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  • Mouths of Babes

    By Jennifer Golden

     

    Children, especially our own, seem especially competent at guilelessly pointing out our flaws and insecurities. “From the mouths of babes,” is, after all, a proverb for a reason.

    For a few months not long ago, my four-year-old took to drawing portrait after portrait of her loved ones—stick-figured, crazy-haired, one giant black eye staring right at you and one slightly smaller eye staring off the page, a demonic Cookie Monster of sorts. And always, always: a purple dog, a red ice cream cone, and a brown blob of poop floating between the person’s legs. I once asked my daughter why she insisted on the poop. “I need to use the brown marker,” she informed me matter-of-factly.

    She papered the walls of her room, floor-to-ceiling, with these pictures—an unsettling gallery that will surely be recalled by friends and family should she ever end up on the wrong end of of a 20/20 investigation. And, although each picture looked almost exactly the same as the one on either side, she could tell you at first glance which one was Mommy, which was Daddy, Uncle Matt, a bear, a unicorn, whomever. As long as my portrait had me also looking like Uncle Matt or a bear or a unicorn, I took no offense. I was, like any mom, proud to accept my child’s artwork and display it for all the world to see, future psychological profiling be damned.

    Then she got more sophisticated. The poop, mercifully, went away. The images started to have distinct characteristics. “What is that?” I asked one day, pointing to the large, wobbly oval bisecting the trunk of my latest stick-figure likeness.

    Her: Those are your hips.

    Me (gulping): And what about those little circles sitting on top of the hips?

    Her: Those are your boobies.

    Me (voice pitched an octave or two above normal): Shouldn’t they go up a little higher, closer to my head?

    Her (irritated, as if I’m crazy): No.

    My eight-year-old’s artistic abilities are more advanced, but she is nonetheless similarly skilled at innocently highlighting one’s insecurities. This morning, eating breakfast, I noticed my eldest staring intently at my face.

    “Did you have stitches? You look like you have a scar here,” she asked, gingerly pointing to the corner of my right eye.

    She is stitches-and-scar-obsessed these days, coming off a deep gash in her knee that resulted in a trip to the emergency room and an army of stitches marching like ants across her puckered skin. I see her sometimes, fingering the purple line that now bisects her kneecap. “Will I always have it?” she asks me, but not with trepidation. With hope. I think I understand such wistful attachment. Her body is unleashed, bones stretching seemingly overnight, so that a pair of pants that fit last week don’t cover her knobby ankles today. Her tiny, pearlesque baby teeth have been pushed out by aggressively serrated permanent teeth that shift around in her mouth, searching for a place to settle.

    And vaguely, she seems to sense what is just around the corner, a body curving into womanhood, adhering like some ancient mystic to the rhythms of the moon. It must be a confounding state of impermanence, constant flux for which she is just along for the ride. I can understand, then, this affection for something that is enduring and singularly hers.

    Or maybe she just thinks it makes her look bad-ass, like a Ninja Warrior.

    No, no stitches, I informed my daughter, with a dose of defensiveness her question didn’t really deserve. Fortunately, the Soduku on the back of the cereal box had captured her attention in a way my not-scar failed to do.

    Later, just out of the shower, I wipe away a square of mist from the mirror to study my reflection. The crease isn’t hard to miss. It’s not a scar, it’s a Grand Canyon-esque wrinkle. I have always thought of myself as someone who would “grow old gracefully” as the Olay ads of my youth encouraged.

    I think I, more than most people my age, understand the great gift of old age, the harsh reality of the alternative. I knew only one grandparent. My father passed away when I was in my early twenties, my roommate died in hers. My son celebrated a single birthday.

    I will embrace this wrinkle, I silently command myself. It is a physical badge of honor, a laugh line that marks the joy I have had in my life. I arrange my face into a smile, but the wrinkle is untouched, not activated even a tiny bit by my deranged grin.

    Well…I’ve had a lot of sadness, too. I pantomime a frown, then full-on crying. Nothing.

    Standing before the mirror, I run through a panoply of emotions: surprise, fear, anger, consternation, befuddlement. The wrinkle is stoic, unstirred. I am, however, deeply impressed by the acrobatic abilities of my eyebrows.

    As I turn to leave, a final possibility seizes me…I sandwich my face between my hands, recreating the effects of lying on my side in bed, right cheek smashed against the pillow.  The wrinkle deepens like the San Andreas fault. No, it’s not a laugh line, or a cry line, or any other emotionally-earned line. It’s a pillow smush line.

    The foggy mirror has started to clear, revealing a clearer and regrettably more troubling view of the landscape of my body.

    Oh, God, I think. I’m getting jowly. Like Churchill, but without a World War to my credit.

