Tag Archives | growing up

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


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



Baby Caleb is six today. He still sleeps with four small bears and a tattered blankie, but his body is long and lean, the shape of the young man he will become.   He is a pirate and a spy; collector of important rocks and sticks; he walks like an Egyptian when we’re out doing errands and then worries that people might be looking at him.

When we go swimming, he leaps into the pool, attempting to do a cannonball, even though he can’t really swim. IMG_1866

He dog-paddles with great confidence, and blows the occasional bubble, but actually swim? Not so much.

Fearless: he never really crawled but learned to walk at 9 months, which is a really bad idea: his brain was still the size of a walnut. I suspect, however, that even in that walnut-sized brain, he was trying to keep up with his older brother. His brother is about 3 1/2 years ahead, but Caleb works hard to hold his own: he will probably be an excellent soccer goalie, for instance, because of all the “practice” shots that Liam has taken at his round little head: it’s basically block or die.

Keeping up with Big Brother may have created a fearless six year old, but also one who is too quick to say “I can’t do it,” probably because he has Napoleon as an older brother. Unlike Napoleon, however, Caleb makes friends really easily, and has even caused a stir in the female population of his kindergarten: one little girl told her dad, while they were watching “Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang,” that if she were Truly Scrumptious, she wouldn’t want to marry Mr. Potts–she would want to marry Caleb.

It seems to me that being the second child means always existing in relation: there was never a time where there wasn’t someone else there. That means when Caleb is in the apartment without Liam around, he revels in having the space all to himself: he spreads out his “guys” (his Lego mini-figures, of which he has about a gajillion) and tells infinitely complicated, infinitely explosive stories, complete with remarkable sound effects, happily parading his subconscious for all to hear: “You are not the boss! Come on King Guy you can do it! Here come the bad guys and phfew smash clang now you’re doing it you can make it, get those minions to attack the demon leader guy charge the castle!”  He plays out these stories right here, behind my desk chair, and then when the battles have been resolved, he climbs up into my lap to regale me with the color commentary, detailing all that happened.

I worry about him, this six-year-old boy of mine.I worry that he’s overshadowed by his brother, that his parents are distracted and too busy, that in his rush to Keep Up he is perpetually exhausted.  Embedded in those worries, of course, is simultaneous nostalgia for vanished babyhood and the stunned realization that ohmigod these babies are growing into…boys.

Boys. I’m raising boys, who as they get older become more and more emphatically not me. It’s as if my tomato plants suddenly sprouted beans, or strawberries. My round little Caleb now leaps around making gun finger, or karate chops trees, or quite literally bounces off the walls of the elevator in his effort to be SpiderMan. How did that happen? People tell me that “boys are easier” and that “boys are nice to their mothers,” which may all well be true. Maybe I won’t end up alone in a studio apartment eating cat food when I’m 87 while both boys assuage one another with the thought that they called me, you know, just last month and I seemed to be doing fine… Still, though, it’s strange to think of these babies of mine moving irrevocably towards a place I’ve never been: manhood.

What’s that sound, you say? Oh, that’s just Husband, snickering at my melodramatic spin on things: he points out that Caleb is turning SIX, for god’s sake, not SEVENTEEN.

Okay. True. I’ll save the melodramatic musings for a decade up the road and take comfort in the fact that my fearless six-year-old still reaches for my hand when we walk down the street, still climbs into bed for a morning snuggle, still insists on his bears and his blankie.  I know he’s growing up…but just like all the books say, I didn’t know it would happen this fast.


Funny to look back at this post and remember that I thought six was all grown up.  Now that little boy is about to be… NINE. My last year of a child in single digits. Seems impossible, given that I myself only in the last century recently turned twenty-one.

Continue Reading · on August 23, 2013 in family, growing up, Kids

Dear Eighteen: A Linkup with Chosen Chaos

Over at Chosen Chaos, Jamie has been running a series called “If I Could Turn Back Time,” in which writers are asked what they would tell their eighteen-year-old selves.  I posted this piece on her site a while ago, and now she’s doing a wrap-up week, inviting the entire year’s worth of writers to re-post their letters on their own blogs.  It’s hard to  re-post without tinkering and tweaking (or hiding information), but I’m going to sit on my hands and let this one go, just as it is.

Plus you get the picture of me at eighteen. Ah, the hair of youth:

 Dear Eigh­teen

You’re almost ready to go to col­lege and although you’re not really talk­ing to your par­ents these days, I’m hop­ing you’ll lis­ten to me.  After all, I’ve got sort of a vested inter­est in hav­ing you come through col­lege alive. The last two years of high school have been tumultuous, to say the least, and your par­ents are ter­ri­fied about leav­ing you alone at school half-​​way across the coun­try.  You keep insist­ing that once you get the hell out of the Mid­west, you’re going to be FINE, but I know that under all that hair and bravado, you’re also scared about embark­ing on this new stage of your life.

So do your­self a favor and before you go stomp­ing off to lis­ten to the Grate­ful Dead on your super-​​cool eight-​​track cas­sette player, just lis­ten to me for a few min­utes? If you lis­ten to me, maybe the next four years (and, er, three decades) will be smoother.  It’s true that some of this advice might echo what your mother has been say­ing to you all these years, but here’s my first piece of advice: your mother is a hell of a lot smarter than you think she is.  Try lis­ten­ing to what she has to say. 

Sec­ond piece of advice? Don’t bother bring­ing that eight-​​track player to col­lege. Trust me on that one.  

