Mothering and Other Team Sports



Mothering is a ludicrous bid for power at the best of times; in August, it gets twisted. Yesterday, Caroline screamed from the top of the stairs for 45 straight minutes because Henry wouldn’t go outside with her. By the end of it, I was curled up in an air-raid position on the dining room floor, crying and yelling at God to fucking help me with her.


Then Julie called, reminding me that these kinds of scenes often come right before big developmental leaps and even making me giggle a little bit through my tears, so I know God listens (even when I say “fucking” when I’m asking Him for help). That’s a comfort. Still, there was more screaming after that –joyful screaming, indignant screaming, maniacal screaming, I’m-eating-pancakes-for-dinner-and-I-just-totally-love-pancakes! screaming.


They broke my spirit, so today I might take them bra shopping with me. I don’t even need new bras, I just want revenge. See what I’m saying?


We’re supposed to help each other, we’re supposed to keep passing the baton.


Counting today, there are eight full days and one half-day left with all three kids; three full days and three half-days with just two; another two half-days with just one; three and a half days in Saint Louis without any of them. Then school starts and maybe some of my hair will grow back.


Look, I love my babies. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care how many times they begged for sugar or why they were all screaming (“we’re pretending there’s a storm, Mama”) or when I would be able to pass the baton to other adults with education and experience and new ideas. I’m all out of them at the moment. Confessing that is extremely hard for a proud Mama like me, but that’s precisely why I’m confessing it: it’s hard for all of us and it shouldn’t be. We’re supposed to help each other, we’re supposed to keep passing the baton.


Did you see the Olympic freestyle relay where Michael Phelps won his nineteenth medal? He won it because he’s a phenomenal athlete, but he also won it because the other three phenomenal athletes swimming with him –Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, and Conor Dwyer– gave him a big, gorgeous lead. By the time he got in the water, it was his to lose. Truthfully, I have never been one for team sports, group projects, or collaborations of any kind. I like working alone in most cases, being in charge of my own destiny.


But motherhood is about being in charge of someone else’s destiny, so letting others give us a big lead makes all kinds of sense. I know so many mamas in my generation –me included– who feel like we’re failing if we can’t solve everything ourselves, do it all to the nth degree. Meals have to be from scratch, made from locally-grown, organic superfoods we grew from heirloom seeds in our urban gardens. Children must be brilliant, empathetic, creative problem-solvers, enriched with music and chess and at least one sport each season. Our homes must be models of beauty and system, cleaned with natural products that smell like obscure flowers and herbs. Fashion is effortless, age-appropriate, stylish but not slavishly trendy. Makeup is natural during the day, smoky at night. Sex is at least twice a week.


Just talking about it makes me angry and tired and I happen to like a lot of these activities (wink wink, nudge nudge). Nobody can pull off every part of this. Nobody was ever supposed to. Even if it were possible (it’s NOT –don’t try), there are these little people we’re raising, not to mention the big ones we see in the mirror every morning and the even bigger ones who sleep on the other side of the bed. There are friends who are drowning in cancer or divorce or depression or all three, aging parents who are suddenly alone, need us more. There are politics to pay attention to, crumbling finances, mold in the basement, a lecherous boss, an incompetent one. There is an ideal we keep missing, a persistent loneliness, a low-grade fever of anger and helplessness, the fear of always falling short.


Jordyn Wieber was heartbroken when she didn’t qualify for the Olympic women’s individual gymnastics competition, but did you see her with her team when they won the first American team gold since 1996? Winning alone would be incredible, I’m sure, but winning together is beautiful. I’m tuned in to that these days, the idea of winning together. I have a daughter with special needs and two other particularly sensitive children. I’m not going to qualify on my own. For a while now, I’ve been heartbroken about that, but I keep watching, over and over again, the way all of these Olympians encouraged each other, comforted each other, celebrated each other. I want that. I have seventeen days to give us a big, gorgeous lead.

Human Nature

Lake Hubert

I have never really considered myself much of a nature girl. Every camping trip I have ever been on has been mandatory, trying to sleep in hot weather without at least a fan makes me hostile, and I don’t cope well with mice. Bugs are icky, pooping in the woods is icky, worms and toads and dead fish are icky. Really, I can’t even talk about bats.


