If Confidence Were a Balloon

Slumped beneath the weight of her backpack, my daughter slinked from the school bus steps. Her ocean-blue eyes had faded to stormy skies and her skin was muted.

“How was your day?” I asked. I was concerned. Most days she raced off the steps with a grin so wide her eyes were shut. This day, she didn’t even wave.

“Fine,” she said. The word pushed out of her lips unwillingly, like the last puff of air leaving a balloon. She was deflated.

“Are you sure?” I pressed.

“Yep.” I watched her kick an invisible rock across the driveway.

“You know what?” I said as I cupped my hand around her small shoulder. “I think we should get some ice cream.”

“Really?” she stopped and looked up to me, squinting her eyes against the sun. I realized, in that moment, how fragile she still was. “Before dinner?”

“Yep,” I winked. “Let me get my keys.”

Ten minutes later, we were sitting at the table with bowls of pink frozen yogurt in front of us and I asked again, “Is everything alright, Hun? Did you have a bad day?”

My daughter stuffed her spoon deep into her cardboard bowl and swallowed a mouthful of creamy treat. “Sorta,” she shrugged.

I lowered my eyes to meet hers, pushed my bowl aside, and whispered, “wanna tell me about it?”

She looked away and tears started to gush from her eyes. “Mama, they chased me,” she sobbed. “I wanted to collect rocks and they chased me.” Her chest heaved, catching breath in spurts, and every bit of my heart crumbled.

“Who chased you, Hun?” I scooted my chair closer and wrapped my arms around her. I prayed that somewhere in my embrace she’d find strength, and a that my arms would take her sadness so I could store it under my own skin.

“My friends at recess,” she pressed against my heart like she did as a baby and continued to bawl. “I just needed some alone time.”

“Aww Sweetie, I think you were so brave for standing up for yourself. It can be hard to not give into the pressure of our friends,” I encouraged my daughter and inflated her balloon.

“I don’t know,” she said, then looked down at her sparkle-covered sneakers.

“Trust me. Sometimes our friends don’t understand when we need personal space,” I explained. “We have to tell them when we need to be left alone.”

“I did that Mama, but they kept chasing me!” she stuffed a spoonful of frozen yogurt into her mouth and wiped her face with her shirtsleeve. The parent in me wanted to scold her for staining her shirt, but the mother in me couldn’t. Instead, I handed her a sticky napkin to wipe the tears beneath her eyes.

Conversation comes easy for my little girl when she’s with family, but sometimes large groups of people drain her batteries. An only child for the first five years of her life, my daughter recognized at an early age that alone time helps her recharge. It’s especially necessary during the flurry of a long school day, when staying focused is so important.

“I know it can be frustrating. I need my personal space, too.” I took her soft cheek into my hand. “I get grumpy if I don’t have time to just be quiet and write each day.”

“Really?” she asked.

It is my job, as a mother, to ensure my daughter has enough air in her balloon, enough confidence, to succeed.

“Really,” I said. “Just keep reminding them. And if they don’t get it, it will be okay. At least you know what’s best for you.” I half-hugged her shoulder, then took a bit of my melted yogurt. “Mmm! Is this tomato flavor?”

My daughter laughed and straightened the slump in her shoulders. “Mama, you’re so silly. It’s strawberry!”

Photo courtesy of Seabass Creatives/Unsplash

When Safety is on the Line

I back out of my driveway when I first see him. The stranger is meandering down the street strangely close to my property. He’s tall, white, and dressed mostly in black. In my rear-view mirror, I watch him get closer and closer to my house. It isn’t even lunch time.

My antique-white colonial sits on two acres of rolling Virginia hills in a small subdivision filled with dense, mature trees and a small creek that weaves in and out of the yards like a thread. We are several miles from the busy part of town, and I know most of my neighbors by face.

My van is halfway down the block when he glances in my direction. His face is unfamiliar. He dips into the woods, just over my property line, causing my heart to skip a beat, then quicken.

What do I do?

I’ve always been the kind of girl who chooses flight over fight. In gym class, I remember ducking every time that red ball came my way, and wincing at the sting on my skin as it bounced off my body.

I also remember getting in trouble during my years as a paralegal. I’d hide under my desk biting my nails, waiting for the lawyer’s backlash to ensue after transposing address numbers or misspelling names like Shwartzman and Agostinelli on important contracts.

In my rearview I see my toddler’s tiny hands swaying back and forth to the beat of “Let it Go,” as Elsa belts it out from her DVD player. This house is where my girls will grow to women.

