunity to escape it.

I took little notice of the sacrifice she'd made when she asked her then-boyfriend Jim to move out. Jim had lived with us for a year. He'd never had children of his own, and it was clear, every day, that my brother and I were irritants. When he spoke to us, it was only to correct our table manners or tell us to be quiet.

One night he'd gone out, and then returned because he'd forgotten something. By then I'd already locked all the doors. He went around to the back sliding-glass door and tried that. That was locked too. I watched him from the other side of the glass as he pulled at the handle. "Open it. Shannon, open it," he seethed through gritted teeth. It wasn't entirely a conscious decision at the time, but more primal. I wouldn't open the door--no matter what. The angrier he got, the more I smiled. Eventually he left in a huff. A few weeks later, my brother and I went off to New Jersey to visit my grandparents, as we did every summer, and when we returned, Jim was gone, never to be heard from again. 

I also didn't fully appreciate the time that, for my sixteenth birthday (even though I didn't deserve it), my mom surprised me with a limo and reservations for me and a few friends at a posh French restaurant downtown. We ordered escargot and then spit it out into our napkins. We ordered every dessert on the menu--crepes, and mousses, and truffles. Another patron even sent over a bottle of champagne, and the wait staff didn't bother to I.D. us, so we polished it off. I couldn't have even imagined a birthday party so decadent. She had gone out of her way to spoil me. 

There were countless other ways, too: the effort she made to stay involved in my school, the money she scraped together to make sure that my brother and I got the item we wanted most each Christmas, the time she took to make each birthday party special.

Of course, it was complicated, though. I didn't always appreciate her, nor her me. I suffered from low self-esteem for years. I made bad choices. We all struggled personally at times.

And so it was that, from my fractured family life, I'd decided on a couple of things: to be a good mother is to sacrifice and I would not repeat the mistakes of my past nor allow my children to struggle the way that I had.

I married young, at twenty-two (almost twenty-three), a teacher who later became a writer. We share creative interests, academic interests, religious philosophies, and the same basic moral compass. We waited until we'd finished graduate school and I'd found a new job to have a baby, a girl, Violet, whom we named after Violet Baudelaire, a character in one of the Lemony Snicket books. 

I loved being pregnant with her. I was drowsy most of the time (something that is unusual for me), and I was pampered by my husband, who ran out at all hours, in that stereotypical way, to get me anything I wanted to eat, which was almost always ice cream. I found that people treated me differently, too--they seemed to always compliment me on my looks and let me skip ahead in line or offer me the last open seat in the movie theater. I had not one but two baby showers. I had a room in my old 1920s house all set to go for a nursery, and I was getting this gorgeous antique-white iron crib and this whimsical bird chandelier and a warm pink rug and an overstuffed rocker. The few baby gowns I had so far were from boutiques and had delicate little flowers on them. I was so pleased with myself. It was perfection.

At seventeen weeks, the tech doing my ultrasound noticed something that was "off" and had the doctor come in to speak to us. He said there was a large area of lymphatic fluid on her left side that was not being absorbed as it should, and we'd have to keep an eye on it. After that, I became a high-risk pregnancy, and there were more frequent ultrasounds. 

I didn't become alarmed until over the next several weeks the sac of fluid began to grow as she grew. It became less and less likely that it was an issue that would go away. The worst part was that none of the doctors were familiar with it. They believed it was a lymphangioma, but no one had any experience with it. I met with a handful of doctors and was told that she'd have to be delivered via cesarean, in case of a rupture; that she would need an MRI as soon as she was born, so she'd have to be put under; that she might need a blood transfusion; and that many tests would have to be done in addition to surgery to make sure the lymphangioma was not attached to her brain or spinal cord. Being that they didn't know how this would affect her developmentally, the situation was less than perfect. I felt what I'd imagined slip away, and I was brought to tears. 

