A version of this piece was published in Brain Child last year. Ten To Twenty Parenting has republished it on their blog. Some things change over time…my feelings towards this summer assignment has not.
The plane lifted off the ground and the buildings and cars and trees below quickly became nothing more than small gray smudges against the earth. Clouds soon enveloped the tiny window next to me and unable to see past the foggy haze anymore I sat back, willing myself not to cry.
I had just said goodbye to my daughter who is spending a few months abroad in Europe.
I arrived a week earlier and she met me outside of my hotel where I held her in my arms for an embarrassingly long time, burying my face in her shoulder and drinking in the familiar, delicious scent of her. She proudly showed me around her city: the coffee shops she frequents with friends, the bakery where she gets her morning pastry, the bars with the best sangria.
Despite the relentless rain we had a wonderful week, traveling about, meeting her gracious host family, touring the university, listening to the stories of her adventures in foreign countries, but as happy as I was to see her, somewhere below the surface I kept feeling a slight something; a tremor, a subtle shifting…something had changed and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
So now as I sat there on that plane, the miles between us growing with each passing minute, I thought back to the beginning of this life journey which we had started together so long ago.
I remembered bringing her home for the first time, setting the car seat down in the living room and just sitting and staring at her… I was terrified; filled with fear at the realization that I was now responsible for the very survival of this tiny, helpless creature. Oh, how she needed me and oh, how it frightened me. She needed me to be her sustenance. She needed me to be her voice. She needed me to be her eyes. She needed me in ways I had never been needed before and it was, I thought, too much. But somehow, step-by-step, day-by-day we made it through and slowly, overtime, my confidence grew until I found myself on the other side of the ambivalence, suddenly relishing the fact that she needed me.
She needed me.
How flattering. How empowering. How wonderful.
I was needed.
I thought back to when she needed me to clean off her skinned toddler knees after falling in the park. I thought back to when she needed me to stay by her side as she wobbled down the street on her two-wheeler. I thought back to when she needed me to coax her into the pool, “Come ‘on. Jump! You can do it!”
How she needed me later still to help her navigate the strange changes in her body, the unexpected torment of fluctuating middle school friendships and the confusing new interactions with boys.
Then I thought back to that summer after a particularly bad school year during which a ruthless teenage bully had undone all of my child’s confidence.
I had wiped her tears and told her that this mean girl was no good. That the things she said weren’t true. That it was all just garbage. But no matter how many times I told her that she was beautiful and perfect, I couldn’t fix what was broken. She needed something else.
“It’s called Girls Leadership,” I said, handing her the colorful brochure sporting photos of teenage girls rock climbing and zip lining. “I think it might be good for you.”
She gave it a fleeting glance and handed it back, saying with the sage wisdom of a teenager, “You can call it whatever you want Mom. I know what it is. It’s confidence camp.”
The night before she left we went for a walk on the beach and she cried and begged and pleaded,
“Please don’t make me go.”
How I wanted to say, “You’re right. Forget it. Stay with me. I will make it all better.”
But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because while I wanted to always be the one who could magically kiss away her fears and fix her bad days, ultimately it wasn’t me she needed anymore.
She needed to go. She needed to discover that she would be all right on her own. She needed to climb over those rocks by herself and if she fell, well then she needed to find her own way up.
She needed something more than me.
She needed herself.
So there on that plane, as I thought back through all those years, I finally realized what the unsettled feeling I had been having all week truly was: it was the glorious, beautiful, and bittersweet goodbye of childhood.
She has done it. She is standing on her own now without me by her side. She is scrambling over those rocks on her own. She will stumble, this is certain, but if I am not there to offer a hand, it’s ok. She will get herself back up, she will clean off her own skinned knee and she will whisper to herself, “Come ‘on. Jump! You can do it.”
I am in a really bad mood today. Don’t know why, maybe its the never-ending pile of snow outside my front door. Maybe it’s because the door on my car was frozen shut when I went to drive the kids to school. Maybe it’s because I had zero gas in my car once I finally opened the car door and then had to stand out in the snow and wind and freezing rain to fill my tank. Whatever the reason, I am not in a good mood. So on the advice of my sister I am headed to HomeGoods to buy something with a starfish on it and then I am going to bake a cake. A chocolate cake. In the meantime here is a little story I wrote about a girl who woke up in a bad mood, and the help she gets from her brother to turn it around, because sometimes all it takes is a little, fun, child-like magic…(and sometimes it takes HomeGoods and chocolate cake)
Eliza woke up on the wrong side of the bed,
her hair all askew, her eyes seeing red.
