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Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Open Letter to Every Future Mom I’ll Ever Meet



      Hi future fellow mom. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Debra. We’ve just met at some kid function. Maybe it was while waiting at the sidelines at an extracurricular activity or during a PTA event at school. Perhaps we struck up a conversation in the pediatrician’s waiting room. Or maybe we exchanged a few bits of dialogue in the frozen aisles of the grocery store buying dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. In any event, I thought I would give you a bit of a heads-up about myself before we dive into anything that even closely resembles a female friendship. You see, I am a bit strange. I wanted to give you fair warning so that there are no surprises.






      Allow me to explain. Some women come into motherhood and assimilate into their new friendships with fellow moms quite naturally. For them, maybe there is no thought behind the process at all. These are the women who had a big group of friends during childhood, who were able to juggle their cheerleading and yearbook and student council responsibilities with their weekend partying. They had boyfriends and actual school spirit. They joined sororities and made quick friends with their college roommate and posed for pictures at parties with their arms around fellow girls. They delightfully planned their weddings with gaggles of friends and included them all as bridesmaids. They laughed together in limousines to celebrate someone’s bachelorette party. They like wine and hug each other hello and goodbye even when they’ll see each other in a week. And when these women have their babies, they walk into the scary, shaky world of parenting together, hooking elbows and embracing a new female bond together.

      You see, the deal is that I wasn’t one of those girls. In fact, I was quite the opposite. The kind of teenager reminiscent of mid-90’s indie flicks about loser teenagers. I rolled my eyes at school spirit and scribbled away in my poetry notebook and tried to get by with as little social interaction as possible. Sure, I had friends, but not without the awkwardness and anxiety that came with being a sullen teenage girl trying to maintain said friendships. Over time, I realized I got along much better with guys. There seemed to be no drama, no social butterflies, no pressure to make total sense all the time. They didn’t care about how you did your hair or how many friends you actually had. Guys were more cynical, sarcastic, dark, and quiet. And amazingly, I happened to fall in love with one of them. I married him and had his baby.

      When I had my son, there was nothing more I wanted to do than make stay-at-home motherhood a full time career and make a great life for the two of us during the week. I was so excited to take my very curious baby to all the storytimes and library infant classes and programs and see that there were others like me – new moms who were strung out and befuddled at how grueling parenthood could be. Like any new mom, I just sought solace. And when I encountered fellow moms, perhaps I occasionally got a little too excited. I joined multiple playdate groups and attended everything, and introduced myself eagerly and naively. And maybe my social shortcomings manifested in ways I didn’t realize until it was too late. There have been times I didn’t realize I said something too bluntly. Perhaps the times I was being spacey and in my own head made other moms misinterpret me for being rude. I had wanted to be a mother more than anything, but I wasn’t prepared for the social game that often follows.

      Before I became a parent, I would have never thought about how being around fellow moms can unfortunately be so like high school sometimes. There are cliques, judgment, gossip, silent assessments and the sizing up of others. But in order to entertain and socialize our children, we all need to be around other moms and form friendships, regardless of our comfort level with that task. A mom who may walk a little off the beaten path, or is an oddball in one way or another may be talked about, excluded, not invited, defriended. Someone we thought we’ve bonded with can become a stranger all too soon. I guess that’s true for all moms. But in spite of all this, there is hope for us weirdos. There is hope for all of us. For every mom that can’t relate to you, there is one out there that can. There are great women who will accept you for who you are, who have enough of a sense of humor to know when you are being sarcastic and when you’re not, who aren’t too sensitive, who don’t mind if you have opposite tastes and dissimilar interests, who can engage in conversation with you even if you seeing things totally differently. There are hundreds of fellow moms who like you just the way you are, and who are happy to talk about the joys and hardships of parenthood with someone else and not let personality quirks and social idiosyncrasies get in the way.

      So, fellow mom I’ve just met – you can’t say I didn’t warn you. If you see me again, you’ll know I may not be exactly like you. I am a loner yet extremely talkative at once, a strange and confusing combination. I can be very uptight. When I get really passionate about something, I can’t stop talking. I’d rather sit on the couch with my husband watching some independent movie that nobody’s ever heard of than going out for a“Girl’s Night.” Sometimes I don’t think before speaking and I don’t make much sense. We won’t like the same musicians or actors. I like solitude and fear social gatherings. I may not always agree with you. I have a really hard time with small talk but I am happy to discuss the heavy stuff all day. I don’t fluff the truth or lie. I have no concept of what’s popular or trendy. I hate talking on the phone. Sometimes I may appear distant. Like I said – I’m a little strange.

