Getting Back Out There: On Moms as Monks and Letting Go

For the past (this number actually pains me to type) five (gulp) years, I have not had a fulltime job. It’s been an unexpected path, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to walk it. Nothing has made me grow up like being at home with these kids. I’ve found it an almost monastic experience. A parallel I draw with no actual monastery experience, of course. But what I’m referring to is an existence of near constant simple tasks, repeated day in and day out, with few if any external markers of success, and fewer if any displays of gratitude for your toils. The laundry, the dishes, the meals, the baths, the bed times. All undone as soon as you do them. It’s as beautiful and meaningful as it is totally maddening. So, I’ve been pretty much a monk except with what I am assuming is a great deal more screaming and bodily fluids. From the children. Mostly.

And so here I am today. Half a decade later. I was never supposed to be a stay at home mom, yet I am a loud-and-proud minivan driving, band-aid carrying, snack cup filler-upper. It took a lot of bravery to do this. I had a lot of hang-ups about not contributing financially. My domestic skills were not finely tuned by any measure. And I was frankly pretty sure that my firstborn didn’t even care for me as anything other than a milk machine for the first eight or nine months. I wondered, aloud oftentimes, why should it be me who takes this on? I’m not very good at it. I’m basically a leech on my family’s bank account, pretending to be a mom but feeling like a pissed off baby sitter more often than I’d care to admit. Who am I to squander this gift? That got better. And it got better through becoming a far more honest and earnest person. I still have my moods, to be sure. But I am forever changed (or, perhaps more apt, evolved?) by this experience, and for the better.

But for all the toil, it’s also been five years of ease. When I can give into the ceaselessness of it all, aside from stomach bugs and night terrors and other maladies of that sort, life is often simple as a stay at home mom. Busy, harried, exhausting, sure. But living in the day-to-day is a lot calmer for the mind. This isn’t to say I haven’t had a calendar full of doctor’s appointments, play dates, and visitors. But compared to life in grad school or at a law firm, for the most part, if I choose to do so, and I often do not so chose because masochism is a hard thing to unlearn, I have found being at home freeing in certain ways. If your life demands nearly all of your available energy to get by on a day-to-day basis, then there can be these great moments where you let go of the long term planning and fretting over other people, and you just get by in the here and now. And fall into bed each night like you’ve run a marathon. Totally spent but not mentally anguished.

Which is all of course to say: I QUIT! No, no. Not really. But kind of. I’ve spent five years growing into a mom, among other pursuits, and I am feeling the urge to tackle yet another gaping hole of insecurity, which is that I am not actually employable, because I am not actually smart or a grown up or capable of committing to a job. (Everyone’s got that secret fear, right?!) So it is with the stalest of resumes and the freshest of business clothes, as my butt seems to have grown alongside my ageless wisdom and maturity, that I dip my toe back into the job market.

The logistics are just impossible. The kids get out of school way before a job ends. So who picks them up? And we have no family in Nashville. So what happens if they get sick? Or have a half-day? Will already works enough for 1.5 people. To this problem, all I can do is shrug. Not out of indifference but out of the sheer hypothetical rabbit hole of it all. I don’t know what we will do. Are “secular sister wives” a thing? I’ll google it later. I suppose we will figure it out, as countless other working parents do.

I actually had an interview today. Not for anything fulltime. In fact, only for a company who farms out legal contract jobs for other firms. So, not too intense and not likely to bring me my dream job. But symbolic nonetheless. I listened to NPR the whole way there, driving in my sensible heels, using a baby bib to protect my white shirt from the inevitable coffee sip gone awry. A legit grown up. And it felt pretty good.photo-76

Well, hello, Loft Outlet.  It’s been awhile.

And then I came home, took off my sensible heels, and went to pick up a hideously angry toddler from preschool. He shrieked “I DON’T WANT IT, THAT SONG!!” the whole way home, but I kept listening to it, that song, because the sounds he was making were far too offensive to listen on their own. Soon, an exuberant and over-tired four year old (the most frightening of combinations) will join me at home. And more challenges there in. I dread it as much as I look forward to it.

“The Village” is this great thing we love to talk about. We’re supposed to have a village to raise these kids! A network of people who help each other. Well, an aspect of the village that I surely don’t see emphasized much is that being part of a village implies that we – parents, but more often than not, moms – need to let go. To trust others, and value ourselves and our needs outside of those kids enough to step back. There’s a lot of hype around this village, but I feel as if there is a greater value these days placed on being an island when it comes to your kids. And the more confident I get as a mother, the less I see the value in me being their everything. I’m not talking tiny babies. That’s another thing. But mine are now two and four and a half. Social creatures who are taking in the world around them. And as much as they love me, they love lots of people. Those connections are beautiful, and they exist outside of my relationship with them. As anguishing as loosening my grasp on kids is, watching them become real people is … everything.

I can’t know exactly what to expect of working outside the home. I know I will miss them, and I will lose some opportunities to have fun or meaningful moments with them. That’s a given. But I also have a sense that … maybe I won’t miss them as much as I think? Like, I don’t know if I will ache for them each moment we’re apart. It took a long time to learn to trust myself as their caretaker. And I have put in nothing if not raw hours into the endeavor. I am terrified … and ready … to back off a bit.
So, Edie, it’s not because you pelt me with unanswerable questions all day, that you tell far too many poop jokes, have no “inside” voice, and have shed tears, on average, half a dozen times per day since your birth four and a half years ago. And, Eli, I’m not polishing up my resume solely because every pair of shoes on the planet make you weep, that you sit on my head when I get too low to the ground, or because you do that limp noodle thing when I try to pick you up during a tantrum. But that list does give me a hankering to open up monster.com in the ol’ browser. It’s just that as much as I love your warm hands and your soft faces, I’m ready to give some of that up in order to explore other facets of myself.

Maybe I will end up beating back a hasty retreat to the home. Or maybe I will end up working fulltime. I can’t know and I’ve still got plenty of day-to-day to keep me from having the energy to wonder too much. I am a little excited, though. But not as excited as I am to shut down this computer and go to the playground as soon as that angry two year old wakes up a cuddly little goofball from his long nap.

