"Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch." -W.C. Fields
(Totally inappropriate I know, but it made me laugh so there).
My oldest started kindergarten last week and all went well, with the exception of what will heretofore be known as The Lunch Incident. Little Miss was sent to school on her second day with macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, iced tea and a bag of cookies. For some reason she had been fighting me about the mac and cheese, even though it is the kind she likes. But I have a mealtime rule (a combination of "you get what you get" and "this is a house, not a diner") so she was sent with it and that was that.
When I picked her up from the bus she said she had a great day and we walked home as she talked about art class. We got home, she went to play with her sister and I unpacked her backpack to clean her lunch box. When I opened it, it was untouched. Even the cookies. I called her into the kitchen and she stood there, grinning, while she declared that she had pancakes for lunch mommy!
I almost stroked out with rage. There's no money in her lunch account. She had clearly been sent with lunch. I have no idea how she paid for and actually obtained the school's hot lunch. I still can't believe she was wily enough to get what she wanted (but given that she is MY child, I should have known better). And now I have a raging insecurity complex about what food I'm sending with her. I'm not a great or original cook to begin with (see my Sense Memory post on the subject) and I was terrible at providing lunches at her previous daycare. I sent peanut butter and jelly without thinking about it (thank goodness no one in her class was allergic). I would pack those Gerber raviolis that were frankly pretty gross. I just had zero time and very little capability for that task. When both of my daughters started at a school that provided hot lunch and all snacks, drinks, etc it was a delightful moment of zen. Now I'm back to square one.
I solicited feedback from wiser parents than I on Facebook about packing easy, tasty lunches (healthy is a bonus). Things I learned:
Sandwiches are so 2007: I attribute this to the demise of PB&J as a viable school lunch. I also know that my own children don't care much for lunch meat, and I suspect other kids of the same feeling.
Variety is Key: bento-style lunches afford easy ways to portion food, and provide kids with a bit of choice. So rather than hearing "but I don't liiiiiiikkkkkeee it!" You're pretty much guaranteed that they'll eat at least one thing.
Make the Kids Do It: I like this most of all. My friend Kellianne (and others seconded) creating a snack box in the fridge filled with items like yogurt, carrot sticks, apple slices and seasonal fruits. There might be a "main course" of pasta, say, but let your kids pick and pack their two dishes and juice box or milk. Then they can't complain, they did it themselves. Use the School Lunch: you don't have to do it every day, but maybe once a week the chicken nuggets and French fries make sense as a treat and/or to save your sanity. My daughter would eat nuggets and fries every day if I let her, so I plan to use this sparingly but gratefully!
Use Leftovers: I am terrible at this. I can't tell you how many times I put away leftovers with the best of intentions and throw them out after they've festered for a week. But there's no reason spaghetti and meatballs or chicken with rice can't be lunch the next day. Which brings me to perhaps the most helpful tip of all:
Plan. Plan. Plan.: also not my strong suit. But if you can create a schedule or calendar of lunch/dinner it will maximize your grocery shopping, money and brainpower. Here is a little tool to help with putting together lunches. Choose 1 from column A, 2 from column B and a drink from Column C. Fill in with your own favorites:
Cheese, turkey and triscuits
Spaghetti with meatballs
Chicken noodle soup Macaroni and cheese Veggie pasta Hummus and chips Group B: Yogurt stick Carrots Apple slices Clementines Apple sauce pouch Cheese stick Veggie sticks Group C: Milk Juice
Here are a couple of great websites with ideas:
30 Days of Lunchbox Recipes (no repeats!): http://www.peanutblossom.com/blog/2013/08/lunchbox-recipes.html/ Laptop Lunches- Lunch gear, recipes and more: http://www.laptoplunches.com/ Easy Lunch Box Lunches- (Pinterest at your own risk!): http://pinterest.com/easylunchboxes/easy-lunch-box-lunches/
What's your strategy for tackling school lunch? Do you have any great recipes for items that can be pre-made and then packed as needed or frozen for later use? Any tips on what to avoid? I'd also love to hear what lunch boxes, thermos containers, etc you like and why! Please comment below and I will try to compile recommendations and suggestions in an accessible format.
I made a crack on Facebook today about the accidental nature of my current pregnancy. Someone commented in response “Wow. I hope your daughter never sees this”, but eventually deleted the comment. Hence the following.
