How I Became a Mother

Mira, 3 months

At the moment when my daughter entered the world, when her cries brought to a halt my groans, in the seconds between when  my husband cut her cord and then handed her to me, there was one other sound in the room. Me saying, in a panicked and shaky voice, “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God” on a loop.

Mira’s warm body now lay on the opposite side of the belly which had been hers for nine months. The idea of motherhood had, in one long push, turned into the reality. And oh my God, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, feel, be, act like. I was not ready and yet, that didn’t really matter, did it?

When the nurses returned Mira to me in my hospital room, sweet-smelling and swaddled, still in that sleepy newborn daze, I was able to stare at her for the first time. As Sid slept in a chair beside me I gently unwrapped the blanket. Ten fingers and toes — wasn’t that the gauge of baby perfection, and wasn’t it my job to at least do that level of quality control? I slid her clenched fist out from the blanket and felt my breath catch in my throat. Her fingers were exact, miniature replicas of my husband’s. This was real. We, together, made a baby. And now she was here, with her long perfect fingernails and rosy red cheeks, beauty and potential bundled in a hospital-issue receiving blanket.

I shuddered. Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby? She cried that first night and I had no idea what to do. She cried for the next three months and I still had no idea what to do. After my umpteenth sleepless night, after it was yet again obvious that I wasn’t making enough breast milk, after she had thrown up yet again from the formula we tried to give her, I asked myself and asked God, “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give ME a baby?”

I spent my 20s convinced I was too selfish to be a parent, and I’m sure I was right. But then 30 hits, and you see how wonderful your husband is with little babies, and you know that deep down, it is an experience you want to have. But the truth is that you are scared to death: The brand-new adult life you just a few years stepped into is still precariously delicate. You’re still trying to figure out your way in the world — professionally, maritally, financially. And in the midst of all that unsurety, six pregnancy tests confirm what you really only needed one to tell you.

I was the mom whose baby wailed during the afternoon walks in the stroller that, pre-baby, I had fantasized would be our special time together enjoying nature. We were the ones driving in circles around the neighborhood praying for that moment that the wailing turned into a whimper and turned into silence. I was an over-achiever. A perfectionist. If I got a 95 on a test, I berated myself over the last five points. At motherhood, I was failing miserably and failure was not my thing.

One night, when she was about 6 weeks old, I remember staring down at that full head of brown hair, stroking her forehead as Sid taught me to do as a way to calm her down, and thinking, “Okay kid. I’ve had it. It’s time for me to be the mommy. And to do that,  I’m going to have to figure you out.”

And one night at at time, I did. We found a formula she could tolerate. I figured out that if I got her a bottle before she went into full-on tantrum, she’d drink and fall into a deep sleep. I learned how to swaddle. We created nighttime routines that signaled to all three of us that the day was coming to an end, a sanity-saver for adults and baby alike. And slowly I came to accept: Maybe I wasn’t an utter failure at motherhood. Maybe it was a good idea to give me a baby.

As that baby who perplexed me and humbled me grew, so did the amount of space she took up in my heart. A smile made me melt. When her eyes fixed on my face as I talked to her, I realized I’d never felt that special to anyone, ever. Her arms started to reach for me. Once I figured out how to get her to sleep, nap time became my favorite time of the day — the rocking, the reading, watching her eyes grow heavy, a dribble of milk moving down those wonderfully round cheeks. Oh my God, oh my God — I was in love.

It shocks me now to think that, when she was first laid on my belly, I was not overwhelmed with love for my daughter. Instead, over time I fell madly, deeply and obsessively in love with her. And somehow, for me, that is better. My love of her was a choice and then an undeniable urge, instead of the other way around. She quickly became my sidekick and my favorite companion, moving Cheerios into her mouth as she focused intently on watching me make dinner; her arms wrapping around my legs when I picked her up from day care and then pre-school and then kindergarten. Her smile still makes my heart melt, as if all the goodness in the world is being filtered through her to me — how did I get that lucky?