A Heavy Heart

I’ve got a lot going on right now. Not a lot of it is tangible. There’s the sinus infection and then the broken toe. But those ailments fluctuate between annoying, and uncomfortable yet appreciated distractions. They aren’t at fault, however for making me queasy, stiff, a little shaky and so very heavy. My malaise has a source, but its meaning eludes my grasp the way a fistful of dry, fine sand eludes one’s fingers. There is something that approaches satisfying in continuing to try, maybe because for a second you have the sensation of something there. But ultimately, while you can recall the fullness of it all, it is now empty.

First there are the happy-sads. My baby turns two on Saturday. So he’s a baby no more. Today is the tenth anniversary of my wedding to the man to whom I am both inevitably and yet incredibly still married. And then, tomorrow is my friend Jennifer’s birthday. This is where it turns to whole-hearted ache, though, because Jennifer is gone.

Jen died less than three weeks ago. And the “why” will never be known. I feel adamant that there is no why. The notion that there is a design to this end makes me angry. I know that’s not true for everyone, and I feel no need to convert anyone to my anti-fatalist point of view. But don’t try and tie a bow on this for my benefit. I believe my friend has been released, as death will release us all. That’s the best I can do.

And so I am sitting here. Typing here. Blowing my nose because of my tears and this damn sinus infection too. Ping-ponging between feelings of everything and nothing. Because writing is my catharsis. I often write to places that I didn’t fully see coming. So I am hoping for a little of that grace today, that maybe my own words can shine a light on the deeper parts of my mind. Or at least I hope that what I end up with isn’t the narcissistic garble I fear it may be.

My life, in a vacuum, is really good right now. I’m not always good in it. But I’m not an idiot. I have healthy kids, a kind and respectful partner, a safe neighborhood and an almost disconcerting number of friends. I cannot wrap my head around ten years of marriage. I’m sad that it has slipped by so quickly but more so I am proud and grateful. Proud of myself because I have grown up a lot. No one should have married twenty-three year old me. But someone did. And I spent the first two or three years mourning every road not travelled. It plagued me. Every decision out there that I was not making me haunted my thoughts. And I had plenty of time to share (and share) those thoughts with my husband. Sometimes “sharing,” when you’re a twenty-three year old law student, is ugly. I don’t believe my husband was or is perfect. Nor that he is better than me in a wholesale way. But I am sure lucky he is who he is. Because it worked. Fiery, emotional, analyzed-to-death woman meets loyal, self-reliant, and takes-days-to-process-feelings guy turned out to be a good combo. And here we are today. Still imperfect. So much mellower. These days, a deep conversation is rare. But where fires used to rage, a calmer place has emerged. It’s not as exciting or driven. It smacks of no idealism. But it’s a livable place to be, and it’s a place I share with someone who I love and respect with all of my heart.

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So with all of that, I’m in a place mixed with happiness, nostalgia, and awe, but also with that a stronger dose of that normally ephemeral sense that these days are not ours. I’ve never been particularly excited by the markers of the passage of time – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. I’ve been fearful of the power of time since long before I ought to have been. No real surprise, then, that I am the mother to a four year old who routinely collapses into my lap, begging not to die. Begging me to tell her I will never die. And I say “I love you.” But it’s not only my little family-pod that is on my mind today. Not just a farewell to babies in the house, to skin free of wrinkles, and to those sweet, naïve kids who got married back in 2004. All of that would be enough to make me need a beat to reflect. But I wouldn’t feel like someone was sitting on my chest, as I do.

Instead, while my human insignificance is weighing on me, I am wracked with guilt for feeling as unhinged as I do. Because who am I to grieve this woman? She was a dear friend. One that did not pass through my life but came in with effort and delivery and made an impact I will never forget. But how do I get to miss her this much, to feel this angry that she is gone, to feel such great anguish over my own impotence to help those who she left behind? Me, who is so consumed with the day-to-day of my invented self-import. Caring for the babies I made. Picking up the toys I bought them. And still finding enough time to guard for solitary reflection. Now I get the gift of space to mourn, and I feel somewhat ashamed.

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Sometimes, it would take me days to call her back. When I was in town, after moving away from Michigan where Jen lived, I always saw her. But sometimes for just an hour. And I didn’t get to Michigan all that often. She made a few spectacular efforts to visit me, in all of the states and countries that I lived in over the eight-ish years that I knew here. But it’s not that I feel guilty for how I acted, per se. It’s more that I feel robbed. I have had to be less to a lot of people in the past few years, Jennifer included. And I have never had any delusions that I was needed by her. But I know she appreciated me. And I her. So when I sensed aggravation on her part for my flakiness or crazy schedule, or if I felt like I lousy friend from time to time, I used to say to myself, “We will get back there.” Nothing has taught me more about the rapid passage of time or how futile it is to take responsibility for the happiness of others than my life as a mom. As time went on these past few years, a sense of grounding and budding independence was coming on. Then when Jennifer told me she was pregnant, I had these vain and fanciful visions of it being my turn. My turn to help her, to show up and be invested in her life, and to get to see her become a mother. I should have had my turn. She should’ve had all that and more.

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I know that thoughts of “should” aren’t useful. Jennifer would have been the very first person to say that. And she would’ve said it in an elegant way, no doubt. But I am a raw nerve right now and in that I can make no sense and believe there is no sense to be made, I don’t seem to have any ability to talk myself out of feeling this way.

I have tried to think ahead. To envision a place where the pain is surpassed by good memories and celebration of her life. Like if I can’t feel it, maybe I can intellectualize it and move in that direction. There are so many good memories, though the “good” of them is muted at the moment.   It’s as if there is this stubborn part of me that feels like sprinkling fairy dust on sepia-tone memories is a lie on par with “she’s an angel now.” This sensation is familiar. I felt it when I lost my sister when she was twenty-eight years old. I had a similar aversion to deifying a person who deserved more than to be a caricature. Drop the superlatives and stop rewriting the past. As for Jennifer, with her insatiable hunger for meaning and authenticity, I have a feeling she would agree with me on this. But I can’t know. And I won’t pretend to.

So what’s the thesis? I want my friend back and I can’t have that. I have a great life that I so often foolishly allow myself to feel entitled to, and the passage of time marked by milestones like this one exposes my powerlessness. I want to be left alone and desperately to connect (hey, fun throwback to being twenty-three!). My life is what it is through an unknowable amalgam of luck and work, and none of it, good or bad (though it’s mostly good) is owed to me.