Dear Baby Girl #3,
You may have heard recently that you were an accident. The word has a negative connotation to it, as it is usually preceded by qualifiers like “car”, “deadly” and “industrial”. But all it really means is an unforeseen event or circumstance. You know what else are accidents? Play-doh. Superglue. Velcro. And Post-It notes. Do you know how much the world loves Post-it notes? Before those we used to have to cut little pieces of paper and were then expected to use an entirely separate piece of tape to secure it to another surface! And people were happy with how that worked until a guy put the tape on an existing piece of paper and created a revolution. Billions of Post-its in different colors and shapes and sizes later, the world has never looked back.
You are just like that. You, my dear, are the Post-it note we didn’t even know we needed.
I wasn’t a very happy person in the months before we found out about you. I had a job I didn’t really like, I was away from your daddy and your sisters for long stretches of time, and I was just sad a lot. But daddy and I had a great vacation that made me feel much better. And after we got home I found out that you were on the way. We were really, really surprised. Like more surprised than you will be on your sixteenth birthday when you realize you aren’t getting a car.
We made plans for your big sisters- you don’t need to know the details but we were hoping for them and doing all the stuff parents are supposed to do when they want a baby (it involves wine. Lots of wine). But you, you just happened. And I was a little worried at first because I wasn’t entirely sure I could handle another baby at that moment, but I was excited too. I had left the job I didn’t like and was trying to figure out what to do next. Being pregnant with you gave me something of an excuse for a break, a breather that I needed badly and didn’t know it. You are due to arrive in 24 days as I am writing this, and I can’t explain what the last few months have been like for me. I am a different person. I am happier and healthier than I can ever recall being. I’ve gotten to hang out with your sisters, who I can officially say are awesome and extremely excited about you. Your dad likes me more. I like him more. Even the cat seems less mad at me lately.
So yes, you were an accident. A super-happy accident that I would do over again in a heartbeat. And if anyone ever gives you any grief about it, you have authorization from me to say the following:
“I am the Post-it note of accidents. Now go fuck yourself you ordinary piece of paper with no tape.”
I Love You,
Memorial Day weekend is upon us and with it the unofficial start of summer. School will be out soon, vacations are planned, sunscreen and bug spray have been stockpiled and we are awaiting the infestation of millions of cicadas. The excitement is almost palpable, etched on little faces like its Christmas Eve.
And I hate all of it. Well, not the school part.
I am a pasty-white girl with frizzy hair and the sweetest blood this side of the Mississippi. I spend summer slathering and re-slathering my skin in SPF 75 and I will still freckle. My hair will look like I stuck my finger in a socket for the next 12 weeks. Mosquitoes will flock to me like I’m a walking dessert buffet. I will spend the summer smelling of zinc oxide and DEET.
I hate sand in my shoes. I loathe getting saltwater up my nose. Chlorine turns my expensively-colored hair all sorts of hues. Shaving my legs is a chore and bikini waxes are the ultimate revenge for Eve biting that goddamn apple.
My genetic make-up was refined over a millennia in the cloudy climes of Ireland, a place where they built a temple so the sun’s rays could take the souls of the dead at the winter solstice. I therefore sweat constantly and profusely in a vain attempt to keep cool. My skin can turn pink after 15 minutes of sun exposure. My husband’s family lives near the ocean in Orange County, CA and on the occasions he brings up moving closer to them I remind him we’d have to invent a giant sunscreen bubble I could live in just to survive.
Compounding all of this is the addition of children to the equation. More sunscreen. More bug spray. Shoes and clothes and hair filled with sand. Stinky, sweaty feet. Complaints about bug bites and it being sooooo hooooottt mom….
It’s not all bad I guess. I do love thunderstorms and boardwalks at night. Barbecues and baseball games with hot dogs and a freezing cold beer are some of life’s small treasures. Well, until I try to peel myself off of the stadium seat I’ve become glued to. I like drippy cherry Popsicles and frozen lemonade and county fair funnel cake too. A cool summer evening with the breeze coming up off the ocean and a chilled glass of wine is a delight. But still.
Our air conditioning crapped out last week and we thought we might need to replace the unit, a prospect we can’t afford at the moment. The thought of spending the summer pregnant and then with a newborn in a house without AC was terrifying. Thankfully it only took a few pounds of freon and a simple repair to fix, and so I can spend the next few months holed up in comfort, Miss Havisham-style.