Flight isn’t an option.

I stop contemplating it, and attempt a U-turn, but my palms are so clammy they can’t grip the steering wheel. I rub my hands across the tops of my thighs hoping the friction helps, and it does. Slowly, I press on the gas and my van turns, then lurches forward down the street.

In front of my property, I watch the stranger walk back and forth through our brush, just beyond the tree line. He keeps getting farther and farther from the street, and closer to my house. I almost can’t see him anymore. I can feel my stomach tighten.

I need a Tums. 

“Hey!” I shout. “Do you know you’re on private property?”

He pivots to look at me. His hood is tightly drawn, so I can’t see the color of his hair, but I know I won’t forget his face. He has a smattering of pink acne scars on his cheeks, and his light eyes are darting back and forth erratically.

He starts walking towards me.

Oh shit. Now what?

As the distance between us closes, I can see the muscles in his forehead twitching nervously, too.

He looks guilty!

I glance at his hands and check for any kind of movement that would indicate he might be reaching for a weapon. I’m suddenly quite fearless in my Grand Caravan.

“I’m looking for my phone,” the kid says. He appears to be in his late teens or early twenties. “My girlfriend tossed it in your woods last night. I was just trying to find it.” He puts his hands up defensively.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” I scrutinize him. I keep my car in drive and my foot on the brake, ready to run him over.

“Yeah, I live over there,” he says, waving a hand in the direction behind me. There are only two streets in my neighborhood, a dead end cul-de-sac and a horseshoe shaped street that intersects the dead end in two places. He didn’t mention either street by name.

I don’t believe you.

“I’m calling the cops,” I say.

“I’ll leave,” he says. “It’s no big deal.”

It’s a very big deal, asshole. You’re trespassing!

I watch him hustle past my van before I roll down the window to take a picture of him on the sly. He turns left into the horseshoe and disappears. Once air returns to my lungs, I call the cops. Minutes drag before the sheriff finally arrives in his cruiser.

“Without a getaway car, a break-in is unlikely,” says the cop. “But you can’t rule it out. I’ll see if I can find him in the neighborhood for a talk right now. And we’ll start patrolling here more frequently.”

What if you don’t see him? What if he comes back?

I taste my morning coffee mixed with bile at the back of my throat.

That little shit.

My home is more than simple brick and mortar. It’s memories of my children racing down the stairs on Christmas morning. It’s sleepovers with friends and moms’ nights in. It’s kitchen dance parties and summer barbecues on the back porch, catching fireflies in a mason jar at dusk. It’s the place I walk barefoot and bra-less with yesterday’s eyeliner staining the skin beneath my eyes, and everyone accepts me just the same.

And some little jerk in a black hoodie is going encroach on that?

I don’t think so, buddy.

Maybe I’m a ‘fight’ kind of girl, after all…

 

 

Photo courtesy of Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

Adulting in the Digital Age

I have no clue what I’m doing.

Not with parenting. Not with cooking and cleaning. Not with social media. Not with putting on my own damn lipstick. No effing clue.

I mean, I’m sure if you looked at my Pinterest page, you would think that I’m this insanely organized person with perfectly planned kid parties, amazing eye makeup, color-coded closets, and healthy home-cooked meals seven days a week. If you looked at my Facebook and Instagram pages, you would find my kids’ happy faces on vacations, playing family games, and going out to eat wearing clean, matching clothes. I look like I know what I’m doing.

But let’s be honest, Pinterest is a place where dreams of healthy, easy recipes, DIY refinished cabinets, labeled spice racks in alphabetical order, and picture frames hung with precision on a pristine gallery wall are born, then immediately murdered. We’ve all “pinned now, to read later”. Right? Only for me, most laters never come to fruition. They just hang out on my cyber pin board collecting digital dust.

Here are some fun facts: I usually have a full-blown anxiety attack that lasts for weeks every time one of my children has a birthday coming up. It ends only when the party is winding down and people are filing out of my house. Pinterest has amplified that anxiety. Fun fact two: my closets are a disaster, with boots piled in one corner, and clothes that have been pushed and smushed in the other. I have so many of those gross metal hangers from the dry cleaner, but I never remember to take them back so they hang there, taunting me with their rigid ugliness. Three: I try to cook. Sometimes it’s edible, and sometimes we end up ordering Chinese. Four: I don’t have time to paint my 1990s oak cabinets, so I am secretly praying for them to eventually be vintage and cool. Five: most of my photos are floating in cyberspace, or getting dusty in a box, instead of being displayed.

