Way to Go Egypt…But What About Anderson Coopers Mother?


Way To Go Egypt

Photo Credit - Tara Todras-Whitehill - AP

It’s definitely a side story.  Egypt is rocking the world in the best of ways and it is changing as we watch and hope so rapidly that there is no telling what it will all look like in a day or a week or another month from now.  And while I am cognizant of all this, another thread keeps weaving itself through my mind as I am watching the coverage Anderson Cooper struggles to broadcast.

What about Gloria Vanderbilt?  I think of the mother who, having already lost one son to suicide, watches another son rush repeatedly towards violence and danger, driven to witness some of the world’s toughest moments.  I like that about journalists, I think that a good journalist is one of the best examples of bravery there is, but what if it was my son?  Obviously I am not privy to their relationship, but it seems to be a very affectionate one, so how do you measure a woman who manages to get out of the way of her child’s need to live a life of dangerous adventure.  It seems to involve a bravery and respect for her child by giving him the endorsement to lead a life that is of his own making.

Could I give such a life to my own children? I have wondered it before. How would I respond if one of my children chose the military, or fire fighting or law enforcement as a career. Could I suppress the entirely self-serving moment that would need to keep them from harm’s way to let them live their most authentic life? Could I get out of their way and allow them to lead the life they need to?  I hope I could. That seems to me to be the purest form of love, letting them choose things that have meaning to them and them alone without having to calculate the cost to me.

I think it was Simone De Beauvoir who wrote to her mother from the Spanish Civil War in response to her fear that she was there, “If I had two lives to live I would give one to you, but I don’t…” that seems to capture it all right there. We all want greatness and success for our children, but how must Anderson Cooper’s mother fare, watching tape of him being targeted by the violence of a mob that threatened to turn deadly any moment?  How many mothers have stood back to let their children pursue the things their inner maps told them to pursue, sometimes knowing that they would pay with their lives?

We are not them. It was one of my first lessons as a parent as I watched my triplets fight for their lives in a struggle that all but excluded me from its outcome. Their lives and fate are their own. I can protect and guide them within reason, but where they ultimately ended up was not mine to control. They are they’re own people and they will fight battles that have nothing to do with me at times. I would do the one thing I could. Show up, stand shoulder to shoulder with them and tell them they were not alone. I can give them my belief in their ability to fight and win, but I could not fight the battles for them, nor should I.

And so while I watched Anderson Cooper fly in, and ultimately back out of Egypt, I thought too of Danny Pearl, and I wonder, how does Gloria Vanderbilt ever think of anything else when she sees her son under siege in foreign countries? Journalists die in situations such as that with regularity, and nothing that happens to AC can ever be anonymous anymore.  And then I thought of Anderson Coopers mother again.  I hoped that he would get home to her all right.



The Other Woman…


Tea-ceremony Roomphoto © 2007 Masahiro Hayata | more info (via: Wylio)


I first noticed their relationship on Facebook when I was doing a routine maintenance check of my son’s friend list. Huh. My son is friends with the PTA president from his school. I’m not friends with the PTA president, I thought, feeling again both the irony and gratitude of my son having superior social skills to me. Well he’s become pretty good friends with her son this year, I thought, I guess that makes sense.

As the year went on, her house became his preferred after-school destination and she and I eventually became ‘Facebook Friends’ and every now and then she would remark on how she missed him as well when he was gone over-long at his fathers house. Oh, that’s nice I thought, she doesn’t find him annoying. He hasn’t worn out his welcome. He’s behaving well when he’s over there.

And then the moment came when I realized she was more than just the mother of a friend. She was the Other Woman. That day, he stormed into the house, home well before the regular time, and trying to contain tears of rage and hurt, wordless with anger and frustration. What happened, I asked? There had been a fight. In the way of 11-year-old boys, roughhousing had gotten out of hand. Push had come to shove. And although no one was hurt, he could hardly spit his anger out and I put everything aside to try and help this son, who is often my most short-fused child, cope with this moment. But as I was talking to him, I recalled something. The first thing he had reached for upon bursting in the door was his iPod Touch. He was, of course, friends with his friend on Facebook…Uh oh. Two and two came together fast in my head.

