That’s me

It’s time I owned up to something.

You know how sometimes you can’t find that library book, or your car keys, or your favorite hoodie? That’s me. I did that.

How sometimes the store runs out of that thing you can’t live without? I’m personally responsible for that.

How zippers that should zip with the ease of a sigh instead catch and stick and make you gnash your teeth? Me.

Wars and pestilence? Not me; not my cup of tea. I don’t work on that level.


My fault

Yes. All annoyance, petty inconvenience, and late (or early) buses–I am responsible for these things. And it isn’t easy. When your printer jams two minutes before a big meeting, I have gone to great lengths to arrange that. When the last thing your morning routine needs is spilled milk, well, you wouldn’t believe the planning it took on my part.

I make it look so easy, don’t I?

Think Santa Claus, only instead of bringing toys and treats to the entire world in an instant, I spread vexation and botheration. And I’ve never been caught–like Santa, you’ll never quite glimpse me fleeing the scene of my work. All you will find is the evidence of my petty malevolence: the stuck stapler, the burnt toast. The broken chocolate shake machine at McDonald’s.

Obviously I operate under divine orders that compel and enable me to carry out my misdeeds, but I won’t go into the mechanics of it here. So why, you ask, am I coming clean now? Why admit to all this, when no one has ever suspected that I am the author of all aggravation?

Because, in fact, I have been found out. The jig is up, and I am trying to be gracious about it. (I’m not a monster.) My machinations have been discovered not by a team of scientists nor the world’s wisest students of theology, but by a ten-year-old boy. That’s right. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “And a little child shall lead them.”

My own son, remarkably enough, has realized that his mother is responsible for all the bother and worriment in the world. He’s never actually caught me in the act, any more than he caught my esteemed colleague, the Tooth Fairy, when she used to visit. But his father and I have always known that he is a preternaturally bright child, a gifted boy, and he has brought his powers of deduction to bear on this problem, and he has uncovered the truth. While this is a difficult time for me, I’m actually very proud of him. We have taught him well.

As I have every reason to believe my son will share this information freely over the next few years, I may as well own up to it now–embrace the inevitable. In fact, perhaps it was meant to be. Looking back, I see a definite parallel between his discovery and a similar discovery of my own when I was roughly his age. (Yes, the mandate to spread confusion and pique is passed down like the British crown. You didn’t think that was the same Santa all these centuries?)

So, folks. It’s me. Now you know who to blame. My apologies in advance for the inconvenience you are sure to experience today. I can’t stop, you know, just because I’ve been found out. A true soldier carries on. I will pursue my mission with the same passion and determination I always have.

Have a nice day, and good luck out there.

Living with Ambiguity: What having MS has taught me (so far)

Recently in the space of just a few days I saw two unrelated posts on Facebook in which people expressed relief that they had not been diagnosed with MS. In both cases, commenters said things like, “That’s wonderful news! Such a terrible disease.” Which it is. I know from personal experience because my mother had MS, and I spent my childhood watching her strength fail, slowly but steadily. She was in a wheelchair by the time I was thirteen. When I was in college, she got a motorized chair. She died (not directly of MS) when I was twenty-seven. I was closer to her than to anyone in the world.fog_arbuckle

But part of my brain read those comments and thought, “Well, if you’re going to have a chronic disease of the central nervous system these days, relapsing/remitting MS isn’t necessarily a bad one to have.” I didn’t think this because I’m flippant, or because I’m unaware that MS can vary widely from person to person. But I’ve been very lucky, at least so far. There are some excellent preventive drugs out there now, and either my MS is naturally very quiet, or the drugs are working, or some combination of the two. (Doctors can’t say for sure which.) I think it’s safe to say that if I didn’t tell you I have MS, you would never know.

But of course no one would choose to have MS. Probably the most frightened I have ever been in my life was the period of many months before I was definitively diagnosed. I knew from my mother how bad the disease could be, but I didn’t know about the drugs that now exist. We were on an adoption waiting list and I was terrified that a diagnosis could mess that up. Would I never hold a baby of my own? Would I be the reason my husband would never have children? Would he be pushing my wheelchair in a few years?

That was over ten years ago. I read early on that research shows that if your MS is quiet for at least ten years, it will tend to continue on in that way. So I am hopeful, without, I think, taking good health too much for granted. And I still sometimes worry. I still sometimes say to my husband, “I’m just exhausted. Do you think it’s the MS?” To which he usually replies, “Could be…or could be the fact that you’ve been chasing a three year old all day. And stayed up way too late last night.”

