When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Solid Ground I Walked On And The Safe Air I Breathed

When I was 6 years old, my mother and father divorced. He vanished like a sorcerer’s trick and she, until then a stay-at-home mother, went to work. She was very glamorous, dressing each morning in silk and wool, donning tall leather boots and statement jewelry. I had only the vaguest idea of what she did, but I imagined her as one of the career gals I saw on TV, a cross between spunky Mary Tyler Moore and cheerful Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time. A bus took my mother to Manhattan every day, where she rode an elevator to a high floor. There were late nights at the office, business trips around the country, and something called “market week,” which demanded all her time and energy several times a year.

When she was gone, I was entrusted to her mother’s care. No wrinkly bubbe, my grandma was young and charming, only 46 when I was born. I adored her, the way swing music seemed to play wherever she went, her delight in bawdy jokes, and the endless stories she told about her audacious youth. We had the most glorious time together.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

But despite the love and care lavished on me by my grandmother when my mother was away, and my mother’s own playful affection when she was home, I was furious with my mother. In the dark fairytale I told myself, my handsome, charismatic Daddy’s strange disappearance had opened a door for her, and she had deserted me for a glittering life that lay elsewhere—in offices and on airplanes, in hotel rooms and tall buildings. My rage grew between us like brambles. I thought I knew the truth of her, that she was distant, and selfish. I believed I mattered to her, but not as much as everything else.

To call me a fool would be too kind.

In recent years, I have pieced together my mother’s version of this story. She resisted telling me, not wanting to upset me, but I have pried it out of her, a sharp-edged treasure.

On the day my mother kicked my narcissistic, philandering, thieving father out of the house, she was 30 years old, possessed only a high school diploma, and was in a mountain of debt she knew nothing about, because my father had “managed” their finances. She was movie star beautiful (I have seen photos and she was a dead ringer for young Elizabeth Taylor), deeply intelligent, and so terrified she could only manage to exist from one breath to the next. She began her career as a secretary at a company that manufactured underwear, and with nothing but her formidable grit, nimble mind, and unshakable determination, she rose to become Vice President of a lingerie company that was known around the world. Her success was personal, certainly, but it was also political. She was one of the women who cracked the glass ceiling so future generations could shatter it.

She did this not for vanity or ambition, but because there was no one else to take care of us. She divorced my father and settled his debts. She fed, sheltered, and clothed us. She bought me books, took me to plays, sent me to camp. All the while, she sheltered me from the painful realities of our life, never letting me know about the years of financial precariousness, my father’s cruelty, her exhaustion and sadness. She accepted my rage to spare me the weight of the truth—the Daddy I pined for had abandoned me utterly. He never called to ask how I was; he never sent a dime of support. My mother was the sun that warmed my shoulders and the moon that lit the dark, the solid ground I walked on and the safe air I breathed, and I never knew.

I see her with new eyes now; my anger replaced by awe for all she accomplished, for her courage and ferocious compassion. When I revisit our shared history, the thought of her — so young, so overwhelmed — makes me hurt. But there is one memory I treasure as a talisman and a comfort. When I was little, I would sometimes weep and beg her to tell me where my father had gone, ask why he didn’t love me anymore. And she would rock me in her arms and soothe me with the names of all the people who did love me, always starting with herself. “Mommy loves you,” she would whisper. “Mommy loves you most of all.”

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

This post originally appeared on the blog “I’m Just Sayin” as part of a series about the often complicated love between mothers and their children. 

It’s Called FaceTime for a Reason

This summer, my then 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, experienced two important rites of passage.

First, she became the object of a young man’s affection. This boy, whom we’ll call DG, had it bad for my moppet. So bad, in fact, that he asked if she had email, and told her that if she did NOT have email he’d make an email for her, so they could write during the evenings and over the weekend, when he was bereft of her company.

She told me this matter-of-factly one hot July night after camp, as she shoveled mac-n-cheese into her summer pink face. My baby, who has my pointy chin and round cheeks, her Daddy’s beautiful mouth, and more hair than anyone has a right to. My sweet little girl, who loves dragons and making things out of clay. My precious child, who is the kindest, funniest, and most generous person I have ever known.

“Well, Mama. Do I?” she asked.
“Do you what?”
“Do I have email?”
“Yes, my darling, you do. You have email so you can write to Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, and Grandma in Connecticut, and Yaya.” (That’s her nickname for my best friend, Lisa.)
“Well write it down for me, so I can give it to DG and he can send me an email.”

