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mothering boys

in which there is a vague lesson in genetics

Last week, as I was sitting next to Caleb while he did his homework, we had a conversation.

Caleb:  Mommy, did you used to be smart?

Me, deciding now is not the time for a lesson about past and present tenses: Uh…well, you know, I like to think that I’m still smart.

Caleb: No, I mean, Daddy was even smart way back in high school. Were you?

Me, deciding now is not the time to talk about my rocky adolescence and general sense of disaffection from academic institutions:  Yep. Pretty much always been smart. How do you think you and your brother got to be smart yourselves?

Caleb: So I’m smart from both of you?

Me, wishing I’d paid attention during genetics lessons, deciding now is not the time to tell Caleb that “smart” and “paying attention” don’t always go together: Yep. Both of us.

Caleb, suddenly fearful: Does that mean I have to be a professor too?

Me, deciding that now is not the time to tell him that “smart” and “professor” don’t always go together: Nope. You can be whatever you want.

Caleb, relieved: Because I think I want to be a spy. Or a CIA agent. But maybe an author, too.


One out of three ain’t bad, I guess. The genetic apple maybe hasn’t fallen so far from the genetic tree.


Somehow, despite my apparent lack of intelligence, I am now writing regularly for The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language paper.  Last week I wrote about world’s only truly universal language. It’s not chocolate and it’s not love.  It’s..Ikean-ease.   And the column before that was about an astonishing innovation coming soon to Abu Dhabi: street addresses.  It’s true. I live in a city where mail doesn’t get delivered to houses; only to post boxes or offices. It’s a little odd, and was annoying when we first moved here but now I feel sort of nostalgic about the vague chaos.






Continue Reading · on October 16, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, family, Kids, Parenting, The National

pre-teen: a boy in blurry focus

It happened like someone had flipped on a switch.

At one point there was a boy who wanted to tell me everything and who thought that facebook was stupid and his parents were pretty cool.

And then, this summer, Liam became a pre-teen. He’s always been precocious (he was even born ahead of schedule), so I guess it’s no surprise that now, at the age of twelve-and-a-half, he’s verging on sixteen.

I thought, a long time ago, when I watched other moms shop for darling little frocks and furbelows for their girl-babies while I pawed through yet another stack of navy-blue trousers for my boy-babes, that at least when the teen and pre-teen years hit, I’d be safe: boys, I thought, don’t really “go through” adolescence. They just get older. Sure, there might be skin problems, perhaps the occasional illegal substance, but all that moodiness and navel-gazing and emoting?  Not in this boy-dominated household.

Yeah, I thought. Those mothers of daughters are gonna suffer, while I, with my boringly dressed boys, will sail through their teen-age years.

Yeah. You’re going to be wanting to use the word hubris here.

Upstairs in his room (door firmly closed) is a boy whose headphones sometime in late June became surgically attached to his ears, whose favorite phrase is “you don’t understand” (with a close second being “fine in a tone that implies anything but), and whose emotions veer from joy to rage with all the precision of a drunk driver trying to navigate the Pacific Coast Highway.

It’s exhausting.

Somehow he’s perfected the lip curl, the eye roll, the tiny puff of exasperated breath that I thought were the exclusive purview of adolescent girls; suddenly he tells me nothing, facebook is totes cool and we, his parents, are stupid.

God knows after what I put my mother through in my teen-age years, I probably deserve some lip-curling and eye-rolling. Karma, as they say, is a bitch. I’m still apologizing to my mom for my behavior, although now we’re both so old that neither of us really remember what the hell I did.

Well, okay. Some of the things we remember. But that’s a post for another time.

Dear reader, I understand that Liam wants to feel independent; I know he’s trying on some new attitudes to see how they fit, just like he’s trying to find jeans that aren’t too baggy on his skinny hips. I know he doesn’t need a friend but a parent, and I’m pretty much comfortable with being the mom who says “no.” I’ve done my reading, I’m paying attention (yes, I troll his  facebook page for inappropriate content and never in my life have I been so bored on facebook because good lord, twelve-year olds are dull).

But lately I feel like I did when he was a baby, when there I was, confronted with this utterly alien being who had needs and wants and what the hell did I know about babies, anyway, other than that I had a devout wish to not fuck up.

I’ve still got that same wish–please don’t let me fuck up this parenting thing–but all the rules and rhythms I’ve learned over the last twelve years don’t seem quite to apply any more.  The baby not only has needs, the baby has opinions and isn’t afraid to express them. (Is it just me, or did kids used to have fewer opinions? Or maybe it’s just that their opinions mattered less.)

Husband does a little eye-rolling of his own these days, when I get going about Liam’s behavior and truth be told, Liam is mostly just wicked irritating; it’s not like he’s sporting gangsta life tatts or pilfering from the liquor cabinet. He is, after all, only twelve and still more interested in League of Legends, Arsenal, and…well, facebook, than he is in anything else. He still sits on my lap; he sometimes even gives me unsolicited hugs.

