Phantom Children

Sending a child off to college is what I’d imagine severing a limb is like. You feel phantom pain long after it’s gone; though in this case, it’s more like a sense of longing than actual pain.

I recall telling my mother, during my first pregnancy, “I just can’t wait to get this A.F.P. screen done because then I can stop worrying.” My mother laughed a very throaty guffaw and replied, “Honey, once you’re a mother, you will NEVER [strong emphasis on that word] stop worrying.”

Likewise, I recall my girlfriend, who is about 10 years older than I and has two children from a previous marriage 10ish years older than my children, who wisely stated, “The older they get, the bigger their problems.”
Two very profound pieces of advice/information. I’ve heard their words more than several times throughout my child rearing years, and suppose I will continue to hear them ringing in my ear like a reminder— I am a mother. Who said letting go would be easy?

I just never thought it would be THIS hard.

My first son left for school, being admitted for 2nd semester after being put on a wait list at initial acceptance time. Ahh… I thought, more adjustment time for me. No so, really; instead, just prolonging the inevitable. You know people say that children have a way of behaving unbearably before going off to college to subconsciously help them with the letting-go process. I do believe in the trickle-down theory, and while, immediately, I think it helped– that “I can’t wait to get you out of my house”- feeling subsided the moment he wrapped his arms around me, said “goodbye Mom,” in his sweetest most affectionate voice, and the long journey home, trapped in contemplative thought– where I’d forgotten every curse word, temper tantrum, missed curfew, banged-up car, roof jumping, new tattoo, bong finding, ten-nine, break-up, principal calling, passed-out stupor incident that had led up to this moment.

“Goodbye, Mom.” CHOP. SLASH. KAPUT. Limb gone.

I return home to an eerily quieter house, his neat (bed made, empty floor, everything in it’s place) room. I look at the clock and think, hmm, he isn’t home yet… OH, that’s right, he’ll be home in about three months.

After the second child, it isn’t any easier. It’s just that, now, I know what to expect.

One thing I’ve learned with the first is that I haven’t lost him, which is what I feared initially, but our relationship has morphed into something else– something very different.

I have to concede that I will not talk to him everyday, and I’ll miss a lot of the little things, nor can I take for granted that he is just there when I want or need him to be.

I learn to set aside time to call him, or drop everything when he calls me. I have to be content that he’s eager to share all of the big things, and savor every moment we can share in person– like stocking up on my hugs and listening to him, really listening to every single thing, and living in the moment.

I have to push my worries aside, not focus on those, and hope that all of the big lessons they learned at home will prepare them for all of the lessons they are about to face on their own. I put my trust in God to keep him safe, happy and healthy.

Keeping my mind focused on the big picture helps. I’ve created this child to love, teach, nurture, enjoy in order to set him free to become his own person one day. While it all seemed so very far away 21, and  again 18 years ago, it’s here, today and everyday, now.

And I have one more left before the nest is empty.

 

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UM: Atonement

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the Summer of Repairs, literally referring to the many things that have broken down and needed fixing this summer. At the time, I didn’t realize how figuratively that title/entry applied to my summer.

I see my life in chapters… time periods of themes, such as the playgroup period when I was all about making mommy connections simultaneous to facilitating connections for my children, or the volunteer period when I spent countless hours devoted to being room parent or P.T.A. co-chair or spear-heading a scholarship program for my children’s youth hockey association. In particular, summers lend themselves to chapters; for a teacher, they are the chunks of time in between the rhythms of the realities and routines of life. There was the summer of block parties and neighbors, the summer of completing my first novel, the summer of panic attacks, the summer of attempting to publish my second novel, the summer of college visits, the first summer of letting go.

This summer has been about atonement.

Like untangling a mass of soft, beautifully colored, balled up yarn, I’ve been weaving in & out of the last four years trying to “find” myself.

The truth is, I thought I’d found myself when I decided to marry the love of my life and again after my second child was born which marked the moment (and it was literally a moment, in the wee hours in the morning, that I held my second newborn– his head resting warmly on my shoulder, in the crook of my neck, and I could feel his breath on my skin and his heart beating against mine) when I recognized a newfound confidence in myself as a mother (something I was only able see in comparison to how unprepared, and scared, and inept I felt with my firstborn). I’d found myself again when I earned my master’s degree (while being a wife and a mother of 3, working thirty hours a week, and completing a graduate teaching assistantship) in only three years, and once again when I’d found the full-time English teaching job in my hometown– the dream job, the Shangri-La of teaching. I’d thought I’d fully evolved, that I had arrived at my destination and could coast.

But things began to stir inside me. Not the way you suddenly feel your stomach turn; it was more of a slow process creeping up on me over a period of years, and, then, suddenly attack. At first I didn’t recognize it as a mid-life crisis, for the term had always seemed to me just a label for bad behavior. Withdrawal was my primary symptom. I felt myself slipping away, sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss I couldn’t identify other than simply being in the middle. In the middle of my life. In the middle of mothering. In the middle of my marriage. In the middle of my career.

