My Life as a Sponge

We’ve all had shit days.

We’ve all had days when it feels good to unload on someone else: a secret we’ve been carrying, a ball of anxiety knotting its way through our digestive tract, a fear, an embarrassment, a hazy memory of dancing on a table after that shot of tequila…

If we’re lucky, we have a friend or a spouse or a parent who listens. They take on a bit of our worry, making our own burden a little bit lighter. They absorb it.

Like a sponge.

As a mother, I’m an expert sponge. Seriously. As a wife, I’m pretty good too. Actually, I think I’m an all-around decent sponge. There are times though when it feels like my sole job in life is to be a giant sponge. There to sop up excess emotion and tears, to take a little anxiety or unhappiness onto my own shoulders. I shift. I accommodate. I rearrange the already heavy pack on my back so I can add another load like that ass from Buckaroo.

Mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. This is what we do for one another, right?


Most of the time I don’t think about it too much. I sop. I absorb. I soak up everyone else’s worries and anxieties like a boss. And usually there’s enough time in between major spills to dry out. But every now and again you’re sopping up one mess after another, absorbing one hurt after another, mopping upset and stress and baking cupcakes and trying to figure out where this new fear of the dark came from and making sure football socks are clean and calling your mom and double checking that your son’s sandwich doesn’t have cheese and because God forbid he have cheese it’s the end of the world and freaking out over the news and–

Basically you’re taking on water from so many directions you get saturated.

There are only so many leaks you can plug. After all, even sponges have their limits. Without time to dry out they disintegrate and fall apart in a big, crumbly mess.

Ideally, there should be a sponge-share agreement, whereby you take turns. Most of the time this works. My husband and I seem to have an unspoken understanding that only one of us is allowed to freak out at any given time. If I am in free fall, it means he needs to be up to bat. And vice-versa. Two parents in meltdown is never a good thing.

But life is life is life and things happen and unpredictability and everything else and sometimes there’s only one sponge left in the cupboard.

When this happens, I recommend a week by yourself in a sunny location to dry out.

Of course all you usually get, if you’re lucky, is five minutes in front of a 200° oven while you stir the casserole you made for dinner. The one you hope has enough in it to shut everyone up for a few minutes.

That is, just enough time to dry out enough to sop up the next mess.







Parenting In Between The Lines

Pick up any book about Mom-ing or Dad-ing and it’s usually full of the deep, dark, and diabolical bits of parenting. Temper tantrums and teen angst. Potty training and puberty survival tips (mental note: post idea). All important, but there’s a lot more that goes into this parenting malarkey than just the big stuff.

I want my teen to sail through the hormonal tsunami that is puberty…or it just menopause? Anyway I want him to be a grounded teen but I also want him to be able to tell a joke. I want my ten year old to use a knife and fork, but I also want him to know what to do or say when Great Aunt Betty gives him socks for his birthday.

This is parenting in between the lines.

Things like…

Telling a story. The other day my teen came home and told us a tale. And it was funny. Properly funny. And it wasn’t just funny because the subject matter was amusing. It was funny because he told the story well. He didn’t get hung up on every tiny little detail. It wasn’t peppered with “ums” and “likes.” My husband and I looked at each other over the silverware and one of us may have wiped away a tear.

Story telling, or how to keep your audience from stabbing their eye with their fork is in the style of Oedipus is something we work on with our kids. 3 salient facts and move on. And while we don’t have an actual gong or one of those giant, shepherd hooks to yank them from the dinner table, we have been known to make a buzzer noise and tell them to move the story along. Small, but important life skill. Not just with stories, but imparting any important information. Just like….

Dealing cards. Someone had to teach you to always deal to the left, didn’t they? Bet you never thought of it before. But it’s one of those things you realize how wrong it is when you’re kid starts dealing willy-nilly across the table. You have to learn skills like that, mostly so that you don’t make an ass out of yourself the first time you pretend you know how to play poker. Skills are important. As are facts. Facts like…

Where food comes from. A while back I read a statistic which blew me away. 7% of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. After I picked my jaw up off the floor and cleaned up the coffee I spat at my computer screen, I finished the article and realized something I’d never thought about before. Someone has to teach you where food comes from. No wonder kids think chicken comes from Market Basket and ground beef from Netto. If that’s all they’ve ever seen, heard, or known. There’s no a priori knowledge about the fact that your juicy double bacon burger was once Bessy the cow and Peppa the pig. Someone’s got to teach you that milk comes from cows. And that chocolate milk comes from Nesquik. Teach your kid where food comes from. If for no other reason than to avoid being an embarrassing statistic. Speaking of embarrassing…

Joke pacing, another not so crucial but handy life skill. Knowing how to pace a joke, how to read your audience? It takes practice. Practice with your kids. You know why? Because no one finds “knock knock who’s there turtle poop in a tree” funny after the age of three. After three you can also work on teaching them things like…

How to get out of eating a meal you don’t like. We keep trying to tell our kids that politeness and compliments may not get you everywhere, but they’re going to get you pretty far. So, if you ever have one of my kids round to dinner and you hear, “Wow, this looks delicious, thank you so much, you must have worked really hard,” there’s a good chance they’re trying to tell you thanks, but no thanks, I hate fish.

I’d say I’d like to teach them how to know which one is a fish fork and which one is a shrimp spoon, but well, I don’t know myself and it’s hard to teach something you’re pulling out of your own ass at any given moment. But luckily there are plenty of things I do know. And not just that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.

Now, let me tell you a story…


The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”


Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.


“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.

Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.