She had surgery once at four months and again at eighteen months, and over the course of that time, I hovered over her. If I saw her reaching for a toy, I'd grab it as fast as I could and give it to her. If she cried, I sang her favorite song, "Skinna Marinky Dinky Dink," even though I hated it. I went to every pediatrician appointment with a long list of questions. When she was first born, if I heard her cough in her bassinet, I thought she was going to die. When it took her longer to walk than other babies I knew, I thought something must be wrong with her. Once, when she was twenty months old, she fell on the playground step and bit into her tongue, causing blood to gush down her chin. I ran with her in my arms at top speed back to the house, yelling for Ryan to call an ambulance. (Fortunately, he had more sense and we just gave her a washcloth and drove to her pediatrician.)

Very early it was clear that Violet had no intellectual or physical delays, so I began to back off and give her a little more freedom. Then, when she was three, I discovered RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), founded by early childhood educator Magda Gerber, and now largely taught by RIE instructors Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury. In a nutshell, the RIE approach is to respect children; to see them as whole, fully formed, beings, from infancy; to accept them fully; to disengage from power struggles and yet set firm boundaries; to use natural consequences; to be a calm, benevolent leader; and to not interfere or use bribes or consequences to manipulate them. 

I wanted so many things for Violet. Top of that list was, and still is, to be happy and confident. I don't want her to ever worry that she isn't loved. I don't want her to struggle the way that I did, and that would mean that I would have to undo some of the patterns that I'd learned from my own childhood and carried with me into adulthood.

So I threw myself in full force. I read as many blogs as I could on Janet Lansbury's website. I bought the books she'd authored, and even read some of the books that she recommended. I also poured over Lisa Sunbury's site. Once I felt I had a good basis for understanding, I started making some changes.

First, I stopped doing time-out. According to RIE, the idea here is that by sending a kid who is demonstrating strong emotions into time-out, you are shaming her and teaching her that you would prefer that she repress her feelings rather than share them. Well, as someone who went through much of her life repressing her feelings, the decision to abolish time-out came easily. I'll never forget the huge grin that Violet got on her face when we said we weren't doing time-out anymore, and how she made sure to brag about it to all her friends at preschool.

Next, I turned off the TV, which is believed to be too much of a passive activity, is believed to negatively affect children cognitively, and to send negative messages. Then I got rid of some of the toys that she received--of the blinking-light, talking variety, as they are believed to discourage children from using their imagination and are robbing them of the chance to discover how to do something on their own. I taught myself how to give her the language to express her emotions; I stopped saying "please" and "okay?" at the end of my sentences in an effort to sound more authoritative; and I taught myself to give more specific compliments, rather than just saying "good job."

Shortly thereafter, I enrolled her in a Waldorf school, which, although not specifically sanctioned by RIE, follows many of the same principles. I felt the environment was idyllic for a three- and then four-year-old because she spent her time baking bread, making lentil soup, playing with open-ended wooden toys, doing light chores and free-form art, and playing outside three times a day.

The calm-authority component proved to be more of a challenge for me. Intense by nature, and having come from a home where there was a lot of yelling, I often was just going through the motions of acknowledging her feelings and racking my brain, trying to think of a natural consequence for running away from me at the store and hiding somewhere until I almost had a heart attack.

At first, I felt things went well. If nothing else, I was buoyed by my own self-righteousness. But soon I ran into trouble. Violet took a really long time to potty train--longer than anyone else I knew. I started going to therapy, for myself, because I believed I had wounded her in some deep psychological way. At my therapist's behest, I sent her to a behavioral therapist who specialized in kids Violet's age, to evaluate her. Her diagnosis was that Violet was very intelligent, and perfectly normal. After that, also at my therapist's suggestion, I sent her to a psychiatrist. I was sure that he was going to tell me that she had some kind of anxiety disorder or mood disorder or was wounded by me. But he didn't. As with the previous specialist, he said that she was very intelligent and seemed well-adjusted.

While I found that all those tools had given Violet a high emotional intelligence, she was still prone to fits of rage, where she would yell and hit, seemingly over small things. Even though I'd taught myself how to disengage from a power struggle, it seemed that, no matter what, most things still were.