I even felt the wide open spaces closing in around me. Suddenly, what had always been a comfortable size home began shrinking and shrinking. My kids took over space. My husband took over space. For the first time, I embodied Virginia Woolf’s sentiment that every woman needs “a room of her own.” And I felt I didn’t have one. I was losing myself and, instead of fighting, giving into to the feeling.

I’d become tired of being a mother, unsatisfied in my marriage, disillusioned at work– feeling like I was treading through my life, sometimes as if I were keeping my head just above the surface. Other times, disconnected, I was a mere observer, on the outside looking in.

The catapult that eventually enabled me to become a conscious participant in this stasis, that I hadn’t– until this point– recognized, was when my firstborn son left for college. It took some time to grasp how difficult that transition had been for me.

For the first time, in too long, I looked into the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at me. I didn’t know who she was. She was changing and questioning in ways she never had before. She was allowing all the things that mattered most to her to fringe and fray.

And it would take the next two years to work through.

This summer, I began on- the- mend, aware of the path, in search of an end to this mangled ball of yarn. While I had been patiently awaiting a moment, not sure that I would even recognize it as such when it arrived, IF it arrived, I approached my summer, not as a project which has sometimes been the case, but more fluidly, taking one day at a time. My girlfriend shared her current mantra with me, “I will be fully present in this moment,” something I heard my conscious self whispering in my ear time and time again.

In addition to being the Summer of Repairs, I have referred to this as the Summer I Lost My Daughter. When Alexa was eleven, I’d attended a summer girl party where the host had hired a psychic who told me to cherish my daughter that summer, for that would be the last summer she would seek me out to spend time with before being all encompassed by her friends. Well, it’s taken her four years, but this is the summer she’s out all day, every day hanging with friends, announcing that suddenly she doesn’t enjoy going out on the boat with her father and I, reneging agreements to join us out for dinner, brooding over visiting relatives, preferring to catch up on The Kardashians instead of swimming and sunning with me in the pool (all things she previously loved)… I knew it was inevitable. I thought the sting, since she is my daughter and friend– my sweet protégée, would be a little sharper than it had been with the boys. But it wasn’t, which came as a surprise to me, for I was dreading it since that afternoon when the psychic heeded me with a warning. Likewise, with Tyler, my second child who I’ll be sending off to college, I’ve been savoring the moments with him instead of dreading his absence and the gap that will be left in the wake of it.

In working through that period of adjustment, letting Ryan go, I have learned to finally enjoy the quality of time we do have together instead of focusing on the quantity. This brings a sense of calm– a sense that it will all be okay.

I’m finding ways to reconnect with my husband, every day, to insure that we remember how and why we fell in love, in addition to  continue nurturing that bond. In recognizing that, although ours lives can change, our relationship can and will grow stronger to adapt to and deal with those changes together.

At work, I’ve decided to focus my attentions on what really matters– educating my students to become lifelong learners (of not only the knowledge they attain from outside themselves, but also the kind of knowledge they attain from within), cultivating professional relationships that matter, and standing up for what I believe in.

Writing this blog has been cathartic for me, in that it’s given me a vehicle to make sense of the reflections I see in the mirror: wife, mom, teacher, friend… This summer has provided me the opportunity to take a good hard look at, not only the past four years when I was stuck in the middle, but what lead up to the feelings, and more so fears, that stirred within. It was in analyzing the unraveling, confronting my demons and making amends where I needed to that I have gained a newfound perspective only possible in hindsight.

I realize, now, that a certain age is not a benchmark, in the sense that one has arrived and can stop to rest, and that I will never really be able to coast except within the moments I allow myself to become lost in. “I will be fully present in this moment.” I hold out my arms to welcome many such moments.

UM: Playgroup

I picked up Tom Perotta’s book Little Children, and, while I loved the book (strictly from a fantasy perspective), I was disappointed by the turn it took. I identified with that playgroup. I lived it, especially the part where the main character forgets her child’s snack, and she becomes the worst mother in playgroup, the one without 2 extra snacks, diapers/clothes enough for the possibility of blow outs, and duplicates of the same toy so the toddlers could “share”(that’s an oxymoron). I too belonged to a playgroup that met every Friday at 9:00 for five years. We had the Barbie doll member who was always dressed to the nines and refused to give up her high heals, we had the perfect Laura-Ashley-mom who all of us strove to emulate, we had the obsessive mom who wiped her son’s hands after each “contact,” and the out-there mom who secretly revealed that the best orgasm she ever experienced was during childbirth. I thought we’d hear about Perotta’s version of what went on during these mommy & me fests, these ritual get togethers that, through the excuse of socializing our young, we were really just holding on to that hour of adult time that seemed to slip like sand through a bottomless hourglass.