And those moments of perfection posted on Facebook and Instagram? Fake!

When my children are in that moment right before chaos, where they both appear to be civilized, I document it. I #hashtag it. I share it. When we make a dinner that actually looks delectable, I post it for all of Instagram to see. But why? Do I want to make someone jealous of my moment? Have I been programmed by social media to broadcast my life across the web, sharing only the moments that make me look like I actually have my shit together? I don’t know, maybe it’s a little of both.

What if I shared the real life things my family does instead. Like when my kids hit each other or pull on each other’s hair: #sisterlylove. Or when my oldest refuses to eat and my youngest chucks her chicken across the room: #dinnerfun. Or maybe when we barely make it to the bus for the hundredth time #mamaislosinghershitagain.

Being so involved on social media makes my brain hurt. The real honest to God’s truth is that most people don’t care what my kids did today. Most people don’t care what ideas I have saved on Pinterest. And most don’t care what I’m eating for dinner.

It’s okay. I understand. The feeling is pretty mutual. So why, then, do I put it all out there? Why do I pretend like I live in a dollhouse where everything is made of cupcakes and my hair doesn’t move, whenever I go online?

Being a mess is okay!

My kids don’t care that I have three unorganized junk drawers and a constant stream of clothes folded in baskets we have to dig through. And they would rather have their parties at Chuckie Cheese instead of at home under duress. And they definitely prefer to eat pasta every single night of the week, than some homemade Paleo/21 Day Fix friendly meal I pinned for my own waistline.

They want me to close my phone and open my eyes, to make mistakes and problem-solve without parenting ques from Facebook. They want me to be real and present. They want my mess.

So maybe it’s time share and pin less. Maybe it’s time to unplug a little more, and stop worrying about the Joneses, the Facebookers, and the Pinners, so I can connect with the people in my small corner of this big world.

Once I have that down, then maybe I can figure out lipstick.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

That Time We Vacuumed a Pea from the Baby’s Nose

Our day started with three Jehovah’s witnesses, two plumbers, and one dog in heat. That would have been enough for any normal family, but my overachieving 18-month-old decided to stuff some peas up her nose during dinner for extra excitement.

The shenanigans started while I was helping my husband clear the table. I picked up a plate and some silverware and took literally ten steps to the kitchen.

“Mama!” I could hear my six-year-old giggling from the dining room.

“I’ll be right back, Sweetie,” I responded. My husband was filling the dishwasher. “Dinner and dishes? I’m pretty lucky!” I said, smacking his rear end.

“Mama, you have to see this! Ash put a pea in her nose.”

“A what?” I sighed and rolled my eyes before handing him my plate. Then I turned and walked casually back to the table. I know my youngest daughter is a trouble-maker. She’s like a cat, cute but sneaky. My oldest, Rey, was stifling laughter with her hand when I arrived. The baby had a bright green pea protruding from her left nostril. I snorted. “Grab my phone babe, I need to document this,” I said, along with every other great parent when her child had gotten herself into trouble. My husband ‘carefully’ tossed me my phone before returning to the kitchen.

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I snapped the photo, then pushed on her nostril, popping the pea out faster than one of those machines that pops out tennis balls.

“Taken care of,” I pretended to dust my hands.

“Wait Mama, there’s more!” my oldest shouted. She likes to exaggerate, as most kids do.

“I’ve told you before not to tell stories.”

“Mama, I mean it. Look! Look!” she jumped up, pointing and shrieking from the other side of the table. I decided to entertain her and peek. I reclined the high chair and peered up the baby’s nose to find yet another pea. It was within pinky-reach, so I quickly pulled it out.

“Well that’s enough fun for me,” I sighed and walked away, wondering if it was too early for a gigantic glass of wine.

“Mama, I think there’s another one,” my oldest had gotten up from her chair. She had one eye closed while pushing Ash’s nose up, stretching the nostrils wider for a better view. “I see something green!”

“Stop being silly,” I admonished. “It’s probably a booger.”

“No really, Momma! I’ll get Daddy’s flashlight.” She ran to the kitchen, came back with a tiny hand-held light. She shone it up the baby’s nose and there, tucked in the highest part of her nasal cavity, was another freaking pea. They were piled in her nose like lottery balls in the tube, only there wasn’t a prize to win.

“My dear God,” I whispered. “Only my child.” I pulled her out of her highchair and attempted to plug the pea-less nostril whilst blowing into her mouth to get it dislodged. Nothing. I used a nasal aspirator. Nope. That stupid little pea was stuck.

