Faking Our Way

April 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I was in college, I had a beer-bellied yoga teacher named Bill, who shouted as we shuttered and shook in various back bends and side twists, “Fake it ‘till you make it!” Basically, that is parenting.


Last weekend we took Max on his first trip! On an airplane! And as we walked through Laguardia’s fluorescence, pushing the stroller and hauling our bags, I remembered Bill. I did my very best to look purposeful and in charge, which I did not feel in the least.

Before the trip, a parade of horribles wound its way through my mind. The scope of problems ranged from mild irritants, like me forgetting Max’s birth certificate, (which I didn’t need in the end) to sinister troubles, like Max having deep vein thrombosis. I had more probable concerns as well: would he vomit on a neighbor or would he poop so many times that we’d run through all the carried-on onesies? My worst fear was that he wouldn’t nurse on take off or landing and would end up screaming in pain because of the pressure in his ears. We’ve all been on flights with that baby.


As we boarded, I realized with relief that flying to Orlando is a good choice for a first trip. Approximately half of the individuals on our flight were under 10 years old. Thank you, Land of Theme Parks. In fact, of all the little people on the plane, Max was among the most subdued. He ate, slept, sweat, ate, slept and sweat a little more. He also hammed it up for our neighbors on both the departing and return flights. He was bewildered sometimes when he woke up, but was easily appeased by the ‘standing on the lap’ game, which, for the moment, is still magically thrilling to him. When that moment ends, Christopher and I will be in big trouble.


When we got to Florida, Max was only slightly displeased by the 90 minute car ride from Orlando to our destination. Also, he tolerated his daily slathering of baby sunscreen, his goofy hats and his too-tight swim trunks. (Oh, those little hambone thighs. They are worth every outgrown outfit.) He stuck his stiff and plump feet into the ocean and he smiled as we whirled him around in the pool. Max’s only complaint appeared to be the brightness of the sun. He is, as my friend Lesley put it, a winter baby.

On Monday, the day after our return, my mother commented on how well I looked. Simply put, it was the most luxurious vacation I’ve ever had. Two eager grandparents + a husband vying for playtime = lots of time for mom. I had occasion to nap, (every day!) go on runs, (without feeling guilty about paying for a sitter) and eat all of my meals unencumbered. Yes, my idea of luxury has changed.


When we got out of the cab on our return home, I had a little stirring of pride. This whole parenting thing is working well enough. Passersby might even think we’re reasonably competent. We’re definitely pretending to know what we’re doing much of the time, but isn’t that what our parents did? Such is the history of humanity. And we’re faking it a lot less than we used to.

[The pregnant half of the above photo was taken during a trip to Florida last August.]

Never Again: Without My Heart

April 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Life will never again be uncomplicated. I will never drift again, totally buoyant and free.


I will forever have my heart outside my body. This tether gives me a permanent sense of longing. Even when I know I need to get away from motherhood for a morning, just to have a cup of coffee by myself (and pay to do it) all I think the whole time is—how is he? I think about how much I miss him. And then my breasts start to tingle and leak.

Also, there is a certain heaviness that comes from the realization that I will never sleep well again. Did I realize how good a solid night’s sleep was before? No, I did not, even though when I was pregnant and the omniscient they told me to enjoy my sleep while I could. I even remember complaining about how tired I felt and how—ugh—I had slept 10 hours the night before and taken two long naps during the day. What a hardship that was.


On a practical and relatively inconsequential note, I have not slept through the night since before Thanksgiving when I went into labor. Max went from not quite sleeping through the night to teething and unequivocally not sleeping through the night. Now, in addition to two feeds, we have a 4:45 festival of weepiness where Max wakes and remembers the ache in his fleshy mouth. And I can’t explain to him what is happening and that it is impermanent. All I can do is rub the tip of my pointer finger along the wet ridge of his gum and press, or, when the cry sounds truly desperate, administer infant Tylenol in the dark and then stand over him, petting his hot forehead until he stops whimpering. And I think, “There is my heart, on the mattress.”