She didn’t know why but she felt angry and mad;
her insides felt twisted, and crinkly and bad!
Her head was all groggy, her lungs full of steam;
she wanted to shout, she wanted to scream!
She put on her shoes and downstairs she clomped,
Each step getting louder: stomp,
“Hello!” Called her brother,“ What’s that? Whose out there?
Is a there a dinosaur in the house? A monster? A bear?”
“No, Harry, it’s me,” Eliza said with a growl.
“I woke up feeling grumpy, my mood is just foul.
I don’t want to laugh or smile or play.
I just feel like yelling, so stay out of my way!
I am furious, irate, annoyed and quite fuming.
I feel like a beast, like something not human!”
“A beast!” Harry said. “Well, I can fix that!
Quick, bring me my wand, my cape and my hat!
I will drive out that fiend! I will shatter that curse!
I will make you a potion before it gets worse.”
“Now, let’s see…
First, I will need the dog’s chew bone, then some old bubble gum,
three hairs from a hairbrush and an earring from Mum.
A sock that is smelly, a Band-Aid that’s new,
a crayon that’s green and dad’s left running shoe.
Some Halloween treats, an old boiled egg,
a button from your sweater, a scab from your leg,
some bologna that’s slimy, an elephant with wings,
three rotten apples and a dolly that sings.”
Eliza reached under sofas and reached under chairs,
she peered into closets, and ran up and down stairs.
She pulled back the curtains and opened the drawers,
she climbed into the bathtub and searched behind doors.
She gathered it all, the old and the new,
the smelly, the gross, the slimy, the chewed.
“Let’s go!” Harry said, throwing open the door.
“Outside! We aren’t done, there is still a lot more!
We must search all around and find all that we need,
like that slippery worm! Quick! Over there, by that weed!
Next a butterfly, then some flowers: both yellow and red,
a grasshopper and a rock from under the shed.
Wild goose feathers, and a jumping bull frog,
a nut and a twig and some moss from that log.”
So, Eliza ran and jumped and climbed into the trees,
she crept through the bushes on her hands and her knees.
She gathered it all up and put it into a pail.
“And lastly,“ said Harry, “one teeny-weeny snail.”
Eliza searched and searched until at last she found one.
“There!” She said, “Is that it? At last, are we done?”
“Almost,” said her brother, slowly stirring his brew.
“But there is just one more small thing I still need you to do.
You must jump! Dance! Leap! And sing out a song!
And when you are done, that beast will be gone.”
Eliza growled and groused, but did as he said,
singing sort-of-a song and barely nodding her head.
She gave one leg a slow shake and the other a jiggle,
she wiggled her backside and then… she started to giggle.
Eliza’s eyes grew round, her mouth opened wide.
“Harry,” she whispered. “I feel different inside.
I am no longer crabby, or mean, or a beast!
I feel silly, elated and not mad in the least!
All gone are my monsters, my meanies, my pout,
I just feel like singing and dancing about!
I feel crazy and happy! I’m Eliza! I’m me!
Oh, thank you! You did it! You set my fun free!”
“You’re welcome,” said Harry, with a wink and a bow.
“My magic always works and I’ll tell you how.
First you conjure up some sillies, then stir in some fun,
give a hip and a hop and… ABRACADABRA! It’s done!
Because no beast can survive, no grumpies will stay,
if you just let a little Harry-magic into your day.”
As the weather improves I have been frequenting the playground with my youngest daughter and every time I am there I see parents chatting away on their phones as their kids play and I think to myself, “I wish there was a No Cellphone sign here.” One of those signs hanging on the fence with a picture of a cell phone on it and a big black X through it. Perhaps just a gentle reminder to all of us to hang up and play, run around, be silly.
It seems to me that cellphones have taken over our lives! We can’t seem to be without one for five minutes and it really is so ridiculous. I know it is hard to believe but I survived a good portion of my life without a cell phone and whats-more my parents never had a cell phone and they not only survived but they managed to raise twelve fairly normal kids! How did they do that?