I didn’t just hand over her email address, of course. First I confirmed that this person was actually another child and not a 40-year-old ice cream vendor who hands out balloons to his “special” customers, but you have to climb into the back of the truck — which is really just a white van that he painted to look like an ice cream truck — to get your balloon (I watched far too many After School Specials growing up). Cue the epic eye rolling as she assured me that YES MAMA he’s a KID! He’s 10! We then had a giggly conversation where she admitted DG had a crush on her, and while she didn’t have a crush on HIM, she liked the fact that he had a crush on HER quite a lot.

I told her that she’s under no obligation to like him just because he likes her, that she doesn’t have to give anyone her email or phone number or smile for them or tell them her name or respond AT ALL just because a boy likes her. But if she IS going to be friends with him, she should understand that he has more-than-friend feelings for her, and be kind to him. And that if he, or anyone else for that matter, ever makes her feel uncomfortable or hurts her feelings or pressures her to be more than friends when she just wants to be friends then she should immediately tell me or her Daddy, and we will kill him. With our bare hands. And make it hurt. Bad.

Maybe I didn’t say that last part.

At the time Emerson didn’t have her own device on which to receive email. No iPad or iPhone or computer to call her own, because she is the most deprived child in all the land of Brooklyn. Her email came through on my iPhone, however, and so I was privy to the besotted musings of this 10-year-old Romeo. Here’s how it worked: He would send a message. I would see it on my phone, but not open it. I’d go home after work and tell her she had email. She’d take my phone and read the message, giggle, and then hand the phone back to me so I could type her dictated response, because I am her secretary. Sometimes she’d get bored and wander away, and I’d go scrambling after her because it is one thing to be transcribing a message from an 8-year-old girl to a 10-year-old boy, and quite another to be texting said 10-year-old boy by myself.

Things got serious when he started in with the emojis.

This went on for quite a few weeks. He even emailed her while we were away on vacation, counting down the days until she returned to camp, pumping out a string of emojis we had to consult a glossary to decipher. And then, sure as winter follows fall, came rite of passage number two: He dumped her. She went to camp one day, and he casually informed her that they were breaking up, but could still stay friends. She shrugged it off — she really hadn’t liked him that way, and was content with his ongoing friendship — but I admit to feeling a little miffed. I’d gotten pretty invested in all those emojis after all.

In August, for her 9th birthday, we got Emerson an iPad. She was so happy she cried. Mostly this iPad has been used for watching Wild Kratts (#TeamChris forever), taking photos of herself using Photo Booth, emailing grandparents, and FaceTiming Yaya.

And about a week ago, she used it to FaceTime DG.

I do not know what her motivation was. I think she was just missing her friend. He gleefully shouted her name when he realized it was her, and they talked for a long time, about school and games they were playing online, about his parents’ divorce and his brother and sister, about her fish. I didn’t eavesdrop – she did it in front of me, sitting on the couch. It was sweet, and tender. He told her he cared about her, and missed her, and was so happy to see her face.

He is a lover, this DG. His vulnerability slays me.

This is just the beginning, of course. The beginning of the boys and men (and perhaps women, who knows?) who will love her, whom she will love. And I want it all for her, all the ecstatic wonders and heart-cracking pain that is loving another person. The lavender-scented joy and the eating a tub of frosting in the bathtub while crying. I wish her everything, all of it, every electric moment of love and passion, eventually, when the time comes.

But first, this girl and I had some business to take care of.

I found her curled up on her bed, reading one of the BONE books. “Hey Emmy,” I said. “Can we have a conversation?” She put her book to one side and turned her open, sweet face to me.

“Sure. Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think you’re in trouble?”
“Well, what do you want to have a conversation about?”
“I want to have a conversation about FaceTime.”

I nude modeled in college, for sketch classes, and painting classes. I loved it. During breaks I would slip into a white robe, light a cigarette, and wander through the rows of easels, looking at the canvases and seeing myself the way others saw me. It completely changed the way I thought and felt about my body, made me appreciate the curved landscape of my belly and hips, my neck and breasts, the wild tumble of my unruly hair. I had a lover who photographed me nude, and I trusted him with my life. When we broke up, he gave me the photos, and the negatives.