      But if we do become friends, what you’ll also get is someone who will always be loyal and honest. I’ll bake you muffins when you’ve just had surgery and I’ll sit with you for hours at Starbucks to let you vent about a big problem. I’ll offer a different perspective on things. I’ll give you advice if you ask for it. I’ll always be willing to let your kids come play at our house and make a mess. I’ll offer to babysit. I’ll make you laugh. I’ll remember everything you tell me. I won’t judge or be catty. I’ll write you heartfelt thank you emails or letters when you’ve been a good friend and fellow mom. Because - we’re all in this crazy parenting thing together, and maybe we’re all a little weird to begin with. And we’ll be better moms for trying to get to know each other, no matter how different we all are.

Yours Truly,
Debra

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Edible Aquarium featured at Hands on: As We Grow

I'm pleased that Hands on: As We Grow selected one of my sensory/craft activities to feature on their website. I can kind of get obsessed trying out new sensory experiences with my 5-year-old, so I'm happy that so many seemed to like this idea. Hands On is an amazing blog - I have been inspired countless times by all the fun ideas for crafting and lesson planning. Check them out! 

http://handsonaswegrow.com/hands-on-moms/edible-aquarium-from-debra-caffrey-httpwww-debracaffrey-blogspot-com/ 




Friday, March 1, 2013

Rockin’ the Yoga Pants: In Support of Frumps like Me



            The other night, I stumbled upon an episode of “What Not to Wear” where former child actor turned stay-at-home mom Tina Yothers was being made over by the hosts. They chastised her for her black yoga pants, hoodies, and sandals, and instead presented her with frilly blouses, chunky colorful jewelry, and wrap skirts. She stared with confusion at the ensembles and asked how she was supposed to assist with painting and crafts while volunteering at her daughter’s school in these expensive, fancy get-ups. The hosts, I’m assuming both non-parents, laughed off her serious question and told her that the first step of change is acknowledging discomfort.    

            I don’t normally watch this show, but I was myself in my at-home “modified” yoga pants nearing midnight on the couch, procrastinating cleaning up downstairs to join my husband, who was already fast asleep. I could sympathize with Tina’s serious look of confusion at these fancy clothes, and felt obligated to sit there and watch on, a silent alley for her under my fuzzy blanket. For, I too, was wondering the same – “what’s so wrong with yoga pants?” 

I used to have “nice” clothes when I was working – lots of pantyhose, lots of opaque tights under my black boots and short skirts, clean man-tailored shirts atop perfectly-fitting slacks. But when my maternity leave started, I literally couldn’t fit into anything other than the last two of my surviving maternity tank tops and my husband’s navy blue pajama pants with images of Homer Simpson splattered all over. I wore them every day while my legs swelled and while I waited for my son to be born. And when he was, I’m surprised my “wardrobe” consisted of anything more than shreds of tattered cloth, because that’s all that seemed reasonable during those crazed apocalyptic first weeks. After the shock of initial parenthood wore off and morphed  into a subtle acceptance of the fact that my life was never to be my own again, my wardrobe, sadly, consisted of sweatpants. Not “acceptable to the public” yoga pants, but plain old sweatpants, people. I threw my un-straightened “natural cavewoman look” hair into a low ponytail every day, and I never put on make-up or painted my nails, something that I have always loved to do. Around the time my son was 8 months old and turning into a walking toddler, I slapped myself into gear and started making it a priority to put on make-up every day. Straighten my hair. Paint my nails again. Baby steps. Then - a pair of jeans! Occasionally, a clickity-clackety heel. And eventually, I found my way into some sort of at-home casual, semi I-can-pull-off-looking-like-a-regular-person style. Yoga pants, sandals, plain tanks and cropped yoga pants in the summer – all the things What Not to Wear’s hosts were condemning Tina for, pretty much sum up my wardrobe. This stay-at-home look might be an easy target for this TV show and others to say that we are letting ourselves go, but my guess is that no one is taking time and money into consideration. Maybe I can shed some light.
just another pair of yoga pants....