I’ve looked back more than usual lately at those early days, because of those Facebook comments. And I think that MS has been teaching me one teeny tiny thing, forcing one teeny tiny bit of possible character development, and I’m not saying it makes it all worthwhile (yay! Go get yourself a case of MS!), but it’s something I would never develop naturally, and it’s been useful as a parent: a tolerance for ambiguity.

I first learned the phrase “tolerance for ambiguity” in grad school when studying to teach English as a second language. It turns out that being able to live with ambiguity–not knowing everything for sure, not having everything nailed down–is a huge advantage for second language learners. It’s obvious, isn’t it? If you have to know everything for sure, every second, it’s going to slow your language learning down to a screeching halt. Language learners have to take risks. They have to utter sentences that aren’t perfect. They have to ask questions, make guesses, and move on in order to make real progress. And I remember thinking at the time, I’m just terrible at tolerating ambiguity. I want to know for sure what’s going on, and what’s going to happen.

Well, nothing gives you a whopping dose of ambiguity like a pending or actual diagnosis of MS. The often mercurial nature of the disease is renowned. Many people don’t know when or if they will be hit with another relapse, how the relapse will present, how long it will last… fun, huh? Things really can be fine for a long time, and then wham: things aren’t. A relapse can cause lasting nerve damage. Or not. Relapsing/remitting MS (the more common and usually more manageable kind) can evolve, eventually, into secondary progressive MS. But it often doesn’t.

In those early days, waiting to see whether I really had MS, waiting to see what it might do, I had no choice but to live with the questions. When I would go for a run, it was now an act of defiance toward the disease. I remember finding it reassuring that my feet would hit the pavement hard, as if I were thinking with every step, “SOLID. I’m solid. I’m not falling over. I’m not paralyzed.” I wondered whether the next step would be solid, but it had to be enough that this one, and this one, and this one, was.

I’d had a taste of ambiguity already, of course. You don’t go through infertility without a whole lot of ambiguity. You don’t sit on an adoption waiting list for three years without ambiguity. But somehow MS was the big one. This was my health, and it could impact everything else.

In a way, finally being diagnosed was a relief. It was an end to at least some of the ambiguity, and it was the start to treating the MS aggressively. (Thank you, Dr. Goodman.) But the question of how the disease might progress still loomed large. I learned to inject medicine daily. I waited on that adoption list, grateful that the diagnosis itself wasn’t enough to bump us off. I learned a tiny bit about taking things one day at a time.

We decided not to put life off: we went to Germany and Austria. Walking through Marienplatz in Muenchen, I would think about MS, what it might do. I would think about babies, whether there was one out there for us. I prayed.

A year after my diagnosis, we got our first baby at just under a month old. It was joyful; it was terrifying. And it turns out, so is actual parenting.

Every parent knows this: you don’t know from day to day how things will unfold. Your baby gets sick, and your plans spiral out of control. Your toddler develops a severe peanut allergy that will change how you live. Your first grader has a gift for drawing that you never could have imagined. Suddenly you’re dealing with something that drives you to your knees or brings you great joy. You learn to expect the unexpected.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m still not naturally great at tolerating ambiguity, but I’m still making progress, little by little. And the MS is still giving me the chance to practice it, whether I like it or not. The main way this manifests itself today relates to the injections I now give myself three times a week. It turns out that the drug I’m on has one potential post-injection side effect: within a minute or so of injecting, if the medicine enters the bloodstream faster than usual, you might feel like you’re having a heart attack and a stroke all at once. I’m not exaggerating. It would take a whole separate post to describe the experience adequately, but suffice it to say for about three to five minutes you will think you’re dying and want to call an ambulance. Then it’s over, and you’re fine. No damage has been done. It’s just scary as hell.

This rarely happens; maybe once every six months. But every time I inject, I wonder if it will happen. I say a prayer; I mention it to my husband. And then I inject anyway.

Why I can’t look at another parenting article right now

The other day someone sent me a link to an article on various parenting trends around the world that have not caught on in the U.S. This is the kind of thing I often find irresistible: the chance to compare my parenting with some mother in Borneo who just might hold the secret to getting your kid to fall asleep before 10:30 p.m.

But this time my initial reaction was, “Who cares?”

This surprised me enough that I clicked on the link anyway and skimmed through the article. Some highlights: Parents in China potty train their babies by nine months. Parents in Norway practically raise their kids outdoors–including nap time–even in subzero temps. Parents in Denmark leave babies in strollers outside stores while they shop. Parents in France teach their kids to eat absolutely everything.

And my second reaction to all this was, “Who cares?”