But even after the teething is done, I don’t think I’ll sleep like I used to. Now, the world is a terrifying place: a place that could snatch away all the meaning that’s ever mattered. In a past life, I could consider the loss of a family member and the grief it would bring, but I could imagine myself sealing up the hole of that absence and healing in time. And then, after some sad insomnia, I’d fall asleep.

Not anymore. Now, the specter of loss looms ponderously, as I think it must for all parents. The mere possibility of losing a child is like a veil over my consciousness, all the time. I don’t want to think about it, in case I have the ability to will things into being. But sometimes, especially at night, this thought passes over me and I get a sense that my life would become impenetrably dark if anything ever happened to my son. I took for granted what it was like to imagine bouncing back from loss. Because now, I know what it is to have a love from which you can never recover.


There are littler hurts that keep me awake. Sixth grade social paralysis, non-invitations to parties, broken hearts, bad test scores, rejections, company downsizes. I want Max to experience these kinds of disappointments. I remember my setbacks with greater poignancy than my triumphs and, without a doubt, they demanded more of my character. I would not want for Max’s life to unfold along a straight, gilded path. More than any success he might have, my greatest dream is that he grow up to be kind and empathetic.

But ouch! He has so much ahead of him, and I’ll have to watch him out there, dealing with pain he won’t understand. I can already see: there goes my heart, in shoes.

It’s Opposite Day!

April 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

I am writing today to admit that I have a problem. That is the first step to recovery, they say. Here is my issue: I say the opposite of what I mean whenever I’m feeling guilty. Most often, I feel guilty about saying “No” to something someone else wants, but that I don’t want at all. I tend to think that the person knows my inner thoughts, and that I have to do everything I can to prove to them that what they think I think (which is what I actually think) isn’t what I’m thinking. It’s perverse.


I first remember this happening at age six or seven, when my aunt sent me a dress with scratchy sleeves for Christmas. When I put it on, I instantly knew I could never wear the thing. Someone had decided to thread on the shoulder puffs with fishing line, inexpertly sewn. Little barbs from the end stuck into my skin. And yet, the first thing I said to her when we called on Boxing Day was, “I love it! Especially the sleeves!” I said this even after my mother instructed me not to bring up the sleeves. But the sleeves! They were the nub of the thing—they just had to be discussed.

I recently caught myself engaging in this misrepresentation and I actually thought: “What the heck is this about, Isabel?” Until then, saying the opposite of what I felt was the normal thing to do. Obviously, if a friend told me she was engaging in this kind of lie-making, I would say to her, “Girlfriend! Stop that. That’s crazy behavior.” But when I do it, it’s logical.

Here’s what happened: I’ve been visiting a guy at the gym for help getting back in shape. Unfortunately, I’m getting a little too muscular under his watch. Don’t get me wrong—I think strong women are great. I just don’t want to look like a Clydesdale. Anyway, I got 12 sessions as a gift, and I’ve been excited for them to end. I also came into some free classes at a boxing studio, which I tried last week. They’re fun, and there’s no deadlifting involved. And it’s something I think I could keep doing long term, whereas a personal trainer is not a luxury I can have forever.

I recently had my last session, and I’d been thinking the whole time… “How am I going to break up with this guy?” Well, naturally, I told him about the boxing classes. Then logically, I told him that they were not a good workout, and that I really liked working out with him better. Opposite day! And then, I followed up with this: “I’ve really got to see if Mom will treat me to another pack of sessions. Maybe a bigger one this time!” It’s not enough for me to lie—I also have to absolutely, totally exaggerate the lie.

Twisting my feelings gets me into trouble. I rarely do what I don’t want to do, so instead I have to work myself out of the commitment with lots of back-peddling and mounting guilt. On this occasion, I invented a tall tale about my mother’s current preoccupations (which I exaggerated and elaborated) to justify why I couldn’t ask her for more sessions. Frankly, telling this story felt incredibly adolescent and creepy. All I needed to say was, “Thanks for your help, but I can’t afford more right now.” That would have felt clean and frank and forthright and not at all weird.

