After The Fall

July 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

The fall was my fault. I put Max on an ottoman while getting ready to leave a friend’s house, and as I did it, I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t put him on this ottoman.”

But it was only going to be for a minute–just while I strapped on the waistband of the baby carrier. And I was watching him. He was right there in front of me.

And then the phone rang on the table behind me, and I looked back. And in the second I took to turn my head, Max rolled. I reached out and grabbed his waist in mid-air, but I did not stop his head from hitting the ground.  I heard a sharp thud. It wasn’t the sound of a crack or a break, but it was sharp. It sounded mean. 

The tears were commensurate. Max doesn’t cry a lot, and he’s generally consolable. But this was different–this was real pain. And suddenly, I became aware of a whole new host of feelings of my own.

I felt abusive. I might as well have thrown him on the floor myself, knocking his head against the ground. 

We rode the train home. Max didn’t cry much, although he started to fuss at 14th street–the halfway point of our trip. I sang to him and let him chew on the corners of my magazine. And then he relaxed and became limp. And then I thought, of course: He’s in a coma. 

It was an especially deep sleep, which was not inappropriate, since it was already 7pm. But still, I felt my heart fluttering and that cold feeling of adrenaline running to my fingertips as I climbed out of the subway. Max drooped out of the Ergo all the way home.

Naturally, while I walked the two blocks home, I did some urgent, cursory googling of ‘baby concussions.’ In addition to reading about the physical symptoms, I went straight to the panic-inducing comments section. This one in particular was a real treat: “No matter how gentle the fall, take your baby to the ER, ladies, mine had internal bleeding and needed neurosurgery…Thank God I listened to my woman’s intuition.” What is the difference between cortisol and intuition? I wondered. Fortunately, I lost service in our building stairwell. 

I hurried up the the apartment, trying to wake him as I went. Nothing. I tried to wake him while I turned the key, but his head only slumped to the side. At this point, I could feel the rapid, hard thump of my heart against his body. Finally, I got into the bedroom and slid him out of the carrier onto the bed. He opened his saucer eyes and smiled. 

We did some of our ritual tickling and he laughed; he had a bath and tried to stick his fingers in my ears and nose as I bent to wash him. All good things. Plus, his pupils were the same size and he had no clear fluid running out of his ears, two of the gorgeous symptoms had me searching for.

I put him to bed and called the doctor. We had a simple and sensible conversation, where she asked me details of the fall. “The ottoman was approximately 18″ high?” “He fell onto a carpeted floor?” “You broke the fall?” Her reception of these details indicated that she’d seen worse. She told me keep an eye on him through the night–checking every hour or so for signs of lethargy or unresponsiveness. “The first 6-12 hours are the most critical time,” she said. Waking up every 60 minutes felt like an appropriate penance, frankly, for my gross negligence. 

And this morning all is well: except that I realize just how vigilant I have to be from now on, and I wonder–will I start to see the whole world as a minefield? Every corner in my house, every table and plug, has taken on a new, sinister aspect. There’s also this unpleasant new reality: no matter who’s watching Max, or how careful we’re being, I will feel a horrible, sinking and pervasive sense of personal failure when anything bad happens to him. This is the shadow of what people mean when they say, “You never knew you could love someone so much.” 

Chicken Cacciatore

July 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

I am calling this chicken cacciatori  because I like the way that title sounds, catching on my tongue. Cha-cha-cha-Tori! 


But if you are a purist of any kind, please forgive me. This recipe is almost entirely improvised, (every time I make it) and was not passed down to me from a Nona or a friend’s Nona or even from a Batali cookbook. It’s really just simmered chicken thighs in tomato broth with vegetables, wine and olives. 

But, oh, it’s so much more than that. The ingredients really mingle and dance. When I cook it, I want to spin around and say its name over and over and over: Cha-cha-cha. Tori! The urge to  sing its praises gets stronger as the days go by, so its best to make a bit ahead. 