I’m more of a postcard naturalist. I love the moon, clear lakes with sandy bottoms, and deer as long as they don’t wreck my garden. Rainstorms are magical and sexy as long as there isn’t a power outage. I like the ocean as an idea, pictures of elephants, and knowing Alaska is out there, just waiting for me to take a semi-luxury cruise through it. I like bonfires built by ruggedly appealing men in soft, worn clothes until the smoke starts getting in my eyes. Then I’m done.


You think this is a princess thing, but it’s not a princess thing. When I was young, I happily bounded through the woods in rainstorms with my cabinmates, shrieking and giggling at the thunder and lightning. I did the high ropes course at camp several times, inching my way across split logs and rope bridges 50 feet in the air –no problem. I was the one who routinely flung herself, fully clothed, off of sailboats to catch the buoy when it was time to come in. I made decent fires, I cooked and ate dehydrated food when that was expected of me, I bathed in the iron-stained lakes of the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada, and completely submerged myself in the bog more than once. I could both portage and steer a canoe and I didn’t whine or cry about (most of) it. There was a time when I could rise to pretty much any outdoorsy occasion.


I’m more of a postcard naturalist. I love the moon, clear lakes with sandy bottoms, and deer as long as they don’t wreck my garden.


But now I have Caroline. The first time she was old enough to be aware of a power outage, Brian found her sitting at the bottom of the stairs, scared and disoriented because both her monster light (a nightlight with three little lambies on it known for scaring monsters away) and her white noise machine had turned off without explanation. It was still dark, there was a lot of wind, thunder, and lightning, and so Brian tucked her in bed next to me, where I spent the next 45 minutes trying to calm her down enough so she could stop shaking. I’m not exaggerating.


Just about a month ago, on the 4th of July, we rented a pontoon with my husband’s family. Caroline, who is six, had been on a boat before and was happy to do that, but when we stopped to swim, we had to anchor in a spot too deep for her to stand. Brian ferried her to the shallower water so she could splash and play with her sister and brother–the heat index was something like 110 that day — but once I got in, she wrapped her little tentacles around me and refused to touch the bottom.


She relaxed as long as I was holding her, but once it was time to get back on the boat, there was trouble. The water was just a bit too deep for me to stand, so I tried to swim her to the pontoon, which proved harder than I thought it would be. She was heavy, even in the water, and I was having a hard time keeping my head up. Caroline, sensing that we were no longer on solid ground, began to panic, pushing my head under to stay afloat –a classic response from someone who feels like she’s drowning; a classic illustration of our particular mother-daughter relationship.


Still, I want to try and be receptive to Nature –I can relate to her intricate, wild order.


Luckily, we didn’t have far to go. We got her onto the ladder, I caught my breath, and we were both fine. Well, she was. The water, which I have always loved and where I have always felt strong and comfortable, had betrayed me. It hadn’t scared me enough to drown me, but it had scared my little girl enough to drown me. When I see lightning or hear thunder, it is Caroline’s fear that tightens my chest. Anticipating her fear has taught me to be afraid of the same things that frighten her. She went through a phase last summer when she would scream and cry every time she saw one of those gross boxelder bugs in the house, so I learned to fear them, too. Darkness scares me because it scares her.


It’s hard to be friends with Nature when she’s always terrifying my vulnerable little daughter.


Still, I want to try and be receptive to Nature –I can relate to her intricate, wild order. I like how she’s always trying to show us that everything and everyone is connected, even if it’s not always easy to see how. This week, the Drewlets and I are staying with my dear Julie and her little boy, Elijah, at their cabin on Pelican Lake, a few miles from Lake Hubert. The two lakes are not the same, but they are the same. They are not next to each other, but they are connected. Pelican Lake is bigger, quieter, with an island and more beaches; Hubert is more intimate, criss-crossed most days with bright sailboats and their tiny, fearless captains perched high above the whitecaps. On Hubert, you hear bells from Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert; on Pelican, you hear Elvis from Breezy Point Resort.