We put out a call on Facebook for tips on dislodging objects from body parts, because the people on Facebook are always right. Right? Not surprisingly, nothing helpful came of that, either.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said to my husband. “Maybe it will just fall out on its own?” After many trials, no luck, and a frustrated baby, I called it quits and put both kids in the tub.

A while later, my husband popped his head into the bathroom. “Do we have juice boxes and duct tape? I have an idea.” Good ideas don’t normally start with duct tape, but my husband is resourceful, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“Check the kitchen,” I said, drying off the kids.

When I came out of the bathroom, he had duct taped a juice box straw to a sippy-cup lid and to, finally, the vacuum hose. “This is going to work. I know it,” he said.

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“Wait. You want to vacuum the baby’s nose? Are you alright?”

“Yes and yes. You hold her down. Rey, you hold her arms and I’ll use the juice box straw to vacuum out the pea. Are we ready?”

“Oh boy,” I said. “I guess we don’t really have a choice.” I laid Ash on the bed, straddled her gently and held her face so she couldn’t move. Her cheeks were squished together like a little Cabbage Patch Doll. My eldest daughter held her arms firmly in place and my husband carefully put the tiny white straw in the end of her nose. I held my breath as the vacuum hummed, coming to life.

I bit my lip and squinted my eyes, praying that it would work. He slowly pulled the straw back, nanometer by nanometer. Time seemed to stop as more and more of the straw became visible. When the end of the white plastic was finally pulled from her nostril, I could see a tiny green pea stuck to the end. The three of us erupted in joyful hoots and hollers.

Kids do stupid stuff. All the time. And some of the stuff is stupider than other stuff. This, amazingly, sums up  what six years of parenting has taught me. So if anyone needs a vacuum attachment for removing small objects from children’s small body parts: noses, ears, etc., I have one and it works like a charm.

Just Below the Surface: My Relationship With Alcohol

I have this frequent nightmare where I’m underwater, just below the surface of a pool. The water is as grey as the skies above, and I’m cold. So cold. There are brown autumn leaves resting on top of the water, gently rippling from the breeze above. Somehow I know that they are from my parents’ Catalpa tree.  I’m in their pool.  I stretch my hand toward the air, but for some reason I can’t reach the space where water and breeze meet.  And throughout the dream I’m calm. Too calm, even though I know I’m drowning.

Awake, I know the dream isn’t real.  But it is.

It starts with the sound of the cork squeaking out of the bottle, making my heart skip with anticipation.  Even as often as I hear it, it still feels forbidden and exciting. As I pour it, the weight of the bottle feels as familiar as that dream, down to the gurgling sound of the pool filling up.

But it’s the first sip that really gets me. The taste of the tart white or bitter red on my tongue. The feeling of warmth that coats my belly, gives me courage and makes me believe I’m funnier. It tells me I’m better with it, and I nod my head yes in agreement. I know I should stop at the bottom of the first glass, but I pour another and sometimes another.  My head is still above water, I think. I keep drinking.

And when I do, it drags me swiftly down. Instead of thrashing to save myself, I go calmly with chagrin upon my face. I know the place it takes me all too well, and I’m comfortable there, despite knowing the extent it holds me back and pushes me down.

At the bottom of my third glass, the numbness comes. Pain, hurt, bills, everything is gone. It’s only me and my stemless glass. Eventually, I sink.

I’m drowning again.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about how my grandfather loved the bottle a little too much. He would come home angry from the bars night after night, frightening my mom into tears.  And my mom started smoking as a young girl. She tried to quit for years, but never could.

Am I addicted? Hell if I know. I know I don’t feel addicted. I feel stuck. And I know I don’t want to be an addict.  I don’t want the blood of an alcoholic, or a smoker, or this ticking time bomb of DNA to define me.  I want my work, my mind, and my kind nature to define me.  I want me to define me.

I am so fucking tired of the cycle.  I’m tired of the headache every morning.  And I’m tired of that nightmare.  I want to dream of blue skies and rays of sunshine instead of grey waters and chill in my bones.  I want to watch my children play with clear eyes, instead of through the fog induced by last night’s choices.

I’m also completely afraid. Afraid of knowing who I am sober. Afraid of regaining control. Afraid of asking for help. Afraid of not drinking. Am I ready to commit to that? Is that what I want? What I need?

That’s it. This is where it ends.  It won’t control me, like it controlled my grandfather.  I will not drown at the bottom of the bottle. It stops today, I swear.

Right after I finish this glass.