I didn’t tell my daughter any of that. I will, someday, when my 20-year-old innocence and wildness can serve as a fond anecdote, rather than a model for her own behavior. Instead, I told her that sometimes when people have phones or other devices with cameras they can get a little silly and take pictures of their bodies, like their tushies, and then send them to other people. She laughed at that, thought it was ridiculous. And it is, I told her, it is very silly, but it is also sort of serious, because the Internet is an endless place, where nothing ever truly goes away. And even if you just send a photo like that as a joke, to someone you trust, once it leaves your Photos it might go anywhere. So we struck a deal. She will never take a photo, or video, or FaceTime of any part of herself below the neck. In a nervous spurt of creativity, I even made up a cheerful rhyme, to help her remember:

If it is not of your face, do not send it anyplace.

I also told her that if anyone sends her a photo of anything but their face she’s to show me or her Daddy immediately, and we’ll help her take the right next steps. If they show her any non-face parts on FaceTime, she’s to shut it down and come tell us.

I’m almost completely certain this was the right thing to do. She’s young, she’s so exquisitely young, but if you’re old enough to have your own iPad, know how to shoot photos and use FaceTime, and have a romantic boy to FaceTime with, then I think you’re old enough for this conversation. I think this conversation is required.

The world is so wide and full, so delicious and riotous. And I want her to have all of it. But for now, only from the neck up.

Unexpectedly Expecting

About two years ago I performed at The Jukebox, a storytelling/karaoke series run by my good friends Steve JacobsMargaret Lyons, and Steve Heisler. The topic of the evening was parenthood, and while the story I told isn’t the kind of thing Hallmark cards are made of, it is a love letter to my daughter, and so I thought I’d share it today.

Happy Mother’s Day, no matter how you got there.

*   *   *

I found out I was pregnant in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon. And I was FURIOUS.

And shocked. The word “gobsmacked” comes to mind. But mostly furious.

Here’s why: I was 35, I was a newlywed, and I was madly in love. At my recent annual gynecologist appointment, my doctor had told me that for a variety of reasons I might have a very tough time getting pregnant. I was a little concerned because I was pretty sure I wanted to have a baby…eventually. Not now, but, you know, later. Eventually. When I told my doctor this, she said, quite gently, “You do realize that 35 is considered ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.”

WTF? Apparently I had run out of “eventually” and if I had any intention of having a baby ever, we had to get the ball rolling. So even though I had absolutely no interest in getting pregnant right now, she pulled me off the pill with the idea that she’d run tests and check my hormones, and I would feel my mucous (totally gross) and we would see what my cycle was like when I was off the pill. And then maybe I would get pregnant in a year or two.

The other thing you need to know is that I was about to quit my job. Yes. I had a great big job then, with an office on the 38th floor of 1515 Broadway overlooking Times Square and an assistant and a bonus every year…and I despised it. I was a contract negotiator, which is an exciting job if you’re into that kind of thing, which I was decidedly not. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a business degree. In fact, I have a degree in Theatre, and a minor in Religious Studies. What was I doing negotiating contracts, you ask?

I came to New York City after college to be a stage director. And I had a job at Manhattan Theatre Club I adored, but it paid almost nothing and then I ran out of credit cards. So I took this job at MTV Networks in the Business and Legal Affairs department when I was 25, thinking I’d work there for a year and then I would go to grad school. And it never happened, because every year they promoted me, and the salary got bigger, and the bonus got bigger, and then I started thinking, who quits a job like this, I have such good benefits. And every year I died a little more inside.

On the day I found out I was pregnant in the bathroom, I had finally gotten to a place where I was ready to quit. I was going to quit big. I was going to quit my full time job, and take a $30,000 pay cut, and I was going to work as a freelance writer. It wasn’t as completely crazy as it sounds, because I had a permalance gig lined up to be the editorial director for tvland.com and nickatnite.com, but even so, I wasn’t flying out of the nest so much as I was flinging myself out of it… blindfolded…while on fire.

I should also mention that my husband, Jonathan, was working at EMS (an outdoor store sort of like REI) but his real focus was on finishing and selling a screenplay. So we got a fantastic discount on fleece, and every night at our house was like a scene out of Shakespeare in Lovebut when it came to our income, it was all pretty much on me.

But we had talked about this, and he was completely supportive of me quitting. I mean he was all, “You quit that job! You quit it hard! Full steam ahead on the quitting!”

And now I was pregnant.