I cannot in good conscience say those throw away things you say to find the “good” in the tragedy of a life lost. How it reminds me to be a better friend. To reach out more. That I will appreciate my life. And I will never yell at my kids again, because I have my kids so what more could I want? I have thought of all of these things. But while I don’t think these events leave us entirely unchanged, I do not accept that the answer is that they leave us feeling even more deficient by reinforcing impossible standards. In this exposed and raw state, I feel distrustful of the world. Indeed, the world has never sought my trust, and my faith in it is only testament to all of the good I have fallen upon, neither deserving nor undeserving. If we have no true control in the world around us, then maybe what we can do is let go a little. Stop raging so much against the day-to-day woes, and maybe it will help us make peace with the bigger and more crushing blows, like losing Jen. This is not a resignation to complicity with evil or uncaring. But if we wasted less time beating ourselves up for our inadequacies, I’m betting we’d have more energy to be a light. Jennifer was a light. Not every minute of every day, and not to every soul she passed. But for the many of us who connected with her, we are better for it. The standards she held for herself were impossible, though she sought to be kinder to herself. If I had to make some attempt at a wrap-up, I guess it’s that I hope to use the light she passed to me to continue to try to be gentle and tolerant of myself. I don’t know, of course, but I like to think she wouldn’t mind that message.

I love you, Jenny. I hear your voice still. Thank you for that, and for many other things. Peace, my friend.

Life with my Four-Year Old Captor

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Have you ever seen anyone eat a s’more with this level of callous disregard?  Truly chilling.

So, I was at a bar with the kids the other day. Albeit during the day, and outside on the patio while live music played; so really as close as you can get to a good idea when it comes to taking kids to a bar. Anyways, I was at this bar, drinking water I’m sure, and a couple of fellow patrons saw my son running amok. He was doing laps around the joint, stopping to dance wildly to the music, and not stopping if anyone was in his way. The couple asked how old he was. I said he’d be two in late June, and they replied “Oh! The Terrible Two’s!” I wonder if my foreboding chuckling frightened them? Because, oh, the Terrible Two’s can’t scare me. Not when I am haunted by the Fearsome Fours.

You may know me as That Lady Who Went into a Zen Trance When her Daughter screamed “YOU HATE THAT DRESS FOR ME! YOU HATE THAT DRESS FOR ME!!” all throughout Costco, whilst shaking a monstrous tutu abomination in my placid face. See, my daughter is four, and it’s a wild ride. I am not positive that her madness is all age-related. But I think it helps parents feel like these things are a phase to attach it to a specific year. And not that we are raising someone hellbent on making life difficult. So, let’s just go with all things Edie calming down when she’s five.

I know the word “sociopath” gets thrown around a lot. It certainly does in parenting circles. (Yes, childfree folks, when we are not Instagram filtering the two seconds of adorableness or pinning DIY room décor that the creatures will never let us get to anyhow, we may well be sharing rather grim emotions.) So, you think you’re raising a sociopath, do you? Well, allow me to posit the following: This morning, my daughter opted, instead of leaving her room to go to the bathroom, to get out an emergency pull-up, and pee in there. And kind of on the floor. This is not the first time this, or something similar but worse (imagine: ground littered with various soiled pull-ups, each tucked carefully into a corner of her room) has occurred.** But it is the first time my husband astutely pointed out that her behavior is the same as an actual murderous astronaut. Now, of course I’m really going to milk the bragging rights out of the first part where she’s just an astronaut, and not yet on a diapered road trip to kill her love’s chosen one. Expect a lot of Facebook humble bragging on that. But we all know where the story ends up..

Besides the pre-homicidal tendencies, I bear witness to emotional breakdowns that blow me away. At least a couple times a month, she collapses in my arms at night and begs not to die. Begs for me never to die. And weeps and quakes. It is crushing, and a little baffling. She also daydreams about being thirty, and drinking wine and chit chatting with me, and attending spin class.   I told her the other day that she doesn’t need to be thirty to go to spin with me, probably like fourteen, and she glowed with anticipation. “Only fourteen.” she beamed. Diapers or cocktails, lady – pick a goal! What goes on in that head?

Then there is the screaming. Seemingly hours a day. One of my few concerted goals as a parent is not to reject my kids’ strong emotions. I grew up as such an unrepentant people pleaser. And it’s still taking time for me to figure out how to be helpful and friendly in a way that is honest and loving – because I love people, I do; but not in a way that is self-sacrificing or attached to my own self-worth. It is tricky! I hope my kids have a bit more of a head start as far as being less concerned about comporting themselves according to what they think others want or expect. My mantra, in case you are wondering what I am thinking as my kids act appallingly in public, is “My children are not dolls. My children are not dolls.” As in, they don’t exist to be dressed up and cute in our world, which I believe. And it’s a mantra you can say through gritted teeth, so that’s a plus, too.

But that’s the theory. Lately, the reality, is screeeeeaming. I have found myself shouting my intentional, empathic statements through her wails; “Edie, you must be very frustrated that I said we couldn’t have ice cream. EDIE!!! EDIE!!!! BE QUIET! I AM MIRRORING YOUR EMOTIONS SO YOU HAVE TO SHUT YOUR TRAP!!!!” Real soothing-like. Turns out it is really hard not to reject ear splitting shrieks when they result from, say, the shrieker’s brother touching a door handle or your suggestion that she grab a sweatshirt. Not put it on. Just grab it.

It seems like the hardest times are when the kids are changing (growing) the most. And the answer is always that I need to change. They are going to be, or turn into, who they are. It’s my expectations that need to adjust. So that’s the question du jour! What do I need to shift so that she feels heard enough to stop screaming? I don’t think I’m likely to solve that whole mortality crisis during this calendar year, so that will have to ride. My current theory is that she needs less of me. Less of me interfering and attempting to solve. I have all sorts of arguments against this, including “She will maim your youngest if you don’t step in.” But, really, I think she’s getting bigger and smarter and needs us to let her carve out a more grown up role. I know she’s four. But she is dead serious. I’m not talking legal emancipation or anything. But four isn’t three. And I need to come to terms with that.

