A Memory to Hold On To

Yesterday, on Father’s Day, my sister posted a picture of her and my dad circa 1992. The photo is actually of her entire softball team, but the other girls (including me, I’m pretty sure), all decked out in green shirts and boxy, unattractive hats reading “Packy’s Pub,” the team’s local sponsor, have been cropped out. My dad is the coach. His arms are crossed and his hair, just reaching the point of more gray than black, is styled in a Mel Gibson-esque – dare I say it? – mullet. He looks tough. He looks proud. According to my sister’s caption, he is “smizing,” a term coined by the eloquent Tyra Banks. It’s a pretty spot-on character study of my jock dad, who embraced having three daughters and supported us in all of our athletic endeavors, regardless of the fact that my sisters and I were basically useless on a softball field.

Over the last few years, on every trip home, my sisters and I have found ourselves flipping through our parents’ extensive collection of photo albums, pulling prints out every so often and snapping pictures of them on our iPhones. They are mostly of us when we were kids: piled together in our flannel nightgowns in a bed with a Care Bears comforter; crouching in the sand, making our Strawberry Shortcake dolls frolic along the roots of an old beachside pine; posing with the whole family on Beth’s First Communion day with a giant white teddy bear. Some are pictures of my parents or grandparents when they were younger, as teenagers or brand new parents. I like to imagine them then, before they became my mom and dad or grandma and grandpa. I like wondering what they were laughing about or how many drinks they had had. 

I’m a little obsessed with photographs and the way they can capture the essence of a person or a moment. They’ve also become, for me, an anchor that helps me hold on to a memory, a feeling. For example: my dad and I laying on the couch in a small cabin in the Adirondacks that we rented for a week each summer. I’m three? Four? It’s clearly past my bedtime. I’m in an oversized t-shirt and I’m stretched out on top of my dad. Neither of us is smiling, which makes us look even more alike, over-tan skin, brown eyes and sullen faces. Maybe we’re just tired. Maybe he’s annoyed at my mom for ruining a nice father-daughter moment with the flash of a camera. Maybe he’s frustrated because his youngest daughter just won’t go to bed.  I know that feeling. 

I may have changed the details of the picture, I don’t know. I don’t have it; it’s in an album on a shelf in my parents’ house. It could be that I was actually asleep in the picture. In fact, the more I think about it, I’m fairly certain that I was sleeping, so there’s no way that I actually remember that moment. But I feel like I remember it, even if it’s a false memory. The comfort of being little and sun-soaked and resting with my big dad, the only one in my family with the same color eyes as me. 
This is why, when so many others are trusting their photographs to “the cloud,” I continue to order prints of all of my pictures, hundreds at a time, with doubles or triples of my favorites. I meticulously insert them into albums, trying my hardest to keep them chronological.  My two older daughters, like their mother, already love to flip through the pages and “remember” the trip we took to visit family in Brooklyn, or the time their grandparents took them to the zoo. They’re little; Ceci, at nearly two years old, won’t have any real memory of the events we are currently documenting on camera. But she will have a photograph that she can carry in her car seat with her on the way to the grocery store, as she sometimes does with a picture of her cousin Howie on a playground nearly a thousand miles away. Later, I hope she’ll tape them to the mirror in her bedroom or put them in her locker at school. Maybe she will take some to college with her, tack them up on a cork board or put a small album on a shelf above her desk.

My kids will be inundated with pictures on Facebook and Instagram, as well as whatever sites and apps I don’t even know about and the ones that don’t exist yet, but I hope pictures won’t become meaningless to them. It’s old-fashioned, but I want my girls to have something they can hold onto, not just something you swipe through, then it’s gone. I want Maggie to think she remembers the time she took up residence in a child-sized princess chair in the middle of an aisle in Target and refused to budge, for her to laugh at how stubborn she was, even at the age of two. Remember that, mom?, she’ll say. I hope she pulls that picture out to show her own kids, along with a host of other small, shiny rectangles, and they will revel in the feel of the paper in their hands, like pieces of a puzzle or a treasure map.

The Myth of "Mother Knows Best"

First, A Quiz

I don’t claim to be a professional quiz-writer like the ones for YM, but indulge me for a moment. For each of the following statements, answer “Always,” “Sometimes,” or “Never”.