So there I am in the bathroom stall with my pee stick and all I can think is, I don’t want to have this baby. Never mind it’s basically a miracle I got pregnant without trying, totally by accident, WHILE using a diaphragm (and I put spermicide in that thing EVERY TIME, just saying) after all the talk of advanced maternal age and checking the mucous.

Nope. No thank you. Because if I had this baby, there was no way in hell I could quit my job, with the paid maternity leave and the sweet benefits and the big paycheck. No way in hell. I would have to stay there, negotiating contracts forever, until I was just a shell of the person I once was, and then I’d retire, and then I’d die. And my tombstone would read, “She had amazing benefits.”

You guys, I came up with this awesome plan. The plan was, I was going to hide my pee stick in the trash and then march back to my desk and call my doctor and tell her I needed an abortion. Right now. Immediately. I wasn’t even going to tell anyone. I was just going go and quietly have an abortion and never tell anyone and then quit my job. A stealth abortion. A Stabortion. And then, in a year or so, when things had settled down a little, we’d have a baby. Maybe. Probably. Whatever. I don’t know. Abortion. Right now.

I hid my pee stick, and I left the bathroom, but instead of going to my office I took the elevator down to the lobby and I went across 44th street to the Starlight Deli, because as much as I desperately wanted an abortion at that exact moment I wanted a coffee the size of my head and a black & white cookie even more.

The head counterman at the Starlight Deli is this robust, wonderful, gregarious, friendly Egyptian man named Abraham. On the day of the pee stick, he’d been feeding me breakfast every work day for more than a decade. He fed me through my South Beach phase, and half a dozen bad breakups, and then he fed me though all the time I dated Jon, and planning our wedding. We were pals.

I walked into the Starlight and Abraham hollers out, “Hello beautiful! Coffee time! Yes?”

And I said, “Yes. But decaf.”

I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t want this dream-crushing, soul-sucking, scary baby. But I also didn’t want to hurt it.

Meanwhile, Abraham lights up and does an actual double-take. Because ever since I’d come back from my honeymoon he’d designated himself my Jewish mother and had been pestering me about where his babies were.

He points at me, and he says, “Decaf!? You baby?”

And I burst into tears. Wailing. Snotty wailing.

Abraham comes rushing out from behind the counter, and he takes me by the shoulders and he says, “Why you cry? Baby ok?”

I tried to explain about my job and quitting and my dreams and being a husk and my tombstone. And he just shook his head and he said, “You have baby. It’s good. You’ll see.”

And I was like, noooo, you don’t understand. $30,000 pay cut! How in the world can I possibly do this?

He shrugged, and he said, “I have five children. A blessing, every one. Every baby brings its own blessing. You ask me how you do this? You do it. Have your baby. Quit your job. Be brave. You’ll see, your blessings are just starting.”

I stood there with him, crying, and he actually took me in his arms and started to sway with me. He smelled like sugar and salami, which for a Jewish girl from the Bronx is the smell of home. He made it sound so easy. Have the baby. Quit the job. Both. Say yes.

It dawned on me that I had been saying no to myself for so long, I’d forgotten how to say yes that way. All of my choices, from the day I left the job I loved at Manhattan Theatre Club, were based on being safe. All of them. Everything was an “or.” It didn’t even occur to me until that moment I could choose “and.” Have the baby, and quit, and have it be ok.

I pulled myself together finally. Abraham poured me a decaf, bagged me a cookie, and sent me on my way.

And here’s what happened next.

I did call my gynecologist…

…the next morning, after I’d gone home and told Jonathan he was going to be a father, and we called our parents, and I called my best friend.

And then I quit my job.

Our daughter, Emerson, is going to be 9 this summer. She is the image of her daddy, and the love of my life. And every single thing I was scared of that day in the bathroom, they all turned out to be nonsense.

I was afraid I’d be trapped forever in a job I hated. Instead, emboldened by the need to contribute to my family’s wellbeing and motivated by a cellular desire to be the kind of person my daughter can admire, I kept pushing until I found a career that rewards me richly for being an information junkie with a tendency to burst into song.

I was afraid I’d lose myself completely, and instead I rediscovered everything I’d ever taken pleasure in: making up stories, singing songs, living room dance parties, talking in silly voices, themed Halloween costumes, ice cream for dinner, laughing until you pee.