I look forward to autumn, my favorite season, where cool breezes replace hot winds and humidity gives way to crispness. I love warm sweaters and fuzzy slippers, tall boots and patterned tights. The smell of fireplaces in our neighborhood burning away while I sip hot cocoa and wrap myself in my favorite blanket. We’ll carve pumpkins and make pies; pick apples and start a leaf collection. Stews and hearty meals will simmer in the crockpot while the girls play outside in a bug-free yard. I get to buy brand-new school supplies for my little kindergartener and walk her to the bus stop in galoshes and light jackets.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Now to just get through the next three months…
So remember that grand plan I announced here two months ago about moving to Charlottesville?
Yeah, that’s not happening.
House was on the market for six weeks. In the grand scheme of things that is not a long time, but the housing market in the DC area is incredibly tight and we figured we’d have a contract in a couple of weeks. In fact we thought the house would sell too fast and we’d have to rent back for a little while until we found a place to move into. But the weeks dragged on, the strangers traipsed through our house, and none made an offer.
It is now early May. If we got a great contract tomorrow we wouldn’t close until the end of the month at the earliest, realistically mid-June. That could work, but we are rapidly coming up to the arrival of baby #3 at the end of July. The longer the house sat, the more I saw myself 9.5 months pregnant, trying to pack up our house, only to unpack days later a couple hundred miles away. And register for school. And find someone to deliver the baby. And get a pediatrician.
We lowered the price, twice, to the lowest we could accept and break even. We dangled an incentive for buyers who didn’t like our small, dated kitchen- we’d contribute some money at closing towards a renovation. We had 3 open houses and more than 40 buyers come through. Many of them liked the house, with the exception of the aforementioned kitchen and its proximity to a major road. Those are two things we can’t do anything about. Our house is gray; with pinky-raspberry colored shutters that the previous owners had thought was red but didn’t quite turn out that way. I enjoyed them- they made the place look cheery. Our realtor (and our house-painter neighbor) thought it might help if we painted them black, so we did. It didn’t.
I also can’t articulate what a pain it has been to keep the house clean when you have two kids, and the inconvenience of being kicked out of your house unexpectedly between 5-7 on a weeknight. It was starting to wear and we felt like we had used all the tools we had at our disposal. In the meantime life moved on around us- kindergarten orientation was around the corner, Bridget was given a spot at a part-time preschool, and the universe just seemed to be sending the signal that we weren’t going anywhere.
We don’t have to move, so we’ll stay. We’ll re-evaluate things next year. For now I don’t know if it’s my nesting instinct kicking in or what, but I’m taking comfort in familiarity – the same doctor and hospital that I had with Bridget, supportive neighbors and friends, Maeve going to school with the boy next door. We’re kind of relieved actually- we may not have gotten what we wanted, but maybe we got what we needed.
Except for my pink shutters. Those I want back.
Not long ago, I would make the 35 mile drive from my office to my daughters’ childcare with one small hope in my mind.
The drive could take anywhere from 40 minutes to over an hour, depending on traffic. The center closed at 6pm. If I left the office by 4:30 I was assured to get there on time, but one meeting running long or an impromptu conversation by the elevator would throw the whole plan out of whack.
I would spend the drive with thoughts reeling. What I had and hadn’t accomplished during the day. What work I would need to do tonight to make sure tomorrow was as productive as a day jam-packed with meetings could be. And dinner- was it best to stop somewhere on the way home and risk being late or could I throw something reasonable together when we got home?
Tuition was due today. Don’t have my checkbook. Husband can bring it tomorrow when he drops the girls off. Phone rings-hi honey. He’s stuck on the same highway I am, coming from the opposite direction. He’ll be late, no way he can pick up the kids if I’m late. No time to pick up dinner then, it’ll have to be something I can make or the pizza man again. I think the delivery guys at our local pizza place fight to come to our house because the girls are so excited when we order from there- always greeted with “pizza’s here! Pizza’s here mommy!”. If only the nights I make broccoli and whole wheat pasta were met with such enthusiasm.
