Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lyra’s Eyes: The Latest

Seeing Red

“We gotta go,” I mouthed to Hugo, who nodded at me while pounding out rhythm and blues on the school piano, playing back up for a couple of guitarists. It was an odd Valentine’s Day. Jules was in Florida and Max was having dinner with his 90-year-old godfather, whose younger brother had died earlier that week. That left just Hugo and me, along with the babies. Rather than cook, we went to the Waldorf school for a potluck and open mic. Leif, who had uncharacteristically clung to me since we’d arrived an hour earlier, softly chanted I want to go home for several minutes before I reluctantly pulled Hugo off the piano.

Once home, I changed Leif into his pajamas. His torso was warm, too warm. I tilted him back in my arms and felt his forehead. Hot. “You don’t feel good, do you?” I asked him and the eyes looking back at me were glassy.

The next day, Lyra, who turned six month’s old on Valentine’s Day, had her latest check up with Dr. M, her pediatrician. Just shy of twelve pounds, Lyra remains in the less than 4th percentile for typical children, but around the 40th percentile for children with Down syndrome. The biggest “problem” with her size is clothing. Those sized 0-3 months clothes are generally for children weighing 8-12 pounds. Some of her clothes this size, especially those with footies, are getting small, but clothes sized 3-6 months are voluminously large on her. The few things that fit well get washed often.

At Lyra’s appointment, I negotiated the supplementing of iron with Dr. M, which she strongly advocates because anemia can lower a child’s IQ (it has to do with oxygenation of the brain). Unfortunately, iron can also cause constipation, which happened with Lyra as soon as we gave it to her. In order to avoid a potential problem, I feel we have created a real one. Constipation is a commonly associated with Down syndrome and something Lyra did not have until we introduced iron to her system. I have taken her off of the vitamins and pointed out to Dr. M that the cereal we give her (Happy Bellies brand) also contains iron.

“Why don’t you try adding some extra fiber to her cereal to get her going again,” said Dr. M and she wrote down a brand name on the “Babies at Six Months” handout. She then said, “Before you go, do you want me to look in Leif’s ears and throat?” Leif was still hot. Some people are sweet when they don’t feel well (Claude and Jules) whereas others are crabby (Hugo, Leif and, to be frank, me). During our appointment, Leif had thrown himself on the ground several times, tried to run out of the room when the nurse came in, pushed the stool to the wall so he could reach the light switch. Thank heavens Dr. M blocks out extra time for visits with children with DS.

“His ears look fine, his nose is clear and I don’t see anything in his throat,” she told me after I wrestled him down for her. Other than a fever and an attitude, Leif was fine. That was Friday.

Two days later, we were at Akron Children’s Hospital’s Emergency Room. By Sunday evening, Leif’s head had become a ramped up mucus factory that poured its products not only from his nose, but also from both his bloodshot eyes. His eyes were slits in his puffy face and he looked like he’d been stung by a swarm of bees. When we put him to bed, he had slept briefly before waking up, screaming in pain. But most concerning, and why we ultimately made the call to go to the ER, was he had refused to eat or drink for much of the day and his lips were cracked and bloodied from dehydration.

Leif was diagnosed with rapid onset, bilateral, acute conjunctivitis and bilateral, acute otitis media or in lay terms: a bad case of pink eye in both eyes and equally bad ear infections in both ears. They put him on Augmentin and because he’s never been on antibiotics before (and Augmentin is really strong), Leif’s eyes cleared up within 24 hours.

What’s This Got to Do with Lyra?

I wear contacts, I’ve had pink eye. You can’t wear contacts when you have pink eye. For me, that’s no biggie, I just wear glasses for a while. But if Lyra gets pink eye and cannot wear her contacts, she effectively cannot see. Recently, my own eye doctor, who also fits contacts on children who have had lensectomies, showed me what Lyra can see without her lenses. In an open container the size of a shirt box, the doctor keeps glass lenses lined upright in several rows, like poker chips. He handed me one of these diagnostic monocles by the tab in its wire frame and told me look through it with one eye closed. It was like looking through glass block. I could see light and color about as well as before, but shape and distance were impossible to comprehend. Were that my vision, I wouldn’t be able to walk safely down an open hallway.