I was afraid I’d resent her, but instead, I am indescribably grateful, for her laughter and sweetness, how she helps me see the world as a place of wonder and goodness. For the ways she’s softened me, made me kinder, slowed me down.

I am absolutely certain that every good thing in my life started the day I said yes to her. As Abraham predicted, she has brought an endless stream of blessings. And they have just started.

There were a lot of people around the day Emmy was born — Jonathan and my best friend, Lisa, were in the delivery room, and our parents were at the hospital also. I didn’t get to be alone with her until about 4 in the morning, when everyone had gone home to rest. And that first night, with her tiny head tucked under my chin, I whispered the most honest thing I have ever said to another person. “I have spent my entire life wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, where I’m supposed to be, what my purpose is. And it’s so clear now. I am here to love you.”

I know it’s corny, but motherhood is a corny business. It is made of promises, of hopes that are larger than everything you fear, of saying yes, and yes, and yes, to the mystery of love, to the surprising hugeness of your own heart, to messes, to the unknown.

It’s also made of lullabies, and that’s what I’m going to sing you for now.

Grown ups

My husband, Jonathan, and I both had the kind of childhoods where we were left to look out for ourselves a lot. Not because we weren’t loved. We were, very much, and also well provided for. But in the houses where we were raised, there were larger issues that needed attention, and those concerns took priority.

When I was a little girl, my mother was consumed with keeping us safe from my father’s selfish cruelty and the repercussions of his philandering. And then later, after she kicked him out, she devoted herself to repairing the damage he’d left behind. She built a career, patched herself back together, paid off the debt he’d accumulated, met my stepfather, fell in love, bought a house, became a success. She was busy, yo. She had business to take care of.

In Jonathan’s house, his sister was fighting a battle with her own personal demons, which I won’t detail here because they are her business and she has been well for a long time. I bring it up only because her difficulties were paramount for many years, the most important thing in his family.

As a result, Jonathan and I both have a sort of patchwork understanding of what it means to be taken care of, to rely on another person to help solve problems. Neither one of us is very good at asking for help, preferring to gut things out on our own. And we share a specific kind of panic when things go awry, a knee-jerk, wide-eyed, deer in the headlights reaction that’s best summed up as, “Oh shit. Now what?” We’ll joke that we need an adult to come help us figure out what to make for dinner, deal with paperwork, make plans. We’re only sort of kidding.

On Christmas morning our heat broke. I’m not  good with mechanical technology, so I’m not sure how best to explain what happened except to tell you it was extremely cold and when I moved the thingy on the thermostat there was no heat. Jonathan and I had one of those conversations where you keep a crazy-eyed smile on your face and pretend everything is fine because your kid is there, opening presents while wearing a parka and a hat, but really you are freaking the hell out because the heat is broken and it’s Christmas day and you need a grown up and that’s supposed to be you but you don’t know what the hell to do because all of a sudden you are 16 again and home alone with a situation that is way out of your league and probably this is going to cost all the money and then you will have to sell your apartment and live in a box. (Living in a box is my worst-case scenario and I tend to go there immediately when the slightest thing goes wrong.)

Eventually we remembered we have a management company for just this sort of occasion, so we emailed them. And then we remembered we have a building supervisor, so we called him. They both got back to us quickly, the management company offering the names and numbers of emergency plumbers. (Oh dear God, I thought, do you know how much a plumber will charge on Christmas???? We’ll be living in a box by New Year’s. LIVING IN A BOX.) Meanwhile, the Super generously volunteered to come over and see if there was anything he could do to help. But we were due to leave for Jonathan’s parents’ house in Connecticut in a few hours, and so we told the Super we’d call him when we returned on Friday.

We had a lovely, if slightly fretful (NO HEAT LIVING IN A BOX OUR CHILD WILL HAVE BLUE LIPS WHILE SHE SIPS ICY SKIM MILK FROM A TIN CUP WEARING FINGERLESS GLOVES OH GOD MY LIFE IS A DICKENS’ NOVEL), visit with Jonathan’s family, and then we returned to our freezing cold apartment on Friday night. We called the Super, who told us he’d “bled the whole floor” in our absence (I assume this is a heating related thing and not a reference to The Shining) and we should try turning on the heat and see if something happened. Nothing happened. We could hear water gurgling in the pipes but the baseboards stayed cold. We called back the Super and told him what was going on, and he gave us the number for a heating repair company and told us to call them, because it sounded like it might be a pilot light problem.