If I get them by six, we are home by 6:15. Dinner by 6:45. Bath night. Maybe an episode of Curious George if we have time before bed. Bed time is 8 but it is always a rush and there is rarely time to calm down, read a book to them, decompress. 9 times out of 10 my husband or I (or both) fall asleep during the 20 minutes of reliable babysitting provided by that cartoon monkey.
Bedtime. No matter what it ends up being a mess. The girls share a room and keep each other up, often for an hour. Separating them occasionally helps but they also cry about missing each other. We have to yell, bribe, fight with them at least 3 times before they get quiet.
Clean up after dinner. Do laundry. Constantly doing laundry. A friend remarked the other day that her daughter said “daddy likes to do woodwork, I like to finger paint, and mommy likes to do laundry!”, which made her realize that it is the main activity her child sees her doing, so of course she thinks mom likes it! Open up laptop, check emails sent since I left the office, try to clean out inbox. I like an inbox at zero. It makes me happy. I have a little folder on my desktop called “Empty Inbox” that contains screenshots of the times my inbox has been at zero. I haven’t added a new one in a while.
Remind husband about check for tomorrow. Pay other bills. Review calendar for tomorrow. Prepare docs or other items for meetings. Work on reports and a couple other long-term projects. How can it only be Wednesday? And it’s 11pm. I’ve put in an hour or two of work at home, as has my husband, who sits at the other end of our L-shaped couch fixated on his laptop while some show on the TV provides background noise.
But that’s all later. Right now I’m coming up on the exit with time to spare. It’s 5:45 when I pull into the childcare center parking lot. I choose a spot slightly back from the door, which some would find weird since there is one open right up front. I swing the car in. I turn the key in the ignition and the engine stops. The radio goes silent.
I move forward, putting my forehead on the soothingly cold faux wood of the steering wheel and sit in the silence. No one, at this precise moment, needs me. Work is miles away, children are cosseted for the next ten minutes, my phone is silent. I breathe deeply, trying to clear my head, gain some mental energy for the few hours of my day that still lie ahead. Some people smoke, others have mid-afternoon coffee runs, still others yoga. I, if I am lucky, have this.
Other parents move past me and at first I’m sure they think I’m nuts. But then I realize they are in the same boat I’m in, they totally get it. I wonder if they feel like they are rowing out of sync, moving in circles instead of fluid lines. Even backward would be better than the inertia of going round and round, day after day. Progress often goes forward and then back before lurching ahead again. It does not stay in the same place for long.
A couple more deep breaths.I rub my temples. I shake out my tired, sore shoulders. Who knew sitting all day could be so hard on one’s back? I sit up, car keys in hand and open the door. Walking to the door of the center I check my watch to see how much time I have left.
My friend Erika forwarded me a link to “The True Cost of Leaning In” on The Daily Beast the other day, and it was very timely for a number of reasons. I had been wandering my pregnant, semi-retired self around the mall earlier in the day to pick up some clothes for me and the girls so we could survive the unexpected mini-heatwave that hit us in lieu of spring. I walked by all the shops I ordinarily would have stopped in to buy spring suits, light sweaters, pastel-colored blouses and accompanying accessories. They no longer applied to me not only because of my burgeoning belly, but because I have opted out.
I left my job in November after just about a year. I was suffering from clinical depression, which was compounded by a hectic travel schedule, stressful home life (late to pick up the kids! Pizza for the third night this week! Who didn’t pay the cable bill?!), and unhappiness with the day to day of the job I had. It was not an easy decision to leave, but at the time it was what I needed to do for myself and my family, we had some savings, and a short break seemed like a reasonable decision.
After a couple of months I began looking for a new job in earnest, but then found out that I was quite unexpectedly pregnant, throwing a monkey wrench into that plan. And the more I thought about it, the happier I became. I don’t want to be a software salesperson for the rest of my life. I don’t. And so I’m embarking on something new (writing) and the funny thing is that despite the loss of my six figure income, we may not be financially devastated and our lives may actually be easier.
I’m going full open-kimono here. There were, and still are, tremendous opportunity costs involved in my working outside the home. I made very good money. My monthly take-home pay came to about $5000 after taxes, retirement savings, etc. But here’s how that ended up being distributed:
Daycare for 2 kids under 5: $2400 per month. By far our largest cost, only slightly behind our mortgage. The Daily Beast article noted the annual cost of $24,000 for one child in daycare in New York City, and DC is no slouch when it comes to the cost either, although for both of our children we were just under $30,000 per year. A third infant child in daycare would cost us another $13,000 per year, although that would be offset by our eldest going to kindergarten this fall. We’d still be over $2600 per month for childcare for three if you add in before and after-school care for her.