When Lyra is older, she could wear glasses if she needed to. For her condition, however, it would require lenses that are extremely thick and made of glass, not the lightweight polycarbonate most eyeglass lenses are made of today. Right now, she’s too little for the glasses she’d need and taking a break from her contacts would potentially affect her brain’s vision development. In order to literally grow the part of the brain that processes vision, the brain needs the eyes to see, and see well. As I described in the post “I See You and You See Me,” this is why Lyra had her lensectomies at such a young age (six and seven weeks old).

Lyra’s Eyes

Lyra’s surgeries were dramatic, so it’s no wonder people often ask for updates on her eyes. The good news is that there is not much to report. Her eyes healed from surgery without any complications. She wears extended wear contacts that are aphakic. Aphakia simply means an eye without a (natural) lens. Eyes have lenses that, when working perfectly in pairs, provide 20/20 vision. Thus, aphakic contact lenses (or glasses) are not corrective lenses, but rather replace the surgically removed lenses. Many people, particularly as they get older, don’t have perfect lenses and need either glasses or contact lenses to correct their vision. Less common, and not universally recommended, is refractive surgery in which a corrective lens is surgically implanted over the natural lens to correct nearsightedness.

Lyra’s aphakic contacts do not look like my contacts. It is easy to see them in her eyes—the edges often look like a piece of Saran Wrap that isn’t fully adhering to her eyeball. Also, her pupils are clearly magnified, which makes them look huge, like manga pupils. I asked Lyra’s surgeon about the way her contacts look a week after her second surgery. Something I love about her surgeon is that he clearly gets geeked up when I ask him to explain how what he does works.

“So you wear contacts, right?” he asked and I nodded. “Well, your prescription is probably somewhere between three and six.”

“It’s about a four,” I said.

“Lyra’s is a 20. And that’s why they are shaped this way,” he said as he showed me the lens he was about to place in Lyra’s left eye. On the tip of the surgeon’s forefinger the contact rested as it would in her eye. He held it up so I could see it in profile. My contact lenses when viewed from the side look like the arc of the sun just before it sets on the horizon. Lyra’s look like a UFO because the center of the lens pops up, like the control room where the aliens sit when they fly their saucer ships. That’s where all the magnification is and why her pupils look so big.

Kitty-Eyed

The pupil on Lyra’s right eye is not round but elongated at the top, looking a little like a cat’s eye. A small portion of her iris, just above her pupil, was unintentionally removed in her lensectomy. When I pointed it out to the doctor, he said it happens and her blue eyes made it more noticeable. He didn’t seem concerned, but I was and wanted to know if it would affect her vision.

“No, not at all,” he said. “She’ll just have this one unusual looking eye. You know, the other night I was watching the news on TV and I saw a reporter who had the same thing. Years ago, that reporter would have tried to hide her elongated pupil with a cosmetic contact, but we’ve come a long way. Your daughter will be fine both physically and socially.”

What Sucks

Early on, the surgeon told us he’d keep Lyra in contacts as long as she’d tolerate them, forever even. I thought by “tolerate” he meant something medical, but he didn’t. It became clear to me what he did mean when I spoke with another mom in the waiting room just before Lyra’s contacts were cleaned for the first time. This woman’s daughter, who does not have Ds, was born with a cataract in one eye.

“After my daughter’s surgery,” she told me, “she wore a contact, but I couldn’t get the thing in or out, you know? And it popped out all the time! I mean she would just scream and I couldn’t hold her still, so they gave her the glasses, but she kept pulling them off. Finally they agreed to do the surgery. But now I don’t think she’s seeing in that eye and that’s why we came in.” A pretty child of about three, she wanted to see my baby. Seated with Lyra in my lap, I looked into the girl’s big, brown eyes when she came over to us. Her left eye looked blind.

“That’s because her mother has a hard time getting her to wear a patch on her good eye,” said the surgeon. In the exam room, I told him how upset, no, completely freaked out I was at the idea that after the surgeries our Lyra could still be blind. “Things are ironically easier for your daughter because she had bi-lateral cataracts. She doesn’t have a dominant eye.” As for the difficulty that mom had changing her daughter’s contact lenses, the surgeon told me that because of Lyra’s Ds her eyelids were very different, making it harder to insert and remove the contact lenses. Therefore, he told me, they will be conducting the cleanings in his office for the foreseeable future.