Believe me, I am not lecturing, I am just as bad as the next person. If I am in my car (or on the playground) and suddenly realize I don’t have my cell phone my heart rate skyrockets. Oh no! What if someone is trying to reach me and I’m not available?! What if there’s an emergency? What if my son stubs his toe at school or my oldest forgot her homework, or my friend calls to tell me about some juicy gossip from the book club that I missed? Breathe, breathe. How far away am I ? Should I go back and get it?
Okay, seriously, how many true emergencies happen to you in one day? Or one week? Unless you’re a brain surgeon or the CEO of Google do you really need to be available at all times to everybody?
I sort of miss the days of going to the playground B.C. (before cell phones) because back then, any news, any “emergency”, any gossip would just need to wait. I simply wasn’t available. I was busy. At the playground. With my kids.
You said, “Let’s go to the playground today.
We’ll spend some time together and have fun while we play.”
“Yippee!” I yelled, “I know just what we’ll do!”
And I ran to get my sweatshirt and find my left shoe.
First, we’ll swing high on the swings and go down the big slide,
then hang down from the bars and play “you search while I hide.”
“Hello? Where are you?” You will say with a smile,
(Knowing exactly where I am, all of the while).
Then we’ll look up at the clouds and see funny things,
like a rabbit with pajamas and a bear that can sing.
We’ll dig holes in the sandbox and pour sand in the trucks,
then walk down to the pond and feed bread to the ducks.
But when we got to the park I knew it wasn’t to be,
because the first thing you did… was sit under the tree.
“Go and play.” You said, “I’ll just make one quick call.
It won’t take but a moment, really, no time at all.”
So, I tried a few cartwheels and a front forward roll
went to the sandbox and dug a huge hole.
I called, “Look at this!” to you as you sat,
but you just turned away, caught up in your chat.
You sat over there yakking away on your phone
leaving me to play, by myself… all-alone.
So, I glanced up to the sky but saw nothing there,
no silly cloud animals, just blank, empty air.
I climbed the tall climber and tried out a new trick,
then I sat on the swing and gave a few little kicks.
And after a while you yelled, “Com’on! Time to go!”
and I walked to the car; my head down, my feet slow.
And as you buckled me in, you said, “Oh, what a great day!
I’m so glad that we came to the playground to play.
Wasn’t it fun, but, boy, it went by real fast,
I wish I could find a way to make these special days last…”
Anne Sawan 2013
It must be the graduations, the birthdays, the moving-ons that are swirling around me lately…for whatever reason, I am feeling nostalgic. I look at my kids and I think, “Stop! This is all going by wwaaayy to fast!” I look at my younger ones and I want to take a picture of every, single, ridiculous little moment so I can remember it all. And I look at the older ones and think, “Where did it go?” And… “Why didn’t I put all the old photos of their ridiculous little moments into nice, neat albums like I always said I would?”
I see them all growing, getting taller, bigger, moving onward. Struggling sometimes with figuring out how to become themselves, and it is hard to watch this bumpy journey. Hard to know that there are some things I could help them with, if only they would let me, and some things I cannot …even if they ask.
One of my children is about to enter into that magical land we call middle school, and one is just leaving (Thank God!). My mother always said that she thought fifth grade, the grade before middle school, was really the last true year of childhood and as usual, she is right. It is the last chance. The last chance we all have just to be kids. Just silly, playful, carefree children before all the social pressures and hormones of adolescence kick in. Before the toys and imaginations are put away to gather dust in the corner as these once happy-go-lucky youth begin to worry about things like fitting in and pimples and wayward hair. Before they all start struggling to cross over that treacherous divide, that bumpy road, that long bridge into adulthood.
I’ve noticed that the girls usually seem quite eager to cross this bridge. They just prance on over, all excited and proud…many sadly making the journey before they are ready, a false sense of maturity driving them onward, but the boys…well I think they tend to stand in the middle, one leg boldly planted on either side jeering at old father (and mother) time, “Oh yeah! I am the king of this bridge and I dare you to try and make me cross over! Come’ on, I dare ya!” (And this type of inflated bravado never really goes away, does it…)
One of my children has a birthday this week. Another year marked on the calendar, another foot towards maturity. I wrote this piece below about him, about saying goodbye to childhood. It’s all-true, and shhhh… if you see him around say Happy Birthday but DON’T tell him you read this! It’s too sloppy and gloppy for a man-boy who is standing with one leg firmly planted on either side of the bridge scoffing at the world, “Come-on I dare ya!”