The Brainerd Lakes have different characters, but chances are that if you love one, you’ll love another. In the important ways, they are the same. And If you are the kind of person, like me, who can feel herself healing on a cellular level as she approaches Nisswa, Minnesota, then you and I are the same. If you are willing to let yourself be changed that way, then we are the same. If you have a child like mine, whose fears are so intense that they make you afraid, then we are the same. No matter how different we are, we are the same. No matter how far apart we are, we are connected. That’s human nature.


Waiting Room


Teary Caroline
© 2015 Marta C Drew

I am, despite this public way of telling you about it, a rather private person. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am unwilling to share vulnerable or personal feelings and experiences –obviously, I’m willing to share to the point of emotional exhibitionism. When I say I’m private, I mean that I am deliberate about what I share, how much, in what way, and with whom.  Read my journals and one of us is going to have to permanently move to Iceland. Go through my purse or my closets or my nightstand without my permission and you’re dead to me. I decide.


The problem is the waiting room.


Before you can enter some of the oldest and largest vaults at Gringotts Bank (the wizarding bank in Harry Potter for those of you who don’t read), you have to pass through a waterfall that clears away any enchantments you may be trying to use to enter the vault under false pretenses. If you have tried to conceal or change your identity, if someone or something else is controlling your behavior, if you have tried to protect yourself in any way from exposure or vulnerability to what could be inside, then it is all washed away. You are just you.


The same thing happens to anyone who enters the Children’s West Rehab Center waiting room, only it’s the air swirling around the door as you walk in that breaks all the spells, not a waterfall (which would be impractical and inconsiderate in such a cold climate). You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.


If you are a regular, you are dealing with scooters or wheelchairs or companion dogs or leg braces that make your little peanut cry because they hurt. Or you are dealing with tiny little helmets, tiny little glasses, tiny little hearing aids. Your son cries about everything, your daughter can’t properly metabolize food. Your granddaughter has cerebral palsy, your grandson has a heart condition.


Now YOU have a heart condition.


What do you do? There was a woman once who spent the whole hour she was waiting doing yoga poses and stretches. I rolled my eyes until her son came out after his physical therapy session and I overheard her talking with the therapist about how she could help her son be more successful with eating and drinking. He was at least fifteen years old. There was a homeschooling mama with a church bell ringtone who used the time to drill her older daughter in reading; a tense, germaphobic lady who only allowed her impeccably-dressed children to touch toys she brought with her and sanitized before and after they were handled; a maniacally positive mother who practiced tap dancing and jazz routines with her five-or-six-year-old daughter, who played along but didn’t seem convinced of how much fun she was supposed to be having.


You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.


But most of us talk. We tell each other what happened to our children, what happened to us, what keeps happening. We tell each other about the doctors who practically bound across the waiting room at Mayo to tell us surgery went well, or about that nurse at Children’s Hospital downtown who would not rest until she found a way to bathe a child without getting the electrodes in her hair wet (an elaborate system of plastic Target bags and rubber bands). We tell each other about the schools and programs we’ve found to make it all easier (horse therapy, art therapy, water therapy, music therapy) and the schools and programs that haven’t figured it out yet. For several months, my dear childhood friend Lindsay, whose son gets therapy from time to time, met me in the waiting room with coffee and we got to have a built-in Mama date every Wednesday afternoon.


Of course it’s not just mothers waiting –Thad has been one of my favorite waiting room pals. For at least a year, Caroline’s appointments coincided with his granddaughter’s, so every week, Thad and I talked cooking (he was an old-school gourmand –he made his own sausages and everything), gardening, music, antiques, parenting, traveling, families, weddings, home design, life. Thad is marvelous –I miss him. His daughter-in-law doesn’t drive and he’s retired, so he brought them to the rehab center every single week. Maybe we’ll be on the same schedule again this summer.


I wouldn’t say I’m friends with these people in the conventional sense (with the exception of Lindsay) –it’s more like we all operate the various small businesses of the same unethical, sadistic bastard. We all cry about it, we’re all degraded by it, but there’s no choice –we can’t leave; he has too much power and we’ve invested everything.