That’s a slight oversimplification. My reaction to China was, whoop-de-do. Good for you. I’ve got a three-year-old in diapers resisting underwear like you wouldn’t believe, and I’ve been too tired and too busy to sort it all out yet, and it’s making me a little crazy. If someone on the other side of the world is potty-training by nine months, give them a medal but you don’t have to tell me about it. (China, by the way, is the same country that literally forced a friend of mine to study chemistry when she was passionate about literature and history. She got a degree in chemistry and entered a job where she felt like every day they were sitting and waiting to die. But hey, potty training is important too.)

My reaction to Norway was, it’s a cold cold country, kiddos. Get used to it.

My reaction to Denmark was mixed. Sure, it’s hard to wrap my brain around leaving a baby outside unattended, but how many people are going to take a baby? Do you know how much work they are?

My reaction to France was to be annoyed in the time-honored way of Americans who are sick of hearing that the French are better in every way. If you’re telling me that there are absolutely no picky little kids in France, I won’t believe you, especially since I happen to know that the Danish conducted a huge rigorous study proving that pickiness is 70% genetic. And the Danish can’t be wrong, right? They’re the ones who came up with the great idea of leaving babies on the curb.


Points if you can tell this is an alligator, not a crocodile.

What I’m trying to say is, I may be a little burned out. Whether I’m more burned out on parenting articles or on actual parenting is hard to say; I suspect it’s a mix. Would I do it all over again if I had known ahead of time how much hard work parenting is? Yes. Absolutely. Would I throw myself in front of a charging crocodile to save my children? Yes. Without hesitation. In fact, I think I would welcome the break in routine.

Here’s what I would like links to, instead of parenting articles: what are the finest and most interesting NON-CHILD-FRIENDLY restaurants in Columbus, OH? Which are the best, most romantic, least child-friendly hotels or bed-and-breakfasts in Columbus–and is there a jacuzzi for two?

This is because something nearly unprecedented in over eight years of parenting is maybe going to happen: my husband and I are going to have an entire night and part of a day away from our beloved children. This has only happened once before, years ago, when my sister kidnapped our toddler and kicked us out of the house. It was wonderful. Unfortunately she lives 1,000 miles away.

It’s a natural consequence (for those of you who love articles on natural consequences) of having children when you’re older: the grandparents are also older, and while they are all loving and generous and involved, they probably don’t want to try running down a toddler who doesn’t want his diaper changed. But we’re finally thinking outside the box. We’re farming Older Child out to one set of grandparents and Aunt A, who will plan a wonderful special time together (he is so excited!), and we’re farming Younger Child out to Aunt S and Uncle S, who have all the toys and know-how and hugs you could ask for.

And since they all live in Columbus, we’re going to stay in the area, not far from but well away from our children.


Okay, this isn’t Columbus, but someday…someday…

In addition to a lovely restaurant and a romantic hotel, we’re considering going to the Columbus Zoo and actually looking at the animals. I was thinking we might stroll through a garden, by which I mean stroll. Sedately. I was even thinking we could have a conversation, perhaps several. Or we might just stay in the hotel room. (Ahem.)

If we really pull this off, we’re going to owe the aunts and uncle big-time. I’d pretty much open up a vein right now if they requested it.

So how about it? Favorite restaurants, anyone? Quaint little B&B tucked away in Columbus’ beautiful German Village? Send me your links and suggestions for a romantic night away.

Just no parenting articles, please.

A New Starting Point for My Biggest Parenting Challenge

(Note: this post was slightly revised on 5/23/14.)

The first thing you need to know is that I’m not a deeply patient person. The second thing is that I’ve always been a bit of a whiner myself. The upshot of all this, interestingly, is that my own child’s ability to whine like you wouldn’t believe drives me Absolutely. Freaking. Crazy. Wouldn’t you think that my own history of whining would create sympathy for my child’s struggle with same? Well, you would be wrong. For some reason, we often tend to be harder on children for displaying the faults we ourselves struggle with. But that’s a topic for another post.


This may be what my personality looked like; I really don’t remember.

Now, my husband and I saw this coming, the fact that Mommy was going to tend to turn into Dragon Lady perhaps a touch too easily. We saw it coming because of the premarital counseling we had (something I highly recommend). At one point in the counseling, the counselor gave us personality tests and then graphed our personalities. We looked at our graphs and then I said, “Oh. I’ve got the bad personality and Tim has the good. personality.”

The counselor gamely tried to deny this, probably not wanting me to feel badly, but while part of me did feel badly, the other part thought, “SCORE. I win. The pressure is off.” This was Tim’s chance to back out of the whole deal, but being a man of honor (and perhaps having ulterior motives), he chose not to. Forward we went, and it’s been a wonderful fifteen years, except that now I have to deal with little people who have some of the same attitude problems I’ve always had.