***

I wrote the essay above months ago with editing help from the folks at Yeah Write, but didn’t share it out of fear. And my situation hasn’t changed. I drink at least two glasses of wine five nights out of the week. I hate to read that on paper, but I don’t know how to change. Or where to begin the change. Maybe it this essay will be it. Maybe not. But I have to start somewhere, because I deserve the chance.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Why Lockdown Drills Scare Me More Than My Child

Each day, I watch my daughter climb the steps of the big yellow school bus on her way to class. As it speeds off with her inside, it pulls the breath from my chest along with it. As much as I hate to admit it, the violent world we live in forces a small part of me to wonder if she will return. But as soon as that thought enters my mind, I push it back out. If I allowed those thoughts to dwell, I would drive myself crazy considering the horrible possibilities. But now my daughter is old enough to understand that, too. She sees more than cotton candy and plastic ponies. She sees the danger.

***

“Okay, guys. Everyone sit quietly and wait for the drill to be over.”

I overheard my daughter talking in her playroom, so I went in to check on her. She had some of her dolls lined up in a sitting position, shoulder to shoulder. “What are you doing, Hun?” I asked her, taking a spot on the floor next to her. I folded my legs underneath me to reach her level.

“We’re having a lockdown drill,” she said, nonchalantly shrugging her small shoulders. The hair on my arms raised. I couldn’t believe my six-year-old had to experience that kind of thing.

“What’s a lockdown drill?” I asked, pushing a rogue hair away from her face. I needed to know more, to know if these drills were affecting her.

“We have them in school,” she replied. “We sit really quiet by the backpacks and a police officer pretends to be a villain by rattling the door handle.” Tears clouded my vision, but I didn’t dare let one fall to my cheeks.

“How many lockdown drills have you had?” I asked. I pulled her into my lap. My parenting instincts kicked in and I had a visceral desire to protect her. I’m a mama bear protecting my cub.

“So far, two times,” she shrugged again.

I remember fire drills from school. We’d line up and quietly walk outside in a single-file line away from the building. A fireman would be at his truck timing our exit to safety. I’m also familiar with tornado drills. I’m from the Midwest, so tornados were pretty common. We’d sit crisscross applesauce in the hallway, lined up knee-to-knee, with our heads tucked securely in our laps. We’d cover our neck with our hands for protection. Although it was painful sitting like that for what seemed like forever, we looked forward to it as a welcomed break from classwork. I can’t imagine feeling the same about a lockdown drill. Angry people with guns are a different kind of threat than a natural disaster. There are too many unknown variables.

“Does that scare you?” I asked her.

“Not as much as Star Wars,” she looked away from me, distracted by her dolls.

I could feel the vein in my neck begin to expand and contract. My young, sweet daughter understands that there are predators out there that we have to prepare for. I don’t know if I’m ready to hand over the keys for her to drive herself to safety yet. I’m not ready for her to grow up. I know I can’t shelter her under the protection of our roof forever, but first grade seems too soon for the veil to be lifted. I want her to think of unicorns and Santa Clause instead of bad guys and bullets.

I once asked my friend, Nina Parrish, a well-respected teacher, mother, and business owner in Fredericksburg her opinion on lockdowns. She told me, “Unfortunately, the reality is that we have violence in our schools. There have been active shooters in elementary schools, and the schools would be irresponsible if they did not prepare.  Lockdown drills ensure that students and teachers know what to do if the worst case scenario does arise.” But that doesn’t make it any less scary for anyone involved; children, school staff, parents, police officers – everyone is affected by these drills. But what’s worse? Not being prepared? Still, my fists clench and bile rises from my belly when I imagine what it’s like to be in her classroom during a lockdown drill. Seeing the children piled into the corner, being told to be quiet while the person with a gun threatens their lives.

***

At the end of each day, when she climbs back down those big bus steps smiling and waving, I exhale with relief. Another day of school has passed and everything is fine. I know my daughter is home, safe.

My heart strings have tightened because I know the older she gets, the less I can protect her from every scrape, heartbreak, bully, and villain. And I know the older she gets, the more I have to trust her to follow her own instincts. The more I have to entrust in the world to keep her safe. The more I have to let go.

Until then, I will continue protecting her one mama bear moment at a time.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Davies on Unsplash

The War Was Over – A Micro Challenge

The War was over.

After deliberation, a patterned cotton dress was chosen to wear. Blond curls were begrudgingly folded into place and complaints were made against the necessity of clean teeth.

In the end, we hugged. I straightened her backpack and she boarded the bus joyfully.