Eating out: $300. No time to cook and no time to pack a lunch for when I did go into the office. Dinner could be anything from Wawa sandwiches grabbed on the way home to a proper restaurant dinner costing $50 or more. To me, our most annoying additional cost.
Dry cleaning and Laundry: $200 per month. Full disclosure- I don’t iron. I just don’t. Even if I did, who has the time? I traveled pretty extensively. Come home, dump out suitcase, repack suitcase, leave. Plus I have two kids whose laundry needs to be done too. Standard suits, shirts and sweaters went to dry cleaning and I occasionally sent the remainder of my laundry out for wash and fold service because the choice was between that or buying new clothes to make it through the week.
House Cleaning: $150. See above. If I did happen to be home and have time to clean, I’d rather spend it with my kids than cleaning the house. This is the expense that while it may seem discretionary, was in reality the best money I feel I could have spent.
Gas: $75. I worked primarily from home and/or traveled but my company’s office was 30 miles away and I was expected to be in once a week or more. Also, it required driving the beltway, which is not so much a highway as a parking lot. Which leads us to….
Occasional babysitting if not in time to get kids: $50. It was rare, but it happened. I am lucky to have helpful friends and neighbors but man if that clock is one minute past 6pm when you walk into daycare all hell breaks loose. It was easy to deal with this when it was foreseeable- I was traveling, husband had work dinner meeting- but those times when we were both stuck in notorious DC traffic or a meeting ran long were a nightmare.
Makeup: $20: Didn’t wear it every day, but it’s a cost. And getting an extra set of Clinique skincare products in travel size so you don’t have to check your bag is both a matter of necessity and money.
Hair/Nails: $100: Seems to be an indulgence but I worked in sales and appearance is important. I am also ridiculously gray and have been since I was 17. Cut and color every 6-8 weeks and mani/pedis every couple of weeks.
Net: $1705 or 34% of take-home pay. Basically I was working to take home a paycheck equivalent to one-third of my net salary. And it wasn’t worth it.
Keep in mind that I’ve just catalogued the essential costs of what it takes for me to leave the house in the morning. My husband also works and is paid well, with his salary covering the mortgage, utilities, car payment and we have health insurance through his job. He additionally does consulting work for a former company. He is a great partner and tremendous contributor to all aspects of the housework and childcare, which is not something all women have.
Despite my unhappiness with where I was in my career, there are many ways in which I enjoyed my work and would love to feel that leaning in is worth it. Contributing to an organization, watching ideas come to life, mentoring and managing younger women were all things I thrived doing. But it all came with costs- financial and otherwise- that have become too much to bear.
I’ve already seen a significant change in myself since I left my job. I have lost 20 pounds. Yes, I am six months pregnant and somehow I weigh 20 pounds less than I did in November (don’t worry, baby and I are just fine). I used to be constantly sick from November through March every year. I’m talking sinus infections that required steroids and multiple rounds of antibiotics. This year, despite the suppressed immune system that comes with being knocked up, I was perfectly healthy other than one very quick cold I had last week. I weaned myself off 3 anti-depressants when I found out about the pregnancy and I have been doing pretty darn well. Those are priceless improvements for my quality of life.
The girls will be out of their current pre-school/daycare by the end of May. My oldest starts kindergarten in the fall, I may find a part-time preschool for my middle one, and the baby is due at the end of July. We’ll spend a summer chilling at the pool, visiting friends and family and enjoying afternoon ice cream. I never thought I’d be a stay at home mom and am honestly more than a little nervous about it. I am not the world’s most patient person and I am crankier than a cat on Sunday when I don’t get enough sleep. But I’m looking forward to walking my daughter to the bus stop in the morning and back home in the afternoon. Baby and I can get a good routine going without the panic of the imminent end of maternity leave. My middle one is absolutely exploding with language and creativity these days and I’d love to do some finger painting and music class with her (if she’ll let me. She has an independent streak, that one).
I fully support Sheryl Sandberg’s efforts to get more women into corporate and government leadership positions, and I’d really like to be one of those success stories. But for me and my family, at this moment in time, it just isn’t the right decision. And so I’m leaning out of the workplace and into my family life, where I’m already CEO and Chairman of the Board.