Mothers came and went, but our core of three plus one stayed the same. I say plus one because, while Mary Jo was one of us for three years, we have since lost contact, save a Christmas card from time to time. Those Christmas cards are a mother’s showcase. I remember the saying being the focus before I had children. I’d come up with something crafty, perhaps a Charles Dicken’s quote from A Christmas Carole, that I’d fill out all of those square boxes with a friendly closing, post the order of fifty cards, and send it off to be printed with my own personal touch. Details such as this were a priority to me. It said something whether a person designed her own greeting card or picked one up at the local Hallmark. I was one of those women who took the time to put her personal stamp on everything. I called it crafty or even thoughtful; now, I consider it anal and showy. During the playgroup years, however, it was Mary Jo who first turned me onto Christmas cards featuring the faces of our little ones. At first, there was only John, her eldest, two months the senior of my Ryan. Her photograph was taken in her home by a professional photographer. Poinsettias adorned the floor in front of her fireplace where she and her husband, John Sr., knelt down on either side of Johnny, as he was affectionately nicknamed. I bought into the idea, but I took Ryan to J.C. Penney. Relatives loved the idea of the postcard photograph, especially my mother, who still has each and every one, to this day; although, only her favorites are still displayed. It became a competition between me and my friends, both my friends from high school and my new playgroup friends. Who had the best photograph or who received whose first? My first trophy Christmas photograph postcard came when I decided to dress all three of my children in their hockey gear. Alexa couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, at the time, but I schlepped her to the ice rink with her brothers and dressed her up in one of their in-house uniforms for the day the professional sports photographer was there to snap the photographs of all of the youth players. What a racket those photographers had. Photographs of every child for every sport they played, but they took it to a new level when they made photograph sporting cards, or Sports Illustrated covers, magnets, sculptures featuring your child for a mere $56.00 package. That year, Alexa stood in front of Ryan, with his Wallingford Hawk jersey on; only all that could be seen of the hawk was the tips of his wings that looked like devil ears atop Alexa’s head. I received phone calls from those who I sent the picture to asking if we had posed her that way on purpose; of course, we replied, giving way to the future hidden-Carbone’s, as we’d come to affectionately refer to my faux pas, that would ensue on each of our upcoming cards. Renee pulled into the lead the following year, when she had her children, Jamie and Eric, dressed in a velvet and taffeta dress and suit in front of a white backdrop: the first black and white version of a Christmas card postcard. I took the trophy back again when my children were featured in a London phone booth; the hidden-Carbone that year was the revealing college girl photo and phone number on the wall behind them, a detail I hadn’t picked up on before I sent it off to be replicated. The trophy was passed back and forth for most original, most vintage, most creative, earliest in the mail box (I received Karen’s the day before Thanksgiving one year).

Christmas card one-upmanship was among the things I learned to put on the resume of good parenting. Another was the dreaded word: daycare. I was among two of the playgroup moms who worked, who needed to work. It was a status symbol if one didn’t need to work like the Mary Jos and the Kathys and even that woman who ended up moving to New Jersey, her name escapes me now. It was a tradeoff, though; their husbands went away on business trips every other week, it seemed. In fact, the New   Jersey mom’s husband, we learned after the move, found out that instead of traveling for business, her husband was trysting—with another man.

One month after Ryan’s birth, I called my former place of employment, Hamden Adult Education, to ask if I could return to teaching in the fall. My mother had taken time off from work to spend the first two weeks with me as I acclimated to becoming a mom. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was post partum depression. The second was a colicky baby. This seven pound, scrawny-legged, cone-headed, brown-haired, beautiful boy was an angel with a monster set of lungs. The first night home from the hospital, I called the nursery I had just left eight hours before, sobbing because I couldn’t get my little prince to stop crying. I sat up that first night watching the swing soothe him as it swayed back and forth, something my arms just couldn’t manage. In the morning, my mother would arrive to help Anthony and I. He’d begin to fuss, and I’d reassure them both, “No, I’ve got him. We have to get used to each other.” I’d rock him and sway him. I’d sing to him and try to feed him. I’d make sure he wasn’t wet. I’d pace. Nothing. The moment I handed him over to my mother, he’d stop crying. I’d find solace in my room, upstairs, sitting in the rocking chair, without my baby boy and with tears in my own eyes.

The mother role wasn’t working out the way I had planned.