    I note a stomach gone soft and doughy from carrying three babies, the three skin tags lined up like soldiers at the crease of my arm,  a wiry hair that springs from my chin. (“Are you a billy goat,” my brother exclaimed once, in front of all our friends, as he reached across a table to pluck a rogue whisker.)

    I am, it seems, slowly ceding parts of my body to the passage of time.

    My bravado withers. I reach under the sink for the free-gift Clinique bag filled with free-gift moisturizing creams of varying shapes, sizes, and potencies. I select a tiny glass tub of “Moisture Surge” and apply it more than generously to the wrinkle and its brethren, all of whom have churlishly carved themselves into my face sometime while I wasn’t looking in the past eight years.

    A knock on the door stops me just as I am circling the drain of self pity.

    “Mommy?” calls a tiny voice from the other side.

    “Whaaaattt?” I answer in the breathy growl my kids are no doubt used to hearing when they disturb me in the bathroom.

    “I want to show you something.”

    I throw open the door, my face glistening like a madman’s under a desperate sheen of Clinique-branded hope. My daughter is holding an orange piece of construction paper, another drawing scrawled in crayon on the back.

    “It’s you!” she cries with glee. And there I am: one huge, gaping black eye, one slightly smaller, googly eye. A mohawk of orange hair, hands that look like catchers’ mitts. But no poop and—here I breathe a sigh of relief—no boobies.

    “Isn’t it beautiful?” she sings as she twirls round and round, holding the picture to her chest. Then she stops suddenly, walks over and wraps her arms around my leg. “A beautiful picture of my beautiful mommy.”

    I feel her curled around me, cheek pressed into my soft belly. Can you believe that you once lived in my tummy? I have whispered to her time and again, watching the wonder bloom in her eyes. My body grew you.

    I think of her birth, laughing and crying as I pushed her into this world, the doctors and nurses laughing and crying, too, for they knew that I had buried my son not eight months before. This child, the one I never thought I’d have, this great gift bestowed on me during the darkest hour of my life, she thinks I am beautiful. I will choose to believe her…From the mouths of babes, after all.

    But I’m holding on to that moisturizer.

    +++

     

    Jennifer Golden is a mother of two daughters and a late son. Her writing has appeared in The Washington PostScary Mommy, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing, among others. Find more of Jennifer’s writing on mommibomb.com.

  • Talking to Friends About Money

    This month’s topic is MONEY MONEY MONEY. Does it bother you when friends ask what you spent on something? Does it bother you when a friend avoids answering a financial question? Please read the situation described in the letter below and help Nina guide this month’s letter writer past all the awkwardness.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here. See the questions she’s already covered, here.

    hertake nina badzin

     

    Dear Nina,

    I would love some advice about navigating the subject of money among friends for the midlife set, whether those friends have more OR less, to minimize awkwardness on both sides.

    Here’s what prompts my request. The other day a neighbor (someone we’re fairly close with, e.g. we help each other with dog walking needs, vacation mail, etc.) was asking me about a recent stay we had in a local beach community. We’d rented a house for the week and she asked, “Do you mind if I ask if it was expensive?” That was her exact phrasing, not “Do you mind if I ask how much it costs?”

    Now, I happen to know from previous conversations a hint of her financial situation that we are in a much, much stronger financial position than she is right now. Which is to say, to *her* I knew this would be expensive, and, like any vacation travel, there are ways to do it cheaper. I also knew that the pricing is available online if she were to ever ask where we stayed, so I didn’t want to lie either. My answer to her was “Well, I don’t like characterizing anything as expensive or not because I think that’s relative, but it cost $XXX.” And, as I expected, her eyes widened. And then I felt guilty, finding myself qualifying my response with things like “but this is the only vacation we take . . . we rented a bigger house so we could have more privacy . . . etc.” I guess I felt I had to justify the amount we spent to make it sound less…fancy? After she left I felt badly, almost guilty.

    I know never to assume anyone’s financial status, and yet these kinds of things come up once in a while, on either side of the coin, for all of us. And when socializing in mixed financial circles it can get awkward. For me, what I want to minimize most is resentment or any whiff of “showing off” or “missing out” for anyone. Like if we go out with a group of friends . . . sometimes some are happy splitting the bill evenly, and others you can sense it’s not what they wanted to do. Or how for many of us, family size (big or small) directly impacts ability to pay in some situations. You get the gist. Any pointers for our midlife generation who have things like college, parent care, mortgages, retirement plans, etc. that we all might be better or less equipped to finance than our peers? How do we talk about these things honestly without hurt feelings?

    Thank you!

