The rescue notebook

These tween/teen years can be tricky parenting geography, especially with the oldest child (also fondly known as the beta child. Or the first pancake?). How much permission to grant, what are the kids ready for (and what are you ready for?), how to balance freedom & protection?  

I was the oldest child myself--my husband was, too--and yet it was still really tough for us to gauge how to pace the unfurling of responsibilities and privileges for Lauren. I'm pretty sure she always felt we were frustratingly, agonizingly slow and out of sync and that she needed to yank on the rope for a bit more slack now and then. (And we probably were. We were young and new at this! She was our baby! There's no map involved in this whole enterprise.) In the meantime, we clashed quite a bit, Lauren and I.

Woven map notebook photo  via (& tutorial)  here

Woven map notebook photo  via (& tutorial) here

So here's an idea we tried: When Lauren was around 10 or 11, we started a notebook conversation between the two of us. At the time we were in a rut: I seemed to be finding much more negative than positive things to say to her (and of course now I can't remember the issues or why they seemed so important to me...) and she was getting moodier in that hint-of-adolescence way. Our discussions didn't lead to broadening our understanding...more often (sadly) they shut it down. I had a bunch of blank notebooks so one day I grabbed one, wrote her a note in it, and left it under her pillow. And then she wrote back. 

We could say anything or ask anything. We pledged not to correct or critique, and (my personal commitment to myself as the purported adult in this whole thing) I tried to say positive things each time.  

And we kept it confidential, of course. I won't quote our exchanges here but I'm sure you can imagine them. Sometimes she just asked what a word meant, embarrassed to ask face-to-face. Sometimes I simply praised her efforts at trying something new. Other times we passionately defended our points of view or begged for understanding. Or forgiveness.  Man, I love that notebook.

For a good stretch of time there it was a crucial thing for our relationship. Now and then I would get it back out again if we got stuck back in the pattern of frustration and clogged up communication. We both sound better in writing at those times. Friendlier. More compassionate and calm.  

As a bonus, we have a terrific chronicle of our relationship during some rugged terrain. I look back and realize how ridiculous my expectations were at times. Lighten up, Annie, I remind myself. Most often, though, a look through the notebook increases my compassion for us both and reveals what I've hoped all along: we've both been doing the best we know how to do. 

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Mother's day anyone?

My mom and I circa 1971.

My mom and I circa 1971.

Both Mother's day and my birthday make me a little antsy. As much as I like to think of myself as outgoing and the life of the party, the real truth is I'm not so comfortable being the center of attention. And, without casting blame on any undeserving parties, sometimes the supposed "special-ness" of those days just doesn't match up to the Pinterest-y, golden lit blog entry that stubbornly resides in my head. Let's imagine that perfect day, shall we?

I sleep till nine, when I'm awoken by the sunlight gently seeping through the blinds AND the merry laughter of my husband and kids in the kitchen. I walk into the dining room (because I really don't like to eat in bed) to find cheesy omelettes stuffed with veggies, an icy Diet Coke, and fresh flowers on the table. The whole family gathers for breakfast, where we talk about the day, our hopes and dreams, and have a deep and meaningful discussion of current affairs. After breakfast, I get ready for church -- dressing in a brand new (size 4) super cute, hip outfit. Later, there's a delicious Sunday nap waiting for me, followed by a simple, rustic meal outside where I'm showered with thoughtful (and design-oriented) gifts. A new car would make the day extra special. We'd all then walk the dog through the trails by the water, arriving home tired and happy just as the sun goes down. The kids scurry off to bed while Sterling and I relax and watch The Good Wife or Call the Midwife of Netflix'd episodes of The West Wing. As we watch, Sterling deftly moves about the living room and kitchen, tidying the rooms, turning on lamps, lighting an aromatic candle.

That was kind of fun. You should try it.

Let me just start the debunking with the fact that I haven't worn a size 4 since about ninth grade. A few days ago I brought up the new car dream. The suggestion was received as a moment of hilarity. That's not happening either. We have church at nine, which leaves little time for leisurely breakfasts and even less time for discussions of global affairs. I'm the only person in our family who knows how to turn on a lamp or light a candle. Yep, I'm gifted like that.



The trick to enjoying Mother's day, in my experience, is to cut everyone some slack. Including yourself. It's not really about my family making me feel good about myself -- that's a Hallmark imperative. I choose, instead, to think it's about me appreciating the institution of motherhood. On Sunday, I'll give some thought to my own mother and the other women in my life who have taught me about self-sacrifice, kindness, strength, ambition, service, determination, and a whole host of other steel-y attributes that have helped me to understand the divine nature of women. I'll probably look through old photo albums, my heart breaking just a little as I remember my own tiny babies -- the jumbled collection of experiences that made me a mother. The day, for me, is about celebrating my own moments of happiness within motherhood. And there have been plenty of those.