In the hole of my depression, I’d practically shove him in the arms of my mother or my husband, only to plead to have him back, ten or so minutes later, in my arms to hold. One day, I took my purse, my car keys and my breasts and left the house for several hours to lose myself in shopping. It felt good to be free, again, just me, myself and I. In the car, I practically screamed the words to the song on the radio I was singing so loud, trying to drown out my own thoughts that kept repeating, what did I do? Thoroughly enjoying my shopping spree, two full bags in my arms already, I passed a beautiful linen blouse hanging on the rack that I had to try on. Once in the dressing room, I peeled the maternity top off to see little wet spots forming on my bra. My boobs were tingling beneath them. At that moment, I decided, motherhood was something I wanted, something I had yearned for, in fact, but I needed balance, I determined. I’d return to work. Yes, I’d return to work to teach one class.

The experience of my daycares went through phases with each child I had. My mother was my daycare for Ryan. The pluses: she came to my house and she loved him almost as much as me. The minuses: she spoiled him, rotten, and she felt she could mother me mothering him. With Tyler, I searched for a new daycare, a home daycare with just a few children, but with a woman warm enough to love and nurture him. My husband and I took several days to visit daycares. Not one of them was good enough for my son. In fact, he was even turned down by one because of his tendency to projectile vomit (across the room, projectile) after his feedings. How dare she turn my son down for that was his singular flaw and one he’d grow out of once he began eating solids. Thankfully, Karen, from play group, offered to watch Tyler, while Ryan would come to pre-school in the building where I worked. Playgroup was now taking on a new dimension.

She was wonderful with Tyler and she had a son, Christopher, who was just a few weeks older than Tyler. Each time I’d return to pick him up, she’d have a daycare report card that listed what he ate and played with, when he had diaper changes and what was in them, and when he napped. The funniest report card listed a diaper change with a side-note: he has the biggest baby penis I have ever seen. These were the things we discussed as parents. The report cards became something I looked forward to, so I could monitor his schedule while I was away. Handing over control of a child to even one of her best friends is difficult for a mother.

Playgroup became a drop off for some mothers. Would you mind if I dropped her off while I run an errand? We resented these mothers and they were quickly voted out of the group. One mother joined because she wanted to push her multi-level marketing business, her side-job. We got sick of these mothers who wanted an in as networking device, but we weren’t slackers, we caught on quick. Having babies might have sucked all of the time out of our lives, but it didn’t suck the brains out of our heads.

Max’s mom (her name escapes me, too) was one of those nearly middle-aged moms who waited to have a baby only to realize getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. She would also be the orgasm mom; that story, I will not forget until the day I die. Max was approximately twenty pounds and 3 inches taller than the rest of his playgroup friends his age. He walked like a bulldozer with focus and great strength. Each time he bulldozed one of our kids, his mom would take him sternly by the hand, look in his eye and give him a stern rationalization that he should be careful or he’d end up having no friends at all. The rest of us laughed it off; really the boy just had no concept as to where his body began and ended, a concept he’d surely revisit in puberty.

Karen, Kathy and I (the mainstays) whispered a lot about Mary Jo. She tried to project this perfect persona of being a mom and of her children. Mary Jo denied, with every breath she took, that she was stuck living in a condo in the armpit of CT and that she had just given away her dog to make room for her son. If Mary Jo could have put a picket fence up around the outside of her townhouse she would have for both appearance and to mark her territory. Passat was a word she tossed around as if it were a Mercedes, when I simply referred to my vehicle (now equipped with the latest standard car seat)– a car. Mary Jo banked on her Passat as the lotto ticket that would drive her right out of Waterbury. And that, it did, eventually moving them to her husband’s hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. Because John traveled so often, his parents could help with the children. Soon, they moved down to Virginia. And then back up to Bedford. We exchanged cards for a few years, simply for bragging rights. At first, all of us received cards. First, Karen was removed from the list, then Kathy, and, finally, me. The truth was that we wondered if John really was traveling around or sleeping around. Probably a combination of both. These are the things mothers come to talk about to occupy their time. The closer our lives got to STAR magazine, the more alive we felt, and a bit closer to the adult world, too. We learned, as mothers, to live vicariously through others. Characters in books, or soap operas, movies or even in our own living rooms.

We met at 9 a.m., at first, for timing purposes, so we could end just before naptime. As they grew older, we’d linger, sometimes stay for lunch or make an excursion out of it by going to the zoo or the firehouse. As the older children’s siblings came, we weren’t as anal about keeping their schedules, so the young ones learned to nap in car seats, on the floor or on the sofa. I’m not sure who became better friends; the three of us or our children. They grew up together virtually as cousins. Their mothers took friendship to a new level; we shared every thing we could not or did not share with our husbands and even some of the things we had. From the consistency of poop to Martha Stewart to new sexual positions; we discussed it all. While playgroup had started as a guise to socialize our children, it became so much more.

Tom Perotta narrates through the main character who was also “sinking into the rhythm of the kids’ day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.” But we did. We learned that our lives had become subordinate to our children’s, our days would be dictated by their needs and our friends would be the parents of their friends.