There is no point trying to control what I reveal to my waiting room colleagues –they see everything anyway, just like I see everything about them. We see each other crying and limping and dragging along with our special needs kids as if we have been stricken with the emotional equivalent of each of their physical or neurological afflictions. We have, so privacy is beside the point –it doesn’t protect us from anything except our mutual sympathy and understanding.


Maybe that’s why the protective enchantments we rely upon so heavily out in the world don’t work in the waiting room. Maybe our vulnerability is the most powerful enchantment no matter where we are.



Henry and injured Brown Cat


My (essentially) sweet, impulsive, emotional, affectionate, pushy, silly Caroline has elevated common sibling torture to an art form. Her performances are startling avant-garde masterpieces, at once spare and imaginative (“boop boop boop boop…Henry, listen to me! Boop boop boop boop boop…”).  Her artistic integrity is evident in each production as she tries to find the places where love and pain intersect.


Henry, who was already bitterly disappointed to see that the baby sister we brought home was not a baby elephant like he’d hoped (she felt like one), has not exactly warmed to her in the almost six years since. She has assaulted him, looted for candy in his room with Lizzie (“Dat’s Henny’s chockit,” they said soberly when I busted them shortly after Easter one year, their marshmallowy cheeks bulging with chocolate eggs and M&Ms. “Not yours!”), wrecked his artwork and books and toys.


It’s hard. We got him a lock for his room, which protected his things when he wasn’t around to protect them himself, but then one night when he wouldn’t let her in to look at his fish, she tore down the carefully drawn and labeled Egyptian symbols he had posted on the outside of his door. Nothing is safe, nowhere feels safe for him here. I know how he feels –she does it to all of us. We tell him her brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s, that she doesn’t understand how she’s hurting him. It doesn’t change anything  –life with a little sister who had brain surgery is really hard sometimes. Seven nights out of ten he prays for God to help Caroline’s brain catch up to everyone else’s.


He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret.


A couple of nights ago she got a hold of his book of charcoal drawing paper and colored in it. It was a blank sheet –she left his beautiful drawings alone– but all the damage she’s done over the last few years has built up, given him a hair trigger, so he yelled and cried until she was yelling and crying herself, scared and confused about why he was mad at her for coloring on plain paper. She didn’t know.


We told him as gently as we could that he had overdone it, that no harm had come to anything important and we could always buy him more paper. We told him we understood why he was mad at her for taking his book but that she had no way of knowing it was any different from the other paper in our house; he should go apologize.  He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret. He lay back on the floor, tears dripping onto the carpet. “I feel so horrible,” he said in a broken voice that has rattled around my mama’s heart for all the days since. “I’m the worst brother ever.” He lay there for a few minutes, his twiggy little shoulders shaking, far more devastated by what he had done than by anything that had ever been done to him.


A few minutes later he went up and apologized. She pardoned him without hesitation, returned his hug, happily accepted his invitation to watch Shaun the Sheep. But even after she and Lizzie were already heaped on the couch giggling at the goat who eats bricks and drinks out of the toilet, we heard Henry crying at the top of the stairs. We coaxed him down and he curled up on the living room couch with me. “She loves you,” I whispered, “and of course you love her. She makes mistakes, you make mistakes. You forgive her, she forgives you. The only part that’s missing is you forgiving yourself.” I whispered this to both of us in the semi-darkness.


“It’s hard,” he choked.


“I know, Peanut, but forgiving yourself is really important. Otherwise your mistakes get in the way of you accepting love.”


Forgiveness is the only place where love and pain intersect.

House and Home



You hear a lot about what it takes to turn a house into a home; I’m trying to turn my home back into a house. Turns out everyone buying a house these days expects to live in a Pottery Barn catalog.  So says my fashionable, market-savvy, trend-conscious, relentlessly positive real-estate advisory panel (you have to have one or you might as well give up before you start). The idea is to help the potential buyers envision the American-dream-meets-global-glamour lifestyle they will only enjoy if they choose your house. So no personal photos, no installations by your artist uncle who makes sculptures out of garbage. No baby-tooth-jewelry collection.