And that’s when it happened. That’s when I realized there ARE grown ups in our house, and everything was going to be fine.

Because when we bought the apartment I signed up for a service plan with the heating repair company the Super had just told us to call, and I knew where I’d filed the paperwork, and I’d paid the renewal on time, and when I called them they told me that because I’d purchased the cadillac plan, they’d be here first thing in the morning, and the repairs would be covered (by which I mean free, by which I mean there’s no need to pay them any money for this emergency repair service, so no living in a box, for now at least, and, pardon my digression, but this is why you should get the good insurance, everyone who asked my advice about which health plan to choose when we were doing open enrollment at work).

We had a chilly night, but it hardly mattered. I gave Emerson a steamy hot bath, dressed her in two pairs of pajamas and wrapped her in a fleece blanket, slept with my icy feet pressed against Jon’s warm legs all night (he’s part potbellied stove, I swear). This morning the repairman came and it was the pilot light, easily fixed. We gave him an exorbitant tip, what Jonathan calls the “relief tax.” The heat is now blasting and we’re all watching Batman: The Brave and The Bold on Netflix.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, particularly if you grew up in the kind of house where, if the heat went out, someone lit a fire and gave you a mug of hot chocolate to wrap your cold hands around while they made things right again. Where your worries were appropriately sized. But for us, kids who had to figure out grown up things, who had to bandage our own wounds and soothe our own hurts, fix what was broken on our own as best we could and instinctively knew not to ask for much from the exhausted, preoccupied people around us, it is deeply comforting to know that there are finally grown ups at home. Two of them, even. And while we may be watching cartoons and eating cake for breakfast, all is well here. All is safe, and whole, and warm.

Some Thoughts on Father’s Day, and Spelling Tests

My husband, Jonathan, and I joke that our 7-year-old daughter, Emerson, is me in a him package.

In so many ways, it’s true. She’s inherited all of his gorgeousness — the tall, lean, muscular body type, the huge hazel eyes that are mostly green, the creamy skin that turns bronze at the slightest lick of sun, the distractingly full mouth (honestly, I live with such beautiful creatures, I sometimes feel like a dark-eyed, mop-headed, short-legged Hobbit by comparison.)

From me she gets wicked mischief, and a generous, easily wounded heart. Curiousness, friendliness, a ranging sense of adventure. An inability to hold a grudge. The habit of leaping first and looking later. A flirty, wide-eyed charm that we both inherited from my grandmother, Edythe, whom Emerson is named for. Bossiness, the desire to bend things to her will, a need to negotiate everything. Impatience, and an unwillingness to work terribly hard at anything she’s not naturally good at. Also, a love of impromptu dance parties and lazing in bed on Saturday mornings.

That’s how it looks, on the surface. Him on the outside, me on the inside. But there’s a secret experiment going on here, too, one I observe with a mixture of fascination and heartbreak, hopefulness and grief. Because Emerson is just like me, but with one crucial difference.

She’s what I might have been, if I’d had the kind of father she does.

***

I didn’t marry Jonathan because I thought he’d be a good dad. I married him for a million good reasons, starting with the way he looks at me when he thinks I’m not watching — a mixture of desire, territorial pride and gentle amusement that never fails to melt me like a lit candle — all the way down the list to the way he can calmly find his way through the woods without a compass when we go hiking.

But I’m told this is a thing some women do, when a relationship turns serious. They don’t just consider what kind of a husband this man might be, if they’ll want to drag him into bed and talk to him over breakfast for the rest of their lives. They think about what kind of a father he’ll be; how he’ll treasure a daughter, raise up a son.

Never entered my mind.

For one thing, I was deeply ambivalent about having kids, and dealt with those mixed feelings by not thinking about them. For another, I was in unmapped territory. My mother kicked my father out when I was 6, and even before then he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a good daddy. We had a difficult, painful relationship that I finally ended when I was in my early 30s. I was, in short, a John Mayer song.

And here is where I tell you that I have a stepfather I love, who treats me with infinite kindness and affection. That is true. And I am grateful for him. But he didn’t arrive until I was 12, and even then, he couldn’t put himself between me and the destructive storm that was my father. He couldn’t protect me from my father’s abandonment, or his selfishness. That wasn’t how it worked. Not for us.