Now, I think the rational fix is to have another kid. To force me to give up more control and to ignore everyone a little more. Seriously. I think less me is the linchpin of this solution. Being deliberately outnumbered may be the way to go. Plus, what a great story to tell the third for why you wanted him/her so badly! Oddly, this is not a convincing argument to my husband, as he limps off to work on every federal holiday. Go figure. “Who else is going to be there on Labor Day, Will?” “Mumble, mumble, some people are going…(trails off).” In the meantime, I will just try to do my best and stay out of her way.

**Please do not suggest I leave a small training potty in her room. My house is not big, and she has free reign of it. Available bathrooms abound. I guarantee it took longer to get the diaper on than it would to get to a toilet. And given our history, there is ZERO chance I am giving her access to a repository of unsoaked-up urine. Zero.

The Rooster

I was a little worried about having a boy. Part of that, I think, is a common issue with a second child. Your first sort of primes you and sets this image of what “your” child is. Your imagination becomes limited by this creature you love so very much. And so part of you can only visualize another one like it. I had a girl and so I saw myself as the mom of a girl.   Another part was just the fear that I wouldn’t be able to relate to (love?) a boy just as much as a girl. This is strange to admit. And I won’t go into my thoughts on the social construction of gender (but oh my do I have thoughts on this). Suffice it to say that I don’t see boys and girls as different species. Not by a long shot. But whatever I think, I know we live in a world where your life is shaped by gender. Mine certainly has been and continues to be. I felt this automatic feminine kinship with my daughter. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to embrace a boy in the same way.

My boy, he’s rounding two years old now, and he is a handful. After already having one, ahem, spirited child (that’s a popular enlightened euphemism for all of the other things you could call a kid who screams at your face A LOT), I sort of figured I’d have a laid back kid next. A contented, gurgly thing who just delighted in hanging out with us. Eli arrived one week after his due date, born in my own bed (on purpose) at the considerate hour of 3:30 pm. He could already lift his head and about roll over by the eve of his first earthly day.   And for those first few months, my boy just slept, nursed, and melted into me. (He also pooped a dozen times a day. Like, really.) All in all, he seemed like a very regular, strong and sturdy, lazy country boy to me.

Well. He is strong and sturdy. And very regular. But the Rooster ain’t lazy. Nor is he laid back. After he eats dinner, which these days consists of him eagerly climbing up into his chair, giggling as I set down the food, and then summarily rejecting the whole thing with a shove and a “NOOOO!”, Eli gets down and does pull ups on the furniture. Prepping-for-Shawshank-Redemption style workouts. It’s… unnerving. The kid looks like a bean pole, and then you pick him up and he has this supernova-esque density on account of his strengthening regiment. Another favorite past time is what we call “danger yoga” and consists of him carrying around my yoga block, positioning it in some precarious manner, and then trying to stand on it. And falling. Again. And again. Though he curses the laws of physics each time – and quite loudly so – the Rooster gets back up and tries it again.

Eli drives me nuts. He’s so rough. When he wants another kid’s attention – and he always wants another kid’s attention – he gives them a three second window to acknowledge his advances before it’s just baby Thunderdome. Whacks them over the head with a toy car. Scratches their faces. Today, I caught him beating a friend with her own shoe. And though he does retaliate out of frustration as well, most of the time, these acts are just misplaced love. Fierce, crazy, violent love. I don’t want to scold him for this. And a lot of times, I am able to redirect. But more times than I like, I am tough on him because he’s hurting kids and he is an irrational, gibberish speaking chimpanzee. I don’t know what else to do sometimes, monkey boy!

So he’s an unintentional bully, and also a mama’s boy who doesn’t really want his mama. Therefore he is the bane of the YMCA daycare worker’s existence. He cries if I go to the grocery store without him. Or if I shut the door to use the bathroom. But he won’t let me hold him. Doesn’t want to ride in a baby carrier. Won’t sit in shopping carts. And screams for a large part of most car trips. If I sit on the floor with him, he’s ecstatic. And to celebrate, he knocks me over, climbs on top of me, and lets out a battle cry as he jumps up and down, crushing me with his tiny, freakishly powerful frame. That habit, though, I can’t even say I mind. I do, however, try to protect my eyes.

In order to calm him down we …. ?? I’d love to say “read him books” but at 22 months, he is just almost letting us read him the shortest of board books. As long as we do the Cliffs Notes version with a LOT of funny voices. Television? Edie didn’t watch anything until she was almost three. And even that was just in small amounts. Eli didn’t have as long of a grace period, though limited screen time is among my virtues as a parent (I don’t have that many, so I’ve got to pat myself on the back where I can). But Eli sees an episode of Daniel Tiger most days. Not that it keeps him seated for very long. But, sort of like a mirror in a parrot cage, it gives him a sporadic distraction from his own squawking.

But then he is the funniest person I know. He imitates the unintended straining faces I make when I am struggling to get him in the car seat. He pretends to pout when I ask him for a kiss, but he can’t keep himself from laughing, so he goes from lower lip stuck out to cackles and back. We are pretty sure he thinks our smaller dog is a cat, because I’ve seen him several times, crouched beside her, patting her fluffy head and meowing. He does love to meow. In fits of joy, he alternates between spreading his arms and running in circles as an airplane, to collapsing on all fours to become a loud and reckless kitty.

And he is so loving, if you pay attention to how he expresses love. He has beaten me on the legs many a-times, and when my mind is elsewhere, I might shake him off and step away. Only to leave a crushed little boy with his lip quivering in my wake. As rough as he is, it’s how he communicates. Sometimes slugging me means he’s angry. More often it means he needs to connect with me. When I wrestle with him, and I must wrestle with him – it’s like release therapy for both of us, he’s been known to pause long enough to give me a big kiss on the lips and then BAM back to body slamming. During his momentary hugs, he rubs his soft head into my neck as hard as he can, and pats my back with his little fingers. Lately, when I cry out in pain, from stubbing my toe (or maybe getting a block thrown at my toe) or the like, he pauses with big, worried eyes and gives my arm a stroke. This kid’s heart is just so big.