I am terrible at math. I can do your standard arithmetic, and I can calculate a percentage like nobody’s business (that sweater is 30% off? Sweet!) but once you start talking algebra and calculus and crap, I’m done.
I wasn’t always this way- I started out doing just fine in math, getting As and such through the halcyon days of first and second grade. Then came third grade and Sr. Mary Seton. She was not necessarily a bad teacher, but she was unforgiving and a taskmaster. You would have thought we were a boot camp for the Marine Corps instead of a bunch of 8 year old Catholic kids fresh off our First Communion and therefore still terrified of hell. I was out sick for a couple of days at one point, and I missed the initial explanation of what multiplication was as well as the first five multiplication tables. When I returned she refused to explain what I had missed. I tried my hardest to deconstruct what was going on, but I was eight. And I certainly didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what was going on- I was a ‘smart kid’ and I liked being a ‘smart kid’ and didn’t want to mess up that impression.
Anyways, I moved on and eventually figured out multiplication and its evil twin division, but I was somehow scarred. In college I took a financial accounting course (don’t ask) and I just could not get my mind to wrap around it. Ask me about the corruption of women’s basic rights as the precursor on The Handmaid’s Tale and I could write you a dissertation- ask me about accrual vs. cash accounting and its impact on the balance sheet and I would look at you like you had nine heads. It was so bad that the professor pulled me aside and asked me what happened around third grade. I was stunned and I sputtered out my tale of multiplication woe and he gave a knowing smile- “I’ve taught plenty of students like you who struggle with this material and they’ve all had some kind of run-in with math right around that age. Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” So I’m not alone, and he was tremendously helpful to me in eking out a very painful “C” in that class.
I have always been more attracted to language and words. That’s part of why The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books- the plot revolves about the tension between math and language, and it is ultimately resolved by the beauty of language (King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician being forced to finally agree on one thing- to disagree). I love puns and wordplay and how a book is invariably better than the movie. My brain operates best in the colorful, grey areas of words and meaning, not the boring black and white of math, where 2 plus 2 is always 4. Where’s the fun in that?
That’s the thing about math- I can do it, I’ve just never understood it. It is the difference for me between reading words on a page and truly understanding the story. Why on earth did I need to know what a cosign was? Who uses this in real life? (answer: no one. Ever.). By the time I reached high school I would look my algebra teacher in the eye and say “I am going to law school. I don’t need to know this.” She was kindhearted enough to give me extra credit on a final exam basically for spelling my name right. Also, law school was hell, but that’s a topic for another time.
With the wisdom of hindsight, I can now see what was actually being taught. It was not so much “doing the math”, it was problem-solving and critical thinking skills. What is PEMDAS other than a structure under which to analyze and tackle a problem? It is the math equivalent of diagramming a sentence (and I can diagram the shit out of a sentence. Sentences cross the street when they see me coming). Algebra is simply an attempt to solve a crime with only some of the evidence available. Geometry explains how (most) buildings don’t fall down. I don’t recall math ever being presented in that kind of context, it was just something we were supposed to learn based on its intrinsic value. Why do I have to know this? Because I said so.
I know how we teach math has evolved significantly over the years, but with my oldest daughter starting kindergarten this year I’m nervous about helping her with homework as she progresses and it becomes more difficult. She is very interested in science and engineering- loves astronomy, and learning how things are made- and I think I’m overly sensitive to the “girls aren’t good at math” stereotype because I am a walking example of it. We’re cool with counting and basic math, but when we get to manipulating fractions that’s going to be a rough one for mom. I think contextualizing the why? of math is truly the key to understanding it, and that’s the element that was missing for me in the beginning stages of my math education.
So we’ll see what happens over the next couple of years. Thank goodness for online tutorials for parents like me, and my husband’s mathematical capability.
After all, what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.
Yesterday morning while the girls were milling about and husband was getting ready for work, I was looking at the morning’s news when the CNN headline announcing Margaret Thatcher’s death popped up.
“Oh,” I said absentmindedly to husband, “Margaret Thatcher died today.”
“How old was she?”
“In her eighties. 87 actually.”