    Need Help With The Money Talk

    Dear Need Help With The Money Talk,

    First, I’m taking the “midlife” angle out of the question because awkwardness about money is an ageless concern. Second, I want to assure you that you’re not alone in finding this subject tricky.

    I use Facebook occasionally to get a feel for which friendship topics piling up in my “HerTake” inbox will interest readers. When I brought up a more general version of your question, the post attracted more conversation than any other I’d attempted in four years of writing this column. Do I say that because everyone who responded agreed that friends shouldn’t ask what things cost or whether they’re expensive? No. I say it because the comments varied widely:

    “It’s tacky to ask what someone spent.”

    “It doesn’t matter if someone asks. Friends should be able to talk about it openly.”

    “We can look anything up these days so no reason to be private.”

    “It’s nobody’s business.”

    Yikes! What to do?

    Many agreed they didn’t mind discussing what things cost as long as they felt the person asking wasn’t judging the answer. There was also consensus, which doesn’t make it scientific, but I’m mentioning it anyway, that women over-explain and apologize for their purchases more than men do. “It was a deal.” “It was a gift.” “I bought it at a resale shop.” You reacted this way, too when your friend’s eyes got wide at the price of your beach vacation. There was also agreement that context matters. If someone is looking for a similar deal on a similar item, that is entirely different from outright nosiness.

    One Facebook friend, Kate, summarized the issue well: “I do think it can be awkward when there are differences in economics among friends. But then, the truth is the truth, and neither bragging about it nor lying about spending money seems to be a modern approach. If someone resents a person for how much they spend on something, whatever it is, well then that’s on the resent-er. We must all be able to be ourselves among friends!”

    I agree with Kate’s point, especially the part about being ourselves. And you’re right, too, that we can never count someone else’s dollars. Maybe one person cares about the car she drives more than going on a certain kind of a vacation. Maybe another friend is spending her extra money on childcare during the week, which means she can’t afford to go out as much on the weekend. Maybe another friend seemingly has everything—new clothes all the time, a new car every few years, fancy vacations, three kids in private colleges—but she’s in debt. Maybe another friend never seems to stress about money, but she panics privately about saving for retirement, helping her parents, or dealing with medical bills.

    And as you said, what’s expensive to one person may not be to another. I would just stick to the facts. It’s presumptuous anyway to think you know how anyone will react to the information you provide. And as Kate said, the reaction is on the other person, not on you.

    That said, I think there is still nuance to every situation involving money and it all depends on the relationship. But even with my closest friends, I’d find it unusual for anyone to expect me to provide exact numbers on hotels, clothes, or anything for that matter.

    Now to be fair, my view comes directly from my childhood as evidenced by my mother’s reaction. “Because your grandmother was a stickler for manners and appropriate behavior in various situations, I learned at a young age it is gauche to discuss money in a social situation. This means you never ask someone what they paid for something, and you do not volunteer the cost of things you purchased. Clearly there are nuances to this rule. For example, you might tell a friend you hired a great computer person. Obviously your friend will want to know what the computer expert charges. That is a different question from asking what you paid for your vacation. The latter is an intrusive question and no one else’s business.”

    (I enjoyed my mom’s use of the word gauche.)

    I wish I could give you one specific rule to follow, but my mom is right that helping a friend make sure she’s not overpaying (or underpaying) for a service is quite different from providing dollar amounts about more personal purchases. And as my mom says, “There are some topics that are fine to talk about with some friends and other issues to avoid.” It depends on the relationship.

    In the case with your neighbor, I might have said, “We stayed at [name of place], but the prices depend on the availability or deals going on. Take a look.” This removes any opinion on your part about what she can afford and helps you avoid feeling defensive about how you spend your money. You’re not lying about where you stayed, but the exact price you paid for the place is truly not her business. Sure, she will see a ballpark of what you spent, but that will happen on her own time, which means you don’t have to get into an uncomfortable conversation about it. Perhaps this type of approach will help you the next time she asks a similar question. Does that mean you should never reveal the price of something? No. Like I said, nuance.

    The question you asked at the end about the bill at the restaurant is a good one, too. But the idea that you can sense some of your friends didn’t want to split the bill. . . I don’t know. I think you put too much pressure on yourself to know others’ financial issues and desires. You’re obviously a sensitive and caring friend, but you can’t single-handedly eliminate these uncomfortable moments. These fellow adults can speak up. Someone who does not want to split should ask the server from the get-go for separate checks. Sure, it would be a considerate gesture to offer to ask the server for separate checks yourself if you spent significantly more, but for a typical meal where people spent around the same amount, I think it’s fine to assume you’re all splitting unless the person who doesn’t want to says otherwise.