So the other day I was reading something called Raising 5 Kids with Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog. In this particular post, the author describes how her mother raised a son with multiple serious disabilities due to rubella, and after a very rough first few months, had a profound spiritual experience (you can read about it here) and was able to move forward in parenting this child with love and joy. She accepted him for who he was and encouraged him to do his best.

I found this deeply affecting. My children do not (to our knowledge) have any disabilities and I do not pretend to know the struggles and joys that attend parenting a child who does. We have a beloved young relative with some serious disabilities, but however often we get to see him and enjoy his exuberance, it’s not the same as dealing with the day-to-day realities. Claiming otherwise would be like saying that because you have a lot of babysitting experience, you know all about raising kids. You don’t. You can’t possibly.

As I thought about this woman’s grace and patience in a very tough situation, it was hard not to compare myself to her and come up wanting. (This is another thing people with bad personalities do.) All I had to deal with was, for the most part, world-class whininess, and did I do so with grace and patience? Mostly not so much.

That’s when something clicked in my brain. What if, for the purposes of parenting, I took this woman’s starting point as my own? What if, instead of treating this annoying thing my child does as something he’s doing to drive me crazy, as something he could STOP DOING IF HE WOULD JUST LISTEN TO HIS MOTHER, I said, Okay, this is the hand we’re dealt. Now how do we move forward from here?

Do you see what I mean?

I am not saying whininess is actually a disability. And I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to take responsibility for their behavior. When I complain and make people around me miserable, that’s my responsibility, just as the police would hold me responsible for lifting someone’s wallet. (FYI, I’ve never lifted a wallet. That’s not how my bad personality swings.)

I doubt this new starting point can make me perfectly patient, any more than any parent can be perfectly patient all the time. But it’s a paradigm shift that I suspect could slow my knee jerk impatience and focus my attention on constructive solutions instead of blame.

So this is what I’m going to try: accept him for who he is, both the difficult and the delightful, because this is the hand we’re dealt. And encourage him to become his best, from this new starting point.

I may even apply some of this to me.

A Profound Observation about Life, or Possibly a Minor Observation about the Contrary Nature of Children

This is why I hate being the first person to shower after a bath night:


The tub detritus is unreal. If you are in a rush and shower without clearing away the toys, you could be impaled on any number of toys, and bleed out to a slow, painful, undignified death. Why, you may ask, do we not clear away the toys the night before, right after the boys’ baths?

Clearly you’ve never put small children to bed. By the time they’re in bed, we’re staggering around like zombies.

But here’s the observation: in spite of the fun obviously had in the above tub, children often don’t want to get into the tub to start with. They don’t want to get in, and then they don’t want to get out. We often have to beg and threaten on both ends of the process. One way to try to get them out is to pull the plug and drain the tub. (If you haven’t read King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, go do so now.) But surprisingly,Image hanging out stark naked in an empty tub with nothing but sopping toys and soap scum is considered more fun than getting out and toweling off.

Here’s the possibly profound part of the observation: are my children teaching me about living in the present? This is something I definitely need to work on, being far better at stewing over the past or worrying about the future. Live for now! Take joy in this moment! Revel in this chance to splash water in unnecessary places! I like to think that some of this joie de vivre is slowly, inevitably rubbing off on me, even as my clothes get soaked.

Or possibly they’re just contrary. I’m too tired to decide.

Why I’m Glad I Was Miserable in First Grade

First grade, for me, was a terrible experience to be survived one long, gray, lousy day at a time. I think it’s safe to say that I went to school with a stomachache every single day of first grade.

My teacher, Mrs. Harsh (not her real name), was a mean, stringent woman who evidently hated children. She shook the floorboards when she walked the aisles; she boxed the boys’ ears. (Today there would be lawsuits.) Mrs. Harsh yelled and scolded for the slightest mistake. This was the worst thing that happened to me in her classroom, and it didn’t happen often because I toed the line, but I lived in terror of crossing her.


Why do I look happy here? Because I was not at school.

My mother, a teacher herself, would later recall that she had to push me out the door every morning and hold it shut from the inside, with me crying on one side of the door and her crying on the other. There was no way to get me switched to a different school or a different classroom; we lived in a town of about 900 people at that point, and I was bussed to this school, and there was only one first grade class. To help us both survive the year, my mother occasionally pretended to believe that my stomachache was indicative of real illness, and let me stay home. But most of the time, of course, I had to go.