In the end, there’s nothing like a child to wake you up to your bad habits. Simply put, I don’t want Max to pick up on my thought perversions and schemes. Whether he suffers from an inability to say “No,” or not, I don’t want him to see me being sneaky and disingenuous. So, just for today, I will tell the truth.

Month Four

March 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

It’s hard to believe that four months have come and gone since the happiest Monday in December.



But here we are in March, with little tulip sprouts breaking through the mulch in the sidewalk tree planters. We’ve had a couple of days of bright sunshine and weather warm enough to inspire some people to wear sandals and tee shirts. (I guarantee that these same people would not wear sandals and tee shirts on a 55 degree October day, but when your pallor has been draped in wool and down all winter, it really does feel good to let the skin out.)

Spring has brought with it all sorts of remarkable things, although none of them includes sleeping through the night. This is often the first question people ask me about Max. I find it an embarrassing question to answer, because it implies a measure of success—success that we are not having. But I answer, honestly, that I don’t mind. I love the night feedings. They are the sweetest part of my day. They are also quick.

Max, 4 months

Max, 4 months

I’ll hear him on the monitor making peeps, and I wake up, shuffle in for 6 minutes, and shuffle out. Seeing Max so sleepy and vulnerable is one of the sweeter things in life. He arches his neck and sticks his butt way in the air, lifts his little fists to his head, rubs his eyes and fights to stay awake long enough to get full. It’s just him and me, near total darkness, and our bellies rising and falling in unison. I feel his heart beat, twice as fast as mine, and I listen to him breathe heartily out of his nose as he takes his first greedy sips. Quickly, he relaxes and drinks gently for a few more minutes. Then I lay him back down, his eyes closed, sometimes a little smile on his face. I will miss this.

Given his efficiency, the only person I have to blame for nighttime sleeplessness is myself. At night, I have a habit of diving deep into my dark pond of worries and swimming around for a while. I wrote this after the 5:30am feed yesterday morning because I’d let myself get all wrapped up in tax muck, and there was no going back to sleep after that, even though Max was out for another two hours. Tax muck is some deep muck at the very bottom of the worry pond. We have forgotten entirely about this disclosure to Uncle Sam and will have to scramble, as usual, to get things in on time. But it would be a great projection to feel frustrated with Max for waking me up, when I’m the one procrastinating on my taxes.

The nascent crawler

The nascent crawler

Sleep aside, there have been some great triumphs this month, including Max’s discovery of his arms and hands. His emerging biceps and shoulder muscles make tummy time less like face-plant time and more of an empowered, exploratory experience. For a while, putting Max on his stomach made him cry. It’s a heinous wail: the kind that might inspire the neighbors to call Child Services. For a while, tummy time—or the absence thereof—flooded my worry pond. I was beginning to convince myself that Max would never learn to crawl. “He needs to do tummy time for 20 minutes a day,” our doctor said. Yeah, okay.

But last week we practiced with him on me, lying on the bed. He started using his arms to stay up, pushing against my stomach and chest. Then, he inched towards my face. He smiled: I think it made him feel triumphant, dominant, even. Now he can do it on the floor, picking his big head up 90 degrees and looking around. Crawling seems like a distinct, if not imminent, possibility… God help us.

He’s also developed a love affair with the dangling objects on his play mat, which is great for Mama. I can actually putter around the house, sometimes for up to 45 minutes, while Max kicks, rolls and grabs. His arm movements are still spastic, but he’s beginning to understand agency and cause and effect: I see the elephant, I reach for the elephant, the elephant comes to me. Until I got this play mat, I had spent my life underestimating fisher price’s effect on human development.

And, of course, we love the conversation. Max really does wail like a morning dove—thank you, Bob Dylan for putting it best, as you so often do. In the morning and late afternoons a New York dove (read: pigeon) sings outside of our window, and he sounds just like Max. Sometimes I don’t know who’s cooing.

It’s a lovely time.