Okay, that was a relief to hear. But then we went through what was to become a nightmarish monthly ritual:

1)    A nurse’s aide comes into the exam room and has me lie Lyra down on my lap with her bottom against my tummy and her head near my knees. After thoroughly washing her hands, she tries to hold Lyra’s eye open with one hand so that she can place a small suction cup (designed to adhere to contact lenses) on Lyra’s contact. As soon as the aide tries this, Lyra clamps her eyes shut and screams like she’s been cut with a scalpel.

A baby's eyes opened with optical specula. This is not Lyra, but it is how she looks when they are used to remove and insert her lenses.
A baby’s eyes opened with optical specula. This is not Lyra, but it is how she looks as she lies in my lap while I hold her down. It’s no wonder she fights.

2)    The aide leaves the room and comes back with a nurse. The nurse pulls an optical speculum out of a drawer and, after two or three attempts, manages to get it properly in Lyra’s eye. This is never a pretty site. With her eyelids forced open, the aide again tries to suction out the contact. It still doesn’t work, so she instead tries to use a long cotton swab to push the lens off of the center of Lyra’s eye. Once, this made the eye bleed. All the while, Lyra is screaming and sweating as I continue to hold her arms to her sides and the nurse firmly holds her head.

3)    After several attempts, the aide again leaves and brings back the surgical fellow, a woman from India, who attended both of Lyra’s surgeries. Using a different speculum, the surgical fellow quickly removes both contacts. As soon as the second lens is out, I pull Lyra up and hold her on my chest to calm her down.

4)    Putting the cleaned contacts back in is almost as difficult as getting them out and only achieved, again, by the surgical fellow.

“I won’t do it next time,” I told Max after the second time I had to be the thug who held Lyra down while they tortured her in the exact same fashion two months in a row. “Her appointment to clean her contacts next month is at 8 a.m. You can take her before you go to work.” When he took her at the end of January, I told Max before he left, “Insist they bring the surgical fellow in first, not last.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” said Max when he called me after the appointment. “The surgical fellow was in surgery, so they sent in the nurse’s aide and she got the first lens out on the second try.” Unbelievable. I certainly want this to be as easy and painless as possible for Lyra, but it seemed unfair that it had been such an ordeal when I had taken her. Perhaps the team had gotten their technique down. Perhaps Lyra has become better accustomed to having her eyes messed with. But I’m afraid she did worse with me because she felt my emotional distress at holding her down against her very strong will.

“Also,” said Max after returning from Lyra’s breezy appointment, “the doctor upped the strength of her lenses and we both agreed that her left eye was crossing in and so we have to start patching her right eye for one hour every day. Oh, and she doesn’t have to get her contacts changed for two months now.”

Lyra looking unusually happy during morning eye patch hour.
Lyra looking unusually happy during a morning eye patch hour.

I don’t know if it is the increased strength of her new lenses or the fact that we are now several months past her surgeries and her brain has had time to catch up to the visual input, but the way Lyra sees has changed recently. Maybe it’s the new lenses working together with the more developed brain. Whatever the underlying causes, it is as though Lyra has awakened. She quickly turns towards the direction of sudden sounds. She recognizes people and rewards them with full-faced smiles.

We find we do best  when we treat patching Lyra’s eye the same way we do exercise: Do it first thing in the morning or it probably won’t happen. And because of the little girl I met in the waiting room at the surgeon’s office, you can be sure we do. Lyra fusses most of the time while the patch is on and after about half an hour, she often shuts her left eye. She isn’t sleeping, but seems to be telling us, “If you don’t take this damn patch off of my good eye, I’m outta here.”

Keeping Her Eyes Clear

Pink eye is extremely contagious. And even though antibiotics might have rendered him non-contagious, the fact that Leif cannot keep his hands off of Lyra makes me anxious. Five days after Leif began taking Augmentin, I took Lyra to her surgeon’s office to make sure she didn’t have conjunctivitis. I had lost all objectivity and her eyes looked symptomatic to me. We saw a different surgeon in the practice and he told me Lyra’s eyes were clear, but gave me his cell phone number with instructions to call if anything changed.