When people commented on my not finding out the sex before my children were born, I was deeply uncomfortable about it. I didn’t want any praise for it. Because I knew it didn’t come from some noble place. At least not entirely. I knew that part of it was: I wanted a girl. So if this baby wasn’t a girl, I didn’t want to spend my pregnancy faking a smile about how excited I was. I just lived on the hope that once that child was in my arms, it wouldn’t matter.

Once Eli was in my arms, my heart about exploded. I was shattered by how in love with him I was. I remain glad I didn’t find out, because I could not have designed a better introduction. And this week marks an end to a big chapter for us, because he has, I am just about sure, fully weaned now. So my heart is aching for that little baby who melted into my arms and on my chest. But my heart is also so full because I live with this little guy who is just the most ornery, difficult, loud, joyful, exasperating, and loving person there could be. And I have no fear for our relationship. It won’t be the same as it is with his sister. But, thanks to both of my kids and the growing we’ve all done together, I see more and more every day how they are their own people. My fears and insecurities are my own. I don’t need to relate to every aspect of his life. Nor should I try to project me on to him or to her. That boy makes me crazy and I still can’t get enough.

We call him the Rooster from that short story by David Sedaris. It’s the one about his baby brother, the only one of his siblings born in the South among a family of northerners. Will and I are from the Midwest. Edie was born in Munich, Germany. But Eli, he’s all Tennessee. So we took to calling him Rooster and it seems to suit him quite well. Just today, I was tucking him in for a nap after a rowdy morning with friends. As I was changing his diaper, I noticed that he had two skinned knees and a banged up elbow that he never complained to me about (he complained bitterly about the seven sticks I took away from him after he smacked other kids with them, but not his lumps). He kicked angrily at me the whole time I tried to get him cleaned up, until I started singing a very enthusiastic and fast-paced version of Old McDonald to distract him. When we sat in a rocking chair to wind down, we read about six abbreviated versions of his little board books. And then I asked him if he wanted me to sing him a song. “Yeah.” (Always, yeah. Never, yes.) So I walked him around and sang You are My Sunshine. But he still whimpered when I put him down. So I ran my fingers through his hair and sang Country Roads. The Rooster passed out on the second verse, and after a little bit more, I snuck out.

He’s never done that before, fallen asleep from me just singing. The thing I have been mourning most about ending our nursing relationship was that it was the only time of day I had a still or sleeping Eli in my arms. But like my fears of having a boy, a little part of me knew, we’d find our way. A different way, but some way. And the Rooster came through. Like his gift of waiting until I’d had time to get a haircut and go out to dinner with friends until getting ready to be born, or how he made his entrance in perfect time for us and the midwives to have a pizza party when he was three hours old, this little country boy did his mama another solid today. Boy, Roo, do we love you something fierce.

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The many, changing faces of the Rooster.

Ms. Four Year Old

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As of January 29, little Edie is even less little.  All limbs.  Choppy bangs from cutting her own hair.  Mastering sarcasm at an alarming rate.  And flying between stunning maturity and temper tantrums all the livelong day.  Her interests include star-nosed moles (they are awesome), princesses (especially Kate Middleton), motherhood, and gravity; as it sounds a little optimistic to her that this cock-eyed theory keeps us stuck to the Earth.  Because she does not want to fly away, having been told that one cannot live in space.  Which brings us to a corollary interest: mortality.  She doesn’t say “Mom, I am going to live with you forever.” But instead, “Mom, I am going to live with you until I die.”  Well, that’s more… accurate?  It stings every time.  But, death is real.  And I think about it a lot.  Not ponder it.  But it occurs to me all the time.  It always has.  When my mom was late from work, I would cry silently in my room to come to terms with her end.  And then wiped my cheeks and went on with my day when she did in fact return.  Then there is the fact that Edie’s middle name comes from an aunt who she will never meet, because she died before Edie was born.  So, in the always advisable category of experimental parenting, I am trying to be (gentle) but totally open and honest about death with her.  And see how that goes.

Edie is the best and the worst big sister.  But best wins out, I think, when push comes to shove.  In our house, she is wont to lose her temper with him, yelling and smacking.  Or constantly ask me to curb him or take things away from him.  But in the secret moments, or when I am not around, I know she is so protective of him.  We left little bro at a friend’s house on her birthday so we could have dinner with Amma and Afi, my parents, in relative peace.  She was so excited.  Talked about it for days.  And then, when it was time to actually take him out of the car and drop him off, she was stone faced.  Throughout the dinner, she wondered aloud how Eli was.  I think they will be just fine.

And she is still a mama’s girl.  Less so.  But still.  These days, I love it.  I never minded it so very much, but it made babysitters and the like a very traumatic proposition.  She’s good with sitters now.  But she loves to be my side kick, and I mostly love it too.  When I tuck her in, she says “Mom, lets chit chat about our days.”  And she asks me whether I am going to drink wine and watch grown up TV (she’s referring to 30 Rock reruns, by the way).

Soon, I am going to have my first trip away from her where Dad won’t be there to fill in.  Grandma Sally is staying with the kids, and I am so grateful and excited.  But already a little sad, too.  I feel naked without Edie at my side.  Or at least like a different self.  I told her so while we were running errands the other day, and she pulled out some gems from the ether when I did.  I jotted down our conversation so I wouldn’t forget it.

Mom: I am really going to miss you when Dad and I are in San Diego.

Edie:  That’s okay, mom! Because I have a drawer with my love and I can give you some!

M: Really!? That sounds great! Can I have some in my suitcase?

E: Yes! I will pack it for you.

M: And for my purse?

E: Yes! And I can just stick some on you.

M: I would love that.  It would make me feel so much better.  When you give away love, do you get more love?

E: Yes, I do! And when I am sleeping, my love sticks to me, so I don’t even have to hold on to it.

M: [Big blinks. Something got in my eye.]

It was easy to wish away that first year of babyhood.  Not that in a sweeping way, but in little increments.  Oh, I just want to get to the point where I get three hours of sleep in a row.  Or I can’t wait until she can go a few hours without nursing. And It will be so great when she can crawl/walk/talk. And the even smaller When we are just done with this cold(or stomach bug, or teething), then I will be ok….  I don’t blame myself for it.  And maybe it’s inevitable with the first child (and second, but a little less that time).  Babies are just so hard!  And so magical!  But woman cannot function on magic alone.  We are now getting to a point where she is so independent and grown up that even during the crazy times – because we still have a lot of those – it’s become easier to breathe through it and not wish it gone.  Now the challenge is more often not to shed tears for how fast it’s going by.  (My challenges seem to largely revolve around not crying…)

So, happy birthday, Edie!  Here’s to another year of laughing, hopefully less screaming, and of course, more bumming out your Dad  by you asking what a cemetery is.