If I’m honest with myself, I suspect that much of my annoyance comes not from anger but from a kind of sadness, almost an anticipation of loss. When I’m gritting my teeth and saying “Take.Off.Your.Headphones.Now.” what I’m really saying is “don’t grow up too fast, don’t leave us behind so soon.” I think we are saying good-bye to your childhood, my sweet Liam, and it sort of breaks my heart.


IMG_0422yes, I know the picture is out of focus. it’s a you know, metaphor


Continue Reading · on September 25, 2013 in birth, expat, family, growing up, Kids, Parenting, preemies

Saturday’s Snapshot (surat al-sabat): لقطة السبت

Okay, sure, things have been a little slow over here these days.  There’s been nothing here but ostriches and while ostriches are always appropriate, sort of like champagne, I can understand that looking at the lady ostriches settling into the dust might be a little bit dull after a while.

I did have a column in The National last week, about forks, so you could click over and read that if you’ve got nothing else to do.  And I am guest editing on the yeahwrite site, (last week and this) where there is a give-away featuring the book that I’m in–and what do you mean, you didn’t know I had an essay in the number-one-with-a-bullet-new-release-on-amazon?  You could click right over there and order yourself a copy of You Have Lipstick On Your Teeth–hell, order two, maybe three–because it’s wicked funny and you might want to share. Or have a copy in every room. Whichever.

There are posts coming – about Liam and his sudden, not entirely pleasant, decision to have become a surly teen-ager pretty much overnight; and about this new house we live in, in the equivalent of the Abu Dhabi suburbs, where almost every day a new thing goes wrong, causing us to engage fully and substantially with what you might call the “fix-it” culture of the Emirates. Or make that the lack of a fix-it culture of the Emirates.

In any case. More posts coming soon (I know, I know, your life has been incomplete, a dull void of nothingness, because mannahattamamma hasn’t written anything new).  In the meantime, another animal picture from Kenya. This one has a little more, shall we say, bite to it.  You’re welcome.



Continue Reading · on September 21, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, family, growing up, Kids, surat al-sabt saturday snapshot, Travel


We went on safari last week.

And now I have to pause for a minute because I still can’t believe that I am someone who can say “I went on safari last week.”

There among the wildebeests, the giraffes, and baboons, Caleb turned nine.


The baby is nine. His last year in single digits looms just as my last year of “forty-something” heads into its final stretch.

While we were traveling I posted something from the archives about Caleb turning six, which at the time, seemed ancient. Of course, my turning forty once seemed worthy of note, too.  Looking back, six ain’t got nothin’ on nine—and forty ain’t got nuthin’ on what’s looming ahead.

On safari, we saw a full complement of amazingness:

IMG_9389a cheetah “cub” whose mother can barely be seen hiding in the bush to the left

IMG_0401the scariest animal in the savannah (seriously): hippo

IMG_0491mama lion dragging what’s left of a zebra to her cubs

Caleb loved it all, snapped pictures endlessly, thumbed intently through our guidebook of Eastern African Mammals, asked our guide Daniel about eighty gazillion questions.

Ask Caleb the best part of the safari, though and he will say without hesitation: ants.

Safari ants.

On our last morning drive out into the Mara, as we jounced along a rutted trail near Oloololo Escarpment, Daniel, who must surely count an eagle or a hawk among his ancestors because his eyes are so sharp, pulled over suddenly and cut the engine on the jeep.  By now we know that an engine going silent often signals that Something Interesting is afoot, but this time, the interest really was afoot.

A thick line of ants marched across the road and in response to the inevitable question, apparently they were going across the road to get to a new anthill somewhere in the tall grass.IMG_7180

Caleb and Daniel climbed out of the truck so Daniel could show him the big-headed worker ants carrying ant eggs, the soldier ants guarding them and then—the coolest thing ever, according to Caleb—the tunnel that the worker ants make to hide themselves from predators.  The ants build a tunnel out of their own bodies, dried grass, and dirt:

IMG_7179the dark line is ants, the slightly lighter line is the tunnel

Caleb loved the safari ants even more than the termite mounds, which pock the landscape in every size from tiny ankle-high piles of dirt to towers that surround trees and reach even further underground than above-ground, like bug-built icebergs.


termite queens lay an egg every three seconds

Ants play a starring role in the epic that Caleb has been writing in fits and starts over the past year, although this epic is currently on hold in favor of the “Star Wars” based novel he’s begun, called “Hyper Space Hero.”  Here is the sound of Caleb at work:


Today Caleb announced that he planned to be a genetic engineer so he could create clones; last month he wanted to work for the CIA. He’s pretty sure that whatever his day job will be, he’s going to be an author.

Unlike his older brother, Caleb isn’t as sure of his many talents; he doesn’t notice that his report card is every bit as good as his brother’s. Caleb is sure that he’s not popular, and I worry that because of his imagination, his voracious reading habit, and his fascination with Star Wars arcana, other kids might think he’s childish, or, you know, weird, and that would be too bad, because then I’d have to kill them. I am hoping that this will be the year Caleb finds a soul mate.