End of conversation, for about 30 seconds. Maeve, my five and a half year old daughter, suddenly asked how old I am. I swear that she hadn’t even been in the room a nanosecond ago. 36, I replied. Now if you don’t know a five year old, they have a pretty decent, but imperfect, grasp of numbers. To her, 36 and 87 end one number apart and are therefore close. So a person close in age to her mother died.
I could see the little wheels starting to turn in her head and she started to sob a bit, not really saying anything but I knew where this was coming from and where it was going. I scooped her up onto my lap and kept repeating the numbers, I’m 36 and she was 87, that’s a big difference okay? Mommy’s not going anywhere, everything is okay.
She seemed to calm down, and I didn’t want to keep talking if what I said was enough to comfort her. Soon she and her sister were running around the coffee table like it was a NASCAR track and that was that.
Throughout the day though I thought about how I could have handled it better, explained it more in terms she could understand. In some ways Maeve has been lucky- all of her grandparents and even one great-grandparent are still alive. She has not experienced the death of a family member or a pet. However, a schoolmate of hers died last spring from complications of the flu. He was three years old. So her only reference point of death thus far is of someone her age, another kid. It’s a lot easier (in my very humble opinion) to explain the death of an older person to a child. That makes more sense to all of us, really, as it is the natural course of things. I don’t give myself a lot of credit for being a super-intuitive mom but my spidey-sense was tingling that this conversation and process of understanding wasn’t over for her.
I thought about what I could say and reference points I could use. Thatcher was 50 birthdays older than mommy and daddy. She was older than mommy and daddy’s ages combined. She was older than all of Maeve’s grandparents. I was prepared to write down every number between 36 and 87 with her just so she could visualize and realize the difference.
All was well after I picked Maeve and Bridget up from school. We played in the yard, made and had dinner, even cupcakes for a treat before bath time. Then, out of nowhere (I had just put her pajama shirt on and was holding the pants so she could step into them), she burst into tears and wailed “I don’t want you to die!”. Ugh.
I scooped her up again and told everything was going to be okay. She asked again how old Marc and are I. And I told her as plainly as I could all the things I thought about earlier- 50 birthdays, older than anyone she knows, etc. She calmed down and I think it helped her understand better. I just told her that no one was dying anytime soon and she and her family were okay.
I have no idea how effective all of this was- I would not be surprised if there’s another outburst tomorrow and I wouldn’t be surprised if I never hear another question about death from her.
Now might be a good time to mention that my husband and I are not religious. We both grew up catholic but for various reasons float somewhere in the atheist/agnostic spectrum. So I wasn’t about to start in on the heaven and going home to god and angels bullshit (and to me, that’s what it is). I wanted to be honest but not scare her, follow her lead but not hide reality behind a fairy tale.
I do wonder if I should have said more about how this is what happens to us- we age, we become frailer, and eventually die. But I think that would have made her think about her own mortality, and that’s the last thing anyone wants. I will never be 100% sure about this conversation, but I feel like we did pretty well. We were honest, we were straightforward, we answered her questions and didn’t frighten her. Most importantly though, I believe we responded in a way that showed her we cared and would deal with tough situations so in the future she’ll know she can talk to us and we will be honest with her. And that may be the most important lesson we could have taught her.
What has been your experience talking with young children about death? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear how other parents handle this, especially from a non-religious perspective.
(Note: I wrote this for my non-fiction writing class a couple of months ago. Mangia!)
My parents are home in northern New Jersey, snowed in by a recent Nor’easter. My father posted the following on Facebook Friday evening:
The Carroll Center For Exceptional Grand Children reports that the storm is really roaring along here in Bloomfield! Below freezing now and headed down!!! Wind picking up!!!! I am under strict house arrest, so no out for dinner!!! But Mary’s home cooked dinner is full of old memories… Spaghetti and fish sticks and it isn’t even Lent yet!!! We are in the 6 to 12 area of the forecast!!! Throw another log on the fire!!!
There’s a lot to parse here- my parents have 8 (soon to be 10) grandchildren and said grandchildren occupy 92% of their time. My father is obsessed with his fireplace. He is also always freezing cold in the way that only those over 70 can be, and therefore the great room containing the fireplace is at a constant 85 degrees, rendering any visitors to pretend they are in Bali for the duration of their stay. And yes, he likes his exclamation points. I only recently got him to stop sending me texts in ALL CAPS so I am letting this one go for the time being.