That's when I reached out to the RIE experts. I consulted with Janet Lansbury herself three times. I consulted with Lisa Sunbury twice. And I consulted with Davina Muse, LMHC, of Simplicity Parenting, twice. Janet said that I might not be calm enough when I am disciplining, and that if I am angry, she can see right through that. When I told her that Violet was a very picky eater, Janet suggested that I make whatever dinner I want to make and calmly state that "this is dinner," and she can eat it or not. I did this for a very long time, and Violet just went to bed hungry every night. As far as the potty training went, the consensus was that I drop the whole subject altogether because I am creating a power struggle, and that she would "get it" when she was ready. Janet even went so far as to suggest that I offer diapers to show that I am on her side, and say that she can wear them as long as she wants, that I know that she will tell me when she is ready. Well, Violet chose to wear them until she was three-and-a-half, and she was perfectly comfortable in them and showed no signs of wanting to use the bathroom. The only reason she took them off at all is because she had to for school, and in order to do that I had to bribe her (reward her).

Davina (God bless Davina) told me that because Violet was separated from me during such critical times in her babyhood--four months and eighteen months (the two times she had surgery)--she has a deep psychological wound and desperately needs my attention to close the gap between us, more attention than other kids may need.

And that's not all. Partly because I wanted to, because it gave me the illusion of being a perfect mother, and partly because I felt guilty for my shortcomings (and I realize those two are probably related), I went out of my way in other areas too. To help make dinnertime less stressful for her, once I'd talked to a well-respected nutritionist, I had her pick out dishes from cookbooks, go grocery shopping with me, and help me prepare the meal. Needless to say, she never touched those meals. Then I started serving things family-style, and I put many of the things she liked in little bowls, along with some of the dinner that I prepared. Once again, the dinner I prepared was never touched. 

Per RIE, I tried to observe when she played so that I wasn't inserting myself, interrupting her, or showing her how to do something that she could discover on her own how to do. Of course, I also had to make sure I gave her enough one-on-one time every day, and during that time, I had to let her direct me. When we did art together, I had to encourage the process, not the finished product, and do as little as possible if she asked me to draw or color, so as not to make her feel like mine was better or that there was one right way. True to form, Violet wants me to do the voices for the toys myself when we play together, and she always, always wants me to show her how to draw something or mold something out of clay, and feels I am being unfair if I don't.

I made homemade banana bread every weekend so she could have it for breakfast. I put her bath towel in the dryer while she was in the bath so that she could be warmed up when she got out of the tub. I put her bathrobe on the back of her chair at night so that she could put it on in the morning because she often said she was cold when she first woke up. For her fourth birthday I hired a face painter, for her fifth birthday she had an ice-skating party, and for her sixth birthday she had a Pinkalicious party with homemade crowns, wands, and tutus. Of course, I made all the cakes myself, from scratch, save one.

I bought into all of this. Violet is everything to me, and if making these changes in myself and doggedly pursuing these paths as I have been for as long as I live are the keys to making her happy and self-confident and protecting her from the difficulties I endured in my childhood and adolescence, then so be it. There was no fee too high or resource I wouldn't avail myself of. Even if I was growing more and more frustrated. Even if I started to feel exhausted by the rigidity of this philosophy. Even if I was feeling like a failure. Even if I was starting to suspect that this philosophy put all the blame on the mother and never accounted for the fact that maybe it wasn't my fault--and that I had needs too. Maybe she was just not listening or was hitting or was running away from me because she could, and because she wanted to--and maybe it didn't go much deeper than that. 

A few days ago, Violet drew a picture of a rainbow with clouds and two little girls in pink. She showed me the picture proudly when she was done, and I, remembering my training, said, "How colorful. Very creative, Violet." Violet scrunched up her little brow and frowned. She looked back at me, and in a complete deadpan, she said, "Just say 'good job,' Mom. Just. Say. Good. Job. That's what I want to hear." I couldn't help but laugh. It was unexpected how effortlessly she saw right through me, and I was also laughing because it was a relief.

Then, just yesterday, we were driving home from school, and she pulls out this old cellphone of Ryan's that she's pilfered out of the cabinet, secretly charged, and brought with her to school, and she plays this song with the lyrics, If I roar like a lion, does it make me a lion? If I bark like a dog, does it make me a dog? If I hiss like a snake, does it make me a snake? No, no, no, no. I'm so much more than you can see. I have life inside of me that makes me move, feel, and love. I can act a certain way, and do all kinds of things, but in the end, I'm me. I'm me. I'm me.

