To raise a little boy

In my current state, I am not to be trusted with basic tasks. I rarely know the day of the week. I was once very adept at remembering names, and now I have a hard time recalling the names of people with whom I’m casually acquainted, people whose names I really ought to know. The burners on the stove have been left going for an uncomfortably long time. Four or five times since Moses was born, we’ve left the front door either (a) slightly open or (b) with the keys in the lock all night long. It’s amazing we’re all still alive, unmurdered, safe in our beds. We may have all of our limbs, but we do not have all of our faculties.

I am also strangely clumsy, in a way that I was not before. I trip over things; I stub my toes; I catch myself going up and down stairs. Moses has been an unfortunate victim of my clumsiness as well. The other day, I dropped the small portable sound machine on his face while trying to put him down for a nap. He released that scream of betrayal, winding up with soundless rage and then releasing a florid wail; it’s such a genuinely heartbreaking sound. I bumped his legs against the outdoor umbrella. I caught his foot under the arm of a rocking chair. I somehow scraped his temple with the prong of my engagement ring. Guion watches me do all of these things and looks at me with silent (but still gentle) reproach. I know, I know; I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.

Despite these notable declines in my ability to function, I have become extremely efficient in simple domestic tasks. In the hour or so of free time I get between feeds (if I’m lucky), I run around the house, possessed. I can finish a small calligraphy print in half an hour. I can clean both bathrooms in 10 minutes. I can unload the dishwasher, get dressed, and make our bed before the little dragon wakes.

I am not sure how to relax. Everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” and I’m all for that between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., but I can’t seem to master the art of daytime napping. I’m too distracted; there are too many (little, meaningless) things on my to-do list. To sleep in the day seems to squander what little productive time I have. It is difficult to give up this mindset. Perhaps I am not meant to be productive right now. I have already done a hell of a lot of producing. See example below:

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He is six weeks old now, and while we are still in the thick of it, I feel less afraid. I no longer dread nights. (By all accounts, for his age, he seems to be a pretty good sleeper. Some nights are much better than others.) I do not spend my waking hours wondering if he is OK. I am pretty sure he is OK. He will live. One day, he will be a small boy, and then a man.

. . .

I loved reading this column by poet Sabrina Orah Mark in the Paris Review while pregnant, and it has taken on a greater resonance now, now that I too have a son. She writes beautifully about fairy tales and the intersection of these long-held fables with her work raising boys.

This passage, from her latest essay “Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You,” stuck with me particularly:

I dropped Noah home, and ran off to Target. I pass the girl’s department, and a T-shirt flashes at me: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Sorry, Nibs, Tootles, Slightly, Curly, Twin One, and Twin Two. Sorry, John and Michael. Sorry, my sons: the future is female. Sorry, Peter Pan, we’re over you.

I think a lot about boys. About raising mine to be sensitive, and effective, and strange, and lovely, and kind, and funny, and brave. I want them to be boys who keep their shadows on, and who belong to a future. Boys who understand the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Worry picks at me like Hook’s metal claw. I want their boyness to bloom. I want to keep them safe.

In our well-intentioned desire to give girls as much chance and confidence as boys have been historically given, I sometimes fear that we have swung too far. Our feminism for our daughters is notoriously shallow, rooted in empty slogans and engineered to pit girls and boys against each other. These days, among adults of our social order, girls are better; girls are prized. Boys are difficult; boys are troubled.

I’m guilty of buying into it myself. While pregnant, I wasn’t shy about expressing my hope that our baby would be a girl. Everyone else seemed to want a girl too. Girls are marketed as easier to raise and temperamentally superior.

Now, of course, I feel differently. I want to openly reject this paradigm; I lament that I was seduced by it. Girlhood ultimately does not profit by our denigration of boyhood. Both girls and boys must be allowed to blossom in free, natural ways, ways inherent to their natures. Specifically, I reject this expectation that boys, if they are to be labeled “good,” should conduct themselves — in play, in public, in school — like girls.

I don’t know anything yet about raising a child. I’m still figuring out how to keep a baby and myself fed every day. But I want to be more thoughtful about raising a boy. I want to start pondering that work now, to consider how I can help Moses’ boyness bloom. The future is his as well.

Already given

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Charleston in late February.

We went away to Charleston for a long weekend, a final, celebratory jaunt as a family of two. We walked miles and miles every day and ate incredible amounts of delicious food (on any holiday, walking and eating are my primary ambitions). And then we spied some of the most grand old rowhouses, cheerful dogs, a trio of dolphins, and an injured bald eagle and maimed kestrel (at the aquarium, where they somewhat incongruously reside).