Today that precious gift I was given, that good idea that wasn’t my own, is growing up and growing away. Mira is 10 years old. This weekend I told her we’d bake cookies together, as baking is one of her favorite pursuits. Instead, she baked and I watched, my sole role being removing the hot cookie sheets from the oven. She confidently asks store clerks and restaurant waiters “Do you have this?” and “Can I have that?” She wakes up on her own at 5:30 am to shower and is often downstairs for breakfast before I am. She is applying to middle schools and has her sights set on the best one in New York City.

My baby, that rosy-cheeked bundle that rooted me and taught me more about myself than anyone ever has, is becoming her own person. Now what I’m left to wonder is — Do I remember how to be me?

Next year Mira will start middle school, a wild west of adolescence and hormones and cliques and first crushes. I try not to think about all the emotional education she has yet to receive — all the slights and heartbreaks in her future, all the joy and excitement she’ll have that I won’t be party to and likely will know nothing about. I try not to think about how much I miss those chubby little arms wrapped around my neck, or the way she would sing “Jingle Bells” every morning when she woke up in her crib, no matter what the season. But then I do think about it, as I am now, and I fight back tears but also marvel at how lucky I am to have had those moments.

It’s easy to dwell on the past, to wonder how time could have passed by so quickly and to regret the haste. But I try to focus on what a friend, years ago, told me when I asked her, “What is your favorite stage with your children?” She had three teen-agers at the time. She thought for a moment and said, “You know, every stage was fun in its own way. I really loved them all.”

And so as my daughter grows from little girl to almost teen, as the way she needs me changes, I try to focus on that. Children change, but every stage is a new adventure. Middle school, while it scares me, excites me also because I know there is so much yet for her to discover in this world, and so much of it is so good.

I can say the same for myself, both as a woman and as a mother: there is so much yet to discover in this world. Only I get an added benefit: I get to experience it myself, and to see it through my children’s eyes. And Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God, how wonderful that really does sound.




9/11 Makes Me Long for the 1990s

Last night my husband Sid walked into the living room to see me watching the latest reincarnation of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” the improv comedy show featuring the hilariously talented Wayne Brady, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie.

“We used to watch this all the time!” he said. Within minutes, we were both cracking up. No political rants from The Daily Show tonight, our usual daily diet of must-watch TV. Instead the ice cream was suddenly, gleefully, out of the freezer. We continued to guffaw as we traded pints of Haagen Daz.

It was a ’90s moment. Remember the ’90s? Some of the most popular movies were Forrest Gump (Run Forrest Run — and he does!), Shawshank Redemption (he had to crawl through a tunnel of crap but dang it, he made it out!) and the Austin Powers movies (Ooh behave!). They were inspiring; they made us laugh. Even the suspenseful movies allows us to suspend disbelief: Jurassic Park (dinosaurs!), Independence Day (aliens!), Men in Black (more aliens!).

What do we watch today? The Walking Dead (killer zombies in a postapocalyptic hellscape brought on by a mutated virus — Ebola anyone?). Homeland (U.S. hostage is released by terrorists only to become a terrorist himself — I think. I could only watch the first episode. It had too strong a “that could happen” vibe for me.) “Gravity” stuck in my head for days — there’s a part of me, too, that wants to escape this earth and its pain and suffering, and is completely aware of the energy required to have the courage to move forward instead of getting stuck in the past.

Pop culture is a syllabus for what it means to live in post-9/11 America. The threats aren’t conjured by our imagination; they’re seen daily in our Facebook feeds and Breaking News text alerts. The heightened level of anxiety has pervaded every aspect of how we live our lives. Every day there’s a new warning about passwords being hacked (next comes my identity and my bank account, right?). A new disease that could kill you or your children (enterovirus –stay away!). Helicopter parenting is almost too polite a term — we are tether parents, petrified of letting our children out of arm’s reach even at ages when they need to learn how to walk away.