That same afternoon, my eye doctor told me I had a mild case of bacterial conjunctivitis. Mild enough that he would not have prescribed antibiotics except that I live with Lyra. The next morning, the same doctor told Max that he had a pretty bad case of it. That’s three out of six of us currently living in the house. My hands snag our clothes when I fold laundry because they are so dry from how much I wash them these days.

I love winter. I love the snow and the deep freshness of cold air. I love being cozy in a warm house with a fire in the fireplace or pies baking in the oven. But I want this winter to end. I cannot remember a cold and flu season that has come close to affecting us as much as this one has, where all of us have been sick more than once. Leif is still not 100% himself and it’s been two weeks since he first came down with a fever.

The next day the mercury is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you can be sure the windows of our house will be wide open. Meanwhile, we wash everything we can and often. Linens, hands, surfaces, faces. Knock on wood, so far it’s working and Lyra remains clear eyed.

 

This Is Whoopsie Piggle

“You know it feels like I’ve been in Florida for only three days, not a week. But when I think back to when Grandma met me at the airport, that seems like a long time ago,” Jules said to me on the phone.

Jules with Grandma Ann & Grandpa Clark
Jules with Grandma Ann & Grandpa Clark

“Well, you’ve packed in a ton into one week,” I told him and, thanks to the grandparents, he really had. On the Whoopsie Piggle Facebook page, the family photo shows Jules looking at the camera through binoculars. His Grandma Ann gave him those binoculars at Christmas because, like her, Jules is an avid birder. In our yard, Jules maintains multiple feeders, each designed to attract different species of birds. Last fall, Jules helped to pay for the purchase of a serviceberry bush after angling for one all summer. Do you know how many birds are attracted to the serviceberry bush? Was the rhetorical opener we heard repeatedly and just prior to a litany of species. Jules has worked his way through innumerable bird guidebooks, which he reads like gripping novels. He prefers the drawings of Roger Tory Peterson to those of James Audubon and can tell you the migratory, mating and dietary cycles of more species of birds than you might have known existed. And he does. Tell us, that is. Endlessly.

Ah, the great goodness of good grandparents.

At The Villages, where Max’s mother and her husband, Clark, winter each year, a population of “active seniors” eagerly awaited the arrival of this young birder. The residents delighted in showing Jules birds he had never before seen and were impressed by his knowledge, both wide and deep, of the avian class, among other things (last summer, Jules’ other grandfather nicknamed him “Encyclopedia”). After six days in Florida, Jules told me he had seen 83 species of birds, 80% for the first time. He saw them around The Villages, on a day trip to the Gulf Coast and also on a two-day trip to the Atlantic Coast and Merritt Island.

Grandma & Grandpa Christensen with George, ca. 1978. It seems to be the only photo I took of them.
Grandma & Grandpa Christensen with George, ca. 1978. It seems to be the only photo I took of them.

Thinking about it after I hung up the phone, it reminded me of my time with my grandparents who retired to Arizona in 1973. Like Jules, I had been a child from Ohio flown to a state that was exotically different. My grandparents also packed up and traveled the state with me, though they brought along a fifteen-foot Aristocrat trailer. Over the period of three summers, we traveled through Cochise County in the southeastern corner of the state all the way north to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. Like Jules, when visiting my grandparents, the dramatic landscape and its creatures transfixed me. I took many photos of mountains and lizards and saguaro cacti, but woefully few photos of my grandparents. I have none of the three of us together. The next time Jules called, I told him to get photos with his grandparents, even if he had to ask a waiter.

For Jules, a week alone with his grandparents is a week in which he does not have to be one of five children. He is the sole focus of two adults and their community who, by all accounts, are having as much fun with him as he is being there. At home, Jules is a mini-me. After nearly a decade of being the youngest child in the family, he transitioned easily into role of big brother. When I tell people that Jules makes my life easier, it is no exaggeration. All three of the older boys are wonderful with three-year-old Leif and baby Lyra, I could not imagine they’d be any more loving and helpful were they three older daughters. Jules, however, is uniquely able to play like a child with Leif because Jules still is a child. Yet, at twelve, he has a foot in adolescence. Which shows when he helps with Leif and Lyra; regularly doing things like getting them food and drink, changing their diapers, bathing and dressing them, putting them to bed and plucking them from their cribs when they wake up. He does so without prodding, often taking Lyra from my arms whether I need him to or not.