Reason #1 why moms wear yoga pants: we don’t have time for anything else. It’s 30 minutes and counting until we have to leave for school on a typical morning, and my son and I head upstairs to get dressed. The idea of leaving Aidan alone to get dressed on his own while I pull together my look is a reasonable thought, but as I stand in my bedroom with my pajamas halfway off, I have to keep walking back into his room to assist. Things start off simple enough. “Mommy, can you button my pants?” “Mommy, it’s your turn to brush my teeth.” I perform the needed duties, underwear on, to-be-determined shirt still not-on, and head back into my room. Oh, I forget to brush my own teeth. “Mommy, my socks are in a ball and I can’t fix then.” Fixed. I make the beds. “Mommy, look at me!” my son smiles as he comes into my room with one sock on yet completely naked elsewhere, pajama shirt twisted around his head. “It’s Naked Man time!” Naked Man is my son’s superhero alter ego, who comes to our house at precisely the worst times ever and proves he doesn’t really have any superhero powers whatsoever. I utter the phrase “get dressed!” more times than I think humanly possible in five minutes and head back to my closet, again, half-dressed with a toothbrush in my mouth. In the closet, there are vestiges of my former self – long black skirts, button down tops with wide collars, pretty flowered springtime skirts. “Mommy, can I line up my Star Wars Fighter Pods on your dresser after I get dressed?” 

“Yes, if we have time, but why aren’t you dressed yet?!? ” I close the closet and run back into my son’s room for his jacket and backpack. Rinse the stubble out of the sink from my husband’s morning shave. “Mommy, can I play you a Disney love song with my guitar before we leave?” “Do I have time to draw a picture?” “I can’t find my Batman underwear.” I pick up my husband’s dirty t-shirt from the floor. I run downstairs as Aidan finally pulls on his pants to put the dirty breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, and head back upstairs, remembering I am still not dressed yet. I am sweating. I feel out of breath. Look at the clock. Ten minutes and counting. I am still not dressed. And I spend a good two minutes thinking about why I am sweating and out of breath just trying to get dressed. People have said that trying to get small children out of the house is like an Olympic sport. And I am finding that this doesn’t seem to change with an older, I can-pretty-much-get-dressed-on-my-own child. And I have one kid. The idea of trying to get multiple children dressed and ready and then myself is a feat so daunting I start sweating again just thinking about it. 

I open my dresser drawers. The black, worn, thinned out yoga pants are calling my name. I have them all in the bottom drawer, as if I am rationalizing to myself that they are infrequent items, deemed for the bottom, “lowest priority” corner of my stuff. But let’s face it. I frequent that drawer more often than any other. I find my most “acceptable out of the house” pair and put on my make-up. I chuckle a little at the dichotomy of my existence – how the thought of putting on a pair of jeans can be “dressing up” these days, but how I still like “putting my face on.” I think of my grandmother, who, to my knowledge, never wore a pair of pants in her entire life of 93 years. She would put on her heavy polyester skirts, pantyhose, fancy blouses, pearls, and heels just when she was sitting around the house or making scrambled eggs. My mother, an early Baby Boomer, used to spend three hours up-doing her hair in elaborate curls, a landscaper in her own right. I carry on as a homemaker myself, but the yoga pants are fancy enough for me. Luckily, times have changed. After a full day of chauffeuring Aidan, errands, vacuuming, cleaning the house, playing at the park, bike rides, wiping poop, shampooing hair, doing arts and crafts, reading, wiping more poop, cooking, and doing dishes, quite frankly, I don’t think anything other than the mighty yoga pants would survive.

Reason #2 why moms wear yoga pants: no one else really cares, especially the important people. “Throw your husband a bone!” the “What Not to Wear” hosts tease Tina. After our husbands spend their days in a starchy dress shirt and tie or a crisp uniform, shouldn’t we put a little more effort into how we look for them? Maybe that’s just a little bit of an outdated myth. My own husband, who is colorblind (really), cannot tell when I’ve had my hair cut several inches, when I have make-up on or not, or when I have dyed my graying brown hair a drastic bright shiny red. Sometimes I wonder if he would be able to tell if I got a new tattoo, magically grew three inches taller, or accidentally lost a finger. And I think most dudes are like that. I think they are just grateful for someone who can take care of their kids every day, feed them, and flop onto the couch at night to be their comrade after a long and stressful day of work. Sometimes I will apologize to my husband for the ridiculously fluffy set of jammies I sometimes wear to bed night after night in winter. He just stares at me. Guys don’t even listen to what their wives are chattering on about, so why would they pay attention to what kind of pants they are wearing?
Things haven't changed much. Rocking some cropped yoga pants. At least I'm comfortable.