And so finally--finally--I am ready to hear it. She is so much more than the challenging behavior. She is also my girl who likes to cuddle with me. She is also my girl who still likes to be held. She is also the adventurer who will leap fearlessly off of swings, climbing structures, and trees. She's the explorer who likes to go through the woods and collect pine cones and rocks for her treasure box. She is my lover of insects and all things creepy-crawly. She is the girl who asks the most no-nonsense questions. She is the one student in class who will do the creative project differently than anyone else. And she is the great big sister to three-year-old Harper, and I often catch her wrapping her arm lovingly around her sister, kissing her on the head, and saying, in what I can only imagine is something I say, "C'mon, honey. Let's go play."

Just like she said, "Just say good job," her singing that song to me is a clear message: I'm not perfect, but I'm me. And by extension, I'm not perfect either. She's got the loving home, two parents, doting grandparents, and an extended family who loves her, and all the toys and clothes she needs too. And that's gotta count for something--but it doesn't count for everything. I won't be able to protect her from all hurts, and I won't play a role in all of her negative experiences. But what I do know is that it's the acceptance--of myself and of her, imperfections and all--that matters most.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Brick & Mortar: A Full Restaurant Review



Thirty-Seventh Birthday




Even though Brick & Mortar has been open only five months, I can sense immediately upon my arrival that the restaurant has settled into its groove. 

With my husband and mother in tow, I walk through the doors at seven, happy to find shelter from another rainy evening. The dimly lit, intimate interior of the restaurant is welcoming. A wine bar dominates the back wall, and behind it are tastefully displayed bottles. Potted plants hang from repurposed pallets above the bar, and the walls are paneled with reclaimed wood planks. A picture window at the front of the restaurant provides ample opportunity for people-watching along Central Avenue. The total effect is an interesting blend of modern lines with rustic finishes, which turns out to be a nice reflection of Brick & Mortar’s offerings. 



Bar





Wine


The dinner menu is diverse. So too is the lengthy wine menu. We order a bottle of wine that our server, Lance, recommends — a Bordeaux-style dark and fruity red blend. It’s my birthday, so for food, my mom, husband, and I decide to go for it, ordering as much on the menu as we can without making ourselves sick. 


Carpaccio of Beef Tenderloin with House-Made Ravioli

Our strategy is to target variety, sampling many of the small plates. Our first course is the carpaccio of beef tenderloin with poached egg ravioli, parmesan, and microgreens. The beef is a delicate cut, and the ravioli is pillowy. The egg oozes from the pasta when I pierce it with my fork. This first course is indicative of everything we would try that night: complementing and contrasting flavors and textures placed on a single plate. 

Flatbread with Prosciutto and Fig Preserves

Next, Lance brings us a savory flatbread topped with prosciutto, crumbled bleu cheese, greens, and fig jam. Flatbreads are pretty ubiquitous these days, but I find this far from disappointing.  The crisp crust is the perfect delivery system for this savory-sweet appetizer.

House Beet Cured Salmon with Juniper and Dill

As the evening rolls on, the small bar and dining room, mostly empty when we arrived, fills to capacity. Lance tells us, as he drops off a plate of bright beet-cured salmon with juniper and dill, that this is normal, even for a Wednesday night.


Next is the local gulf shrimp, served with baguette slices in a bowl of white beans. The  well-seasoned shrimp are lightly firm, and the beans make an unexpected but delightful pairing. 

Salmon Bite

Gambas Ajillo Featuring Gulf Shrimp

My favorite dish of the evening was our last, the veal meatballs and parmesan polenta. This is comfort food in its purest form. The polenta is creamy, and the meatballs melt in your mouth.

B&M Veal Meatballs with Creamy Parmesan Polenta

And while the meatballs may have been comforting, dessert is the biggest surprise. I choose to live on the edge and order a lavender panna cotta served with jamon, a Spanish cured ham, similar to prosciutto, covered in a local honey syrup. The flowery, mild panna cotta and the salty, sweet jamon are not meant to be eaten in one bite but alternating bites so that the contrasting colors, textures, flavors, and scents provide a balanced experience. The dessert is innovative and, I think, a win.