I don’t know what my Caleb is going to be when he grows up but I confess to wishing that he’d grow up just a little more slowly…because at nine, the baby…


is now a boy: hattrying on hats at City Hat on Bleeker

Continue Reading · on August 29, 2013 in family, growing up, Kids, Parenting, Travel

Define “best and brightest”


I wrote this post back in the halycon days of Obama’s first presidency and well before “lean in” became a meme and not an athletic command.  I like to think that even with newborn Caleb strapped to my chest, I did a pretty good job at my job, but then I again, I was half-asleep most of the time, so I might not be the best judge. Outlaw Mama runs a great Friday series about women and work, which you might check out if either of those categories–a woman or a worker–pertains to you.

“Critics worry about academic insularity,” reads the title of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post online edition. It’s not quite a backlash – yet – but almost every day, it seems, there’s another little niggling worry posted somewhere about all the Ivy Leaguers making up Obama’s new administration.Sometimes it’s even one of the lead stories for the day.

Seems Barack has appointed people who went to really elite schools, like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford; he’s also appointed others who couldn’t quite cut the mustard and had to make do with such slacker schools as University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and MIT.

Frank Rich on Sunday sounded one such note of worry, pointing out that the phrase “best and brightest,” which David Halberstam used as the title of his book about Viet Nam, was intended ironically: a group of incredibly well-educated men (more about that in a minute) got us stuck in Viet Nam and couldn’t get us out. Other pundits on both the left and the right have sounded equally worried about what will happen when all these ivy-covered lefties find themselves in that most ivory of Ivory Towers, the White House.

The Post article comments that Obama’s team “lacks diversity in one regard: they are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government.”

Dontcha just hate it when government is run by people who think? Of course, one needs to go back quite some time to remember when this was the case (and one wonders how to tag the Clinton administration – intellectual isn’t precisely the word that springs first to mind, alas).

As I read Rich’s column yesterday morning and then bounced over to the Post article, I couldn’t help but think about Governor Ed Rendell’s comment on Janet Napolitano’s selection for Homeland Security chief: he said that she was the perfect pick because she’s “got no life. No family. Perfect…” (See this link to The Christian Science Monitor for more about how Rendell unintentionally put his foot in his mouth about the precise conflict faced by women who want to have successful careers).

So Napolitano is perfect because she’s got no family and Larry Summers isn’t perfect because of all that Harvard in his background. Hmmm.

And yet, when I read the profiles of all the potential appointees that The New York Times has been running, I notice two things: I notice that many of these people are – gulp – my age or – double gulp – younger. And I notice that very few of the women on the list have children, while many of the men have several. I pointed this out to Husband, who said, basically “duh.”

Translated, this “duh” means what we all know but hate to say: to get to the spot on the career ladder where you can be chosen for a cabinet position is a tough climb under the best of circumstances – and those circumstances are rarely improved by having to lock yourself in your office every few hours so that you can use your Medela pump in some semblance of privacy (if, that is, you have an office and aren’t forced to stuff yourself and your pump into a stall in the woman’s bathroom and hope that no one mistakes that peculiar Medelian wheeze for you having a horrible asthma attack).  It’s hard to fast-track yourself if this is what you feel like:

mom_and_nursing_pup_600.jpgI know, I know, it’s better than it was, the times-they-are-a-changing, sure, okay. I know that song; I can even hum a few bars. But four years ago, right before Caleb was born, I was appointed to be the director of a program at the small college where I teach. This new position would reduce my teaching load from four courses a semester to two and I was thrilled – teaching four courses each term was killing me. (For the record: I am not a member of the academic elite. Academic, yes. But elite? The elite don’t teach four undergraduate classes a semester – one, maybe, but four? No freakin’ way). I was afraid to go on maternity leave because if someone else were appointed as director in the interim, I might never get the job back (no one wants to teach four courses a semester).

So I took a leave from teaching but not from administration and came to work with Caleb slung across my chest in one of those baby slings. And yes I locked the office door several times a day to nurse him. Students who came in to talk to me that semester were frequently startled by the sight of Caleb’s small hand emerging from the sling or by the sound of a deliciously timed baby fart, one of those long, rippling farts that you know is going to result in a diaper filled with what looks a lot like scrambled eggs.

Frankly? That’s about all I remember of the semester – Caleb wiggling and farting as I tried to help students choose their courses, review their transcripts, or talk about why they were flunking calculus.

I could get away with functioning in what was basically fugue state because – well, in part because I am not a member of the academic elite, and because college students are themselves functioning in a kind of fugue state. I’ve got no clue how more high-powered women juggle newborn hell with high-pressure jobs. Lots and lots and lots of child-care, I guess. And maybe a smidge or two of valium.

But here’s my point: what if we stopped worrying that all these Obama appointees are too intelleckshul (and let’s also notice, shall we, that most of this conversation about “too smart” centers on the men Obama’s picked to handle the exchequer). What if we started worrying with equal frequency – above the fold, as they say in newspaper-land – about why it’s so hard for women with families to climb that ladder? After all, an ivy-covered wall is still…a wall.

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Continue Reading · on August 25, 2013 in family, Feminism, Kids, Parenting, Politics, teaching

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