When He Was Small…
When he was small, he would ask me to sleep with him every night.
“Please sleep with me Mom.”
And most nights I would. I would snuggle in next to him, feeling his small body pressed against mine, an arm thrown across my neck as he burrowed in so close our noses would touch, his breath minty and sweet against my cheek, his hair still damp and fresh from the bath. He would whisper his dreams and silly rhymes in my ear as the room slowly darkened, a gently stillness seeping in, his chest rising and falling in time with the soft whir of the overhead fan and all thoughts of the piles of laundry that needed to be washed, the already late bills to pay, the sticky dinner dishes that should be rinsed floated sleepily, gratefully, away as I lay with my arms around my child, both of us drifting into sweet, sweet slumber.
And some nights I wouldn’t. On those long, hard days when I just needed some space to think, wanting some peace and solitude to collect my thoughts and mull over the day. Those nights when I all I could dream about was a soft chair, a cup of hot tea and a good book, or a piece of the couch, a mindless television show and a glass of wine.
“No, not tonight. I am busy. I don’t have the time. ” I would say impatiently.
On those nights there would be tears and pleading; “Can I just have a glass of water… maybe one more…can you turn on the light in the hall…open the door just a little…now it’s too bright…please can’t you lie down here…just a few minutes”…and then, finally, thankfully, he would fall sleep, alone.
Those days of asking are gone now.
Funny, I remember the last time he asked.
The asking had slowed down, becoming more sporadic over the years as he grew, separating from me, as he needed to, but still, occasionally… after a scary movie, a hard day at school, a lost baseball game, he would ask… and I might.
Then came the dark, dismal, cloudy days of preteen rolled eyes, low mutterings, and out right defiance; days of arguing, yelling and talking back. He came to me after one of those long days; one of those days that left me still seething hours later from his insolence, the bitter taste of disrespect rolling around my mouth, the heavy buzz of his surliness ringing in my ears.
“Can you lie down with me for a few minutes?” He mumbled, his eyes shifting first to the window, then to the ceiling and down to the floor.
“What!” Anger boiled, bubbling and popping inside my chest. I was too annoyed to care that this humble asking was his best apology. To angry to see that this might be the time he needed me the most. I snapped and snarled, “No! I’m busy! I don’t have the time for that! Go to bed!” dismissing him with a dark glare and a wave of my arm.
He shuffled out, shoulders slumped and I sat, by myself, pretending to look at my book.
Minutes went by. The clock on the wall steadily ticking out the beat of time… passing… I heard him turning in his bed, but… he never called out. Never asked for water or a nightlight. Never pleaded for me to open the door just a crack … and the dull space that had started in my head slowly wormed its way down to my heart and landed with a heavy thud in my stomach. The silence of the night surrounded me, and in the quiet, sliding through the anger, I heard a soft whisper.
Not much more time.
I put down my book, shut my eyes and listened to the gentle hum, the quiet warning.
Not much more time.
And alone, in the darkness, I remembered. I remembered the little boy who dragged his yellow dump truck all over the house carefully putting it next to him on his pillow at night as he pulled up the covers. The one that had me read the same dinosaur book over and over until we both could name and identify the eating habits of each creature. The one that held tightly to my hand as we crossed the street, readily sharing his vanilla ice cream and always saving the very tip of the sugar cone for me. The one that showed me the joy of finding worms in the rain and how to collect baseball cards and tried to teach me to like roller coasters. The one that snuggled next to me, his chubby hands on either side of my face as he whispered about what he wanted to be when he grew up; a baseball player, a rock star, a paleontologist, a dad.
Not much more time.
I walked across the hallway, over the dimly lit space that separated us, and stood near him.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Move over.”
I climbed in next to his awkward almost adolescent body, the faint smell of sweat surrounding him but…this time…there was no hand thrown across my neck, no noses pushed together or silly whispers in my ear, instead he moved away, turning to the wall… and we slept in uneasy silence, our backs pressed together.