The Citizen Enforcers

March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

There’s a library I like to go to, but I have trouble there sometimes. I think fascists run the place. At the very least, it attracts Manhattan’s most puritanical thinkers. This library has so many rules, and so many citizen enforcers, that sometimes I worry I’m breathing too loudly. And I’m not one of those people who wheezes through her nose, in case that’s what you were thinking.

I get chided on the regular. Just today, and last week, too. I accidentally transgress about every third visit. For background, here are some of the basic rules: you’re not allowed to have food anywhere in the library, nor can you bring in drinks, except water, which you must keep at your feet. No cell phones, either: not in the stairs, not in the halls, not anywhere.

My first embarrassment came about a month ago. I am a nursing mother, and I need to eat. This library is far enough away from my home that I will most definitely require a snack while I am working, just to get back home. Also, it has been freezing outside. This is not the kind of whether where you can take your apple to the park and enjoy it in the sunshine.

Anyway, sometime in February, I came in to do some writing while my Mom watched Max and the dog at her apartment, a few blocks away. While I was working a blizzard ensued, and I knew that if I was going to push the boy in the bassinet all the way home in sub-artic temperatures with ice and sleet and snow falling, I’d need to up my reserves. So I went to the bathroom and unwrapped a soft, chewy granola bar. I brought it back to my seat in the communal writing room and broke off tiny pieces under the table. I am not exaggerating when I say that I produced not a sound.

But, one wizened patron must have noted the movement of my jaw from across the room, and watched me for a while. As I was lifting a bite to my mouth, she came over to my table, smiling in that superior I’m about to get you in trouble, little girl, kind of way. Norma, a warty teacher at Montessori school used to look at me like that before putting me in the ‘thinking chair.’ In fact, this lady looked a lot like Norma: Thai fisherman pants, clogs, a flowing silk blouse and beads all around her wrinkly neck. When she came to me, she was sure to come prepared. In her hand, the sheet of paper, reiterating the rules that are also written—aggressively, in all caps—on little menu cards placed on each table. She set this paper down in front of me and smiled. FOOD, DRINK, AND CELL PHONE USE PROHIBITED THROUGHOUT THE LIBRARY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION.

“There’s no eating in here,” she whispered. “I don’t know if you know that,” this was a blow, because the little menu card was quite obviously 5 inches in front of me. I nodded, silently, chewing, turning red. “Thank you,” I said, for lack of a more creative response. When I left shortly thereafter, I realized what I should have said. “And there’s no talking, either.” Because just a few minutes earlier, this hag had been giggling with another professorial old fart in their corner of the communal room. Had I stood up and brought them the rules? No, I had not. Nevertheless, I walked home feeling ashamed. I wished I’d dropped my granola bar wrapper on her books as I’d walked out, although that would have been quite aggressive. Still, I spent most of the day shaking the feeling that I’d broken a serious, communal code and that I was a social pariah. (Yes, I am a sensitive person.)

But I also felt frustrated: where does this need for persnickety, finger-wagging come from? Does a young woman silently and discreetly eating a granola bar—obviously intent on doing so without chomping or drooling—really affect the quality of the work environment? It would be one thing to bring a bag of carrot sticks or potato chips, or to smack on a stick of gum. But this seemed like rule tending for the thrill of it. In the end, I was the victim, I decided.

As it so happens, the second hag was recently at me about my cell phone. I was sending a quiet text to the babysitter regarding her question on reheating milk. Although the phone was muted, I accidentally pressed the ‘dictate’ button on my message app, which resulted in a tiny ping. The woman whipped her gray head around at me, and peered over her spectacles, “No cell phones, please,” she whispered caustically. “I know,” I said. Rolling my eyes as I looked back at my computer, but feeling a hot flush of shame on my neck nonetheless.