This meal has become a favorite in our household for a few reasons. First, it requires just one pot. Second, it’s virtually foolproof. Cooking this is like painting with acrylics: you can make a few mistakes and fix them as you go. Also, it’s excellent in any season. As a stew, it’s comforting in the cooler weather, but it’s also brimming with summer vegetables, and is great for those overwhelmed gardeners with zucchini coming out of their ears. (Emily!) 

Generally, I try to make something more interesting than poultry when guests come for dinner, but this is an exception. If you spoon this over polenta with melted blue cheese, as I did on Tuesday night, you won’t feel at all ashamed of serving something as quotidian as chicken. You might only be ashamed of not making enough for seconds or thirds.

Chicken Cacciatore 

Serves 4

Sauté 2 pieces of bacon or pancetta over medium high heat, and set aside. In the renderings, brown 2 pounds of chicken parts (I like thighs… yeah). You could also use butter, or olive oil, or a combination. When the skin is brown, (after a few minutes on each side) remove the chicken with a slotted spoon, and set it aside.

In the same pan, Sauté 1 chopped red onion until soft. Add a few chopped cloves of garlic. When the garlic is just softening, add a couple of chopped peppers (I used red and orange) and a couple of chopped zucchini. (You may want to add a bit more fat, or wine or liquid from the tomatoes to keep things moving.) When the vegetables are softening, pour in a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of white wine and bring to a simmer. It never hurts to swirl in a tablespoon of tomato paste, if you have it. Throw in a handful of chopped parsley and a couple of bay leaves.

Before the vegetables get too soft, add back the chicken, skin side up. Throw in a generous handful of olives–I use a mix of Castelvetrano and Gaeta, but any olives will do. Cover the pan and let the chicken and vegetables simmer for a great long while–longer if you’re cooking chicken breasts whole. (Often, I remove the chicken from the pan after a while and shred it with a serrated knife. I might then use the bones along with some garlic and onion to make a chicken broth in which to cook my polenta.) Season the dish as you go–sometimes I like to add red pepper flakes. I throw in some torn basil at the very end.

I like this over polenta cooked in chicken broth with melted blue cheese. If I used pork at the start (either bacon or pancetta) I add it to the polenta before pouring the cacciatori on top. 

The Long Arc

July 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

The arc of parenting is long, but it bends towards…regret? Reexamination? Redemption? I hope the latter.

Getting dirty

I’m remembering the sleep training– how I said that I could tell the difference between a cry of distress and a cry of complaint. I am hanging my head now. I am prepared to admit that, actually, I cannot tell the difference. And, there’s more. In general, I have no idea what I’m doing. Even though, at other times, I’ve thought otherwise. Things work, and then they don’t. Or maybe they never did, and I only believed they did. I muddle through, I mess things up, I feel bad. Max is happy anyway, lucky us.

For example, I thought that sleep training was the greatest thing a few months back. We worked our way up to 12 hours of solid sleep! But then summer came, and traveling happened–new rooms, new beds, new smells. There was a pretty incredible emotional event that shook us all. Max picked up on that, no doubt, in his baby way. Gradually, we were waking up 4 times a night again.


So I did what had previously worked. I let Max wail and wail. For 3 days this went on. And then, he started sleeping better. But on the morning of the third sleepless night, I noticed a little spot of white. A tooth had broken through. So all of those nights he had been crying in pain. And I had lain in bed, thinking I will not give in to your demands, you squirming worm. Well, shit.

Also, Max has become so mobile at night that he frequently gets wet: we’ve tried every kind of diaper (including bigger ones) but none stands up to his crib-time athleticism. I’ve gone into his room on a number of occasions only to discover his little body wet and cold. Even so, he might cry in that gentle, complaining way, not with all-out shrieks of misery. And that just about confirms it for me: no more sleep training. 

In fact, the sleep is pretty good. I can’t complain. But there have been so many shifts and changes and teeth and new types of acrobatics that I feel like I’ve just got to cut the kid some slack. So he wakes up once a night, so what? Frankly, it’s easier for me to be awake with him for 10 minutes than to worry about whether he is suffering.