Were you going to write something on his wall? I asked, because just stop right there and calm down. One of the worst things you can do is write your anger up in a public forum. This will blow over but if you do that, you are inviting everybody into your private business, and that’s a very bad idea. I went over the whole social media policy with him right there, until he seemed reasonably able to promise he wouldn’t write anything on his friends wall. I mean it, I said, wait until you calm down. These things blow over. Promise? Yes, he said again and we went on to talk a bit more. And although his anger didn’t seem to dissipate too much, he went to his room to chill for a few minutes.

But an itch in the back of my mind kept at me and I checked Facebook just out of caution. He didn’t write anything on his friends’ wall. He wrote something on Her wall. He wrote something awful about her son on her wall. Something including a prime four-letter word we don’t let him use. He wrote it for her and all her friends to see, many of them, one presumes, the parents and other PTA members at school. Oh. My. God. And just like that, we were in a whole different moment. A whole different, potentially crappy moment from which there could be no escaping the judgment of who knows how many other parents besides the recipient. Oh Crap.

The whiplash of my voice dragged him from his room and I think I could hear the sound of the ocean in my ears as I stared at my son. This child I adored. The one with the long history of letting his temper get the best of him. The one with the easily touched pride, the one with the amazingly high I.Q. that he had masked so extraordinarily well in this moment and I was horrified at what this could mean for him. I was furious that every word of logic and reason had been thrown out even as it left my mouth. “Delete it,” I demanded, “and get in the car. We’re going over there for you to apologize to this woman.”

That’s not all I said. I probably fit more scathing and castigating disapproval into that three block ride than at any other time in his short life about how ill-conceived an impulse it was. About what if the mothers of his friends at school see that? What will they decide about him, as well as his brother and sister based on his willingness to publically address another adult like that? We talked about Facebook and rage, we talked about actions taken in the heat of rage, we talked about my rage. And we talked about how I wouldn’t spend his childhood apologizing to other parents like his grandmother had done for his father. We also said goodbye to his iPod.

She wasn’t there when we arrived, but he saw his friend…and immediately began to laugh. Predictably, all was forgiven, which is what I could have told him would happen if he had ever bothered to listen to what I was saying about 11 year old boys and scrapes and feelings blowing over (for the record, no I don’t really think he will learn many things from my words. I actually know it doesn’t really work that way). And as they made up, his mother drove up. And then the laughter was over as it was time to face the music. I told her that Middle Son had something he needed to apologize to her for and I stood behind my son while he braced himself to do the right thing.

She, it turns out, had not seen the post; although I made him tell her about it anyway, because decisions that poor should produce discomfort. Or better put, according to a friend’s bumper sticker, “Stupid should hurt.” But I hated that we were in this position at all. I prayed that having two boys herself would help her to be understanding about the idiocy that they can find themselves in.

What actually happened was totally out of the realm of my understanding. She wasn’t mad. There wasn’t even the pretense of a stern parental face of disapproval. Both my son and I stood there braced for her reaction and she did the most extraordinary thing. Her face was utterly transformed by compassion as everything about her posture gave itself over to this child. She enfolded him immediately in forgiveness. And then she reached out and her hand touched his face, held his cheek as tenderly as I have done myself and I never saw anything beyond that moment, so stunned was I.

It was a moment that triggered a thousand things for me. I don’t know what it triggered for her. Her attention, thankfully, was so focused on him that I doubt she noticed my mouth fall open as I was struck by so many things simultaneously. Her stark empathy, her forgiveness of my son in my place, the easy physical contact, the total lack of judgment, her willingness to absolve him from any burden and her total lack of offense. There wasn’t even a question of forgiveness.