Reason # 3 why moms wear yoga pants: We can’t afford the fancy stuff. There’s a reason I run into every other mom I know at Target – it fits our budget. I stand in the aisles of Kohl’s in my yoga pants holding my 30% coupon trying to figure out what the final price will be on the new pair of discounted yoga pants, and I’m OK with that. “What Not to Wear” gave Tina Yothers $5,000 for a shopping spree to de-frump herself as a mom. In the real world, that doesn’t happen. I wear underwear until the elastic is shot and socks until there are holes at the toes. My husband will ask if the five-year old sweater I’m wearing is new (again, he’s not good with the details) and my response is “yes.” And I honestly believe that that’s new. I still have items in my wardrobe that I wore on my first few dates with my husband over a decade ago. A lot of us moms wear our ratty black yoga pants because we can’t afford to replace them with expensive, nicer things. If we are the soldiers of scarcity, sacrifice, and thrift, then the yoga pant is our uniform. Instead of joking that we’ve become too complacent or lazy, or let ourselves go, maybe we can see ourselves in a new light – honoring the sacrifices we undergo, the great job we do with such a small budget, and the struggles we try to manage with how tight money can be on one income. But, I don't mean to be too martyrish though. After all, today I actually DID make it to yoga. In my new yoga pants ;)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lost at Sea




I grew up on an island. Despite the ocean’s accessibility to me, I was never a summery beach person, preferring instead chilly winter walks along the shore when the blue and white nothingness of it all seemed only for me, as if I was the first person on earth taking up vacancy. I’ve always loved the sheer emptiness of the beach, an oblivion that always spoke to me in a way that seemed to turn off others who loved the warmth and sunbathing of island life. The colder off seasons drew me in as a little girl when I’d take Sunday walks there with my parents, the brisk air awakening my lungs. I’d play hide and seek with my older brother in the sand dunes, taking shelter in the valley, which was always filled with a softer, warmer white type of sand. If a large breeze blew by, it’d whip the grains around me, as if I was one small brown speck inside a giant hourglass. As a lonely teenager, I’d escape the dysfunction in my house by seeking refuge in my first car, which seemed to always automatically steer its way to the beach. I’d stare out at the gray-blue winter water through the windshield as if my longing to be on the other side of that ocean could will it to actually happen.
           
          And years later, after already venturing to the land across that ocean a few times, I still found myself being drawn back to its shores, this time, with a tiny newborn against my chest who was along for the ride whether he wanted to be or not. When I stood at the threshold of motherhood, I arrived there much more dumbfounded, frazzled, and jumbled than I could ever remember my tiny son appearing on his own journey into humankind. Even though Aidan was decidedly frustrated with the limits of newbornhood and all the constrictions that came along with it, he seemed to still maintain a steady and strong will, as if he knew exactly who he was and what he wanted, even at two weeks old. I, on the other hand, felt like my entire soul was an erupting wound of vulnerability and naivety, rocked with the presence of this miniature yet assured creature whom I desired for so long but had no idea what to do with. Aidan as a newborn didn’t like rattles or pacifiers or sitting in his pretty swing or bouncy seat. He’d wail if placed in a stroller and didn’t sleep in the infant carrier that I saw so many other babies sitting contently in. He’d roam his humongous black eyes around the living room, our “campsite” during the early days of feedings and diapers as if to say, “what else ‘ya got?” 


And so, we’d go out. To the duck pond. To the bay. And finally, to the ocean. I’d show Aidan the vast blankness that I cherished so much, and let him hear the cyclical crashing acoustics of the water. Back then, I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt compelled to take a tiny newborn to roam the desolate shores, other than to have a definitive place to go with an infant that seemed to want to see the entire world before he could sit upright. But I suppose I felt a deeper draw to the water, as if its blue depth was a magnet to my rawness as a mother. As if the answers to my confusion would be whispered on the wave crests. I craved its therapy, and how the timelessness of the beach brought me comfort when nothing else could. For, even when I didn’t have the answers, I knew the ocean would remain steady and still, as it always had been, despite whatever immense changes were going on in my life.