After eight years of marriage, we’ve become very compatible travel companions. He knows that I will be unnecessarily anxious about the airport (not about flying, but about being in an airport, for which I reserve a special kind of loathing) and accommodates in advance to reduce my fretting. I know that he will find the best restaurants in any given city, so I don’t spend any time researching them. He knows that I will want to find some animals to admire, wherever they exist, and I know that he will want to stop and photograph unfamiliar flowers or vines or shrubs. We rarely need to even voice our desires, which frees us up to have conversations at dinner about inconsequential abstractions (gender politics, music theory, creative expression, the value of performance art, the frequency with which one should shampoo).

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If there is anything I fear, it is the dread of the unknown, the simmering concern that a new person in the family will ruin our happy relationship. Parents we trust and respect tell us that raising children will, in time, deepen our relationship. Our sorrows and joys will both be more extreme. But as an emotionally illiterate person, I can’t help but hear this reassurance as deeply troubling.

. . .

“Lord, give us what you have already given.” — A character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa

. . .

I’m feeling burnt out on baby books, so I have been reading a history of the heroin epidemic, a field guide to North American trees, and a hefty novel by Elsa Morante. I am now feeling a little bit more like myself. Baby books are stressful.

Night and day

I recently found my 100-page diary (titled Night and Day), which I maintained in a password-protected Word doc from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2009. It’s solid-gold humiliation material. So much moony behavior; so deadly serious most of the time, too. I was very dramatic about boys, of course, and there was a lot of hyper-piety in there, too, along with some vapid musings about what I was reading and thinking about. It’s tremendously entertaining and it wants to make me bite all my nails off. 

Ten years hence, it is nice to be older, to be relatively self-aware. I no longer look at myself as this grandstanding literary heroine. I feel very subdued and normal and problematic. But I still wonder if I will feel a similar sense of shame when I am 38 and I stumble on this blog.

(Probably.)

Original 6
Original 6 with Scoop. (We have a habit of stealing neighbors’ dogs.)

My life is so good right now, and I wouldn’t change anything about its domestic arrangement, but I was thinking about how fun and lively it was when it was just the nuclear family: the four siblings and Mom and Dad, at home together all the time. We had a really good time together, the Original 6. We were noisy and all-consuming and imaginative. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and if we were indoors, we were dressing up in costumes and building sofa forts and Lego universes. Mom and Dad gave us this childhood that I recall as this unbroken reel of happiness. I shared a big bedroom (the Harem) with Kelsey and Grace during my last years at home, and it was the most fun and the most annoying all at once. We were always in each other’s business.

(I’ve been digitally archiving piles of family photos, and it’s making me feel nostalgic.)

This rush of nostalgia helps me understand, for the first time, how sad my family was when I went to college. Being the eldest, I was the first to go; I was elated and I couldn’t even fathom why they were so gloomy. But I understand a bit of it now. They weren’t going to miss me (I was a skinny tyrant) — they were mourning the loss of wholeness of the family.

It is necessary and good that children grow up and want to leave home. Can you imagine the hellishness if we all still lived with our parents and tried to replicate our childhood relationships with them and our siblings, forever? I recognize this fully. But I still like to indulge in that sweet sadness of remembering what was. It is good to remember and to be happy for what you shared together.

Farsons
Original 4 on Kelsey’s 9th birthday.

Ginsburg for Queen

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1977.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1977.

“Were I Queen, my principal affirmative action plan would have three legs. First, it would promote equal educational opportunity, and effective job training for women, so they would not be reduced to dependency on a man or the state. Second, my plan would give men encouragement and incentives to share more evenly with women the joys, responsibilities, worries, upsets, and sometimes tedium of raising children from infancy to adulthood. (This, I admit, is the most challenging part of the plan to make concrete and to implement.) Third, the plan would make quality day care available from infancy on. Children in my ideal world would not be women’s priorities, they would be human priorities.”

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoted in Brigid Schulte’s excellent book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Ambivalence, grace, and the choice to have kids

No one ever asks a man, “Are you planning on having children?” But it’s a question that is often lobbed at women between the ages of 20 and 40. And it’s a question that I often ask myself. Am I going to have children?

Ann Friedman’s recent piece on women’s ambivalence toward having children struck a chord with me. Like the women Friedman characterizes, I am open to having children, but I’m also not sure if I particularly want them. I find that many of my childless friends express a similar sentiment. It is, perhaps, one of the first times in history in which women have felt confident enough to say such things out loud.