All the way home I examined my own surprised reaction to this moment, mostly my shock and surprise at not being harshly judged and what this told me about how I still came to the world. How completely I expected to be judged. No other outcome had occurred to me, it was only a question of how severe would be the blow. Why was I still living in this mindset? More importantly, was I passing this belief down to my children?

She could not know my shock at that gesture. Not one of the people I come from could have made that gesture, not even the kindest of them would have made the move to break that invisible barrier of physical space, the reserve is that deeply ingrained. And in that moment I understood, his relationship with her was different. It was a relationship of it’s own. In that house he would find something that he hadn’t found at home.

Don’t get me wrong, in reaction to my desperate desire for a more physically affectionate childhood I am very physical with my kids. I have had almost no barriers between their space and mine, often laying about at home like a mother lion with cubs piled all over her. I have only recently moved to reclaim my space when the number of children on me threatened to become suffocating. But with other people, even my closest friends, I am no longer able to cross that space. It’s the legacy of a reserved childhood.

All of this is why she is such a likely candidate as the first ‘Other Woman’ in my sons’ life. And after the first tinge of jealousy passed, I realized that she is exactly who I would want for him. She really likes him. She has shown him unbelievable tenderness and patience. The kind of tenderness, kindness and benefit of the doubt so absent from my own background that it stunned me into complete silence when I saw it.

She is the first female outside the family that he has had this kind of relationship to. The fact that we are not friends is the very thing that makes her the Other Woman. We are not ‘not’ friends either, but if we had been very good friends, her liking him the way she does would have been something that I still shared in, instead of something that was exclusively his.

This is the part where he (and his siblings after him) go out and discover how to like and be liked in the world, how to place value on his relationships with other people. It’s the first step into an independent world, where he will define himself, without my presence, in the eyes of another adult. It’s important. And it’s the first real moment illustrating a truth I’ve know for 11 years now…that from the moment a child is born, they are in the act of walking away from you.

He likes to tell me that she’s nicer than me and that her chocolate chip pancakes are better, but it’s the first chance for this child to hit me with that “his parents are so much cooler than you” right of passage. And I know this child, I know him so well, because he’s so like me. And I also know that differentiating from me, when the time comes, will be a stickier thing for him because of that, and I will have to try hard not to be surprised if he has to strike at me more deliberately because of it.

In the meantime, I think this will be a good first experience for him. She likes him it appears, enormously, and I will always be glad for women in his life that turn a face of approval on him and treat him well, who show him affection without judgment. And in the end, we have to let them love other people…as much as they love us. But in a way, it also felt like a small goodbye, as I became a little bit smaller in the landscape of his life. Don’t these moments always feel like that?



Circumcision Decision…The Debate Lives On


I was reading Lisa Belkin’s NY Times blog, the Motherlode, which recently covered the ongoing circumcision debate in this country.   Not surprisingly, there are some strong feelings on this subject on both sides of the issue, and I guess I can understand, although I must admit, I draw the line in equating what we do in this country to newborn boys and what happens in other countries to young women and it’s reasons. They are not equivalent in anyway. But that is a different, and more horrifying post. I just had to say that, because certain groups have tried to group the two things together to lend weight to their argument against.

The circumcision decision came for me over 10 years ago. And it was influenced by everything but personal preference. In our household, we have 4 boys and, well, we swing both ways (couldn’t resist the pun. It won’t be the last either, so consider yourself warned). Like so many of our destinations, the journey we mapped was anything but straightforward.

Can I start by saying that I had always just assumed that, if I had boys, they would be cut.  That was the cultural norm to me. I remembered my brother was and I was of a generation where all my personal experience took place in a heavily circumcised society.  Well, I did indeed become a first-time mother to sons. They are sons who are, how to say it…Uncut. Intact. In their natural state. In their original packaging.

This is not due to any driving need to make a political statement. It was largely a matter of circumstance and until recently, still a bit foreign to me. It has certainly led to a couple of interesting moments for us as we’ve negotiated basic bodily care, and I fully expect that there will be one or two more delicate moments before the privacy door closes on me permanently, as I expect it to during their teenage years. Physically, being the mother of sons who seek an owner’s manual to their body has been a bit of a journey into uncharted territory for me. But I bravely shouldered my Mom backpack and walked into the land of male parts.