Lavender Panna Cotta and Jamon (ham)

At the end of our meal, Chef (and co-owner, with Hope Montgomery) Jason Ruhe stops by our table, introduces himself, and confirms that we’ve enjoyed everything. He’s personable and happy to talk about his new restaurant. For most of his career, Chef Ruhe has run a catering business with his partner, and he still does from the aptly named Brick & Mortar. Even though the dining area is small, in the back there is a huge kitchen with a 20-foot hood to accommodate the catering side of the enterprise. 

In the course of our conversation, I ask Jason where he received his training. He tells me he has no formal training. I'm surprised and impressed; his skill definitely betrays any lack of formal training and speaks to his experience in the industry.


Chef Ruhe’s personality permeates Brick & Mortar, translating into an atmosphere that feels like you’re having dinner at a friend’s place. I can speak for my whole party when I say that, from beginning to end, the staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and provided excellent recommendations. The food at Brick & Mortar was excellent, beyond a doubt, but it’s the service and the atmosphere that will keep me coming back.






Monday, September 7, 2015

I Might Be a Helicopter Mom





When I think of a “helicopter mom" of children my children’s ages, I think of a mom watching anxiously as her child attempts to piece together a puzzle, only to impatiently step in and complete the whole thing for her. I imagine a mom putting her child in one of those backpacks with the leash. I imagine a mom licking her hands and wiping them on her child’s head to smooth down stray pieces of hair and buttoning the highest button on her kid’s polo shirt before walking her into her classroom and unpacking her backpack for her. I imagine a mom arguing with the teacher over any grade lower than an A on her child’s report card, and furiously defending her child in the face of any note home about her child’s disruptive behavior in class.

I don’t imagine myself, someone who has learned better. Someone who tries to observe rather than interrupt or insert herself in her child’s play. Someone who keeps her voice calm and level and reacts nonchalantly to misbehavior. Someone who allows her kids to fail at an activity and suggests they try it again another time if they weren’t able to figure it out. Someone who used to be a classroom teacher and who knows to always side with the teacher, unless it’s something completely egregious.

In fact, it wasn’t until one evening during a visit my mom gently suggested that I might be a helicopter mom. I’d had one too many glasses of wine, and I immediately dismissed it, getting defensive. I’d told her that I would never allow my girls to have a male teacher, and she was shocked. “Don’t you think that’s a little crazy, Shan?” she asked. I explained that no, I didn’t, and that it was just a practical choice. I said that I knew very well that there were plenty of male teachers who were wonderful, but that there were also male teachers who were attracted to the profession because they were pedophiles, so to err on the side of caution, I would just request that my girls be switched to a different teacher if ever they were placed in a class with a male teacher. I said I would explain to the administration that I knew that they likely had great male teachers, and that I would take full responsibility and just say that I was an “anxious parent” (even though, in my mind, I’d only be saying that to try to endear myself to them, when, in reality, I’d be making a perfectly reasonable request). I would politely insist.