  • I know how to respond when my child asks a difficult question such as, “Why do all people have nipples?”
  • I know when my child is actually sick and when she is just being a butt-head
  • I am an effective disciplinarian
  • My children listen to me
  • I set a good example for my child. Like, I could say in all seriousness, “Do as I say AND as I do.”
  • My child is safer in my care than she would be in anyone else’s
  • When it comes to my children, I do what I feel is right rather than what “everyone else” is doing
  • I feel confident in the choices I make about my child
Finished? If you answered “Always” to any of these statements, then I would like to know if there are any vacancies in your household, because apparently my kids would be much better off with you, Mr. or Mrs. I’m-an-Imaginary-Parent-that-Doesn’t-Really-Exist. Because really- always? There’s no way; I’m calling your bluff.

The Truth

Let’s all say it together, this awful secret that none of us wants to admit: About half the time, we parents have absolutely no idea what we are doing. Yes, it does get somewhat better after the first child, but one thing that I have learned in the past five-ish years is that parenthood is a complicated guessing game. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I have looked at each other and asked, “What do I do?” or “Did I do the right thing there?” and the other person just shrugs and makes that face that seems to say, “You think I know?”
We make countless decisions every day. Some are small and need to be made on the spot: Do I ignore my daughter when she insists on using the word “poop” 875 times at the dinner table, or do I address it? Do I intervene in a sibling squabble or let them figure it out on their own? Other decisions seem huge and take a lot more forethought: Should my child undergo surgery in order to have tubes placed in her ears, or do we take a chance on less invasive treatments? Which pre-school should I send my child to? What do I do when I feel my child is being bullied? And these are just regular scenarios; I can’t even imagine being faced with the choices the parent of a child with special needs has to make. 

I Make You Feel Like a Better Parent

The choices keep on coming, and at times it can feel overwhelming, because what if we make the wrong decision? Well, I’ve done it, and I can tell you what will happen. You’ll feel shitty, you’ll learn from it, and if you’re lucky no one gets hurt or severely emotionally scarred in the process. A few cases in point:
Here’s hoping I don’t irreparably damage these three sweet, crazy girls…

When Maggie was about two and a half, she woke up and was acting like a total brat. She refused to eat her breakfast and then kept dissolving into a screaming puddle at every little thing. “You’re hungry,” I insisted. “You just need to eat and then you’ll feel better.” Despite her hysterical protests, I finally got her seated at the table. In my meanest, sternest voice, I commanded her to take bites of apple sauce. After about three bites she threw up all over herself and the kitchen table. Clearly not my proudest moment, but guess what? I felt shitty (I still do, but maybe writing this down for all to see will serve as my catharsis and I will finally be able to let it go), I learned from it, and I hope to God that Maggie does not remember it, because there could be some expensive therapy sessions down the road…

Here’s another one. Just a few weeks ago, Maggie asked if she could go in the backyard by herself to play on the new play set. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll keep an eye on you from the kitchen window,” and I continued with the dishes I was washing. Only minutes later, Matt glanced outside and asked, “Is Maggie okay?” The poor child had been playing in the baby swing, it had somehow tipped over, her feet were caught in the ropes, and she was now hanging upside down, unable to get out. She was scared, but fine, and of course, I felt shitty. (Actually I felt even shittier because she looked really funny and I couldn’t help but laugh. To be completely honest, even now when I think of her hanging there I can’t help but laugh. I don’t know why it’s so funny to me- maybe it’s a defense mechanism to keep me from crying. Either way, crappy parent right here.)

The Moral of the Story

Obviously these are not the only times I have made the wrong call or done the wrong thing. Some of my bad decisions may not even be clear at this time, but will reveal themselves down the road when my kids are adults that still use the word “poop” 875 times at the dinner table. 
I guess I just want to debunk the whole “maternal instinct” myth, the one that makes you think that in the heat of the moment, the “right thing” will magically make itself known. When my baby is screaming and I don’t know why, it’s not maternal instinct that leads me to a solution, it’s a lot of trial and error. The same goes for when my toddler is acting like a wild animal in the grocery store. I think sometimes people equate not knowing what to do with being a bad parent, so we’re either really hard on ourselves or we over-compensate by trying to project confidence about our own parenting style and choices. I’m probably in the former group, and I look at the latter and secretly hope to find a chink in their parenting armor. 
But neither of those reactions is fair. We’re all in the same boat. Or, to look at it a different way, we’re all in totally different boats, with totally different passengers, so how can we possibly compare ourselves to or judge other parents? None of us is right all the time. None of us has perfect children. If you do, let’s trade, and you can have a go at making mine perfect too. All we can do is support one another, offer guidance when we can, and be as forgiving of our own shortcomings as we would be of our children’s. 
(Like for instance, I should not feel shitty about using the word “shitty” multiple times in this post, even though it sets a bad example and is not what I would want my children to do. But hey, they can’t even read, so whatevs. I’ll worry about that one later.)