    I know this doesn’t cover every instance, but hopefully reading about the topic here (and in the comments below) will help you see you’re not alone and also encourages you to give yourself a break from having to mitigate everyone else’s money issues. That’s not your responsibility!

    Best of luck,

    Nina

  • The Friends Who Got Away

    by Caryn Berardi

    I had just found a seat in the spacious hotel ballroom where the conference keynote address was about to begin when, despite an overabundance of empty chairs, another woman sat down next to me.

    I know professional conferences are for networking, but I usually like to sit alone at the keynote program. In case the speaker is boring, I can scroll through Facebook without feeling self-conscious. But instead, my new neighbor said “hi.” I put my phone down and said “hi” back.  

    And so began a beautiful friendship between two women who lived in the same city, worked in the same profession, had babies the same age, and were both trying to figure out how to handle it all. We shared like worries: Are we taking care of our kids the “right” way? As we approach midlife, are we where we want to be (or thought we would be) in our careers? We even had an identical complaint about traveling with kids that we were convinced we could turn into a business idea. Somehow, we talked through all of this during a three-day conference. It was simpatico.

    Flash forward two weeks: After a back-and-forth of emails and vows to report back with research for our business idea, the messages stopped and the friendship was over before it even began. We never even made it to Facebook friends. I don’t remember her name.

    Though short-lived, I still think about this meeting several years later because it is emblematic of some of the “friendships” I have regretted losing most during this season of life: the friends who could have been. Or as I like to call them – the friends who got away. These are women I have connected with because we could connect the BIG parts of life together, like parenting, careers and marriage. But a lack of time, energy and/or proximity kept these relationships from fully forming.

    Friendships feel so fleeting right now, popping in and out of life like dolphins breaking the surface in the ocean.

    Instant connections are easy. They are based on a common thread like the t-ball team, music class or professional trainings. But once that class or event is over, there is so little time to invest in maintaining the relationship (especially when you haven’t even made the time to call your best friend from college who rubbed your back for four years while you cried over a break-up and/or eliminated that extra tequila shot you should not have taken).

    And it is not just with chance meetings, but with people I see regularly, like the other mothers at daycare. I have met such wonderful women through my sons’ school and I do feel that a few of them have moved past the acquaintance zone (meaning, I actually know their names and do not only refer to them as “Billy’s Mom”). But recently one of these friends changed her child’s school and we no longer saw each other at drop-off, pick-up and Halloween parades. Our common thread was cut, and despite the best intentions, we have barely spoken since.

    I know it can sound silly to mourn the loss of people I may have only known for one year, six months or even two weeks. This is especially true when research studies tell us that women lose touch with their old friendships in their 20s and 30s as they focus on career and family. As we enter our 40s, we begin to reconnect with those friends as both our children grow up and nostalgia for our younger selves grows stronger. In other words, we start calling our best friend from college more regularly again.

    I’m still in the trenches with my kids, but as I get older, I understand the research. Revitalizing my older friendships has become more important as we begin to care for our parents, navigate marital changes and re-think our professional paths. Sometimes it’s nice to ask the friend who has known you since you were both 10 years old if her hips hurt as much as yours when she stands up.

    And perhaps that’s what makes these friendships that got away different – there is no real foundation for reconnecting like there are with ones from the past. There wasn’t enough time to form a bond strong enough that it can be wheeled back in when life opens up again. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

    And after wondering why I kept thinking about these encounters, I realized it was because I don’t want my days of making new friends to be over. It seemed like one more entry on the list of “firsts” I won’t ever experience again.

    When I reflect on the people I’ve met in the last few years, they are not all just beginnings of relationships. A precious few have endured to become treasured friends, confidantes and supporters. It takes time, saying yes to a coffee when I’d rather read a book, and cleaning my house to host a Sunday afternoon barbecue so our families can also get to know each other. But as I watch these fledgling friendships develop, it is well worth it.

    ***

    Every time I’m at the airport, wrangling my twin boys and all of our stuff through the gate, I think about my friend from the conference and our business idea. I wonder if she’s had more children, if she’s still a counselor, and if her husband got into the MBA program he was applying to when I met her. I don’t know enough about her to wonder about anything other than what came up in those two weeks.

    I still attend the annual professional conference where we met. Perhaps we will find ourselves once again sitting next to each other at the keynote address and invite each other over for a barbecue and a second chance of friendship.

     

    Caryn takes her 10+ years of experience in higher education as both an instructor and career coach to write about personal and professional development, as well as help businesses and universities tell their stories. A mom to twin boys, she also writes about her own parenting experience as a way to make sense of the joys and challenges of motherhood. Her work has appeared in national and local magazines, as well as sites such as HuffPost, ScaryMommy, Modern Loss and as a contributor to the anthology, Multiples Illuminated, Volume 2. Her home on the internet is here.