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Preview of fodder for therapy session, ca. 2030.

I joke around a good bit. Well, a lot. I like to tell lies for my own amusement. Like when I told a guy hitting on me at a bar that I’d never tried cereal. Or when I convinced my husband-then-suitor that a sleazy, rent by the hour motel was actually secretly a super deluxe hotel that visiting celebrities hid out in. Just good, clean fun.

So naturally, I play little games with my kids. Mostly the older one, as the other one has only recently mastered object permanence and a sparse sample of English. I thought this was good clean fun, too. Until tonight.

Tomorrow is MLK day, which means she doesn’t have school. Normally, she has school on Monday and Wednesday. Edie thrives on routine, and even more so on verbal reassurance/warning of what is to come. So, tonight at dinner, we told her there was no school tomorrow. She laughed. We said, no, it’s a holiday, and there will be no school. She laughed harder and said there IS school. We tried, begging that it is Monday, and usually there is school, but we really aren’t kidding. She laughed and laughed. Here’s a segment of this.

Note that we kept straight faces for almost all of the first five minutes of this. Eventually, the surreal nature of this conversation, and the sick realization that we had broken her brain, made it hard not to laugh with her. We really did try.

This. Already.

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I left my daughter’s room in tears.  Again.  There are so many reasons for this to happen.  Most often it’s because we’ve had a tender moment together, and it made me see the sand through the hour glass, so I’m leaving with a happy but heavy heart.  Tonight it was just heavy.

Here’s what she said to me.  And this is for real, except for a substituted name for her friend in there.  This came out of the mouth of my not yet four year old.

“Mom, how can I turn into Jenny?”

“Well, you can’t.  You’re you.”

“But I want to!”

“Baby, you can’t turn into another person. Why do you want to do that?”

“Because.  Because I don’t like to be me.  I have the wrong face.  I look like a boy. (lip quivering)

What?  What?! There is more there than I know what to do with.  There’s the soul-crushing image of one of her peers telling her this.  And it isn’t the first time it’s come up.  She’s been telling me that she has the “wrong face,” the “wrong voice,” or the “wrong laugh” every couple weeks for a few months.  I can’t quite place the source and I don’t exactly want to.  I don’t think that there is a little friend out there who is trying to be awful, I don’t.  I think there is a little friend who is imitating unkindness that he or she has heard, and is testing it out.  Sadly, though, an imitation of mean still feels real to the recipient.  And sadder still is the thought that my kiddo could internalize this and pass it on any further.  So I don’t really want to know who said it, because I don’t want to give it any more power and I don’t want to feel a totally irrational anger toward a child.

Further on down my litany of sads is the whole boy versus girl thing.  The week before my daughter started preschool she wore robot shirts, loved baby dolls and dinosaurs, and her favorite color was silver.  She was just Edie.  Days after she started, I pulled out a blue shirt for her to wear and she crumpled to the ground, and after guessing what words she was trying to make through her sobs I finally discerned that she was saying “That’s a BOY shirt!”  Well, ok then.  Wear what you want.  It’s not a thing.  Marking Edie as a girl has never been a priority.  I have been, arguably, concerned with not being concerned about emphasizing gender with my kids.  And until Edie was with a big group of kids and lovely female teachers, she never showed me a preference.  So when she did, and so very quickly and stereotypically, I was thrown.  But I also know that the need to make sense of the world and to fit in is as natural as it is strong.  So I may not have run out to buy up her weight in tulle, but I packed up the clothes that made her cry, stocked up on dresses and leggings since she expressed a clear and intense preference for wearing them over anything else, and generally tried to keep neutral on pink versus blue but stay positive about Edie.  So it’s not that I dislike her obsession.  I understand and accept it, or at least I strive to.  And I think I do all right.  But this has all set the stage for her being the type of kid who cares so so much about this.  About being right.  About not having the “wrong” anything.  It may exhaust me temporarily when she drones on about wanting fancier shoes.  But I’d take that any day from hearing that her fragile preschooler sense of self was being shaken.

But none of that is the worst of it.  The worst is the part of it was what she hadn’t said before.  Namely, I don’t like to be me.  Baby girl.  To even put words to that at this age.  Ever, I know.  But already?  Before Edie came into my life, had I been presented with this scenario, I think I would have planned to redirect.  To refuse to engage in what is objectively an insane notion that she’s wrong.  But having her in front of me, asking me in earnest how to be someone else, because she doesn’t want to be her?  All I could do was squeeze her chubby cheeks and make her look at me and say “You are Perfect.”

Man, I love this kid, but she shatters me.  We have been struggling lately, as we have in the past, going through some transitions.  It seems like it comes in fits and spurts.  Her awareness and understanding will just shift, and it causes behavior that I don’t understand and inevitably react poorly too.  Then there is friction.  But once I can get on board with who she has become, we work it out.  We always do.   But these moments are difficult.  Now I am left with hoping I have some quiet times over the holidays to give this some thought, and to give her some more of me.

Not wanting to focus on girliness may have felt like it was about me wanting her to be true to herself, and to choose whatever she wants and likes without hang ups.  And that’s still a good and noble intention.  But I’m seeing more how it’s also about my own pain.  How I wanted to erase that for her, all the insecurity and self-loathing I’ve inflicted on myself for not being enough of this or that.  For being the “wrong” kind of girl.  Hearing her say those words hit a deeper part of me than she has before.  And this child has hit me where it hurts in the past. Parts of me that are still healing, I guess.

So now I try to own this?  Yeah.  I think so.  Here goes.  Edie, you are not me.  You don’t own my pain and I can’t prevent you from feeling pain.  I am here for you, but I know you are on your own path.  But, honey, for what it’s worth, I really do think you are perfect.

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Deep breaths. And I promise I will keep trying to work hard at not trying so hard.