And that was the last time. The last time he was small ….and the last time he asked….
When I was little I had many, many great teachers (and a few not so great ones). My first grade teacher, Mrs. Caruso was one of the greats. This woman was loving, caring and generous. I could hardly wait to go to school and sit at my desk, pencil in hand, heart pounding, wondering what new thing she would teach us, what new contest she would invent. The reading contest is still one of my favorite memories. For every book we read our parents would fill out a flower petal to add to our paper flower at school. Soon a colorful, construction paper flower garden was springing up all around the classroom. At the end of the year Mrs. Caruso laid out a table full of treasures (little did I know that the treats was actually toys she had purchased with her own money at various garage sales). The person with the most flower petals got to go up to the table and choose their toy first, followed by the second, the third etc. What a great day that was!
Mrs. Caruso would also occasionally call me up to her desk, quietly winking and slipping me a note. Inside the note it would say, “Tell your mom I am going to buy you hot lunch tomorrow.” Now maybe to you this is not a big deal but to me, the fifth child in a family of twelve children, (well at that time there may have been only eight or nine of us) hot lunch was for rich kids. Oh, to be able to buy chicken and French fries, and sit at the hot lunch table! (Yes, back then there was the cold lunch table and the hot lunch table. Classism at its best!) Mrs. Caruso would also occasionally ask me to stay after school, and then give me a ride home, bags of toys and clothes stuffed in the back seat for us. She would invite my family, all of us, over to her house in the summer, where we would drink lemonade, stare at her white sofa and wonder at her koi fish in the back yard. Mrs. Caruso clearly knew that my family was struggling, that there were a lot of kids and maybe not always enough money for the extras that everyone else around us seemed to have. She went out of her way to make me feel special and smart, praising me, telling me what a great reader I was, how creative my stories were. I didn’t always feel smart, certainly not in third grade and not through all of junior high, but in first grade, I was smart, and loved. I loved her.
Years later my mother told me that Mrs. Caruso started off every parent teacher conference with lots of sweetness, something like, “I love so and so. She is a wonderful child! So smart, so clever. She really gives everything her all…etc.” Then after filling you up with honey, she would slip in one or two things your child could work on, “…however her desk is very untidy. She seems a little disorganized. Math is difficult for her.”
Now a parent myself I realize how effective this technique is. I have recently had my own parent-teacher conferences and when the teacher starts off with. “ He is so funny, happy, eager, etc.” I am so much more willing and able to hear the “but” that comes next. Fill me up. Let me know that you like my child, that you appreciate them, then slip in your “however…” We all worry, we all know our children struggle with something, but we all want them to be loved, appreciated, and cared for.
Here is a little piece I wrote the other day as I watched my four-year dance, sing and play. This is her last year before kindergarten…before it all starts. When I was deciding whether to send her onto school this year or not, (she is a late August baby, which would make her a full year younger than many of her classmates) her preschool teacher wisely said, “Why rush? Why not give her another year of childhood?”
I thought, she’s right. Wouldn’t we all love another year of childhood? How great it would be to be four again and not worry about playground politics or math tests. How great to be able to read a book you want to read when you want to read it. To draw a picture and hang it up, proud of your work, not worrying that an art teacher is going to critique it or assign a grade to your masterpiece. To play baseball in the backyard for fun, not worrying about strikes or homeruns. How awesome to not be judged, because the real judging will come soon enough.
Why I wish I could be four again…
You can wear a two-piece on the beach and not worry about your tummy sticking out because the more it sticks out the cuter it is.
You can tell someone you love them, whenever you feel like it.
You can hug anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
You can take long, warm bubble baths on a nightly basis.
You can fill your bed with stuffed animals.
You can laugh, skip and sing all the way down the street and no one thinks you are crazy.
You fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up….
When you fall, someone hugs you and wipes away your tears.
You can wear blue polka pants, a rainbow striped, sparkly shirt and purple cowboy boots and still look cute.
You can look at yourself in the mirror and loudly announce, “I am beautiful.”
You can order a hamburger, french fries and wash it all down wash it down with a coke without worrying about the calories.
You can spend hours playing with your best friend, your shadow.
You can wear a ballet tutu to Target in the middle of a snowstorm.