But maybe saying I was an anxious parent would be more of a confession than a manipulation. And maybe that anxiety is precisely what makes me a helicopter mom. In Parents magazine, Carolyn Datch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide, defines “helicopter parenting” as “a style of parents who are over focused on their children and who take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” In the same article, another Ph.D., licensed psychologist Anne Dunnewold, calls it “overparenting.” “It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.”
Those definitions are disturbing—disturbing because it sounds a lot like me. Disappointingly, after a quick mental inventory, I decide my mom is right. My name is Shannon, and I am a helicopter mom.
Here's a list of some of the things I do.
1. I yell at my kids at the mall (or restaurant or grocery store). I yell because Violet is running ahead of me, and Harper is following her lead and is now running ahead of me. I would have to jog to catch up, and to avoid that, I am trying to be discreet and just power walk. I say, loudly, "Slow down." I say, "Stop running." I say, "Violet, come here." And when that doesn't work, and once I imagine someone swooping in from around a corner and snatching them up, or a car hitting them when they've run into the parking lot, and me not being able to wrestle them free or pull them back because they are too far away, I panic. That's when I yell, "Stop running right now! I said stop! Stop!" Once I have caught up, I point my finger in their faces and say, "Never, ever run from me again." They always promise they won't, and then they always do it again.
2. I blame myself. When they whine because they haven't gotten their way, I decide that's because maybe I haven't always stuck to the "no" I'd given them, and so they've learned that if they whine enough, they will get their way. Because they are picky eaters, I've decided it's because I gave them some salty, sugary foods down the line, and once they'd had a taste of that, they decided they'd never try any new foods again. If they are really crabby, I decide it's because I haven't created enough of a calming breakfast and bedtime rhythm, and so they are suffering the consequences, or that I am not doing a good enough job being calm, so they are reacting to my mood, which is not always upbeat. I vow each night to do better, to keep in mind all of the things I've learned.
3. I'm too strict. Sometimes the word "no" is out of my mouth before I've really had time to consider it. Once I've said it, though, I try to stick to it, so even if we are in an area where it's okay to run, or even if I know Violet will wait for me on the next block if she rides her bike around the corner, where I can't see her, I've said no, so that is that. I also don't give them enough freedom to make their own choices. I feel like it's enough to give them a lot of food options at dinner and to occasionally pick out what they want to wear, or to pick out what they want to wear from two choices that I've provided, but what about all the other decisions in the day? Is it really that big of a deal if one night they want to skip a bath? Is it that big of a deal if they want to watch more television or stay a little bit longer at the park or at a friend's house?
4. I worry too much. When Violet was at a more relaxed school that didn't focus on academics, I worried that she wasn't learning enough and would fall behind. Now that she is a traditional school, I worry that there is way too much pressure and she will fall behind because she will end up hating school. If I've been too permissive with the TV one day, I worry that they will stop relying on their imagination and will forget how to entertain themselves. (On that front, I also worry that they won't have the ability to think creatively as they get older.) I worry every night that someone is going to break into the house and take them away from me, because, I wonder, how could I be so lucky to have these intelligent, funny, curious, kind little creatures? Will I really be allowed to be so deliriously in love with these kids for the rest of my life?
5. I'm a perfectionist. I read parenting blogs; I consult with parenting experts, sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists about parenting; I continue to set goals for myself based on everything that I've learned. When it looks like the piece of pottery my daughter is holding is about to fall and shatter into a million pieces on the floor, or my daughter has just spilled her juice all over the floor, my first instinct is to gasp. When they continue to not listen to me, my irritation builds and my instinct is to yell or to unfairly punish, just to really send the message. When they hit me or each other, I want to put them in their room and slam the door shut. Sometimes I even want to spank them. But I have learned better, so I try to use all of the tools that I have been provided. I try to make my voice calm, even though it is a struggle. I try to understand their point of view and be compassionate. I try to use natural consequences. I try to limit TV. I try to encourage them to find their own answers or figure it out for themselves, even though they are getting impatient and saying, "Ugh. Just show me how to do this." By setting myself up this way, trying to follow each and every rule I have for myself so that I can be the perfect parent, I fail every day. It does not feel good to feel like a failure every day.
I know what the dangers are to helicopter parenting: You end up with insecure kids who can't do anything for themselves and who are completely entitled. You end up with kids who absorb all of that anxiety and become anxious themselves. You end up with kids who resent you.
But I know I'm doing a lot of things right (hence all the "lay-off," "let-kids-be-kids," RIE stuff that I practice), and I know a lot of my fears are founded. I know I'm well-meaning. I know I love them like crazy and just want the best for them. I know that I have availed myself of so many resources and that I am trying every day to be the best parent that I can be. I also know that, in this day and age, I am not alone. Surely all is not lost. The first step is admitting you have a problem. (Check.) The second step, according to an article called "How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Helicopter Parenting," in Empowering Parents, you need to just deal with yourself, instead of projecting those anxieties onto them. I consider myself pretty self-aware, so I don't think that will be too much of a problem. I know why I am anxious, and I do have some techniques within my grasp to combat that anxiety. So I think—I hope —I am not a lost cause.