So if it wasn’t my intention, then just how did it happen, you ask?  Preemies, that’s how.  Triplets and a high-risk pregnancy that led to my boys and their sister being born at just after 29 weeks and less than 3 pounds each.  Due to their medical issues, the very first of them came home after 6 harrowing weeks in the NICU (my other son was not stable until several weeks after that). The choice to circumcise them was not even raised until then, and in the end, my answer was no.

The reasons for my refusal are visible ones. If you ever look closely at the arms and legs of my oldest children, they still bare the faint scars of countless I.V.’s , cut-downs and several other invasive procedures that were required at a time when their lives were on the line and their successes were measured in mere grams of weight gain. When the moment came that they were medically stable enough to be circumcised, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put them through one more single, unnecessary procedure. They had already struggled through so much discomfort and risk that I said no and took my intact little males home with me.  And I rested with the decision in an uncomfortable way; even knowing I wouldn’t have done it any differently for the next few years, until gradually it became normal to me. Meaning, I looked at my sons’ physical state long enough that my own cultural norm started to change.

And then, 3 years later, I had another son. Born to a different father. A father and a whole other family to whom circumcision was the cultural norm.  And when this son was born. I said no again, and I said no in the face of, dare I say, stiff opposition (you were warned). I said no against my own personal preference. I said no because of an already existing hypersensitivity to the fact that my sons would not completely share the same DNA and in the face of that, I wanted them to share as much as possible otherwise, most especially in this most personal of appearances. I said no.

As time has rolled on, there is no doubt that several family members would rather they looked different than they do, but I believe these concerns are likely more about the fear that they would stand out somehow, be too different than their peers in the locker room perhaps. I too have worried about the reception their respective male parts would receive from future peers and girlfriends. But I’m happy to note the statistics seem to indicate that they won’t be greeted into future beds and gyms like John Merrick or Quasimodo. According to sources quoted in Belkin’s article the procedure is “on the decline in the United States (down to 56 percent, from 80 percent in the 1960s), Jewish families excepted. And I pacify myself too with the knowledge that if any of them that are so traumatized by the state of their Johnson, they can sign up for plastic surgery of the Wang.

I suppose that is the source of this discomfort.  We really fear that one day, they will look down at this universal source of male pride and feel inadequate.  But I’ve been given reason to believe that they see something entirely natural when they look down there.  You see we had one more son after this. He, unlike his brothers, is cut. His birth mother made the circumcision decision soon after he was born decidedly in favor of.  I wondered, when he joined our family if this would mark him as too different. But by then I was piecing together a family from so many different sources that all pretense of sameness had to be abandoned.  That worry soon passed anyway when I saw how loved and accepted he was by his siblings. They would be brothers irrespective of physical differences.

An incident during a diaper change was what made me relax completely about it.  One of my older sons noticed finally that he was different. It took awhile, 9 year old boys not traditionally being interested in diaper changes, but when I say noticed, I mean he pointed at the baby’s little circumcised specialness and said with great giggles and hilarity, “He’s naked! There’s nothing on his. He has no foreskin” I smiled too, amazed at this inside view of the male mind, however young, and how he viewed the issue. “Is that how you think of yours,” I asked,  “as clothes for the penis. Like a little jacket?”  Giggling with boyish delight at getting any chance to hear the word “penis,” he said, “Well, yeah.”  So obvious I guess when that’s what you’ve always known. Boys live in a very different world. It’s been interesting to walk through some of it with them.



Navel-Gazing


I was thinking about belly buttons this morning. I swear to you that I do not spend excessive amounts of time in contemplation of my navel. A couple of my kids do however. They are overly concerned with their belly buttons in my opinion.