You can ask a million questions like, “Where does the sun go at night?” “Why do fireflies light up?” “How far is it to China?” and no one will think you are stupid for asking.
You don’t need three cups of coffee or a double latté to wake up in the morning.
You can tell come right out and tell someone, “You are mean. You hurt my feelings.”
Everyone smiles at you.
You can proudly say, “Look what I did!” and no one thinks you are bragging, they just clap.
A chocolate chip cookie fixes everything.
You can fall asleep anywhere and someone will pick you up and carry you to bed.
Hey ! I am a guest blogger on adoption.com this week! You can find my article there at
This is the piece I wrote…
Telling The Truth:
It was a beautiful day yesterday. A treasure to enjoy before the cold weather sets in. Early fall, the sun was shining, the leaves just starting to turn orange, red and yellow. We ran around as a family; cleaning the garage, cheering at soccer games, friends stopped by, the boys looked for frogs and played wiffle ball in the backyard. In the afternoon, my husband piled as many boys as he could fit in his car and took them out to lunch. I took Eliza, my four year old in my car. She wanted McDonalds (sorry health nuts), or Old McDonalds, as she calls it, so we went to get her Happy Meal, and I got the requisite boring mom salad. We whipped through the drive thru and brought our lunch home to enjoy outside on the porch.
The house was momentarily still, as the boys were away and it was just my daughter and I enjoying our picnic. We sat outside munching away, the leaves falling around us, and high above a plane flew quietly overhead.
“Look, Eliza a plane,” I said.
Planes play a significant, symbolic role in our little lives. At bedtime, I often tell Eliza a short story of her adoption. She will whisper to me, “Tell me the baby Eliza story.” And I will whisper back in the dark about the baby that needed a family, and the family that needed a baby. About how her dad and I got on a plane that flew high across the ocean to get her. We wrapped her in a soft, pink blanket and took turns holding her the whole way back on the plane. When we got home, there was a big party for everyone to meet her, and her brothers and sister had made a beautiful Welcome Home sign that spread across the whole front porch.
It’s a soothing ritual and a way for her to always know a piece of her story. Just a piece. I have never ventured far outside of the story. I have never explained what “adoption” means. It is just a word she knows. It has been enough, for now.
But as we sat out there on the porch, looking at the blue sky and the plane sailing smoothly across, I thought, I should start telling her now. So she will always know. Not just that adoption means love forever, but the nitty-gritty physical part of the adoption; that another woman gave birth to her, that she was not created in my body, as her siblings were, but that another mom and dad created her…that whole piece I have left out. I felt like I should introduce the concept soon, she is almost school age, she sees other women who are pregnant and is starting to ask, ”Why is her tummy so big?” Soon she will say, “I was in your tummy too once, right?” With my biological kids it was easy, “Yes you were! I remember you kicking me!” But now….what do I say?
It’s easy to tell her a bedtime story about a plane and wrapping her in a blanket of love…it’s not so easy to look beyond that. So, I thought I will tell her gently, slowly and we can talk about it in pieces, as kids thankfully do. I want her to always know so it is never a surprise, just a natural part of who she is…but I guess I also want her to know to make it easier for me. So she doesn’t turn to me in public and say, “ I was in your tummy too, right?” So we can have our own discussions, on our own terms and then she can say just as proudly as any child, “I was born in someone else’s tummy and in my mom’s heart! ”
So on a splendid fall day, in a moment of quiet and sharing, I thought, “Here I go.”
“You know what?” I said, cheerfully.
She turned and looked at me. A chicken nugget in one hand. Her eyes big and brown, her long hair tousled, her sparkly shoes always on the wrong feet, glimmering in the sun.
And in a sudden unexpected rush, I felt my throat close. Tears appeared out of nowhere. I couldn’t say it. I choked. Because the truth is, I want her to be from my tummy. I want to be the one that felt her kick. That pushed her out into her dad’s waiting arms. I want to avoid the questions that will surely come, the possible pain she may have. I don’t ever want her to ever feel “less than” or unwanted. She is so not that.
“That plane sure is beautiful,” I said.
“Yeah!” she said. “I came on a plane, and you and daddy!”
“We sure did,” I said. “Come on, want me to push you on the swing?”
You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. ~Desmond Tutu