Me and My Cats

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I am a cat napper.  I don’t take short naps (or any naps, though I should).  I nap cats.  Or is it nab cats?  Either way, I have a history of cat taking.  It’s a hobby that combines some of my most critical traits: bleeding heart, spacey-ness, and an inflated sense of how much responsibility I, personally, need to take for everything that happens in the world.

(Not all that) Interestingly, I have never had a cat, and frankly, as much of an animal lover as I am, cats have never been at the top of my list.   Yet.  Yet.  The cats, they call to me.  One of the first I remember was a sickly fellow.  He jumped into my car while I was at a gas station in the small town near where I was working as a summer camp counselor.  Did I say jump?  Is that the right verb for what happens after you lure an animal?  Anywho.  We’d been told in no uncertain by our camp higher ups to STOP BRINGING MORE CATS back.  They were lousy with cats, and didn’t want more.  Still, I was 18 years old, there was a mangy, hacking cat, and I had a job that were I to lose it, I would be left homeless.  So obviously I had to save that cat.  To my credit, this cat was almost certainly homeless.  He was emaciated and his eyes were practically glued shut with pus.  And to the greater credit of the nice people I worked for, they let us take the cat in and had the visiting vet check it out.  Turns out the cat had allergies, which is not ideal for an outdoor country cat.  The vet gave me some meds to administer, and my fate was sealed.  I was going to resurrect this near corpse kitty, take him to college, and have a best friend.  But, yadda yadda yadda, after a few weeks of being the one who had to forcibly administer meds to the cat, I became the one that cat hated most of all.  Actually, the only one he hated.  He would interrupt his purring and cute-making just to hiss at me from like 15 feet away.

Another memorable one was Zeeb.  There were posters for Zeeb all over town.  They said he was “talky.”  Talky! I wanted to meet Zeeb!  Then one day, I saw him, and I decided that I had to get that cat and reunite him with his owners.  Will and I were living together then, and we had dinner plans with my parents, I believe.  We didn’t want to be late, but Will learned a lesson he would have to so many times again:  Rachael’s cock-eyed plans will make everyone late.  Again, yadda yadda, Zeeb was in our apartment.  I hunted down a flier, called the owners relentlessly, anxious for their tearful reunion all rife with gratitude.  Eventually, after Zeeb had been trapped in our apartment throughout our dinner and then some, I reached the owners.  They suggested I open my door.  I guess Zeeb was an indoor / outdoor cat, and he had been missing, but now he wasn’t.  Now he was just out, enjoying some fresh air, when I got him. I guess what Zeeb was “talky-ing” to me about was how he was in a living nightmare. While I still contend they could’ve been more diligent about taking down signs, I also had to accept that I had been holding a cat hostage.  Or did I?!

I started traveling down feline-memory lane after another banner day.  The kids and I were returning home from the playground, and I was thinking through the dinner I would make.  Even though it was the children’s witching hour, which involves Edie pleading and begging to watch Arthur while Eli bashes her over the head with blunt objects, which, naturally, makes her cry, yet has become so common place that I can often be heard saying something like “If you don’t want him to hit you with a rolling pin, then just walk away.”  Tonight, though, I was going to make broccoli potato soup and maybe a casserole, and didn’t I have some Brussels Sprouts to roast? But, stopped in mid-unrealistic fantasy of domesticity, “meeew meeeww” went a little cat.  It was in my alley and sounded distressed.  I leaned down to check for a tag and sweet talk it for a moment.  No tags, so I tried to shake it off and move on.  But it followed us into the garage.  Now the kids played with it while I stressed out about its life.  Today all of Nashville was covered in ice and snow.  Not Michigan amounts, but enough to sled this morning, and it was going to be well below freezing that night.  I wanted to shoo it, but what if I found its frozen corpse on tomorrow’s playground walk?  Because I went right there.  My three year old tried to talk sense into me.  I didn’t actually take it in until right at this minute, but it occurs to me that she literally said to me “Mom, just open the door and let it out.  How is it going to go home if it’s here?”  And I did listen.  At first.  I took it out, and put it on the other side of the fence, left the side door on our detached garage ajar, and went inside.  But, but the cat didn’t give up! It snuck back under the fence, and came to our window and cried at us.  I tried to ignore it.  But it needed me!  I put it in the garage and set about a plan.  Took a picture, posted it in ten places.  Then, I tried again to force critical thinking through the curtain of melodrama.  I cracked the door, and let it out.  Again, the thing came right to our door and just yowled at us.  What do you want from me cat? How can I save you? Now I have to face the fact that it is pitch black and getting colder by the minute.  Cat has given me two choices: let him out and witness his hypothermia set in, or settle him in for the night in our garage.  Obviously, I chose to save that cat.  I borrowed a cat house, a space heater, gave it dog food and water, and, in fact, kept it company while my family ate dinner.  (Chickenless strips and freezer French fries was the gourmet delight we ended up with.)  You’re gonna make it, kitty!  We put the kids to bed, and I was making a case for having a pet cat.  We settled on a garage cat, who would have a bed, a cat door, and Costco brand cat food.  Will suggested we go check on the cat together once more so I could relax and watch … something really educational on Netflix.  Not reruns of subpar reality programming.  So out we go, one more pet, and I squat down to get the love I’m due and in scratching its neck, his collar rotates.  Well, true story: no tags on this cat.  None.  But know what he did have?  The address printed onto the collar.  Yadda yadda yadda, I swaddled the cat into a towel and smuggled it home.  Oh, it fought me, but, not to brag, but you don’t go around being me without learning a thing or two about subduing a feline in a choke hold.  Got there, but no one answered; but! it had a heated cat house on the porch.  So, obviously it didn’t want to leave my house because it had a better set up in my swanky two car garage.  I do not doubt that this cat will beckon again soon.

Small victory: I did not wrestle a neighbor’s cat into a veterinary office to be scanned for a microchip only to have the vet tech see its address on its collar.  Because that was definitely on the docket for the morning.  Excuse me while I rest up to attempt to save, but ultimately end up having an elaborate funeral ceremony for, a baby Robin.