One son has questioned me repeatedly and intensely about why they they look the way they do. He does not care for his and he wants some answers! I have gently suggested that when he is older he could get himself a little belly button plastic surgery and no one would be any the wiser. In saying this, I have NO idea if they offer such a thing, but by then it will be the problem of him and his therapist and I’ll be home free.

His brother exhibits the same dissatisfaction with his little baby button (our name for the device). But one day when he was asking me once again why his looked the way it does, I was a little whacked out in my mental state (it’s a pretty common occurrence).

“Mom, why does it have this line around it?”
“Oh, that’s the line from the stitches where they reattached it.”
“What?!”
“Yours came off once.”
“What?! When?!”
Oh, don’t worry. You were still in the NICU at the time. It was loose and it just popped right off one day. All the nurses and doctors ran in there. They found it and sewed it back on. It was Emergency, Life-Saving Belly Button Reattachment Surgery. You’re ok now.”
Child is kind of clutching his stomach in a paranoid way now and moaning.
“What’s the matter?
Child is now kind of huddled close to me and shedding nervousness.

It’s wrong to do this to my kids I’m sure. But in my defense, they do a lot of things to me that are wrong too. And as I pointed out to my mother when she objected, being raised by me has bent them in exactly the same way, so they’ll be ok.

What?



Why I Love the Game…


Baseball.  I love baseball. I could easily have the Ken Burns documentary on the subject as the soundtrack to my life for long periods.  I don’t watch a lot of it on TV necessarily (I don’t watch a lot of anything, which is how I KNOW I have lots of young children),  but I love the experience of baseball.  It’s spring. It’s childhood. It’s Bull Durham. It’s Field of Dreams and a League of Their Own. Mostly, it’s my father and the last time I remember my own childhood feeling safe and without crises.

Baseball has carried on for me a lost history as I watch my oldest son use the old little league mitt my brother used. Now he too is wrapped up in all my memories of my father, who loved baseball and basketball like it was air and painstakingly showing my brother how to break that mitt in, which was an exotic mystery to me involving mink oil and a ball being rubberbanded into it and then being placed under his mattress.  They are both long gone from me now, but my oldest son’s use of this mitt carries them onward through the history of the game.

Having children has brought me all new things to love about baseball.  Like T-Ball, which is a chaotic and hilarious game played by tiny athletes who demonstrate a cartoonish skill and are  ushered around the field by men who demonstrate the extreme patience of people who could herd cats. But mostly, it has brought me Coaches.

The Coaches rock my world.  They have been a boon to me and my children in ways I could not have predicted.  They have stood in for me when I needed the boys to have a man. Lectured them on homework and responsibility, taught them sportsmanship and how to stick with something that needed work, how to take take correction and think on their feet. They have taught them lessons from the Guy Handbook and how to be part team. And I have enjoyed watching every second of it.

When my first sons were born, there were many things that I knew they would need that I wasn’t sure I could find ways to provide.  I didn’t know when they were babies that these men would be my avenue to exposing them to the kind of character I wanted for them. Now, I get to watch these men being men in the best way possible. Being engaged leaders and mentors. They willingly spend their time instructing, teaching, encouraging and being role models in the most fundamental sense of those words.  And by doing so, they hand down the secrets of the Guy Rule Book.  These are men who understand at the heart of it all that children don’t just grow up by accidentally and they respond to this understanding with active intention. They are leaders by nature, positive and proactive, and my boys learn from this that being a man is about engagement.

I have seen this spirit of mentoring be absorbed down into my boys as they begin to take the first steps into the knowledge of themselves as young men. I hear them emulate the words and phrases of encouragement that they were given towards the younger boys in their home and this has been particularly valuable to me since our boys live across 2 separate families. It has built bridges across one of the most painful and hated divides that exists in our home. The one that echos with the phrase “half-brother”. They have watched their coaches put their younger, special needs brother into the rotation at the practices and their team mates root for him to do well, and this year they have had the chance to attend his games and give back.  To cheer for him in return, as he has done for them over these past few years.  And all this had shown them better how to be the kind of young men and older brothers they will need to be during their lives together.