To make things better, I had virtually no friends. I didn’t know most of the other kids because I was bussed in, and the one girl I did know ignored me at school. For some reason, she considered me her best friend at home but at school looked right through me. This was confusing and painful and my first exposure to the social mind games girls sometimes play.

Then there was Angie, the big scary third-grader who bullied me at every recess for awhile. (I have fantasized about running into Angie as an adult, although I imagine she’s been in lock-up for years now.) Angie taught me that you don’t deal with terrorists. Instead you tell your mother.

And the crowning moment of the entire year? That would be the day I was in the girl’s bathroom, a small, single toilet affair at the back of the room, and a girl in the back row leaned back and swung the door wide. While I was sitting there. Panties down around my ankles. When Mrs. Harsh yelled, “Kathy, you shut that door,” Kathy sat immobile while the entire class of forty children swiveled in their seats and stared at me, mouths dropped in perfect ovals. Mrs. Harsh finally had to walk all the way back to close the door herself, floorboards shaking. The whole thing seemed to take about three hours. Once I was dressed, I literally stood with my palms against the door for a long time, praying for the strength to come out of that little room.

And now I’m glad. Because now I have children.

My third grader has never had a teacher like Mrs. Harsh, but he occasionally has bad days. And he needs to know that everyone has bad days, and that bad days can be survived. I’ve found that telling him this doesn’t make a dent, but if I sigh and say, “Something like that happened to me once,” his ears perk up.

So several months ago, when he was upset and embarrassed about a particular incident, guess what I whipped out? “Sweetie,” I said, “do you know what happened to me in first grade?” By the end of my story, he was actually smiling. “Okay, that was definitely worse,” he said.

I’ve never been moved to write Mrs. Harsh a thank-you note for one of the worst years of my life. But I’m honestly glad I can tell my children, “This horrible thing happened to me when I was your age. And I ended up being okay.”

P.S. I realize this may not always work; I suppose my stories will lose credibility as my children head into their teen years. But I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

Why I’m lousy at make believe

I’m terrible at playing super heroes.


Doesn’t she look wistful? Doesn’t he look like he’s trying, in his own blunt Neanderthal way?

By “playing super heroes,” I mean assuming the role of Bat Girl or Swamp Thing or [insert favorite super hero name here] and running around the house shooting at the bad guys or attacking the good guys or [insert favorite super hero activity here]. This game used to be very dear to Sam’s heart, back when he was a young thing of about five or six, so I used to try to oblige now and then. But I was abysmal at it.

By “abysmal,” I mean that at five minutes, my attention and energy would be flagging. At ten minutes, I’d “have to go to the bathroom–be right back.” And at fifteen minutes, I’d be praying for something heavy to fall on my head and render me blissfully unconscious.

At the same time, I always felt that by all rights I should be terrific at make believe. For one thing, I was terrific at it when I was Sam’s age. I was the best, baby. At least in my own head, which is what it’s all about. Sometimes I played cowboys and Native Americans. (Okay, not really. This was circa 1973.) Sometimes I gave birth to babies in my bedroom. (Funny, but whatever friend I was playing with would always go into labor right about the same time. Sympathetic onset, I guess.) Sometimes I would drape myself in old sheer curtains and act out some corny princess-type scenario that would’ve made Walt Disney blush.

For another thing–and I find this second reason at least as compelling as the first–now that I’m ostensibly grown up, I write fiction. Same difference, right? Inventing characters, dreaming up plot lines, creating suspense…it’s all about the imagination. And don’t we like to believe that writers, artists in general, never really grow up? Don’t we laud the concept of holding onto our inner child?

I remember being so passionate as a child about make believe that I promised myself I would never outgrow it, no matter how old I got. (I never dreamed I’d be forty-six.) And I remember another rather self-aware thought, in middle school: all my friends and I want to do now is talk. How did this happen? When? It’s hard to keep a promise that one is no longer invested in.

The fact is, I can still play make believe, but not with my whole heart, and not for long. Maybe it’s hard to abandon myself to play when I am also in the dead-serious, permanent role of Protector of Children, Payer of Bills, Maker of Meals. And probably all the make believe from my childhood fulfilled its purpose and had to be shucked so I could move on to those vital conversations about heaven knows what in middle school and high school and college and graduate school and my last dinner out with friends.

Most days, it is enough to watch Josh, our new master of make believe, approach on all fours and announce he’s an elephant, without getting down to be an elephant myself (though sometimes I do). And when I am pressed into the role of, say, Mommy Monster, I have an agenda: make them scream. Make them laugh. Remember through them the old fleeting magic.