In my girlhood visits to Arizona, I too soaked up the attention of my grandparents and their friends. However, for practical purposes, I was an only child. I did not see my father between the ages of five and fifteen and my only siblings are the two daughters he had in his second marriage. One of the most positive components of my mother’s parenting was her neglect, which, thankfully, was also her default setting. Her attentions were rarely positive and commonly violent, so neglect was preferable. For many years, she left for work as a bar maid within an hour after I came home from school. My stepfather, who sold farm machinery in multi-state territories, was rarely home on weekdays. Most afternoons, I ate my dinner and did my homework in front of the kitchen TV, washed the dishes, watched more TV, took a bath and read in bed until I fell asleep.

In Arizona, my grandparents planned their days around me. Oh, sure, we still went to their events, such as botanical society meetings or church outings, but even when there wasn’t much for me to do but sit and wait, I didn’t mind because I felt included, just as Jules did in Florida. This hit home when Jules told me Grandma and Grandpa taught me a new card game, I don’t know what it’s called, but we’ve been playing at night. I remember sitting at a card table my grandparents’ living room playing a game that required four decks of cards. Their wirehaired terrier, George, would hang out under the table, ready for someone’s hand to drop and scratch his ears. Night after night, once the dinner dishes were washed, my grandparents had no other desire than to spend time playing cards with me. These little things, in no small measure, buffered me through the years with my mother.

Who Are These People?

My grandparents in Arizona were my father’s parents. Even though my mother aggressively forbade any communication with my father for over a decade, her parenting default setting made summers with his parents possible. For the price of a plane ticket, she was childfree for three months. And I had three months to sample childhood.

My boys don’t have a relationship with any of their biological grandparents. With my mother, it’s a generational mirror. My adult relationship with her has consisted of long gaps of estrangement punctuated by brief periods of reconciliation in which I would cautiously hope she had changed only to find out all to clearly that she had not. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that there is absolutely no healthy reason for me to ever communicate with my mother again. My boys, who have their own stories to tell from their few interactions with her, have no desire to see her either. This week on Slate, I read an article validating our choices

The boys never hear from their father’s father, a widower who lives in Mexico.

None of the grandparents in our family are blood relatives except for Max’s mom. And she is not related to the three older boys. At Thanksgiving, I posted about spending yet another warm holiday with the boys’ grandparents, i.e., my stepmother and her husband, who is not my father. After divorcing my father, Liane married Bob a couple of months after Claude was born. Together, they have been the primary grandparents of my boys’ lives and now are significant to Leif and Lyra, too.

I wasn’t thinking of what kind of father Max would be when I fell in love with him. But knowing him as I did, for we had been friends for years before we became a couple, I would not have been surprised to learn that he would be devoted to his children. That he is equally as devoted to my three sons defies typical expectation. In terms of Darwinian fitness, i.e., survival of one’s own packet of genetics as the species continues, a child from another man is competition for the resources of his own children. But Max is not a base animal. He’s not even a base human. He loves and tends to Claude, Hugo and Jules just as he does Leif and Lyra.

As the old Ronco ads used to say, But wait! There’s more! Max also brought my boys a set of grandparents who are so good at it, I suspect they’ve been preparing for it all life long. And not just for the fun stuff. Last summer, when Claude had to go to orientation at the University of Michigan, he took a bus from Charlevoix, Michigan, where he was living with Grandma Liane and Grandpa Bob while working for the city streets department, to Battle Creek, where Ann and Clark live nine months of the year. Max’s mom was out of town, visiting relatives in Colorado. So it was my partner’s mother’s husband, known around here as Grandpa Clark, who spent the evening with Claude and then drove him first thing the next morning to Ann Arbor.