Growing up, I never envisioned myself as a mother. I did not play with dolls or play-act at breastfeeding or other mothering activities. At a young age, I was teased, by my older female relatives, for my considerable lack of maternal instinct. I preferred reading and bossing my peers around; I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I baby-sat often in my teens, and even now, I am still quite adept at diapering an infant, but I never particularly loved watching other people’s children. Unlike many of my female friends, I never begged to hold people’s babies; I didn’t know what to do with them. I preferred the solemn six-year-olds to the babies every time.

Partially because I’ve never imagined myself as a mother, I find the joys and trials of parenting very difficult to envision. As an outsider, I just see all of the sleep-deprived, home-bound, strung-out young parents — who, by the way, are doing incredible jobs at raising their children with great love and daily sacrifice — and think, “Why would I want that?” Because I’ve never experienced or even witnessed these parenting highs (naturally, because they surely occur in the intimate, private moments between parent and child), they seem so foreign when mothers describe them to me.

Furthermore, I also wonder, what is the point of having children? On a purely rational and self-preserving level, it’s so that we can have someone take care of us when we are old, because our beloved dogs won’t be able to afford our retirement homes. On the evolutionary level, it’s so that we can push our genes (regardless of whether they are genes worth preserving) onto the next generation and thereby further the human race — despite the fact that the world is already grossly overpopulated with our species. It’s the emotional level that I don’t understand. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a compelling reason for children from the emotional or psychological perspective. Surely that reason exists; I’m just not sure what it is. (If you are a parent, chime in!)

I reject the notion that because I have a womb, I ought to fill it with offspring. Further, I roundly reject the notion that God will love me more if I procreate. I am deeply opposed to any denomination or branch of theology that asserts that the more children you have, the holier you are. This is an incredibly short-sighted, reductionist, and offensive stance.

I am so glad that many people have decided to become parents. I know so many wonderful, loving, shining exemplars of mothers and fathers, and I know they do good, hard work every day to raise their little humans. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to join their throng.

In intimate moments, this is a conversation that comes up often among the women I know. I said all of these things, the sentiments above, to Tara, one of the best mothers I know, and was a little fearful to hear her reaction. Tara is one of those gloriously sympathetic human beings who was born to be a mother. She is smart and compassionate and sacrificial; her kids are her pride and joy, and for good reason (they’re amazing little kids). She seems to really revel in motherhood, in this beautiful, awe-inspiring way.

And so I was worried, to say all of these things to her. But this is what she said: “Abby, if you do have kids, that is great. God will give you the grace to be a great mom. And if you don’t have kids? That’s OK too. God will give you the grace for that too.”

It was such a simple sentiment, but it brought me to tears. No one has ever said that to me before. To receive such grace! And especially from a Christian mom, who have, up until this point, always said that I need to stop being so fearful, so selfish, so cold-hearted. To be told, regardless of what you do with your uterus, you are loved and accepted. I have been waiting so long to hear this from someone. It brings me to tears even now, just writing about it.

I have always assumed that I would have children, because that is what you do when you are a married person (and when, in my case, you are married to a person who wants children). But I feel no great fervor for child-rearing. And I am OK with languishing in this ambivalence for now. I have a few more years before the demands of biology start to become urgent. And then to wait, to receive grace for whatever comes.

Monday Snax

General rule: If I don’t have any photos from the weekend, it means that we had a very peaceful, uneventful one, which, in this case, was true. Except for the mice infestation, which is something I am not brave enough to discuss right now.

Snax:

Formerly Known As. A thoughtful and great article by a Christian man on why he decided to take his wife’s name when they married. (The Curator)

Kyoko Hamada: Letter to Fukushima. A poignant photo essay and journal of a photographer’s journey back to Fukushima. As the media frenzy dies down, the residents of Fukushima still carry on their extremely difficult lives in a barren town. (The New Yorker)

Veiled. Unbelievable Italian sculptures of veiled women. I remember my mother talking about the incredible beauty of these in an art book when I was young. Since then, I’ve always been mesmerized by them. (Even Cleveland)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides reflects on writing his long-awaited second third (edit: Thanks, Jonathan) novel, which appears this month, nearly nine years after Middlesex. (The Millions)

Ten Types of Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome Them). A practical list for stuck writers. Eugenides himself might have appreciated this. (io9)