I have to laugh at my earlier convictions and confidences. And I have to assume that this kind of cycle will play out for us again and again over the course of his childhood. Mom knows what’s best. Ooops, no she doesn’t. Just don’t tell him I said so.

The Existential Baby

July 8, 2014 § 4 Comments

Do you ever have the feeling that something is missing? Even when things are going exactly right? I do: it’s dogged me since early in high school… around that time when I became achingly self-aware. Often, I feel like I’m looking for something, as if something is wanting, even when everything is in place.

The Ambling Sailor

The Ambling Sailor

I woke up yesterday and looked around my apartment. By all accounts, I had everything–I good things at that instant and good things just ahead. There was my hot coffee on the table and the promise of breakfast. There was the promise of a day with Gisela, (Max’s wonderful babysitter) which meant that I could spend hours doing things for myself, like writing and exercising. There was the promise of a cooking with Mom at the end of the day. And, of course, there was Max in that moment, on the rug, looking at me with a two-toothed grin, reminding me that love is bottomless. Still, I felt a niggling vacancy. It’s not ennui, because I don’t feel at all bored, but it’s a feeling that I ought to be struggling or fighting more than I am.

Then again, when I am struggling, I always wish myself out of that, too. For example, in law school, I couldn’t wait for graduation. When I was studying for the bar, I wished it would be finished. (Not the best example, maybe, because who wouldn’t?) If I were at the DA’s office working right now, I’d be wishing I were at home with Max. Parenting has been the only experience I’ve had since my own childhood when I have felt totally present. But even when I am with Max I find myself fretting sometimes about my other goals and ambitions. And then there’s a terrifying, gut-wrenchingly non-event:I realize that I am already, in this moment, fulfilling my purpose. It’s just that I am programmed to keep looking for more. I am programmed to feel dissatisfied because it helps me evolve.

If only always

If only always

This first occurred to me when Max was on my lap this weekend. He had everything an individual his age could want: a clean diaper, a full belly, a recent nap, and a set of adoring arms wound around him. But still, he fussed and mussed and he squiggled and squirmed. And I wondered why he had to be grabbing for this or that thing, and why he couldn’t just be settling happily into the moment.

And poof! Just there, in my arms, I saw myself. This is exactly what I do. Comfort and stability are always what I’m after, but when I have them, I feel a need to upset the balance. Little man reminded me how very human this preoccupation with preoccupation is. It must be an evolutionary thing–after all, if we stop feeling curious, we stop learning, and if we stop learning, we stop forging ahead, and if we stop forging ahead, we get eaten. Or something like that.

But there is a difference between curiosity and dissatisfaction, and I don’t want to be a malcontent. I don’t want to be addicted to the struggle–to the drama of a rise and fall of cortisol and adrenaline. I want to be here, and satisfied with that, especially because in this moment, I have what I want. There are some things I think I can do to ground myself more fully in this happy time. Then again, those things (meditating, becoming more spiritual, volunteer work, finding time to see a shrink, etc.) strike me as their own set of aspirations. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, it just amuses me that my solution to getting more present is to create a new to-do list.

Please tell me, fellow humans, how do you manage with the insatiable creature inside your head that yearns for something more, even in the middle of the very best?

Month 7

July 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Seven months today! Max came alive this month: yanking, mouthing, pulling, exploring. He’s got his eyes wide open and he probes every explorable place with his fingers and gums. He takes his naps, yes, but when he’s up, it is party time in #4C, and I am a human jungle gym. We’re definitely in a pre-toddler stage, which is furthered by Max’s physicality–he’s hefty and looks like he’s at the edge of kid-ness.


My mother in law, Susan, suggested a few months ago that I make friends with women who have had boy babies. She knows–she had both a boy (Christopher) and a girl (Kate). I sort of smiled and nodded and put that one low on my priority list. Whoops. Most of my fellow mom friends have had girls…and I am starting to notice the difference.