In my old age, I've realized there is something so freeing about creating my own happiness (even on Mother's day). There is no waiting around for someone else to fulfill unnamed, yet dearly held, expectations. There is no disappointment or sadness. Because in that space where I take responsibility for myself I can be generous with those I love. I can overlook 17 pairs of socks on the living room floor and 23 half-filled glasses on the kitchen counters. 

But there better be sugar. And I'm not doing the dishes.

Mother's day always brings out the essayist. See here, here, and here.

A few thoughts on mother's day

My mom and I in 1971.

My mom and I in 1971.

My birthday and Mother's day generally fall about a month apart. I'll be honest with you, in years past I've approached both of those occasions with a fair amount of trepidation. Part of my anxiety has been alleviated by merely lowering my expectations. Not that my husband doesn't give his all -- in fact, he is famous for a homemade carrot cake he pretty much only makes on Mother's day. But still, Mother's day is rarely the Pinterest-y, blog-worthy occasion I have pictured in my head. That would look something like this:

I sleep till nine and am woken by the sunlight streaming gently through the blinds AND the merry laughter of my husband and kids in the kitchen. I walk out (I prefer NOT to eat in my bed) to beautiful omelettes, an icy Diet Coke, and fresh flowers on the table. The family eats, chats about the day, talks deeply about current events. We then dress for church -- me in a brand new outfit (size 4, if you must know) and leisurely drive to the chapel. After church I take a long nap. For dinner we eat a nice meal outside -- grilled by Sterling. I am showered with thoughtful (with just a touch of a hipster vibe) gifts. And sure, a new car would be extra special. Then we all take the dog for a walk, returning home happy and tired just as the sun sets. The kids scurry off to bed while Sterling and I watch Mad Men or Call the Midwife or Netflixed episodes of The West Wing. And, certainly, while watching television, Sterling moves swiftly and efficiently through the downstairs tidying the rooms, switching on lamps, lighting an aromatic candle.


That was fun to write.

It was even more beautiful in my imagination.

Me and the kids circa 2002.

Me and the kids circa 2002.

Let me just start and end the debunking with the fact that I haven't worn a size four skirt since I was in 9th grade. I've already hinted heavily about the new car in real life. The request was received as a moment of hilarity. Also, did you know I'm the only person in our family who knows how to turn on a lamp or light a candle? It's true. I'm gifted. Plus, we have church at nine. This leaves no time for sleeping in and even less time for discussions of global issues. Can you see where I'm going with this?

I find the best method for me to manage Mother's day is to cut everyone some slack, including myself. I'm going to spend the day appreciating what I do have -- thinking about the mothering I've received in my life. . . from my own mother and other women who have helped me along my way. I might look through an old photo album or two, torturing myself about those now-gone baby days. I'll laugh with my almost-grown girls about silly fashions, funny one-liners, that time I wore my sweater backwards to church. I'll turn a blind eye to socks on the living room floor and three loaves of bread on the kitchen counter, knowing that Monday I can put the house to order. In other words, I'm reclaiming the day. Mother's day isn't about pampering and perfection; it's about slowing down and remembering. It's not about other people flattering me into a giddy stupor. It's about me claiming my own spot of happiness within my job of mothering. And, it's an excuse for an extra-nice meal. 

And sugar. Any excuse for sugar.




Mother's day brings out the essayist for sure. Check out these thoughts: here, here, and here.

Bring it on, Mother's Day

Gird yourself, ladies, Mother's Day is upon us! Do you love the hullaballoo? Does it cause some pangs? I know for many it's a day fraught with an undercurrent of emotions: guilt about not quite measuring up to the grand pedestal of it all, disappointment in the sometimes meager gestures, sadness about mothers who are no longer here to celebrate (or never were), awkwardness about the fuss. It's taken me time but over the years I've tinkered with my approach to the day enough to know what works for me: (a) keep my expectations low enough so that any gesture will happily surpass them and (b) concentrate on celebrating the mothers and mother figures in my own life.

When it comes down to it, though, how can any celebration or token adequately repay the fact of the creation and delivery and nurture of a new human being, let alone whatever the next decades brought? One of my favorite poems about motherhood, The Lanyard by Billy Collins, perfectly captures the sentiment. I can't resist sharing it every year.

Here's to you, each and all, and the many lanyard-like offerings the weekend may bring:

Mother daughter vintage photobooth photo  via

Mother daughter vintage photobooth photo via

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

- Billy Collins, from his collection The Trouble with Poetry
Or, here, treat yourself to listening to him read this himself.