Now, a few other things:

I know you’re going to this single-​​sex col­lege under extreme protest and that you have every inten­tion of trans­fer­ring at the win­ter break, but please don’t do it.  Being in class with­out boys will feel like a huge rock has been lifted off your head: you have bet­ter things to think about than whether some boy has noticed you notic­ing him.

Now that you’re in col­lege, it’s time to bury “Dizzy Deb­bie,” the per­sona you adopted to sur­vive in high school. Remem­ber? Try­ing to hide that you were in 4th year Latin and AP every­thing else, pre­tend­ing you didn’t know how to work the com­bi­na­tion on your locker, never talk­ing about any of the things that mat­tered to you?  In col­lege, let your­self enjoy being smart. It’s a lot more fun than being ditzy.

In addi­tion to what you’re learn­ing in class, do your­self a favor and learn to say no. To drugs, to drink­ing, to stu­pid men, to “friends” who try to help you by point­ing out all your flaws and none of your strong points. And while you’re learn­ing about “no,” take a minute to learn this phrase “when she says no, it’s rape.” Remem­ber that night in high school, when you said NO and STOP but he laughed and kept going?  Yeah. That was rape. It shouldn’t have hap­pened and it wasn’t your fault. Take that guilt you’ve been car­ry­ing around for three years and turn it into anger that some football-​​playing jack­ass could do that to you and get away with it—brag about it, in fact, to his friends.

Once you find that anger, though, you’re going to have to let it go. If you don’t, you’re going to get stuck think­ing that sex is a power tool and not an expres­sion of inti­macy.  Men are not like ram­shackle old houses. Do not get your­self a “fixer-​​upper.” Please fig­ure that out now, and save your­self thou­sands of dol­lars in ther­apy, years of mis­er­able rela­tion­ships, and one bro­ken engage­ment (a nec­es­sary break-​​up, true, but bru­tal nonethe­less).  Yes, rela­tion­ships are work but being in a grown-​​up rela­tion­ship doesn’t mean end­less fights. Learn the dif­fer­ence between com­pro­mise and com­pro­mised; live with the for­mer but not the latter.

Don’t shake your head at me, Eigh­teen. Am I harsh­ing your mel­low? Bum­mer. Stop flip­ping your hair at me and lis­ten for a few more min­utes. Then you can get back to per­fect­ing your Farrah.

Actu­ally, let’s talk hair, shall we?  In a few years, when you’re study­ing in Eng­land, you’re going to be tempted to be a hair model at the Sas­soon school. Here’s where I want you to prac­tice that “no” we talked about ear­lier. You’re going to think “a model! How cool!” RESIST! They’re going to cut your hair really short and you will look like a brunette broc­coli.  The hairdo they’re going to give you requires scimitar-​​like cheek­bones, not a jaw­line that Churchill would envy.

Writ­ing kept you (mostly) sane dur­ing high school and it will con­tinue to be your great­est joy dur­ing col­lege, but then you’ll start studying for your doc­tor­ate and start hear­ing voices in your head. They’ll say things like “maudlin,” and “deriv­a­tive,” and “juve­nile,” and “under-​​theorized.” Tell those voices to shut the hell up. Keep writ­ing your own stuff, in addi­tion to your aca­d­e­mic stuff, so that you don’t have to wait until the inven­tion of some­thing called “blogs” to find an out­let for your ideas. 

It’s hard to imag­ine right now but you’re going to be both a wife and a mother.  And, fur­ther­more, you’re going to have boy chil­dren, not girls, which I know you think is totally nutty.  I mean tomato plants don’t sud­denly sprout beans, so how a girl body can give birth to boys is anyone’s guess.  But it’s going to be okay—you’re going to love your boys despite, and some­times even because of, their boy-​​ness.  In fact, you’re going to love your hus­band in much the same way—he can’t help that he’s a man, but you’re going to love him anyway.

That’s about it for now, I think.  Let’s review:  Be nice to your mother, stay in col­lege, say no to stu­pid men and bad hair­cuts, keep writing, have babies, have a mar­riage, have a career (but not nec­es­sar­ily in that order).

That about cov­ers it, I think.  In the long run, just as you sus­pected all those long years ago, you’re going to be FINE.  It’s just going to take you a lit­tle while to get there.







Continue Reading · on August 10, 2012 in Feminism, Gender, growing up, me my own personal self

boys to men

The other day, at the beginning of class, I asked the students to write about a specific passage in the novel we were reading, so the students curled over their desks and the room was silent for a few minutes except for the scratchings of pen on paper. I love that silence – I loved it even as a kid (yes, hello, clearly even at 15 I was destined for life as an English professor)  – the silence of a room filled with people thinking.  But on this day, I found myself looking at the boys, all of them first or second-year college students.

They’re beautiful, these boys, even the ones who aren’t particularly “cute.” Their skin stays close to their bones and gleams with health; when they walk they inhabit every inch of their bodies. They’re intent on their work; their arms wave with enthusiasm when they have something to say to the class and sometimes when they talk, their words come out so fast, they get tangled in their ideas and have to start again.

They’re no longer children – they’re at college in Abu Dhabi, which for all of them is a long, long way from home – but they’re not quite men, either, despite the fact that some of them have wispy little beards or long what-do-you-think-about-these sideburns.  I only went to Boston for college, from Illinois – and it felt like an epic distance, so how are these 18 year olds handling entire hemispheres of distance?

I remember the tearful phone calls I made to my mom during those years about how strange and weird it all was, that my sheets smelled funny, the food was weird, and my roommate was from some entirely alien planet called New Jersey. Continue Reading →

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Continue Reading · on April 30, 2012 in growing up, Kids, Parenting, teaching

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