I, like you, will never forget where I was the day those planes hit. I’ll never forget the bright blue cloudless sky, that first feel of autumn-is-coming crispness in the air. I’ll never forget driving home that day in my new car (a recent birthday gift from Sid) to the home we had bought just a year before. We were a young married couple living the American dream. I pulled into the driveway and looked at the modest three-bedroom ranch, the front porch we sat on in the evening and told stories about our day, the picture window from which we could watch the sun set over Lake Erie… This is why they hate us? Because of the lives we live? I sat in the car and sobbed.

I know it’s more complicated than that. America has done a lot in the post World War II era to draw the hatred of people from around the world. But we’ve done it, for better or for worse, to preserve and defend a way of life that we hold dear.

And while the vision of our lives might not have changed much in the last 13 years, I feel the essence of it has. And that is the scab that will not heal. That’s the continuing legacy of 9/11. The lives that were lost and forever changed was only the initial assault. Now we live in fear — ISIS, torpedoed passenger airlines — and that is the secondary assault. Sadly, it’s one I doubt my generation will ever get past.

I realize this and try to cope with it in the only way I know how — by shutting it all off sometimes. My mother says that the problem with our generation is that we have too much information and I believe she’s right. So instead of reading every news account of the latest beheading, or educating myself on ISIS, sometimes I just need to sit on the couch, eat hundreds of calories worth of ice cream (guilt-free) and laugh.

I invite you to join me. If this anniversary is getting you down, check out this fantastic list of the 12 Funniest Whose Line is it Anyway? skits. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to not be mired in seriousness. It’s okay to forget about the threats for a while. Go on, live like it’s 1997. And then try to bring a little bit of that optimism into your 2014 world.



Lessons Learned from a Decade of Motherhood


My happy girl.

Last week my daughter, Mira, turned 10 years old. “I’m double digits now, Mom,” she told me numerous times, a beaming smile of pride spreading across her face. She is no longer my baby. But equally as transformative, I am no longer the clueless, scared and overwhelmed young mother that first counted her fingers and toes a decade ago.

When Mira was born and the doctor placed her on my lap, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t overcome with joy. I just remember repeating, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.” The enormity of the moment, the vastness of the change that had just happened in my life, left me flummoxed. This was my child. I was now a mother. I shook from the newness of it all.

Later, when the nurse brought her to me in my hospital room, her presence felt ghost-like. What just an hour before did not exist in this world now lay beside me in a bassinet, her cheeks and lips red with life, her dark hair like a waft of downy feathers on her head. She started to wheeze. Because she had been born so quickly, she still had mucus in her lungs. It was my job to help her get it up. “Hold her on your lap and pat her back,” the broad-shouldered, patience-worn nurse told me. “Then suction out the mucus.” She turned on her heel and left. My husband Sid was in the room with me but I’d never felt so alone, as if the entire world outside the window didn’t even exist. It was just me and this child and I had to figure out how, in the most basic terms, to keep her alive.

I patted; I suctioned. She kept wheezing. I panicked. Sid called for the nurse. She returned, a look of disappointment on her face. I was patting Mira’s back as if it were a tambourine. “No, no,” the nurse said. “This is how you do it.” She scooped Mira up and with one hand on her chest and the other on her back started whacking her. Firm, rhythmic thumps. Mira coughed and spattered. My pulse quickened; all the blood surely left my face. Was she hurting my baby? Should I stop her? I was helpless in my cluelessness.

“Let me take her to the nursery,” the nurse said, saving me from bearing witness. “I’ll be right back.”

I was simultaneously scared and relieved. What was she doing to my baby? and Thank God she was doing it and not me. When they returned, Mira’s breathing was clear. The coughing and wheezing were gone. The nurse taught me the football hold and Mira started nursing. All seemed to be going well. But when Mira cried in the middle of the night, Sid slept through it. No nurses came. No one was going to swoop in this time. It was all me.