I recall one day when I was four months into motherhood, waist-deep in the trenches of sleep training and wide-eyed dawns. Aidan wouldn’t nap and I felt myself becoming more unraveled each hour that passed with his irritability. I had been trying to help him learn how to sleep well for weeks with no success. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I found myself strapping Aidan into his carseat and heading the five miles to the late autumn shoreline. I’ve never felt more unhinged in my life. Unhinged and crazed and lost. Completely maddened by this tiny person whom I dedicated every waking moment to. Lost amongst friends of mine who seemed to bounce right back from childbirth, motherhood, and infancy, as if they had acquired a new piece of furniture instead of a creature that required incessant grueling attention. I felt like I had been abducted by aliens the day I gave birth to Aidan, and was returned to earth forever different, possibly appearing the same on the outside but altered and changed nonetheless. The ocean didn’t help Aidan’s restlessness; neither did the rocking of the tide nor the salty cold air. He wouldn’t sleep. I drove Aidan home more maddened than before and wound up locking my keys in the car. Unable to get into the house, I took refuge in my old neighbor’s place and called my husband to make the 45 minute commute to come open the door and rescue my keys. Any hope of Aidan eating and sleeping was lost. I waited politely yet disturbed the whole time, and when my husband finally got home, he magically got Aidan into his crib to sleep, evoking my envy over his grace as a father. When he returned into the living room, I wept uncontrollably onto his collarbone. I felt like one big ocean, waves of emotion upheaving onto my husband’s dress shirt and tie. I cried primitively, like a brand new baby myself, the tears lurching out of my exhausted, red eyes like stinging waterfalls. I howled into him, losing all sense of reality and composure. The ocean had not worked. But I kept hope for its compass-like pull to me, waiting for calm. Listening for answers.

A year later when we relocated six hours away and much further from the coast, I mourned the loss of my ocean and all things nautical. I didn’t know how I was going to leave the shore. I regretted not spending enough time engaging in water activities, thinking I should have gone on more boats and spent more summer days at the beach. But we fell in love with our new location and soon I didn’t think about how much I’d miss my proximity to the beach. Still, its lure was a subtle haunt within my heart; a quiet vestige of our old life that I’d crave often. Aidan got older and turned into an unstoppable toddler, then a feisty older toddler and finally a verbose strong-willed boy. Every disrupting cycle of bad behavior or upheaval in who I thought Aidan was made me crave a drive to the ocean. We managed without it but I missed its soothing vastness. 


 





Recently, we took a family vacation to the beach. I was eager to visit a spot on the coast I had never been to before and to get away for a bit. But I was impatient to fulfill that quiet craving that had been lingering for the last few years. I couldn’t wait to stand in front of the ocean and just be. Aidan, at four, had been well behaved and chilled out for awhile. The insanity of earlier days was behind us. Still, I was antsy to get myself on that sand and feel soothed and solaced. 

But instead, although we enjoyed the beach and the vacation, the satisfaction for being coastal again was anti-climactic. I couldn’t wait to get back to the place I always felt restored, but when I got there, I didn’t feel any big relief or change. Aidan spent most of his vacation tossing around in the waves with Daddy. They’d stand knee high in the water and Aidan would squeal with delight as my husband lifted him high into the air and safely into the surf. He chased the tide and ran backwards with the water as it lapped upon the sand. I spent most of the time standing to the side, watching my two men at play, almost amazed at how effortlessly parenting has found its way to us. I thought back to my early shattered days standing at the ocean like a puzzle piece waiting for its matching pair. I thought of how far I’ve come as a mother and of how I’ve learned to create my own salve for the chaos and trauma that raising a child can bring. I smiled as I watched Aidan playing contently at the shore, thinking of how we’ve both matured these last few years - two composed daily comrades instead of crude adversaries in some sort of apocalyptic babyhood warzone. Peace had­­ found its way to our family naturally.


It is not the ocean, nor the water or shore that is therapy for me. Its presence back in my life didn’t alleviate any sense of isolation or confusion. I realize that what it always did for me was simply provide an environment free from distraction, so that I could return inward and find solace and certainty in my own maternal heart. The magic was never dancing upon the foam on the shoreline or whipping around the ocean air, but inside me all the time. Without the confusing world of parenting advice, other people, internet articles, Facebook, books, magazines, clich├ęs, little old ladies in the drugstore that offered mothering advice – with all of that gone and just the elements of nature around me, I could look within and restore my own knowledge. The answers were already deep within. Once, I was adrift at sea. And eventually, I found my way home.