The next day, I accidentally sat too close to this second citizen enforcer again, not realizing that the heap of manila folders and the keyboard lift all belonged to her. (I’d set myself up while she was in the bathroom, and I guarantee you, I will avoid sitting near to these objects in the future.) This woman really treats the place like her private office. A gentlemen behind me—obviously new to the joint—had not muted his computer, so every email he received or sent went in or out with a Ding! From the corner of my eye, I watched the citizen enforcer bristle at every chime. Finally, she craned her head at me and whispered, “Is that your computer?” She assumed, naturally, that because my device made a single sound yesterday, that I was causing today’s technological symphony. I turned to her with my bitchiest stare and said, “No. It is not.” What I was really saying was, “Keep to yourself, you XXXX.”

I’ve seen these ladies give death stares to individuals who take too long to unpack their belongings, or who rustle their manuscripts and legal pads a little too fervently. When either of these citizen enforcers is in the room, I am literally terrified that a youtube video will spontaneously play itself on my computer, and that I will wither and wilt into nothing. As an aside, neither of these women appears to realize that keys on a keyboard don’t have to be attacked in order to make words appear on the screen. I’m considering petitioning the librarians to add to the rules list: NO HEAVY HANDED TYPING ALLOWED.           

I know they would, because there are an untold number of additional rules in place to protect the sanctity of the place. Just this morning, I took my snack downstairs, out of the library doors. There I sat, in the cold marbled vestibule where people sometimes make cell phone calls. I assumed that if call-making was allowed, then quiet eating would also be acceptable. After a few minutes, when I was just about finished, one of the staff members approached me and said, “Miss, you are not allowed to sit on the stairs.” “Really?” I asked, incredulously. “Can I stand on the stairs?” “Yes, you may stand on the stairs.” So I stood on the stairs, but bent over so that I could look at a magazine I’d brought with me. I hoped that standing on my feet would satisfy the rules book, which I assume was designed to prevent patrons from loitering. Next time, I will try hanging out for an hour or two in a squat position to see what happens.

But I am still here. Probably because I have a heroine, whose defiance of the code gives me such joy that I come back, hoping to see her in action again. This lady is a very old lady—much older than the citizen enforcers. Her hair is absolutely white, her shoulders are deeply bent and she’s quite deaf. She was having computer problems last week and asked—out loud, imagine—for help with her laptop. A small Chinese man came to her aid, and they sat and troubleshooted together. (Neither of the citizen enforcers was in the room.) After about thirty minutes, one patron approached and said politely, “No talking please,” which seemed fair given the length and volume of their conversation. She nodded and took her helper into the hallway.

When she returned, the old lady blew my mind. This woman unwrapped a chocolate bar, right there in her chair, right in front of the bossy menu card (!) and started to snack, unabashedly in her seat. And all I could think was, “You go, girlfriend, you go.”  Is there anything as fun an old lady breaking all the rules? 

The Gray Cloud

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Things changed around here last week, with a big gray cloud floating in and hanging around us for a while. At first, I thought it was little Max causing all the problems—his increasing heaviness; his robust thirst; his new need for intense play and engagement. I have to admit that I didn’t mind the days when he was tiny and sleepy.

      Max, dressed by Dad

      Max, dressed by Dad

Actually, I loved them. In the early days, I felt like an anchor dropped, and my whole identity fell into place. Only I could satisfy Max’s most basic need for food, warmth and comfort. Sure there were a few folks who could keep him happy and calm, but I was the person he rooted after. I was the only world he’d ever known, and coming back to me reminded him of that.

I can’t overstate how incredible that quiet connection made me feel. It was physically and mentally taxing, but it was simple: Max was all I had to do. I was the ne plus ultra of his life, and he of mine. We moved through the day as one creature, basically.

      Max and Mom at 2 months

      Max and Mom at 2 months

And then last week happened. (Week 13, more precisely.) He has a play mat with a piano keyboard at the base, which he kicks with his feet. It plays tinny, stunted lullabies. When I have tired of helping him practice ‘walking’ or tummy time, or reading, or dancing around the house—because, friends, he is heavy—I put him on there and try to do a few things. But those snippets of song seem to follow me around, and they tend to stay with me. They play in my head when I shower, or worse, when I try to sleep. Sometimes, when I get 10 minutes to write during one of Max’s naps, I hear that little earworm ding a ling a ding ling, I start to twitch and wonder: this is my life?