  • Love in the Time of the Garbage Patch

    by Sarah Reddick

    sarah reddick

    I met her on OKCupid, a dating app she immediately described to me as a “spice rack of dysfunction.” We started talking and didn’t stop for two months.

    She is forty-five, lives in Nashville, originally from New York City. I am thirty-nine, I live in St. Louis, but I have been visiting Nashville frequently, so it seemed providential that we should fall into each other’s laps when we did. Our conversations were warm, intelligent, kind. We made plans to go on our first date in Nashville, and after a lovely dinner, we stood in the street, in the halo glow of a streetlight, and kissed. I initiated it. We lingered a while after, shyly smiling, and a huge Ford truck drove by and honked repeatedly when I reached to kiss her again.

    I barely blinked when she told me she lives with her parents. And that she is in AA and still sees her sponsor several times a week. I did blink when she told me she is in a protracted custody battle with her ex-husband, “a bearded, cardigan-wearing man who lives in Park Slope and really loves to talk about all of his feelings.” I maybe should have deleted her phone number when she told me her mom still irons her pants before she goes to teach young adults how to be fully-functioning adults at a nearby university. But I was fascinated by all of it: the fact that she had been married to two men and came out as queer at thirty-five, her academic essay on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, her un-ironic bulletin board in a bedroom that looked like a time warp back to high school and I would have to sneak out of the window after a hot make-out session. I was even into her routine of running on the treadmill at the Y while watching my Netflix suggestions before going home to meditate with her stone deaf step-dad.

    She said things like, “You are the yin to my yang,” and “I’m so glad we aren’t rushing sex, because I feel like this could be a deep thing, a long-term thing.” She told me I was a brilliant writer. She asked me to curate a collection of queer poetry for her classes, and asked me to include a few of mine.

    I visited her several times. She never offered to buy me dinner, though I was doing all of the traveling, and she admitted that in her current living situation she pays no bills. She didn’t even buy me dessert after I guest-moderated a research panel during her final week of classes. But I really enjoyed kissing her, and I did a lot of that upstairs at her parents’ house. It felt illicit in a non-seedy way. I knew I could like her more when she leaned back on the couch and smile/smirked at me before saying, “I’m really vulnerable with you. You make me feel myself more than anyone I’ve dated in a very long time.”

    She told me horror stories about the artist in Montauk, a woman who invited her for weekends but didn’t stock up on anything edible and made her climb a very tall ladder to reach a rickety loft bed for sleep and sex. She told me about the friend of her mom’s she dated (what?) who would show up unannounced with Thai food and wait in the bushes for someone to let her in. She told me about The Neophyte, a younger conquest who liked to wear sexy lingerie for her. “I wasn’t really into it, but if she was, then I also felt like I didn’t really mind it.”

    The last time I saw her, I had a sneaking feeling that I would turn into one of these stories sooner than later. How would she paint me? Which brush would she use, and would it be awkward for the woman she performed me for like it had been for me?

    I didn’t have to wait long for the wrap up. She had offered to come visit me and we had been planning her trip for two weeks. A few days before she was to arrive, she emailed me (which was strange and felt cold because we had never emailed about anything other than professional type things) that she wasn’t coming. Her custody battle is wearing her out, she said, and I pictured her laying on the couch upstairs, with absolutely nothing to do for the summer, staring in frustration at a wrinkled spot on her goldenrod-colored khakis that her mom had carelessly missed.

    I replied that I was disappointed, and she waited a few hours before responding with, “I am frightened because I think you are moving deeper and faster than I am.” This absolutely baffled me of course, so I asked her to call me, because I would prefer not to have this discussion through Gmail. Silence. I called her once the following day, and sent her a handful of emails, some irritated, some trying to make sense of her sudden about-face. I finally got three lines back, in which she passive-aggressively suggested I was being overtly aggressive and then there were no further communications from either side.