So, on this journey, I am Moses – destined to chart the course, but never to see the promised land of manhood. And that’s why God made Coaches Virginia…

I see great things in baseball…It’s our game–the American game… It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us….”
~ Walt Whitman (as quoted in Bull Durham)



Teams and Opportunities


My boy is more than his autism. He is an opportunity. I have learned from watching how other people come to him that he is an opportunity to stretch their comfort zone when it comes to behavior they expect.

There is at least one boy on the team who doesn’t like him. He finds some of his mannerisms annoying and abrupt. I watch, and largely let the coaches deal with it and  I try to tamp down my visceral dislike for anyone being mean to one of my kids and think of how they could both come out of their interaction together improved. Because I’m positive that this won’t be the last time we see this.

At the heart of it, my boy is an opportunity for real leadership. It’s all about team and how you lift each other up. Leadership is how you come to the least qualified at times and hold out your hand to bring them to the next level. Leadership is useless if the playing field is level. And it never is, that’s why we get to cheer.



Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell


I did something this year that rests uncomfortably.  I withheld information about one of my kids.  My 7 year old is high functioning autistic, and this year he began to mainstream into the general education population…and into sports, which he loves.  And I was faced with the dilemma of how to present him to the world at large, having lost the safety of his insulated, special ed world.

He’s never played organized sports before this year, and after a summer round of T-ball, he was chomping at the bit to play some more. His two older brothers play in different leagues almost year round and Fall Ball, I was told was a good time to be brand new at it.  So I signed him up, with every intention of mentioning quietly to his coach that he has some special needs, and we weren’t sure how they would present themselves in this kind of setting (if at all.)

And yet, somehow, the first practice came and went…with my silence. I would write him an email, I reasoned. Let him get to know the child first. That way he wouldn’t be prejudiced by any preconceived ideas about a special needs child.

That first practice seemed to go really well, and I found my jaw still strangely locked shut. He played the first game and his skill level was on par with a couple of the other boys who had never played much before. Maybe I’ll just let him play I thought. Maybe I would only be labeling him for no reason.  Maybe he’ll surprise us all and show a talent for it.  He hadn’t been awful at T-Ball, who knew how this would go.  He seems a little quirky, but hey, some kids just have more personality than others.

Well, we’re halfway through the season now and I’m trapped by my own silence. If I mention it now, will I seem to have perpetrated a fraud on these coaches?  He hasn’t lit up the Little League baseball world with his extraordinary skills, despite obsessively watching it and talking about it 24 hours a day. I also imagine that some people have caught on to the fact that he’s just a little bit different than the other boys he plays with. Have there been discussions about it between the coaches or the other parents?  Have they caught on and think I’m in denial? Do they know and respect this as a deliberate choice not to differentiate him? Do they know and think I should have said something?

I am left questioning my own unplanned response. What was the origin of my silence here? Was it the germ of my own hope that he is so borderline that he will outgrow the autism someday? Was it my desire for him to have a normal experience like all the other boys? Was it my own refusal to accept that his experience will take him outside the most well-travelled pathways.

Another question is was I particularly influenced by the testosterone, the strongly male-dominated environment? Did I trust these men a little, or even a lot less to withhold judgement and to see his uniqueness in terms of opportunity for everyone rather than a weakness they would be uncomfortable around?

I guess it was all those things. I still don’t any better what the right decision was, and I don’t know what I will do in the future. I don’t know what decision other parents in this situation make.  It’s hard when the lines are blurred.

At the end, I have no road map for this. I only know I will face it again and again in the coming years. Do I define him or let him define himself. And if I do need to define his challenges, what will dictate that decision?

In the meantime,  I root for him every minute to develop enough skills to let him feel some sense of capability and play the game he loves…and I question the causes of my own silence.  And I hope I am making the kind of judgements he needs me to make. But mostly, I hope he gets to play ball…or do anything else that he loves his whole life.