So I chose Jonathan for all the right reasons, but his potential as a dad wasn’t one of them, mostly because I couldn’t have begun to design criteria for the job even if it had occurred to me to do so. What does a good father do exactly? Not abandon you? Not wound you? Not make you question your own essential lovability? Not leave you with a voracious self-destructive emptiness that nothing can fill, not love, not food, not sex, not accomplishment? Surely there has to be more to it than that.

As it turns out, Jonathan is a magnificent father. Patient and kind. Calm. Inventive. Watchful and protective, but not like a helicopter. More like a submarine. They have private jokes. They build things. He takes her to museums and talks to her about art. He plays her songs and talks to her about music. He sketches her portrait. When she was having trouble learning to read, he took her to the comic book store and introduced her to Wonder Woman. On the playground, he is the father with the Band-Aids, with the snack, with the balloons for making water fight bombs.

I find all of this amazing. I feel like an anthropologist in my own house sometimes, observing the way she trusts him, the way he loves her. The ease between them. The way she never doubts he will be there. The way he always is.

It makes me so happy. It makes me so sad.

She is just like me inside, except I got this way by crawling over a field of broken glass, swimming a river of poison, and fighting like hell to put myself back together. I’m a repaired thing. She has never been broken, and while I’m sure she will get dinged and dented by life, Jonathan won’t be the one to do it.

He’ll be the one with the first aid kit.

***

The other night I came home, and Emerson was hysterical. There was a spelling test the next day, and she’d failed to study. Jonathan had been trying to help her, encouraging her to write the words ten times each, but she was exhausted and overwrought. I pulled her into my lap and held her for a while, murmuring Mommy things. And when she was soothed enough to listen, I talked to her about Batman, and how his father told him we fall down so we can get back up again. That in life, there are going to be things she’s good at, and others  she’ll fail at, and  the most important thing is for her to show up and give it her best. That we make mistakes so we can learn, and the only people who fail are people who try. I told her she should take a shower, and then she and I would climb into bed and practice the words together. She nodded, willing to give it one more shot, always willing to give it one more try, no matter how hopeless it seems. Just like me.

She slid from my lap, I thought to go take her shower, but instead she walked over to Jonathan and crawled into his lap. Neither of them said a word, she simply buried her face in his neck and twined her arms around him while he held her.

He is her safe place. He is the nest she flies to. She has never once doubted her right to his attention and comfort, he has never once failed to give her what she needs. To be that whole, that loved, to feel that surety — in this way she is nothing like me. And it is perhaps the greatest gift she’ll ever get from me.

Then it was back to business, the shower and pajamas and lying in bed, spelling those words out loud until she felt calm enough to sleep.

She thinks she passed, by the way. She thinks she did just fine.

 ***

Next Sunday is Father’s Day, and while I am resolutely not a greeting card holiday kind of person, it is a day that used to fill me with melancholy in a very specific way, the way an empty beach in winter will. These days, it fills me with gratitude, and awe, and a lingering sadness.

But there’s something else here too, and that is the reckless courage I feel in telling this out loud. Of outing myself as someone who went unloved by a wounded man, and who believed that was the whole story of myself for a long time. And having survived that, there is a raw solidarity, a coded message I want to whisper to the other girls and women like me. The ones who regard Father’s Day with a visceral mix of weariness and disdain, carelessness and sadness.

Come closer, so I can hold your hands while I tell you this.

It’s not just you. It’s never just been you. I know it feels that way sometimes — my own loneliness in all this is a vast cliff I’m still climbing. But I promise, you’re not the only one who avoids the Father’s Day cards in the drugstore. Who blithely asks an uncle or a family friend to walk you down the aisle, while your heart breaks all over again. Who waits in restaurants, knowing he’s not going to show up this time either. Who wonders what course your life might have taken, who you might have been, had you been loved the way you deserved right from the start.

Whatever disaster he left you to mop up, whatever lies he told you about yourself — that you’re worthless, that no one will ever love you, that you’re not enough, that what you get is what you deserve and you should find a way to be grateful for it — it was never true.

None of it was ever true. Maybe you’ve known that for a long time now, or maybe you’re just starting to figure it out. Maybe you’re charting your own course through these dark, mysterious woods with a good man who adores you, a man who doesn’t need a map to find his way home, who’ll lead you there if you let him.

Maybe you don’t believe me. I understand. I wouldn’t have believed me either, not so long ago.