Flick Chicks. Mindy Kaling reflects on the absurd and limited number of women that are permitted to appear in romantic comedies. My favorite tropes: “The Klutz” and “The Forty-Two-Year-Old Mother of the Thirty-Year-Old Male Lead.” (The New Yorker)

All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed. Now this is truly sad. (The Atlantic)

Alyson Fox. Fox shoots a series of very different women, all wearing the same shade of Revlon lipstick. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

Tom Boy. A serious shoot for serious women. I like it. (Wolf Eyebrows)

Gun Safety Class at an Indiana School, 1956. Their faces in that first frame! This is so classic BOY. (Retronaut)

Suspended Greenhouse Lamp. Want! Although I get this feeling that the plants would start to singe over time… (Unruly Things)

Ask an Orthodox Christian. Orthodox Christianity is also incredibly fascinating to me, and it seems that way for all of the people who asked questions here, because they all sound like they want to convert. Interesting answers, though! (Rachel Held Evans)

It’s Nearly Halloween. Yet another reason why I have always deeply disliked Halloween. (Gemma Correll)

Modern tragedies

Source: Wit and Delight
  • Writers who don’t read.
  • Children who don’t play outside.
  • Reality TV.
  • Puppy mills.
  • Smart phone addictions.
  • People who keep writing German “shepards.”

OK, that’s all. I’m done being an old lady/curmudgeon for the day.

Family love: Dad

I am writing a series of short posts about why I love my family. This is the third installment. All quality (wedding-related) photographs are courtesy of the incomparably great Meredith Perdue; all other photographs are mine.

Dad, Juju, Jak

We like to say that my father never truly grew up. Throughout our childhoods, he was the most popular dad in the neighborhood. He was the Pied Piper. Flocks of children followed him everywhere: to the pool, to play dodgeball against the walls of houses, to set up a makeshift hockey rink in the cul-de-sac, to stage water wars against other bands of roving children. He did not act like everyone else’s serious, starchy fathers; he seemed like one of us. At family gatherings, he preferred to sit at the kids’ table; adult conversation made him uncomfortable. He never treated us like babies or talked down to us; he treated us like his equals and we worshiped him for it.

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He is one of the most hilarious and unusual people I know. Sarcasm is his mother tongue. I often regale people with stories of the bizarre and funny things he’s done, only to realize later that he may come across as totally insane.

All I ever wanted when I was a child was to make him laugh. To get Dad to laugh! That would be the highest honor. When he did laugh at something I said, I felt on top of the world.

Dad's true love

He is the most humble man I know. Dad is a quintessential renaissance man in many ways. He was a celebrated athlete in college, winning all sorts of titles (including the Big Ten Award) for Purdue’s track team. Today, he coaches hockey and plays any sport that he can. Our family gatherings are now famous for his organized “Family Olympics” events. He gathers all willing members into a gauntlet of games (including but not limited to: basketball, badminton, volleyball, disc golf, ultimate Frisbee, hockey, Crate, and so on).

Along with still managing to fit the role of the consummate athlete, Dad is the smartest person I’ve ever met. He has three master’s degrees (in computer engineering, robotics, and something else equally nerdy). He worked on the team in Florida that invented the first personal printer. He did freelance engineering work for NASA. He spent a year creating an algorithm for auctions that no one had discovered before. But he’d never tell you any of these things, not in a million years. He’s accomplished things that we are still finding out about, even now.

In my teenage years, I was very easily frustrated with him. I had little patience in our relationship. I regret that a lot. Looking back, I think this is because how similar we are. I can’t completely express all of our small, shared characteristics, but I am convinced that they are many. We both have a tendency to default to sarcasm in tight situations. We are likely to become obsessed with something, to a degree more extreme than most people. We cultivate a fierce pride in our family. We like to exaggerate problems but then solve them quickly. Since I’ve gotten married, I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before. I appreciate him to a deeper degree; I realize all that he has done for us and continues to do. He brings unlimited joy wherever he goes and I don’t think there’s anyone I’d rather spend a day with. As a father, he is peerless. He gave us the happiest childhood one could imagine. And I don’t tell him that enough.

Monday Snax

Well, I don’t have any pictures from this weekend because I’m stupid.

Here’s the story. We went down to Winston-Salem for Allan and Abby’s beautiful wedding this weekend. On the way down, we stopped at Subway just outside of Lynchburg for lunch. I proceeded to leave my purse (containing my wallet, keys, cell phone, camera, and a library book) at said Subway — and did not realize I had done so until we were 2.5 hours away. Commence many tears, panicky declarations, frantic calls, et hoc genus omne.