    I’ve been over-thinking this, because it seems indicative of so many bigger problems, and not just mine, personally. How do we build lasting relationships when we behave like children who distractedly drop our toys mid-play and run away to something/someone else? Is technology causing a wide-scale interpersonal regression event that will never stop? I have also been thinking a lot about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, because it really was an excellent article, and as I finished writing this last sentence, I fished my plastic yogurt spoon out of the trash can under my desk while thinking of some way to repurpose it so it doesn’t end up burdening something else: the clear, irritating adornment a 200-year-old turtle never asked for, a reminder of the damage of being wantonly wasteful. 

     
    sarah reddickSarah Reddick is a writer, editor, and a writing professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her work has previously appeared in The Local Voice, The Mid-Rivers Review, and Salt Journal.
  • Casual Friendship: You Can Be Friendly Without Committing to Friendship

    What can casual friendship teach us? Instead of answering an anonymous question this month, I want to discuss a friendship article from The Today Show’s parenting site that’s appeared consistently on my social media feeds since February. Rachel Macy Stafford, author of Hands Free Mama and Only Love wrote, Am I Invisible? One Mom’s Pain-Relieving Response to Being Excluded“.

    nina badzin hertake

    There’s a good reason it pops up every few days from various friends and pages I follow. Who hasn’t been left out as a kid and as an adult? Who hasn’t struggled with their kids getting excluded and excluding others? Who wouldn’t want some pain relief?

    Stafford’s piece begins with a familiar situation. She brings her daughter to a new extracurricular activity, one where the other families have been going already, and her attempts to inspire more than a passing glance and grunt from the other moms is a failure. But after several weeks of the same treatment, instead of feeling bitter and ashamed, Stafford feels grateful to these women for reminding her how she wants to operate in the world and what she wants to teach her daughter about treating new people. Among those lessons is this nugget: 

    “Remember the deepest desire of the human heart is to belong … to be welcomed … to know you are seen and worthy of kindness.”

    Including others

    Stafford recalls moments when she’s seen the power of one welcoming person. No, we don’t need every person to include us and our kids, but it makes a tremendous impact when at least one smiling face acknowledges our worthiness. Sure, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need that external validation. But find me a kid or an adult who doesn’t shine brighter when seen by a few others, even by one other person.

    It’s normal to feel defeated and ashamed after being excluded, but it might help, if, like Stafford, we think beyond who should be more welcoming to us and instead ask ourselves if there’s one person or one kid who could use our help. As Stafford recounts those memories when one person made all the difference and times she and her daughter have helped others, she is again grateful to the women at her daughter’s class who didn’t want to let them in the circle. 

    “I nearly forget what I have the power to do until one Tuesday afternoon when I take my daughter to an activity, and I am reminded. I approach two women hoping for kindness, but I am met with rudeness.”

    Stafford’s essay continues and I recommend reading every word. I relate to her description of the women at the activity who for weeks in a row turned their backs, making it clear they had no interest in her presence, nor would they encourage their daughters to warm up to Stafford’s daughter. It wasn’t personal, per se. These women didn’t know Stafford or her daughter enough not to like them. It was the total disinterest that stung—the not-so-subtle hint that for these women the nuisance of bringing in someone new trumped however uncomfortable it might have felt to know there was a fellow mom off to the side alone week after week.

    I had a similar experience when I moved to Minneapolis after college and again a few years later when I had my first child. My oldest is fourteen this week, but I still see the shoulders closing me out; I remember the body language that screamed, We don’t need new friends.

    Now, listen, I do have friendship lines in the sand and support them for others. While I’m often complimented for being a local connector — and it’s a compliment I accept proudly — I would never argue that everyone has to be close friends, or even more than a casual friendship. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this:

    Casual friendship: you can be friendly without committing to lifelong friendship.

    Inviting someone to join you once for lunch doesn’t commit you to decorating her locker on her birthday from now until you graduate from high school. Acknowledging that someone else exists doesn’t make you best friends. You get the idea.

    I’m the first to say there is often no explanation for good chemistry or the lack of it. I’ve been writing the friendship column at The HerStories Project for over three years to help people who are struggling to make new friends, keep the friends they have, or move away from the friends who are causing them more stress than joy. You will never hear me say that everyone new to town, new to your kid’s baseball team, or new to the office needs to become an integral part of your social life. Most of us don’t have the bandwidth to take in every fresh face.

    But I believe in kindness. There’s a universe between allowing someone to hang out for an hour with you at the park and suddenly having to include that family in your kid’s birthday parties until the end of time. Or your group trip, happy hours, or whatever you would like to keep more intimate. I’m all for intimate. I complain when there’s more than six people at a dinner so I get that everyone can’t be invited to everything. 

    Is it possible to simultaneously teach our kids that we can’t be included in everything while also encouraging them to be the type of soul who includes or at least sees—really sees—others? Lord knows I’m trying. If you have tips, I’m all ears.

    Friendship is complicated. I love Stafford’s piece because she rises above what we should expect from others and asks us to consider what we can do for others. If we don’t like feeling invisible, we can make a point to acknowledge someone who’s alone or struggling.

    Like Stafford, I’m grateful I’ve been forced to remember (more than once) as an adult how much it stings when people treat you as if even ten minutes of small talk is a real hassle, as if you and your child would take away a crucial element of the group rather than add to the group’s breadth and depth of friendship experience. It’s made me a connector for others and given me the empathy I need to call on now and then when I, too, get overly protective of my social circle and time.