When the young couple tours your house, their expectations warped by evenings watching House Hunters and Property Brothers, you’re supposed to help them dream up a lovely, stylish existence for themselves. You do this by artfully positioning the furniture and accessories they will remember as part of the property but which will not, of course, be sold with the house. Think of the toys advertised during Scooby Doo and Superfriends on Saturday mornings. Only after you opened the box on your birthday or Christmas did you realize how few accessories came with the main thing, how much more you needed to fill in to enjoy the full effect.


Luckily, the Millennials have never watched commercials –they’ve all grown up with DVRs– so paradoxically, marketing tricks work particularly well on them. You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont. The fact that I have had not one quiet moment in the last five years of living here will not be a marketing focus. You want him to think this is the basement office where he’ll make his winning Fantasy football draft picks and/or develop his idea for vitamin-infused beer (go ahead and laugh –it’s gonna be huge).


You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont.


Whether or not either of them knows how to cook or bake (probably not –that’s what Trader Joe’s is for), a gourmet kitchen is crucial. Granite on the counter tops, stainless steel appliances, a pantry just large enough for a week’s worth of organic macaroni and cheese and a fridge that can hold plenty of kombucha. Good, good, they say to each other with their eyes behind the realtor’s back. They don’t want to live like that poor, broken couple they saw on HGTV who spent all their renovation money on mini-golf for the basement. Awful — they had had to live with a tacky kitchen for an extra six months while they talked their Boomer parents into another advance on their inheritance. Shudder…moving on.


This family room is just right for Superbowl parties and book club meetings. Superfun! What should she wear? Would he, theoretically, be allowed to smoke cigars with his buddies just ONCE in here if the Vikings ever won a Superbowl? No. That’s cool –still a good room.


We won’t tell her this, but the living room is where she’ll go to nurse her babies at 4:00 in the morning, snow spinning outside the windows, that feeling of being both essential and invisible, connected and alone filling up her rib cage. We can’t tell him that he needs to come down with her once in a while, lie on the couch with her, say nothing, just be with her so she doesn’t forget herself. There’s no room for that in the marketing brochure.


No matter how carefully we stage everything, they may sense somehow that our life here was less Pottery Barn catalog, more medical journal. They won’t know about our little daughter’s seizure disorder and subsequent brain surgery. They won’t know that the small boy who lived in this house blew bubbles for his little sister every night for ten weeks to distract her when she was getting mean steroid shots in her marshmallowy little thighs. They won’t know which room my cousin Kyle stayed in a month before he died and they won’t know my favorite spot for crying about how lonely a kid with special needs can make me feel sometimes. But I’m guessing they’ll sense that we lived a real life here. Good.


I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me.


There’s no turning this home, where so much life has happened, both good and bad, back into just a house. I’m sure whoever buys this place will sense at least some of the loss, the fear and confusion and all that we did to try and love each other through it. Why hide what we tried to make here? We’re all –both the sellers and the buyers of this world– trying to make something beautiful with garbage, so why hide it? Do we really think they’ll be fooled? Even if they can be tricked into thinking we’re selling them nothing but a pretty, semi-stylish,  HGTV  lifestyle, don’t we want to teach them however we can that there’s nothing especially beautiful about that?


I do. I want to sell this house, so I’ll stage it, make it as fashionable and impressive as I can for their Superbowl parties and book club meetings. But if an echo of what our family survived here bounces gently off the freshly painted walls, I’m going to let it. If I’m going to tell the next young family a story about life in this house, then I insist on allowing both light and shadow into it. I insist on artistic integrity.


I have done almost everything the realtor and stager have told me to do –painted this and retiled that and moved this piece of furniture to that room and taken down all of the family photos. But we’ve left our mark on this house and it’s left its mark on us. I can’t really de-personalize it; it’s more up to the next owners to re-personalize it. And I can’t change it from a home to a house until I move out of it. Even then, it may take a while to really leave it.


That’s fine…it’s all fine. Most of the life I have lived here will come with me. I will bring with me my favorite Christmas Eve with Brian in the year Caroline was diagnosed when we listened to mix tapes we made for each other, drank Bailey’s and vanilla Haagen Dazs milkshakes, and assembled the girls’ play kitchen.  I will bring with me all of the rounds of “I love you more than…” that I’ve played with my Henry before bed at night and I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me. None of that is for sale with the house –they’ll have to fill in what they need to get the full effect.