All this to say: I have the good employees of the Rustburg, Virginia, Subway and my brother-in-law to thank. Win, who has a heart of gold, woke up at 7 on Sunday morning and drove 1.5 hours to this hole-in-the-wall spot to retrieve my purse and take it back home for me. He definitely receives the Best Brother-in-Law of the Year Award and I am forever indebted to him. I think I owe him my first child or something like that.

ANYWAY. Aside from me being totally stupid, we had a nice weekend. It was great to see old friends from UNC and get to party with them at this lovely wedding. Whew. I still feel exhausted from the whole weekend right now; we got in last night around midnight. It may take me a while to function like a human again.

A few Snax with a lot of caffeine:

How Much Do Interns Earn? Having worked as an unpaid publications intern before, all I can add is a hearty AMEN to this article. It’s a crime. (Full Stop)

Beauty, Islamic Feminism, and Choice. I really appreciated reading this post, especially after having read Half the Sky, which does not paint a pretty picture of the way women are treated in Islamic countries. The author, a self-described “Muslim feminist,” writes about what it means to have choice and be an empowered, beautiful woman in Islamic culture. (The Beheld)

Lauren Lancaster’s United Arab Emirates. A haunting and fascinating collection of photographs of the UAE from New Yorker photographer Lauren Lancaster. (Photo Booth, the New Yorker)

“Where the Children Sleep:” A Round-the-World Tour of Children’s Bedrooms. I feel like I’ve seen this photo project before, but I don’t really care, because it’s always extremely fascinating. The disparities are numbing. (The Atlantic)

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way? We watched a lot of films on Turner Classic Movies growing up, and I’ve always wanted to know the answer to this question. Why did American actors in the 1930s and 1940s speak in that stilted, quasi-British way? The Atlantic has the answer. (The Atlantic Monthly)

Paintings by Morgan Allender. Dark, lush, floral. I like. (ii ne, kore)

A Heart So White. I’m still six years old at heart: I will always be enchanted by photographs of white horses. (Eye Poetry)

Wales, Circa 1880, in Color. I wonder if Wales still looks this magical today. (How to Be a Retronaut)

Keep It In Your Pants: Smartphone Etiquette at Every Age. A guide on how to not be a total jerk with your iPhone, Crackberry, etc. (Also, is “smartphone” one word now? I hate that.) (Good)

Monday Snax

Birthday lilies from my lover!

I just have to say, I had such a wonderful weekend. I spent most of Saturday with Anna. We met at the farmers’ market, which just opened for the season, and picked up food for brunch. The highlight of the market, though, was the farmer who had a truck bed full of 10 week-old shepherd mix puppies. SO wanted to take one home. Of course. But I resisted. After brunch, Anna and I picked up her family’s young German Shepherd, Heidi, and took her to the beautiful Pen Park, where we roamed with Heidi, who swam in the Rivanna River, chased some deer, and carried a huge log for about a mile (like this, except the log was even bigger). We also got caught in a freak hail storm in the middle of a giant field. It was exhilarating. I want to do it all again tomorrow.

Saturday night, Guion and I went to dinner at the lavish Tavola as a belated birthday event. So good. And then on Sunday, we got a great (albeit short) visit from Dad, Sam, and Sam’s hockey teammate. They passed through Charlottesville on their way home from a tournament in D.C. We had burgers outside on the downtown mall and reminisced about life back home. It was great to see them, even though Sam is HUGE. I am not used to that child being six feet tall.

Snaxy snax with snax sauce:

Myths: From the Rise of the “Model Minority” to the “American Decline.” A very thoughtful and insightful piece on the subtle racism and expectations that Asian Americans face today. (Serenastyle Blog)

The Allure of Rue Montorgueil. Let’s go to France. To this street. Tomorrow. (Lost In Cheeseland)

The Rough Guide to the Waste Land. A travel guide through Eliot’s epic. (McSweeney’s)

Map of the USA from a Californian’s Perspective. Haha. At least we get to be the “Fashion Bloggers” state! (Delphine Ephemera)

Drop-Your-Jaw Embroidery. This has been heavily circulated in the lady blogosphere already, but it’s still pretty amazing: embroidered classic book covers. I think Black Beauty is my favorite. (Little Is the New Big)

Three-Year-Old College Student Really Wants to be New Jersey’s Governor. OMG. I love children. (Daily Intel)

Solid Bond in Your  Heart. Japanese children kill me. This photo, too. Tears! (Hamada Hideaki)