This Is Whoopsie Piggle

We’ve piggled ourselves up a family and it is good. Sure, there are times when I wish Max and I had met and fallen in love in our late 20s, that we had been together through our 30s and not had to wait until our 40s to create this family. But the longer we are together and the more normalized this family becomes, the less I pine for the decade when we weren’t raising these kids together. The way the boys love Max is as open as the way he loves them. Claude calls Max to discuss assignments he’s working on and when he comes home, the two of them go out for dinner together at least once.

“Hey, I hear you’re my mom’s boyfriend,” said 11-year-old Hugo in September of 2008, “Can I have twenty bucks?” Max told him no, but was not offended, and we still laugh about it today. Soon thereafter, Hugo turned to Max for help with his homework, advice on how to handle social issues at school and just to talk. Before Max, I was unaware of the void in the boys’ lives, one I had not been able to fill. Yes, I could show them how to be adults, but they also wanted to be parented by a man.

A few months after we had informed the boys that we were dating, Max joined us at a school event. When we left, Jules decided to ride with Max. As Claude and I watched from my car, Jules first got in the back seat of Max’s car. Then he popped back out. With his arms and legs moving in all directions, Jules looked like a gangly scarecrow as he scrambled into the front seat. “Jules likes Max,” said Claude. “We all do. He’s…well, he’s just so humble.”

There are some who believe that before they are born, children choose their parents. I have a hard time reconciling that idea with the parents I have. I do not believe biology trumps love. Being related is not reason enough to have a relationship with someone who is cruel or neglectful. Whoopsie Piggle is about a group people who actively love each other—all the time, not just when it’s convenient. Or in the booty-shaking words of Sister Sledge, “We are family.”

Claude, Leif, Max, Lyra, Holly, Jules and Hugo. All piggled up for a photo.
Claude, Leif, Max, Lyra, Holly, Jules and Hugo. All piggled up for a photo.

Love Stories, Sexuality and Secrets

“You know what movie we should get for Valentine’s this year?” Hugo recently asked. Many years ago, I began a tradition of buying a movie musical on DVD for the boys, many of them from Hollywood’s Golden Age, each year for Valentine’s Day. While I try to keep a low media household, I have always been a fan of family movie night. I suspect my original reason for buying musicals was to expose the boys to something family friendly other than Disney and, perhaps more importantly, enjoyable to me. I used the excuse that most musicals are love stories and, therefore, apropos for Valentine’s.

IMG_1363The first Valentine’s musical I gave them was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which to this is day one of our all time favorite movies. There are love scenes and fight scenes and plenty of lush singing by Howard Keel and the cast. Back then, films were cast with Hollywood unknowns, pulled from the theaters of New York, and the professional dancers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are delightfully athletic and graceful. (I wish Hollywood musicals today would do the same, particularly with professional singers, something I believe would have greatly improved last year’s Les Miserables).

Romantic Comedy Not Just for Chicks

This past weekend, Parade Magazine published a piece by syndicated columnist Connie Schultz on what women want for Valentine’s. Schultz describes a friend who wants to watch a chick flick with her husband so long as she can duct tape shut his mouth to prevent his running (and presumably condescending) commentary. TIMG_1365hat just won’t be a problem my boys’ partners will ever have. For example, when Claude was eleven and Hugo eight, they insisted upon watching, in one sitting, both disks of the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice. Originally broadcast as a TV mini-series, the movie is over five hours long. And they didn’t just watch it with me—they devoured it. That same year, all three of my older boys watched the French film, Amelie, so many times I found them viewing it without the subtitles (if you take nothing else from this post, watch Amelie and you too will fall in love). I wonder if I can take credit for cultivating their love of romantic comedies or if they were born predisposed to love them?

On a winter’s day when school had been cancelled because of snow, I piled onto the couch with then fourteen-year-old Claude, eleven-year-old Hugo and seven-year-old Jules to watch When Harry Met Sally for the first time. The younger two would hop off of the couch and cover their ears and eyes when the scenes became mushy. We now watch that film every 6-12 months. Having seen it so often, I focus on the late Nora Ephron’s writing, which made art out of the Unknowninner lives of women. (Sure Woody Allen does the same for men, but he’s a guy and the both the outer and inner lives of men have long been considered art while the lives of women have been typically viewed as, well, mundane.) Also, I now find Meg Ryan’s acting amateurish compared to Billy Crystal’s. I cringe at the scene in which she is sobbing because her ex-boyfriend is getting married. I just don’t feel her pain or believe her tears. Yet that scrappy Billy Crystal, with a chest like a 12-year-old boy, is convincing, time and again, as the leading man. Every time we watch it, we root for that guy to get the girl.