    Thank you, Rachel Macy Stafford, for the reminder that we can do better, that we can be more generous, that we can be kind.

    By Nina Badzin

    See a list of friendship questions Nina has answered over the past three years and send your own anonymous question any time.

  • Teaching My Son That Great Men Let Tears Fall

     by Angela Anagnost-Repke

     

    okay to cry

    “Will I cry, Mommy?”

    My son’s voice trembled before getting his three-year-old immunization shots. We sat in the cramped room of the pediatrician’s office—my son, my one-year-old daughter, and me. My son crumpled the paper on the patient bed while I sat in a chair with my daughter in my lap. I prepped him before the well-visit, but knowing that he needed three shots, I was realistic that there would be crying. He had endured numerous check-ups and remembered that they didn’t only include the doctor asking Mommy questions, but also the female aide who pushed the needles into his skin.

    Pressing my pointer finger and thumb together, I said, “It will just feel like a quick pinch. And you’ll be tough.”

    Standing, the male doctor asked all of the typical check-up questions. Near the end, he asked if I had any for him. I did have questions about my son’s speech, but forgot as I brawled with my daughter who pulled down the blinds over and over again. Apparently, she couldn’t read the photocopied sign, “DON’T TOUCH THE BLINDS,” taped to the wall.

    So instead of talking about my son’s speech, I nodded to the doctor, smiled, and whispered “I’m sorry,” every time her chubby fingers dove for the blinds. “That’s okay,” he said. “You’re doing a great job with the kids.”

    “Good enough,” I joked. After the doctor concluded all was well in the well-visit, it was time for the doctor to exit and the aide to enter as a waitress—balancing the small silver tray full of needles with her rubber-gloved hands.

    My son tensed at the sight of the needles. I pretended to be calm—but was dreading the pain he would feel. I stood next to him, my daughter on my hip, with my palm on his back while he sat upright. I didn’t need to hold his hands down. He was ready.
    “Okay, honey. Look up at your mommy,” the aid directed my son.

    He didn’t listen. He steadied his eyes on the needles.

    We watched three rifling rounds plunge into his still-chubby thigh. He clenched his eyes and squeezed his lids shut. After the shots were done, he inhaled a colossal breath and opened his almost-black eyes. His long lashes were dry. Both his body and mine deflated with ease.

     “I’m so proud of you honey,” I said. “You didn’t even cry.”

    And to celebrate my son’s toughness, I took him out for ice cream. He didn’t need to know about his mother’s own need to choke down tears, especially when life seems relentless—piercing shots into your spirit instead of your skin.

    On our drive to the ice cream shop, pride fired out of my pores, ricocheting off all of the car seats. With my right hand at eleven o’clock, I smiled, a truly victorious mother.  Look at me, I thought. I am raising a tough boy—one who doesn’t cry. My son will be just as strong as his uncles, my three brothers. Maybe stronger. Those idiots used to fart into my dad’s old plastic cigar containers and throw “fart bombs” into my bedroom to make me cry. Then one day, the disgusting act stopped making me cry. God, I love them. They never treated me differently as the only girl, making me tough, too—maybe tougher.

    We walked into the ice cream shop holding hands as the sugar perfumed our noses. My kids stood below the counter, their hands smudging the glass while staring at the buckets of ice cream. Oreo, chocolate, vanilla, Superman, Moose Tracks, strawberry, and more. My son was deciding which flavor to choose and whether he wanted a cone or a cup. Tugging at my shirt, he begged, “Stwa-baweeeey! Cone too, Mommy?”

    “Sure, honey,” I said.

    The girl scooping the ice cream was probably twenty and home from college. I couldn’t hold my pride in any longer. “We’re getting ice cream because this boy just had three shots. And he didn’t even cry.”

    “Well,” the ice cream girl replied, “maybe I’ll give this big guy an extra scoop.”

    I paid the girl and we marched outside to sit on the wooden picnic table on a mild Michigan June day. There, my son sat with his pink ice cream cone. His little sister and I shared a chocolate cup. The sun warmed our faces, but didn’t melt our ice cream too fast. My son grinned with a perfect pink ring around his lips. He was happy.

    And at three years old, my son learned that to be strong means that you better not cry. Tough boys get things in life. They get ice cream.

    —-

    Growing up, my Greek alpha-male brothers and I all fought to be the Spartan King—or Queen. There’s never been a clear winner, even today in our thirties and forties. Yet, we were full of love for each other—loud and boisterous. We were there for one another. But the tears, those were scarce.