Because, unfortunately, I have a greedy brain. It likes to be fed all the time, and it wants new things to wrap itself around. It’s been best for me, historically, when I give it food and keep it chomping. Law is a good food for my brain, for example. Until Max, law school seminars gave me a total thrill. That should tell you something about how greedy my brain is. It needs a lot, and usually it needs engagement with other brains, too. Reading the New Yorker or a few good books during Max naps is not quite satisfying enough.

So the problems are not the baby at all: they are me. Max is just a mirror for my complexity—my squirrely, jumpy, jittery, hungry mind. I’ve been feeling really blue, dreading the changes I’ve got to make to keep myself from turning toxic. That is what happens when my brain doesn’t get poked and stroked and fed enough.

That gray cloud was a disruptive but persistent truth. It was there to tell me that I had to leave the bubble. It’s a nice bubble: four floors up with a view of the avenue; colorful rugs; soft lamps; a big kitchen table. We love being here—but I can’t be in here forever, tending to Max and all of his chirps and coos. I wish I could, and it makes me sad to know my limits. Especially because it is my need, my limit, that will burst up this party. But if I don’t go back out into the world, Max will have a mother with a pernicious head. No good will come of that.

So, since last week, I’ve gotten myself some extra help, early in the morning when my brain is at its greediest. I’ve been writing, and that appears to do the trick, although soon it may demand company. But in the meantime, the cloud is breaking up. It certainly helps that spring weather has graced us a few times this week. Suddenly, I feel like anything is possible.

Vodka Citrus Martinis

March 4, 2014 § 1 Comment


I first discovered the vodka citrus martini on an ordinary Wednesday night. I came to the door when Christopher got back from work with a grin on my face as big as the Cheshire cat himself. The edges were off, my friends. The day of bouncing, rocking, shaking, rattling, singing and playing on the floor melted into a fond memory instead of calcifying into that particularly dangerous kind of contempt. You know, where you think to yourself, Husband, you get to go to work looking good and for only ten hours while I wear spit up and am on call 24/7. Scorekeeping is not good for a marriage, and vodka helps with that. It had been a long time since I drank hard liquor, and that warm tingle was welcome, indeed.

About a week before, my Uncle John Burke gave me a cardboard box full of citrus, part of a slew of fruits sent to him from a friend in sunny California. He labeled some of them with Sharpie pen, as you can see. I’d never had a sweet lime before, but it really is sweet: sweeter than a clementine, though it looks bitter as a lemon. Frankly, it’s too sweet for a vodka drink—in my opinion, you want some zing to temper the severity of the alcohol—so I suggest eating it plain or candying the peel.

Before the boozing even dawned on me, though, I discovered that this box of citrus did an admirable job of replacing the weekly bouquet of flowers I’d been buying to keep my spirits up. Winter really is the pits. By mid-January, we’ve got so long left to go, and yet there’s already a long trail of gray behind us. Lively colors and smells around the house go a long way in keeping me from feeling hopeless. But flowers also go a long way towards making me broke.

Brighter minds than mine might know this already, but I was happy to discover that the ongoing purchase of seasonal citrus keeps the house sunny and fresh-smelling for a fraction of the price of flowers. And, in my second happy discovery, this collection keeps Momma jolly, too. Citrus fruit lasts a long time—and I think it gets better and better until the point of decay. The fruit softens and the smell gets stronger. And then, when it’s almost too soft, you add your oranges, your grapefruit or your tangelo to two parts vodka, one part vermouth, shake them all together with crushed ice, and sit back feeling as rosy as you will on a warm day in April. Waste not want not. 

Since Max started going to bed at 7pm and waking up again at 12am for his first nighttime feeding, I feel totally okay about having one or two strong drinks early in the evening. Sometimes it makes me feel so good, I think it must be good for me. But, of course, that is the illusion of substance abuse. So I’ve issued some boundaries: martinis on weekends only, unless I have a friend for dinner. Who’s free this week? 


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