I remember seeing Christopher’s cousins–three sisters–and their kids at a wedding a few years ago. They were playing by the pool. One of the women had two boys who were about 2 and 4 years old. The others each had girls, between 1-3. The girls were playing knick knack paddywack in the little kiddy puddle, singing and swaying gently back and forth in their mothers’ laps. The boys were running the perimeter of the pool area, screaming and throwing ice cubes at the back of each other’s heads. Their mother ran after them with obvious futility and desperation. Hahaha little boys are so funny! I thought. HAHAHAHA Max said this month. Joke’s on you, Mamacita.


Max will not just sit around anymore. Forget putting him on the bed and showering. Forget putting him on the floor, even… he flips and shimmies and army crawls (an activity my friend Sarah recently described with perfect acuity) until he’s 10 feet away from where he started. Unfortunately, our house is a minefield. We have a cart with lots of bottles on it (aka liquor) and a huge mirror leaning up on a banister that is easily shakable, even by tiny hands. We have about 1,000 more electrical outlets than we could ever use. Every day I find Max eyeballing another one that I didn’t realize existed. But he’ll find ‘em. We’re going to have to make some major changes around here to accommodate Private Murphy.

Other than coming alive, this has been a month of milestones. Max sprouted teeth, for example. Hair has begun to grow on his bald spot. Max now bathes in the grown up tub–he flails all of his limbs when he’s in there, smiling and wriggling and peeing every time. He makes puttering sounds through his mouth by curling his lips under his gums, which reminds me of an old man without his dentures. Perhaps the biggest of all, though…he and I separated. For two whole days.


Kate and Susan came last weekend to stay in the apartment when Christopher and I went to my very close friend’s wedding. And let me just say, these women are kid people. You know the people who kids are always running up to and conversing with easily and confidently? Kate and Susan are those women. I have never been one of those women. Frankly, other peoples’ children used to intimidate me–I’m that lady who smiles way too big and talks in a weird voice that comes across (pre-motherhood at least) as totally phony. Kids can smell a phony for miles. They’d look me up and down and walk away.

I knew Max was in good hands. And even though my breasts started tingling every time I thought about him, I was amazed by how easily I slipped into pre-baby Isabel. We had some fun, yes we did. I won’t go on and on about this, but I’m pretty sure that if you looked, you’d find a tiny smudge of my dignity on that country club dance floor.


On Being the Broccoli

June 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

I am the broccoli. I am the porridge. I am the tripe and the bone broth, or even, maybe, the marrow. My mother–who sees Max almost every day for a discreet hour or two–is maple sugar candy. Christopher, who sees Max in the mornings and on weekends, is a mint chip sundae with extra fudge. They are sweet, they are fun, they are nothing but lovely. Meanwhile,  I’m the what’s good for you person. When my friends have babies, I will be a chopped Skor bar on coffee ice cream.

Playing on the bed

Playing on the bed

Everyone who spends regular time with Max has his or her own fun ritual. Mom holds Max on her shin and lifts him up and down while singing funny songs; Christopher walks him around the park in the Bjorn; Lily blows raspberries into his neck and makes him giggle. Magically, Max tends to get passed my way when it’s time for a nap or a change or a nail clipping.

I’ve always been the broccoli, but lately Max seems to realize it. This discovery started with the breast biting. To put it in Freudian terms, Max’s ego appears to be developing along with his id: he has his basic, animal needs, (these are not new) but now he is learning to control for what he wants and to direct the world as he wants it. Biting is a little expression of his power and mischief–he is exploring what it means to be Max Murphy, King of #4C.

Somebody Said No

Somebody Said No

When the bite happens, I push his face towards me and say, “No.” Then he looks up at me as if to say, What was that? I’m having my meal here, do you mind?  It’s a look of frustration and incredulity and it’s laced with a bit of stubbornness. Usually after it happens, he doesn’t want to nurse anymore. I find his reaction amusing, even though his glare marks a lifetime of setting boundaries and battling with his will. This is the start of tension between two people, each of whom has needs and personalities to fulfill. We’ll have to negotiate our egos together from now on.