In Hindsight: What I Want My Girls to Know About Friendship

This weekend, fellow graduates from Trinity College’s class of 2005 will converge upon Hartford, Connecticut for our tenth college reunion. I will not be there, partly because I have an eight-week-old, but also because I have not managed to sustain most of my college friendships. I have alluded to this in previous posts and expressed my disappointment that many of my memories of those four years, which at the time were some of the best years of my life, now make me inexpressibly sad because I can’t laugh about them with the other people who were there.

Make sure to be the kind of person
your friends can look up to 🙂

I can now take responsibility for the role I played in the erosion of these relationships, and I suppose the one silver lining is that I now truly cherish the women in my life with whom I have built strong, mutually supportive bonds. What is most important to me at this point is using what I have learned to teach my three daughters how to navigate the often terrifying territory of female friendship.

Here is what I’ve come up with:

Friends should lift each other up. If a friend makes you feel ugly or less, reevaluate the importance you place on her opinion. If she has hurt you, express that immediately and with a willingness to hear her side. If you fail to communicate your anger or disappointment, you have no right to hold a grudge.

If you hurt her, apologize, but most importantly, mean it. Don’t get defensive. Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, validate her feelings and try to make it right. I vividly remember a fight I had with a friend in college. I had kissed a boy she liked, and we were sitting down to hash it out. “But I like him too,” I argued, “Doesn’t that matter?” She looked at me with disgust and said, “With you, it’s always, ‘I’m sorry but.'” Ten-plus years after the fact, I get it. I wish I hadn’t been the kind of person who said, “I’m sorry but.” I don’t want you to be that kind of person either.

Pick up the phone. Texting is okay for a lot of purposes, but you should want to hear your friend’s voice. You can’t laugh or cry with a person over text. When you get older, you need to be able to hear her baby cooing in the background or her toddler inching toward a tantrum to really understand where she’s coming from.

Look at old pictures and think,
“I love these girls even more now.”

Don’t you dare talk about her behind her back, because if ever there was a rule to follow, it’s to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Value every friendship equally. My sisters used to tease me when I was little because they said I had first, second, and third tier friends. My mom had designated a page of our family’s phone book “Jenny’s Friends”, and underneath that heading was a long list of names and numbers. Every time I wanted to invite a friend to come over to play, I started at the top of the list and worked my way down until I found someone who was free. I’m nicer than I was when I was a child, because I know now that nobody wants to feel like a second choice. All of your friends bring something to the table. Appreciate them all, because as an adult, I can tell you they are all awesome and irreplaceable: your mom friends, your drink-a-glass-of-wine-together friends, your childhood friends, your weekend-getaway friends, your funny friends, your same-political-opinions friends, your passionate friends, your older and wiser friends, your work friends, all of them.

Understand that friendships go through stages. This is natural and will allow you to grow as individuals. You’ll drift apart and, when you realize that you miss her, you’ll come back together. My friend Lindsey and I have followed this pattern time and time again since we first met at age three. We spent time with different cliques, pursued different interests, but always found our way back to each other and continue to do so because our friendship makes us better.

And if, when you reach out, your friend doesn’t respond in kind? I’ve learned the hard way that there are some people that you will have to let go of, regardless of how painful it may be. Not every relationship will last, but they will all teach you something that will hopefully make you a better friend in the future.

When your friends feet are swollen from pregnancy,
go get a pedi with them

Friendship is not always easy but should always be worth it. If you reach adulthood and have a handful of friends that are honest with you but kind, who lift you up and keep you grounded, who challenge you, who forgive you, who share their struggles with you and genuinely want to hear about yours, well, you will be counted lucky.