In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I ever learned as much as I did in those first three months with Mira. She was extremely colicky. Breastfeeding was more intense than any triathlon, the challenge of getting her to latch and stay awake to nurse combined with my lackluster “I pumped for 40 minutes and only got 1 ounce?!” output.  She was allergic to nearly every formula we tried. She’d only sleep when Sid rocked her so vigorously that sweat ran down his temples. And then as soon as we dared to give in to our exhaustion and put her down in her crib, she’d startle awake.

There were many moments in those first few months when I thought, “I am failing at this.” My baby wasn’t eating. She wasn’t gaining weight. The crying started at about 4 p.m. and continued until we could finally settle her down around 10. So many times I fell into a deep sleep only to hear her cries, look at the clock, and see only 10 minutes had passed.

How was I ever going to survive this? And couldn’t I just go back to work because that was a heck of a lot easier than this.

But slowly, something started to happen. The baby who shocked me with her newness started to respond to my voice. I sang to her and she smiled. I read aloud the books I was reading and she settled down. We found a formula she could tolerate and she started sleeping better at night.

I learned that the stack of parenting books I pored over looking for answers were a guide, not a Bible. I learned that parenting is trial and error. And when my second child was born, I learned that what works for one child isn’t guaranteed to work for the other. “You have to figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t,” my mother told me time and again. And while I wanted more concrete direction, I now realize her answer was the most accurate one.

As Mira started trying new foods, exploring her world, learning to talk and learning to push limits and press my buttons, I learned that motherhood is a state of constant “on” mode. You can’t ease back on the discipline, the routines, the expectations, because while they are exhausting they are what maintains my sanity and keep my children in check.

This past week marked my 10-year anniversary as a mother. As many warned me, the next decade will make the first one seem like a summer picnic. I panic at that thought — hormones and dating and temptations — but then I look at what we’ve already been able to accomplish in these first 10 years.

Today, the top of Mira’s head reaches nearly to my shoulder. She wakes up on her own at 5:30 to shower before school and completes all her homework without any guidance or input from me. Gone are the days when she always had to be in the same room as I am, or at least check in on me every few minutes. Instead, she can often be found behind her closed bedroom door, talking with a friend on the phone, painting her nails or reading a book. She is funny and a great story teller. She has deep well of patience and a giving heart; she understands empathy and how to use it to bring joy to others. She loves to bake and read cookbooks and Sid and I wonder where these passions will take her.

I look at what we’ve help shape over 10 years and realize we didn’t do a perfect job. We’ve definitely overindulged her and maybe our high expectations put too much pressure on her. Or maybe not. Maybe she is exactly who she is supposed to be, and we’re just guardians for the journey. I like that idea and so that’s what I’m going with. And while the next 10 years might be filled with drama, the first 10 have taught me that no matter what the challenge, I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. And hopefully, as with the first 10 years, that will be enough.


My Heroes are Pint-Sized

Mira didn't get a lot of chance to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

Mira didn’t get many chances to dirty her uniform, but she sure was proud to wear it.

When my son Miles was 5 he failed the vision test at his annual check-up. A trip to the pediatric ophthalmologist confirmed he had a lazy eye and 20/70 vision. This means what most people could see from 70 feet away, he needed to be 20 feet away from to be able to decipher. When we got home from the doctor that day, I explained he’d have to wear a patch over his right eye so that his left eye would get stronger.

“That’s because my left eye is my bad eye,” he said. “My right eye can see real good.”

My heart sank and swelled. My poor boy knew all along. Mom was playing catch-up.