So while everybody else is sweetness and delight, I do the dreary stuff. I tend the sleep schedule; dress and undress; feed him oats and other ‘pap.’ (Thank you Louise.) Yes, we do a lot of giggling and laughing on the bed, but even then, I say many “No’s.” Such as: “No sticking your finger in Mom’s eye,” and, “No biting Mom’s ___.” Or, “No pulling out Mom’s hair.” He doesn’t understand the words yet, but he knows he’s being corralled. And he doesn’t like it. I know that these are boundaries he needs, but sometimes I just want to be a chopped Skor bar on coffee ice cream. (!) If I were that, though, #4C would go from a monarchy to a dictatorship. And Max would develop lots of non-metaphorical cavities in his non-metaphorical teeth.

Reaching for the hair

Reaching for the hair

While we’re on the topic of food…In the last month, Max has had the following in this order of introduction: yams; pears; rice cereal; avocado; chicken (plus chicken broth and a bit of chicken fat) oats and apples. I have to blend the starches with some fruit or fat to make them palatable. Frankly, they taste like papier mache glue and I can sympathize with the little man when he sputters and spits them on the floor. Next up: apricots, yogurt and eggs. You’ll note that he has only ever had proverbial broccoli.

Also, he has recently discovered that his foot is a worthy comestible.

Foot Eating

Foot Eating

Heathens No More

June 19, 2014 § 2 Comments

Max was baptized last Saturday. Now he won’t go to Hell! At least until he’s old enough to sin on purpose. Then it’s all over for him.

Max's Sacred Baptism Cookies

Sacred Cookies

In the meantime, he is a little Catholic ham. He smiled at everybody and attempted to dip himself into the little baptism pool during the holiest moments of the ceremony.

While I watched him, I felt so grateful to be there, and to be raising a little boy with a faith. My sister, Lily (Max’s Godmother) and I were raised very Catholic. But, when I got older, I veered away. It started with my wedding: after asking me about certain details, including the nature of my dress, the secretary at the Catholic church where Christopher and I wanted to marry sent me a letter from the priest. He stated that they were dismayed at the recent trend in strapless gowns, and that I could not be married if I wore one.  I really liked my gown. So we got married in a Unitarian Universalist church down the street, which would have permitted me to walk down the aisle in a bikini on stilts. But the experience soured my relationship to organized religion–it didn’t help that this occurred during the nadir of the sex abuse scandal.

Dipping in the Baptism Pool

Wanting to Dip

But, when I got pregnant, I went back. It was clear to me that my body was not the sole author of this miracle, and I felt the urge to (formally) get on my knees and say, Thanks. I wandered into a Catholic church because I longed for the familiarity of the mass, which had been indelibly printed on me after so many years. I found a congregation with sympathetic and intellectual priests who are not inclined to finger wag. And as I went back and struggled with the idea of supporting an organization with so many flaws, I realized that THE CHURCH as an organization isn’t important at all–my faith is between me and God.

Still, I like the Catholic services: they hit all the low notes and there’s something deeply comforting about the sacraments and the space that a church holds for witnessing the events of a life. For example, our local padre, Father Matthew, tied a tiny white bib around Max and described it as a symbol of purity–likening it to the white pall on Pappy’s casket, which, he reminded us, had recently stood in the very same spot.

Church Windows

But the connections were not all so severe. During Pappy’s funeral mass, Father Matt lamented the loss of Pappy’s custodial talents. Apparently, he would come to the daily service and sweep up the little bat turds that gathered around the pews of the old, wooden church. Father Matthew explained that without Pappy, the congregants might see more guano than we did before. I assumed this was a flourish–an attempt at funereal lightheartedness. But, when we arrived for Max’s baptism, there were little black speckles up and down the aisles, and Father Matthew went about as we socialized, sweeping them up himself.

Max’s ceremony felt like a swipe of the slate. We had a new celebration with many of the same witnesses of Pappy’s mass. These were family and friends who, just two weeks before, had stood on a cold, rainy day, wearing black. And then there was Max in his little white bloomers, smiling at everybody and getting ready to make mischief–for which, of course, he’ll be forgiven.

Mischief Maker


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