 






 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sweet Peas Cafe Restaurant Review

Owner Danielle Pastore


Three cheers for Sweet Peas Café in downtown Dunedin, just off of Main Street on Virginia Lane.
Tears are usually involved when I take my two children—a five-year-old and a three-year-old—out to eat. They don’t want anything on the menu. They want to get up and roam around. They are only distracted for two minutes by the standard crayons and paper kids’ menus typically doled out to youngsters.
That’s because most restaurants don’t cater to families, and even if they claim to, they don’t really. Often families are ushered into a booth in the back of the restaurant so as not to disturb the other diners, and they eat their greasy meal quickly so they can get out the door before there is a total meltdown. And when my kids were babies, I noticed, with scorn, that many bathrooms didn’t even have changing tables. On a handful of occasions, I had to put paper towels down on a dirty floor to change my baby’s diaper. And, likely, the restaurants only have kid-menu options like chocolate milk, hotdogs, and macaroni and cheese, and nothing for the kids to do, unless it’s—gasp—an iPad or some kind of electronic tabletop game, which is not ideal in this age of organic-eating, superfood-loving, anti-helicopter, anti-media parenting.



Dreamy Pancakes


Enter Sweet Peas, described by owner Danielle Pastore as not kid- or family-friendly but “parent-friendly.” The little red bungalow with a yard shaded by oak trees offers organic, homemade, hearty dishes for breakfast and lunch, like the bacon, kale, and tomato sandwich with house-made honey-mustard dressing, served on wheatberry bread. For breakfast, one of the menu items is a porridge that can be served with fresh or dried fruit, organic flax, organic cream, and/or brown sugar. Or there is a less-healthy-but just-as-delicious option: the steaming stack of organic pancakes drizzled with warm maple syrup, which is what I (and my girls) choose for our Sunday-morning visit. Breakfast is my daughters’ favorite meal, so I was happy to learn that it was served all day. Both breakfast and lunch dishes are prepared by head chef Mike Webb, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy.




Fair Trade Coffee


We arrive just as the restaurant is opening, at 9 a.m., and eat indoors, in the restaurant’s quaint dining room. We take the spot near the front windows, with a large coffee table and wing-back chairs. We eat hungrily, licking our fingers clean, and then move outdoors to the play yard. I finish my Java Planet coffee—“the only organic, Fair Trade roaster in the Tampa Bay area”—and watch as my girls dance through the bubbles emitting from a bubble machine, move on to play with sidewalk chalk, and then play pretend (“mommy and baby”) in the playhouse, which is a replica of the restaurant. They are happy: I hear them giggling as they dart around under the large canopies of the oak trees, and I am free to relax.

Bubbles



As I sip my coffee, I chat with Danielle, who tells me that the restaurant is the recipient of the Green America People & Planet Green Business Award, which “recognizes businesses for their dedication to a green economy.” So Danielle can now use the money from the award to add a full-fledged garden to her 1,600-square-foot, North American Butterfly Association (NABA)-certified butterfly habitat. She also invites me to come to one of their weekly events, like the child CPR class or family yoga class. I tell her that, regrettably, I can’t go because I have to work. But I appreciate that Sweet Peas both supports and enriches the community by hosting events that appeal to new moms (like breastfeeding workshops), parents devoted to healthy living (organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO foods), and families attending local schools (like the nearby Waldorf school).


Kids' Table

I excuse myself to go to the restroom, and Danielle offers to keep an eye on my girls until I get back. I’m happy to find that there is indeed a changing table— a changing pad atop a dresser— which I find home-like, comforting. When I get back, I tell her that I will leave her alone, that she is free to get back to her customers. I take a deep breath and savor the calm and the respite from the heat. This is a good start to my morning: I will leave refreshed, which (hopefully) means I will be more patient with my kids for the rest of the day, which, I know, is what they deserve, and they are doing what they do best: play. In fact, when I perused Sweet Peas’ website the night before, I saw that its slogan was “Eat, Play, Love.” And for me and my girls, that’s as it should be when you go out to eat as a family, and for us, on this lazy Sunday, that’s just what we’re doing.


Playhouse