Are They Gay?           

First of all, I have succeeded (as opposed to erred) on the side of being wide open. The boys might tell you too wide open. I’m like the dad Liam Neeson plays in another DVD we own, Love Actually. When his young son tells him he’s in love, Neeson’s character responds, “Well, who is the lucky girl…or boy?”

“I swear you want me to be gay!” Hugo regularly jokes with me when I’ve made another either/or comment.

“No, my dear, I don’t want you to be gay any more than I want you to be straight. I just want you to be happy in your own skin,” I tell him.

What I think is going on is that, in certain circles, it is easier today for men to enjoy any number of things that in the past would have been considered exclusively female. Typically, it is easier for a subordinate population to adopt characteristics of a dominant population but not the other way around. For example, in western culture women wearing pants (i.e., the clothes of men) became normalized in the mid-twentieth century, but men wearing dresses did not. Today, and again in certain circles, men can openly express interest in everything from fashion and art to personal care (read: fancy treatment of hair and skin) without worrying what others will think. I believe this is  because fewer people today, especially younger people, consider sexual orientation as something to judge any more than the color of one’s eyes or hair. We all benefit from this long overdue advance in attitudes and civil rights.

Years ago, when Claude was perhaps in kindergarten, I read The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein. She describes how boys in our culture have long been expected to deny their softer emotions only to wind up as adults who struggle in relationships precisely because they are emotionally disconnected. Rather than worrying about feminizing my sons, I have shared with them things I enjoy and also followed them when their passions developed in areas new to me, such as sports. I find sports dull and never understood the freakishly intense emotion it brings out in some fans. Who are those people? I used to think. Then I attended Claude’s first basketball game and discovered one of those freakishly intense people lives inside of me. Every time he played, I cheered for Claude and his teammates (and even the kids on the opposing teams) until I was hoarse.

First, Framework and Tools. Then, Step Aside.

Max remarks on the openness with which my boys discuss things with me that he would never have shared with his mother or his father. Yes, things like their bodies and sex. But also money and bills. Politics and religion. In my mother’s house, money was only discussed as something she never had enough of and I was forbidden from looking at the bills. Politics and religion were also expressed as an exclusive and obvious choice—those who didn’t believe what my mother believed were described as fools.

I have chosen to go the other direction. I talk with my children as people and, when appropriate, am transparent with them regarding adult matters. When they were each about thirteen, I sat down with Claude and later Hugo and showed them my bank accounts, pointing out the few deposits and the many expenses. We are a team with finances, working together to achieve both our mutual and individual goals. I’m confident all of them will successfully manage their own fiscal lives.

The boys know my politics. I have taken them to Democratic events all their lives, from hearing presidents speak to canvassing neighborhoods. When Bill Clinton was running for re-election, I was eight and half months pregnant with Hugo and carried two-year-old Claude on my shoulders at a rally on OSU’s campus. The staff moved us to the front of the crowd. I suspect we made for good optics. All my children have worked on elections and gone to the voting booth with me. On Claude’s eighteenth birthday, before I took him to lunch, we went to the Summit County Board of Elections so he could register to vote. I hope they remain Democrats; I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But more importantly, I want them to consciously consider the role of government in their lives and be active in the democratic process. Yes, even if they vote differently than I.

As for religion, recently Claude and Hugo both have expressed that they see the Buddhism they’ve been raised with more as an ideology than a religion. I do not disagree. The form of Buddhism we practice mirrors key aspects of twentieth century western philosophy, particularly that of existentialism. That said, can meditation be a pathway for a more open mind and heart? Yes, of course it can. Are Buddhist teachings religious? Yes, of course they are. Does it matter if my boys and I don’t believe everything we learn through our studies in Buddhism? No, for I hold suspect the unquestioning believer of any religion. I have given my children an awareness of their spiritual lives. What each of them, or anyone, believes is each soul’s purview and never mine to dictate.