    When we were younger, our family of six would cram into our 1990 Astro Mini Van and drive south to Myrtle Beach. One day, when I was about eleven, I swam in the ocean alone. The waves’ hands were motioning to me, challenging me saying, “Bring it on, little one.” I accepted.

    My feet planted into the wet sand and the broken shells scratched my feet. As I stepped out deeper, a couple waves smashed over my head, gushing water into my nose. The sting of what felt like Worcestershire sauce in my nostrils burned, but I got back up.

    A monstrous wave came. I turned my back against it, but that wave pulled me under—hard. My right knee slammed into what felt like broken glass. When the wave was done with me, I was able to stand and breathe. I looked down and my knee was gashed—bloody with grains of sand mixed in. But, my eyes were dry.

    I stood proud. And instead of running to my mother crying, I strutted to my brothers. I wanted them to see that as a girl, I could create a bullet-proof vest, too. Like my brothers, no one would ever suspect my vulnerabilities.

    As an adult, I’ve watched my father endure a near life-ending sepsis attack and my mother almost become another number to cancer’s merciless hands. I’ve been with friends and family through tragedies, never crying in their presence. My car served as my personal cry room, only I allowed no one to hush me.

    It wasn’t until recently, months after my son’s immunization shots, that I took off my bullet-proof vest in front of my husband. My mother’s cancer was ravaging her body. And picturing the day I’d call her and she wouldn’t pick up was finally more than I could handle alone.

     My husband turned on the cartoons for the kids. We climbed into our unmade bed, and I finally let someone else’s arms support me. At first, I didn’t know how to do it—to let him see me vulnerable. It felt like trying to parallel park for the first time—seeming impossible and awkward.

     I sunk into my husband, stiff at first. His arms swaddled me and his chest was my pillow. As his fingers stroked my hair, my body softened, and I cried. This was the first time in my life that at five-feet-tall, I felt small. I exhaled relief. Relief that my tense body would not break if it turns gentle. Relief that I didn’t have to endure my mother’s cancer alone. Relief that after eight years of marriage and fifteen years of love, I finally gave all of myself to my husband.

    About a year after my son earned his ice cream trophy and my husband coached me how to cry, a couple of my brothers flew in to celebrate my kids’ fourth and second birthdays. My son and daughter were taking turns jumping off our wooden coffee table onto a giant beanbag in the center of the family room. They love showing off in front of their uncles. My son missed, hitting his knee on a wooden block we failed to pick up. His mouth turned into an upside-down horseshoe, shuddering.

    One of my brothers looked, but sat cemented in his chair. His eyes said, “If you ever want to be a man, you better not cry.”

    My son’s lower eyelids were buckets—heavy with water wanting to spill over the brims. I looked at his eyes and said, “It’s okay to cry.”

    He did.

    Our bodies softened. I went to him, hugging him.

    As I had done hundreds of times as his mother, I cradled him. My brother’s face relaxed and he crawled off of the chair to the floor. With his knees edged into the carpet, he patted my son on the back and said, “You’ll be okay, buddy.”

    In return, my brother looked at me in agreement. Like my husband taught me, I will coach my son that all emotions are okay and crying is necessary. I didn’t have to tell my brother about losing my bullet-proof vest. He understood.

    I want my son to know that it’s okay to cry. In fact, I hope he does.

    The ability to gulp down tears does not make you a man. Being able to express a wide gamut of emotions does.

    I’ll help my son foster these skills. Maybe, with my husband’s continued help, of course, we can encourage our son to express all of his feelings—without shame. He won’t need to follow Spartan Family Code, or society’s Boy Code. Big emotions in men won’t be taboo—not in our house.

    I regret that it took me so many years to exhibit vulnerability to my deserving husband. And honestly, there are times I want to pick my armor up off the floor, but my husband always reminds me to leave it there. So, I hope my son does cry and lets people see it. Being tough isn’t important, but being real is. And to let someone in, to truly let them in, you have to cry.

    That night we celebrated the kids’ birthdays with cake and ice cream. My son spooned the Oreo ice cream into his mouth. He smiled with his uncles—loving him despite the tears.

    Because they too, will help my husband and I teach my son that great men let tears fall. 

     

    angela repkeAngela Anagnost-Repke is a flawed mother who turns to writing to help in both her daily blunders and rediscovering herself outside of motherhood. She has been published in Good Morning America, ABC News, Scary MommyThe Good Men ProjectMSN LifestyleMothers Always Write, and othersAngela also has an essay in an anthology by Belt Publishing, “Red States, Blue States.” She is passionate about the comradery of motherhood and is an advocate of a moms’ night out. She is at work on a cross-generational memoir, Mothers Lie.