But the salient point- fish sticks and spaghetti was a standard meal for me growing up- usually on Fridays during Lent but making sneaky appearances throughout the year. I didn’t realize how odd of a combination that was until relaying to my husband my childhood meals. He was not impressed. Well, impressed with the grossness perhaps. Honestly, I rather liked it- heavily breaded and baked fish accompanied by limp pasta, with any of those flavors drowned in overbearing sauce. If you liked Ragu, this dinner wasn’t a problem.
My mom is a first generation American, her parents straight off the boat from Ireland. My father claims that he taught my mother how to cook, her culinary knowledge not extending past the skill of boiling any taste, texture or life out of whatever items were available for a meal. It is important to note that my father is not exactly Julia Child. He once roasted a chicken on our grill without a pan underneath, allowing a grease fire to erupt and our neighbor to pronounce the chicken to be a fine looking London broil.
My father is the second youngest of five boys, sons of an NYPD officer and his homemaker wife. Dinner in his house was survival of the fittest. To this day he does not drink anything with dinner because pausing for a sip of milk meant opening your defenses for fraternal purloining of poultry. Red meat is a big deal to my dad; it was a rare treat as a child due to its cost. He loves filet mignon with a baked potato and some darkly sautéed onions. Once when I ate a deliciously massive veggie salad for dinner I was told that if a meal didn’t contain meat it wasn’t a meal at all- “it’s a saaalaaad”. He has also told many a waitperson to hold the lettuce and tomato for his burger because “if I wanted a salad I would have ordered one”. This same man also once ordered two vanilla Fribbles at Friendlys one evening- one for an appetizer, one as an entrée. He skipped dessert. Yes he has high cholesterol, why do you ask?
I remember Mary’s Hungarian Goulash! 1st time I had it, she made it. Still one of my Favorite dishes. Hope you enjoyed your sketty&sticks …
-From comment on my father’s above status update
Hungarian Goulash is the Benedict Arnold of meals to my sisters and me- notorious and widely reviled. I recall the stringy cubed beef, the brown sauce of unidentifiable origin, and the limp egg noodles creating a starchy nest of comfort that was not deserved by what was heaped atop it. I would desperately poke at the edges of this mass, searching in vain for virgin noodles unsullied by the insidious sauce.
I now understand that in many circles goulash is considered a delightful comfort food, even a delicacy. I see it on menus at very nouveau restaurants and diners. My mother-in-law (an excellent cook) assures me that it is indeed a lovely meal when made well. My sister once asked my mother what was in her goulash. An excerpt of the conversation:
Sister: “What exactly was in that?”
Mom: “Well, a whole bottle of ketchup…”
Sister: “I’m gonna stop you right there.”
I do not mean to pick upon my parents unfairly. My mother makes a delightful baked ziti that the neighborhood kids would devour. Chicken parmigiana was always delicious, and my father’s holiday turkey and potato stuffing are legendary. My sister attempts to re-create my mother’s meatloaf for her husband, only to be told time and time again that she’s close, but no cigar. Yet it is in many ways the foods I disliked that stay with me. I still harbor an aversion to fish, which given that all I had as a kid had been previously frozen into Piscean icebergs is rather understandable. I distrust sauces that don’t come with lengthy descriptions discounting ketchup as a main ingredient. I hate blue cheese, because blue cheese just sucks.
I’ve gotten to be an okay cook in the last few years. I can follow a recipe like nobody’s business, but I hope to someday be like my husband. He’s very good at just opening up the pantry and throwing some stuff together to make a meal. I have to plan, make sure I have all the ingredients, follow each step religiously to ensure an acceptable result. My current specialty is a short rib tagliatelle dish by Giada DeLaurentiis. It is a slow-cooked meal that simmers for hours, filling the house with the smell of rosemary, roasted tomatoes and basil. I usually make it on weekends so I can enjoy the aroma, and a glass of wine as it cooks. I have two little girls and I like to think they are absorbing it all- the flavors, the scent, the taste of the finished product. Perhaps it will be their food memory, helping me measure spices and stir the sauce, then spending the afternoon playing while dinner simmers away.
The girls are remarkably good eaters, but of course they like to whine every so often about what I’ve made. Perhaps I should give them something to complain about and make goulash tomorrow night for dinner. That’lll teach ‘em.