Monday’s Aspiration: Kind yet unflinching parenting

My mom used to say that having kids is like having your heart walk around outside your body.  There are many versions of this adage, and though perhaps cliche, I think it’s a powerful feeling that resonates with many parents.  Mine, yes, they are my hearts.  And the flip side of that is the gaping hole they leave, making me so indescribably vulnerable.  I went through a time when I could hardly sleep at night because each sleep was accelerating the sands in the hour glass.  I wasn’t trying to be dark.  I didn’t talk to a soul about my legitimate yet silly feeling of impending doom.  And this was before my kids.  I got through my Boogey Man of Mortality phase, but still, now it’s a little more complicated.  Because while now when I think about dying, and it’s a topic that is either on the horizon or forefront of my thoughts kind of a lot, I can’t soothe myself with a reminder of my expendability.  Because I don’t feel expendable any more.  And even to the extent I can let go of the delusion that my kids need me – because I do know it’s a delusion, but it doesn’t feel like a delusion – the desire to bear witness to their growth is powerful and red hot.  But also, I know I would hurt others to protect them.  Not to any degree nor for any small matter.  But still. Though I have had to pick up my baby and leave playgrounds when a wild playing older kid come inches from knocking my small ones to the ground, and I have a flash of almost psychic rage where I can see five-minutes-from-now-me throttling a ten year old.  And I don’t want to meet that me, so I go away from her.

This isn’t a totally new existence for me.  I’ve always been a raw nerve.  Telling me that there were starving children in Africa didn’t make me eat my dinner.  It made me weep over the cruelty and over my impotence.  I don’t weep as much over my impotence these days, as I struggle with my willful ignorance.  My choice to live comfortably.  And trying to mindfully parent in a way that hopefully doesn’t emotionally overload my kids, but one that doesn’t shield them from what I know they see.  I want to respect them and give them real answers, because then, my hope anyways is, they will at least have some language and framework for the sinking feeling of sadness and injustice that will creep in whether it’s given a name or not.

I thought about this all because I had an urge to look up a favorite poem today.  A law school professor shared it with our class once.  And I love it so much.  Kind yet unflinching.  I think I will chew on that for a bit…

GOOD PEOPLE by W.S. Merwin

From the kindness of my parents

I suppose it was that I held
that belief about suffering

imagining that if only
it could come to the attention
of any person with normal
feelings certainly anyone
literate who might have gone

to college they would comprehend
pain when it went on before them
and would do something about it
whenever they saw it happen
in the time of pain the present
they would try to stop the bleeding
for example with their own hands

but it escapes their attention
or there may be reasons for it
the victims under the blankets
the meat counters the maimed children
the animals the animals
staring from the end of the world

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The Case of the Red Mark

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If I ever start my own law practice, maybe she could do collections for me.  You don’t pay, she will drop her insane brother off at your office.  Or make you listen to the list of every item of Hello Kitty she owns.  Over, and over, and over again.

 

I am a lawyer.  Which you wouldn’t know by my flashy yoga pants or banana smeared, reversible diaper bag/purse.  But you would know if you opened my student loan statements.  Now I’m not sure if my daughter is the victim of some kind of epigenetic mutation that has turned her into a genius argument-maker, or if her natural proclivity is just karmic justice for the verbal thunderstorms I’ve rained down upon my exceedingly intelligent but rather quiet engineer husband.  But I do know that I have nearly met my match in her, all at the tender age of 3.5. 

Edie’s ability to reason her way to the outcome she desires is stunning.  A central goal in her life is to have her brother stop being annoying.  I am sympathetic.  He is annoying to an extreme.  Eli bites, he tries to pluck her eyes out, he grabs crayons out of her hands, tries to snatch baby dolls, yells when she’s trying to talk, and has drawn blood from his horrible pinch-scratching no less than twice in the past week.  It’s the worst.  But guess what? He’s 14 months old.  Being annoying is his modus operandi.  Ain’t much we can do.  Except.  We can give that adorable demon baby everything he wants, save for gravely dangerous objects, in order that he doesn’t cry.  And stay out of his way.  So my rule is: make the screaming stop.  My mantra is “I am concerned with peace.  Not justice.”  This, I know, is not very lawyerly.  And it reallllly grates on Edie’s nerves.

Recently when we were on vacation, Edie had a dresser drawer in our shared bedroom that was all for her.  I set her clothes in there neatly, so she could pick out her clothes and put away her own laundry.  It was lovely.  Then around day 3, brother discovers it and immediately tries to empty it.  This makes Edie mad, she yells NO! and yanks his arms out.  He, predictably, screams.  I, predictably, say “make him stop screaming!”  She protests that he’s in her stuff.  I say that he’s not hurting anything.  Let it go.  “But mom,” she says while blinking her big eyes slowly, “he’s making a mess.  And you will have to do more work to clean it up.”  Touché.  The child knows my Achilles heel.

Today she stepped it up by what I believe was an elaborate attempt to frame the baby.  “Mom! Mom! Come look at what Eli did!”  But Eli was playing happily on the couch with some stuffed animals?  What was she talking about? “Look! He drawed on the wall!”  “He drew on the wall. [Grammar first.]  Ok. Show me.”  She pulls me down the hall.  And shows me this, a mark about the length of my thumbnail.

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“Hmmm. That looks a little small for something Eli would draw.”  Her eyes grow big.  But she says evenly “No.  He did it.  He just held the wall with one hand and did it.”  This is already compelling.  Because she got the detail in about the one hand on the wall.  Eli can’t stand on his own.  So he would need one hand to support him.  But if he made contact with a wall, would he really just do one tiny dab?  Seems doubtful.  Less like a crazed baby and more like a sociopathic three year old who was pressing on the boundaries of law and morality.  I continue “Are you sure you didn’t do it? I’m not mad.”  “No. No.  Eli did it.”  So it ended there.  Until! She was playing at her kitchen a half hour later and I spotted a red crayon in her hand.  She was pretending it was a kitchen implement.  “A HA! The evidence is right there! You have the red crayon! It was you!”  Edie barely looks up.  “No.  Eli had it and dropped it.  I picked it up.”  She was expecting me.  But I did manage to leverage her guilt just a bit, and I said “why don’t you go get ready for a nap now” my eyes narrowed and voice lowered.  Though a moment ago she was wildly protesting a nap, this time she obliged.  We both know what was happening.  And then she said “You think I’m funny.” Then the veil was lifted.  And she won again.  Nice work, counselor.