He started wearing the eye patch shortly before the first day of kindergarten. For five hours a day he submitted to some level of torture. He couldn’t see the TV. He couldn’t play a video game or build with his beloved Legos without being overwhelmed with frustration. Every day when I picked him up from school, as soon as he got in his carseat I pulled out a new patch.  He would start to cry. “No, I don’t want to. Please. Don’t make me.” And then we’d talk, he’d take a deep breath, and with courage that moved and inspired me he’d let me gently place the patch on his eye. His head often hung low. His lip sometimes quivered. But he acquiesced. After a while, I’d come with the patch and he’d groan but ask, “Can I put it on myself?” He did this every night through the madness that was rebuilding our lives after Hurricane Sandy. Considering how worn I was emotionally, he could have fought me on it and won. But I somehow found the strength to keep insisting, and he found the strength to keep doing.

This spring, my 9-year-old daughter Mira decided she wanted to start playing softball. I panicked. I knew that most girls around here start playing t-ball when they are barely out of diapers. She would be years behind her teammates. But she was only 9, and she should be able to try new things. And she shouldn’t have her mother’s anxiety, borne from my years of being the last person picked in gym class, of never playing a team sport myself, stop her. So I took her to practice and watched as she struggled with anxiety, shame and the frustration that she just couldn’t figure out how to hit that damn ball. I held her as she cried because the other girls were so much better than she was and they all knew each other so well. “I just feel so different,” she’d say. I always expected her to add, “I don’t want to play anymore.” She never did. Instead, she became more determined than ever to learn to field, to catch, to throw and, hopefully soon, to send that ball soaring into the outfield.

Today, nearly two years after first hearing of my son’s poor vision, his ophthalmologist delivered great news: His vision is now 20/25. And since it’s been a year since he’s had to wear a patch, that means his risk of regression is practically zero.

“Did you hear that?” I told Miles, translating for him what the doctor had just said. “It means all your hard work to make your eye stronger worked. All those days you wore that eye patch, every time you put it on when you didn’t want to, it helped your eyes get better.”

He smiled that bashful smirk that holds the pride that a 7-year-old boy now feels he needs to keep under wraps. I hugged him anyway and he hugged me back, tightly, his strong clutch the emotional substitute for the unbridled joy I know he felt.

Tonight my daughter’s team heads to the division softball playoffs. Her coach gently let me know that Mira will not be on the roster. As the weakest member of the team, she’ll be sitting on the bench during this important game. I asked Mira how she felt about that. She was sad about the prospect of being the only girl not on the field. But then I showed her this part of her coach’s message:

She has come so far from day one so I don’t want her to think I’m not proud of her determination! Love that kid!

Mira read that and started bouncing on her toes. Her eyes became misty and she hugged me. You’d think she’d just scored a winning run. But no — what she discovered might have been better. She learned that her hard work has been noticed. That sticking with something is worthwhile. She’s heading to the game tonight knowing she has one very important job: To cheer her team on.

“I have to yell and cheer as loud as I can Mom,” she said. And I couldn’t help but want to burst with joy and pride.

You read books about courageous people who have done amazing things, role models and icons who give you much to aspire to. But I’ve discovered, time and time again, that my real inspiration comes from the courage my kids summon in their journey toward adulthood. Every milestone comes with its own level of risk, from taking those first steps to stepping up to the mound and hoping, please, that this will be the time she hits that ball. Every achievement comes from putting in the effort, from learning to read to training a lazy eye to see clearly.

I’ve learned that my kids are my true heroes. As they continue their journey, I know the inspiration will only grow. That makes me so excited for the future — theirs as adults and mine as the parent who gets to watch it happen.

Epilogue: Mira did get to play two innings. At her first at-bat, she headed to the mound with bases loaded. My heart moved into my throat. Her stance was perfect. She was waiting for her pitch. It never came. Ball, ball, strike, ball, strike, ball… And she walked. In doing so, she brought a runner in. It was the only run scored by her team. When the game was over and the team was reeling from a devastating loss, I explained to her what she did. Her eyes brightened. “I can’t wait until next year,” she said. “I want to play the infield. I want to learn to pitch. I think I could be good at that.” I have no doubt she could. My lesson here? Grab onto that small thread of success and use it to propel you to the next challenge. Confidence is a muscle; it only grows with practice.

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