Secrets and Lesser Parenting

When I have the time to reflect, I see the long view as a mother, including the diminishment of my importance in the lives of my boys, as they become men. But in heated moments, I’m not so mature.

One evening in late December, Max and I sat at the kitchen table talking with the boys as they cleared the dishes after dinner. Lyra was in my lap when Claude stopped and, standing next to me, began texting on his cell phone. Suddenly, he was off in another conversation, separate from the one occurring in the physical space his body occupied. For several minutes he giggled, typed, paused while reading, giggled and typed again.

“Who are you texting?” I asked him.

“A friend,” he answered without looking up from his phone.

“Well, yeah, but who is it?”

“Just a friend,” he said more emphatically, his eyes still locked onto the small screen of the iPhone I had given him at Thanksgiving.

Okay, I don’t know how other parents feel, but when my kids don’t answer me directly, I become something like a hardened detective. If I can’t get a straight answer, it must be because the child believes I won’t like the answer. But in this case it didn’t make sense because there isn’t anyone Claude shouldn’t text.

“What is your friend’s name?” I asked Claude more pointedly.

“You know,” he said with surprising intensity, “I’m an adult and I don’t have to tell you who I am texting if I don’t want to!”

At another time I might have been able to calmly say, “Well, let’s talk about that.” But at that particular moment, it stung. Perhaps it stung because I had just spent all my savings paying for Claude’s first semester of college when his fees included an Apple laptop and expensive software. Perhaps it stung because just a couple weeks earlier Claude had called me repeatedly and with no small amount of confusion as he tried to figure out how to proceed with a young woman who had been giving him mixed messages and now I was being yelled at for a pretty unintrusive question. But mostly I believe it stung because I felt displaced. I felt the first twinges of no longer being the most important woman in my child’s life. Even though I know this is a inevitable and good thing; they all need to launch out into their own lives.

“If you are such an adult then why is it you are on my phone plan and not one of your own?” I asked and behaving badly, as many a scorned woman will do, I followed with a string of similar questions. I even felt like returning his Christmas presents, though fortunately I had the sense not to say so. Taking the baby with me, I went upstairs and sulked on my bed as I nursed her to sleep.

Later, after talking with Max, Claude came up and stretched out on the foot of the parental bed, which feels like the boat for family emotions. It is on that bed that our teenagers often lie with us and tell us their dreams and their fears. They have asked us what to do and sometimes even what to think. That night, Claude told me he needed to figure his love life out on his own. I agreed. That is, afterall, the goal of all my parenting: for them to become successfully independent adults, with fully formed minds, spirits and bodies. That doesn’t mean letting them go is easy.

Who knows if what I have done has been good or a bunch of hogwash? And how much influence do parents have really? How much should they be allowed? I think of poet Philip Larkin’s dismal take on parenting (Larkin – This Be The Verse) and hope I have done my children no harm. Having a second set of younger siblings has made the boys nostalgic for their own childhoods even before they’ve fully left them. So either I’ve done okay, or we have a strong case of the Stockholm syndrome developing here at Whoopsie Piggle.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that’s what you should get us for Valentine’s Day,” said Hugo. “I loved that movie so much when I was little and I know Leif will too.” 

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POSTSCRIPT:

The afternoon I posted this piece, Hugo read it when he came home from school because I’d told him he had been quoted. Sitting in front of a laptop he said outloud to his brother who was a whole state away, “Oh, my God, Claude, I can’t believe you said that, what were you thinking?” referring to Claude telling me that as an adult he did not have to reveal who it was he was texting. Then looking at me across the room after reading further Hugo said, “Yeah, no, Mama, there is no other time Claude could have said that and you’d have been cool.”

“Well, sure, maybe in the morning when I’m not so tired,” I said.

“You mean, Ms-Don’t-Talk-to-Me-Until-I’ve-Had-My-First-Cup-of-Coffee? No, I don’t think so,” Hugo said as he laughed.

Nobody knows anyone so well as children know their parents.