All I can tell you is that none of it, nothing he said and nothing he did and nothing he left you to sort out was ever the truth. You make your own truth, and then you keep telling it to yourself. And what you deserve is everything my daughter has — a world of love and safety, strong shoulders to rest your head on, a net to catch you should you fall too far. You deserve things that perhaps you don’t even know how to wish for, not yet.

And I hope you get all of them. Every last one.

Emerson and Jonathan, Halloween 2012. She was Catwoman.

Emerson and Jonathan, Halloween 2012. She was Catwoman.

Black Box

Image

My mother annoys me.

I love her, and we get along fine. Better than fine, frequently. We make each other laugh, and we’re on the same side more often than not. She adores my daughter and treats her like royalty, like Emerson is here to do something very important and my mother’s job is to nurture her until she fulfills her destiny. And that fills me with tenderness.

Even so. my mother annoys me. Which is an improvement, because she used to drive me to the acidic, smoking, volcanic glass edges of shrieking rage. But after 10+ years of therapy that in large part involved dissecting, pinning open, labeling, cataloging, and filing away everything dark between us — from the queasy vibrating terrors of paradigm altering betrayal to petty hurt feelings — I can say with utter honesty that I love her dearly, and she annoys me.

I’ve also come to realize that, when it truly mattered, she gave me what I needed most.

I’ve been thinking about this because my favorite professor from college has asked me to write a little essay about the value of a theatre education, for a display in the arts building on campus. And the surprise is — it really was valuable. (Why is this surprising? Because while other people were studying for calculus exams, I was lying on the floor in creative rest position pretending to smell an orange.)

I didn’t end up making a life in the theatre, but my education gave me the ability to stand in an empty black room and create worlds. It taught me the rhythm and sensuality of language, the craft of story. It taught me how to swallow my fear, stand up in front of strangers, and persuade them to follow me into laughter or terror or grief. It gave me a bright, clear voice, and the ability to drop or recall my New York accent at will. It taught me that evil can be charming, that goodness can be complicated, that love is sometimes a dagger plunged into your beloved’s heart. It taught me how to think on my feet, how to be in the moment. It taught me how to concept, how to improvise, how to riff an idea with a partner like we’re playing jazz. It gave me a lexicon of private jokes, which make musical parodies and movies about show business infinitely funnier to me than they are to civilians (that’s what theatre people call non-theatre people, and I’m still delighted to be counted in the club, however marginally). It gave me a home, where passion and a black turtleneck were the only price of entry, and everyone valued my broken places and moody sadness. It gave me a safe place to be, until I could make the world safe for myself.

And the reason I was able to pass into this state of grace? To spend my days reading Greek myth and Shakespeare, my nights playing onstage with friends I loved so much they still feel like long-lost family. To wrestle with ancient passions, and pain, and elemental comedy. To be part of something so much larger, so much brighter, so much more complete, so much BETTER than I could imagine real life could be. Something I needed, craved, more than food, more than air, more than love.

Because my mother let me major in theatre.

When I was in college, I knew so many people who were majoring in English, in Communications, not because this was what they wanted or cared about, but because their parents wouldn’t allow them to major in theatre. Because their parents threatened to pull their tuition if they did. As an adult, I have met 50-year-olds who still wistfully look back on those days and wish they could have been braver, could have declared that theatre major, declared themselves.

But not me. I have my regrets, but they are all of my own making. Because my mother not only allowed me to declare a theatre major, she encouraged it. Encouraged me to run with it, as far as I could. To lie on that floor and SMELL THAT ORANGE like no one had ever smelled an orange before. And more. She took me to see Malkovich in “Burn This,” to countless musicals, to the opera, to the ballet. She paid for Saturday theatre school in Manhattan, for performing arts camp. She came to every show, even if she had to drive 4 hours to see me play farmer’s daughter #6 in “Oklahoma.” She joyfully made space in our living room for the “Godspell” set, for the elephant we made for “Barnum.” She welcomed home an endless cast of romantic boys and dramatic girls, all invited to stay as long as they needed to and eat all the American Cheese in the refrigerator, provided they called their mothers first and got permission.

My mother annoys me. In a flash, she can slip a thin silver knife under my skin and make me bleed, just with an offhand remark. And I know I hurt her too. That she craves more closeness with me, and I can be selfish and withholding with my affection. That I struggle to forgive what she believes should be forgotten.

But when it mattered. When it truly mattered, she gave me everything I needed. And then some.

And that is where I’m bringing the curtain down on this one.